Nealon Girls Trip to Italy
September 21 – 29, 2007
This was a very special girls’ getaway in honor of some milestone birthdays my sisters and I were celebrating (40, 35, and 30 – yikes!) We started planning this trip about nine months in advance and, given the fact that we could only take a week away from jobs/families/etc. we managed to combine a really nice mix of big city culture (in Florence) and small town scenery/exploration (in Bellagio).
Day One: Friday, September 21st
Our KLM flight left New York’s JFK airport at 5:40 p.m., and we were pleasantly surprised to see that we each had our own individual seat-back entertainment systems. This was a relatively short flight, as Atlantic crossings go, and we passed the time watching movies, chatting, and reading.
Day Two: Saturday, September 22nd
We arrived in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport at 7:20 a.m. local time (which felt like 1:20 am for us!), cleared customs and security and settled down for a 3 hour wait before our connecting flight. The Amsterdam airport was very easy to navigate, and we were surprised to see that most of the signs were in English. Our connecting flight left at 10:20 a.m., and we arrived in Florence at 12:10 p.m. We zipped right out of the airport and into a taxi for the short drive to our B&B – Panella’s Residence, on via della Pergola. The taxi fare was just 25 euros total (for all four of us, and our bags) and well worth it – versus trying to manage public transportation after a long night without sleep. When we arrived at Panella’s, we received a warm welcome and a quick orientation from Graziela (the owner) and then headed up several steep flights of stairs to our rooms. After unpacking and freshening up, we were more than ready for a quick lunch (nice fresh pizza from the bakery on the corner) and a walk around the city.
We started with the Duomo, as it was just blocks away from our hotel. My sister Kate and I foolishly decided to climb the Campanile (bell tower) and – after more than 400 steep steps straight up – were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the city, and very sore legs! After that, we strolled around one of the Medici Palaces and then headed back to the Duomo for a 5pm English language mass. This was my mom’s idea, and I have to admit it was really cool to experience the cathedral this way. After that, though we were ready to fall asleep, it was time to go home and get changed for dinner. We had 7:30 pm reservations at Il Francescano, in Santa Croce Square, and enjoyed a very relaxing dinner al fresco, including two courses and plenty of house wine, for about 25 euros per person (including tip). My risotto was fantastic! On the way home, we stopped for our first taste of gelato.
Day Three: Sunday, September 23rd
Breakfast at Panella’s takes place in a cozy little room that used to be the stable in this former (15th century) convent. Graziela made us feel right at home with juice, cappuccino, yogurt, breads, and her homemade apple tart. A great way to fortify ourselves for this busy day! We started out with a visit to the Central Market – a blocks-long outdoor market full of vendors selling silk and leather goods, jewelry, souvenirs and more. After stocking up on gifts for everyone at home, we had an early lunch at Café ZaZa. Personally, this was my favorite lunch of the whole trip. I had a sampler of three different types of traditional Tuscan soups, from tomato to vegetable to bean. Yum!
After lunch, we headed over to the Uffizi Gallery to pick up our pre-reserved tickets for a 1:15 p.m. entrance. The general admission line was HUGE, and we were very glad we had the pre-reserved tickets. The Uffizi, as expected, was amazing. Since we did not purchase the audio tour, we were very glad to have my sister Megan (our Art History major) along to provide commentary. After getting our dose of Renaissance art, we crossed the Arno River via the Ponte Vecchio, doing a little window shopping along the way. On the other side, we headed to the Pitti Palace and purchased a combination ticket that gave us admission to several of the palace’s exhibitions (including a display of gorgeous costumes/clothing from throughout the centuries) as well as the Boboli Gardens. The gardens were vast, and the hills/stairs were a bit too much for some of us after all the walking we’d been doing, but the parts we managed to see were beautiful. Plus, the views from the palace back over the city of Florence were worth every penny! At that point, we were tired of sightseeing, and a bit early for our dinner reservations, so we sat on one of the many bridges and people watched for a while. Florence is full of beautiful, well-dressed people and zooming motorbikes, and we saw a lot of both! Dinner this evening was at Osteria Cinghiale Bianco, and unfortunately none of us tried the wild boar for which the restaurant is named. I did have some delicious polenta con funghi, though, and lots of the house wine! We were very glad to have made advance reservations, as we watched the maitre d’ turn away many disappointed customers. After dinner, we enjoyed the warm evening with a nice stroll back across the Arno and home to bed.
Day Four: Monday, September 24th
After another delicious breakfast with Graziela, we headed out for a day trip to Siena. It took us a little bit to find the bus station (which was not precisely next to the train station as we had been led to believe) but, once we were there, we quickly purchased our tickets for the “Siena Rapida” bus (14 euros roundtrip) and got ready to shoulder our way onto the packed bus (the Italians seem to have no respect for orderly lines, and I was afraid my mom was going to get into a fistfight!) The ride to Siena took about 1 ½ hours, and we were dropped off right outside the city center, a very easy downhill walk to Il Campo. Words can’t really describe my first glimpse of Il Campo, as we came walking out of one of Siena’s tiny, shaded alleyways into the blinding sun that shone down on this enormous bowl-shaped piazza. Truly amazing! We wound our way through the steep alleyways to Siena’s Duomo and the adjacent museum. The cathedral itself was even more impressive than Florence’s, and we were lucky enough to be there at the right time of year to see the intricate inlaid mosaic floors (which are only uncovered in September/October). After a relaxing lunch at one of the outdoor cafes that surround Il Campo, and a quick gelato for the road, we headed back to the bus stop to return to Florence. We survived the requisite pushing and shoving, and found four seats together on the jam-packed double-decker bus. Once back in Florence, it was a nice stroll back to our hotel to wash up for dinner. We had not made advance plans for this evening, so we decided to try a nearby restaurant that had looked intriguing. Little did we know that La Giostra was one of Florence’s most highly-acclaimed restaurants. They laughed at us when we said we did not have reservations. Oh well. We found a cute bistro in the Santa Croce area (Bistrot Baldoria, on via San Giuseppe) and sat outside to enjoy the warm weather. On Kate’s recommendation, I tried a traditional (and delicious!) Florentine dish of ravioli with butter and sage. And, of course, a little pistachio gelato on the way home.
Day Five: Tuesday, September 25th
For our last morning in Florence, we wanted to go outside the city – to Fiesole – to see the villa where Kate had spent a semester while she was in college. We took the #7 bus from San Marco Square and were soon heading up the hill to the village of Fiesole. Once there, we walked down an unbelievably steep road to the Villa le Balze. Behind the imposing iron gates we found a villa set within gorgeous gardens (we could only tour the grounds, unfortunately, as the semester was in session) with a breathtaking view over the city of Florence. Afterwards, we strolled around the little village and then took the bus back down to the city to go back to our hotel and check out. Graziela called us a cab, and we headed off to the Santa Maria Novella train station to catch a 1:15 train to Milan. We printed our tickets at a self-service kiosk, picked up some paninis at a snack bar, and settled ourselves into our pre-reserved seats for the 3 ½ hour ride north. In Milan, we had only 15 minutes to make our connecting train to Varenna, but we made it. The one-hour ride along the lake shore provided some beautiful scenery and, before we knew it, we were exiting the train in Varenna and heading down to the ferry dock. Our first closeup view of Lake Como was cold and grey, yet still beautiful – with the wind-whipped water and the wisps of low-hanging clouds obscuring the surrounding mountains.
We caught the 5:50 ferry, and were walking off the boat in Bellagio just 15 minutes later. What a pretty little village! Just two main streets for car traffic, and the rest is steep stairways heading up from the lake. Our hotel, Hotel Centrale, was mid-way up one of those stairways, and it was a real cardio workout dragging our suitcases! We were welcomed at the desk by Giacomo, the owner, and taken to our third floor rooms – thankfully, via an elevator. The rooms were cozy, with sloped ceilings and skylights and a sort of a ski lodge feel to them (warm woods, etc.) After unpacking, we asked Giacomo for a dinner suggestion, and he called ahead to reserve us a table at Far Out (strange name, yes, but it turned out to be a very nice restaurant). We enjoyed fresh pasta, seafood, and wine, and then turned in early after a very long day of traveling.
Day Six: Wednesday, September 26th
We woke to pouring rain and cold temperatures and the sad forecast that this would be the weather for the next few days. We had the bad luck to have arrived while they were having some unseasonably cold weather for Bellagio (50’s in the day time and 40’s at night, with snow on the surrounding mountains!). Oh well, we decided to make the best of it. After a breakfast of yogurt/granola/breads in the cheery breakfast room, we headed out to explore the town a bit. But our first stop, naturally, was to purchase umbrellas. We visited the medieval church of San Giacomo, window shopped up and down the various stairways, and then had a warm and filling lunch of tomato soup and pizza at Antico Pozzo. Afterwards, we took the ferry across the lake to the village of Tremezzo to visit Villa Carlotta, a 17th century villa with extensive (and beautiful) gardens. Then we strolled along the lake shore taking photos, including the one below of an incredible floating pool set into a dock in the lake. We ferried back to Bellagio and did a little more shopping that afternoon. Or, I should say, while Kate and I shopped, mom and Megan discovered the local wine bar / internet café and spent some time sampling their house-made wines (5 euros/glass) and snacking on free cheese and crackers. That night, we had our one disappointing dinner of the trip, at another Giacomo-recommended restaurant (at the Hotel du Lac). The food was so-so, and the atmosphere was too formal and quiet for our taste. Oh well. We decided to choose our own restaurant the next night!
Day Seven: Thursday, September 27th
Another cold and rainy morning, but we decided to ignore the weather and walk to the Villa Melzi, on the outskirts of Bellagio, to explore their lakefront grounds. It was worth braving the damp weather to explore the gardens, and the chapel, and to continue past the Villa to the little fishing village beyond (where we saw some of the traditional old boats that were used to travel around the lake before the modern ferries and hydrofoils came into use). After another round of pizzas and paninis for lunch, and a quick visit to the internet café to check emails, we boarded the slow ferry for the 2-hour ride to Como. We could have taken a much faster hydrofoil, but Giacomo recommended (and we concurred) that it was much better to take the slow and scenic boat that stops at all the little lakeside towns. When we arrived in Como, we stopped for a coffee (we needed the warmth!) and a map, and then found our way on foot to the Como Culinary Institute for our evening cooking class. We had been looking forward to this evening for months.
The catalog had described a unique experience that included a trip to the market with the chef to buy fresh ingredients and a hands-on cooking lesson where we would be preparing a multi-course dinner that would then be served to us with appropriate wines. Unfortunately, the class did not live up to our expectations. The instructors were some very lovely high school students who tried very hard, but it was not the gourmet experience we had expected (and for which we had paid $220 per person!) As a side note, the school has since refunded a portion of our fee. Since the class did not end until 9 pm (at which the ferries were no longer running), we had pre-booked a private car and driver to return us to Bellagio. Our driver, Christian, spoke terrific English and told us all about his life Bellagio and his winters in his favorite vacation destination – Fort Lauderdale, Florida!
Day Eight: Friday, September 28th
We finally saw a glimmer of sun this morning and, after our morning cappuccino, decided to bravely head out without our umbrellas! We took the ferry back across the lake to Varenna and walked along their unique lakeside promenade to the Villa Monastero. This former monastery has been turned into a luxurious lakefront conference center/hotel but non-guests can still pay admission to explore the grounds. After that, Kate and I decided we were feeling energetic enough to attempt the half-hour climb up Varenna’s very steep “hill” (I call it a mountain) to the Castello di Vezio (castle) on top. After a very sweaty climb (and several rest breaks) we discovered a whole little village on the hilltop, complete with houses, shops and a small cemetery. As Kate aptly said, “If I lived here, I would definitely be having my groceries delivered!” When we made it back down to the lakefront, we found Megan and mom sitting at a café enjoying the sunshine. Since it was so nice out, we walked back along the lake to a restaurant we had passed, where we enjoyed a leisurely al fresco lunch. After lunch, we took the ferry back to Bellagio for our 3:30 pm tour of the Villa Serbelloni, an imposing villa on the hilltop overlooking Bellagio. Although the property is a private think-tank owned by the Rockefeller Foundation, they allow guided tours twice per day (of the grounds only). This was a very interesting tour, which provided background history of the village itself, the founding families, and more – plus some spectacular views of the lake, the surrounding mountains and (now that it was clear out) the pre-Alps in the distance. For our final dinner in Bellagio, we wanted to try a restaurant that we had been hearing lots about (from fellow travelers, as well as the guidebooks). Trattoria San Giacomo has only one seating per night, and a total of maybe ten tables in the whole restaurant, so we were lined up outside 20 minutes before the doors opened. And it was well worth it! Afterwards, we made one last visit to our favorite wine bar to check emails and purchase a couple of bottles of the house-made wine to bring home, and then we turned in for the night.
Day Nine: Saturday, September 29th
We slept in a little bit, enjoyed our last breakfast, and chatted with Giacomo until our car and driver arrived, at 11:15 am, to take us to the airport. The ride from Bellagio to Milan took about 2 hours, and he dropped us right at our terminal for our 2:55 pm KLM flight to Amsterdam. During our 2-hour layover in Amsterdam, we did some last minute duty-free shopping, grabbed some lunch, and then boarded our 6:20 pm flight back to New York. This was my first time on a double-decker plane, and it was amazing to see that many people (400 or so, I was told) in the gate area waiting to board! We arrived at JFK right on time (8:15 pm), grabbed our bags, cleared customs, and were on our way home to sleep – already dreaming of our next girls’ getaway!