In June 2017 we spent almost two weeks in Italy. Our American friend Nancy was with us for the first 6 nights in Tuscany, then Martin and I went on to the Dolomites via a brief visit to Venice.
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The three of us flew from Manchester to Bologna (see below for practicalities) then picked up a rental car to drive to Castello di Fulignano, near the tiny village of Casaglia, where we had rented an apartment for 6 days. The Castello is an old Italian building on the top of a hill not far from Poggibonsi and we had a spectacular view from our living room to the towers of San Gimignano.
The apartment was furnished in traditional Tuscan style and was very well-equipped. There was a wonderful sunset on our first evening there, while we ate in the outdoor restaurant.
It was by no means our first visit to Tuscany but the scenery was as beautiful as ever and it was nicely hot. A day in Siena included walking round the old streets, lunch at a restaurant in the campo, and the cathedral. It was also our first encounter with large tourist crowds. Parking was easy there as there are a series of escalators up to the old town from the car park.
On another day we took a drive round what is now called Chiantishire where there are many more hilltop villages. After a bit of shopping in Castellini we had an excellent lunch on a terrace at Volpaia.
I did not venture out every day as the aftermath of my hip operation was still troubling me, and I had visited this area before. The other two went to Volterra and also to Florence where the crowds were enormous. There was no hope of getting into the Accademia but advance tickets for the Uffizi worked out fine.
We ate 4 dinners in San Gimignano. There are several car parks around the bottom of the old town. Car parks 3 and 4 are near a lift whch takes you up to the quieter end where we had two excellent meals. One restaurant in the main square was a bit variable, but the nearby gelateria had about 40 flavours.
We drove up to the Venice area, where Nancy meeting her daughter to go on a cruise, and stayed in Chioggia on the south side of the lagoon. Chioggia is a kind of mini-Venice
with real fishing boats and canals. About 50,000 people live there and there aren’t many tourists. You can go to Venice from there by boat and bus, but I declined this journey and watched the locals for a long time.
We stayed at B&B Antico Orologio which was an excellent choice The owner met us at a car park on the edge of the town where non-residents have to park. Our room and the sitting room were lovely and breakfast included a strawberry tart made by his mother. Dinner at a local fish restaurant was entertaining as we were floundering a bit with the menu which was only in Italian. The owner finally brought out a whole raw fish to show us what a rombo is – it turned out to be a kind of brill or flatfish. We finished our meal at a nearby gelateria. Only in Italy do you see so many groups of adults eating ice cream in the street.
The next day we decided to tackle Venice. We drove round the lagoon and then across the causeway to the Tronchetto car park which claims to be the largest in Europe with almost 4000 places. From there we took the waterbus number 2 which went down the Grand Canal.
There was obviously little change in the buildings since we were last there in 1969, but many many more crowds.
You could hardly move for people in San Marco where a long queue for the cathedral snaked round. We made our way through the alleyways via a good pizza lunch to Rialto and the obligatory photo of the bridge, then soon took the waterbus back to the car.
Although we had been to the Alps several times, we had never seen the Dolomites and so took a gamble on the weather and booked 3 nights half board at the Pension Sellablick in the village of Colfosco. This also turned out to be an excellent choice. It’s a small village and we were on the edge with a nice view down to another valley.
The food at Sellablick was excellent. On the whole we prefer to eat out at local restaurants but half-board came up as a good deal on booking.com. Breakfast was like what you get in Germany or Austria with ham, cheese, eggs etc not just the Italian breakfast of a sweet pastry and coffee. When we ate dinner out elsewhere the menu was a la carte and we just selected one or two courses usually with an antipasto then a pasta or main dish. At Sellablick we had salad, then an antipasto, followed by primo (pasta), then secundo (main dish) and a dessert. I declined the primo after the first day.
On our first full day there we discovered that it was Bike Day when hundreds of masochistic cyclists were doing the 58km Sellaronda which includes three 2000m passes. The road was closed until 3.30 but after that we just took a drive up to the Passo di Gardena.
The weather was kind to us on the second day when we decided to drive the Sellaronda. Plenty of cyclists were going round again. We stopped at each of the passes, having lunch at one of them. Some of the place names were in Ladin as well as Italian and German.
The Dolomite peaks are more jagged than elsewhere in the Alps, and were just as spectacular even when cloud was swirling around. There were plenty of signposts for walking trails but I think many of them must be very steep. We didn’t see anybody on a via ferrata where you have to go up iron rungs holding on to a cable.
There were plenty of motorcyclists as well, but driving was fine even when we met the local bus. We did take one or two side trips, but returned pleased that we had chosen Colfosco and Sellablick.
The weather started to go off after that with some rain and thunder. We left Colfosco, drove over some of the passes again (yet more cyclists) and south towards San Martino Castrozza, stopping at a few villages where we discovered that, although the scenery looks like Austria, opening hours are definitely Italian with long lunch breaks. There were several small churches with lovely frescos on the outside.
Then we were in an area where there appeared to be fewer tourists. Lunch was beginning to look difficult until we found an excellent pizzeria in Predazzo which was almost full of locals, not surprisingly as there were about 30 different pizzas on the menu.
San Martino Castrozza is a larger place, more like a ski resort and with the one-way streets we had some trouble finding the Park Hotel Miramonti which had few guests who all seemed to be Italians. It was a bit more basic and institutional than the Sellablick but they did give us a room which was definitely miramonti and we took some good pictures of the jagged mountains which turn pink in the sunset.
Our last night was at Asolo which is just on the edge of the mountains. It was downhill quite some way from San Martino Castrozza and after more sight-seeing (churches) and lunch (another local pizzeria) we got into some heavy traffic and a thunderstorm. Our B&B was not actually in Asolo but 2-3km outside on the flatter land. Ca’ Cinel Asolo turned out to be another old house in lovely gardens. The owners spoke excellent English and their four dogs made us feel at home.
We decided to go to the old hilltop part of Asolo for dinner and had to walk up some way from the car park. We had just reached a long colonnade by the first buildings when another thunderstorm started and so we ate in a local restaurant there, well-looked after as we were the only customers. We watched a torrent of water rushing down the street as we ate, but it soon cleared and we even found another gelateria on the way back to the B&B.
Driving back to Bologna was no problem until we got very near to the airport and had trouble finding a petrol station. There was a long queue at the Ryanair bagdrop but Manchester passengers were being picked out to jump the queue. The line for security was also chaotic but having a walking stick does wonders if you are in a hurry and we were soon at the gate.
We flew on Ryanair from Manchester to Bologna and back. These full flights were better than our rather low expectations. It’s well worth paying a little extra to sit together (no middle seats a long way away from each other!) and to be sure that your larger carry-on doesn’t get put in the hold. Leg-room was OK for a short trip but the seat does not recline and there is no seat-back pocket. The food we purchased on the way back was a reasonable price and quite edible. They board the plane through stairs at the front and back and so there is no jetway. Fortunately Manchester did not live up to its weather reputation – we would have got rather wet if it had.
We rented a car for the entire trip from Alamo and had an almost new diesel Golf. There was a long queue at the rental desk at Bologna and the sole agent was taking about 5 minutes for each person. The cars were only a short walk from the terminal in tiny parking spaces, as we discovered everywhere in Italy. Diesel was about the same price as in the UK.
Driving was absolutely fine. We took the autostrada where we could. There is a ticket system for tolls and the machines took credit cards easily. We stopped at several service stations which were all very clean indeed, with plenty of things to buy and good coffee, but a little cramped inside. Car parks at the tourist places were well-organized. Instructions at the ticket machines were in several languages and they all took credit cards.
Our elderly satnav was excellent except for a few new one-way streets. We also used a Michelin map of all of Italy, a Geocenter map of Tuscany and a Marco Polo map of Austria which includes the Dolomites. We already had all of these and some guide books to which we added the Lonely Planet Florence and Tuscany.
All our accommodation was reserved through booking.com which we find to be the best site to use. More often than not the hotel e-mails you with more information.
We paid for everything with a Halifax Clarity credit card which does not make any charges for foreign currency transactions. Even after the fall in the pound after the EU referendum we found prices to be very reasonable. The yardstick of two scoops from the gelateria was mostly 2.50 euros.
The Internet worked well wherever we stayed, although there was no signal in our room at Colfosco, only in the bar. We made plenty of use of the new EU-wide facility of no mobile phone roaming charges.