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Two weeks in Italy, Summer 2001


10+ Posts
By Tracy from NC from NC, Summer 2001
Tracy and her husband and children did a two week trip to Italy in June 2001. This trip report was also posted on the AOL Italy boards.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.


June 8 and 9 What a day we had! We left Charlotte at 5:30 PM on British Airways bound for London. I had been up since 4:00 am, had run 10 miles with Gina and then returned home to pack. It was a very long flight. We arrived in Gatwick at 6:45 am London time. We had a 2-hour layover in London before we caught our 8:35 AM flight to Milan. We finally landed on Italian soil at 12:00 PM Italy time, or six AM Charlotte time. We have now been awake 25 hours and we are not at our final destination yet.

We breezed through customs and were lucky enough to catch the next Malpensa Express shuttle to the central train station. We arrived at Milano Centrale just in time to catch the 2:15 train to Varenna. This was a first real train ride for the kids and me and it was lovely. The flat Milanese terrain rolled away and we were surrounded by mountains almost immediately. My husband and I noticed the vegetable patches that were planted everywhere, often on what must be easements. The scenery was beautiful, and I was very glad we had taken the train. We arrived in Varenna on schedule (3:20 PM) and wound our way down the hill from the almost deserted train depot to our hotel, Albergo Olivedo.

The Alps rise above the lake across from Varenna, and one can see snow topping the highest peaks, and yet the shores of the lake are planted with palms, oleander and pittisporum. Confederate Jasmine and Bougainvillea fill pots and climb over railings. From the vegetation, one would think we were in Charleston. But from the buildings, you know you are in another land. They are the colors of Easter eggs and are adorned with lovely wrought iron railings. The buildings climb up the hills and all command great views of the water.

We easily found the hotel. The Olivedo is a charming inn in a lovely, yellow stucco building situated on the lake, directly behind the ferry launch. On entering the hotel, we were immediately greeted by Laura, the owner. I had e-mailed her numerous times with questions, and she always replied promptly. We got our keys and dragged our luggage up three flights of marble stairs to suites 21 and 22 on the top floor of the hotel. We were delighted with our rooms. My husband and I took the room at the end of the hall, which had two twin beds, a balcony, a lovely marble bath with tub and two views of the lake. The furniture was old and charming, with a writing desk, three chairs and a large armoire. The kids' room also had a small balcony with a frontal view of the lake, a sink, armoire, two twin beds and a small table and reading chair. They would be sharing our bath.

After relaxing for a few minutes we headed out on our first mission: get money from the ATM. I was nervous, because I had read so many posts about the trouble people had using Cirrus cards versus Plus cards. We took a short walk around the hotel to the ATM (thank God it had an English option!) and presto - money! We had no problems at all. First potential crisis being averted, I could breathe once more and we took the paserella to Nilus Bar on the waterfront, where the kids had hot tea and biscuits and my son joined some American boys throwing rocks into the water. A light rain began to fall, so we worked our way back to the hotel. While I bathed and made notes, My husband took the kids to a video arcade near Nilus Bar.

Our rooms at the hotel included dinner, and according to Rick Steve's and a few posts I had read on AOL, the Olivedo has some of the best food in Varenna. The dining room is a beautiful space, reminiscent of a room out of a Merchant-Ivory film. The ceilings are high with intricate moldings, the walls are adorned with Edwardian sconces and coat racks, there are simple chandeliers hanging from the ceilings and all of the tables are dressed in fresh jacquard cloths. Laura greets us with her now familiar "Ciao, Allens" and seats us at our table. She immediately launches into the choices for the evening; "Gnocchi with meat sauce, gnocchi with green sauce, risotto with mushrooms, eggplant Parmigiano, vegetable soup." My son and I had the gnocchi; my daughter and husband had the risotto. Both dishes were delicious. The gnocchi was very tender, the pesto was aromatic and fruity. The risotto was creamy and comforting, with tender bits of mushrooms and the peppery bite of radicchio that was the garnish. For our second course, we all had lake fish, which was simply prepared. For dessert, My daughter had tiramisu and I had panna cotta. My husband and son had gelato. I was very impressed that my son the picky eater ate everything. He even mopped up the remaining pesto sauce with bread.

After dinner, we strolled through the town. The piazza has an enchanting church and bell tower. When we returned to the hotel, my husband and I took a 1/4 liter if red wine to our room and sat on the balcony, sipping wine and relishing our first day in Italy.

Sunday, June 10 We slept surprisingly well last night. In fact, we didn't wake until 10:00 AM. I was awakened at 1:00 AM by the locals hanging out at the bar next door. They had been there before we went to bed.

By the time we were all ready to go, it was noon, so we went directly to the Victoria Grill for lunch. We had wonderful pizzas. Here. My husband had the rustica (potatoes, ham and cheese) my daughter had Nostrana with sausage, roasted red peppers and olives, my son had the first of many diavolas, the Italian version of pepperoni, and I had San Marzano, which was simply tomatoes and cheese. After lunch, we walked to the Villa Monastero di Varenna. It was beginning to rain, but there were still wonderful views of the lake from these hillside gardens. We saw a statue of a headless man. I thought the head had fallen off, but in fact, he was holding his head! I wonder what that was all about? In the garden there were oranges, lemons, acanthus, palms, aloe and geraniums. Again, we were dumbfounded by the fact that these plants can gown so close to the Alps. What an amazing microclimate this area has.

We trudged back through the town in the pouring rain and changed into dry clothes. At about 3:00, we caught a ferry to Bellagio, with a quick stop in Menaggio. Belaggio is an attractive town. My husband really liked it. It is much dressier than Varenna, with upscale hotels and shops lining the steep and narrow streets. We bought a colored lithograph of Varenna for $80. The kids had gelati and then we took the ferry back to Varenna. It was too late and wet to make the hike to the fiumelatte. Next time we will see it.

It rained hard before dinner. My husband and I took a quick trip to Bar Baretta when the rained slowed to buy our train tickets for Milan. Then it was on to dinner at Olivedo again. My son had a repeat of last night's meal. My daughter, who did not enjoy her lake fish, had two primi piattos: risotto and gnocchi. She's my starch lover. I had a fabulous eggplant Parmesan. It is far superior to what we eat in the US. My husband had minestrone. Fish again for the second course. My husband and I split a bottle of Chianti Classico ($7) and then we turned in. We fell to sleep while it rained solidly. No parties at the bar next door tonight! Tomorrow, Venezia.

June 11 and 12 After a tremendous thunderstorm in Varenna Sunday night, with gale force winds howling and shutters banging and waves crashing on the pier, we awoke to clearing skies. It was much cooler outside. After a quick American coffee, bread and butter breakfast, we pay our bill ($500 for two rooms for two nights, including breakfast and dinner and a few extras), and we hiked up the hill to the station. In cannot emphasize enough how happy we were with the Olivedo. All of the staff was very friendly and helpful. I only hoped we would be as pleased with my choice for Venice.

When we arrived at the Milan station, it was packed and I still had to buy our tickets for Venice. The lines were long and I am too impatient for long lines. I ended up buying them from one of the machines that took a couple of tries, but finally gave me what I wanted. We arrived in Venice around 3:30, hot, tired and hungry. We took the #1 Vaporetti (the slow boat - on purpose!) and got off at the Saint Mark's stop, right in front of Doge's Palace. It took some maneuvering to find our hotel, but finally located after asking "Dove il Albergo San Gallo?" two times. The Campo San Gallo is small and quiet and yet very close to the square. The lobby of the hotel is nicely furnished and we were hopeful that our room would be so as well. The lobby's ceilings are made up of rough, exposed beams, the floors are rough marble tiles, and there are small tables and nice upholstered chairs throughout. We noticed a computer set up for customer use in one corner. Our room was small, the bed hard and the floors a tacky vinyl. But the kids had comfortable cots, there was a TV and even a Venetian glass chandelier. The bathroom was very nice, especially in light of the somewhat gloomy room. I had reserved the hotel because of the location and price and the rooftop terrace. The terrace was there, but nowhere near as nice as the photo on the web.

Our first afternoon was spent walking. We crossed the Accademia Bridge, the Rialto Bridge and countless unnamed bridges over the lesser canals. We saw Santa Maria Formosa, San Bartelomeo, Campo San Stephano, San Polo and more. Will ate gelato - twice - before dinner. Jim was in heaven. Will was also enjoying himself. Kate and I were less enthralled. To Jim, Venice is magical and awesome. To Kate and me, it is crowded and dirty. The hordes of tourists were overwhelming. I was saddened and disgusted to see trash floating in the canal and the walls of ancient buildings littered with graffiti. But we were in Venice! I waited for the magic to transform me.

That night, after trying desperately to find some of the restaurants I had read about on AOL (Cip Ciap, Rosticceria San Bartolomeo and Do Mori), we gave up and settle for some anonymous pizzeria near San Polo. We had a fair but outrageously expensive pizza dinner. We paid nearly $90, which included a 1/4-liter of house wine and a bottle of mineral water.

I woke early on Wednesday - 5:30 AM - and decided to take advantage of the morning light and the lack of crowds to take some photos. The sun rises so early in Italy. If anyone else has the same trouble seeing the magic of Venice as I had, then I encourage him to get up early and walk. My first stop was Saint Marks. It was essentially deserted. There were only two policemen and their German shepherd, pigeons and another photographer. I took my shots and worked my way over to the Accademia Bridge, taking shots of the canals and the campos in their natural state. I was dying for coffee, but nothing opened until 7:00 AM. There are no 7-Elevens in Venice, thankfully, though there is a McDonalds and a Burger King.

After Jim and the kids dressed, we went in search of the fish and produce markets. What a sight! Even I would be willing to rent an apartment in this city just so that I could shop for fish and produce as fresh and beautiful. We saw whelks, huge prawn (which were still moving) flounder, anchovies (I have never seem them out of a can before), squid, cuttlefish, octopus, snails, lobster. It was a beautiful sight and I snapped photos hoping to capture that beauty on film.

In the produce stands there were the usual fruits and vegetables surrounding several others not found here: wild, tiny alpine strawberries, haricort vert, cranberry beans, fresh cranberries and baby artichokes. The streets surrounding the markets and littered with wonderful bakeries, salumerias and gelaterias. If I return to Venice, I will stay on this side of the bridge.

We had to turn our backs on the market and make our way to Doge's Palace for our 10:00 AM reservation for the Secret Itinerary Tour. For approximately $37 (it was Lt. 64.000), we skirted around a very long line and got to see some of the sites off limits to the regular visitors. While waiting for our tour, I was trying to finish off my roll of film from the morning, when I realized that the film had never advanced. I was devastated! All of those shots of the Venice in the soft morning light, the tables of the fish market displaying the jewels of the lagoon, the peaches and reds and greens and blues of the produce market, were all lost. I thought I had been so careful when loading that morning.

The tour of the palace was very interesting. We saw the cell where Casanova was incarcerated and some of the small, secret rooms where business was conducted. Will was thrilled with the weapons room where he was able to see numerous cases of swords, battle-axes, amour and other weaponry. The palace is a grand structure.

After dinner we headed back to the hotel to drop off the camera bag and change the Band-Aids on my blistered feet (I thought the Naot slides would be perfect, but I was wrong again!) and then made a beeline for San Polo. I was determined to find Do Mori Cantina and we did! This was Jim's favorite food so far. We sampled several snacks, including little sandwiches with proscuitto and arugula, ham with a spicy mayonnaise, tuna croquettes, pickled onions with anchovies and pepperoncino, a sautéed crab claw and hunks of Gruyere. I had a glass of soave. In all, I think we spent Lt. 41.000, but the food was good, we were satisfied and the atmosphere was authentic.

After lunch, we walked for a while, and then took the vaporetti to the train station to buy our tickets for Florence. It seems that the travel agencies were not selling train tickets that day. Two said they were having computer problems and one stated that they no longer were selling tickets for domestic travel. After we made our purchase, we decided to walk back to our hotel. We went through areas of Venice far quieter than we had seen so far. This would be an area worth exploring in more depth.

This is the night for our gondola ride. We wanted to catch one off the Grand Canal so that we wouldn't get caught of in a traffic jam. The ride was tranquil, through the back canals and away from the crowds. All in all, it was a pleasant experience.

I was exhausted and feeling a bit ill, so my husband took the kids to dinner at a place recommended by the hotel. It was fair, but not worth mentioning. While they dined, I returned to the hotel to rest. As I closed my eyes, I could hear the pigeons cooing on the windowsill and then, to my surprise and delight, the sound of live opera music from the café below. We were in Venice during the Biennale, and annual arts festival, and the café was having a musicale that evening. It was loud and clear enough to sound as if the singers were in my room. I am not an opera fan, but this was such a surreal experience, it will remain one of my fondest memories.

When the family returned, we all ventured out once more to hear the dueling orchestras in Saint Marks Square. This is another requisite activity. I regret not having spent the money sit outside at Florian's and while away my evening listening to the music. Next time, right?

Tomorrow we leave for Florence.

June 13 and 14 We caught the 8:33 AM train for Firenze, the Eurostar, with the tickets we had bought the day before. We had been unable to reserve seats in First Class, but had been told we would have no problem finding them once we got on the train. Well, there were no first class seats left, so we settled into Second Class. My son was very bummed. He had been looking forward to travelling "first class." He cheered up when he saw that Second Class on a Eurostar is pretty darned nice in its own right.

We arrived in Florence at 11:30, ready to confront the infamous gypsies and pickpockets at the train station, but there weren't any. We made our way through the streets of Florence, map in hand, and eventually found Hotel Belletini on Via dei Conti, a quiet street very close to the Duomo. The receptionist recognized our name right away: I guess I e-mailed everyone too much. Our room was much better than I had anticipated. We were given room number 28, called the Mansard Room. Our room was the topmost room in the hotel, reachable only by taking a very narrow and steep flight of stairs. It was large and airy, with tile floors and beamed ceilings. If one sticks his head out the window at just the right angle, one can see the top of the Duomo! We rested for a short while and then headed out. We first made our way toward the Ponte Vecchio. The streets were packed with tourists. We dropped in at a self-serve restaurant called Victoria. My husband and I both had a cold, mixed seafood salad with shrimp and squid and mussels. It was actually very good and a relief from pasta. The kids weren't hungry, having snacked on the train.

After we ate, we headed out again in the direction of the bridge. The jewelry shops were tempting, though I dared not look too closely. The view of the Arno from the top of the bridge was beautiful. My husband watched with envy the people rowing on the river. We turned back and made our way toward the Uffizi, first stopping in a silver shop to buy the kids crosses. We had planned to skip the artwork at the museum, knowing the kids would not enjoy themselves. Luckily, the plaza in front was very entertaining. Several artists lined the plaza, sketching or painting, hoping to sell their work.

We continued on, this time toward the Duomo. What an amazing sight it is. I learned later that it has the third longest nave in the world. The lines to enter the Duomo and to climb the cupola were too long, so we opted to climb the Giotto's Tower, also called the Campanile. My daughter made it halfway up before opting to sit out the rest of the climb. The steps are steep, narrow and slippery, and I didn't blame her one bit. Though I have a fear of heights, I had to make this trip. After climbing 414 steps, we reached the top and were treated to spectacular 360-degree views of Florence as well as a terrific view of the cupola. After about five minutes, My daughter joined us, realizing she couldn't miss out on the experience either.

We made our descent and wound our way through the streets toward Santa Croce. On the way, we stopped at Gelateria dei Neri. My son had a phenomenal chocolate gelato; my daughter had watermelon. We checked out an open market where my son bought a leather bound journal. My daughter found her journal at Biblos, an elegant chain of stores. We found Joanne's paperweight and some postcards and stumbled upon Santa Croce.

Santa Croce is a 14th-century Franciscan church. Construction began in 1294, but the church wasn't consecrated until 1443. According to my guidebook, the exterior of the façade was bare until an Englishman, Francis Sloane, paid for a façade in the 19th century. The façade is ornate Victorian-Gothic, the interior, austere and serene. The tombs of great Florentines are here. Ironically, the Franciscans are an order sworn to poverty and in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was an act of humility to be buried in Santa Croce. Therefore, rich Florentines spent vast sums of money to be buried here! I loved the tombs of the knights and monks, their images in relief. And though Dante was buried in Ravenna, an impressive memorial was constructed at Santa Croce.

We left the church and worked our way back to the Belletini to bathe and rest before dinner. I had made reservations at Quattro Leoni for Wednesday night and Za Za for Thursday night. My husband and the kids were impressed with my Italian while making the reservations. "Vorrai un prenotare por sastere, per favore. Por quattro personas." Then they cracked up when I was asked my name, because I relapsed into my Southern accent and said "Allen. Ay-el-el-ee-en."

We first stopped in a bar, where I tried a lemoncello. It tasted like an alcoholic lemonhead. At the restaurant we gave our name to the host and I noticed on the reservation list that they had spelled our last name as "Ellen." I guess I should have said "ah" instead of "ay"! Quattro Leoni is in an attractive part of the Oltrano (other side of the Arno), and came highly recommended by my friend, Megan and more than one guidebook. We had a table outside, with candlelight and complimentary glasses of Spumante. My daughter was thrilled that we let her drink her glass. My son took one sip and opted for water. We shared a plate of mixed crostini. My husband chose the swordfish for his main course. It was simply prepared and good. My daughter and my son had chicken paillards, and they both ate well. I had roast pork. It was a bit dry and too salty. The service at Quatro Leoni was surly and abrupt, and we would not recommend it.

The next morning, My husband and I got up early and took a walk around the town. We made our way over to Santa Maria Novella. The exterior is reminiscent of Santa Croce. I was also determined to locate the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, the oldest pharmacy in Europe. We found it, but it was way too early to be open. We returned to the hotel to ready ourselves for our private tour with Violetta Buti.

Violetta to us down Via Tournabuoni to Palazzo Strozzi and Santa Trinita, and then across the Ponte Santa Trinita to Santo Spirito. She showed an example of ancient graffiti, the beautiful frescoes of Santo Spirito and the Duomo. She gave us a brief but interesting lesson on the power of the Medici, whose crest with 6 balls litters the city.

After our tour, we took a recommendation we had received from an friend and headed to Antica Pizzaria dell'Arte, Via del Giglio 28. The setting is very pretty, with faux frescoes, stone walls, high ceilings and white linen covered tables. The pizza was also delicious. My son had, as usual, the diavolo. My daughter ate a good two-thirds of her quattro formaggi, a sure sign it was delicious. My husband decided to order the Dante Salad, made of arugula, tomatoes, avocado and cheese. It was delicious. I shared with everyone, much to their chagrin.

We relaxed for a short while after our meal and then ventured out once more, heading toward the Uffizi again. I was in the mood to people watch. We took a great photo of my son posing as Mona Lisa with two artists posing as Da Vinci. It was a hoot! We then walked back towards the Boboli Gardens by way of the Ponte Santa Trinita. We wandered the grounds, climbing to the highest point where we were delighted by a spectacular view of the city below. By now, however, the kids were growing tired, and my son was becoming difficult, so he and I headed back to the hotel to rest while my daughter and husband did a little shopping. They joined us at the hotel an hour later.

After our rest, we went out again, this time in search of the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella. The Dominican monks established the pharmacy in the 1200's. They grew the herbs and flowers used to manufacture the balms, medicines and ointments sold in the shop. The shop is in the original structure and the air is heavy with scent of the famous perfumes. I bought a vial of Patchouli essence for a friend, and my husband and I bought soaps and a souvenir soap dish for us.

That evening, we had reservations at Za Za at the Mercato Central. This establishment is admittedly touristy, apparently having been made famous by the likes of Naomi Campbell and Bill Cosby. After eating there, however, we could see why it has earned a good reputation. The service was very good, as was the food. My son had a mixed salami antipasto and pasta with pesto for his main course. My daughter had crostini al funhgi (she did not care for this) and pollo fritto (fried chicken) which she devoured. My husband had crostini misto, fritto misto and a green salad. I had the trenette al tartufo (with a truffle cream sauce) and pollo arrosto (roast chicken - good, but a bit salty). My daughter and I both had the panna cotta for dessert, and it was excellent. I am sure the food is geared towards the tourist, but we really enjoyed this restaurant.

The next morning, my husband and I got up early and headed for the Mercato Centale to view the fresh produce, meats and breads. We were so early most of the vendors had not even opened yet! The market was vast, and what had been set up was wonderful. It would have been a great place to stock up on supplies for our rental house if we were heading there that day. We bought a beautiful bottle of olive oil from a very talkative man, who rambled on, in mixed English-Italian. I understood about half (okay, about a quarter) of what he said. He did say in English that his father had owned the store for 30 years and that the oil we were buying was very good.

We headed back to the hotel, packed, checked out and left our bags in the lobby while we made one last run to the Profumo-Farmaceutica so I could buy some gardenia essence. We then caught a cab to Europ-Car to pick up our rental and make the drive to Portovenere. I think we were all ready to leave the city and the walking behind! My husband calculated that we were probably averaging 10-12 hours of walking a day. Next time, we're taking a pedometer.

June 15 and 16 Maneuvering our way out of Florence was easier than I expected. We got a great deal on an 8-day rental through Europ-car. We paid $375 for a mid-sized wagon with unlimited mileage. We got a free upgrade to a spiffy new Nissan Minivan. The drive on the autostrada to Portovenere was fast, safe and easy. We drove away from the smog that hangs over Florence and passed Prato and Lucca on the A11, and then Viareggio, Carrara and Massa on the A12 going north. The Alpi Apuane loomed in the distance. My husband and I first thought the mountains were capped in snow. He then realized the "snow" was actually marble. The sight was pretty impressive. I would have loved to hop off the autostrada and head east into the mountains to check out the area.

We stopped at an autogrill to grab a bite to eat, but were confounded by the process. It looked as though you have to go through and pay before you order, but everything was a different price. Our command of Italian was too weak to be able to manage ordering, so we decided instead to grab snacks and get back on the road.

We drove through La Spezia and then took the winding road to tiny Portovenere, which sits at the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean on what is called the Bay of Poets. This area was favored by the likes of Byron, Shelley and Keats. In fact, it is believed that a castle that lies above Portovenere was the inspiration for the castle in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

We had reservations at the Royal Sporting Hotel; a 4-star located on the water with a private beach and spectacular views. Again, we lucked out with our rooms. We were given oceanfront on the fourth floor. Both rooms had great balconies, somewhat softer beds and very nice bathrooms. The hotel has a saltwater pool, a large terrace where breakfast in served and an upscale restaurant.

We spent our afternoon resting by the pool, inhaling the sweet fragrance of the Carolina Jasmine that covered the railings. My husband took a dip in the pool, but the water was very salty. I walked down to the bay with him and watched as he swam in the clear, blue water. It was way too cold for me!

There is little sand here, as it must be imported from the south. The Italians make do by lying on the boulders that line the shore. It looked very uncomfortable, but I imagine those hot rocks feel good after a dip in that cold water.

Before dinner, we walked along the passarella where the intensely fragrant jasmine grew along every fence and railing in sight. Along the way, we spotted examples of the famous Portovenere cats. These are not six-toed cats like those at Hemmingway House, but they are plentiful and feral.

There were cats sleeping in and under boats, skulking in doorways and begging scraps from the fishermen cleaning their catch. I was amazed to see the incredible ruins of the walled city surrounding a church. I had had very little information on Portovenere before our trip, and knew nothing of these ruins. They lie at the end of the town overlooking the bay, providing breath-taking views of Byron's Grotto. I was reminded of Tintagel in southern England. The grotto is akin to Merlin's Cave and the atmosphere is similar. But the water surrounding Portovenere is far less violent than that of Tintagel and the weather far more balmy. We were enjoying ourselves completely, taking in the views as the sun was setting. There were no crowds. In fact, we were practically alone. My son would have stayed up there all night if he could. But had we not left, we would not have enjoyed one of the best meals of our entire trip.

We wandered from restaurant to restaurant in the village, reading menus and arguing about what we wanted to eat. The kids, naturally, wanted pizza. My husband and I wanted seafood. Guess who won? The folks who were paying the bill! My husband thought the menu at Da Iseo looked the best, so in we went. Da Iseo sits on the waterfront, as do most of the restaurants in Portovenere. They specialize in the fresh seafood of the area. The clientele also indicated that the restaurant is one of the more upscale establishments in the area. The Italian women were very well dressed and accessorized.

My daughter recoiled when she looked at the menu. Her only choices were seafood and beef. She hates the former and was avoiding the latter. There were pasta choices on the menu as well, but she would not eat any. She had gotten to the point where she was overly tired and too hungry and she therefore became obstinate. We finally convinced her to try the grilled prawn and patatine. Patatine (French fries) had saved us on more than one occasion in Italy. Not surprisingly, she was a bit turned off by the fact that the prawns come to the table with their heads on. But she was hungry enough to eat them nonetheless.

My son chose the prosciutto crudo for his primi piatto. He looked so Italian with knife and fork in hand, digging in to his dish. For his secundo piatto he chose the local dish, trenette al pesto, which is long, flat pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes. Liguira is famous for its pesto, and justifiably so. My son and I both had to admit that Da Iseo's pesto is superior to my own. My husband had a penne in a creamy tomato sauce with shrimp as his first course. It was delicious. I selected the house specialty, Spaghetti Da Iseo, a light but creamy curry sauce with squid. It was wonderful and a great respite from the traditional fare I had been eating. For our secundo piattos, my husband and I shared frutti di mare alla griglia (mixed seafood grill) and mussels in a white wine sauce. All were excellent. For dessert, My daughter and I both had panna cotta. I have become addicted to this dish and must learn how to make it. All in all, this was a wonderful restaurant. We paid 169,00 lire ($77) for a great meal, including wine and cokes for the kids. On our walk back to the hotel, we bought my son his daily dose of cioccolato gelato. When we got back to the hotel, My husband and I topped off the night by drinking vodka and tonics on the terrace overlooking the bay. We'd had a great day.

The first part of our week, June 16 - 18 On our last morning in Portovenere, my husband and I were up early, hoping to take advantage of the early morning light for photo ops. We walked through down the charming cobble stoned streets, looking in the windows of the shops and restaurants that line the way. The wonderful smell of fresh bread wafted through the air, and the locals were out sweeping the steps and visiting with one another. Luckily, the shops open early here, most likely to cater to the fishermen. I was getting hungry, so we hustled back to the hotel for a quick bite of breakfast and then dashed back to the village to shop for a few provisions for our rental. We bought some incredible foccacia: one had rosemary and olives, the other had fresh, cherry tomatoes. It was the best bread we'd had in Italy so far. We bought a can of olive oil and a few other staples and headed back to the hotel to check out. We were on the road, headed for Lucca, by 10:00 AM. Our mission: the monthly antiques market.

The walled town of Lucca is beautiful, but we spent little time there. The antiques market is very large, and we saw many wonderful things, but the prices were also very high. I overheard an American woman, whom I assume is an antiques dealer in the US, bargaining for a large number of items from one of the dealers. Now that would be a great job! We made a bee line out of town and hopped in the car for the 3 hour drive to Castlenuovo dell'Abbate.

We drove the autostrada back to Florence and then caught the S2 to Torrenieri. We had no problems. We arrived in Montalcino at 3:00 and decided to bide our time there. Check in at the house was 4:00 at the earliest.

Montalcino is a beautiful, medieval village sitting high on a hill overlooking the Crete Senese. Montalcino is known as Brunello country, and therefore the streets are lined with enotecas and cantinas. We wandered around for a bit, browsing the shops and checking out menus. When it was nearly 4:00, we made the 9 kilometer drive to Castelnuovo dell'Abbate. We found the recommended restaurant, Bassamondo, made a left and drove up the dirt road to the top of the hill to the house. We were awe struck. On this hilltop, we had 360-degree views of the area. On one side, we could see Sant Antimo, the ancient Benedictine Abbey. On the other side we could see the tower of the Rocca in Montalcino and the peaks of Mount Amiata. Hills, vineyards and olive groves surrounded us. A review of this house is available on this web site.

After settling in, we ran into the small village of Castlenuovo, picked up some salumi and pecorino from Bassamondo (this was excellent pecorino by the way) and some cokes, and bottled water from the alimentari. That night, we sat on the covered patio and drank the wine from the estate. The kids made sandwiches with the salami and cheese. The wind was howling, but the walls of the porch protected us. As the sun set, we saw the lights of Sant Antimo and the town of Castlenuovo sparkle in the distance. We were looking forward to our week here.

It's is Sunday, June 17; Father's Day. Our plans are to relax and enjoy this gorgeous home and pretend we are residents. Dinner is to be at Bassamondo. We lounged around the pool for a couple of hours. The sun was fierce, but thankfully, the winds have died down.

At about 2 PM, we headed into Montalcino to buy some supplies and a phone card. We wanted to call and wish our dad's happy Father's day. We bought some pizza slices at Petto's Pizza and wandered up and down the streets, browsing in the various stores and taking in the sights. My husband bought himself a bottle of Brunello for his Father's Day gift.

Bassamondo is a charming restaurant literally at the bottom of the drive leading to our rental. The host was gracious and patient with us. My husband and I each had ravioli with butter and sage sauce and rabbit stewed in Brunello. I loved the pasta. The dough was very delicate and the sauce, light but flavorful. My son also had the ravioli and a delicious grilled pork chop. My daughter had spaghetti with tomato sauce, a mixed salami and cheese plate, and patatine, naturally! The house wine was not very good - order off the list. Dinner for four, with wine and cover charge was 150,000 lire.

On Monday, we make our first "circle" tour. We first make the hour drive across the Val d'Orcia to Montepulciano. The town is a beauty, with lovely Renaissance architecture. We spent a few hours wandering the village, again browsing and soaking in the beauty. We bought some Etruscan inspired tiles at a museum shop, sipped coffee at a bar and then headed back across the valley towards Pienza.

We arrived in this lovely Renaissance town around 1 PM, hungry and thirsty, so our first task was pizza (remember, we're travelling with kids!) After a darned good meal, we walked up and down the streets, visited the Duomo (Santa Maria Assunta) and the church of San Francesco. The views from the alley to the left of the church are spectacular.

A necessity when visiting Pienza is tasting and buying Pecorino cheese. There are several shops from which to choose. We bought two different varieties of aged pecorino before heading back to the car for the last leg of our day trip.

Heading south on the S2, we quickly made our way to Bagno Vignoni. I had really been looking forward to seeing these sulfur pools and perhaps dipping my feet in the therapeutic water.

The town of Bagno Vignoni is tiny. The Renaissance piscina is a bit scummy, and is fenced off to prevent bathers. The hot springs run in channels on the edge of town and are mesmerizing. The kids wished they had brought their suits as we found one pool deep enough for bathing. This town is a quick stop, unless you plan to eat at one of the local restaurants. We hopped back in the car and headed further south to the Rocca Tintinnano.

The road to the rocca is steep, narrow and winding. We were relieved to reach to top of the hill only to discover the castle closed. We had arrived during the afternoon break, and the site would not reopen until 4 PM. Dark rain clouds were rolling in and thunder was rumbling in the distance, so we opted to return to the house and beat the storm. On the way back, we shopped at the Co-op in Montalcino and bought provisions for dinner. We spent a lovely evening sitting in the loggia overlooking Sant Antimo. My husband grilled some chicken marinated with rosemary and garlic, rice and a green salad. It was delicious.

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