Week 17/18: Avoiding the rain in Italy

In this blog post we do our best to avoid rain and manage to visit the classic Tuscan cities, and get a taste of Marche, Abruzzo, Puglia and Calabria in the process.

Our “Italy plan” was to take a ferry from the north west coast of Italy to Sicily, and then work our way back north from there. The weather had other ideas. The 10-day forecast showed rain and severe weather for Sicily, and much of Italy, but especially the west coast. So we abandoned our plan and decided to “wing it” until the forecast looked kinder.

Cinque Terre

We’d both been to Cinque Terre at some point in the past. We both had memories of a beautiful part of the world packed with tourists. Cinque Terre was however, a rare spot with sunlight forecast for a day so there we went, with the intention of doing a hike. It had been over a week since our last hike in the Douro Valley and we were all feeling a bit creaky from long days of driving.

Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Ligurian region of Italy. It features five small villages on the edge of the rugged coast, strung together by a centuries-old trail that passes over steep terraced mountains between each of the villages. It’s a beautiful part of the world – the small fishing villages have pedestrian streets lined with colourful buildings, and the steep terraced mountains have amazing views out to sea. 

Visiting in the winter was definitely a different experience. We stayed at a campsite in Levanto, on the coast just north of Cinque Terre. We did a hike on the high trail between Monterosso al Mare and Vernazza, as the traditional “blue route” was closed for repair (as are the routes between Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corniglia). We encountered one other couple on the trail. The trail had a long climb up but the views along the top of the mountain ridge were amazing. On reaching Vernazza we wandered through town, stopping to celebrate the end of the hike with some gelato, and then snacking on some calamari fritte and chips before catching the train back to Levanto.


Rain was forecast for the following morning, so we decided to drive to Pisa in the morning and hoped the rain would stop long enough in the afternoon for us to see the city’s famous tower. Thankfully it did 😀.

We parked the van at an area de autocaravanas and walked to the Piazza del Duomo via the streets of Pisa’s medieval walled town. It was James’ first time to see the tower. And even though he’d seen it many times in pictures, it was still a marvel to see it in person. Firstly, it’s a beautifully constructed tower in its own right – with graceful arches and ornate detailing. Secondly, it’s still shocking to see how much it’s leaning. The duomo, baptistery and walled cemetery of the piazza are also impressive structures, clearly built to wow. It’s strange to think they’re less popular because they don’t have glaring defects. 

We strolled back to the van via the university quarter and enjoyed some cocktails (Aileen has discovered the Campari Spritz, and James is enjoying Negronis with slices of blood orange), before giving Zeus some dinner and settling him for a snooze. We had dinner at Trattoria La Tortuga da Giovanni, a nearby seafood restaurant. We love exploring the different pasta dishes in each town we visit.  For primi piatti James had octopus roe spaghetti, and Aileen had black ink ravioli stuffed with ricotta, with prawns and pistachios. For secondi, we shared a salt crusted roasted sea bass. All was delicious, washed down with a white wine from Elba, which prompted a discussion about the remarkable life Napoleon Bonaparte led. His first period of exile was in Elba. 


The following day, Florence was the sunny spot in the weather forecast. So we headed there on the train from Pisa.

Aileen had been to Florence before and was happy to see the sights again, but mostly wanted to have a pork chop at a restaurant she’d been to several years ago. Her first pork chop there left lasting happy memories. For James and Zeus it was their first visit to Florence.

Having Zeus with us meant we were limited on what we could visit. Italy is dog friendly, but galleries and interiors of historic buildings are off limits for obvious and sensible reasons. Fortunately there are a lot of amazing things to see in Florence without going inside. 

First we had a wander through the streets and past the Mercato Centrale Firenze in order to confirm the location and correctly identify Aileen’s desired lunch stop. After a successful reconnaissance we headed to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore . The surrounding buildings crowd over the relatively narrow streets so you don’t really see the cathedral until you are right next to it. Which comes as a double surprise since it is vast (153m x 90m x90m) and strikingly decorated in white, black and red marble. Similar to the tower of Pisa, it is something that viewing a photo doesn’t prepare you for, nor does justice to the beauty and quality of the craftsmanship. It would have been interesting to see the interior, but that is something that will need to wait for a future trip. 

We continued our cultural journey in Piazza della Signoria. The Piazza features some notable buildings and the famous Neptune fountain, but the main draw is a collection of statues the would be key features in most museums. Here they are in the public space with no charge to view. Aileen likes the bronze statue of Perseus holding Medusa’s decapitated head aloft, snake heads hanging limp. James found the Rape of the Sabine Women statue most striking. Zeus was also eyeing the statues up with interest, but for doggie reasons.

Aesthetically sated, but rather hungry we headed for lunch. Trattoria Mario has a simple menu and is famous for its Bistecca alla Fiorentina. There was no need to view the menu, Aileen had already decided on the pork chop for herself days before and James was sold on the idea too. The food was excellent as expected, but it would be nice to do a repeat trip in order to try other dishes. Two Japanese girls on the adjoining table were doing a commendable job of sampling several dishes and their rapturous oohing and aahing indicated they were enjoying the food tremendously.

After a bit more wandering the streets and a visit to an Asian supermarket for some essential supplies (Rice. We also bought an interesting selection of Taiwanese instant noodles that we look forward to sampling), Florence was a wrap and we took the train back to Pisa and tried to figure out what to do next.

Siena and Strade Bianche

Tuscany presents lots of options for interesting things to see, but actually deciding where to visit next was easy. James noticed the Strade Bianche bike race was happening on Saturday and would start and finish in Siena. So we headed there.

Siena is a hilltop city that traditionally saw itself in competition with Florence and hosts a famous horse race Palio di Siena around its main Piazza del Campo. Strade Bianche is a road cycle race that has been growing in interest and significance over recent years. It takes place over the Tuscan countryside and includes sections on white gravel roads which make up about a third of the distance and give the race its name.

We arrived in Siena on Friday in time to snag a spot at the local area autocaravanas. We did the steep walk to the city centre that follows the same road on which the riders would conclude their race on the next day. Yes it felt steep and hard to climb. We had a nice late lunch (pasta yum). We took in the city’s cathedral which is made in similar materials to its counterpart in Florence but in a very different gothic style. We concluded our exploration of the city with cocktails in the Piazza del Campo where we watched staff from cycle teams milling around and we tried to envisage what the horse race would be like –  there is not much space in the piazza, it has some tight corners and apparently the square is full of spectators on race day. 

The next morning we packed up early and drove outside the city to find a viewing spot on a gravel section of the race. These sections and the final climb, tend to be where most of the action that shapes the race happens. We found a good spot quite easily, tucked the van into a verge, and waited for the riders.

The women’s and men’s races take place on the same day a few hours apart. It was great to see both. We witnessed the strength of the riders up close and the difficult conditions they have to tackle – apart from the gravel road surface there is lots of dust that affects visibility. If you saw our Instagram story for that day you’d have heard Aileen screaming/cheering for Tom Pidcock. She had a sore throat for a couple of days after, but he won in fine style. The women’s race was a super close photo finish that went to Demi Vollering, from team mate and previous year’s winner Lotte Kopecky.

On the Sunday the public can ride the same course. This is something James would have enjoyed, but we’d have needed some forward planning. Maybe there is a trip in our future that would combine that with seeing the Tuscan cities in more depth. 

Our meander south

After a couple of days in Tuscany we were feeling cold and subzero temperatures were forecasted, so we headed to Italy’s east coast where we found the sun shining quite nicely. Our first stop was in Porto Sant’ Elpidio, an unremarkable seaside town in the Marche region of Italy. We spent a day there though enjoying the sunshine – Zeus caught up on his sunbathing and we had breakfast outside for the first time in what felt like months.

We passed some stunning snow capped mountains on our journey east.  We knew nothing about Abruzzo’s national parks so we were curious to explore. From Porto Sant’ Elpidio we headed inland to Sulmona, which sits on the edge of Parco Nazionale della Majella. We did a nice hike from Sulmona, where we could see the majestic snow capped ridges of the national park. Cold temperatures motivated us to move on, but we’d be curious to explore more once the weather thaws.

At this point the forecast for Sicily was looking less rainy so we decided to start our journey south, with a couple of stops along the way. Our first stop was the Gargano Peninsula, the “spur” of Italy’s heel Puglia, where we discovered that it’s mostly shuttered outside of summer. We spent a day driving to camper stops around Peschichi only to find them all closed, and through the mountains of the Gargano National Park, until we found an open sosta camper (camper stop) on the coast close to Mattenata. We stayed a couple of days – James managed to do a really nice bike ride through the surrounding hills.

From Mattenata we headed south to Calabria and did an overnight stop on the Tyrrhenian coast, before our ferry from Reggio Calabria the following morning. 

What’s next?

We’re heading to Sicily!

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