Italy 2004, Trip Report
                                                         BY : Kathy Palmer

We left for Tuscany from Dulles with Don and Mary Ann Whitcomb on Thursday, May
27th, 2004.  After a 7 hour flight, we arrived at London’s Heathrow airport and were
transferred  to Gatwick airport by bus.  About an hour ride.

On our flight to Pisa we flew over the Alps.  They were snow capped and beautiful.  In Pisa
we picked up our rental car and Don (our driver for the trip) drove to a Holiday Inn where
we spent the night.

Sat. May 29th:  Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Begun in 1173 and immediately began tilting
because the soil could not support the weight.  Closed in 1989 because of the tilt (18 ft. from
vertical).  Since then it has been stabilized and is open to the public.  Behind the Leaning
Tower is the Duomo (church).  Beautiful white marble building built between 1068 and 1118.  
The huge bronze doors are worn and shiny from people touching the carved figures.  Behind
the Duomo is the Bapistry.  Because of pollution statues have been removed and the large
doors have wooden replacements.  Around the complex are remains of a  medieval wall.  It
was an impressive place to start our trip, although the Tower still didn’t look too stable to
me.

From Pisa we drove to Lucca, a walled city that was once the capital of Tuscany.  The walls
are the only major city walls to have survived 19th century destruction.  We toured the San
Frediano Church located at the end of Via Fillungo (popular shopping street).  The inside of
the church was very simple and plain except for a large, intricate font.  It almost seemed out
of place.  We walked to the Piazza Amfiteatro  that was once a Roman amphitheater.  There
are now apartments around it.  Many had flowers cascading  from window boxes.  Very
pretty.

From Lucca we drove to our villa.  Located up a mountain from the town of Greve, in the
Chianti region.  Saying the roads to the villa were narrow and winding is an understatement!  
With relief we turned into a driveway and headed down to what we thought was our villa.  
We were told our villa was even higher up.  Trying to get back up to the road , we backed  
into a tree and  scraped the rental car.  Undeterred, we drove farther up the mountain and
somehow Don made a seemingly impossible turn into a very steep dirt driveway.   More
relief when we finally found the villa, a large, beautiful stone house.  Our section had 3
bedrooms (one with separate entrance) 2 baths, kitchen, living/dining room, and a patio
overlooking absolutely gorgeous scenery.  There was also a  large swimming pool.  The
flowers around the villa were beautiful.

Drove to Greve, shopped for food at a COOP (small, by our standards) grocery store.  
Bought food for breakfasts and dinners.  Also, wine and different, unusual cheeses.   Ate
dinner at a restaurant in Piazza Matteotti.   Another harrowing trip up to the villa.

Sun. May 30th:  Fixed breakfast, relaxed on the patio waiting to report to the hosts that the
Whitcombs had no hot water.  Met the host’s very large dog, Brichallo.  Part collie, part
German Shepard , part horse, who knows?  Terrific, friendly dog.  Hot water restored, we
drove to the trash receptacle for a stinky cheese drop.  Bruce had picked out a foul smelling
cheese  that was so bad we couldn’t keep it in the refrigerator.  He had to hold it out the
window as we drove down the mountain.  All trash is taken to strategically located
receptacles.  Trash trucks cannot maneuver on the narrow roads.

Drove to Panzano and stopped at an open market.  Had lunch at Il Vinaio, a wine tasting
restaurant.  Had a spectacular view of the countryside from our table.  Stopped at
Montefioralle, a very small walled town.  It had  cobbled streets, covered passageways,
stone houses with beautiful flowers planted near doorways and a quaint church at the top of
a long stone stairway.  More terrific views.

Back up to the villa for dinner and the first of many wine tastings.

Mon. May 31st;   Had breakfast on patio.  Sunny, beautiful day.  Drove to Siena, a city
know for it’s tall towers.  Very long, steep street up to entrance of Il Campo (piazza)  The
Duomo is a huge black, white, pink and green marble church.  Very ornate.  Beautiful
stained glass windows, marble mosaics and engravings on the floor, black and white walls
and a blue ceiling.  Critics have referred to it as a tasteless iced cake.  Great shopping
opportunity.

Drove back to have a wine tasting dinner at  Vicchio Maggio, a castle near Greve.  Also had
a lecture on the vineyards and toured the winery.  Wine was so-so.  I believe we sampled 5.

Tues. June 1st:   Drove to San Gimignano on a narrow dirt road (surprise), stopping at a
monastery at Badia a Passignano.  Stopped for gas in Poggibonsi.  93 euros per liter, about
$4.00 per gallon.  

San Gimignano is the “city of 14 towers” and considered one of the authentic and best
preserved medieval towns of Tuscany.  The towers were built as a show of strength and
power.  The taller the tower, the more powerful the family.  Originally, there were 76
towers.   Drove to Volterra which was originally an Etruscan city.  Contains part of the
original city walls.  Famous for it’s alabaster which is sold in many shops.  Narrow, cobbled
streets, many arched passageways, more good shopping.  Driving back, we stopped in Badia
Passignano for dinner.  Excellent restaurant.  Tried the highly recommended Brunello wine,
which, in my opinion, was the best we had the whole trip.

Wed., June 2:  Drove to Radda, a small town with a very nice park, no crowds, and another
lovely view.  Drove back to Greve.  Had lunch at a trattaria.  Watched a kid’s volleyball
tournament in the piazza.  They seemed to use the piazza for daily city events, all well
attended.    It was Italian Republic Day, grocery (COOP) closed.  Bought food at a small
pasta shop- fresh ravioli, bread, antipasto, wine.  Excellent!

Thurs., June 3:  Burglars during the night.  Stole money from our rooms while we slept.  
None of us heard a thing.  They walked right by our bed and into a walk in closet and took a
wallet.  Just took cash, no credit cards or ATM cards.  Left the wallet, back pack, etc. on
the lawn.  Very creepy feeling knowing there was someone in your room while you were
asleep.  We were in such a remote area we never thought to lock our doors while we were
there.  Our hostess, Ann Maria, went with us to file a report at the police station.  Police  
seemed to think it was a roving band of Albanians that hit holiday homes.   Filed a report
and caught a bus to Florence., “the heart of Tuscany”.  Saw the incredibly lifelike Statue of
David by Michelangelo at the Galleria dell Accademia.  It was carved from one large piece
of marble and was just breathtaking.  Other famous works, ”Rape of the Sabine Women”,  
“Tree of Life” painting, and unfinished statues, also by Michelangelo.  All very impressive.  
Walked to the Duomo (church) which holds 20,00 people.  Large murals and paintings.  
Walked down to the crypts.  Across the piazza is the Bapistry, the oldest building in the city.  
East doors took 27 years to create.  10 bronze panels, each a scene from The Old
Testament.  Saw Ponte Veccio (covered bridge) over River Arno.  The only Florentine
bridge spared by the Germans during WWII.  It contains gold and jewelry shops.   In   
Palazzo Vecchio saw a second statue of David (it replaced the original that had been
damaged by vandals while in the palazzo) and one of Neptune.  Very crowded.  Had gelato
(no one makes gelato like the Italians)  in Piazza San Croce where Michelangelo and
Galileo are buried.  Bus back to Greve.  Don cleverly decided  to drive past to a turnaround
and approach the “driveway from Hell” from the other direction for easier access.  Worked
like a charm.  During dinner at the villa, our host, Paulo, brought us a bottle of local wine
and reminded us to lock our doors when we went to bed.  Hardly necessary, we more or less
barricaded them that night!

Fri., June 4:  We decided to take the day off and relax by the pool.  We referred to it as our
“chill day”  which was appropriate considering the temperature of the water.

Sat., June 5:   Drove to Montalcino, a city famous for Brunello wine.  Had lunch and toured
the Rocca, a 14th century fortress.  Drove to Rome along the coast.  Very pretty.  Spent the
night in Rome at a Holiday Inn near the airport.  Bruce and Don returned the rental car and
explained the damage.  The cost of the trip went up significantly.

Sun., June 5:  Flew from Rome to Heathrow (London) and from Heathrow to Dulles .  

Random Thoughts:  Tuscany is a beautiful area of Italy.  Even small homes have olive trees
(we had an olive tree outside our bedroom door) and vineyards.  They all make their own
family wine.   The people were friendly, helpful, and many spoke English.  As in other
countries, they are taught English in school.  

Be aware that Italians are not “timely”.  Nothing starts/opens at posted times.  At least that
was our experience.  For example, in Greve, we waited ½ an hour for the information booth
to open.  The kid’s volleyball tournament in the piazza was an hour or so late starting.  We
had to wait to report the burglary until the policeman finished his breakfast in a restaurant
down the street.  No one seems to mind.

Anyone contemplating a trip should be aware that most towns were built with steep streets
and many stairs.  There is very little, if any, handicapped access.  Wear comfortable walking
shoes.   I would suggest traveling with little cash.  We relied on ATM machines for enough
cash for one day and used a credit card for larger purchases.  Use a money belt and/or a
neck pouch to carry cash and cards.   Pickpockets are all over Italy.  We learned the hard
way not to leave doors unlocked at any time!   Driving can be stressful on the narrow
winding roads, especially at night  (no street lights).  A good area map is a must.

My gauge of a successful trip is whether I would go back again.  Yes, I would.