SEP 10,2012 - SEP 20,2012 (11 DAYS)
Last September (2012) we went my girlfriend and I; to tour northern Italy for 11 days. We were trying to combine every sort of experience - meaning lakes, The Dolomites, Tuscany, Cinque Terre and all that lay between, which turned out pretty well for us in retrospect (with the price of driving "quality time"). We'll try to write the most important tips, what we liked most and what we didn't and how much we paid. So the key points before we start.
Hotels: We book most of them using www.booking.com. Very convenient site, and we were happy working with it, and the accommodations we received.
Car - We rented the car using Economy Car Rentals. Rather cheap. Worked great. One litter gasoline is around 1.7-1.85 euros. Price changes between different gas stations.
Roads - Pay attention(!) Many of the roads, especially in the lakes in the north, which seems like highways, are actually limited to 50 km/hour. Calculate your time accordingly... In addition there's a toll road (A1 and A22). The speed limit is 130 km/h (not listed anywhere) and they cost several Euros (the ratio is around 10 Euro for a 200 km drive).
Praking - It's important to read the signs, although most of them are in Italian, they somehow pass the message about whether or not you can park on the sidewalk.
In cities/central places parking requires a fee (you pay in advance and leave the receipt in the car). Try to ask your pre-booked hotels if there's a parking space in the hotel or if there's free parking in the area.
GPS - Very comfortable. We brought one with us (with Italy maps of course...). Pay attention it's not taking you on dirt side roads, like it happened to us sometimes in the north.
Communication - if it's important for you to have internet, bring your smartphone and use a local SIM. Generally, there are various deals with the local companies (Vodafonr or TIM). Bottom line, for 20 Euro we got a data package (this and this MB) and credit for local calls and text messages along with long distance calls.
We won't write too much about it, and the matter is discussed in countless forums and other articles (besides the ice cream, food is overrated). We'll only mention that we brought a foldable cooler, bought lunch at the local super markets, and ate at nice places on the road. Recommended.
1st and 2nd days: In our opinion, the most beautiful lake of all Italy's big lakes (and the least touristic). We landed in Milan at night, we picked our rental car ("road tiger" in the form of a Fiat Punto....) and immediately drove to our hotel in the Stresa. The hour was after midnight, and after half an hour of wandering around, trying to find our pre-booked hotel (which ended with a random meeting with our hotel owner in the middle of the street) we crashed and went to bed.
The next day we did two things:
(1) Sail to Isola Bella, one of three little islands which were owned by the Borromeo family. In the island there are some houses, stores, the family estate and gardens - the gardens are very pretty and worth a peak. The sail cost 4 Euro per person (back and forth), and the entrance to the estate and the gardens required an extra ticket.
(2) Taking the cable car to Mottarone - a mountain close to Stresa, in its peak a 360 degree view of the entire region and nearby Valleys (each of which have a lake) . On the way down we stopped at the mid station at Alpino, to tour the botanical gardens. The gardens are nice, the view to the lake even nicer. Overall it was a nice tour, and at the end we caught the cable car again and got down to town. The cable car cost 17.5 Euro and entering the botanic garden is another extra 3 Euros.
We skipped sailing to the the other two islands (which were supposedly less impressive). But we didn't agree to skip the ice cream in the city center. What ice cream! Everywhere we ate ice cream, and it happened in every place we reached, we were disappointed.
After dinner (not something to "tell the kids" about), and bumping with local officers (which were dressed in civilian clothes, they showed us their badge and asked to see the restaurant receipt - apparently business's taxes are a major issue in Italy) we then retired to sleep for the night.
3rd day: We drove north to Intra and took the ferry to the other side of the lake (to Laveno). From there we continued driving toward Lake Como (two hours approximately), which included shouts from an old lady at a gas station (we were only looking for toilets), and a lot of driving on roads in 50/70 km/h.
We gave up stopping in Como city (we heard it was crowded and not worth the visit) and continued toward Bellagio, with a stop for lunch on the lake's bank (the area is mountainous and the road doesn't pass on the lake's bank, so you'll need to find the roads which allow that).
In Bellagio we toured for two hours (many tourists were there also) and then drove toward Sullo where we planned to spend the night.
4th day: In the morning we drove to Lake Grada. We knew in advance that we'd only managed to "taste" the southern part (and we wouldn't reach to the northern prettier part) , and therefore we can only recommend you'll read other articles on this place.
From the lake we continued east and reached Verona at evening. Half an hour walk from the hotel to the city center was enough to pass through Castelvecchio (the local castle), take a picture with the Arena as the background (third largest Amphitheatre in the word), walking Via Mazzini street which was packed with people and stores (closed when we arrived...) and to eat a mediocre dinner (conclusion: when you ask for a restaurant recommendation from the hotel you sleep at, don't necessarily "jump" at what they offer....).
We were sorry we didn't have time to go up and see the city at night (which should be very pretty), but at least we left something for next time.
5th day: The next day we started in Verona to visit Juliet's house with it's famous balcony. According to belief, this was the place where the famous scene in Romeo & Juliet took place.
It's a small yard, full of tourists, who mainly come to get a photograph with Juliet's statue and shoot the balcony. Some of them hang a padlock on a net in the yard, as a symbol for their love... for the Juliet museum (which allows climbing to the balcony) we didn't enter.
We continued wandering around in Verona (partly repeating the night before our trip), including a short visit to the bridge above the river in the Castelvecchio (we didn't visit it's art museum) and entered the impressive Verona cathedral (the Doumo)
We finished with Verona and it was time to start driving north, toward the Dolomites. The long drive didn't allow stopping on the way for 2-3 hours tours (Rabbi falls where part of the plan), but we did manage to see some views. We left the highway at Trento toward the west to drive between the villages in the Dolomiti di Brenta (Brenta group) area. First in the trip, and not last, we drove down a very pretty road, with villages and lakes on the way. We stopped for a late lunch on Molveno lake.
After quite a long stop (tip: don't lock your car keys in the trunk...), we continued east, on tortuous roads, toward our final destination Campitello di Fassa (near Canazei), which we reached at dark, and were surprised to find out that our no-breakfast hotel served dinner.
6th and 7th day: Touring the north.
We reached the mountains, so shouldn't we walk a bit? We searched for a nice walking trail, short and not too hard. So we chose Marmolada - "authentic" Italian mountain and Iceberg... After 20-25 mins drive, we parked beside Fedaia lake (Lago Fedaia), took the cable car, which is some kind of basket designed for couple/single, to 2900m height (several meters below the height in which the mountain changes to iceberg). From above we could see the lake, the nearby summits, and two trails curving down. We chose the shorter, and after an hour and a half walking (very relaxed pase, although the descent wasn't always fun), we found ourselves at the bottom again.
We stopped for lunch at the lake bank, and in the remainder of the day we decided to visit two near passes Sella and Pordo. In each one of them we did a quick walking tour, mainly to catch the view from both sides. In Pordo there's a cable climbing to the nearest summit - we skipped that because we reached there just before its closing time.
The next day we faced a dilemma - our desire to tour the north, vs. the need to start driving south toward Florence We started driving on road SS48 (started with a mountainous landscape, and ended in a beautiful valley), on our way to Tovel Lake. It's a small lake, with clear water reflecting the surrounding mountains. In order to reach it you have to drive for 15 mins on a dead end road. We encircled the lake by foot for an hour.
8th day: we don't have plenty to say on Florence, cause we toured it less than a day (we got rained on most of the time), so we recommend you read about it elsewhere.
We visited the the academy museum (Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze) - don't skip ordering tickets in advance, we waited for an hour and a half in line
We had a lunch of good meat at Trattoria Mario (http://trattoria-mario.com/Site-2013/index.php), open between 12:00 to 15:00. You have to reach the place and register in line.
As the evening rolled in, we continued to our final destination - Mezzano In Chianti, a place in the middle of nowhere, where we discovered an old stone house divided into very large apartments (well equipped kitchen, pool, BBQ outside and other goodies). This is the place we would spend the following two nights.
Around 12:00 we reached Terra Bianca winery (http://www.terrablanca.com/) for a wine tour and tasting. The tour was scheduled a day in advance. In order to reach the winery we needed specific instructions, and to drive several kilometers on dirt roads... The visit itself cost 10/6 Euros, depending on how much wine you want to taste.
The following hour and a half we received, just the two of us, a comprehensive and interesting explanation from our guide Patricia, on the wine, the olive oil, including samples, tasting, and visiting the production line. All that remained to us was continuing directly to lunch, this time without the wine...
Toward the afternoon, we reached San Gimignano, one of the central most places in Tuscany. We recommend you read dedicated articles on this town, most famous for its many towers. Besides the excellent ice-cream in the main plaza (Piazza della Cisterna) with its well, don't miss Rocca (a several minute walk) - a fortress with a beautiful viewpoint. We climbed the highest tower in town (near the city hall), we wandered around its streets, and... that's it. Three hours were enough for us, but some will say that even a full day isn't enough. We finished the day by eating Ravioli in in our room.
And there was evening and there was morning, the tenth day... On this day we drove along Tuscany to our hotel in Riomaggiore toward Cinqueterre. We passed two villages - Impruneta which to our opinion wasn't worth a visit and another village (we forgot its name) till we reached lunch at Pisa.
To Riomaggiore there's no entrance for vehicles, and parking in the parking lot is very expensive (23 Euros per day). It's recommended to park in the white marked places on the road leading to the village (several mins of walking from the village itself), or try to arrange a parking place via your hotel. We assume it's the same for the other four villages in the area.
Last time we'll write it's recommended to read dedicated articles on the area... The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. It is in the Liguria region of Italy, to the west of the city of La Spezia. "The Five Lands" is composed of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. You can walk between the villages (5-6 hours if you pick the short path, close to the shore line, where the part between Corniglia to Manarola is closed), or you can reach them by train (a combined ticket to the train and walking cost 10 Euros).
If you're looking for piece and quiet - this isn't the place... The place has a nice view to the sea and special villages, is very touristic, and toward lunch the villages are filled with tourists.
We chose to walk along the two open paths between the southern villages - the path from Riomaggiore to Manarola called the Via Dell'Amore ("Lovers Walk"), and later the path between Corniglia to Vernazza.
Last day: Driving to Milan left us with only a few hours to wander around the city. Usually they recommend parking in the outskirts of the city and taking public transportation. We arrived on Sunday so we found a parking space in the town center (walking distance from the Doumo and a reasonable price, 2 Euros for five hours).
After two hours of walking in the city, we arrived the center where we made a wise choice - to split...
She went for a shopping spree in the countless shops. While I chose to visit the local Doumo (impressive cathedral, the third largest in the world).
The split ended with a touching reunion, which continued to our last pizza in Italy (at least for now) and the expected return to home - after 2000 km on the roads, the 9 different ice creams we tasted and a single Fiat Punto...