Province Of Pistoia, Italy
15th June 2023
Sorry for the delay in publishing this blog for my trip to Tuscany last month.
Even at my age life is full of surprises. I got a call at the start of February from The Travel Department to advise me that I had won a holiday to Tuscany in May, having entered a competition for said holiday on their website. Hard to refuse……
Thursday 11th May 2023
Accompanied by nephew Dave we left Glasgow at 0410 and in an hour reached Edinburgh Airport. I used the Fastpark facility which is just beside the terminal for the first time and it works very smoothly for dropping off your car. The Ryanair flight was two hours forty minutes to Pisa and left two hours late.
Our guide Allesandra Sarappa met us off the plane and escorted us on the forty minute transfer to our Hotel in Monticatini. There were 18 of us from the Scottish flight and we were told that the rest of the group comprised 30 from Ireland who had landed yesterday. Our hotel was the Grand Hotel Plaza and Locanda Maggiore which is in a very central location in Montecatini (pop. 21,000). Inside the building is very grand although some of the fittings are a bit elderly. It would be easy to list some minor things which were an issue, but overall I have a positive view of the establishment. The staff are very friendly and helpful and the place has a family feel. We were able to negotiate a bigger room with a view onto the main town square.
After checking in we headed over the square to an establishment called Ricciarelli for the obligatory introductory pizza. Recommended. Rather than a buffet dinner in the hotel in the evenings, there was table service which helped the group to integrate well. The dining room is called Verdi's Room as the great man liked spending time there, or so we were told.
Friday 12th May
At 0900 we headed off the Florence for a day trip. We were issued with headphone and audio set, which was miked up to the guide. The bus dropped us off near the National Central Library (Biblioteca Nazionale) and we walked 15 minutes to Piazza Santa Croce. Our guide was Matteo and he took us on a two hour walking tour after which we were left to our own devices.
This was my third visit to Florence and it is one of my favourite places to visit in Europe. It not only has beautiful historical buildings stuffed with art and on a river setting, it also has a great vibe just while walking around the busy streets and squares.
In no particular order we saw the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio and the famous and dominating Duomo Cathedral. We passed through the small side streets coming across markets. Little was new to me but the sun was blinking and the whole place was a joy to be in.
Part of the group took a lunch option. Dave and I headed to Berbere Pizzeria, a place Dave knew from visiting before. After the sun blinking morning a thunderstorm broke with thunder, lightning and hailstones. I've never quite seen the like but we were safely ensconced with Pizza and a wheat beer. I will try and load a video of this onto the site. After the storm stopped we took a walk along the River Arno before heading back to the bus.
Saturday 13th May
Today was a free day and we set out to explore Montecatini and its surroundings. Monticatini is a spa town and described by a Skye man of my acquaintance as 'the Strathpeffer of northern Italy!' Our first stop was the art noveau Parco delle Terme spa complex. The is an amazing building in terms of both interior and exterior so please check out the photos. I saw some folk drinking the waters so I tried a small sip. Big mistake! I felt nauseous for a few hours afterwards. Avoid!
Behind the spa complex was a funicular railway which climbs up to Montecatini Alto Village. (fare E7.50 return). We bumped into fellow tourists Neil and Susan from Fife on the car. The village has a Romanesque church (Santa Maria) as well as a medieval clock tower. We visited both but the main attraction was the views from the top over Montecatini and surroundings. We ended up back in Monticatini for a late lunch. We would both highly recommend La Botteghina Maialetto. This establishment is a butcher's shop/deli but also sells food from its range which you can eat outside. Was this one of the best burgers ever? Close certainly. We just chilled for the rest of the day. Another excellent place for coffee and cake is Pasticceria Giovannini which was just across the square from our hotel. For a refreshment of quality Trip Time is the place to visit.
Monday 15th May
A number of friends had suggested a visit to Fiesole, which overlooks Florence. As it was a free day from touring we caught the 0847 train from Montecatini Centro to the main station of Florence. The journey took about one hour and cost E12 return. I hadn't been on a double decker train for years. It was mobbed. On arrival in Florence we bought bus tickets at a Tabak. The cost was E1.50 each way and took about 20 minutes up the hill on the number 7 bus. Fiesole is described by some as a suburb for rich people from Florence and it certainly has a large number of expensive looking villas.
The main thing I was told about Fiesole is the views over Florence. Fiesole is three miles from the city and 295 metres above it. Even more impressive than the views is the Roman archaeology. You pay E7.00 to get into a site containing a fairly well preserved Roman amphitheatre as well as remains of baths and a temple. A unique feature for me was the colourful meadows in the grassy areas between the walls and buildings. Beds of daisies, dandelions and red poppies permeated the whole area. I don't know if my pictures do this justice but I think we were fortunate to be there at a time of year when the newness of the growth compared with the fading of the ancient.
Fiesole is in reality a half day trip. We walked around and saw a number of sites, most of which are close to Piazza Mino (the main square). Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall), Il Duomo (Cathedral) and dominating is a large statue of a meeting between Vittorio Emanuelle II and Garibaldi. Further away from the square is St Francis Convent which seems to be a working site. The monk's cells were evocative for me of Martin Luther's story.
On returning to Florence we visited the Central Market. The Food Hall upstairs is amazing and made us regret having lunch in the square in Fiesole. A definite destination if I visit Florence again. Thanks to all the friends who recommended Fiesole. If you visit Florence or the area and have half a day it's well worth the trip up.
Tuesday 16th May
It was largely wet today I'm afraid to report. We had our tour to Siena and a quick stop in San Gimignano on the way back. The journey to Siena was about one hour forty minutes from Monticatini.
It was raining as we made our way up the hill into Siena and our first stop was in the Basilica Caterina We spent quite some time in there waiting for the weather to improve. There are relics of St Catherine inside and on display, namely a skull and thumb. Pretty gruesome and a sad sight.
As the weather improved we carried on with a city tour. It is beautiful and I feel that it really requires a full day's attention at least. The Siena Cathedral has an amazing façade with the Baptistery beside it. How much better it would look if the sky was blue but I'm afraid you'll just have to get my dull sky photo attempts. The tour stopped for lunch at the Piazza del Campo, where the famous Palio horse race takes place. Please look this up on YouTube. Well worth checking out! It is quite a spectacle, but sorry to say not quite so good for the horses. The town hall (Palazzo Pubblico) is a striking building.
We then drove on to San Gimignano, known as 'The Town of Fine Towers.' Sorry to say it turned wet so I took a few snaps and then headed in for a coffee. It looks lovely and I would love to visit it in better weather.
Wednesday 17th May
Our Irish friends departed early this morning. We decided on a long lie and after a while I decided to visit Pistoia, a town three stops away (15 mins) on the train heading towards Florence. Dave decided to chill on his last day. By the time I got there it was siesta time so I had a ramble around the streets for an hour or two before heading back. Most of the sites were closed. I saw the Cathedral of St Zeno which has a great façade with Baptistery opposite The town hall is also in the same Piazza del Duomo. I also walked to the Ospedale del Geppo which is a medieval hospital founded in 13th/14th centuries. It has an unusual frieze at the front façade. The one hour underground tour of the facility sounded interesting but my timing was bad and it was closed. I then headed for Piazza della Sala, which is the social and commercial hub, which was also deserted. Other highlights of Pistoia (not during the siesta time!) would be the Museo Capitolare (Cathedral Treasury), home to many art treasures and I passed the San Giovanni Fuorcivitas Church which is highly decorated on the outside.
I learned a lesson today. Get up early to sightsee and don't hit your Italian destination near the start of the afternoon. In smaller places it will be closed….
We chilled and flew back on Thursday 18th without any problems.
All in all a good trip. I dare say most free trips are! Weather not ideal but the sightseeing was great. Montecatini is a great jumping off place to visit the places mentioned here as well as Lucca and Pisa which I didn't go to. The Travel Department type of trip seems to suit me with organised tours plus free days. If back in the area again I would definitely revisit Siena and San Gimignano in better weather and for at least a day each.
Finally thanks to Dave for coming along. Great company as always. To my Scottish and Irish fellow holiday makers (who are too many to mention individually), we both very much enjoyed your company. Maybe we will meet on another Travel Department holiday?
I hope you enjoy reading this blog. The food we had was really good and the variations of Chianti a daily pleasure at dinner. The area visited is busy with British and Irish visitors. No language problems. Hopefully the blog will give you a guide (if not too detailed) should you visit. And enjoy the photos (blue skies or not!)
All the best