Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Our Italian Sojourn - Part Two


We arrived in Florence by train at the Santa Maria Novella station which is HUGE and has a lot of cafes and even a nice supermarket. It also has a Mc Donalds and yes the veggie option is available too (what a relief).

An important note here:
All public toilets are of the paid category, it costs anywhere between Eur 0.50  - Eur 1 to use. The other option is to go to a cafe, eat something and then use the toilet there for free. And of course - no water in the toilets. We are so used to this coming from India and having lived in the Middle East that we take it for granted. Flushable wipes are a good option to carry though I don't know how eco-friendly they are.

Keep an eye on your valuables at all times and I don't recommend wearing expensive jewellery. It's best to keep the gold and diamonds at home and go to Italy wearing something very inexpensive - saves a lot of headache! If you're using a backpack, wear it in the front .

After checking into our hotel (no recommendations here, our hotel was comfortable but not the sorts I can recommend), we relaxed a bit before heading to the Eco Florence tour in the evening. This is a highly recommended tour! The pick up is at the Church of San Philipe in the main square - our guide was a lady who drove an electric cart and we were given audio guides to listen to. The biggest highlight of this tour is the Piazza Michalangelo, which is a uphill drive to a point where one can get the best view of the city of Florence! Thumbs up !

You can read more about the Eco Florence tour online and it is bookable on TripAdvisor/Viator etc. 

Florence is SO beautiful - it has the old world charm, the cobbled streets and there's all the beautiful Renaissance architecture all around. 

The next day we headed off on the Best of Tuscany Tour. This is a group tour, travel is by an airconditioned bus and the points of sightseeing are the towns of Sienna, San Gimignano and Pisa. It is a full day tour and can get a bit hectic with little kids but given that there's a lot of travel by the bus, there's plenty of time for them to get rest and sleep off for a bit. The Tuscan countryside is a sight tto behold! After our trip to Sienna, we stopped at a farmhouse for an authentic Tuscan lunch with homemade ingredients. We also tasted the wines - Yum !!

Sienna is very rustic but beautiful, San Gimignano is vibrant with little shops selling trinkets and cafes etc. And Pisa!! No words to describe what we felt at seeing the Leaning Tower - it's surreal!

The Best of Tuscany tour involves a LOT of walking and especially in Sienna and San Gimignano - all of the walking is uphill. I recommend wearing good walking shoes - I practically lived in them all through the trip !!

This tour is also bookable online and a big thumbs up from us - highly recommended!!


After enjoying Italy for a whole week, we travelled to Milan by the super fast AV train that departs in the morning. Overall, our experience with Trenitalia has been very positive including interactions with their staff at the customer service desks everywhere and even the staff on board. They are very kind, very helpful and supportive. 

Milan - what can I say! It is one of the fashion capitals of the world - it is stylish! The architecture is modern, everyone is on the go. The city has a fantastic subway network of 4 lines, of which one line has a driverless metro as well. Because there are 4 lines, the subway routes are not as easy to understand as the one in Rome, but what I especially liked is that you are never too far from a metro station. The metro connects the whole city and is a VERY convenient mode of transport as compared to taxis which are expensive. 

We stayed at the Novotel located near the Ca Granda metro station - an excellent property and highly recommended. The shopping district of Milan goes by the name of Buenos Aires and it is located very close to the Duomo - some great deals are always available on the choicest of brands. 

We went on two tours in Milan - both extremely good and recommended. Do remember that none of the tours offer a pick up from your hotel - so it is your job to figure out how to get to the meeting point. The first was a tour to the village of Turino from where we boarded the Bernina Express towards the Alps and onwards to the lil Swiss town of St Moritz. The highlight of this tour is the train ride through the mountain passes - it is very exciting for kids and adults alike! The climb is quite scenic and your eyes will never tire looking at nature's bounty. Keep your camera(s) charged and ready to click !! It was 28C in Milan versus 10C at St Moritz - cold!! The guide took us on a beautiful walk along the lake and then there was some free time to spend drinking in the natural beauty of which we could never get enough!

The other tour we did was that of Lake Como and Bellagio. The drive to the village of Como is so spectacular, and once we get to the village, there's a little cathedral there to see. We spent the best time lounging by the side of the pier on the benches there. There are free bikes to ride around a LOT of space for children to run - win win !! The tour continues with around a 45 minute cruise to the village of Bellagio. Sumedh was happy to look at all the ducks that seem to love the waters in Italy and at one point we also spotted a gorgeous Big white Swan when we docked at Bellagio! 

It is worthwhile to mention that we had Indian food delivered to our hotel twice by the Taj Mahal restaurant and they offer excellent service! Here's a link to their presence on Zomato  (

We flew back home from Milan with our hearts bursting with memories - this is a trip we'll always remember. We managed to fall in love with everything - the culture, the vast blue expansive skies, the friendly amiable Italians and the yummy food! 

And yes we're already planning our next holiday next year to a new destination - let's see where we end up going!!!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Our Italian Sojourn (A Multiple Part Series) - Part One


Early in the month of March, we decided to finally plan a holiday after  a 3 year hiatus. Our last holiday was to Greece in April 2014. 

There was no such reason for not going except that our little one is not very comfortable in confined environments such as flights, so we wanted to wait till he was a bit older. He is nearly 5 now so we thought better now than never!

As we looked towards European destinations - Italy came to mind. I have always wanted to go see the Leaning Tower in Pisa, and the ancient historic sights of Rome. But the south of Italy is said to be beautiful and very picturesque - the Amalfi Coast is very popular with tourists.We spent a few weeks of debating whether we should visit the south of Italy or the north . We had only 10 days in hand - and ultimately we decided on the North.

So we chalked out a route which would be Rome - La Spezia (Cinque Terre in the north west) - Florence and finally Milan. The plan was to fly into Rome and fly out of Milan and our dates were June 23rd - July 4th. 


We landed into the Fiumicino Airport and we were aghast to see the horrific queues at Immigration. About a 1000 odd people crammed into the hall and obviously the airconditioning was not able to support the load so it was sweaty and hot. There is no priority for elderly folks or families with kids - we requested them but we were turned down. We did see Australian and US passport holders being fast-tracked - no idea why.  If we were warned beforehand, at least we would have kept some extra food and water for the kids. Eventually when we were an hour away from the counters, we requested a lady ground staff and though she was quite rude, she fast-tracked us. 

We checked into the Mediterraneo Hotel at the Central Termini, which is a beautiful location to stay. It's very close to the Metro line and all major locales such as the Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain etc are just 2 stops away. The hotel also has a lot of cafe style Pizzerias all around so there's no dearth of choice for meals. The Central Termini is full of branded stores and it also has a nice McDonalds that does stock the McVeggie burgers. We needed a break from pizza by the 2nd day, so this was a nice option for us to refuel. 

We thoroughly enjoyed our half day tours of the Colosseum, the Vatican and we explored the Spanish Steps etc by ourselves. The Colosseum is exactly how you see it in photos - huge, imposing and the history of this space literally pours out of each facade. Our guide led us through the history of this arena, and the way she was explaining it, we could imagine the scenes in our minds.

The Vatican City is inside Rome and has its own entry point demarcated by a huge wall. The tour we went on basically covered three points - the Vatican Museum, St Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The Museum is filled with paintings from that era and plenty of frescoes. There is a lot of walking and stair climbing which is ok but it got uncomfortable due to no air-conditioning. The St Peter's Basilica is enormous, with beautifully carved gates and columns; but indeed the Sistine Chapel is the best of the 3. Serene, tranquil and it houses the best ceiling frescoes painted by Michaelangelo. In those days, without any equipment and just using vegetable dyes - he has truly painted masterpieces, some of which are 3D. The intricate detailing of each painting there literally gave us goosebumps!!

We got stuck in a heatwave that hit Rome - temperatures hit 35C which is not very high if you consider the heat in the UAE but it was HOT outdoors.
Luckily, the evenings were very pleasant and post 4 pm it was quite nice to be outdoors. Considering that sunset is only by 9:00 pm , we had quite a lot of time to tour in the evenings.


After 3 days in Rome we headed to La Spezia. There is a direct train (Trenitalia of course) from the Central Termini and the journey is about 4 hours through the picturesque north western terrain. I highly recommend getting the Eurail pass, we got ourselves the 4 day pass and it was quite useful. The trains are extremely comfortable and there's enough space even for big pieces of luggage.  

As the train approaches La Spezia, the glorious seascape comes into view. Imagine the turquoise languid waters that gently splash over the rocks ashore - bliss!! La Spezia is a small scenic village and it is through this station that the train departs towards the Cinque Terre (the 5 villages). Many tourists like to hike through to the villages, it's not too far. 

We stayed at the CDH La Spezia, a 10 minute taxi ride from the railway station. This hotel is right at the central square, just minutes away by walk and there are ruins of a castle in front of it.  The village square is a delight to just stroll around, there are little shops everywhere and even a small kids play area. Overall, we were enraptured by the ambience and the vibes all around. A village is a village - wherever in the world you go ! :)

We took the little train to the 5 villages, but got off only at Vernazza and Monterosso. The village of Monterosso has a nice small beach. Oh and if anyone prefers cruises, there are day cruises that depart from the dock at  La Spezia too.

After La Spezia, we visited Florence - keep watching the blog for further posts!