La Bella Vita
La bella Italia just never gets old, that’s why we did a second trip to Italy this year! This time we were headed south, down the picturesque vineyard hills of Tuscany, round the rough island towns of Sicily and all the way east into the charming world of the traditional Apulian trulli. Our journey starts in Florence, Tuscany’s vibrant and beautiful capital that makes you fall in love from within – and above. While sipping your typical Italian espresso on a terrace in front of the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore is an absolute must, the real deal is the panoramic view from Piazzale Michelangelo for sunset. Here, you’ll not only be able to see all of Florence, but it’s also a really romantic spot at nightfall when the little lights pop up over Ponte Vecchio’s goldsmiths and jewel stands, live musicians start to play a soft tune and couples gather to have a kiss in the fresh air.
Our stop in Florence, however, is short because there’s still a lot to do on our list (approximately 4.000 km if you want to know which kind of roadtrip this is). With our rental car, we’re driving straight to Montepulciano, one of the many well-known medieval hill towns in the middle of Tuscany. Our tip for your stay is the Agriturismo Il Serraglio, a little private getaway with their own small wine production. Don’t be shy to ask your host Alex for some suggestions regarding places to visit and restaurants – he knows what’s good. While you’re taking a stroll through Montepulciano’s cobbled streets, make a turn left and head to E Lucevan le Stelle winebar and bistro where you can taste one of the region’s special gems: Brunello di Monalciano from the winery NostraVita.
On your second day, you’ll be visiting Tuscany’s cute towns Montichiello, Pienza and San Quirico d’Orcia. While Montichiello is known for its serpentine road that makes for a great photo spot, Pienza is a nice place if you want to do some souvenir shopping and San Quirico d’Orcia has got some really tasty restaurants. Along the route, add a stop at the Madonna di Vitaleta Chapel, framed between two rows of cypresses, ask your boyfriend (or girlfriend, for that matter) to take some instagrammable photos of you. The last stop for the day are the free thermal springs of Bagni San Filipo. The natural pools have a high percentage of minerals and, with their high temperature, create a warm and fuzzy feeling for any tourist wanting to slip out of those nasty sneakers they’ve been wearing all day. If you want to be a little more private, just pass by the main calcium waterfalls and head to a pool further down the way.
Since going to Tuscany also means walking on Etruscan ground, you’ll not want to miss the vibes spread by the towns Sorano and Sovana. Both situated on a hill in the middle of an old forest, the panorama you’ll get while driving there is just amazing. The towns being rather small, after a quick trip you’ll already be able to Pitigliano, a more touristic city further into the province of Grossetto. The medieval center is especially charming because of its many narrow alleys full of plants and clotheslines but beware of those restaurants – you’ll still eat good Italian food, but the prices are definitely over the top. In any way, we recommend grabbing a Panino with ham and cheese somewhere in a local shop for lunch rather than spending lots of money on pasta (which is a primo piatto by the way, meaning it’s actually meant as a kind of starter and not a main dish).
Again, your day will end with a little natural spa: at the Cascate del Mulino di Saturnia, which are also thermal pools but this time more in the open so you can enjoy the last rays of sun. For dinner, just drive back the same road you took earlier in the morning and you’ll come across the Dopolavoro La Foce, a restaurant that credits itself with the feeling of eating at home without having to cook and does this image real justice. After a good homemade tiramisu, head straight to bed because your next day will be driving, driving and some more driving. Your destination is Naples, a big city often related to criminality and the Mafia but which offers a kind of charm you’ll not often find in Italy.
Try to find yourself a guarded parking garage and avoid leaving too much stuff in the car – after all, thieves and pickpockets are a rather common thing here. If you’re looking for some action, drive through the Spanish Quarter to the ‘Super Garage – Parcheggio Napoli’, you’ll thank us later. For your overnight stay you can choose someplace directly in the center, or in Salerno which is not far away and a little less busy than Naples. But before leaving the loud, chaotic and market filled streets of the big city, that is so much different from any town you’ve seen in Tuscany, get yourself a bite of traditional sweet Sicilian cannoli and rice-filled Arancini with ragout. No visiting the south of Italy without trying and getting addicted to those two tasties.
Next up the list is Sicily, and island off the Italian mainland that can be reached by ferry, going from Villa San Giovanni to Messina. If you’re headed to the capital Palermo, stay at the family-run bed and breakfast Al Piazza Marina Palace, a small place with no elevator but loads of Italian hospitality and charm. We’ll not cite the many tourist attractions you’ll want to visit except for the Teatro Massimo, Palermo’s opera and theater house that can be visited outside of show hours and makes you feel like you’re part of The Phantom of the Opera. After that, if you need a break from pasta and pizza, try out Nova Food Pairing, a tapas style restaurant with dishes that are a little different from the normal.
Once done visiting Sicily’s capital, drive all the way south to Caltagrione, a small town we almost missed but were so lucky to see. Mostly known for its Scalinata di Santa Maria del Monte staircase from 1606, decorated with hundreds of ceramic tiles, the UNESCO-town is vibrant with colors and probably one of our absolute favorites from this trip. Every corner has its own cute little ceramics shop and it’s actually hard to not buy something – need it or not. Personally, we immediately fell for one of the many handmade Christmas trees but there’s just something for every taste. Our tip for your stay: the La Piazzetta, hotel and restaurant.
While both facilities are not situated in the same building, it is absolutely worth walking the 200 meters to the host’s small food heaven. Pizza, pasta, meat, fish: anything you order is an explosion for your tastebuds and the fact that only locals and Italians dine here, speaks for the restaurants authenticity. Speaking of delicious food: while planning your day trip to Catania, Sicily’s second large city, save some time for a quick stop at the local fish market. here, you’ll find Italian carciofi, artichokes smoked in black coal and topped with parsley-garlic filling which will make you want to lick your fingers even hours after this snack.
Another tasty gem you’ll might want to check out is the Griglieria A’ Marinnuzza, a butcher slash restaurant where you can order your steak straight from the shop counter. But beware: if you ask the chef for the specialty of the house, don’t be shocked if he brings you a platter full of snails and what we Luxembourgers know as ‘Kuddelfleck’, a dish made of rumen. For the more faint-hearted, we recommend having a bite of the region’s typical fruit from cactuses growing all over the place, called fichi d’india. And after giving your belly all these new culinary experiences, why not choose one of Sicily’s many beaches to just chill and bronze in the sunshine. Licata Beach is a good one if you want to get a real glimpse of the island’s poverty ridden town life, or – and this one was our favorite – Marchesa di Cassibile Beach, located in the middle of a nature reserve in the region of Siracusa.
For your stay in the south of the island, Terrazza Mare Corallo in Marina di Ragusa is a nice place to spend the nights and mornings, as it has a sweet little terrace with sea view. From here, you’ll be able to visit Marzamemi, a very touristic yet beautiful coastal town with nice terraces and shops, as well as Noto, another UNESCO-town which has an impressive center with all kinds of baroque monuments and buildings, making it a real piece of art. Ask for a glass of Amara in one of the many bars here, the sweet yet strong liqueur with orange flavor is a must. If the sun is out and it gets too hot to stroll through the city streets, drive to Spiaggia di Calamosche, a white-sand beach also situated in a nature reserve. The bay surrounded by rocky headlands does not have any facilities but is definitely worth the visit.
Now, it’s time for the last part of your trip: Apulia. Home of the traditional trulli, which are basically white dry stone huts with a conical roof, this region in the southeast of Italy is not only a must for every tourist loving tiny and quirky villages, but also a true gem regarding coastlines and beaches. When choosing your trullo home for the next days – and yes, you really have to stay in one of the many mini-houses even if they are of course less luxurious than a real hotel –, be prepared to go through many reviews and photos because this choice is not an easy one to make. However, picking the places to visit is as simple as saying ‘Spaghetti’ (could have chosen ‘Gnocchi’ but we all know how some people just don’t want to pronounce that one right…).
Near to Cisternino, which is nice to visit and hosts Italian Santa Babbo Natale’s home at Terra Madre Antipasteria, there’s a really good restaurant again connected to a butcher shop, that we don’t want to keep from you: Gianfrate Carni Pregiate. But take a jacket, because butchers like it cold. Town-wise, there’s no way around Locorotondo, situated on a hill overlooking the famous Itria Valley, Alberobello, real home of the trulli, Polignano a Mare, the place to do your shopping, and Monopoli, a larger city nice for sunset walks. If you choose to turn the itinerary around and do Cisternino last, head over to Ristorante Mezzofanti and ignore the menu – just ask for a Spaghetti Carbonara with guanciale bacon, you’ll love it!
For your next days, pick between sandy beaches and turquoise water, or yet some other gorgeous cities, namely Lecce, the Florence of Apulia, and Ostuni, Italy’s version of Santorini. There’s actually not so much to say about the region’s towns except that they are all kind of the same, but also very unique and each beautiful in their own way. One last restaurant that we’d like to add to the list is Ristó il Grappolo, again in Cisternino but a little outside of town. The food is delicious and the waiters are sweet, what more can we say? This is also the last stop before our journey leads back to Florence, maybe with a one-night-stay in Rome (Hotel Villa San Lorenzo Maria is a true gem there, with parking!) on the way. Before heading north, though, don’t forget to taste as many local olive oils and red wines as you can and get yourself the best ones to enjoy back home. After all, the tastes of Italy are one of a kind and thank God they can be rejoiced anywhere, even in Luxembourg!