We had an excellent trip to Italy from May 15 to June 15, and enjoyed the entire time we spent there.
On June 1st we drove to Ravenna in the rental car that you arranged for us. Europcar gave us a BMW 120 diesel, which had plenty of power and got good mileage on the expensive European fuel. I was pleased that they gave us such a nice car.
We stayed at Ravenna Centro Hotel, and it was the nicest hotel room on the trip. Ellen at the desk welcomed us, and spoke fluent English and Italian. She was a real pleasure to talk to, with a great attitude. Parking in the centro was a bit odd, and a bit of a hike, since it was down near the Basilica of San Vitale, but it was very workable. The World Heritage mosaics were wonderful, and I took lots of pictures for keepsakes. Our favorite mosaic sites were the Basilica of Santa Apollinare in Classe, the Basilica of San Vitale, and the capella in the museum. Dinner at Il Melarancio was terrific, in spite of slow service - the food was spectacular. All in all, we enjoyed Ravenna a lot. On the way back from Il Melarancio on Friday night, we found a band playing in the main piazza and stood around listening for an hour before heading back to the hotel.
And then it was off to Palazzo Bandino for the next three nights.
Driving to Chianciano Terme took a while, since we took the scenic route through Gualdo Cattaneo, Bastardo, and Bastardo Estupido before going on through Orvieto and finding Palazzo Bandino. It rained much of the way, so it wasn't perhaps as scenic as it might otherwise have been. We found Palazzo Bandino without any problem, and Emanuela got us checked in and set up for dinner. Dinners were quite nice (we ate there all three nights) and the company was congenial. One evening we sat with a couple who were originally from Amsterdam, but now lived in Norway. Hans was a physical therapist and Jenny was a nurse. This was their second visit to Palazzo Bandino, and I think they were staying for 10 days (there's also a new spa on the premises, where Linda had a very nice spa treatment and massage). Hans and Jenny spoke Dutch (of course), Norwegian, German, English, and some Italian. The next night we were joined by Pina and Gilbert from Belgium. He was French and she was Italian, so they spoke both of those languages, but very little English. Linda speaks English and often unconsciously speaks Spanish instead of Italian when she's in Italy, and I speak some Spanish and Italian, in addition to English, thanks to having taken Latin and Spanish in high school, plus I have some idea how to order from a French menu, but that's it.
As you might imagine, this led to some interesting, though difficult conversations, at least until we had all had a few glasses of wine. Then we just gestured and laughed, and seemed to communicate just fine. Breakfasts at Palazzo Bandino were good, particularly the omelets, which were exceptional. Palazzo Bandino was a little remote, but we successfully used it for visits to Montepulciano, San Quirico d'Orcia, Pienza and Montalcino. This was a beautiful area to drive in, one of our favorites for the trip, and we visited Villa La Foce to tour the gardens on our way back to Chianciano Terme and Palazzo Bandino. On another day, we went to Siena for the day and enjoyed our visit to the Campo and the Duomo, plus driving around the Crete Senese countryside.
Finally, we left for Florence, again taking the scenic route, visiting Monteriggioni and San Gimignano before fighting our way into Florence, where it only took two passes around the block using the GPs in order to figure out where to turn the car in. Turns out that you pretty much pull up on the sidewalk, grab your bags out of the car, sign the paperwork with the assistants in the teeny Europcar office, and get the heck out of the way. Then we decided to take a cab to Fresco Palace since we were hot and sweaty, and this was just as well, since there are red and black numbers on many old Florentine streets (they're not the SAME number, of course), and the driver had to call his office to find the doorway.
Once there, we were welcomed by Daisy and taken to our huge room on the second (third in the US) floor. Fortunately, there was a lift, and we don't carry large suitcases, no matter how long we're gone! Daisy and Daniela (the owner) treated us wonderfully during our five night stay, and arranged a taxi to pick us up at 4:30AM on our last morning to get us to the Florence airport for our horribly early flight to Frankfurt. They also recommended Za-Xa Ristorante near the hotel as being both good and reasonably priced, and it was so good that we ate there three times! Turns out that we had eaten there on our previous visit to Florence with Elderhostel, which took us there because it prepared excelled Tuscan food. And they still do! I had a chicken dish with truffle sauce that was just superb. And let's not forget the excellent gelato at Grom, over near the Duomo.
The other things we did in Florence included two cooking lessons arranged by you - one at lunch where we worked as teams to make the pasta by hand, and another two days later where we again worked as teams to make a nice dinner. These were fun experiences, working with nice people (all of them Americans, some on their honeymoons), and we enjoyed them tremendously. Since we had been to Florence before, several years ago, we did not go to the heavily touristed places like the Uffizi, the Duomo, and the Accademia. We did visit places we missed last time, such as the Bargello for its fantastic collection of sculpture and the Convent of San Marco for the Fra Angelico and Fra Bartolomeo frescoes, and I wandered down to Santa Maria Novella to visit that church while Linda went back to take a nap.
All in all, we had a great, highly memorable trip, and saw lots of sights in Italy. It was a nice combination of a tour in the beginning, in southern Italy, and then wandering around on our own for the second half of the trip in northern Italy. It'll probably be a while before we do a trip like this again because of both the coast and the physical effort, plus the planning for the self-directed part. When you're on a tour, the tour takes care of your bags and the logistics and tips. When you're on your own, it's all up to you, and there are lots of little costs. I joked with Linda that Italy's motto for travelers should be:
But of course there are lots of little and not so little expenses as you wander around. Sitting down to eat usually means a cover charge of a few Euros each, and water often costs a couple of Euros for a half-liter bottle. Finding a bathroom can be challenging, and it often involves a fee. Pepsi Light (my caffeine of choice) is very hard to find in Italy unless you happen across a huge supermarket. Coke pretty much owns the soft drink business in Italy. On the other hand, I learned to like Cappuccino! Meals in restaurants are pricy, particularly when you factor in the strength of the Euro compared to the dollar. Hotels in major cities can be extremely pricy as well. It's also not a good idea to be handicapped and try to get around Italy, because of all the stairs and not so many lifts. And, of course, there are lots of beggars in places like Siena and Florence and the other cities.
But what a visit! If you're a fan of antiquities and interested in the histories of Greece and Rome, what an adventure it is to visit places like Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum, Siena, Florence, and the surrounding countrysides. We'll have these memories the rest of our lives, and the photos to jog those memories, too. And the scenery in Tuscany and Umbria! The northern Italy photos that I'm still working on number about 300 or so, edited down from 1,500 photos I took on this portion of the trip. Hope you enjoyed this long writeup on our month in Italy and the pictures we took! We had a great time, and are happy to share our thoughts and photos with you. If you're planning a trip like this, we're happy to consult, and we certainly have lots of books and maps on what to see.
Bill and Linda B.