Siena, Florence, and Cooking in Tuscany

We saved the bigger cities of Tuscany for the end of the week and on Thursday with cooler temps we headed to Siena for a day of sightseeing.  We stopped along the way in the ancient walled village of Monteriggioni for a quick walk around and a morning gelato to boost morale and give the kids enough of  a sugar high to sustain lots of walking!

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Next stop: Siena!  We arrived late morning and after finding parking easily we were impressed with all the escalators up to the city so we didn’t have to climb the steep hills.  Much appreciated with the kiddos in tow!

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Our first stop was to the beautiful Duomo.  We wanted to do the full tour that included the rooftop, but it was timed entry and the next one wasn’t until 4:30.  We definitely didn’t want to stick around that long so we did the church and the Facciatone, an arch with an amazing view of the church, the town, and the surrounding countryside.

The inside of the Duomo is even more impressive than the outside.  We especially enjoyed the library with its beautifully frescoed ceiling and displays of pages from ancient books.

It was a long wait to get into the Facciatone to see the view simply because they can only allow people to go up in small groups since it is a small space at the top and the VERY narrow spiral staircases are only wide enough for one way traffic.  But the wait was definitely worth it for these breathtaking views.

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Such beauty in all directions!

After lunch, we walked through the Piazza del Campo and then made our way to a late lunch of pizza with a view.

Wandering the pretty streets…

Lunch at Il Pomodorino was a bit off the beaten path, but once we found it we were thrilled at the gorgeous view and the pizza was fantastic.

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After our late lunch, it was time to head back to the villa for a swim and that evening we were lucky to enjoy a delicious Tuscan buffet prepared at the villa.  The smells wafting from the kitchen all afternoon were mouth-watering and we all thoroughly enjoyed a lovely and delicious evening around the pool.

Overnight on Thursday a cold front rolled through and we woke to a surprisingly chilly, gloomy morning.  But lucky for us that was the morning we had planned to attend our Tuscan cooking class at Al Ghelso Bianco.  Two of our friends had taken this class along with their families and really enjoyed it, so we knew we needed to experience it while we were in Tuscany.

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Since it was busy season we were signed up for the class with another family who wound up being so fun to share the experience with.  Turns out they were from Montreal, but they had lived in Geneva for a few years and their teenage children were born there.  Small world!  It was great because during the cooking class there was a short break while the food was cooking and the older kids entertained our younger kids at the playground while the grown ups enjoyed some wine tasting.  Perfect!

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The class was so much fun and really one of the highlights of our trip.  We would have loved to stay at Al Ghelso Bianco, but they were fully booked way back in February when I was planning our trip!  Maybe next time?!

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Unfortunately the weather didn’t warm up enough to swim during our last day at La Certaldina, but we enjoyed just driving through the Tuscan countryside and lounging around the villa with our friends while the kids played.  We enjoyed one last Tuscan dinner and sunset before hitting the road the next day for Florence.

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We were a little nervous to visit Florence on a Saturday in August, but it made the most sense since it was on our way home and not far from our overnight stop of Parma.  So we got up and out by 8:30 am and found a great parking spot with no hassle.  Our friends came with us for a quick stroll and a morning coffee on the Piazza della  Repubblica.  They had already been to Florence and had plans to see some things that were new to them for the rest of the day, but it was fun exploring together for a bit and the kids had a blast as usual.

IMG_0759 Morning stroll across the Ponte Vecchio. 

Outside of the Uffizi Galleries.  Lines were way too long to think about going in, but pretty from the outside!

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Can’t pass up a carousel, especially such a famous one!

Outside of the beautiful duomo, by far the most crowded place in Florence.  

Playground break in a local neighborhood before another pizza lunch.  

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Loved the beautiful Piazza Santa Croce…

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So much that we were jumping for joy!  

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Another vantage point of the famous Ponte Vecchio.

We have to go up all these stairs?!  Worth it for these views though!  

We brought the hiking pack instead of the stroller because we were worried about crowds and cobblestone streets…I have to say all day we regretted not bringing the stroller…the only time the hiking pack came in handy was on the walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo.  Would have been possible with a stroller but definitely easier without!

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And that’s a wrap! Amazing and exhausted!  Florence was certainly crowded, but actually not as bad as I expected.  I have a bit of a crowd phobia and only got that claustrophobic, ‘we have to get out of here’ feeling outside of the duomo.  Everywhere else was pretty manageable and really enjoyable exploring some of the emptier side streets.

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That night we randomly booked a hotel in Parma and without knowing it, our friends booked a room in the same hotel right next door to us.  So perfect that we got one bonus night together.  We really liked Parma and had a great dinner at La Duchessa.  It was a fabulous end to a fabulous trip.  Tuscany was absolutely wonderful, but even better was getting to spend a whole week with our friends that we miss so much!  To the Lawlors-thank you for a great time…we are ready to plan our next adventure together!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Towns of Tuscany

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San Gimignano

Monday we woke up to a super hot day so we decided to get an earlier start and hit the town of San Gimignano.  This town is famous for its medieval “skyscrapers,” essentially tall towers that wealthy families erected to show off their wealth and outdo one another back in the day.  We could see the towers from the window of our apartment, so we needed to go explore for a closer look!

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It was hot and a bit crowded, but after an ice cream stop we were all revived and ready to go.  The town had some cute shops and a market to explore and lots of nice look-out spots.

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We had a decent lunch on the square because everyplace was crowded and this place we found was empty and had a/c…and while the food wasn’t really anything that special, this view certainly was!

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We picked up some souvenirs on our way out and then headed back to spend the afternoon cooling off in the pool!

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Chianti Region

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On Tuesday we were ready to sample some of those famous Tuscan wines so we booked a private morning tour and tasting at Casa Sola winery in Barberino Val d’Elsa.  The tour was so informative and our guide was extremely knowledgable (and also quite accommodating with our kids in tow!) and the wines were just delicious.  We had such a fun time and bought some wine to bring home with us…we opened a bottle recently and I think it tastes even better because of the happy memories!  😉

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Quick bocci ball game at the winery before heading on to explore more of Chianti.  We stopped in Panzano, Greve in Chianti, and Badia A Passignano for a couple more tastings, lunch, and just to wander a bit.

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Then it was back to the villa for some swim time and a bbq while admiring another beautiful Tuscan sunset.

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Certaldo

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On Wednesday we spent the day at the pool because we had big evening plans to hit up the artisan festival called Mercantia in the medieval town of Certaldo.  We met up with some friends of our friends who also happened to be in Tuscany for the week and took the funicular up to the ancient walled town.  We had made dinner reservations at 7 and since the festival started at 8, we planned to just walk around after dinner.

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Dinner was great and the views were just gorgeous.  We weren’t really sure what to expect from the festival, but it was basically an artisan market with music, theater performances, and artisans selling and demonstrating their crafts.  It was so well done and we were lucky that we happened to be in town for it!

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We made our way to the funicular around 10:30 and the kids were just beat.  We definitely could tell that we were on Italian time though as we got to the bottom of the funicular and saw a huge line of people waiting to go up…the party was just getting started!  Even the playground on the walk to the car was packed with little kids and families.  Ours hung as long as they could though and we were able to have a lovely evening!

 

 

 

 

 

A Week Under the Tuscan Sun

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Sometimes when a place is super well known or popular, I worry that it might not live up to the hype in real life.  No need to fear when it comes to Tuscany…I’m happy to report that it really IS that beautiful and amazing and wonderful!  We spent a week under the Tuscan sun and what made it even more perfect was that our dear friends from Prague joined us for the week and we could not have had a better time.

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We stayed at La Certaldina, an agroturismo with eight apartments in total, in between Florence and Siena.  The villa was nice with great views of vineyards, olive trees that they use to make their own olive oil, and a big pool that we spent lots of time enjoying.

The kids took about 30 seconds to reconnect and then proceeded to spend the rest of the week having a blast together without even a single fight.  We loved it because they entertained one another and the grown ups had time to visit and even get a bit of r & r.  Friend vacations for the win!

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Our week was a good mix of exploring towns and villages and hanging by the pool.  On Sunday we spent a low key day by the pool and then went into the tiny village of Barberino Val d’Elsa to have a walk around before we enjoyed a lovely dinner in the countryside.

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Barberino Val d’Elsa was one of the tinier towns in the area, but it was just so charming.  We loved walking the cobbled streets and seeing beauty around every corner.  With all this beauty everywhere you turn, it seems pretty impossible not to have a good time!

A traditional Tuscan dinner and a breathtaking sunset and we knew we were in for a great week ahead.

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Italian Road Trip

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After our Lake Como adventure, we had just one full day at home to unpack, do laundry, and pack again and then we were off for our adventure in Tuscany!  We decided to take the longer way down along the Ligurian coast so that we could break up the drive and stay near the sea and then have a pit stop in Pisa on our way to our Tuscan villa.

We found a charming agriturismo near Santa Margherita on AirBnB where we were hoping to have a nice Italian dinner upon arrival, but unfortunately we hit tons of traffic so wound up eating at a gas station along the way.  Although Lukasz was not a happy camper when we basically had to drive up a small mountain after a long and tiring drive, the views from the balcony that evening and the next day were worth it (he agreed 😉 )!  The family was so sweet and welcoming and they gave us a bottle of delicious sparkling wine to enjoy that evening.  It was a great start to vacation sitting out looking at the sea with fireflies all around us and cow bells jingling in the background.

The next morning we woke for a simple but tasty breakfast prepared by the “Nona” of the family.  We walked around the farm to visit the animals and then it was time to hit the road!

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Our next stop was the beautiful town of Portofino, just 15 minutes away.  I had looked at doing a private boat ride, which sounded like fun, but we didn’t really have enough time for it.  Instead we had fun just walking around the small but beautiful town, climbing up to the church for a different vantage point, and enjoying a snack and a drink with a view!

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Portofino was so pretty, but definitely pricey.  A perfect place to stop for a couple of hours though!  And then it was time again to hit the road…next stop:  Pisa!

Finally in Tuscany, we had to stop to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa and take the obligatory photos.  Jonah had learned about the tower in some books we read about Italy and he was quite excited to see it.

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The funniest thing was seeing hundreds of tourists all standing still and putting their hands in their air for the perfect picture.  Lukasz said that the scene looked the same when he was there as a kid more than 20 years ago…just with less of a chance for an actual good picture since it wasn’t digital! 😉

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It was a fun start to our adventure in Italy and then it was finally time to make our way to our villa for the week and FINALLY time to meet up with our friends!

Diving into Summer at Lake Como

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While my mother-in-law was here, we thought it would be nice to take her somewhere for the last week of her visit.  A friend had stayed at the Hotel Villa Aurora in Lezzeno on Lake Como this spring and it looked wonderful so when I found a few days available at the hotel during the first week of summer, I jumped at the chance to stay there.

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The hotel is a small, family run hotel that my friend found through the travel site Ciao Bambino.  The family room was a great size, the staff was friendly, and the best part about the hotel in summertime was their little dock with lounge chairs right on the lake and the free use of their water trampolines, kayaks, and paddle boards!

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After a twisty, turny drive along Lake Como we arrived on Monday afternoon ready for some lake fun.  We spent the afternoon swimming and relaxing and enjoyed dinner at the hotel’s lovely lakeside restaurant.

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On Tuesday we took a ferry from Lezzeno to Bellagio, which was the main town we wanted to see while we were on Lake Como.  The ferry ride was gorgeous with views of the lake, mountains, villas, and villages along the way.

 

We had a great time strolling through the charming streets of Bellagio-it was so pretty with flowers and tiny lanes everywhere you looked.

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We stopped for some drinks to cool off and the boys found their own entertainment. 😉

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Then when we got back, Jonah and I had some more lake time while everyone else had a rest (or worked).  We tried out the kayaks and Jonah loved it so much I had to take him four different times!  Then in the evening we went for a family kayak ride while my mother-in-law watched from the dock…and then she kindly watched the kids so that Lukasz and I could try out stand-up paddle boarding for the first time.  I was surprised at how much harder it was than it looked!  But so fun once we sort of got the hang of it!

We thought about trying somewhere else for dinner, but there was nothing else that was easily walkable with such a nice view…and the menu was so big that we didn’t mind another dinner at the hotel restaurant.  And the boys of course were not complaining about pasta and pizza!

On Wednesday we were sad to leave after such a fun and quick stay, but we headed out after breakfast so that we could stop in Como before heading home.  The town was nice to walk around and we enjoyed the main square and the impressive duomo.

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I had read about the funicular you could take up for views on Lake Como, so we decided to head up before having lunch and hitting the road.  I was a bit disappointed that you couldn’t really get a clear view of the city and the duomo, but the lake and mountain views were nice…and if we had longer, there were tons of walks and hikes you could take up on top.

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We loved Lake Como and it was such a fun way to end the visit with Babcia and to kick off the start of summer!

 

 

A Weekend in the Italian Alps

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A few weekends ago we were lucky to sneak in a little grown up weekend in the Italian Alps!  My mom is here visiting and she generously offered to watch the kids for us so that we could have a couple of weekend getaways.  We were excited for the opportunity, but not sure exactly where we wanted to go-it needed to be within a 2 hour drive since we were just going for 1 night and we knew we wanted something snowy and cozy.  So I started researching and stumbled upon a new hotel in the town of La Thuile, Italy.

Nira Montana is a five-star, luxury hotel with a spa and restaurant in a cozy, chalet style.  Normally we are not luxury hotel kind of people-for us I think it’s a waste of money since we spend so little time in the hotel and prefer to be out sightseeing.  But in this case, we really wanted to relax and unwind and so we were looking for a hotel with a nice spa where we could hang out and enjoy the restaurant, bar, and amenities.  We were also looking at some places in Switzerland and found some four-star hotels for the same price or more that didn’t look as nice.  I think because the hotel is new, because La Thuile is a town that is just now becoming a ‘resort town,’ and just because it’s Italy, prices were lower than Switzerland so this place just seemed like more bang for your buck.

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We weren’t sure what kind of weather we would find when we got there since it was pouring when we left Geneva and still pouring by the time we got to Chamonix.  But once we drove through the Mt. Blanc tunnel, we came out into Italy and it turned into a winter wonderland!

It snowed hard all day on Saturday so it was a bit too foggy at the top of the mountains for skiing.  Instead we rented snow shoes and after a quick lunch went out to give them a try.  There were lots of snow shoe trails in the area, but we wanted a nice, easy one for the first time.  We hiked around a flat park and enjoyed the snow and the scenery.

So much fun and I liked that it didn’t require too much coordination!  After our walk, we headed back to the hotel ready to relax.  The spa was so nice with a pool with jets, hammam, multiple saunas, and relaxation rooms.  We enjoyed a couples massage that was pure bliss and then spent some time just relaxing at the spa.  So wonderful!!!

I could have stayed in the spa forever, but my stomach was starting to growl after our afternoon workout so we got cleaned up for dinner at the hotel restaurant.  Our room was small, but I loved the design-the whole place was very chalet-chic!

The food and wine at dinner were excellent and the service was impeccable.  We couldn’t pass up pasta since we were in Italy after all, but Lukasz had an interesting and creative appetizer of scallops with crushed pepper, olives, and popcorn (?!) that was really delicious.  After dinner we ended the night with a drink at the bar-they had a great drink list with some tasty winter cocktails.  Perfect way to celebrate a wonderful day!

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The next day we woke up rested and relaxed and ready for more snowy adventures.  It had snowed all night and was still snowing and foggy up high so we decided to head out on the snowshoes again.  We went out for a couple of hours on a steeper trail this time and enjoyed the snow and scenery.  It was fun and definitely a work out!

We came back and relaxed in the spa for a bit and then enjoyed some pizzas at the hotel’s pizzeria before heading out.  We thought we might ski for an hour before heading home but the snow was really coming down and we wanted to make sure we got down the mountain before dark so we skipped it for this time.  We did make sure to stop at a couple of shops in town and picked up the most delicious chocolates at the town’s cute little chocolate shop where the chocolates are all made in-house.  Definitely not to be missed!

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We had such a fabulous weekend and I really cannot say enough good things about the hotel.  The service was absolutely wonderful and the staff were incredibly helpful and kind.  I loved all the little details like the goody bag we got when the shuttle dropped us off at the snowshoe trail-filled with sunscreen, L’Occitane chap stick, a snack, and bottled water-the air freshener for the car on the journey home, and the homemade biscotti we found in our luggage when we came home and unpacked.  This was the perfect place for a romantic weekend away, but the nice thing is that it’s also family friendly!  Who knows, maybe we’ll be back in the summer with the kids?!

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