I think we just had our last big trip while living abroad. The numbers for the virus are going back up which means stricter mandates and more border restrictions. Northern Italy was the perfect way to end our European travels- Cody, me, Milo, and Scout… one big happy family road tripping through Europe. Forever grateful.
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When we traveled to Italy in May of 2019 with our friends Logan and Olivia, we heard the North and South had two different vibes from each other. Now that we’ve visited both, I have to agree.
Northern Italy meets the expectations of being just as beautiful as the southern half, a little bit slower, and a lot more relaxed. Our longest trip to date, we spent our time traveling from Germany, through Austria, to the northern half of Italy. Our time was spent in Venice (top left), Tuscany (two right), and the Cinque Terre (bottom left).
The South is fast and dirty and loud. The North is still loud, although not quite as loud (which is probably why so many Germans like to travel here ;)). The North’s driving scene is also just a bit more structured than the South. But all of Italy is louder than we have become accustomed to in Germany- even the dogs are louder. So Milo and Scout fit right in :).
There is also just a sense of calm and peace here. The rolling hills through the middle of Italy make for beautiful landscapes, tasty wine, and wide food variety.
We started our road trip in sunny, crowded, sticky, beautiful yet dilapidated Venice. That’s the best way I could describe our time in Venice. I can’t really even imagine the crowds pre-Covid – they must have been terrible.
We spent a good portion of our time in Venice hopping on loud and crowded Vaparettos (their version of busses but on water), only to jump off and navigate through crowded streets before finally making it to a quiet back alley.
I’m not sure how one could ever know where they are at any given time in Venice. The thing about these little historic towns is that all the roads eventually lead you to where you want to go. But the adventure is in the hidden gems you encounter along the way.
Venice had a certain charm about it (and I’m not just talking about the smell either). Although, the only time we smelled that famous “Venice Smell” was on our canal ride in the tiniest of canals with absolutely no airflow or water movement.
Out of all the places we visited on our trip to northern Italy, Venice was our least favorite. Our good buddy, Rick, described Venice as a town that is slowly losing all the locals and in a few decades will be a Disney Land of sorts. I can already see it happening and am glad we got the chance to visit before it’s local charm is completely gone.
If you can, I think everyone should visit there because it really is cool to see how the town was constructed. But with all the tourists, tourist traps, and overpriced activities (e.g. a Canal ride on a gondola- which is a must!) we are okay to not return.
A highlight of our time in Venice, for me, was meeting an American military family. One of the daughters stopped me to take a picture of them. And since we were all Americans, we started talking to each other. Come to find out, they are Aggies, Texans, and living just a few hours away from us in Germany.
The middle portion of our trip was spent in the countryside of Tuscany. You know that movie Under the Tuscan Sun? I’ve never seen it, but I can only imagine that its title represents the beauty that is the landscape of Tuscany, especially as the sun is setting along the iconic travertine homes and terracotta roofs.
Tuscany was the highlight of our trip and we are already planning on when we can return. We are thinking 10 year anniversary? If you can, make Tuscany a place on your Europe bucket list. You won’t regret it.
We started our time in Siena with a stop in Modena. We recently watched the show Somebody Feed Phil and he visited a store in Modena that specializes in balsamic vinegar of the region. After waiting for the American military family to finish up their tasting, we entered and were told all about balsamic vinegar by the store worker. She let us taste quite a few and even told us to come back after lunch with some gelato from the next door so we could try the balsamic on the gelato!
Once we wrapped up our tasting in Modena, we got back on track towards Siena. We home-based out of Siena for the Tuscan leg of our trip. Neither of us knew what we were expecting when we arrived, but this wasn’t it.
The minute we stepped out from the breezy alleyways connecting the streets of Siena onto the huge promenade opening up to the Il Campo, we both took a collective sigh.
I stood there for a good thirty seconds, my eyes trying to take in all the sights, my ears hearing all the sounds. You know how some moments you look around and can’t really fathom all the beauty that God has created? This was one of those moments for me.
In Siena, you need good walking shoes because the hills are steep and long. The city is full of beautiful archways and tons of hidden she-wolves. An Italian legend tells us that twins were born and were without a mother. The twins escaped their murderous uncle/father (depends on which legend you are reading, the Roman or Sienan) and a she-wolf raised the twins. The boys survived and that’s how Siena was founded.
Another day in Siena would have been nice. There isn’t a ton to do there but our time in Tuscany was spent mostly on the drive through the hills and in Florence.
Because of that, we only had one evening and half a day to explore Siena. The beauty of Siena and the slow pace of life there is what makes it an attractive place to spend extra time relaxing.
The highlight of the trip, for me, was our drive through the small Tuscan towns nestled in between the hills. Of course there were vineyards littering the rolling hills, but the landscape of Tuscany is so vastly different even just a few kilometers away from each other.
When I think Tuscany, I think rolling green hills filled with vineyards. We saw hills and cliffs. There were pastures of green vineyards with juicy grapes dangling from the trees, just a few days from harvest. We also saw a lot more brown than I expected.
Santa Giulia Winery – Tuscany
If you ever make it to Tuscany, there are two things you have to do (and they both involve food.) One is to set up a tasting appointment at Santa Giulia Winery (just email them, they’re quick to respond). Not only do you get to sample the famous wine of the region – Brunello, but they also offer a 0km food tasting.
We arrived at their family farm right in the middle of their day-to-day life. Their son was celebrating his birthday with a few friends. The proprietor and his wife were having a lively discussion, you know those ones married people have?!? 😉
It was all in Italian but we could tell instantly someone miscommunicated (or misheard) something. Gianluca just laughed and said “you are married so you know!” And we knew. Dropping in on their real life made it all the more fun and special to see how these Tuscan Wineries work on a day-to-day basis.
Gianluca (the owner of this family inherited winery) showed us how the wine is produced, aged, and bottled. Kae, his wife, talked to us about the different wines and answered my numerous questions about the property and their daily life on the farm. Nonna (Gianluca’s mom) made the pasta fresh that morning, with tomatoes from her garden.
The prosciutto came from their pigs. We sampled and bought the olive oil that was grown on their farm. And you could taste the difference in every bite.
I’ve never tasted a tomato so sweet and delicious that I could eat it like a steak…Cutting it up and happily delivering each bite into my mouth.
We intended to spend, max, two hours here. But the food was too good… We couldn’t let any of it go to waste. Plus, I wanted to visit the vineyards, taste the grapes right off the vine, and see the family garden. Finally, after three hours we said our goodbyes and began our return to Siena.
Lucky for us, we got to see a wild boar on our way back home. The vineyards have to keep electric fences up to keep out these destructive animals. The locals say the joke is on the boars though. Wild Boar is a common item on the menu in the Tuscan region. And not only did I get to see one in its natural habitat, but eat one too.
La Taverna di San Giuseppe in Siena
This brings me to the second must of Tuscany- La Taverna di San Giuseppe. This meal will live in my heart for a long, long time.
While not actually a Michelin star restaurant, it’s been reviewed numerous times and is listed as a recommended establishment. My thoughts? It isn’t pretentious enough and the food sizes are too large to be given a Michelin Star.
That’s why it’s the perfect place to enjoy a delicious, somewhat upscale, and reasonably priced meal in Siena.
Quick back story on Michelin stars. Stars (up to three) are awarded by anonymous food reviewers employed by yes, you guessed it, the tire company. Started in the early 1900s, guides with top restaurant recommendations were produced with the intent of getting more cars (read: tires) out on the road.
There is one Michelin Star restaurant in Regensburg and we saved up so we could eat there, just to say we tried it. While the food was good and the service was great, the price did not match the taste of the food. Plus, all the other patrons around us were doing that thing where they take a bite and pompously over masticate the food.
That’s not really our food scene. Which is why the restaurants given the “Bib Gourmand” rating (which means great food, great price) are more our taste. (Now we’ve added “research Bib Gourmand restaurants near intended city” to our travel checklist.)
We ate figs prepared four different ways as our appetizer. Also on the app was the best mozzarella cheese I have ever tasted in my life. For my meal, I had wild boar and cocao pasta. OMG TAKE ME BACK RIGHT NOW! This place literally thought of everything, including a chair for my purse.
The picture quality here is lacking because I was not going to be the person to pull out my actual camera to take pictures of our food. I felt embarrassed enough to be using my phone.
Due to an unfortunate experience of Milo howling the entire night before we went to Florence, our time there was short. We were in and out in just a few hours – enough to visit David and walk around to the highlights on Rick’s walking tour.
I found the Florence style of the Dom (bottom right) absolutely beautiful and a fun difference from the cathedrals we typically visit.
Our last leg of the trip was spent in the Cinque Terre, which I hadn’t really heard of before researching our trip. Cinque Terre means “five lands” – five fishing villages from the 1300s.
The colorful buildings are nestled along the ragged and rough hills of the Italian coastline. And from each of the five towns, you can see the other four jutting out into the ocean.
All five of the towns are just a tiny bit different so it was important for us to visit them all. To get to them, though, you can drive (thirty minutes to go 4 km…so ya know, not the best option), boat, train, or hike. We did a mixture of all but we realized once getting here that the real draw for the Cinque Terre is the hiking (and apparently the plethora of Instagram photo ops) (and the gelato!).
The gelato we tried in Corniglia, pictured above, is basil gelato with olive oil drizzled over the top. (Don’t knock it till you try it, Dad!)
We stayed in a sleepy little town high above the five main Cinque Terre towns (pictured below) because driving and parking in the Cinque Terre is nearly impossible.
We split our time in the region into two days. The first day was spent visiting the three southern villages. Our initial plan was to hike from our town over to Corniglia, which we did. The dogs tagged along and they did great.
We weaved our way through vineyards with relative ease, saying some variation of “Ciao,” “Hello,” “Hey,” or “Hallo” based on whatever language we heard them speaking as they approached. We enjoyed the views and I even tried a couple of grapes along the way. Almost instantly the trail changed from peaceful and somewhat level to a challenging downward descent to the town of Corniglia.
We made it into town and walked down the main street- wide enough for two people at a time (so not Covid Safe). We stopped at “A Butiega” where we assembled ourselves a picnic and found a bench.
The food of the Cinque Terre region is pesto, anchovies, wine (of course), gelato, and focaccia. I’m not sure if it’s because this was our first try of focaccia and pesto, but it was the best we had the whole trip.
Next, we pulled an audible and decided to hop on a train down to the most Southern of the five towns, Riomaggiore. The initial hike ended up being more strenuous than we expected and we weren’t sure the dogs were up to another hike. This is also where I see God keeping an eye out for us. 🙂
We explored the town of Riomaggiore and its rocky beach. Yes, actual rocks people are sunbathing on. The walk to the beach was really narrow and not dog friendly. Instead, we took a breather on some steps before catching the train to the next town up – Manarola.
Manarola is the closest town to where we were staying – a ten-minute bus ride or an hour and a half hike. After touring the town and sampling some more gelato (our second of the day), we headed to the bus stop.
This is when our plan changed and we felt really grateful for choosing the train over the hike earlier in the day.
Unfortunately, the tiny bus wouldn’t hold all of the people waiting for it. (Plus, the gaggle of 6 or 7 Italian girls who showed up ten minutes after us, pushed themselves to the front of the line, even in front of the other 15 people waiting before them.)
So….we had the option to wait another hour and twenty minutes or hike up the trail that literally goes straight up. Exhausted, annoyed, and unwilling to risk waiting and the same issue happening again, we opted for the hike.
If you know Milo, you know his energy. Even he was struggling on this hike. Some of the steps were so steep that it took him a few attempts to make it up. Luckily, I had some yogurt back at the Airbnb so they got a special dinner for all their hard work.
It’s hard to tell in the picture, but both of these pictures were taken in the same spot. The one on the left is looking down at where we started and the one on the right looking at where we were going.
Our health apps told us we walked 121 flights of stairs. Needless to say, all of us were exhausted by the time we made it home.
The mountains are steep and covered with vineyards. All throughout the mountainside were tracks like the one pictured below. It took us a bit to figure out what they were for, but as you can see here, there is a little car on it. The trailers hold baskets of grapes and carry them up to the roads.
On day two, we hit the northern two cities. Since we hiked so much the day before, we opted for a slow morning. Deciding not to hike this day worked in our favor because the humidity was on Houston level so we really weren’t doing much and still sweating.
We drove to the furthest town, Monterosso, since this is where we wanted to end our day. Then, we hopped on a train and headed to Vernazza. Each of the towns have their own little feel, but really at the end of the day they are all pretty similar.
Once we were done walking around (and eating gelato and focaccia) we hired a boat to take us to the last town of the day – Monterossa. This sounds super bougie but was only €15 extra than taking the large boats that serve hundreds of people at a time, and gave us way better views than we could have ever experienced any other way.
This town is the largest of the five and has an “old” and “new” city. We did a quick walk around the town but by this point we were hot and sweaty and ready for some beach time.
Four of the five towns have beach access, although only Monterosso has a “typical” beach. So that’s where we ended up! It was relaxing and beautiful, despite knowing that at the beginning of each summer loads of sand are brought in to build this beach for all of us tourists.
Trattoria dal Billy
Our last meal of vacation was at Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola. It was delightful. We ordered the seafood taster for an appetizer. They brought us around 14 or so of those little white dishes full of seafood ranging from sardines to fried fish to octopus. Every bite was delicious and the view was dreamy.
After dinner we took the bus (this time no issues with getting a seat!) back up to our Airbnb and hung out on the patio with our pups. This patio was cozy both morning and evening, and where a lot of this post was written.
If you’re planning to travel to Italy, especially from the U.S., I probably wouldn’t recommend adding the Cinque Terre to your itinerary because it’s just too inconvenient and so overrun by tourists. I really can’t imagine what these little towns would have been like last summer, before Covid.
While France is still likely our favorite overall trip we’ve taken since moving abroad, Northern Italy has offered some of the best experiences of all our time in Europe. The wine tasting, private boat ride in the Cinque Terre, and driving through the Tuscan hills are not things we will forget anytime soon.
Until next time,