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Venezia, Toscana, Milano!

I stalk the Delta Airlines website with the flexible dates option checked hoping to find a bargain fare to Europe. Italy is my favorite destination, and in late summer an irresistible frequent flyer ticket popped up for a direct flight from ATL to Venice and another direct flight from Milan home to ATL. I called a friend on my A list of travel buddies who can make a quick decision, and within the hour we each had booked a ticket. (These unannounced fare sales disappear fast; I never count on finding them the next day.)

On the second Monday night in October we were flying to my favorite Italian city. There were no seats left in Comfort, and my last flight in Premium didn’t seem worth the extra money, so we shoehorned ourselves into our window and aisle seats. I’m tall, and that nine hours felt like riding in a ladder back chair with no leg room (after stowing my backpack under the seat) and precious little recline (in consideration of the gentleman behind me who thoughtfully retrieved my falling pillow all night.) Two hours in and I would have happily paid plenty for some more legroom and recline, but will think about that next time. For now we’re on our way to Venice!

Venezia

Checked bags arrived soon after we deplaned; the machine selling vaporetto passes worked; and with only a few wrong turns I found the desk to book a water taxi - a luxury I can rationalize if there’s a traveling companion to split the cost with. A Venetian friend told me years ago to not even think about tipping the boat captain, because “they make too much already!”

We’re staying at the Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo, near the San Stae vaporetto stop, and they have a water door. I love it when the water taxis make the long ride down the Grand Canal, but because of our hotel’s location, the driver understandably came in a back way, skipping most of the GC completely, but he did hand us over the wobbly gangplank directly into our hotel, a new Venetian experience!

I like to stay in the Dorsoduro or San Polo in an apartment, but would definitely book again at this hotel. www.alpontemocenigo.com We had to upgrade to a premium room to get a reservation, and those are on the second floor, up about 30 steps, but our high ceilinged, beamed bedroom was very comfortable. A varied breakfast in a lovely open-air courtyard was included. Good beds, modern bathrooms, and friendly, helpful front desk. This is a residential area, far from the tourist grind, where Venetians actually live and eat. About fifty feet from the hotel door is the San Stae vaporetto dock. A few stops in one direction and you’re at the Rialto Bridge; a few stops in the other direction, and you’re at the Accademia Bridge. A perfect location for travel by boat!

Weather in Venice was beautiful, if a little warmer than anticipated. We weren’t in top form that first afternoon, but stayed outside, upright, and moving. This was my friend’s first visit to Venice, and we walked the neighborhoods from our hotel to the Friari Church to Campo Santa Margherita, past the gondola workshop, and on to the Accademia Bridge to watch the boats in the golden afternoon light, with stops along the way for a slice and a Spritz.

Venetian food is too good to risk settling for a restaurant with available tables, so I asked our hotel to make reservations for our first two nights before we left Atlanta. Our first night’s dinner was at their recommended Antico Gioardinetto in our neighborhood. Wonderful seafood pastas, and a big plate of traditional Venetian appetizers, all good. (I ate the weird ones and let Alison have the more recognizable creatures.) I love ordering house Prosecco by the liter in Venice. I’m no wine connoisseur, but am always surprised at how good house wines usually are in Italy. It’s been a long day. Said yes to drugs, and slept well.

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Wednesday morning, our first full day, started at the Rialto Market, Alison’s first views from the top of the Rialto Bridge and a winding walk through the shopping streets on the way to St Mark’s. I love T-Mobile service in Europe, with its unlimited free data, walking/driving all day with Googlemaps on, not thinking about roaming charges or how much data I’ve burned through. I was a little concerned about what kind of wait we might encounter to get into the Basilica, since there had been no online skip-the-line tickets available during the illumination hour, for days.

St. Mark’s Piazza was busy, not crowded, but at 11AM the line to enter the Basilica stretched all the way to the Doge’s Palace! Once we were in the queue, I found myself reassuring the two discouraged American couples behind us (on their first cruise and their first trip to Europe) that this line really was going to move faster than they thought. And as always, it did! We were in the church by 11:20 and stalled in the vestibule for ten minutes until the wonderful golden lights turned on. We took all the time we wanted in the downstairs area, then went up the steep, definitely not-to-code steps to the museum, the balcony view over the church below, the spectacular bronze horses, and the outside “front porch” view over the piazza. None felt crowded. If you can get the skip the line tickets, that’s great. But don’t miss out on seeing this because there’s a line to get in. Most visitors seem to make a quick walk through and skip the museum. It really is so much more beautiful when the inside lights are turned on for that hour every day!

Crossed by vaporetto from busy St. Mark’s to peaceful San Giorgio Maggiore on the Giudecca island. The view from the bell tower is unmatched and perfectly silent, unless the bells toll while you’re aloft! The Venice Biennale is still on, and this church houses a massive glass installation by the contemporary Chinese artist/activist Ai Weiwei. Grateful for the helpful docent on site to explain more about his work.

Back on the vaporetto to Fondamenta Zattere for gelato lunch at Gelateria Nico. There’s better gelato in Venice, but the view from their dockside tables is hard to top. More walking, Spritzes, and boat rides filled the afternoon. Dinner at an old favorite, Taverna San Trovaso. Enjoyed it so much we booked for the next night.

We came to Venice with neither an agenda nor a checklist, but I did prebook the Secret Itineraries tour of the Doge’s Palace. The website was a little confusing, and I wasn’t sure until we got to the entrance if we would need entry tickets in addition to our tour tickets. We didn’t, and our small group was led through cells and secret chambers and up into the attic with an engaging guide who fleshed out the history of what we were seeing. At the end of her tour we were free to explore the rest of the palace on our own. The senior rate for this tour was only 21 euro. Recommend this one, although it’s seasonal. In summer it’s apparently too hot to spend time in these narrow spaces up under the roof. https://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/the-museum/layout-and-collections/secret-itineraries/

Until the Biennale ends, there is a spectacular installation of monumental paintings by the German artist Anselm Kiefer in the main palace rooms. https://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en They will cover the walls until January, 2023, then, if I understand correctly, they will be removed and destroyed.

We were out early the next morning to catch the #12 vaporetto from Fondamenta Nove to colorful Burano. Check the boat schedule online at https://www.visit-venice-italy.com/water-bus-venice-line-12.html. If you can get to Burano before 10AM, you can have pictures with few people in them. As the herds start to arrive, move to the still uncrowded peripheral streets. Shop a little, have lunch, and head home to Venice before it gets packed.

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The famous restaurant is in all the guide books, including Rick’s, but a young guide who lives on Burano once took me to her favorite - Trattoria da Primo. https://www.trattoriadaprimo.it/. This is an old family-owned restaurant with great seafood and friendly service. It’s possible to run up a hefty tab, but you don’t have to. (I let my grandsons rack up a memorable one here last winter, but they’re still talking about how much they liked it!)

Back on the mainland for one last afternoon of galleries, piazzas, wandering, and people-watching. Went to a delightful evening concert at Chiesa della Pieta, the famous Vivaldi’s church, near the Bridge of Sighs. At this venue the performers don’t wear costumes, and the quality of their musicianship is high. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was the centerpiece of the concert we heard, bookended by other familiar Baroque selections. It’s enjoyable, crowd-pleasing music, even if you’ve not a classical music aficionado. And after I heard the fifth iPhone crash to the floor in the middle of the music, I decided there were definitely newbies present who probably never sat in a concert hall before. The church was filled, but I bought our tickets the night before, so it’s something you don’t have to plan far ahead for. The concert lasts an hour and 15 minutes, and It’s fun.
https://www.musicinvenice.com/by_step_one.php?id_evento=1133_1665698400_2346_824

One suggestion, but don’t let this put you off. The pews in this church must have been designed to keep parishioners alert during mass. The people sitting in front of us had a great idea. Put the small red seat cushion behind your BACK!

After the concert we walled to St Mark’s Piazza to hear a little more music then took the vaporetto home. Grom on Campo San Barnaba is still my favorite gelateria, and that was our perfect last night dinner. Traveling with my husband is always good, but girlfriend trips are special. We can cover twice the ground for half the money, and gelato is always a great plan for lunch or dinner.

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Moving Parts Day

Bought Italo tickets weeks ago when there was a special offer for a first class ticket to Firenze for seniors for 32 euro. We’re headed to an agriturismo in Tuscany and we need a car. I’ve driven in Florence several times, and it was not fun, so seemed a better plan to pick up the car at the airport. There’s a new Tramway that connects Firenze Santa Maria Novella (train station) and Firenze-Peretola (airport.) Takes about 20 minutes and costs 1.50 euro at a ticket machine near the tracks. To find the tracks, go out the main front door of the train station, cross the street, and watch where people are lining up.

The Firenze airport is small, and all the rental car companies are off-site. A van picks up outside the front door. As always, I rented from gemut.com, and my requested Fiat 500 (with zero-deductible CDW!) was waiting for me. I had optimistically envisioned a short drive from the rental car lot onto the highway and onward toward our farm outside San Gimingnano. Non!

We may have made a wrong turn early on, but were quickly in a confusing maze of downtown traffic, construction, narrow streets, none of it any easier than picking up near the train station and dodging the ZTL to get out of the city. We had written directions from our agriturismo to reroute the navigate at several points, and I was extremely relieved when we were finally on rural roads that looked more countryside than city center. This initial 45 minutes was the worst of the driving in five days in Tuscany.

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Toscana

Agriturismos! Possibly my favorite activity in Italy. I would choose an agriturismo over the Gritti Palace! [Disclaimer: I’ve never stayed at the Gritti Palace, LOL] I have a favorite one outside Siena, but couldn’t get last-minute reservations. The owner recommended her friend’s Il Vecchio Maneggio a few miles outside San Gimingnano, and it was wonderful! www.ilvecchiomaneggio.com This is a family farm producing wine, olive oil, honey, and saffron. And they have horses! Our very reasonable room rate included breakfast and dinner.

Breakfast was a typical Italian spread of carbs and sugar with superb cappuccino. (A good friend with first generation Italian-American parents once told me he thought everybody ate cake for breakfast!) Dinner every night was amazing. First came a long board of prosciutto and salami, two kinds of pecorino, the farm’s honey, and a basket of fresh bread. After the first night we begged the chef to at least halve the quantity.

Freshly made pasta followed. I remember tortellini with sage and butter, pici with cinghiale, tortellini with seasonal mushrooms, gnocchi, Ribolitta soup, each perfectly made. The secondi always featured Chianina beef cooked in some Tuscan style, with a fresh vegetable or two. Of course, bottles of the farm’s red and white wines were uncorked when we sat down.

And the desserts to choose from! Tiramisu, panna cotta with berries or chocolate, decadent chocolate cake were the ones we always picked from but there were more. Dessert arrived with bottles of Limoncello, grappa, and Vin Santo. In an agriturismo it’s great to walk (waddle or stumble) to one’s room after all this, and not to pass on the drinks because you must drive!

We loosely planned our days around the three scenic drives in the Rick Steves Tuscany book. On Sunday we had 3 PM reservations to tour La Foce Gardens. These gardens are stunning, and we were the only Americans in our small group English tour. https://www.lafoce.com/en
During WW2 a British woman Iris Origo, and her Italian husband, developed the gardens. I picked up her book War in Val d’Orcia in the garden’s bookstore, but haven’t read it yet. According to stories our guide shared, the Origos sheltered partisans, evacuees, and refugees as the war drew closer to their estate, and eventually saved the lives of 32 young children.

On the way to La Foce we stopped in Pienza, as apparently did most of the population of Tuscany on this sunny Sunday afternoon. It was a quick visit, time dependent on the only parking place I could find. Pienza is a lovely town, but much better without the crowds.

Monday was dedicated to Siena. Easy enough to park in the underground lot near the escalators that whisk you uphill, landing you near the Duomo. The inlaid marble floors were completely uncovered and there weren’t too many people. A beautiful day for lunch on the Campo, a little shopping, and a lot of wandering.

Tuesday we went to nearby San Gimingnano. We needed to wash some clothes at the elusive self-service laundromat and hiked uphill and down with Googlemaps for way too long before we realized it was in a neighborhood outside the city walls. Grateful for the South African visitors who deciphered the instructions for us, or we would never have figured out that detergent is added automatically by the washer. Sometimes it takes a village.

Our time in San Gimingnano could have been more productive, but I did find an out-of-the-way gallery with an outstanding sculpture exhibit. When she learned where we were staying, the gallerist offered to deliver the small piece I bought, because it was on her way home, and that’s where she rode horses. And there’s a wonderful gelatera on the main piazza.

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On Wednesday we drove the scenic loop through the Crete Senesi with a lunch stop in peaceful Buonconvento and a destination of Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore by 3PM when the Benedictine monks sing the Liturgy of the Hours in Gregorian chant. This is starkly beautiful countryside and easy driving. My only complaint is the lack of scenic pullouts. I could have taken some wonderful photos if I’d had anywhere to pull over, or if I could have spotted a pullout soon enough to slow down without the Audi on my rear bumper mating with my little Fiat.

On Thursday morning we returned our unscathed car to the airport in Florence, taxied to the train station, then took another Italo on to Milan.

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Milano

We had a total of 24 hours in Milan after leaving the train station and before heading to the airport. We could have crammed in more, but this was enjoyable. We stayed at the Hotel Grand Duca di York less than 10 minutes’ walk from the Duomo, a lovely hotel with perks like afternoon Prosecco and an extensive breakfast.

A few months ago I was lucky to book tickets for the Last Supper on the official website. https://cenacolovinciano.org/en/visit/#Book I also added the guided English tour: The tour lasts approximately 45 minutes: 15 minutes of contemplation before Leonardo's Ultima Cena, and 30 minutes to discover the history of the most famous painting in the world. We had a wonderful art historian guide who taught me more than I learned in art school and gave fascinating insights into the restoration process that has lasted over decades. Our tickets were 23 euro, which might have been the senior rate. Highly recommend this one. While we were waiting for our tour group to go in, watching the Italian kids in their school uniforms playing in the open square was high entertainment.

Our hotel recommended a good restaurant, ten minutes away and overlooking a church, filled with Italians, and I wish I could remember the name.

We spent our last morning at the Duomo. Zipped up to the rooftop by elevator then down a lot of steps into the church itself. Not too many people, but many places to sit and contemplate. A walk through Galleria Vittorio Emanuele amidst the fashionistas, and it was time to call finito on our sunny Italian adventure.

After our long taxi ride to Malpensa, we were greeted at check-in with news that Milan’s other airport was shut down on strike, and there was a fair chance we wouldn’t be going anywhere because of strikes and air traffic issues in other parts of Europe. I don’t let news like that ruin my day, but it did cancel any interest in any last minute duty-free browsing. (I don’t want to carry one more thing!) But we did board and leave, almost on time. Landed in ATL at an F gate (not a dreaded E gate with the long hike) and at midnight, with no other international flights landing, we were in the car in under 30 minutes.

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On Driving in Italy - IMHO

You can’t get to an agriturismo without a car, and I think it would be time consuming and complicated to visit many Tuscan towns without either a car or a driver. I was glad to have a tiny Fiat that parked easily and scooted between cars on narrow streets, but less thrilled on hills and short onramps when my accelerator was jammed to the floor.

I learned to drive European style while living in Germany, on roads with mostly predictable, rule-followers. I find Italian driving a little more…exciting. If you have decent skills and are decisive, you can probably drive just fine in Tuscany, though it may not be the most relaxing of vacations. Some kind of navigation system, and more importantly, a calm person riding shotgun who can read roadsigns and count exits is the deal maker for me. The most difficult part on this trip was the beautiful weather we experienced every day, and the golden Tuscan sun that was shining directly in my eyes heading east every morning and returning home facing west every afternoon! Not such a bad problem to have! Ciao!

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What a delightful and informative trip report! The fun you had was visible in every sentence, and the details were very useful. I was just in Venice for a week with a girlfriend myself, who had also never been, and it was so much fun. Our favourite day was trying to find the maxiumum number of Chorus Pass churches we could cram in. The calle, campi and canals in between were just as beautiful as the churches, which were each unique. We also had perfect weather and made sure to get to Burano early and leave before lunch. Good advice!

Thanks for all the details about rural Tuscany. We’re off to San Gimignano next week so I’ll be sure to follow some of your tips. I agree with you that Milan deserves more credit than it gets.

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Thanks, Nelly! If you're near San Gimingnano, the agriturismo where we stayed also acts as a restaurant, mostly on weekends. Pretty festive on Saturday night! Food was consistently so good and I suspect much less expensive than most tourist focused SG eateries.

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Terrific report, Ruth! It was such a fun read over my morning coffee; your descriptions are so vivid that I can almost see that "golden afternoon light" in Venice, and feel your relief at finally navigating that tiny Fiat out of Florence. Yikes! So many good tips for other travelers, too. Well done!

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I’m glad you were able to seize the moment with those tickets and your A List friend and have a wonderful trip to some lovely northern Italy destinations. I also delighted to read that you did trip to Italy last year with your grandsons! Did you do a trip report that I missed?

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Mona, last December's trip with my grandsons does have a trip report called The Christmas Market Trip that Diverted to Italy! We're trying for Germany again this year, leaving November 23. Fingers crossed the Christmas markets don't cancel again!

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So impressed with how you and your friend bought airline tickets at the last moment.
I very much enjoyed your trip report. I felt like I was in Venice again but this time with you. We were there in August 2021 and St Mark’s was not illuminated. I will have to return. BTW, we took the secret itineraries tour in August (with 8 people because of covid) but it does run in the summer. It was not even hot that day!!

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Ruth, what a fabulous trip report! Enjoyed your format that brought back fond memories of the region. Prosecco by the liter? Spritz and Gelato- oh my! What a wonderful adventure to share with a friend. You made my day! Well done.