Can you imagine showing up at the airport gate and the people boarding the plane refuse your ticket because you have the wrong mask? And yes, when we looked at the crowd, Vinny and I were the only two NOT wearing KN95 masks. This hadn’t been shared with us upon check-in or going through security. The airline wasn’t supplying them. So, in my husband’s own NY style, he hollered, “Does anyone have two legit masks I can buy?” Luckily, a nice man had two and wouldn’t take payment. Embarrassingly, this happened again when entering the Vatican Museums later in the week.
Now on to the travel details, we took a direct flight from Ibiza to Milan on EasyJet. When we landed, the sun was finally available after mostly cloudy and rainy skies in Spain. We rented a hybrid Audi A3 from SIXT. Great choice of a car, but cars in Italy cost twice as much as in Spain. This was Vinny’s first time driving on Italian roads and frankly, he was an incredible driver after he got the knack of using the left lane to pass and got used to all the semi-trucks. Driving in Genoa, Florence and Rome made him pull out all of his NYC driving skills, but nary a scratch was left on the car.
Our first destination in Italy was the Hotel Grand Tremezzo on the west shore of Lake Como—cue angels singing. We took the scenic route via Lugano, Switzerland which required buying a “vignette” for $40 which is a yearlong pass to drive in that country, which we used for about 30-minutes, due to a road closure. The hotel is something out of a Wes Anderson movie, but the level of service exceeded any and all expectations. The hotel has been recently re-opened post-COVID, and this after a renovation that took place about 4-years ago. The management team obviously runs a tight ship and Valentina, Silvio, Pio and Giovanni really take hospitality to another level. The breakfast buffet alone with its incredibly broad selection of food and view of Lake Como is worth the price of admission. We literally wept just entering a few of the beautifully designed spaces due to their level of thoughtful detail. We experienced each of the dining venues during our trip, including the poolside Giacomo Al Lago, known for its incredible seafood dishes, from which we launched a private boat tour with Giuseppe to see the highlights of the Lake.
The property is walking distance to some local restaurants as well as to the Lake Como ferry system. The town of Menaggio is a 5-minute drive and a quaint place for your late afternoon aperitivo and nice dinner at Il Ristorante di Paolo. Also on the hotel property is a spa, outdoor pizza trattoria, boutique and trails to hike. The signature color of the hotel is Hermes orange and it suits the property so well. We were so taken with the Tremezzo that we stayed an extra night.
After three nights in Lake Como, we hit the road to Cinque Terre. We tried to not be control freaks about this trip and have some flexibility as to where we stayed and how we got there. The next phase was exactly that. Vinny found a B&B near Cinque Terre that would be our two-night base of operations as we visited that area. But first, the drive. What we didn’t expect was all the mountains. And curves. And tunnels. And construction. As we neared Genoa, it was late lunch time and we had no idea where to go. So, we pointed the car near the waterfront area knowing that the right place would turn up. So, as we headed down a boulevard, I saw a charming restaurant front with white awning, pointed and said, “Let’s go there!” I happen to love restaurants that include the word “Osteria”, so after a hunt-and-peck to find parking, we made our way to the welcoming people of Osteria San Pietro. The restaurant is run by a Japanese man from Kyoto and his girlfriend. Our waiter Michel, told us how much he loved the US and how he lived in Kansas during a high school exchange saying it was “the best time of his life”. The food, especially the pesto, was just what the travel doctor ordered.
After lunch, it was goodbye to Genoa, and we headed further south towards Levanto, where our bed for the next two nights at Villa Valentina awaited. This was an entirely random choice while looking for places to stay—the website is good and the lodging seemed nice online and it didn’t disappoint. Valentina and Paula, daughter and Mom respectively, run this B&B delight about a 10-minute drive from downtown Levanto. Once we made the reservation, Valentina contacted us via What’s App—plan to download this while traveling abroad—and asked if she could make us a dinner reservation or set up a pesto making class. Yes to both, please!
The pair run this B&B on property that was Paula’s late husband, Angelo’s. He was a local fisherman that fell in love with Paula who was from San Francisco. Valentina was born in Italy and now attends nursing school. They’ve carried on with the B&B with wonderful results. They know the region well, will give you their village parking pass, and will do 20-lbs of laundry for $25 and have it line dried. And don’t drive the Cinque Terre, take the train for the full day pass for $40. All this reset help, on top of a gourmet breakfast and the freshest eggs you’ve ever eaten from their girls out back, “Hi Vinny, would you like a perfectly poached egg with your Belgian waffle?”
Pesto, glorious pesto! Valentina made a reservation for us at Nessun Dorma to make pesto in the Cinque Terre town of Manarola. Perched on a hill, the restaurant project was the result of a local competition that only three people entered. The team offers the classes and excellent local cuisine. The beauty of the class, was that lunch immediately followed—your pesto perched on crunchy bruschetta, salad, charcuterie—yum! Apparently, it’s one of the gems of the Cinque Terre and the line snakes down the hill. They developed an app that lets you “get in line virtually” and is the suggested way to enjoy lunch if making pesto isn’t your thing.
After the pesto class, we got back on the train and visited all of the small Cinque Terre villages, five—hence the “Cinque”—in all. Each has its own personality and you can choose to hang out for a while, grab an espresso and gelato, or not. They are only a few minutes from each other by train, so the trip is easy. Lots of tourists come to either take a boat tour or hike the path above all the villages. Another unexpected surprise that night, was heading into Levanto, coming out of the train tunnel to a sun shower and once we exited the train—hey, a double rainbow! Dinner that night was our aperitivo—Vinny tried Campari and soda, instead of his standard Aperol Spritz, for the first time—and then went for pizza. It’s somewhat surprising to see people individually ordering a 14” diameter pizza and then eating the whole thing!
The next morning we were off to Lucca—but first, a stop in Pisa. One can’t pass within 10-miles of the Leaning Tower and not stop for a glimpse and a photo, of course. While quite touristy, and the only thing to see in Pisa, it was a totally worthwhile stop as the day was sunny and cloudless.
Leaving Pisa, we headed just north of Lucca to Tenuta Adamo. At home in Sacramento, John Adamo of Adamo’s Kitchen purchased this winery where he produces white, rose and reds from estate grown grapes. The wines are light and we were hosted by his partner Antonio who took us on a tour of the small winery, provided a nice cheese and charcuterie plate and shared their wines. In addition to the wines, they have an “Agritourismo” on property. This is very basic lodging that many wineries offer to people to stay at and we did for the night.
After the tasting and dropping stuff off in our room, we headed into Lucca to explore and have dinner. Lucca is a walled city where the streets are narrow, the buildings seem tall and has many small squares for entertainment and shopping—and not to mention your aperitivo! We walked around Lucca and were surprised at the many designer stores. Who knew that United Colors of Benetton still existed? Dinner was at Osteria Cantine Bernardini, located in the underground heart of palazzo Bernardini, a historical building in Lucca from 1586. The location celebrates several dining-rooms, all with their own exclusive style, creating an intimate atmosphere to provide an authentic and unique experience.
Next morning, we were off to Florence. At the recommendation of a dear friend, we decided to stay at Palazzo Niccolini, an actual palace within a stone’s throw of the Duomo. It is definitely a 5-star hotel experience at a more reasonable price. We arrived a bit early, so the owner invited us to have breakfast before our room was ready, so we enjoyed the buffet as we gathered strength for the day and yes, its 15,000+ steps! So, off we went to our first stop, the Gucci Museum. The cool thing was running into two new New York friends who were in line that travel regularly to Florence. When Vinny lamented that the Accademie, where Michaelangelo’s David is located, was sold out for the following day, they suggested we go to Viator to get tour tickets, and, viola! We scored two ducats for the following morning.
Now back to Gucci—the “Gucci Garden” was created in 2011 by Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s current creative director, in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. The exterior of the structure at first glance looks like many of the other ancient buildings in Florence, but with two blush pink banners hanging from the stones. The inside holds a fascinating glimpse at the vibrant world of Gucci. To the left of the Gucci Garden’s main building is the Gucci Osteria. The two-toned plush green interior utilizes the dichotomy of a warm and cool green tones to create a dynamic environment, especially when paired with the talents of Chef Karime Lopez from Mexico City. We enjoyed a light lunch including a great unexpected bowl of spicy, pork ramen using Italian pasta noodles and black sesame with a lovely shaved artichoke salad.
After lunch, we just strolled through the streets, crossed the river a few times and ended up at Riviore for our afternoon coffee and pastry—we did this the following day as well! It was time to window shop and we went through the high fashion shopping district and enjoyed seeing all of the top tier designer brands as well as the many leather shops on the side streets. Our late afternoon stroll took us to another happy surprise, the Villa Antinori Tasting Room and Restaurant. Antinori is a premium wine house that produces super premium estate wines from Tuscany. We walked into the tasting room, and we were it. We got to know the barkeep and we tried a few wines (at $10/glass). We asked if we could have dinner, but the evening was booked, or was it? Once the manager arrived, he allowed to keep our table in the tasting room and have dinner. “You can have this table all night.” And that’s how it’s done in Italy (or Spain), once you have a table it’s yours until you ask for the check. Never pressure to leave. The places don’t close till well past midnight, so feel free to settle in.
The next day, it was another day of strolling but we had an ultimate destination, Harry’s Bar for lunch. Harry’s is the iconic restaurant in Florence and Venice. We’ve now been to both—double check for the bucket list! We took a seat outside, enjoyed the view of the river and people watched. A nice bottle of rose, 3-courses for lunch and three hours later, you’re happy—especially after pasta and tikka masala. If we ever disappear, start looking in Florence.
We then headed to the Uffizi Gallery to see lots of religious artwork. When you think of the artistic firepower that helped propel Florence to the engine of the Renaissance, it’s pretty mind-boggling. Our dinner that evening was pizza in a restaurant adjacent to our hotel with a great view of the Duomo. The streets were packed as was the restaurant, Le Bottegahe di Donatello, so people watching was entertaining and the pizza was the best pizza I have ever eaten.
The following morning meant another amazing buffet breakfast, check out and a walk to see our friend David. He’s pretty tall. Vinny always fancies the idea that he kinda looks like him, or at least did, at some point in his youth, in his head–hahahaha. It’s a pretty quick tour, so once we decided to leave the guide-lead history lesson, we passed back our headset and walked in to see Michaelangelo’s masterwork.
Once we checked the cultural tour box for the morning, it was off to Orvieto. Another project of our friend John Adamo is his importing of the wines from Castello Di Corbara. Sara and Giovanni from the winery visited Sacramento in February and John had a tasting at the restaurant. We were smitten with the wines and the team, so we decided to add them to our itinerary. We arrived at the winery and got settled in their agriturismo, had lunch where the staff spoke zero English. So, as happened on a few occasions, we just pointed to something on the menu, and let the magic happen. Two of the most delicious pasta dishes arrived. We also ordered a salad, but the server insisted on serving it to us last. We then met with Filippo, the vintner, and he took us on a little journey around the vineyards, told us the history of the place and offered us a few tastes.
By afternoon, we bid him “arrivederci”, and headed to town, where Sara had made us reservations at the “best restaurant in Orvieto, Il Malandrino. Orvieto is a charming hill town, with a beautiful small Duomo built in the 1290 and the streets are windy with nice shops and restaurants. The next morning we got to see our friends Sara and Giovanni to spend a few minutes talking wine, their trip to the VinItaly conference in Verona and taste a little of their red. They are such nice people and it’s great to make new friends along the way.
Now, Rome awaits. The drive, as all the drives have been, was just great. Once you master the pace of the driving, and anticipate some craziness, you’ll be fine. We had been “Shazaming” songs in every great place we had stopped and created a pretty robust Indulgent Aperitivo playlist on Spotify by then, so the drive was festive and went by quickly. We got to the hotel, the NH Collection Roma Giustiniano which we booked it through American Express. Surprisingly, that came with an automatic upgrade to a suite and a delivery of a bottle of prosecco and macarons. Who knew!?! After dropping off bags at the hotel, we headed to drop the car off at the crazy that is Rome’s Termi Rail Station. Let’s just say, that was the most stressful part of the trip. Just finding the drop off location was a miracle. But once that trauma subsided. We enjoyed two days of seeing all the classic favorites—The Coliseum, The Trevi Fountain, Roman Forum, War Memorial, Spanish Steps, St. Peters Basilica and the Vatican Museum—where again, if you didn’t have the right KN95 mask, you didn’t get in and another Samaritan came to our rescue with the goods on Good Friday!
One highlight was that we had dinner in the same restaurant both nights in Rome. Il Matriciano proved to be another great find, along with our waiter, Roberto. A funny guy, we surprised him by ordering Villa Antinori Chanti selection. He said, ”most people don’t know this wine” so we encouraged him to grab a glass and shared the bottle with him. Rome is a big, crowded and gritty city. Everyone is talking loud on their phones, smoking or vaping, and tourists are rampant. But, if you’ve never been, you have to go.
The next morning, our tried and true friends at Delta took us home safely. After 26-hours of airplane travel, we made it home just in time to celebrate Easter with our family. Ciao for now dear Italia!