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Chris Sayer’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 14 Jun 2014

Location: Florence, Italy

MapOur next city to explore was at the end of a two hour train ride south, but on arrival we made our way out of Florence and trained to Prato, about 15 minutes away. A cheaper hotel room was our prime motivation for staying out of town, but there was still no escaping the centuries old buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, and medieval walls surrounding it. The big difference for us after Venice, however, was the constant vigilance required to avoid getting hit by a motor car. After being accustomed to only pedestrians in Venice, it was certainly a major change.
Our first full day was not a Florentine discovery walkabout, but a pre-arranged bus tour of Tuscany. The bus was full, and the cross-section of nationalities was evident by the amazing multilingual talents of our tour guide. Each announcement over the bus PA was fluently repeated five times - in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish. She was very impressive, and she only seemed to be in her mid-to-late 20s.
The first stop was a hilltop walled village called Monteriggioni, a tiny town by Florence standards. It was so small that the bus had to park outside the gates and we walked through an arched entrance up a cobblestone street to a small but beautifully quaint square. The allotted 20 minutes was hardly enough to explore, but the place was immediately alluring.
Next stop was for longer (three hours) and included lunch at a restaurant. This was Sienna, and we were given a guided tour of the town square and adjoining basilica, which wasbest described as imposing. This monolithic structure warranted our gasps of awe. Outside, it was white, green and red marble with intricate carvings and relief, and inside was centuries of stone work, wood carvings and paintings. The very limited number of European churches we have now seen (now France and Italy), they all seem to deserve comparable descriptions.
Heading back to Florence included a stop at San Gimignano, another walled city with narrow streets boarded by multistorey shops, restaurants and residences. In all of these last places, we swelled the tourist numbers by an extra three, but that would’ve been an infinitesimal increase on the tens of thousands of people walking these streets. Words like kitsch and tacky come to mind. Disneyland in Italy. I know this cheapens what should be historically significant Italian towns, but with tourism comes commercial opportunity. Of course, such crowds could be avoided by getting there very early in the morning, or holidaying in the middle of winter. We just put up with them.
The final stop was at a family winery who also specialised in olive oil, truffle oil, garlic, tomato sauces, balsamic vinegar, and honey, all organically grown. The small tastes we had of each were delicious. The real highlight of the 12-hour day, however, was driving through the rolling Tuscany foothills, dotted with vineyards and wineries, olive groves, terracotta roofed farm houses, and soaring mountains in the distance. It actually rained at times during the day, and by the lush green growth of crops in the fields, drought is not a problem in these parts.