[So uhh…Disclaimer. This post is long. Like makes previous posts that I’ve had a disclaimer on look short. It’s just shy of 20,000 words. A professional typist typing at 80 wpm would take 4 hours just to retype this post. I don’t blame anyone if you don’t want to read through it entirely. You can search the area/town you might be interested in or skip down to the concluding thoughts where I give more opinions/advice based on our experience. The day by day portion is more of a travel journal. Also, Alyce has a talent for saying more than I do in much fewer words, so you can read her posts too. Good luck.]
Italy…Finally. This one had been on both of our wish lists for a while.
Me – I’ve always been fascinated with Roman history. The Romans were an incredible society and were more advanced than any other that would show up for quite some time. My engineering side has always been impressed by what they were able to accomplish 2000 years ago. My law side is similarly impressed with Rome. The Louisiana Civil Code that we use today is a direct descendant from Roman law – one of the few things I took from the Legal Traditions class we had to take at LSU. It equally influenced just about all of the Western legal systems.
Alyce – She has a strong Italian heritage on her mom’s side. Her Nonna (the Italian word for grandmother) cooked all sorts of delicious Italian meals, many of which I was fortunate enough to get eat too. Pasta, Pizza, Italian meats and cheeses are many of her favorite foods. She loves the history too, just as I enjoy the food, markets, etc. as well.
As is usually the case, Alyce had to rein me in on the planning/scope of the trip. I wanted 3 weeks. Alyce shut that down being as we had never even traveled with James when she was submitting her vacation request. Also, she had only been at her new job a couple weeks when vacation requests were due. Going right for a 3 weeker would have been a little bold. In fact, she just submitted her vacation requests for 2016, and the same situation played out. I wanted three weeks; she settled at two. I’ll get the three weeker in 2017… [Editors note: Since writing this, we have changed our 2016 fall vacation to 3 weeks. Persistence pays off.]
Two weeks sounds like a lot – and it is for US vacations – but it really isn’t that long to see a country. You lose one night to travel, so you’re down to 13 nights before you even get started. Plus, we had a 15 month old with us. We don’t quite see/do as much as we used to…
Speaking of which, I planned about half of what I usually would (in terms of meals/activities/wine/etc.), and we still ended up skipping half of what we had planned. And that is fine and somewhat expected. No one wins if we wake up a baby and have him scream through a lunch because we wanted to go to a particular place. That’s not enjoyable for us or the others around us.
Similarly, I probably planned our stops a little differently in the past. I definitely would have stopped a lot more along the way during our transits. We drove right through the heart of the Chianti wine region and didn’t stop at a single place. As it was, we stayed at 5 different spots over the 13 days…That’s moving when travelling with a one year old.
There was an open free for all in award space last year around December/January on US Airways flights. Usually these open award spaces are the result of a schedule change, new flight, merger, or something along those lines. Our dates were set. I found flights that we could fly into Rome and out of Venice in business class with a single stop in each direction. I booked 2 business class award seats and a lap infant.
With the arrival and departure cities set, the first planning decision was to focus Northern Italy. We probably would have done this regardless, but there was no debating with the flights set. After that, I knew Florence was a place we’d have to stop. The remaining options (within our time frame) were a stop in the Tuscan countryside, Cinque Terre, Barolo region, and the Lake Como area.
Of course one option would have been to just do Rome, Florence, and Venice…and call it a day. Even with a one year old, that is not my style the first time I visit some place new. I’m glad we didn’t do that.
Cinque Terre is a place I’ve wanted to go since I attempted to plan a Europe trip in college that never panned out. It is a beautiful seaside town. But logistically it just did not work out this trip. Having a car was just a deal breaker for heading there, and it would have been a one night stop. So Cinque Terre was out. I did – foolishly – think in planning that we could maybe stop at a nearby town to catch the train in to Cinque Terre, walk around for a while, and eat lunch on our transit from Tuscany to Piedmont. LOL. James was sleeping at that point of the drive, and it would have been a disaster anyway. I knew it wasn’t happening and never even mentioned the possibility to Alyce.
Lake Como looked like a beautiful, outdoorsy area that would have made a nice transit stop between Barolo and Venice. Again, I ultimately made the call to just power through it without a stop. The drive was only 3.5-4 hours. While I would have loved to have stopped in Como, it wasn’t happening this trip.
Tuscany and Piedmont were areas I both thought were definitely worth the stop. I love cities and just walking around them, but I’ve come to realize that we probably tend to prefer relaxing countryside locations – especially when there is wine involved. And the booze flowed freely in Tuscany and Piedmont.
Our stops were finalized; the duration of each location was all that was left to plan. Rome was 3 nights, especially considering it was our first stop. We were supposed to arrive very early in the day, giving us 3 full days there. Two days would have to do for Tuscany. Piedmont was a little out of the way, so I allocated 3 nights there to make it worth our while. Originally, I was going to do 2 nights in Florence and 3 nights in Venice. I ended up switching that around, which was the right call.
And we were set.
Planning meals/activities is a crapshoot with a one year old. One thing we had heard/read was that Italians are very friendly and welcoming to babies – including at restaurants. I have to agree with this sentiment. We saw babies out at almost every meal we went to. Not once did we get so much as a dirty glare when walking in with a baby. Same thing at the wineries we went to. Though I will say that I notified everywhere we were going that we’d have a baby when making reservations just to be sure. Everyone was fine with it.
On the timing, we intentionally took vacation in late September/early October. I think this is a great time to travel to Europe. The weather is generally nice – not overly hot, but not cold either. You also avoid the summer crowds since school is back in. It was still pretty crowded in the cities when we went; I can’t imagine what it’s like in the heart of summer. I’m not sure how much I would like it.
Communicating was too easy. It seemed English was spoken just about everywhere. All restaurants had English menus. In the event you actually need something translated, Google translate can fill in decently. We did have some occurrences of interacting with people that didn’t speak perfect English (usually in the countryside), but it makes you appreciate how hard they are trying to communicate with you, in your language, in their country.
Bottom line – English speaking tourists are spoiled. At one point in Pisa, I saw an Italian waiter asking a Chinese tourist to tell him what they wanted in English because English is the common language of tourism.
Still, I made sure to always ask “Inglese?” before just blurting out English. I think it’s rude to assume people speak English when you’re in another country – even if they do most of the time. I also still make the effort to learn other common phrases, despite the fact that Alyce will poke fun at me as I struggle to pronounce them.
Transportation was easy and reasonably priced in the cities. We used cabs, trains, and Uber without a problem. Everywhere else, we had a rental car. Driving was very easy. I wouldn’t recommend driving into bigger cities (we made that mistake once), but otherwise driving was not an issue – and was even enjoyable at times.
We had some Euros left over from previous trips, so we brought that with us. In Italy, we just got Cash out of ATMs with our Capital One 360 card. Capital One 360 has very minimal fees, so I had no problems using ATMs.
I will say that cash is definitely more commonly used in Italy. Plenty of places only take cash, and many others openly stated their preference for cash when the charge was not that significant. So I’d be sure to always have a decent bit of cash on hand.
I don’t recall coming across any scams the entire time we were in Italy…which is kind of surprising now that I think back on it. Though, there were tons of people trying to push selfie sticks and other stupid little trinkets on you everywhere you went in the cities. The stop in Pisa was the worst. I’ve never seen anything remotely close to as many hawkers (or whatever you want to call them) trying to sell you their garbage. Either way, they usually leave you alone if you just give them a firm no, so it’s not a big deal.
Italy, itself, is the old world. But, it is not an old country. True, the cities/regions have been around seemingly forever, but the single united country of Italy is not that old. Per Wikipedia, Italy finished it’s unification in as early as 1871 or as late as 1918 (post WWI) according to some scholars. For those of you keeping score at home, both of those dates are later than the American civil war.
Italy is currently home to over 60 million people. That puts it at the 23rd largest country in the world behind France (#20), Thailand (#21), and the UK (#22). Size-wise, it checks in at 116,000 square miles. For comparison purposes, that is roughly the same area as Arizona (or just over twice the size of Louisiana), yet Italy’s 60 million population is roughly the same as California and Texas combined.
The Italian people were very friendly – not that I can recall going somewhere yet where the people were outright unfriendly. Overall, we had a great time despite any of the challenges that come with international travel with a one year old. On to the daily recap:
The Flight Over
We had some unexpected traffic getting to the airport on a Saturday afternoon, but it was not an issue since we usually make sure to get to the airport early enough in case something like that happens. Check in was not a problem. We got our tickets and made our way to the gate.
We had both James’s stroller and the wearable carrier with us. We’d gate check the stroller and wear him on the plane. This worked fine. The only downside is that you have to wait outside the plane for the gate checked stroller after you land. I also put the stroller in this bag before gate checking it to keep it out of direct contact with whatever might be in the cargo hold.
The flight to Charlotte was uneventful and nothing special. I’d have to say my domestic first class flights were better on Delta and legacy American Airlines. In Charlotte, we made our way to the US Airways club. The LSU Auburn game was just starting, and I’d have time to watch at least a half.
James and Alyce played around the club, and I waited on them during commercial breaks. LSU dominated the first half making it easy to get on a plane before the game ended, and Leonard Fournette was on his way to the Heisman. My how things have changed as I write this months later….
At halftime, I loaded James in his stroller and took him for a walk to give Alyce a break. While walking, I strolled past our gate several times for the flight to Rome. I get back to the club right before the 2nd half kicks off and here “now boarding US Airways flight to Rome” over the loudspeaker.
I was definitely caught off guard. I checked my phone and the time didn’t change to Eastern time zone for some reason…plus I might have had my mind elsewhere for the LSU game. We gathered our things and hurried over to the gate.
US Airways has a policy that they must check your passport in separate line before you board for an international flight. They are the only airline that I have ever seen do this. Many will want you to quickly show it to them as you board, but US Airways is the only airline that will have 300 people check in to two attendants to get a stamp on their boarding pass. To put it bluntly, it is a stupid and unnecessary policy.
So while we were never in danger of actually missing the flight, we had to wait at the end of that line for a while, then at the end of the boarding line for a while. I was ready for a drink by the time we finally got on.
Nonetheless, we had made it on the plane. We found our seats and toasted some sparkling wine. No stopping us now.
About 1:45 into the flight, James had just fallen asleep and we were getting ready to eat dinner. Things were going pretty smoothly – other than a flight attendant treating Alyce like she was an idiot when her in-flight entertainment system wasn’t working.
Then the captain came on.
One side of the rear section of the airplane’s AC system was not working. We were turning around and going to Philadelphia. Not good. My thoughts were that *if* they could actually find another plane, we were facing a significant delay. Actually, my first thought was: we’ve flown almost 2 hours and have another hour to Philly…That’s just about half the length of the whole flight. Why don’t you just turn up the one side a degree or two, hand out some blankets and power through it?
There could a union rule preventing that, or maybe it was worse in that section than I imagined…but I think we should have just kept going.
As we’re getting ready to land, we wake James up and he is screaming. Getting off the plane, I find a gate worker and ask if I should get my gate checked stroller now or if it gets transferred to the next plan automatically. He simply said “is this your final destination?” I assumed he must have misunderstood me and said “no not our checked baggage, but a gate checked stroller.” He simply replied “is this your final destination.”
I’m generally a very even-keeled individual. I don’t get worked up very easily. Well, I was now standing in Philadelphia late at night with our one year old and no end in sight. And this guy was being a complete asshole—there is no other way to describe it.
You see, the whole point of gate checking is that your baggage does not go to your final destination; you get it as soon as you get off the plane. All airline employees working gates now this. Further, seeing as this was an emergency landing on a flight heading to Rome, he 100% aware that this was not my final destination.
So when he asked me the third time if this was my final destination, I knew he was just being an asshole. So I called him out on it.
He eventually gave in and said they’ll move it to the next plane, which was all I needed to hear. After researching once we got back, we should have had the option to either get it then or have it moved. We made our way out to the concourse, during which I may have loudly explained to Alyce how the guy was such an asshole and stupid for not even understanding airline rules…or basic logic. I’m sure he heard most of it. Probably a bad decision on my part in hindsight, but he definitely deserved it.
After waiting around the concourse for an hour, they finally make an announcement – the plane’s AC can’t be fixed but they have found another slightly smaller plane and need volunteers to wait until tomorrow for a flight. Being that the offer started around $1000 with a hotel room, they got all the volunteers needed. Not too much later, I hear our name called over the loudspeaker. I immediately ran up to see what was going on.
We were getting bumped from our business class seats.
I put up every argument I could muster, but it was no use. Our options were to fly economy or not fly. At that point, they couldn’t even tell us if we’d have two seats together. I was, again, pretty unhappy. Eventually, I found the head honcho of the area. He was able to at least tell me that it was likely they would be able to get us a pair of seats together. With that assurance, we really had no option but to just go ahead and fly with James on our lap.
It was unpleasant, and certainly not what I would have booked if we were flying economy…I would have gotten James his own seat and probably flown on a plane with economy plus. But we managed—as plenty of people do all the time. This is part of air travel, and it is the first time in all our travels we’ve had a major problem like this. So, I can’t complain too much. But did it have to happen on our first international flight with our one year old?
Neither one of us got any sleep on the flight. James drifted in and out of sleep constantly. He would startle, but he never just lost it and started bawling.
We were also surrounded by 6 other people that had been downgraded. They were pretty weird and were coming up with all sorts of conspiracy theories as to how they chose who to downgrade. At first, they thought they had the answer with age discrimination. Then they realized we didn’t actually fit that bill. They were sure they had the right answer when they figured that couples were downgraded because it was easier to downgrade in pairs. Right…
Fare class was the answer we’re looking for. We were on miles; they had all booked through a travel agent package with a deep discount fare class. No conspiracy needed.
We finally landed in Rome around 3:00 in the afternoon. The delay ended up being around 5.5 hours. Not a huge deal because we did not have a connecting flight and were scheduled to arrive in the morning, but I still would have rather spent that time in Rome than in a Philly concourse or on a plane. Oh well…We made it! We survived a flight to Italy with a wild 15 month old, including a 5.5 hour delay. Flying from now on is all downhill from here.
Immigration, customs, and retrieving our luggage were very easy. The whole process took no time and we weren’t missing anything. Time to start the trip.
Rome..The heart of arguably the greatest civilization of all time. Over 2000 years ago, the city had access to running water and sewerage. Think about that for a second. Water.org says that over 600,000,000 people today do not have access to clean running water, and 2.4 billion people do not have access to sewer systems. That’s not to say that everyone in ancient Rome had access to those things, but the fact that many did is amazing.
Rome also had unbelievable structures for the time, along with advanced political and legal systems. The Roman army was also one of the most feared throughout time. And Rome eventually became home to the house of the Catholic Pope. Between the Roman Empire and the Pope, you have the two biggest influences in Western history within walking distance of one another.
Today, Rome is known for its food and history, and that’s a big reason why we’re going. Overall, the city is very walkable. I walked to just about every major tourist area from our apartment. In fact, the only time we took a cab was when we were heading to the train station. Rome is in the Lazio Region and is Italy’s largest city by population with just over 4 million people in the metropolitan area.
Back to our day of travel…So we had landed an made it through security. My phone was already working. I had bought an Italian SIM card and had it delivered to our house in the US. I followed the directions to get it activated, and it was working fine when we landed. Sidebar – both Alyce and I used google voice while we were travelling. That works great for us because we can call and be called over internet/wifi on a US number.
I had pre-booked a transfer with Rome-Chauffers to our apartment. They had a car seat installed for the ride, and the charge was reasonable (I think it was 65 euro with the carseat, tax and tip included). We met at the prearranged meeting spot (they had our flight number and knew of the delay) and were quickly on our way.
The driver spoke good English and was very friendly. He offered us tips for Rome and the rest of the trip, and he could also tell that we were absolutely beat. He was able to pull up directly outside the door to our apartment, but our host was not there yet. He offered to call her for us and did. She strolled up about 10 minutes later and let us in.
The apartment was nice enough and in a good location. I picked it because it had a lot of kids stuff, which I thought would be nice for our first stop – and it was. It was also big with long hallways and an upstairs room…which wasn’t so much of a problem when booking the place, but now all James wanted to do was climb up the stairs. So while the place was kid friendly, it maybe wasn’t the best for very young children.
We took some pictures of the place and just sat for a second before remembering we were pretty hungry and better eat something before crashing (plus, it was too early to go to sleep). I had planned on eating at a place called Enoteca Cul de Sac our first night, and it was open even though it was quite not dinner time.
We enjoyed our stroll through Rome on the way over and had no problem getting a booth when we walked up. Unfortunately, this would be the first of many aborted plans – James was not having a sit down meal right now. And I didn’t really blame him. We decided to cut our losses and just pick up some pizza on the way back. We found a place that had pizza to go and then stopped at the store right down our street from our apartment for the essentials – milk for James, wine for mom and dad.
We all enjoyed the pizza and had managed to stay up long enough so that we shouldn’t get bad jet lag, but it was now time to get some rest.
We slept well, and none of us really got any jet lag – even James. In fact we slept in a little more than we probably should have because we actually had to rush a little bit to make our Colosseum and Roman Forum tour.
A quick word on tours…I’m usually not a huge tour guy, but I don’t have anything against them. Alyce had wanted to do more tours, and tours were good idea at several of the places we wanted to go because you can skip the line at the big sites – including the Colosseum. All of that said, tours with a one year old…not such a good idea. I’m sure some of them would do fine, but it wasn’t really James’s thing. He was (and still is) in a very independent stage. He wanted to get out and explore on his own.
We walked over to the meeting spot for the tour with James on my back in the carrier thing. Strollers aren’t really an option at the Colosseum. He actually did better on this tour than most of the others and made it through most of the Colosseum tour in the wearable thing.
The tour itself was nice (we used Walks of Italy). You definitely get more information than you would if you were on your own, and you get to skip the lines. We lasted through all of the Colosseum and most of the tour of the Roman forum, but had to call it quits with about 20 minutes left in the tour because James was just not into it anymore.
We hung out in the forum for a little bit than made our way back to Enoteca Cul de Sac for try number 2 – this time lunch. And it was a success! The food was very good and reasonably priced. It was also a preview of our dining for the rest of the trip with James, which can be summed up by hectic and all over the place.
On our way back to the apartment we stopped and got our first of many gelato treats at Gelato San Crispino. Alyce and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but James was just not into the gelato…yet. He’d soon wise up.
Back at the apartment, Alyce and James both took naps. I decided to walk around with my free time, and I covered some ground. I walked along the river to the Spanish steps, passed by the Trevi Fountain (which was under construction), and then made my way back through the city center. Everyone was up when I got back, and all that was left for the day was our dinner reservation at Roscioli.
Roscioli was probably one of the nicer restaurants we were going to on the trip – not that it was over the top nice/Michelin star type place, but it was definitely a step above a casual eatery. So I was a little nervous with James, but we really wanted to go because I had heard the food was very good. And it was. James also had what might have been his best behaved meal of the trip, which his dad much appreciated. Overall, we had a great dinner for several reasons.
After dinner, we were stuffed and called it a night.
We had scheduled a Vatican tour first thing in the morning for many of the same reasons we had scheduled the Colosseum tour – line skipping and seeing as much as possible within a short period of time.
But we were having doubts that morning. First of all, Alyce was convinced James was coming down with something and wanted to take him to the doctor. I thought it was a little premature, but that wasn’t a battle I was going to win. Also, we were hesitant to do the Vatican tour after hearing about how crowded it was the day before. So we made the call to cancel the Vatican tour. We didn’t get a refund, but we do have a credit in case we make it back to Italy anytime soon.
I looked up English speaking pediatricians on the internet and found one close by. Alyce called and made an appointment for later in the day. In the meantime, we had some spare time before our doctor appointment, so we decided to go ahead and just walk to the Vatican and see the outside.
On the way over, we passed through the Campo de Fiori market and picked some fruit and coffee. It was a nice change of pace, and Alyce loves a good market.
The Vatican was another 15 minutes or so farther past the market. It was very crowded with a long line of people waiting to get in…and this was on a Tuesday in the fall. I don’t want to know what it’s like in the heart of summer.
There was a lot of people outside trying to sell you stuff and get you to do their tour, but they’ll leave you alone if you get the point across that you’re not interested. We ambled around for a little while and checked yet another country off our list. Fun fact for anyone who might not know – the Vatican is not a part of Italy, it is its own country.
On our way back to the apartment, we passed through Piazza Navona and got some more gelato at Grom. This time, James had figured out that this gelato stuff was pretty good, and he was into it.
James had slept for a good hour and a half when we were walking around earlier, so we skipped the nap today. Plus, it was time to head to the doctor.
We made it to the doctor just on time (after a trek up a hill). They checked us in, and we went back to see the doctor after 15 minutes. The doctor took all of James’s measurements/history/etc. herself. She spoke good English and was very helpful. He looked fine to her, and she said that the symptoms were likely just from teething and vaccinations he had gotten the previous week. Either way, I was glad we went and saw the doctor because it eased Alyce’s mind. She would have been driving herself crazy if we didn’t go.
That afternoon, we just wanted to go walk over and see the Pantheon. It was crowded, but not too bad on the inside. Also it did not take as long to get in as you would have thought when looking at the line to get in…It really didn’t take any time at all.
The Pantheon is an ancient temple and is still today the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome (the engineer in me has to point out that this will not change because unreinforced concrete will generally never be used in any structurally meaningful way anymore). Nonetheless, it is extremely impressive and is still in fantastic shape. It was really neat to stand in there and think of all the things it has been used for over the last 2000 years. It is definitely a place to see if you make it Rome.
We walked back to the apartment and spent a little time there before heading out for a casual flatbread/pizza dinner at Il Forno in Campo de Fiori. The pizza was good, but was nothing like what we typically consider to be. This was more of a literal flatbread with a little sauce or cheese on it. We enjoyed it, and we enjoyed just eating in the square where James could run around.
After finishing the flatbreads, we got gelato yet again at Grom – though at a different location than we ate at earlier.
We made it back to the apartment and started packing. James went to sleep, but he started fussing, which is unusual for him. Eventually he settled down, but it was odd. Later, we found out that he didn’t have any toys in his crib, so we started putting his fake computer in there with him. That did the trick.
I snuck out to take some pictures before heading to bed and got some OK ones. I got home a little later than I probably should have, but we were not in a huge rush the next morning.
One stop down. On to Florence tomorrow.
While Florence (or Firenze in Italian) is generally not quite as historically well known as Rome, it is a very important city in the development of modern Western Civilization. Florence originated under the Roman empire, but it really became a prominent city in the middle ages for its position in leading the Renaissance.
Florence played a major role in leading civilization out of the post-Roman “dark ages” and is home to many well known scientist and artists. Leonardo da Vinci was a true genius in art and science and is from Florence. Galileo is a personal favorite of mine; he had numerous scientific achievements but is best well known for championing that the sun (and not earth) was the center of the solar system – despite the fact that he was tried by the Catholic inquisition and was forced to recant that fact under threat of death from the church. Amerigo Vespucci is our county’s namesake, and the Medici family’s stories could (and do) fill books. There are many other prominent figures from Florence, and I could go on forever…
Florence is located in the region of Tuscany and is probably best known for its tourism, food, and wine now. It has always been a tourist draw but is becoming more so with every passing year. Our apartment hosts said that 2015 had nearly twice as many visitors as 2014. Roughly 1.5 million people live in the Florence metropolitan area today, making it a medium sized city and not one of the five largest metropolitan areas in Italy.
The streets are closed in Central Florence to everyone except for cabs and residents/commercial drivers who have passes. It is definitely nicer than Rome, where it felt like you could be run over by a car anywhere at anytime. But don’t get the wrong impression…The streets of Florence were still very crowded and hectic – just now it was with bikes, walkers, and the occasional car.
Despite the fact that our train to Florence was not until 1:30 in the afternoon, we still had to get up early and get a move on it. We had to be out of the apartment by 10:00 a.m., and they meant it. The maid was waiting to get in at 9:50. That is definitely one down side compared to hotels.
Fortunately, we could leave our luggage in the room while we killed some time. We went back to Campo de Fiori for some more coffee and fruit, then walked back through Piazza Navona one more time and watched the fountains for a little while.
We got back to the apartment around noon and had our bags sent down on the lift. I tried Uber for the first time abroad to get us to the train station, and it was great. I selected a van to make sure we could fit all of our stuff. The driver was very friendly, and it was really quite a deal at just over 10 euros for the ride. Plus, I love all the other things about Uber that you don’t get with traditional cabs (pay with credit card, fare estimates, ability to see where your car is while you’re waiting, and so on). I’m a fan.
We got to the train station with time to spare, but they don’t put your trains arrival/departure gate on the board until 20 minutes or so before it leaves. I walked James around in the stroller to keep him happy and give his mom a break. Despite having plenty of time at the station, the departure sneaks up on you when you only have 20 minutes or so to collect your belongings go up and down stairs (there probably was an elevator somewhere, but we didn’t see it) and load yourselves on a train. Again, lugging around a 1 year old and his stuff adds an extra complication to most things.
But we made it on without any problems. I had broken a decent sweat from serving the role of pack mule and running every bag up and down the stairs, but thing swent pretty smoothly otherwise. I had learned from our Japanese train incedent and booked reserved seats this go around. I also paid the extra 5 euros (or something like that…it was really cheap) for the upgraded class of seats. James sat on our laps for the ride and behaved very well for the ride, which took a little over an hour.
We planned to catch a cab from the train station to our apartment. It would have been about a 20 minute walk, but we weren’t going to try that with everything we had. Plus it was raining. I think there were other people who planned on walking but decided to take a cab because of the rain. At least that was my initial guess as to why there was an enormous line for the taxis when we arrived…
We ended up standing in line waiting for a taxi for over an hour. James was sleepy, Alyce was hungry, and it was a little chilly at that point. But everyone did their best to get through it. I was also constantly checking on my phone for Uber, but there was none to be found. We learned from our apartment hosts that cabs were striking (or something along those lines), and that combined with the rain resulted in the long lines.
After longer than expected, we made it to the apartment. The cab ride over was uneventful. We did ride directly past the Duomo, and I remember being very impressed by it. The colors on the outside made it one of the prettier churches we have seen.
Our hosts lived in the same building on a lower floor, so they met us and brought us up to the apartment – thankfully on an elevator, as we were on the 6th floor. The owners were extremely nice and helpful. The husband spoke English pretty well, and the wife only knew bits and pieces. They offered us plenty of suggestions and let us know that they were there to help at any time.
The apartment itself was probably half the size of our apartment in Rome, but it was still plenty big enough and probably worked much better for our situation. There were not stairs that James was constantly trying to climb. The size also made it easier to keep tabs on James without having to hover over him.
We unloaded some things and then headed out for a walk with the goal of ending up at San Mercato Market for dinner. We strolled through central Florence with James, and – even though it was still busy – the greatly reduced number of cars and motorcycles was a very welcome change from Rome. The Duomo was equally impressive on foot as when we passed by in the car earlier.
The San Mercato Market is like an upscale food court. There are many different selections of food to try and things were generally pretty reasonably priced. It kind of reminded me of the Oxbow Market in Napa.
We decided to go with pizza and gnocchi – both were good. Though, our favorite might have been the cannoli we had for dessert. They made it right in front of you on a cart. James enjoyed the cannoli too.
After finishing up, we walked back to the apartment. James was getting a little fussy by this point and was ready for bed. Somewhere along the way, he kicked off one of his shoes, which was gone for good at that point. We eventually made it back and called it a night.
Up early for our third (and final) tour. I wasn’t going to do this one at first, but Walks of Italy gave something like 20% off if you did three tours. That basically worked out to the tour being free after you consider the costs of entrances to the sights. Plus you get to skip lines. And this was the tour that I figured James would do the best in because he could just relax in his stroller, which James had loved to do. We would spend hours walking around with him in his stroller at home, and he was just as happy as could be.
Not in Italy.
The morning started off on a sour note because we slept in and did not have time to pick up coffee. That is not how Alyce likes to start her days – me neither. James…he was ready to get out of the stroller by the time we made it to the meeting spot for the tour. My headset for listening in to the tour guide was not working, so I didn’t get to hear much for the first hour. Overall, the tour guide was very good, and this probably would have been one of the more interesting tours we did…But we probably would have been better off just doing it at our own pace.
Anyway, we started off at Accademia, whose biggest attraction is the David statue. There is also tons of other art and sculptures in the Accademia; we thought it was a pretty neat place overall. The David statue is pretty amazing. It’s huge. You don’t realize how big it is until you see it. The detail is also incredibly impressive. The tour guide also pointed out lots of little interesting things that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
James at this time just wanted to get out and run around and explore on his own, but this wasn’t really the time or place for that.
After a little break, we made our way over to the Cathedral of Florence – also called the Duomo of Florence. We again got to skip the lines and pretty much walk straight in. At this point, I basically just walked circles with James in the stroller while trying to listen in to the tour guide. I figured if we made it through this, he’d be perfectly happy for the last part of the tour, which was just a walk through the city.
The cathedral was very impressive from the inside, as well as the outside. We’ve been to plenty of impressive churches, but this one is probably my favorite. It also highlighted Florence’s generally rebellious attitude on the inside with art that depicted things most churches probably wouldn’t approve of.
We made it through and were on to city streets portion. This was really interesting because our tour guide took us through some streets that were largely unchanged from medieval Florence. He explained how people lived then. It was just one of the many things I’ve read/heard that reinforces how good we have it now. Anytime you start feeling sorry for your self, read a little history and see how humans have lived for the vast majority of our existence…
James still wanted to get out and run around, and he did. We made it through most of the tour and ended up at the Ponte Vecchio. We thanked the tour guide and moved on.
My original plan at this point was to try to have lunch at Buca Mario, but we knew better than to even try that now. An audible was made to just pick up lunch at a spot right by our apartment that the owners had recommended – Antica Macelleria Falorni. They had a very good looking menu, but unfortunately only sandwiches could be done takeout. Still, we found a couple sandwiches and ate out on the patio – with some much needed wine.
After lunch, Alyce and James took a nap. I decided to go out and take a walk around. I passed by most of the major attractions we had seen earlier, but I also veered off to a spot the owners had recommended – San Miniato Abbey and Michelangelo Piazza. Both are located up on a hill outside the walls of Florence.
I really enjoyed the walk over (even though it is mostly uphill). It was much less crowded and you mostly saw locals walking around at this point. I aslo walked right through the walls of central Florence. I didn’t realize it until I turned backed to look, but it is just another interesting part of old world history that you get in Europe.
The walls, while mostly charming and historic now, were once used to keep out hordes who wanted to break into the city, kill the men, rape the women, and steal all your stuff before burning down whatever was left and taking any remaining people to sell as slaves. Dan Carlin does a great job describing what it was like to be under siege in his podcast on the Mongolian conquests. Sidebar: Hardcore History is well worth the listen to if you’re even remotely interested in history, and the Wrath of the Khans might be the best one to start with.
I made it to Michelangelo Piazza and the benefit of all that uphill walking was immediately obvious. The view looking back out over Florence was fantastic.
I then forged ahead even farther to San Miniato, which was an interesting 1000 year old church adjoining a monastery. It also had a great view. Overall, it was well worth the effort to get there. I guess you could also take a cab, but where’s the fun in that?
Alyce called me on my way home to pick up some pizza for James because he hadn’t really ate much all day. So I just grabbed some at a shop selling it in the window…It actually turned out to be pretty good.
Dinner reservations were at Ristorante Natalino, which was a 20 second walk from our apartment. We had a really good meal at the restaurant. They had a nice patio outside where we ate. We took turns going out with James and letting him run wild through Florence. This (one of us taking James outside, while the other sat inside) became a pretty common practice through the rest of the trip. But it worked out fine here because we were already outside. James also spent some time charming the other couples around us.
The food itself was very good. I originally chose this place because it was recommended by the apartment owners and because it was convenient, but I’m glad we ate there because it was all very good. And our server was extremely friendly and helpful with whatever problems James might cause.
We decided to finish up the evening with Gelato from a shop called Amalo in the same area. As is pretty much always the case, we all enjoyed it.
Finally a day with no real plans. We took it easy in the morning, and I ran down the street to get everyone some coffee. Coffee always helps to get the day started out right.
The first item on the agenda was to get James some new shoes to replace the pair he lost our first night in Florence. He had other shoes, but those were his only closed toe shoes. We found a shoe shop right down the street from our apartment and got James some new closed toe shoes, which made his mom very happy…at least at this point, she grew to not like the shoes because they came off very easily.
Other than that, we just planned to walk around before our lunch reservation at Sostanza, which we were both very excited to try. We passed by a lot of the major sites/squares – the Duomo (again), Piazza Della Signoria – which had more sculptures/sites, Piazza della Repubblica – which had the carousel James liked, the Uffizi, and Piazza de Santa Maria Novella – which actually had some green space…but you couldn’t go on it.
We also luckily stumbled upon a temporary market with art, crafts, tools, etc. It was all hand crafted by Italians, and none of it was junk. We walked around and looked at a lot of the stuff and made a note to pass back by later to get some souvenirs.
After all the walking around, it was time to head to Sostanza. I had read many good things about the restaurant, and we saw several crowds being turned away as we walked up because they were full. That is usually a good sign – especially at a place like this that you don’t end up at by accident. It was on a quiet street and not that easy to find there.
James had slept a little bit while we were walking around and had generally done pretty well most of the morning, so we were hopeful. But things changed as we were walking up the restaurant. He was getting cranky, and not even running around was helping much. He was just in one of those moods where no one (including himself) knows what he wants. But we decided to give it a shot.
We walked in, and they sat us right away thanks to our reservations. James did not bite on any of our usual tactics to calm him – books, crayons, stickers, and our last resort – the I-Pad. Alyce tried taking him outside to let him run around, but she came back in a couple minutes later and made the call to abort lunch because it was just going to be miserable. We were both sad to have to skip, but it was definitely the right decision. I also didn’t feel bad for cancelling at the last minute because the restaurant was turning people away left and right. Anyway, it was a really neat spot and the menu looked absolutely delicious. Till the next time Sostanza…
We went straight back to the apartment. Alyce put James to sleep, and I was sent out to find some food. In the little square by our apartment (where Natalino was), a lady was running a small Italian pasta shop and had Italians sitting and eating, so I decided to give it a shot. She said they do takeaway, so I ordered lasagna and a couple different pastas. She gave me a glass of spumante while I waited and just watched the scene. The food was ready after roughly 20 minutes. I made one more stop on the way back the apartment for some much needed wine.
It ended up being very good, and James like it too after he woke up. We were very happy to have the large terrace and made use of it several times throughout our stay.
After lunch, I took a brief walk to see the San Ambrogio Market as a potential dinner option. It looked like it would have been good and more of a local experience, but it was closed. So I decided to head back to the San Mercato Market for dinner.
When James woke up, Alyce fed him some pasta and got him dressed to head back out. We thought he would like riding the carousel in Piazza della Repubblica, so we decided to give it a shot. He loved it. He also loved running around like a madman in the square.
After he had mostly worn himself out, we wanted to pick out some souvenirs. We found a toy shop and bought James a clock, which now hangs in his room. Alyce and I picked out what we wanted from the market. I got a handmade knife, and we got a very nice wooden pepper grinder.
At the Market, we got some meatballs and a large steak sampler. The guy thought it would be too much – it wasn’t. It might not have been how I had pictured eating my Florentine steak, but at least we got some. The meat hit the spot, and we followed it up with more cannoli.
That would not be our last dessert of the night. We stopped at Vivoli Gelateria to send Florence off properly, and we all enjoyed our gelato.
Back at the apartment, I helped Alyce get James ready for bed the headed out for some nighttime pictures.
When I got back, I worked on the plans for the next day (mostly refreshing myself on what was already planned) and packed up.
Tuscany (Sant’Angelo in Colle)
Tuscany is actually the region that contains Florence and several wine producing regions – most notably Chianti, Montalcino, and Montepulciano. Think of regions as kind of like states in the US, but each with a very long and diverse history.
The wine regions themselves can get kind of confusing because there is generally a town that the wine region is named after, but there are multiple towns within that wine region (or DOCG Region for the official Italian designation of the specific wine commune). For example, we stayed in the wine region of Montalcino in the town of Sant’Angelo in Colle. However, there is also a town of Montalcino, but Montalcino wine can be grown anywhere within the wine region and not just within the town. It was confusing to me at least when planning because I thought there was just a single town of Montalcino where Brunello di Montalcino wine was made.
Back to the wine regions – Chianti, Montalcino, and Montepulciano. All three are traditionally 100% Sangiovese grape (or mostly Sangiovese), but they are very different. Brunello di Montalcino is called such because it was thought to be a completely different grape (i.e. the “Brunello” grape), but it was eventually determined to be Sangiovese – though the name stuck. Like many European wines, they all pair well with food and can age. More recently some non-traditional Italian grapes (like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot) have been blended with the traditional grapes (or bottled on their own). These wines are commonly referred to as “Super Tuscans” and will not carry the Italian DOCG region name on them.
My thought in planning was to drive through the hills of Chianti on our way to Montalcino, instead of taking the quicker interstate route. Along the way, we could stop at 2 or 3 wineries for tastings (Castello di Verrazzano, Castello di Ama, and Felsina were the options in case anyone is interested). I had also planned to stop at Doc Dario for lunch, which is supposed to be a fantastic meat/cheese/butcher type place. We’d have a lovely day and show up right for check in time at our next stop.
In hindsight, I must have been going crazy when thinking that.
But really, you have to remember that the James when I was planning the trip was a very different James than the one that showed up on the trip. He was about 5-6 months old when I booked the flights, 10-11 months when I made a lot of the plans, and 15 months when we showed up. It might not sound like that much of a difference, but babies change so much during those times. And we were just thinking about the changes that would make it easier – e.g. no more bottles, drinking milk instead of formula, one nap a day, starting to be able to entertain himself, etc. We were not focusing on the changes that would bring additional complications – e.g. he’d be much more mobile, much more independent, much less likely to content with staying in any one place.
So let’s see how that day actually played out…
We were up, packed, and had our morning coffee by our departure time of 10:00 a.m. Our host called us a cab for 10:00 to bring us to the Avis. The cab was right on time, and it was a quick uneventful ride. Avis was nowhere near as smooth.
We were dropped off in the garage. I made sure Alyce and James were set while I ran to get our keys at the front entrance. People were out the door waiting with number in hand. I grabbed a ticket and scoped out the situation.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m signed up for Avis’s program and am Avis preferred. This means you get to skip the lines and go straight to your car. It actually usually works that way in the US. Italy (at least this location)…not so much.
There was an Avis preferred sticker on the wall in the general area of one of the check in points. That said, I gave it a 10% chance of actually working if I tried to go up and boast of my Avis Preferred status. On top of that, there was a 99% chance of a riot from everyone in line if it actually worked. Tensions were already high in there. So I waited for a little over an hour for my number to get called.
I was in and out in a manner of minutes and was wondering what the hell takes everyone else so long. Who knows…
So we got our car (an Audi station wagon), put the rented car seat in it, and loaded up our stuff – which just fit. The rear portion of the station wagon had a built in fixed cover that hid your stuff, but it also eliminated half of the space. Oh well – it worked.
Finally, we were on the road but about an hour and a half later than I had hoped. Maybe that delay set the day off on the wrong foot or maybe not. It definitely didn’t help anything.
Our first potential stop was just 30 minutes outside of Florence, and we really had no trouble getting out of the city – or driving at any point for that matter. Of course with the delay, we were getting squarely into James’s nap time. And…he fell asleep 20 minutes outside of Florence. So, we skipped the first winery. Maybe lunch will work out.
Nope. James was sound asleep. So we kept going. And we passed the next potential winery, and the one after that.
Now, Alyce was starting to get hungry, and we had just passed the last area I had on my radar. Uh oh. The city of Sienna was actually the last place I knew of to stop and had read good things about, so I gave the option to Alyce to stop or power through to our destination. She decided to stop, which I was happy with.
I updated the navigation to central Sienna while driving. My first mistake. I usually never go anywhere without plans – especially in a car. Well, it got us there, but we were having no luck finding a place to park. And before I knew it, we were on some extremely narrow streets. I was starting to get nervous that we’d never make it out – and this was a legit concern…I’m not a nervous person. I surveyed the map for a second and found a way out, but I had to go the wrong way down a quick street. I channeled my father, who is famous for these types of moves, and made it through. We actually saw a spot to park on our way out, but James was still asleep so we just kept going.
We were out, though without any lunch. Shortly after, James was awake – and pissed.
We passed by another potential spot or two to stop, but the executive decision was made to just go. So we did. The final 45 minutes was especially fun. I couldn’t tell who was fussing more from the backseat, but we eventually made it.
Thankfully, the place was just what we needed when we arrived. We were out in the country, there was green space, the property was beautiful and our apartment was just right. This was actually more of a rental complex, which is my favorite because it combines the best of hotels and vacation rentals – i.e. an apartment with lots of space for a reasonable price with the convenience of a central check in desk. Last but not least (and probably what we needed the most at this point), there was plenty of wine.
Back to where we were staying, it was a relatively new complex called Castel Brunello. There were probably 15-20 apartments overall. The rooms were well done and decently sized. The property was beautiful and had views looking out over a vineyard. There was also a pool, which I think was heated. A husband and wife team ran the place, and couldn’t have been friendlier.
Overall, we were extremely happy with the place. The town was great too. It is very small (a population of 200), but still had what you’d need and was where some very good restaurants were located.
After settling in and winding down for a little bit, we decided to head out for the essentials (milk and wine) before the local store closed. We walked through the quiet town on the way to the store and really enjoyed it.
In the store, there was only one other old Italian lady shopping in there, along with the old Italian lady who owned it. They chatted about something for 15 minutes then showered our little bello bambino with attention when they saw him in the backpack. We picked out our stuff and waited to check out. It was ridiculously cheap. Two decent bottles of wine, milk, cheese, and bananas were 16 euro. I don’t remember the name of the place, but there was also a wine bar. They asked if we were interested in a drink, but the timing didn’t really work out. Had it been just Alyce and I, we most likely would have taken them up on it.
We went back to the room and relaxed for a little bit and drank some wine. James ran around outside and was enjoying himself. All of this was just what the doctor ordered and eased any tensions left over from the morning.
We had dinner reservations at Il Pozzo, which was a 5-10 minute walk from our room. We loaded James up and made our way over. Dinner was very enjoyable, and we saw other little children in the restaurant. This was actually very common in the countryside. Another thing that became very common is that the house antipasto plate was probably our favorite thing. It is hard to go wrong with a house antipasto plate at a countryside Italian restaurant. Everything else was very good too. I’d definitely recommend this restaurant. And to top it all off, James was pretty well behaved and allowed us to eat a (relatively) calm meal.
After dinner, we just walked back to the room and called it an early night.
Another benefit of staying in a place like this is the included breakfast. It wasn’t over the top or anything, but just having a spot to wake up and go get some fruit and coffee to eat was nice. There were other options too, but they were mostly continental (breads/cereals), which we don’t eat much of. There was some meat and cheese that we ate.
Today was our first schedule winery visit. We only had one, but I had some options for walk ups if there was time/energy for them in the afternoon. At this point, I wasn’t really sure how the visit would go.
We had no trouble making it over to Uccelliera for 11:00. The first sign was a good one – we were greeted by a friendly German Shepard puppy when we pulled up. James is a big fan of dogs and cats, so this made him happy.
Uccelliera is a family owned and operated winery. The owner also does all of the wine making. His wife, Paola, was going to be giving us the tour today because she speaks better English than the winemaker (Andrea).
Paola saw us playing with the dog outside and came and greeted us. She took us up on the property, which was also where they lived, and explained the different vineyards. Occasionally, we would have trouble understanding because of the differences in accents, but we were extremely appreciative of her effort to speak our language at her home. Plus, we understood most things.
After learning about the vineyards, we made our way down to the winery to learn about their processes down there. It was about this time that we were joined by a 4-5 year old girl. Paola explained this was her daughter (I think her name was Anna-Lisa) and she loved to play with the kids whenever they came. In fact, she was taking an English class so she could better communicate with English speaking guests in the future.
Paola had also taken out some of her toys for James to play with, which was very nice and helpful. Anyway, Anna-Lisa and James played while we sampled wines from the different areas of the property out of the barrels. They were all good, but it was interesting to see how different they could be before being blended.
We then made our way to some tables to taste through a bottled lineup of wines and some olive oil they make. They were all delicious. Andrea (the winemaker) also popped his head in to say hi at this point, and we tried our best to communicate our enjoyment and thanks.
We were finishing things up and decided to get some wine shipped to us for some surprisingly not unreasonable shipping prices. We went back up by their patio, where some of their friends and family were arriving for a Sunday BBQ. We talked with them some, then said goodbye, and made our way out. Overall it was an excellent experience with good wine. They even sent us out with a gifted bottle of wine to drink on our trip!
We went back to the apartment and stopped briefly before heading to lunch at Il Leccio, which is also in Sant’Angelo in Colle. The meal was excellent here as well. Though I honestly don’t remember many specifics other than that we probably liked the antipasto plate the best, and we sat next to a table with 5-6 young kids from newborn to roughly 8 years old. It’s always comforting to not be the only people in a restaurant with a baby. James was also well behaved again.
After lunch, we all went back to the room to crash. I was running a fever, so I even took a rare nap too (and an Aleve). Something must have worked because I was feeling back up to par after the nap.
We decided to just walk through the actual town of Montalcino after the afternoon siesta. It was neat little town with lots of hills, and it was a decent bit bigger than where we were staying. There were also plenty of places in the town to walk in and taste/buy wine…and I mean plenty. If you were staying in the town, you could walk around trying wine all day long and not have to stop twice at the same place over several days.
After a large late lunch, we weren’t really that hungry and decided that just eating a large serving of gelato for dinner would be the best course of action. Why not…it’s vacation. I think the place we got the gelato from was called “why not” – good name. All of us enjoyed our gelato dinner then headed back to pack up before we got back on the road the next day.
Castiglione Falletto (in the Barolo DOCG Region of Piedmont)
Let’s locate ourselves here. Piedmont (or Piemonte in Italian) is the Region – the equivalent of Tuscany or Lazio. Castiglione Falletto is the town itself, which is located in the Italian DOCG region of Barolo. There is also the actual town of Barolo nearby.
Onto the wine…Barolos are largely considered by Italian wine enthusiast to be Italy’s greatest wine – and I won’t argue. You can find great wine elsewhere, but a fine Barolo is tough to beat. Barolos must be 100% Nebbiolo grape by law (at least if they want to be called Barolo). They make some other wines in the region that are good too and are actually great values (look for Barbera and Dolcetto at your wine shop). And actually, Barolos themselves can be a good value for the quality when compared to French wines or Napa wines. Though be careful, some Barolos/Vintages can be pretty harsh when young.
Castiglione Falleto itself was a nice little town with some good restaurants and shops. Like most things in the region, it mostly revolves around wine. It was a quiet town, but I felt like there was more going on here than Sant’Angelo in Colle. Still, Wikipedia says it has a total population of 643 people as of when I’m writing this. So, I’m not exactly talking about a busy metropolis. It’s still a nice quiet countryside town, and I think the fact that many wineries were harvesting gave it the feeling of being busier.
Day 1 – Alyce’s Birthday!
We wake up and say happy birthday to mom from the Tuscan countryside. Not a bad way to start your birthday. But it won’t be all roses today. We are facing the longest commute of the trip and are not looking forward to it after our Florence-Sant’Angelo in Colle commute. Alyce says that all she wants for her birthday is a pleasant drive to Pisa and on then on to Barolo.
We were up and at em pretty early and went for breakfast and coffee. Then we finished up packing and got on the road for about 10:00. I don’t think we actually had to leave that early this day, we just needed to get a move on it with the day of travelling ahead.
The itinerary was to drive to Pisa and stop to see the tower/grab some lunch. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing the tower, but it was a natural break point on the road – so we figured why not? After Pisa, I had mapped about 4 coastal towns we could stop at for a break if necessary depending on how things were going. Once we passed the last coastal town, we had a little over an hour left and were powering through at that point.
As I said, all Alyce wanted for her birthday was a cooperative day from James…And he delivered. James did about as well as I could have possibly hoped, making this day far more pleasant than out last commute despite being longer.
The drive to Pisa was about 2 hours, and James stayed awake and played with his mom the whole way. This was the best possible outcome because that meant we could hold him off on his nap until the afternoon. We found a spot to park in a pay lot and were immediately hounded by people trying to sell us selfie sticks and other crap. We finally got the point across that we weren’t interested and started walking towards the tower.
We made it to the tower, and – sure enough – it does lean. I’m glad we stopped to see it, but I certainly wouldn’t go too far out of my way to do so. Though, there were tons of people who did.
We held James up so he could pretend like he was holding it up. The resulting pictures clearly depict how serious we were taking it.
There is actually a little town in Pisa too – though it looked to be mostly pizza places and souvenir shops now. We found a place and grabbed a quick bite. It was good…it is pizza after all. But again, it was not something I’d go out of my way to find.
We walked back to the car and were back on the road for the roughly 3 hour drive remaining. James was worn out and fell asleep almost immediately. That was expected. What was unexpected was that he slept for nearly the entire drive. It was a birthday miracle!
He woke up just as we were entering the Barolo region and had some milk. We didn’t have any problem finding our hotel/vacation rental complex. We checked in, unloaded, then had a glass of wine on our small porch to celebrate our successful day.
We were staying at Le Torri hotel in Castiglione Falletto. Le Torri was a combination of hotel rooms and apartments with a central office and area where breakfast was served.
Our room was nice and had awesome views. We did not have a kitchen (which I did not realize when booking), but it really didn’t make much of a difference. Being that we were square in the middle of the town, there was not as much accessible green space as there was in Montalcino, but that wasn’t a problem.
While Alyce and James were getting settled, I ran over to the store in town for some milk and bananas for James. Then we had to decide what to eat for dinner since I hadn’t made reservations with not knowing how the day would transpire. We decided to just order from the restaurant downstairs, which was also called Le Torri but was run by different management.
We walked down and picked what we wanted off the menus. It didn’t take too long, and I was walking up with a giant tray of food. And they didn’t want me to pay. They kept saying that we could just settle up when we came back for our reservations in a couple nights. Easy enough, but not something you see too often around here.
The food was very good, and just eating in the room was a whole lot easier than trying to go somewhere for dinner. After putting James to bed, we celebrated Alyce’s birthday with one last glass of wine (courtesy of Uccelliera) and called it a night ourselves.
Time for more vineyard visits, which means more uncertainty in how James will take it….We got up and ate breakfast at the hotel. It was a nice spread, though mostly continental with some meats and cheeses like Castel Brunello. They had a high chair set up and waiting for James, which was really nice. We found some yogurt for him that he ate up.
Our morning tour was at GD Vajra. Vajra makes their own wine, and they also make the wine for a nearby farmer. That wine is called Luigi Baudana (I’ve also seen it called Baudana & Vajra.
We were greeted by a younger girl (I would guess mid 20s), who spoke excellent English. She was very friendly and extremely patient with James, who helped himself to explore wherever he wanted and when we’d run to grab she’d just say not to worry about. He ended up knocking over some box of cards at one point, but she was not concerned.
We started off with a tour of the winery and saw a lot of the classic Barolo winemaking practices. Wineries making in classic Barolo style use mostly botti (I’ve also seen it spelled botte) to barrel age their wines. The botti are gigantic barrels typically made of Slovenian oak. The size helps minimize the influence of the wood on the wine compared to traditional French barrels (which are called “barriques” in Italy) – for reference, a botti holds roughly 25 times more wine than a barrique. The Slovenian oak is also less influential on the wine than French oak. Barriques are used too, but typically more in a secondary fashion. And I’ll offer a wild prediction here…I think you’ll see some Botti showing up in California winemaking in the not too distant future.
The winery also had restored stained glass windows, which was really neat – even on this overcast day.
We made our way back to the winery and tasted through several of Vajra’s wines and a couple Baudanas as well. They were all very, very good. Overall we had a great experience. And they even sent us away with a gift of a bottle of Muscato d’Asti that we’d end up drinking in Venice.
I had made lunch reservations at Bovio in La Morra, but they didn’t open for another 45 minutes after we got there and James was starting to drift off. So, we made the decision to cancel lunch plans and eat something by the apartment after James woke up. I knew of a place that I was interested in trying anyway – Locanda del Centro.
Locanda del Centro was happy to accept us after James woke up. It wasn’t overly crowded on this midweek afternoon. We had a friendly waiter who played with James a little bit. The food was very good here too. Again, the antipasto plate stands out in my memory.
I had a little time between lunch and our afternoon plans, so I went out walking around the town while Alyce and James took it easy. Being a small town, there is not a ton to see, but there is beautiful scenery in every direction. There is also an ancient castle in the middle of town, but it is privately owned and closed to visitors.
James and Alyce even joined me after a little while.
We had afternoon reservations for an afternoon visit to Bartolo Mascarello. This one was difficult to book (no e-mail at all), so I had to send in a fax…and it worked. This wine is highly prized, with great vintages selling for $300 a bottle and up in the US. We don’t own any, but I had read they do a great tasting and figured it would be fun to try.
James had been on a really great run. He really didn’t have a major fallout since our ride from Florence to Tuscany. We’re about to hit reset on that clock.
Bartolo Mascarello is located in the actual town of Barolo. We arrived early so we could walk around the town for a little bit. We passed by a school and saw some kids being picked up by their parents. I guess even in beautiful wine country, you still have to go to school.
We arrived right on schedule for our tour, and there were two other couples already there that would be joining us on the tour. They were roughly around the same age as us and did not have any kids.
James was being his flirtiest and charming the ladies while we waited at the tasting table. I could see the wheels turning in their head thinking maybe they should have some kids. They would get a reality check in very short order.
The tour guide arrived about 20 minutes late because he was caught up with harvest related things. He apologized and started explaining to us all about the winery and its history. It was about at that point that James decided he was done with whatever we had for him to do with us. Alyce took him outside, and he was temporarily soothed.
After he finished explaining about the winery’s history, we made our way into the winery and learned about the wine making practices. We passed by Alyce and James in the courtyard, and she said to just go…she’d stay out here with James.
About midway through hearing about their traditional Barolo wine making practices, I heard faint screams. It wasn’t near loud enough to bother anyone else, but I noticed it and was starting to get anxious thinking about what was going on out there. We moved into the cellar, and I could hear James wailing outside as the tour guide was showing us the priceless collection of Mascarello Barolos dating back nearly a century.
Apparently he was trying to sweep, and the broom kept getting stuck. Naturally, his reaction is to scream like he is being tortured to death. I mean inconsolable wailing. Again, it was not loud enough to bother anyone else, but I wasn’t having fun knowing what was going on outside.
Our group went back up to the tasting room, and I went outside to offer to take my turn of watching James while Alyce went and tasted some wine. But she insisted that I go back and she was ok. Thanks for taking one for the team.
We tasted through a lineup of the wine and the tour guide brought Alyce a healthy pour of the main event – the Barolo. The wines were very good, but I don’t know that I’d pay $300 for them – or any wine for that matter. Luckily for us, the winery reserves a very small amount of wine to occasionally sell at the winery itself, and our guide offered each couple a bottle of the Barolo at its direct from the winery price – 50 euros. Score.
He also talked about wine pricing and why they keep their prices reasonable (they can’t control what sellers charge several steps removed from them). He says the Barolo region is very aware that wines can come and go out of fashion very quickly. In fact, there was a period where you could barely give away many Barolos, but they had a loyal customer base that kept them going through the downturns. Now, they want to remain loyal to that customer base by not raising the prices every year…and you never know when fortunes will reverse again and you’ll need that customer base to again be loyal to you.
I wish more Napa wineries would take heed of this approach. They seem to take the approach more along the wines of bumping prices every time they sell out and/or get a decent score. I’m as much of a free market guy as you’ll find, but there is more to the equation than maximizing profit in anyone year. I think some Napa wineries have already priced themselves out of many former customers’ hands, but they can’t backtrack on pricing because that is the ultimate red flag in Napa. Secondary/resale pricing is bearing this out right now, and secondary market prices should be higher because there is a much smaller supply and the buyers are the people who really want the wine…Anyway, how did I end up on such a tangent. Back to Italy.
So we survived James’s falling out. Alyce had the harder part of it, but I wasn’t exactly kicking back and relaxing either. After it was all done, we walked back to the car and headed back to our apartment.
Dinner plans were at Restaurant L’Argaj in Castiglione Falletto. This was actually a newer restaurant that was opened up by the former chef at Locanda del Centro (where we ate lunch). We took the 10 minute walk to the restaurant and showed up right as they were opening at 7:00.
We were welcomed in and again had a very friendly waiter who did not mind James (or his mess) at all. We were trying to pick up something James threw on the floor at one point, and he came up and told us not to that – it was his job. We still try to do our best to pick up after baby hurricane James, but the sentiment is much appreciated.
The food was very good at L’Argaj as well. We even decided to try some dessert for the first time at a restaurant – usually we’re running out by the end of the meal. Overall another excellent meal. Afterwards, we trucked back up the hill to our apartment and called it a night.
Our last day in the countryside already…But we had some good plans ahead of us, and started our day off with another solid breakfast at the hotel.
Our first tour of the day was at Elio Grasso. They had a beautiful facility with awesome views up on one of the hills. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good overall shot of it – something I never would have missed in the pre-James travel days.
Our tour guide was an Aussie transplant, and we were joined by another couple from California (who owned a property in Napa and had family in the wine business). They were very friendly, and it was interesting to tour an Italian winery with some native Californians.
James did mostly pretty well on this tour; he was fascinated by the bottling assembly and moving parts. After the tour, we went back to the main room and tasted through the lineup. The wines were all excellent and really good values for the quality. They were completely sold out of the Barolos, so we grabbed a few Barbera’s to bring with us. We hung out and tasted wines for a while and talked with the other couple and our tour guide. Then wrapped things up and headed out to our lunch at Centro Storico in Serralunga D’alba.
Only James would fall asleep on the way over, so we had another change of plans. Instead, we went back to the apartment, and I walked over to a restaurant called Renza in Castiglione Falletto. I got some bites to takeaway but forgot to get some silverware, so we had to eat on James’s baby spoons. No problem. It still tasted very good.
I was actually going to go to Vietti by myself at 1:00 for a tour/tasting as it was literally right next door to our hotel, but they had asked if it would be ok to cancel because they were swamped with harvest. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to check it out (especially because their wine is easy to find locally), but it wasn’t a big deal. So we just took it easy waiting for our afternoon visit.
We had an afternoon visit scheduled at Cavallotto, which was a 15 minute walk from our hotel. When we got there, James was more interested in playing outside, so he and Alyce played outside while I did the tour.
Our tour guide was Giuseppe Cavallotto, who (along with his siblings) is part of the 4th generation of Cavallottos running the winery. Giuseppe spoke some English – plenty enough to communicate effectively, especially considering we were visiting his home. He took me through the winery and barrel rooms, and we made our way back to the tasting area, where Alyce and James rejoined us to try some wine.
Common theme for the food and wine of the trip…It was delicious. I bought as many bottles as I thought we could fit in our suitcase for the trip back for ridiculously low prices from Giuseppe. He too gave us a bottle as a gift to take with us. We thanked him for the hospitality and walked back to the hotel.
We planned to eat dinner at Restaurant Le Torri our last night. Keyword: planned. We actually made it down to the restaurant and sat down at our table and had a quick glass of wine. But, it only took about 15-20 minutes to realize that James wasn’t in the mood for eating out tonight and that we’d be better off taking our meal upstairs.
I again waited and placed our order while Alyce took James upstairs. Thankfully we had that option because we still got to have a delicious meal in our room. Afterwards, I went back down and settled our bills. Then we packed up and called it a night.
Venice is located in the region of Veneto and is not a large city in terms of area or population (with about 260,000 residents in the metropolitan area and only 60,000 of those residing in historic, central Venice). But, it is an enormously well-known and historic city.
Venice was founded under the Roman empire about 2000 years ago. It has always been a key city for sea trade and became a pretty big power in its own right in the middle ages. Today, Venice’s economy relies mostly on tourism and hosts many, many visitors for a city of its size.
Our last commute before the big one to get back home…We weren’t sure which James would show up today – Florence James or Barolo James.
We ate a quick breakfast and got on the road around 11:00. The dive was about 3 and half hours. I figured that we could stop in the Valpolicella region for lunch and a wine tasting depending on how things were going. It was about 2 hours from Barolo.
We got on the road, and James fell asleep almost immediately and slept for a solid 2 hours. He woke up and seemed to be in a pretty good mood, so we made the call to just power through the last hour and a half to get the ride done with. James was mostly happy through the ride, so it was definitely the correct call.
It was drizzling when we arrived at the dropoff point for the rental car, but it stopped within 10 minutes fortunately. We unloaded our stuff and handed in the keys then walked over to the water taxi area. We could have caught the Vaporetto (Venice water bus) and saved some money. But with James and all of our stuff, it was worth the extra cost for the convenience and ability to get dropped off much closer to our apartment.
The taxi ride was quick and fun; James like being on the boat. I showed our driver the apartment location on a map, and he pulled us up to a dock about a 30 second walk away.
Now for the rest of the story…I had been e-mailing our host numerous times in the days leading up to arrival to try to get some information on what to do. She didn’t really respond much and just kept saying to call her when we were about an hour outside of Venice, which I did.
I finally got a hold of her as we were about to board our water taxi, and she kept telling us to take the Vaporetto to such and such a stop. I explained (as I did in numerous e-mails leading up to today) that we were not taking the Vaporetto, but a water taxi instead. That is pretty much where the conversation ended. Fortunately, our water taxi driver knew exactly where to go when I showed him the location on a map.
Outside the apartment, I got in touch with her again, and she said it would be 30-45 minutes before she got there. So I sat outside the apartment with our bags while Alyce entertained James. Not a huge deal, but it was frustrating combined with the lack of communication. This is the downside of vacation rentals.
Finally, she showed up and was friendly (and kind of a goof). I could tell she wasn’t the detail oriented, organized type. The apartment itself was nice and had everything we needed. The location was very good. Overall we liked it. [Looking back, I don’t think I got any pictures of the room…must have had something to do with being annoyed.]
We unpacked and got settled then went out for a walk. Venice is a great city in which to just walk around. It is commonly described as a”living museum” – a description with which I would not argue.
We picked up some seafood bites at Cantine del Vino già Schiavi. This place was neat in that it had a ton of different options you could select from and try many different things. They also sell wine. We picked out a selection then walked outside to eat.
The bites were all very good. But at one point some jerk bird flew over and grabbed on off my plate. They must do this all day, as they did it to someone else minutes later.
We finished up without any more bird thefts and continued walking around. The plan was to just grab some pizza for dinner and take it back to the room, but we weren’t finding the place I had in mind (or any other place for that matter). We passed a place called Pizza Vaparetto (basically “pizza bus” in English) and made the call to just go in and eat even though it probably wouldn’t be the best food we ever ate. And it wasn’t. Not that I’d really expect that much from a place called pizza bus, but it was casual with other kids in the place.
We made it back to the apartment relatively early, so we watched some old Office episodes, which are still as good as ever.
Last day. Two weeks sounds long, but it goes by very fast – especially when you lose a day to travel.
We really wanted to make our lunch reservation today, so we essentially planned the day around it. We got up early and went for a walk around Venice and got some coffee. James found running after the pigeons interesting; Alyce and I found the Chinese tourists putting the pigeons on their head interesting.
Getting up early and walking around was definitely worth it. Piazza San Marco/St. Mark’s Square turns in to a zoo later on in the day, as does most of the city. That is the double edged sword of Venice. It’s old narrow walkways and numerous canals are what make it such an attraction, but it is not really meant to hold the amount of people that show up. So it gets very crowded…and we were there in October. I wouldn’t want to go in the summer when it is even more crowded – plus hot and humid.
After our early morning out, we put James down for an early nap, so he would be well rested for lunch. I went and walked through most of the city. The distances covered aren’t that far, but you just move slowly because you pretty much just follow the person ahead of you in the narrow walkways.
James was up just in time, and our plan worked like a charm. He was in a good mood and mostly content for our lunch at Osteria alle Testiere. I had read many good things about this place, and it ended up being worth planning our day around it. The food was delicious, and we had our own little corner booth with plenty of space for James. Overall, it was a very good meal.
After lunch we walked back to the apartment and just relaxed for a little while. We didn’t have any dinner plans, so we all agreed that the best option for our last night would be a casual gelato and cookies dinner. Everyone enjoyed our last splurge before getting back to reality.
That evening, we packed and watched some more TV. I also ran out one last time to take some pictures.
The trip home
Two weeks – it flew by. Time to head back home.
Our plan was to catch a water taxi to the airport for the increased convenience and reduced travel time – despite the extra cost. I e-mailed our host for help on whether we should reserve a water taxi or if they’d be easy enough to find. She wasn’t really much help. I walked to the taxi stand, and they said that I should be able to find one in the morning by just walking over. And that’s how it played out.
We were picked up at the same pier we arrived at. We were ahead on the timing, so it was a pretty low stress trip to the airport. Similarly, we checked in with US Airways without issue and easily made it through security.
The flight itinerary was VCE-PHL-CLT-MSY all on US Airways, and I think it was still actually US Airways at that point as the merger was not 100% complete. We were originally scheduled to fly direct from Philadelphia to New Orleans, but that was canceled a month or two before we left. All flights were in business class with James as a lap infant.
As business class passengers, we had lounge access to what I think was called the Marco Polo club. Regardless, it was a standard international lounge – nicer than domestic lounges, but not over the top like some of the places we’ve been. It wouldn’t matter too much because James was not having it there, so I took him out and walked him around in the stroller to kill some time.
Boarding was a non-event. Our crew was very friendly – moreso than on the way over. Not too long after we reached altitude, James fell asleep. Things were looking good. The crew offered an open seat to use while we ate lunch so that James could have his own seat. I gladly accepted. Things were going very well until I saw Alyce stirring around.
James was up and he was inconsolable. We walked him up to an area by the crew to try to minimize disturbances to the rest of the plane, and he cried it out for a good 20-30 minutes. He had done something like this once before, and it sounded like night terrors after reading about it on the internet. It definitely seemed like that was what was going on here.
He eventually calmed down and was fine for the remaining 6 hours of the flight. He was busy and needed to be entertained, but at least he was not screaming. Alyce spent most of the flight chasing him around and trying to entertain him. If it is not abundantly clear by this point, let me spell it out for y’all. James is a HUGE mama’s boy. And still is.
We made it back – and thankfully without having to turnaround this time. Clearing customs was a breeze in Philadelphia. It was far better than JFK or IAD. And I say that regardless of whether you have global entry. Reclearing security was not bad either.
In Philadelphia, we were staring to get worn out but managed to find an Admiral’s Club. It was a nice quiet spot with some refreshments…at least before we arrived. James had found the water cooler and was obsessed with pulling the lever and making water come out, which is why we no longer use our water cooler at home. So, I took him out for a stroll to give Alyce a break between flights.
The only good thing about having a segment added was that our Philadelphia to Charlotte flight was on an internationally configured plane. I had actually assigned us the two middle seats on this flight to try them out, and it probably worked better on a US Ariways configured plane than the seats in a row. There is much less of a barrier between the seats than on other airlines, and there was actually a space that James could walk through between the seats. He spent most of this flight watching jungle book with me – or at least I was watching jungle book.
One more flight to go…I barely even remember the Charlotte to New Orleans flight. I think we were all dozing off. We did have to rush over to the next gate because our previous flight was delayed, but we made it without issue.
Both grandmothers took the ride out to pick us up – surely because they wanted to see Alyce and me….right.
We had finally made it home after quite the long day, and we didn’t really get jet lag coming back either. Another good trip in the books.
After re-reading the trip summary above, I hope it did not come off in a negative way. Yes, travelling with a 15 month old has many challenges. Such as…
- Eating – Our meals were chaotic. They usually started with James sitting in his high chair the restaurant provided for 5-10 minutes while he playing with whatever entertainment we had. Then all hell would break loose. He would get on Alyce’s lap and push everything on the table while I played defense and stopped things from falling off the table. When the food arrived, James insisted on feeding himself –and usually his mom too – resulting in a huge mess. Also, Alyce and I were constantly running outside with James during meals to let him play while the other sat at the table inside. It was very different than pre-James dining. And that was the best case scenario…Many times we had to abandon our dining plans or get up and leave before the meal even started.
- Logistics – We needed to bring much more stuff with us than we used to. Diapers, sippy cups, wipes, 1000 changes of baby clothes, toys, his bedtime lamb, etc. Plus moving around within the country was much more complicated with a baby and the increased stuff.
- Activities – I greatly reduced the amount of stuff we usually do, and we still skipped a lot (or should have skipped in some cases). Planning your day around an unpredictable nap schedule is like flipping a coin – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
- Flights – We used to actually enjoy premium cabin flights. Not so much with a baby…and definitely not when you’ve been turned around and delayed.
I could go on, but you get the point. Travelling with a baby is difficult.
So…Am I happy we did it. Would I do it again?
First off, let’s look at the options. We could (1) travel with James or (2) not travel at all. Leaving for anything more than a couple of days without him is not an option right now – and you’d have to have a talk with his mom to see when that would be possible, but my guess is not for a while.
Sure, not travelling at all might be the easier option, but where is the fun in that? I’d say doing the easier/less interesting things throughout your whole life will just make for a boring life. I’m not saying you have to travel, but you got to do something. Sitting around and watching Seinfeld reruns all day might sound appealing to some, but not to me (well…at least not every single day).
You also might be thinking…”yeah, that’s all true – but you didn’t have to go to Europe.” I guess there is some truth to that, but not as much as you’d expect outside of the additional flight time across the pond. I’d bet going to Disney World would have been more stressful and less enjoyable. And any American city would be a pretty similar experience. I know Chicago had a lot of the same difficulties. We even went to Gulf Shores (a 3 hour car ride away) to the beach with extended family, and that trip had plenty of baby related challenges. Hell, we would have some challenges just spending two weeks at home without anything else going on.
Bottom line: if you’re going to travel with a baby, you will have some challenges.
Which brings me to another major benefit of taking the trip…This trip is still to this day the longest uninterrupted time the three of us have spent together. I think it’s a good thing to break from everyday life/work and spend some time together.
What about Alyce? I think I can confidently speak for her and say she feels the same way. Take the below picture:
First, realize that this was our second attempt at even dining at this restaurant; James was not having it the first try so we left 10 minutes after we sat down. We have tons of delicious food on the table and a nice chair for him. James does not want to sit in his chair, nor eat any of the food, which always makes his mom anxious (and especially his grandmothers). Sidebar – am I wrong to have zero concern that a child will ever come remotely close to starving to death? Eating is the most basic instinct humans have.
Anyway, instead of eating, he wants to try feeding his mom and using the food to play on his pad. He’ll also occasionally fling his arms out and push everything he can reach, switching us to defense mode. All of this was pretty typical.
Yet, we have that picture hanging up in our house, and it is one of Alyce’s favorites.
So, we are definitely happy we did it – especially as time passes. You can much more easily laugh at the difficult times and cherish the good times with the benefit of time. Also, not only would we do it again, we are doing it again. For 3 weeks this time.
That’s not to say we won’t do some things differently. First, we’ll definitely have some extra help with us for part of the trip. Having an extra set of hands alone makes a huge difference. If Alyce and I can eat a few meals on our own, it will be a very welcome treat too.
We’ll be taking it slower. Of course, having 21 nights instead of 13 makes it much easier to take it slower. We stopped 5 places over 13 nights in Italy, and it will be 5 stops over 21 nights in France (our next destination). That is a much bigger difference than it sounds like with an average of almost an extra 2 nights at each destination. Plus, more time will be spent in countryside/less crowded locations.
And on the subject of itineraries, it is easier to say we should have moved less, but I don’t know that I would have done it much differently even in hindsight for our first trip. Had we not gone somewhere, it likely would have been Castel Brunello in Sant’Angelo in Colle that we skipped, and we loved it there. Those extra 2 nights probably would have been spent in Venice and Rome, neither of which really needed an extra night and were our two most expensive stops (Montalcino was the least expensive).
Rome has so much history, much of which is still right out in the open and all around you. Our tour guide said it best when pointing out an original tile from Caesar’s palace – “if this were in Paris, it would be covered in Plexiglas and have a 10 foot barrier around it [she probably used metric units]. Here in Italy, it’s out in the open and covered in dirt.” It’s a must visit for anybody that loves to travel.
That said, I don’t know that I feel a pressing urge to go back – other than to do the things we ended up missing (Vatican tour, actually hear things at the Colosseum/Forum tours, etc.). Don’t misunderstand me – I enjoyed Rome and think it is worth visiting. I just wouldn’t call it one of my favorite cities.
For us, 3 nights was ok. 4 nights would have been a more relaxing pace, but you can hit most of the major sites in 2 full days. I don’t know that I’d spend more than 5 nights there on your first trip unless you really like to take it slow or have whole lot of time and budget for travelling.
Florence was a more easy-going city than Rome and was a little more relaxing – though it was still bustling with people even in late September. We didn’t do terribly much of either, but I’d say Florence definitely has the edge over Rome for art/museums and shopping. Rome has the edge in history. Both had very good food. 3 nights was enough to get the basics in Florence. If I had to pick whether to add an extra night to Rome or Florence, I’d go with Florence – at least in our scenario. Though, the first place I would have added an extra night was Montalcino since we only had 2 nights there. After that, I probably would have added a 4th night to Barolo.
Speaking of Sant’Angelo in Colle/Montalcino/Tuscan Countryside…We really enjoyed it. Part of that had to do with just needing to get out of the cities with James, but we would have really liked even if it had just been Alyce and I. The little town was very charming, the food was excellent, and – of course – wine. Everything was reasonably priced, and it was way more relaxing than either Rome or Florence. Admittedly, if you’re not in to wine or don’t need a break, it has less to do than the big cities, but sometimes that is a good thing.
As far as which little town to stay in, I don’t know that it makes a huge difference. Montalcino definitely had more shops to taste wine at, but I probably liked our town better (and we loved Castel Brunello). I’d say just look at what you want to do on a map and pick a convenient place, or just pick a place. Nothing is that far apart.
Staying with the countryside/wine theme…Castiglione Falletto/Barolo was another great stop. The slower pace definitely helps with a child, but like Montalcino there were countless places to eat and even more places to try wine. The towns had the same small town Italian charm.
I have similar thoughts on the number of nights and town to stay in too. Other than taking it easy, eating, and tasting wine, there is not a ton of stuff to do. If you love to eat/drink and want to relax, you could easily spend a week there. If you don’t like any of those things, just keep driving.
Similarly, I don’t know that which town you stay in is that important. La Morra and Barolo might have more dining options, but they are plenty close enough. Plus we had great food in Castiglione Falletto for every meal. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
Venice is a place I’m very happy to have visited, but it’s kind of a been there/done that thing to me. It’s a beautiful city like you will not find anywhere else, but it is small. You could cover most of the city in one day on foot with relative ease. After that, you can eat and hang out, which I’d rather do elsewhere. So, 2 nights was fine. 3 would have been more relaxing, but I don’t know that I’d go any longer than that. Plus, it gets very crowded when they unload the cruise ships. I can’t imagine how crowded it is in the summer, and add 90+ temps and humidity with minimal air conditioning on the islands…I’ll pass under those circumstances.
Wineries…I can’t recommend the places we visited highly enough (Uccelliera, G.D. Vajra, Bartolo Mascarello, Elio Grasso, and Cavallotto). They were all very welcoming, friendly, and patient. Plus, they all make very good wine for not outrageous prices.
Restaurants…Same thing. I’d have no problem recommending anywhere we went. I don’t know that I’d call anyplace an absolute must visit (I don’t call many restaurants must visit), but they were all very good and certainly worth the stop – though probably not pizza bus. All the gelato we had was good. I read a lot about best places beforehand, so maybe that had something to do with it…but really, you probably won’t be disappointed anywhere you get gelato.
Vacation Rentals vs. Hotels…Vacation rentals have their plusses and minuses. Major plus – the space and facilities you get for less than you typically pay for a decent hotel room. The minuses – hosts can be very variable, especially in cities when they’re possibly dealing with multiple rentals. We had a fantastic host in Florence. In Rome and Venice, they made us appreciate what you pay for when you get a hotel room – a dedicated check-in desk, responses to phone calls/e-mails, help with suggestions or booking places, etc. Though again, you could get lucky like we did in Florence and have great hosts. That is also why my favorite type of place is a vacation rental/hotel complex (like Castel Brunello and Le Torri) because you get the size/facilities of an apartment with a central hotel-like reception, but much smaller and more personal than hotels.
Another thing to keep an eye on with vacation rentals is whether there is an elevator. I like taking the stairs more than most people, but dragging all of our stuff up flights of stairs is not fun. If you need access to one, make sure there is a washing machine; most places did not have dryers – you just hung your clothes to dry. Make note of any potential damages or problems when you check in so that you don’t get blamed for it later (you don’t have to be over the top, but if you notice anything obvious, send an e-mail). We’d also do an initial apartment sweep as soon as we arrived to remove any easily breakable items and/or temptations to James.
Also, be mindful of vacation rental check in/out times. We had to be out at 10:00 a.m. at most of ours, and check in was not until 4:00 in the afternoon (and it’s generally not a flexible check in time like hotels either). If all you have is a 1.5 hour train from Rome to Florence, you’ll have a lot of time to kill between check out and check in.
On travelling with a baby…My first suggestion is to be mindful as best as possible of the child you’ll have when you are actually travelling – not the child you have when planning. They could be very different.
Go ahead and make plans, but make flexible plans you can cancel without penalty and have alternative ideas. I’d skip the group tours with mobile children altogether. Being able to do things at your own pace makes it much easier.
So that about sums it up…and then some. I’m impressed if anyone read this whole thing. We had another great trip and some quality family time. As I predicted before, a child would not stop us from traveling and will continue to not do so.
Arrivederci Italy. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again.