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15 days by car in Northern Italy

It's hard to believe we've been back a month already. What an incredible vacation it was! My husband and I had been separately to Italy almost 30 years ago so it was long overdue. As former exchange students in our youth, this trip really affirmed from me that—as Rick says—a great trip is much more than just checking off a list of famous places to see. I think it's somewhat hard to plan a trip to a new place without doing that, but the rewards are great when you find a way. (Plug here for my new favorite website: Little Roads of Europe..esp if you are heading to Italy or Ireland.)

Landed in Milan on 5/26 after much travel mayhem. Rented a Fiat F00L which was much bigger than I realized, but served us well. (Should've gone for the cute smaller model.) Spent the night at a nearby Holiday Inn Express for $59, great deal for clean digs and a surprisingly large breakfast. Still...next time I'll Airbnb it near Milan for a more authentic travel experience. Also, thanks to a poster in this Forum, I downloaded the Day One app on my ipad for journaling. Such a great memento. It's how I can remember so much detail for you now.

Sat 5/14 Drove 4.5 hours to our Agriturrismo Venuto San Pietro near Pienza. Had lunch at Autogrill on the freeway. Amazing! (In what other universe could you get a squid salad, risotto, 3 types of pasta on the road? Don't miss Autogrill if you're driving.) Venuto San Pietro is highly recommended: unbelievable breakfast spread, comfy, luxurious beds, beautiful property. Still, this trip has really increased my confidence to rent an apartment on my own next time (see Little Roads for suggestions.) This trip was a splurge on many levels. My new goal going forward is to continue to avoid more tourists and save Euros by renting in small towns..so I can go more often!

Anyway, walked Pienza in the evening. Cutest little town ever with a beautiful "terrace"/walkway to watch the sunset. Religious services were just ending at the famous church so we held the door for the elderly Italian ladies deep in conversation and saw it in candelight. Great dinner at Trattoria da Fiorella.

5/15 One of our most magical days! Drove the crazy winding roads to the Abbey Sant Antimo near Montichello. No Gregorian chants as we'd hoped (really confusing times on the website. Our hosts even checked for us) but there was a service in Latin (I think) with an acapella choir of six intermittently. The acoustics were really something with the natural light streaming in and the incense swirling up past the friar(?) in a long white gown. Walking back to the car, it was quite the contrast when a little fiat zoomed up with ACDC blaring out the windows and a gaggle of Italian teeangers tumbled out. :)

Next up: one of the most scenic drives of our life through Monte Amiata to one of the best meals of our life at Ristorante Ana in tiny Piancastagnao. We spent 2.5 hours for an off menu 5-course meal (yes, just bring us whatever you think we should try!) complete with dessert, wine, digestives for 65 Euro. (Don't miss the porcini-chestnut soup!) Late that night, we'd planned to stop for a few groceries but everything was closed. We found one tiny grocer open and made fast friends. By the end of our visit, he was adding broad beans to our haul for no charge and insisting we sample (at no charge) all the different pecorinos as he explained them in broken English. We had so many wonderful experiences like this with local Italians (but you gotta get off the tourist path). I'd move there tomorrow!

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5/16 Drove the hour northwest to Siena and walked this incredible walled city. I hadn't research Siena in-depth so I was just in awe of the incredible Duomo. Had to visit the Bernini Chapel for my Bernini-loving daughter. (Most are in Rome there...note to self: Plan a Bernini trip.) We'd really wanted to visit some of the local thermal baths, but rain didn't make it possible. So instead, we headed to a little town Terme Rapolono to join the locals in the thermal baths. While it was fun being the only tourists, I suspect visiting the FREE thermal hotsprings in nature would be much nicer. The town was cute and an evening picnic on a bench overlooking Tuscany at sunset was wonderful.

5/17 Cooking class! Such a special day. Drove 90 minutes north to meet Guilia (see Juls Kitchen on the web) for a market tour and cooking class. Started our market tour the Italian way (with breakfast at a cafe) and then to the farmer's market in Poggibonsi where we tasted cheeses and meats from the local cheese purveyor, watched the fishmonger skin a stingray, and tried not to be edged out by Italian women who were sure they were in line first for vegetables. SO glad we sprung for this. Then off to Guilia's childhood home for an all-day cooking lesson and lunch. (Her grandma picked the fennel and her boyfriend joined us for the feast!)

She heard about my mild disappointment with the thermal hot springs and suggested we swing through Bagno Vignoli on the way home. Wow! Beautiful tiny town with a thermal pool in the center. Nobody there! You can't swim in that pool, but if you walk 5 minutes from the square you can soak your feet in the thermal "rivers" that trickle over the hills with a million dollar view of Tuscany.

5/18 Checked out of our agriturissimo and on to a vespa tour in Chianti. This was the only "manufactured fun" we really enjoyed on our trip, but it was indeed fun! Met the group of 10 at Castello do Poppiano on the outskirts of Firenze for a half day vespa tour, wine tasting at the castle and lunch at a local trattoria. Beautiful day. Then we headed 2 hours north to Lunigiana, an underappreciated region in my opinion, almost costal near Cinque Terre. Stayed in the teeny tiny village of Fornoli at a beautiful Airbnb. Our apartment was all stone inside and out and had a lovely private terrace. Befriended our very excellent hosts, which was a top highlight of our trip. They invited us over for espresso or wine in the evenings to hear about our days and even made us a birthday cake! (Plus I fell in love with their 18 month old son. He showed me his toy kitchen and told me how to make pasta arrabiata...you need oil, garlic, tomato, and pepper!)

5/19 Rest day. It's so hard when planning a trip to not fill every single second, but it's exhausting without the occasional day off. We'd planned this as our Florence day, but as suspected, it didn't work well in our itinerary since it meant driving several hours back the way we'd come. Plus it was pouring and we were pooped. Instead, we stayed in and enjoyed our glorious digs, did laundry and had lunch at a local bar with workers. (Where else can you get pasta alla vongole for 5 euros?) Then we hit TWO gelato shops on the way back on instructions from our hosts so we could weigh in on which was best. (They disagreed with each other.)

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5/20 Firenze. We drove, which was likely a mistake. We were so proud that we navigated right to the parking lot in the train station no problem. But on the way out, we tried to pause until our Nav got satellite reception which met with lots of honkings, so we went the wrong way. And then the nav took us right through what seemed like the forbidden ZTL zone right past the domo (!!!) and over a bridget just past Ponte Vecchio. (Happy news...no ticket yet one month later.)

Saw the David at the Academia. (Thank goodness we had reservations, long long line.) But then headed to the underappreciated Bargello sculpture museum, which we essentially had to ourselves. It was glorious! Just another example of how an experience off the beaten trail can leave you feeling rejuvenated instead of exhausted. Hot tip for Florence: Check out the rooftop hotel bars! We walked into Hotel Cavour and they told us it was "up six floors, down the hall and welcome to Paradise!" They weren't kidding. Up above the fray with bell towers all around in a cool breeze at sunset. Wow, wow, wow. Great dinner (pear ravioli!) at Coquinarious.

5/21 Porto Venere and Cinque Terre. I was really torn about visiting the CT. I'd never been and really wanted to go, but I just hate crowds. So we did this which worked out great: Drove to Porto Venere with much fewer crowds for the first half of the day. It was fabulous. A big white rolls royce came honking down the dock with a "Just Married" sign and everyone stood and clapped. Toured the beautiful ruins of St. Peters Church accompanied by an Italian girl with a great voice on guitar at the bottom and a harpist at the top.

Then parked at La Spezia train station and trained into CT. We were practically the only ones going in at 4 pm, just as everyone was getting off. Walked Riomaggiore, had a drink in Vernaza (the only crowded town at that hour) and an unbelievable dinner in Manarola at Ristorante Da Billy. Sat on their terrace for two with a panoramic sunset view of the Mediterranean. Ordered a seafood antipasto and they brough 12 dishes to the table.

5/22 Drove up to our next Airbnb, a cozy cabin in the woods high above Stresa at Lago Maggiore. It was amazing. Had to park on the side of the road and hike 5 minutes up and in. Lunch at Autogrille again!

5/23 Woke up to a massive thunderstorm so enjoyed a slow morning and lunched at Il Vicoletto, a Michelin-strred restaurant. Also in our top 5 list of meals.

5/24 Impulse drive to Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzeland! We kept looking at the Alps and the maps and decided to hightail it four hours north. The car ferry was an interesting experience. I was just in awe at all the long tunnels (one was 10 miles!) that the Swiss have carved through those mountains. Got a last minute reservation at Hotel Staubuch.

5/25 Gimmelwald and Murren. So so glad we made it here. First off, it stormed every day for a week before we arrived and then again for many days after we left. But on THIS day, it was beautifully sunny. Truly magestic. Took the funicular to Gruteschalp, then an incredibly scenic walk to Murren. The Alps were just alive with the sound of rushing waterfalls, birds chirping, and melting snow. Ahhhhh! Took another funicular to Gimmelwald and enjoyed a lovely picnic on a sofa outside the youth hostel there with an incredible view. Bit of a culture shock when confronted with Swiss prices and a Swiss menu after Italian fare. Drove "home" to Stresa.

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Last day in Stresa. Visited Isola Bella and Isola Pescadori. Rick wasn't kidding when he warns people to beware of the private boat drivers. They have quite the schtick. As you're parking, they approach you and help you find a spot and then try to herd you over to their ticket booth. I was confused as I wanted to go to an island that wasn't on his itinerary. He just got angrier and angrier until we finally figured out that we just needed to head over to the main ticket station. In any case, it was a lovely day. The villa and gardens on Isola Bella were just exquisite. I was astounded that so much art and beauty were on a tiny island in a lake. Wonderful lunch on Isola Pescatore. If I came back to this area, I think I'd stay in a little hotel here to skip the crowds.

5/26 Last day. So sad! Enjoyed a leisurely morning and then headed back to Il Vicoletto for lunch. On our way towards the airport, we stopped in Aruna and toured the Colussus of San Carlos....the inspiration for the Italian that designed the Statue of Liberty. It was wonderful. Stayed in a great Airbnb in Ferno, just a few minutes of Milpensa airport. Beautiful, beautiful little apartment for under $70. I'd highly recommend this as a first or last stop near the airport. The end! Cannot wait to go back...Gosh, this got long. Thanks for indulging me in the memories.

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Great report ckroman!
Sounds like you really did try to absorb some of the culture and not just see the sights.

If you have a moment to respond would love to hear your overall impressions on driving/navigating.
Sounds like you really put that rental car to good use so may have some tips or general observations for us fellow travelers.
Have an upcoming trip, similarly to smaller towns this time to take advantage of the fact we will have a car and curious about the additional challenges that may present.

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Sure mreynolds! Full confession: my husband did all the driving and he's someone who didn't hesitate to take our British rental in 2014 over on the continent and drive on the other side of the road. So he's a great driver. But here's a few things I'd say about driving:
-The Italian road signs are a bit confusing. I had to snap a few pics of them so people could believe me. I mean how can you possibly read 22 signs all at once in the time it takes to navigate a roundabout? But hey, we managed and so will you.

-The roads are great but plan on budgeting for the tolls on those nice Italian freeways. I seem to remember it was probably over 40 euros total for tolls on the 4 hour drive from Milan to Pienza. Also, google to learn a bit about the tollboths. You want to make sure you use the one for credit cards and not a pass.

-Be sure to avoid those ZTL zones in all those hill towns to avoid expensive tickets. As I said, we almost blew it in Florence. Google maps really came in handy as a back-up to our Garmin which we brought.

-Small cars are better for parking! The Fiat 500L was a great car, but too big. My hubby didn't want a smaller one because you can't close the trunk with two small rolling suitcases (ie. security), but I'd get one anyway ;)

-Autogrill, autogrill, autogrill! Honestly, if you have a car you have to experience this. (Some autogrills just have panini and pizzas--which are completely wonderful--but the full service ones are really something.) Our cooking teacher thought I was a nut for being such an autogrill enthusiast. (But then she likes Starbucks when she travels because she thinks it's cool to be able to sit with your friends over a coffee instead of swigging it at a bar.)

-Interesting side note: the rental agency at the airport waved away our international driver's license when we picked up the car. Didn't care. I thought that was a big must-have? Also, somewhere along the way a rock hit the windshield and made a serious crack. We were just waiting to see what that would cost. But dropping off the car, they were backing up checking people in and just took our keys without looking at the car so I guess we got lucky?

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Just watch your credit card bill for fees put on after you left the car. They might hit you for fuel, the windscreen or other scratches they think you caused.

Also, don't expect your ZTL ticket yet. It usually is nearer a year. The first indication will be a charge on your credit card from the car rental for supplying your details to the police after your car was photoed. That takes most of a year too, in many cases.

It normally isn't the rental car dudes who want to see your IDP. All they want to do is get your money and sell you the use of a car. It is the police and/or other party in an incident or accident. Even though you didn't need it (due to the skill of your husband, I'm sure) you did the right thing and protected yourself.

Good report....

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Very interesting, Nigel. Egads, a year for that ticket? And I thought we were in the clear!

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Thank you for a wonderful trip report. I wrote down a few things as well as I will be back there for my 2nd trip this upcoming August.. I was there in April of this year and fell in love with Italy. I also would move there in a heartbeat. We are actually looking at a property for our retirement years .

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My pleasure Susanne. I'd love to hear more about your retirement property plans. Send me a message! Can I fantasize with you?

When we were in Fornoli, we saw a for sale sign on an apartment. I asked our Airbnb host what it was going for (Lunigiana is much less expensive than many other areas of Italy I gather). Anyway, he said, "Oh, he wants 20,000 Euros, but he'll be lucky to get 10,000." What?! Admittedly, I didn't see the inside so I have no idea of it needed major plumbing, etc...but I did have a brief fantasy about living high in the hills in a small village with only Italians a 15 minute drive from the mediterranean coast!

Chris

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Thanks for the driving tips Chris and I will be sure to stop at least at one Autogrill, I know it may be counter to Italian culture but the prospect of getting good food fast when you are trying to get from point a to point b as soon as possible is very appealing some times.
Think I will love the winding roads and not regret driving just hope the GPS keeps me on the right path.
Good advise about figuring out how the toll booths work ahead of time, I know tolls are a major cost factor of driving in Italy.
Less worried about ZTL's for where we are going but worried about the speed traps and average speed tutor system
Are signs easy to spot so you know a stretch of highway is covered by this system or do you have to assume at all times on the highway that your speed may be monitored?
Same with any speed traps did they seem obvious with traffic breaking ahead of you in advance or come up as a surprise to you while driving?
To be honest in the US speed limits on highways are typically suggestions more than limits (for mature adult drivers I would say this) and the rule of thumb is stay with the flow of traffic and you will be fine.

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mreynolds—I didn't really see any speed traps to be honest...or police. I'll have to ask my husband who was likely paying more attention to that than I was! I'd say our Garmin was fine about 85% of the time, but it was nice to have Googlemaps on my iphone the other 15 percent.

You'll be happy you drove. It's just beautiful!