We left off the last blog post of us leaving our Cinque Terre apartment for the Riomaggiore train station to make a train around 9am. This was just the beginning of our long journey of a day to our villa in Tuscany.
Our train departing from Riomaggiore to La Spezia Centrale was delayed almost 30 minutes. That would give us less than 10 minutes in La Spezia to get off with all our luggage and buy the remainder of our train ticket journey (we could not purchase it in full in Riomaggiore) and validate our tickets in the machine before boarding the train for Firenze (Florence). Joe and Emily rushed to try to figure out the train schedule and how to purchase tickets while Jason and Jackie attended to the kids and luggage. Needless to say we did not make the train. There weren’t any more direct trains to Florence that day so we would have to make a transfer in Pisa (unfortunately the transfer station was nowhere near the Leaning Tower). We had over an hour to kill waiting for the next train to depart from La Spezia. There wasn’t much near the station so we grabbed some quick lunch items from a convenience shop to eat on the next train ride.
Train #2 of the day from La Spezia Centrale to Pisa Centrale. Train #3 of the day from Pisa Centrale to Firenze (Florence).
Jackie really wanted to see the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio in Florence since they were near the train station. The architect in her trumped the others desire to stop in Siena on our drive south from Florence. They were interested in seeing St Catherine of Siena's severed mummified head on display. Her right thumb is also on display in the relic. We googled photos of this crazy sight and called it good.
We stored our luggage at the train station for the few hours we'd explore the main sights of Florence.
It was a great deal warmer in Florence. It was probably in the 80s and extremely hot in the sun.
Jackie navigated us down the medieval streets toward the Duomo.
Sadly Jackie did not notice during all the moving that her camera had been switched to manual focus and off of auto focus. Sorry for the blurry photos.
Il Duomo di Firenze, Florence Cathedral, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, Brunelleschi's dome
It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of Italy's largest churches and was the largest dome in the world until the development of modern structural materials of today (it is still the largest masonry dome in the world).
This dome is always studied in architecture school. There was a structural design competition in 1418 for constructing the octagonal dome that was 171 feet above the floor and a 144 foot span. Until this time most domes would have external flying buttresses to disperse the weight of the dome. It was the first in history to be built without a temporary wooden support frame. Even the Pantheon (built in 128) in Rome, a circular dome used support structures. This marked the beginning of Renaissance architecture, a shift from Gothic of the past few centuries. The design was a double shell and built out of brick. There were 4 internal horizontal stone and iron chains in hoops in the inner dome. There are vertical ribs on each of the corners of the octagon curving to the center point.
The front of the basilica is excessively decorated and covered with colorful pink, green and white marble panels. The facade was not completed until 1887.
The huge bronze doors are adorned with scenes from the life of the Madonna.
The octagonal shaped Florence Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni) or Baptistery of Saint John is also located in the Piazza del Duomo but its exterior was under renovation.
Campanile di Giotto is a free-standing bell tower next to the Duomo.
The interior is very vast and feels very bare and austere.
The dome is painted with a representation of The Last Judgement. It is over 38,000sf of painted surface, started in 1568 and finished 11 years later.
Above the main door is a big clock with frescos of 4 prophets or Evangelists from 1443. It shows all 24 hours. It is one of the few clocks from this time that still exists and in working order.
There is a crypt beneath the church where the tomb of Brunelleschi resides, which proves how prestigious this architect was to be permitted such a burial place by the Florentines.
Next we walked over to the Ponte Vecchio, which means old bridge in Italian. It is a medieval enclosed stone bridge over the Arno River in Florence with ships built along it.
Ponte Vecchio from Ponte Santa Trinita
Jackie at the Ponte Vecchio in Florence
There is a central loggia opening in the middle of the bridge.
Even though it was squelching hot, we went to walk further across the bridge.
Florence architecture along the Arno River
Walking across the Ponte Vecchio
Everywhere in Florence, the architecture reeked of the Renaissance.
On our walk back to the train station, we passed the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella
We retrieved our luggage from the train station storage point. We really felt like we were in Italian now. The desk guy was rude. He took our retrieval ticket, crumpled it up and walked away. No bags come back from behind the desk. We talk to another desk guy, they share some Italian words and lots of arm movement and then our bags come. No idea what that was all about, but weird. The next interaction was how to get to the airport from the train station: taxi or bus. We asked if we could get a large taxi for 4 people and 2 babies without carseats. The guy ushering tourists to taxi's says yes get in, the taxi driver sees us and says no. So we are in this go no go pattern trying to figure out if we should or even could take a taxi. We decide no this is ridiculous and off to the bus we go. The bus is extremely hot. Brooklyn was really fussy so on this hot bus surrounded by men, Jackie had to nurse her under a cover. Once we got to the airport, Emily and Jackie tended to the girls and stayed with the luggage while the guys went to pick up the rental minivan. The carseats they had for us were not quite what we wanted but it was all they had. Harper had to sit in a forward-facing toddler carseat with her head not even close to the upper head side cushions and Brooklyn was in a forward-facing carseat with buckles that didn't tighten completely to her body. We put Brooklyn's seat behind the driver so if there was an accident she couldn't fly out of the carseat and straight out the windshield. Joe is just gonna have to be a super safe driver during our stay in Tuscany.
It was a 2 hour drive south to our villa from the Florence airport. Gaia, the villa's owner contact met us in town (Castiglione D’Orcia (Si)) to show us how to get to the property. She and her 5 month old showed us around the house. Our Tuscany villa is a dream! We seriously needed to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren't dreaming. It was hard to hide our excitement about the place during the tour. With so many Tuscan villas posted on airbnb, it was easy to feel like the photographs on the website were photoshopped and not real like a real estate listing. This was not the case here. The pictures did not do it justice.
The guys drove back out to the grocery store to pick up items for us to have dinner while the girls put the little girls to bed.
The view of the sun setting over the Tuscan hills from our very own villa was a dream. This is a view of the pool and owner's other home on the property.
The view from our bedroom covered balcony
Brooklyn hanging out on her patio at our Tuscan villa
Breakfast on the patio
Rick Steves, our go-to European travel guide guru has not steered us wrong yet. On the agenda for Tuscany was to leisurely tour around 3 hillside towns in the heart of Tuscany, to drink amazing local wine and to swim in the pool at our villa. We purposely made Tuscany our final destination on this trip to unwind and relax our remaining days after spending many on the go-go-go.
The heart of Tuscany are the rolling fields near the valley of the Orcia River or Val d'Orcia.
First town up, Pienza, a small Renaissance town from which a pope (Pope Pius II) came from in the 1400s.
Following Emily, our tour guide from our parking spot to the old part of Pienza
A peek of the view of the Tuscan hillside from an alleyway atop Pienza
We walked along Corso Rossellino in Pienza stopping in various touristy boutiques along the way. We went in a few cheese and salami shops with racks of pecorino cheese made from sheep's milk.
Selfie in Pienza, Italy
Church of San Franscesco tranquil cloiser
Piazza Pio II surrounded by the Duomo and Palazzo Piccolomini
Further down Corso Rossellino in Pienza
We stopped for lunch at Baccus Losteria.
We shared four delicious dishes with some pici pasta with a bottle of Brunello.
We continued to walk around Pienza, a real Renaissance architectural gem.
Along Via delle Case Nuove are a series of rowhouses with staggered doorways. They were built by the pope to house the poor.
We made a stop at Nicola's BuonGusto Gelateria for the best gelato EVER!
Emily enjoying gelato in Pienza - the best ever!
The Tuscan landscape from atop Pienza
Selfie in Pienza, Italy
Harper, Jason & Emily loving Pienza
Jason and Harper in Pienza
The side steeple of the Duomo in Piazza Pio II
Via Dell'Amore (street of love)
Walking back down Corso Rossellino in Pienza
Now that's a hunk of meat!
The next hillside town of the day was Montepulciano, the bigger of the three medieval Renaissance towns with wine cellars that plunge deep down into the cliffs it sits upon.
We parked near the Fortezza on the south side of Montepulciano.
Tuscan landscape from atop Montepulciano
Montepulciano family photo op
Palazzo Comunale (medieval town hall) in the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano
The Duomo (unfinished due to the city running out of money for the facade) in the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano
Palazzo Tarugi (Renaissance arcade) in the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano
Palazzo Contucci (16th century Renaissance facade) in the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano
The Contucci family still lives there since the 11th century and produces their own wine...
Adamo, the winemaker, was not there today to introduce us to Montepulciano's fine wines at the Contucci Cantina, but we had a lovely woman give us a tasting of 5 wines.
They are known for their Vino Nobile.
We toured the cellars with its 13th century vaults and saw dozens of huge barrels of Croatian, Italian and French oak. Each hold 1,000-2,500 liters and ages for 2 years in the barrel for the wine to pick up the personality of the wood.
Brooklyn is serving as a scale to show how massive the brunello wine barrels are.
Looking back at Palazzo Comunale (medieval town hall) from down an alley street
Next Emily, Harper, Jackie and Brooklyn walked down to Ramaio Cesare Copper Workshop while the guys tried to hunt down cigars.
He is a third generation coppersmith carrying on his father and grandfather's trade. His English is limited, but he was a very sweet man. Rick Steves had just been in his shop a few days earlier. He must not have been too busy, so he created personalized mementoes for us. He showed us letters from 2 American couples that can on their honeymoon. He made them this copper emblem with the man and women's initials and wedding date. He telling you to sleep with it under your pillow and get "frisky". The couples wrote back how his fertility copper piece gave them multiple kids. He made our copper sheets and with our first babies initials and told us to go make more.
Coppersmith in Montepulciano
Each time he would pound out a letter engraving, he was say "coo coo" and it would make Harper laugh and laugh.
We walked the small street toward Mazzati Copper Shop
Mazzatti Copper Shop is packed with hand-hammered premium kitchen items and decorative pieces.
The boys stopped in Ramaio Cesare Copper Workshop to meet the man who told their wives to go get busy. Once he recognized our babies in their arms and saw us standing outside in the street, he warmed right up again to us.
A few shots from our drive back to our villa in Tuscany
Harper and Jason swimming in the pool before dinner
Tonight we paid 50 euros a piece to have a cook come to the house and teach us how to make a typical Tuscan dinner.
Mixing the pasta dough
Rolling out the dough
Saba's hands after rolling out the pasta dough
Making a sort of rue for the bechamel sauce
Adding the 3 eggs in the zucchini
Adding the bechamel sauce to the zucchini and eggs
Saba rolling the pici pasta
Hand-rolled pici pasta
Jackie and Brooklyn enjoyed watching how the pici pasta is made.
Brooklyn got hungry watching ;)
Jason joined in watching after Harper went to bed
Emily rolling pici pasta
Joe rolling pici pasta
Saba rolling out the remaining pici pasta because we were hungry and it would have taken us forever compared to the master
Pici pasta in semolina flour
All the rolled pici pasta
Removing & draining the cooked pici pasta
Saba mixing together the pici pasta and meat sauce
Pici pasta in a ground beef sauce
Saba at work
mmm beautiful, now let's eat!
We broke open the brunello to have with dinner at sunset
The neighboring villa on the site where to hosts were staying
Tuscan sunset from our villa
Our first stop was Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona near Montalcino and the Sant'Antimo Abbey.
The Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery
The Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery had beautiful vineyards and spectacular views.
Enjoying the winery
Brooklyn touching Jason's beard while the guys listen about the wines we are going to taste
Harper and Brooklyn playing at Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona
Family photo op at the Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery
The Wrights in the heart of Tuscany
Wright family photo op at the Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona winery
Next stop was Santa Giulia on the outskirts of Torrenieri. It is a quintessential family-run winery with an emphasis on quality over quantity. Emily had made a reservation ahead of time but we arrived a little early. Jackie stayed in the minivan rental with napping Brooklyn while the others had a tour of the rustic working farm. On top of wine, they make their own olive oil and exceptional prosciutto and salami.
They butcher their own pig in the winter and make their own charcuterie.
The guys were in love with all the hanging cured meats
Time to dig in on the plates of cured meat and cheese
Brooklyn awoke just in time for her and Jackie to join in on tasting the good eats and wine
Brooklyn trying a little taste of the food
Mmmm I see more, give me more!
mmm nom nom nom
Happy happy man
Emily enjoying her wine
Such a great experience at Santa Guilia
Before we left we had a taste of their Grappa
We had a great farm-to-table personal experience at Santa Guilia, we had to have a group picture before we left!
We stopped at a local butcher shop to pick up groceries for dinner.
When we got back to the villa, it was time for both babies to take a dip in the pool before the sun completely set. Butt-crack baby
Daddy and baby time in the pool for Jason and Harper
Emily and Harper
Jason and Harper
Daddy's first time swimming in the pool with Brooklyn
Trying to get her to float on her back
Momma and Brooklyn
One Two Three
Sorry not sorry
Momma forgot to pack a swim diaper. Brooklyn had a pretty big booty by the end of the swim
Living the dream
The cut of meat the guys got for dinner
Joe cooked the meat over the fireplace tonight for dinner.
Dinner conversations are the best
Grilling meat over the fireplace because the only thing missing from the villa were wine glasses (really?!) and a barbecue grill outside.
On our final night we took a few photographs of the beautiful villa we rented in Tuscany.
East side of the villa with stairs up to Wrights bedroom
South side of the villa & entry into the main living space
Simple yet elegant Tuscan detailing
West side of the villa with patio access to Brooklyn's room
Door hardware to the shutters on Brooklyn's patio doors
North side of the villa with large terrace and communal gathering area
Kitchen window and Wrights upper Juliet balcony
Living room window
Brooklyn's bedroom window and our upper bedroom window
Roof edge & exterior lighting
The view of the neighboring villa on the site where to hosts were staying
The villa terrace, neighboring villa and pool
One final sunset from the Tuscan villa terrace
Upstairs hallway to 3 bedrooms with exposed roof framing
Now you can hopefully see and understand why it was so hard to leave Tuscany. It was a dream end to a great vacation!
The Wrights left bright and early to catch the train to Schiphol for their flight home. We can always count on having a great vacation with the Wrights. We had a great time the 3 times they came to visit us in Seattle during the 3 years we lived there. We can always count on them opening their doors to us when we are in Raleigh. We are truly blessed to have such great friends with the same mindset to live within reason and spend your money on experiences and adventures all across the world.