After a year of planning a very fun and lovely wedding ceremony in Seattle, we were ready to honeymoon where neither of us had been before and a destination that had lots and lots of wine.
We had already been to France and wanted to go back to Europe for our honeymoon, but didn't think we could afford it after all our wedding expenses. Once we discovered Traveler's Joy, we realized that if we registered there, we just might be able to pull it off.
Since we were both liberal arts majors, our liberal arts souls had been tugged toward Northern Italy for many years as if by a cultural magnet - a magnet that we were convinced was hidden at the bottom of a large oak barrel of Brunello upon a beautiful Tuscan hilltown that we were determined to discover. We registered for a fall (October 15-29) honeymoon in Tuscany to search out great art, amazing food, and spectacular wine. Thanks to the generosity of our friends and family, we found all three.
We began our trip with four wonderful days in Florence. After checking into the Hotel Dali just a block from the Duomo and found out that our hotel was famous for celebrity appearances. All the girls from the 80's TV show "Alice" had apparently stayed there and signed pictures of themselves that hung on the wall near the "share a book" library. Marco manages the hotel and was great about recommending nearby breakfast nooks and other local tips.
The weather was sunny the entire time and we just about walked our legs off. We started off by clambering up the 467 stairs to the top of Brunelleschi’s famous Duomo, followed by climbing up the 414 steps to the Duomo's Campanile the next morning. The climbs were well worth the views, although being slightly afraid of heights made the trip down the inner dome especially frightening. Over the next couple of days, we toured Dante's House, the Uffitzi Gallery, and the Academia to say hi to "David". We headed across the Arno to meander through the relaxing Boboli Gardens of the Pitti Palace, and up to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where we sat upon steps listening to guitar music while enjoying a shared bottle of Chianti as we watched the sun set gently over the city.
We searched for Michelangelo's elusive "Victory" in the Palazzo Vecchio. It was located conveniently in the largest room - you really can't miss it, but somehow we did and had to circle back around to find it. James ordered an 18 euro gilotto, a "must-do" that actually lives up to its hype. The last evening we crawled the last few blocks to our hotel on fumes.
Luckily, there was an outdoor pizzeria across the street from our hotel. I couldn't stop Carrie from ordering caprese salad every time we sat down; she's an addict. The next day we caught the morning train for Venice and enjoyed a champagne brunch in first class, another Traveler's Joy gift.
Venice, as we found out, is very wet. Obviously it's always wet, but we arrived in the middle of a downpour, making it even wetter than usual. Other tourists we had encountered in Florence had warned us that it had been raining in Venice, so we weren't taken too off guard. Luckily, Hotel Adriatico was located within a short walk of the train station. Soon after checking in, the rain stopped and we were ready explore the watery city. We took the vaporetto up the Grand Canal, listening to Rick Steves through our iPod to help explain the bridges, squares, basilicas, and mansions along the way. By the time we got to St. Mark's Square, we were having fun but were freezing, so we headed into Harry's Bar, a favorite haunt of Earnest Hemingway. It was over-priced, although the food was good, and most importantly, the place was warm.
The second day was sunny and beautiful, a huge relief from the cold weather the day before. When the sun shines in Venice, the entire city shimmers as if everything was gold plated. This is especially true of St. Mark's Basilica. It's a gorgeous structure, although I couldn't help think that the domes on top kind of looked liked alien space pods that were about to hatch. We fell in love with the four ancient bronze horses that were stolen a long time ago, and the Venetians had the gaul to complain when Napoleon stole them from Venice. This apparently worked and the Venetians actually got them back. Replicas stand guard on the basilica and the originals are inside.
We decided to take a romantic gondola ride in the warm sunshine, a Traveler's Joy gift from two of our closest friends. We had a wonderful time making our gondolier laugh at us as we did and said stupid touristy things. He didn't blush when we kissed, certainly not the first time he had seen it happen. Afterwards, we took a vaporetto out to Lido to explore a beach on the Adriatic. It was cold and windy, but fun all the same.
That evening we took the elevator to the top of the Campanile (St. Mark's Square bell tower) and emerged just as two huge bells above our heads began tolling at 6:30. Our ears were ringing for quite a while afterward. The views over Venice twinkling at dusk were well worth going deaf temporarily. Later that night, both of us being of Irish descent, we searched out all three Irish Pubs in Venice.
The next day we took a train back to Florence, picked up our rental car, and headed due north on highway A1. The only problem is that Tuscany is south of Florence. Our Fiat "Panda" couldn't compete very well going up the hills with all the Ferraris and Maseratis. We eventually fixed our mistake and made our way south to Cortona to dry out "under the Tuscan sun". There we stayed at Casa Betania, an active nunnery with amazing views of Tuscany from its back patio. We walked up into town and ate dinner at a restaurant that served authentic Tuscan bean soup. Architecturally speaking, time froze in Cortona sometime between when Eruscans happily roamed the land and the Romans bashed them into submission. What remains is a splendid, ancient town that now hosts a thriving art community. And one Irish pub that stays open late. Very, very late.
The next day we drove to Montepulciano - less than 30 miles from Cortona - although it took us a little longer than expected. We inadvertently drove straight through the ancient Tuscan hilltop town, dodging people and medieval buildings, and navigating steep tunnels hardly wide enough for our car. We managed to not run over our fellow tourists and finally arrived at Albergo Duomo, a splendid hotel near, as its name suggests, the Duomo, which is spectacular on the inside and unfinished on the outside. One of our bucket-list items was to drink Montepulciano in Montepulciano, another Traveler's Joy gift, we set out in search of the evasive Vino Nobile. Assisted by Adamo, who didn't speak a lick of English, we were introduced to this freakishly marvelous wine, and Adamo rapidly became one of our best local friends.
We left Montepulciano and stopped at the quaint old town of Pienza and the abbey of San Antimo that Charlemagne founded, before venturing onto Montalcino. There they pride themselves on their lovely "Brunello" wine that we enjoyed at the base of a fortezza, a Medici fortress. We wandered high onto towering ramparts where we were rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside. Breakfast the next morning set our new standard for a breakfast setting.
We traveled onto Siena where we ate an amazing dinner late on a windy night at an outdoor restaurant on Il Campo, their sloping, half-moon shaped square they race horses around. We wandered about the historic city and found the one Irish bar located in the Piazza Gramsci. We capped our night off with a glass of wine on a balcony overlooking the old square where we listened to the Torre del Mangia until midnight. We soon found out it's not smart to be out in Siena after midnight since that's when the rich, generous, British law students come out to play and buy round after round of drinks. "Will", who we're convinced will someday become the Prime Minister of England, ended up taking us around to places in Siena that Rick Steves definitely did not include in his tour book. In the small hours of the morning, a rain storm rolled in as we stumbled back to Hotel Athena through the old, dark, confusing streets. By the time we made it back to our hotel, we were wet rats.
"Bright and chipper" the next morning (seemingly moments later) we toured around Siena, trying to stay awake. We had coffee staring at the Pallazo Pubblico's windows that appeared to be little wine glasses, and the building to its left that had windows that looked like giant wine bottles, mocking our sorry condition. We managed to tour Siena's gorgeous Duomo, overflowing with Renaissance art from all the greats.
We were soon on the speedway again heading out of Siena on a gorgeous drive, stopping at the roofless ruined abbey of San Galgano. We landed in Volterra, a high Etruscan town that is home to a wonderfully preserved Roman theater, as well as modern, sexy vampires from Washington state. We didn't see any, but the town really does look like it could be home to these blood-sucking creatures. In Volterra we finally figured out the all important trick of parking outside the walls and walking to the hotel before parking. We found Albergo Etruria and took a well needed siesta before venturing out to find more wonderful Italian food. The town was an absolute delight and seems not have been ruined by tourism. We did all our Christmas shopping there and bought many gifts made of alibaster.
We traveled onto San Gimignano, where fourteen original medieval towers still stand. Every day, tourists descend upon this small hilltop town, but by evening they all leave on buses and the town magically reverts back to a "real town" after siesta. The place really does slow down, and the restaurants break out food that is to die for. By morning, the buses arrive again and the town hides away until the next evening. In was in San Gimignano late at night where witnessed a tourist make too tight a turn, scraping the side door and front fender of their rental car. This made us feel like professional drivers.
Our last day we headed over to Pisa to look at the famous leaning tower, before driving back to Florence where we flew out early the next morning.
It was an amazing honeymoon, one we would certainly recommend to anyone with $6,000 (give or take) to spend. Our Traveler's Joy registry gifts made the trip much more affordable and helped pay for every aspect of our trip, big or small. If we would change anything, it would be to simply find more time to spend on a European honeymoon!