As you might remember, I took a few trips around the Mediterranean this spring. I still haven’t shared the wonderful experiences I had in Tuscany with you, so here we go. This trip in Mid-April was a family holiday and we stayed in self-catering holiday apartments in a place called Castiglionchio for 7 nights. But they were not your odd holiday flats, but situated in an old castle, surrounded by a vineyard and olive trees (see the photo above).
The owner had bought the estate when it was more or less in ruins, but had rebuild it and decorated the flats with attention to details and the love of Tuscan architecture. Ikea furniture? Forget it, huge iron-cast bed frames, heavy wooden closets, and an open fireplace in the kitchen. How good can it get?! The kitchen was huge and well equipped, so it was fantastic to cook there. I was and still am in love with this place.
The castle itself is very old, they traced its beginnings back to over 1,000 years ago! It couldn’t be more perfect though. It has a little church where they hold services on special occasions such as Easter or Christmas, and an old big tower which has been converted into a holiday apartment for 11 people. The little gardens are well looked after, and in the summer there are 2 swimming pools to cool off in. To sweat out some of the calories you were feeding yourself at night, there is a tennis court, table tennis and trampolines (they are meant for the kids, but since I am petite…). They have a little interesting museum with knick knack they found when restoring the place and old farming equipment. And there is a restaurant that you can have dinner at if you tell them in the morning.
Best thing: this place is a working farm. They grow olives and wine. Do I need to say more?! Their little shop in the reception area sells their own olive oils, olives, house wines, antipasti and preserves such as peaches and tomato sauce. The salads automatically tasted better with the olive oil and enjoyed on the little terrace outside of the apartment. They offer a tour around the estate with a tasting once a week and it is not to be missed.
Another big plus of this Tuscan dream holiday farm is the location. It is near a cute little town called Pontassieve, about 30 minutes drive from Florence. In Pontassieve there is a big co-op supermarket that has a fantastic fruit and veggie selection that had me drool. Also, they had some tasty soya burgers and quinoa zucchini patties in their chilled foods isle. In the old city centre there is also a health food store that sells things like soya and rice milk. We happened to stumble upon a little festival there were having one Sunday and bought some absolutely yummy homemade preserves from some older ladies. My favourites were their pumpkin with spices in olive oil, and their roasted artichokes in olive oil. We also got some lovely rose hip jam for breakfast (very rich in vitamin C).
For trips, Tuscany has so much to offer that we stuck with just the Northern part for this time. The nearest choice is historic Florence, which is about 30 to 40 minutes by car. Make sure you park outside of the centre as the historic centre is closed for traffic and the fines can be high if you go in by car. There will be lots of people, after all it’s Florence, but it is absolutely worth it. The old buildings, little and grand piazzas, the famous cathedral…
The cathedral is a beauty by itself. It is made up of three different colours of marble from the region, and has a giant cupola. Wander through the streets, soak up the historic atmosphere, have an espresso and some ice cream while gazing at the river Arno. The ponte vecchio (old bridge) spanning the river is lined with gold and jewelry shops in the upper price segment. Nice to look at, but didn’t buy anything this time.
I loved the palazzo vecchio, the old town hall, with its tall tower and impressive wall murals in the inner courtyard. If you have the time and energy, climb up the stairs in the Boboli Gardens and enjoy the view of the city spreading beneath you. If you are into art and sans kids in Florence, you can marvel at the artwork of masters such as Tizian and Raphael in the many museums, the most famous one the Uffizi. You could probably spend 3 or 4 days in Florence alone to enjoy all it has to offer. I will surely be back.
Another day trip took us to Pisa, we had to see the leaning tower once in our lives! You can reach Pisa via the autostrada, which costs road charge (about 8 Euros one way), or take a slightly longer highway that runs parallel to the autostrada for most of the time and is free of charge. Since we went on a nice and sunny day, we decided to go to the beach near Pisa and wait until the afternoon to visit the city, when (hopefully) the tourist masses might have cleared.
The beaches at Marina di Pisa are only a 15 minutes drive from the city. We had some fantastic ice cream right at the entrance of town, on the main street. They even had a soya vanilla flavour. Vegan heaven! On a side note, usually the fruit ice cream in Italy is vegan, so dig in. The beaches are mostly private and you have to pay an entrance fee to use it, but you get a sun bed and umbrella. It is more like beach clubs. Good thing it was still pre-season, so we didn’t pay anything. The water was still a bit too cool for my taste, but the beach was lined with lots of beautiful sea shells, and I am a sucker for that. So time passed quickly reading, collecting shells and playing football.
At about 3 pm we headed back into Pisa, parked at one of the guarded parking places (cost 2 Euros I believe), and strolled around the old town for a few hours. The big draw is the leaning tower, of course. It is a bit smaller than I expected, but very beautiful. Also, it is surrounded by a park and next to a big cathedral, which I didn’t expect. I was positively surprised by it, I have to say.
The whole place is built on a more or less dried up swamp, so all of the old buildings are crooked. Makes for some drunk building pictures hehe By the time we got there in the late afternoon, there were still many tourists, but the majority had already gone. So we took goofy pictures with the tower (of course you do once you’re there), and headed back at about 6.
Last trip we took was to a small village north of Lucca, called Ghivizzano, tracing back some old family roots. Another positive surprise! The old village is on the top of a mountain, topped by a tower. It is surrounded by the lush mountains of the Apennines. Its inhabitants were very friendly and up for chats. They are trying to develop it more as a tourism destination, and it certainly has the potential. The old village looks like a fortress from the outside, but hides little gems on the inside. Narrow streets, steep stairs, and lots of cats lazing in the sun. We spend a very enjoyable afternoon there, wandering the little streets, learning about its history and having – of course – more ice cream.
All in all, a fantastic trip that I enjoyed a lot. Because of the self-catering facilities it also kept the costs down, especially if you’re not just travelling as a couple. We went to a local pizzeria one evening and they were happy to make me a great pizza with lots of veg and without cheese. If you are having pasta, check with the kitchen before ordering if it contains egg, as the typical Tuscan pasta does. The local supermarkets provide you with everything you need and more, and if you travel by car you can bring lots of food presents back for yourself or the ones at home.
Here is my short summary for you:
Historic sites: ++ (the art and history buff will be in heaven; a bit crowded at times though)
Food: ++ (hearty, fresh, vegan friendly; and oh, the ice cream…)
Beaches: – (from the one I saw, I wouldn’t go there for the beaches, makes a nice morning or afternoon trip from Pisa, but Italy has nicer beaches)
Best time to go: spring or autumn (in spring the vegetation is lush and the temperature in it’s 20’s °C; summer is very hot, wouldn’t want to be in Florence with the crowds at over 30°C; autumn is grape harvest season, temperatures are mild)
Transport: fly into Florence and rent a car, or drive with your own car from central Europe (be aware of the road charges); limited access by trains
Money: pay in Euro; medium value-for-money (not cheap, not expensive), except for the tourist hot spots in Florence and Pisa, they are very expensive, so look out for small cafés where the locals go to and wander into side streets