Myself, my husband George and our 12-year old Michael headed for a new adventure to Italy on June 1999. We have been in Italy before (and even lived there for few months a long ago), so this trip was to get re-acquainted with this fabulous country and people and introduce our typical all-American kid to it. Mike has been before in London, Caribbean and Canada, and of course, USA with us, but it was his first Italian trip. I can say with an exception of minor whining the trip proved a success. His apprehension and concern was mainly: “too many statues of naked people” and TV in Italian.

We had only 8 days/9 nights. Listening to mistakes some of our friends and clients made when trying to cover too many cities/sites in short time, our philosophy is always to cover small region and explore it having enough time for relaxation. This time we decided to explore Venice and Tuscany. Of course, Florence came in on top of the list, but respecting Mike’s wishes for relaxation and considering our food and wine interests, we settled on itinerary which included 4 nights in Tuscany, Chianti Region, following with crash course in Renaissance – Florence museums and then finishing in glorious Venice. Here how it was accomplished. The air fare was bought on Lufthansa (LH) airline with outbound flight to Florence and returning from Venice (connecting in Frankfurt).

Day 1st. Friday. En route.

We flew on Friday night to Florence from JFK. The flight was delayed for a few hours and we understood that we are going to miss our connecting flight in Frankfurt.

Day 2. Saturday. Arrival to Florence airport.

However, upon landing, the LH rep was waiting for us at the terminal and told us that the plane is waiting for us. They very efficiently got us through so-called “passport shortcut” line into check-in where the attendants were waiting in the empty lounge and greeting us by name as soon as we practically ran into it. The bus delivered us right to the plane where disgruntled passengers were not looking at us nicely (as it was our fault!). Shortly after that we were on the way to Florence. I did ask about our luggage at check-in and they were elusive (“we will do our best”). Well, on arrival to Florence, turned out that the luggage did not make it. I suspected that. However, it did not bring our spirits down since in a few hours we would be in a sunny Tuscany! If we would miss that flight, the next one would have been at the end of the day and than no way we could’ve make it on Chianti roads at night. We would have been forced to stay overnight near airport and drive next morning, lose one night etc.…

So, we’ve filed a report, waited in not a long but very slow line to get our car – midsize Renault (small SUV) and a hour later, were on the way to our first destination: Castellina in Chianti. The scenery was industrial for the first 15 minutes near Florence, but then started to improve and soon we were seeing little hill villages and towns. The sun was bright and our spirits were high. We were lucky because: 1) Mike packed most of his things in a carry-on bag, so he had his CDs, clothes and his necessary things with him, and 2) we boughtTravel Guard Insurance Now, I do not want to sound like a commercial, but the insurance covers in addition to trip cancellation, medical and other emergencies, luggage lost and delay. Highly recommended and if you need details, click on the link above. All we needed just to go to the village, buy necessary things and then file a claim with Travel Guard on return. They indeed paid promptly all expenses. And the acquired clothes were for us to keep!

While driving, we adjusted to the road rules and signs. They do have road numbers, but it is easily just follow signs to the destination. The roads are well marked. However, the Italians drive faster and very close to you, so it might make some travelers uncomfortable in beginning, but then you are getting used to it. It took us about one hour to arrive to our apartment, Podere Collelungo which is located outside the village, on the 200 acre restored wine farm. They produce their own Chianti Classico and olive oil. Owners are very nice couple, Tony and Mira. They bought old farm and created holiday apartments. These apartments in Tuscany are very popular with Europeans, but undiscovered by Americans yet. Collelungo had about 12 one- and two- bedroom apartments. The whole farm was restored few years ago and everything is modern, clean and high quality. Each apartment has it’s own private patio with vineyards view. The paths take you to the pool with another great views, olive trees. There are endless walking trails with butterflies, the sun and some flower smells in the air was just what we needed. The village is 10 minutes drive or 40 minutes walk (shortcut through property) with restaurants, wine bars, stores. It was a heaven and we really enjoyed our 4 days there. There is a TV room with a library but nobody except Mike and George used it (Mike for British shows and cartoons and George for TV). There is also an honor bar with wine, sparkling water and oil. The owners give you a booklet on arrival about surrounding area with markets schedule, loop drives and area information. There are wild strawberries and sour cherries for you to pick. And, as I said, the owners were very warm and nice and very helpful.

We were given a tour of the property and then left in our 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment. It had combination living room/kitchen. Kitchen had a table plus there was a table facing the vineyards. All windows had new screens, and from our bath tub there is also an extra little window to see those Tuscan vineyards and hills with Castellina’s castle in a view.

Since we had nothing to unpack J , lucky Mike went to the swimming pool (he was the smart one to pack light! ), we were assured that it is safe enough to leave him there and we drove to the village to buy necessary things. By the way, this property is not suitable for small children (under 12).

We do not speak Italian and the villagers do not speak English, but, using gesture language and our translator from Magellan (highly recommended!) we did just fine. We bought few necessary clothes and items, swimwear (I remember now these words forever: costumo di bagno!). The storekeepers went out of the way to serve us. Then we were greeted warmly in the food store where we got fresh bread, vegetables and all necessary food. Whatever we could not decide, they gave us to sample. We returned back to the apartment and had dinner with wine at our patio. Afterwards, we strolled a little, read and went to bed early.

Day 3, Tuscany, Castellina in Chianti. Sunday.

I’ve called LH and they said that our luggage will be delivered on Monday since Sunday was day off.

We drove to Siena – 20 miles away. Spent a day there. We need to buy new guides including map of Siena. It is a beautiful medieval town with cathedral and the main Piazza de Campo where they were preparing for annual Di Palio medieval parade. We climbed 900 steps on the tower and took views of the town, strolled medieval streets. We went to the Cathedral (very impressive), had a lunch in a small trattoria and returned back to Castellina in the afternoon. We spent some time by the pool and met other guests. There were only two well-traveled American women, other guests were Italian, British and German. Everywhere was relaxed atmosphere, peace and quiet. We had dinner in a local ristorante, which was pretty good. I liked crostini. George did not like unsalted tuscan bread. I wish we understood menu better, but we managed. We had Brunello de Montalcino 1997, the best Chianti vintage. I should say that by that time Mike became addicted to gelato and they had few gelaterias in Castellina with about 50 flavors, all of them were very good and some very interesting flavor combinations. We loved them too.

Day 4. Tuscany, Castellina in Chianti. Monday.

Following Tony and Mira’s driving directions, we took a drive though Chianti Mountains, and some roads were pretty scary and narrow. We visited Ponsano, Radda in Chianti, even a small estate Vignamaggio where Mona Lisa was born and lived in her childhood. It is now boutique small hotel and a winery. We took obligatory picture. With every turn, a different view opened, very beautiful. We stopped for lunch in a recommended restaurant in Radda and had a lunch there. It was not better then in Castellina, but turned out to be very expensive for three. After that we returned to Collelungo and were greeted with thumbs up from owners that our luggage arrived. By that time we figured out that one can live with few less clothes (and more money!)

We returned to the village, rested and had dinner later on in a village in a Pizzeria. Pizza was not that impressive how I remember it in Rome years ago.

Day 5.  Tuscany, Castellina in Chianti. Tuesday.

I admit we relaxed in Tuscany too much since my suggestion to drive and tour nearby San Gimignano (“Manhattan” of Tuscany) was not greeted enthusiastically. Mike said he has seen it in the guide and can explain on return what it is as he’s seen it. I gave up and the last day in Tuscany was spent by the pool, we did few drives, walked on the 200 acres of Collelungo, drank more wine, had lunch and dinner and very much enjoyed this day after all.

Day 6. Florence. Wednesday.

We’ve checked out from Collelungo and drove to Florence. Few tips for driving in the country. Remember that most of the Italy is on lunch from 1pm to about 3:30pm. So if you are running low on gas, I suggest fill it up in advance and do not wait until last minute. We were also looking for full service stations since we did not want to spend time figuring out how to use filling pump, especially those suspicious machines which could eat our credit cards. The same is with snacks/restaurants. There are few roadside well stocked stores on the road, but most of the stores including food in the villages are closed midday. Not the case for big cities, though. We drove to Florence, negotiated crowded, narrow streets, finally found Europcar station and got rid of it. We said we do not want to drive in the center to our hotel and they called us a taxi. In Florence, we stayed at hotel Pendini. It is small, family owned (two brothers) pension with very friendly owners, great service and a very good breakfast. We finally got American-style coffee (larger cups!), great croissants and fresh rolls. We had a family suite – 1 large room, 1 smaller room, a hallway, 2 TV’s, and one bathroom. Tall ceilings, large, tall European windows. The hotel located in the very center of the city: at the corner of Piazza de Republica. It is air/conditioned – a big plus in a crowded, hot Florence. We felt a difference after cool Chianti Mountains The only thing I did not like was a bathroom where the shower has only curtain, so after shower everything around it becomes wet, even toilet paper. It was a very strange design. And we took a lot’s of showers there!

As I said, two days in Florence were planned with museums in mind. Since we had Mike with us, we needed a guided tour and I’ve arranged for a private guide. I could not get the same person for two days, so I’ve found two. One was Simone Gaddini, a native Florentine who now married American woman. He lives half a year in California and the rest in Florence. He showed us “his Florence”, we walked with him for few hours, very interesting and different. After that he introduced us to his partner, another Simone – docent in Ufizzi.

A tip: the museum tickets were arranged for us before through our hotel (at no charge), so we did not have to stay in line to Ufizzi and Accademia. I saw people standing in line hours. However, after 6pm there were no lines and at least in summer, Ufizzi was open until 9pm, so you can just walk-in. Another alternative is to pre-arrange your ticket through hotel (not everybody provides this service, though) or hire a guide.

“Second”2 Simone had a tough task: to give Mike a tour so a tired 12-year old American kid will relate to art. Both of them handled it very well, although when Mike climbed towards the open window in the hallway, Simone was concerned that the kid is going to commit suicide J . We really enjoyed these two tours, but were very tired and after that had light dinner in unpretentious touristy café (you can tell it from seeing mostly American families), strolled Ponte Vecchio, and went back to hotel.

Day 7. Florence. Thursday.

In the morning, we’ve met another guide, Alison, who did a short family tour with us “Michelangelo and Donatello in search of David”. It was a short tour, and Michael handled it very well. It was hard to believe but he said at the breakfast that he can’t wait to see “real” David. We went to Bargello museum and then to Accademia. I actually liked more “other” David in bronze, but Michelangelo’s is very impressive, of course. We bought some David’s souvenirs, then had lunch in a “Painter’s café”, I think it is called, Alison recommended. This café is about few hundreds years old and in old days Michelangelo used to come there. The location was appropriate and the food was very good. We went to Duomo, walked afterwards a lot, got back to hotel, rested and had dinner next to the hotel, outside on Piazza Republica, touristy food, but well prepared.

Day 8. Venice. Friday.

We left for Venice for last two days on the train. The trip was easy, 3.5 hours, very comfortable train. Arrival to Venice always a quite a sight – either you are coming by plane or by train. It looks like you are at the theater – the whole city is unreal. It looks like decorations in the theater. Since we did not have a lot’s of luggage, we took regular vaporetti route to Piazza St. Marco. Since we splurged on previous 2 hotels, the last hotel was more or less budget – one triple room, hotel San Gallo on Piazza San Gallo. The hotel is on the second floor. The minuses were that the room was very small but somehow fit one double bed and one rollaway. Another minus was much worse – the window was facing very narrow alley, so narrow that it was closed. No any view, not even another building view! That was a disappointment. Breakfast was so-so, on the roof top terrace. Pluses: the hotel is about 50 meters from Piazza San Marco. That enabled us stay late at night and watch classical concerts at cafes, going back for showers, sneaking out in the early morning out when Mike was asleep. Another pluses – a very good, large, renovated bathroom (I think it was 2/3 of the room, very strange), and a/c. Much needed in hot Florence. We strolled the city, visited Jewish Ghetto where we bought very interesting Judaica venetian glass. We had a dinner at Harry’s Bar and the dinner was excellent. Venice was not very crowded, probably due to lack of cruise ships (most ships changed their itinerary because Adriatic coast was declared a combat zone during the war with Serbia). Piazza San Marco is very beautiful (Napoleon called it the most beautiful drawing room in Europe) and in the evening you can sit at café’s and listen to classical music while sipping the wine or eating dessert.

Day 9. Venice. Saturday.

Last day in Venice and our trip. We sneaked out in the morning to see Venice waking up. We were almost alone at St. Marco Square, took pictures, watched delivery boats unloading their goods, returned to hotel to wake up Mike and have breakfast. After that, we went for a boat ride to the lagoon islands. We visited Burano, and Murano decided skip Torcello because of the long ride. Lace at Burano, cute little village, colored houses, Murano – obligatory glass – just took a look. Back to Venice, later on we did our glass souvenirs shopping and took a water taxi ride for 40 minutes. I believe it was about $80 or $90. It goes faster and more comfortable than gondola. Dinner was this evening in a small restaurant – sat by canal in Dorsoduro. Ate, watch gondolas. Don’t remember what we had, so it was unremarkable dinner, but gondolas were riding by, so it was very pleasant time spent. After that, we went again to St. Marco square, Mike fed pigeons, we listened to musicians again and went back to the hotel to bed.

Day 10. Sunday.

Took airboat taxi to the airport (leaves from St. Marco, about 1 hour ride, reservations needed). It was not crowded at all early in the morning. We took uneventful flight to Frankfurt where we connected to our JFK flight home and that was the end of our vacation. Just want to compliment Frankfurt airport. It is very well organized and it was a pleasure to spend 5 hours layover. It had many stores, well designed rest lounges and the great Bavarian food which one would not expect in the airport restaurants.

Michael’s trip report

Family Trip Report to Italy. June 99

I had a very exciting summer this year. I did a lots of things. Two days after school got out I went to Italy. We went all over. The first place we went to was a little town called Castellina in Chianti. It is very small and it is mostly in the mountains. We stayed in a medieval village which has been restored on the outside to look like it did originally about 700 years ago. Inside it was very luxurious. This place was called Colle Lungo. The apartments are located at a wine farm and they have over 200-300 acres with vineyards. They also have trails that go throughout the property so you can walk around the farm. They also had a pool there and pool sided they had all of these plants and fruit bushes and trees. We stayed there for about 3 days.

After Castellina we went to Florence – my favorite part of the trip. The reason why I liked Florence so much was because it was jammed packed with museum’s. We went to the Piazza and currently they have lots of art pieces by a Portuguese sculptor named Botero. We also took a tour of Florence with a private guide names Simone. He knows every single thing there is to know about Florence. He also from time to time gave me quizzes like how many city walls are surrounding Florence. Well now I know it. Currently there are nine. The reason why there are nine walls instead of just one is because when Florence was first created it was a small village and they didn’t know it would turn out to expand a lot. The Florentines needed protection from other villages that would try to attack them so what they did was they started to build large thick cement walls that would protect them from other villages attacking them. Over time Florence has become crowded and they needed to expand the city larger but the walls were in the way. They decided to hollow out the city walls and made houses inside of them. It was really fascinating seeing what the inside of the walls looked like. I enjoyed the tour a lot. Since I like art so much we switched tour guides at about 6:00 P.M and went to a museum. We went trough most of the exhibits and we were walking through the museum from 6:00 to 9:00 P.M I think the painting I liked the most in that museum was the Virgin Mary just because the artist used so much color and details in the picture. I loved going to the museum but then the next day we did the best thing throughout the whole vacation. We went to see the statue David. I think it was the coolest thing for my whole vacation. I also had a tour guide there and she told me lots of history about David. David is the symbol of Florentine people because he defeated the giant Goliath with his courage and wisdom. She told me that a long time ago David was made to be in front of Town Hall. That is the reason why Michaelangelo made it. Then once it was finished they put it in front of town hall. Once there was a riot and somebody threw a bench from the nearby building to the piazza and David’s arm was broken. The Florentines realized the statue was too good to leave it on the piazza. Also, they were afraid lots of pigeons would leave droppings on this wonderful masterpiece so they moved it to a museum. Finally the Statue was transported to the museum and they glued the arm back on with I think cement or some kind of sticky substance and it still stands there today. Our tour guide also told us that they used to just have the statue standing there on the podium but then one day a mentally disturbed person ran into the museum with a hammer and started hitting the foot of David. The toe flew off and still hasn’t been repaired. To make sure this didn’t happen again they made a border around the stand made of plexy glass so you can’t go right up to the statue. The Wall it approximently five feet away from the stand.

Finally after Florence we took a train to Venice. The train station was very unorganized because we were supposed to be on the seventh track but it got switched at the last minute to track 13. Once we got into Venice we went to the sidewalk right next to the street of Venice which is obviously water. A “vaporetti” (which is a large boat) came to pick us up. A vaporetti is also like public transpiration. The most similar thing in New York to this would probably be a Public bus. The ride was very very long but we finally made it to our stop. We didn’t know where to go so we left my dad on a sidewalk watching all of our luggage while me and my mom went to go look for the hotel. We had an awesome hotel which was a four star and it was right 50 feet away from the most exciting part of Venice, Piazza Saint Marco. There they had over 500 pigeons in the middle of the piazza being fed by tourists. What they tourists did was on the street they sold birdseed and people would hand feed the pigeons. At night they always had a band playing so we stayed until 1:00 A.M in the morning to watch the band. One very cool thing in the piazza was they had the first digital clock ever made. It changes every five minutes. Next to this they have a church which is the most fascinating one in all of Italy except for the chapel that Michaelangelo painted. This one had designs on the ceiling but all of them were made of mosaics. It was awesome. My favorite restaurant was probably Harry’s. Harry’s is a world renown restaurant where Hemingway ate.Tthey have the best food in Italy.

Well this was pretty much my summer. I really enjoyed it and I hope my next summer will be as good as this one.

If you have questions, feel free to Email, will be happy to  reply.

Disclaimer: this report presents just an opinion of individuals who’s been there…. Tastes Differ…

Copyrights Sophia’s Travel / Emco Travel, Inc.