Under The Tuscan Sun

July 27, 2015 2:56 pm


Florence (Firenze) – Ciao from the beautiful Tuscan Region of Italy!

Tuesday, July 14 – Friday, July 24

We loved our first apartment in Florence (Firenze); especially the air conditioning! While the location was not very central to the centre, we were able to walk there within 20 minutes. A walk doesn’t usually bother us but Florence had been in a heatwave for 3-4 weeks and the temperatures hovered around 36-40 degrees. That made the 20 minute walk a little gruelling most times.

The apartment was a good base while we took day trips; a small train station was just 10 minutes away. We became regulars at a nearby market and in a neighbourhood restaurant where they treated as very well and the food was great.


Walk-in closet!


Florence is a busy, popular tourist spot, – the busiest we had seen. The queues were extremely long for buying tour tickets (in one place) and then waiting (in another). The city was fantastic and it is understandable why so many of us wanted to experience it.



Oh yummy!


This car sat four people and was the smallest we had seen:



12 Hour Tour to Siena and Val D’Orcia

We knew 12 hours is far too long for a tour but in order to see some of the highlights of this area, we went for it. The front desk told us Val D’Orcia was the most beautiful part of Tuscany, and they were right. The scenery was spectacular, the cypress trees were right out of paintings. (Cypress trees represent a warm ‘welcome’.)




The tour began in SIENA; a wonderful city filled with Gothic architecture. There has always been a little historic rivalry between Siena and Florence that continues with the locals today – even the tourists compare the two and rank them by favourite.



Duomo Cathedral


Palazzo Comunale



My favorite part of the city was the Piazza del Campo and the story about the unique horse race held here. ‘The Palio’ is held twice a year with only 10 horses and riders which are chosen by lottery from the 17 city wards. The jockeys ride bareback and circle the Piazza del Campo three times, which takes about 90 seconds. The turns are tight and very often jockeys are thrown off their horses, and the horses then finish the race on their own.


It is wildly popular!


We loved Siena and wished we had more time to explore.


Next we visited Montalcino, a typical village with a fortress.



View from the fortress:


We had our first wine tasting here, conducted by the 84 year old owner that reminded us of my Dad. He spoke only Italian, and at great length which our guide translated poorly into condensed, pointless overviews. This winery produces primarily Brunello wine (from Sangiovese grapes) and Extra Virgin Olive Oil.



Pienza was a smaller village with a few modern touches.


One of the many ‘typical’ weddings we have seen – up pulled a Porsche.  The bride and her Father exited, waving to their drone, which followed them part way into the church:


The ringbearer and flower girl were more interested in the vending:


This scene had so much going on:  the wedding guests, a couple on stilts, tourists, green haired temple promoter and giant sculptures:


The lanes in Pienza overlook the breathtaking landscape of Val d’Orcia:


Pienza is most renowned for its Pecorino cheese. We bought a small block and enjoyed it for several days. Beautiful here!




Our last stop was in MONTEPULCIANO a village with Renaissance buildings, lovely churches:



It is home to an ancient traditional wine, Nobile di Montepulciano. This Italian classic red helps Tuscany keep its spot on the world wine map. It was very nice. We also tasted some great Chianti’s.


Overall it was a great day, though a bit rushed. 50 is too many people (one family of 5 was quite rude and late for departures) and we felt herded all day. But, you get what you pay for and we still enjoyed the sites, landscapes, and wines that we came for.


Tuscany is beautiful!


Fields and fields of Sunflowers!


Day Trip to LUCCA

Spencer and Lindsay recommended we take the quick train ride to visit the city of Lucca and we were glad we did! This Tuscan city is renowned for the 16th century walls that encircle the historic city center.


On top of the walls are gardens and a tree-lined pathway. We strolled around the perimeter and many people rode bikes of all types that were available for rent. What a great place for families!


Then we ventured down into the cobblestone town. You can still see the ancient history in Lucca; the main square is shaped like a Roman amphitheater with buildings like these forming a circle around the centre:


Churches and towers:



You could climb the inside of this tree-topped tower but when we looked up, we decided against it:



As we walked through the city, we could hear the voices of opera singers bouncing off the walls. We discovered the voices were coming from the Boccherini Conservatory, where select US opera students study for 4 weeks in July. For $4K USD they receive voice training, learn Italian, acting and style, by a distinguished faculty. What a beautiful place to study!


Loved this poster:


Lucca was also in the middle of their Summer music festival – pretty big names in there!


Thanks Spencer and Lindsay!


This was a very enjoyable day and tour. There were only 18 guests which made it more intimate and personal. We started at the office of the tour company; the Tuscan Wine School. We sat in a classroom and were shown the proper way to taste (first time we have tasted wine at 9:30am) and reviewed the wine region we were going to visit. Our guide explained that Italians do not drink to get drunk; Italians drink to eat more food! Wine is for eating – we loved that!


Tuscany is primarily a red wine region and this tour was focused on the Chianti Classico region; the name of the most historical wine region in the world (1716).



We visited 2 wineries in the Chianti Classico region including guided tours of their winery cellars. Both had DOCG (highest ranking) regulated wines.



We sampled 4 wines at each winery. It was a very happy bus!


Bottling machine / assembly line:


Tasting room:


We had a delicious lunch at the second winery starting with this oil and balsamic vinegar, both their own homemade:


Did you know it takes all the olives from one tree to produce one litre of Extra Virgin Olive Oil?  That’s why it is so expensive! The balsamic vinegar was thick and delicious – the real stuff! I bought a tiny bottle to use on salads.

Lunch included bruschetta with tomato, pecorino cheeses & Tuscan cold cuts, a homemade pasta dish and we ended with cantuccini biscotti. So yummy.

Our tour guide was passionate and knowledgeable, and the other guests were a great bunch of people. We met 2 couples from Norway and also an interesting young couple that went to school and have travelled all around the world. They worked in Hong Kong for two years, and were now returning home to India ten years later, to work in a family business. Amazing people!

Highlights of Florence:


The Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral or ‘il Duomo’ is the pride and joy of Florence. Experts are still baffled by the construction method used for this octagonal dome (no scaffolding!) in 117 – 128 AD. Many believed it was ‘domed’ to fail but instead it started the creative explosion – the Renaissance. It is still the largest brick dome ever constructed.


We had to climb it….


The climb to the top of the Dome is 463 steps. The steps wind around and around. The passages are dark and very narrow. But about halfway you find yourself out on a ledge of the interior of the dome overlooking the main alter of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower) the main church of Florence.


And above you are stunning frescos of the dome! We walked the perimeter a bit then continued back up the staircase for a few minutes until we came out even higher in the Dome. The paintings were almost at hands reach!


We again walked the perimeter of the ceiling and gazed at the beautiful, gigantic, hand painted frescoe. Gasp!


Back climbing again….On the final section of our ascent, the passage that is clearly made for one way traffic, becomes both the exit way and the entrance to the external part of the dome. We decided traffic is normally controlled here by staff, but someone must have dropped the ball and it became crazy congested! Thirty people would bypass us as they exited, sideways, and only ten of us would be able to make it up. It was hot and crowded but luckily short lived. The view of Florence from the top was breathtaking and worth the climb.


Going back down, a frazzled employee stood working to clear passaways and the traffic flow was much better.

See this tall tower, the Giotto?


Last week, an obese man from the UK managed to make the climb to the top, but was too exhausted to climb down. Emergency crews had carry him down the 414 steps on are paramedic chair, blocking the passageway for tourists. The news story cautioned tourists to make sure they were fit to do the local climbs. OMG!

Once down, went into the church for a view of the ceiling:



We were walking on the ledges above and below the windows:


The day ended with a cool electrical storm, a little well needed rain and a pretty sky guiding us to dinner:



Another ‘must do’ in Florence is see the statue of David. Joe scored a last minute, evening viewing and we were out the door and in the museum within an hour. What an incredible sight to come down the hallway and see David in the distance.


David is a masterpiece of Michelangelo created between 1501 and 1504. Michelangelo was only 26 years old at the time but was already a famous and well paid artist.


The stunning white marble statue is 4.34-metres tall, (5.17-metres with the base) representing the Biblical hero David. David is focused and patiently waiting for battle, his slingshot in one hand and a stone in the other.


Legend has it that Queen Victoria was so shocked when she first saw the statue’s nudity, that a fig leaf was created & hung on David prior to royal visits, by two strategically placed hooks.


The statue of David once stood in Palazzo della Signoria, but was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873. A replica now stands at this original location:


A few other museum pics:



A modern version of David:


Other statues in Palazzo della Signoria:


Loved these lost, lovely ladies:


Friday, July 24 – Monday, July 27

Apartment 2

This apartment was one Spencer and Lindsay stayed in during their visit in June. We were on a quiet street but smack dab in the middle of the action now. So great to walk out the front door and start exploring. Plus we had some cool weather off and on!



The first morning we left our apartment early and walked up to Piazzale Michelangelo (Michelangelo Square). Our hostess cautioned us that we should take the bus as it was a long walk, but it was not. She was young and probably thought of us as ‘elderly’ haha. The one day I forgot the Fitbit and we put on so many miles! Anyway, Piazzale Michelangelo is a well known square with a magnificent panoramic view of Florence. This is where lots of postcard shots of the city are taken:


There is also another David here!


This is is what the bottom of lampposts look like:


We left the Piazzale and walked through a lovely rose garden but there were very few blooms remaining.



The morning was still cool and we had lots of energy so we headed to The Boboli Gardens. 


This park is home to a collection of sculptures from the 16th through the 18th, some older! Oh my, there were statues tucked in everywhere!



The gardens were considered lavish, especially since only the ruling family was allowed access here. And they never entertained or had parties in the gardens! Oh the things we could have taught them!


We headed home for lunch and some R&R. That evening we visited The Uffizi Gallery, one of many museums in Florence.

Botticelli’s Primavera and Birth of Venus:


A few other works:





Last stop – dinner! Because we had been dining primarily in neighbourhood trattoria’s (less formal than restaurants), the menus are only in Italian, which is challenging. We have tried to translate some words but knew we are missing out on some dishes we would enjoy. Like rabbit stew – damnit! The wait staff was crazy busy and we couldn’t expect them to translate the menu, although they were very helpful.

We can’t forget to mention the city’s most photographed bridge – The Ponte Vecchio is a Medieval stone arch bridge over the narrowest part of the Arno River. It is the only bridge that still has shops and houses along it and it is pedestrian only. So cool and right in our neighbourhood!


The Ponte Vecchio’s two neighbouring bridges are the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie. So beautiful!


Along the Arno River:


This was a muskrat or something – very fast swimmer!


We toured The Basilica di Santa Croce, the main Franciscan church and the burial place for the ‘great and good’ in Florence. Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo, Gentile and Rossini and many others were laid to rest here.


Had gelato on our way home that our hostess said is the best in the world! It was to die for!


Last dinner in Florence – a share plate of goodies and pear ravioli…..omg so good!



This is a sidewalk drawing! And people enjoying music on a cool evening:


And so our 2 weeks in Florence and Tuscany has come to an end. We loved it here and saw so many things locally and in neighbouring regions. The wine is fantastic!

Today we took the train to Salerno, on Italy’s Almafi Coast. We are expecting good things! Thanks for following along!


Paula and Joe



  • Barb says:

    Hi Paula and Joe
    So enjoying your blog. You look like you are having an amazing time. Your pictures are to die for. There is one of the Ponte Vecchio that needs to be framed!
    Now I want to go….OMG!
    Looking forward to hearing about the Amalfi Coast. Haven’t been there yet but it’s on the list.
    Have fun

    • paula says:

      Thanks Barb! You should visit the Amalfi Coast – another beautiful spot.

      I have been reading your blog as well and it is awesome! The extension after our river cruise looked very interesting and we wished we had done the add-ons. Wish I had your discipline of posting each day or city.

      Keep on traveling!
      Paula and Joe

  • Jordan and Amy says:

    Hi guys! We love the great Italian photos! We already missing Europe and craving going back to visit Italy. We’re glad you were able to squeeze in another wine tour, despite the crazy heat. The views of Florence at the top look amazing! I wish I had done that in 2007 🙂

    Have fun on the Amalfi Coast and enjoy the last month of your trip!

    • paula says:

      Hello Jordan and Amy! Thanks for the compliments; so easy to take good pictures when the subject matter is incredible! We are sure you will be back in Italy soon, tasting all their fantastic wine.

      Into our last two weeks in Europe – yikes!

      Love from Mom and Dad

  • George and Helen says:

    Thank you for taking us back to Florence. Firenza holds many fond memories for us and your photos helped us relive some of them. The scenery of Tuscany is so beautiful isn’t it.
    Your website is such a wonderful “diary” of your travels. In the years to come you will be able to relive your adventures just by checking back to this website. You made a wise decision a year ago when you started this format.

    • paula says:

      Hello George and Helen! Yes, the Tuscan countryside is pretty picture perfect. Loved the cypress trees – so tall!

      We will love to have our blog to refer to and jar these old memory banks. It is pretty difficult to remember where we were even last week now!

      Thanks for following,
      Paula and Joe

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