Italy

3 (other) Places to Visit in the Veneto

....that aren't Venice! Most people come to this region of Italy to only visit Venice and what a shame that is. Some of the best of the Veneto is located outside of the crowded city of Venice and only a short train ride away. And thankfully the tradition of cicchetti (Venetian tapas) lives on beyond the islands of Venice, so embrace it! Next time you're headed to the fish, I highly recommend making time for at least one, if not all of these to get a taste of what this wonderful region has to offer. 

1. Verona - If you're looking to ditch the crowds (and high prices) and explore a much smaller city, this is the place to go. It is where Romeo & Juliet took place and only an hour by high-speed train from Venice making this an easy day trip. Or if you can spare the time, which I highly recommend you do, you could opt to stay overnight at one of many B&Bs like the traditional Il Sogno di Giulietta, the romantic Suite di Giulietta or the more modern Opera Relais de Charme

Verona is very walkable and not very big so you can see a lot in a little time. Highlights include Casa di Giulietta (Juliet's house and famous balcony), the Arena (Verona's mini-Colosseum), Ponte di Castelvecchio (the fortified bridge), and Ponte Pietra (the Roman-arched bridge).

The food here is more meat-centric (than seafood, seeing as how it's more inland) and is absolutely delightful. Visitors will feel a sense of relief to find good food easily that won't break the bank, which is nothing like your experience in Venice! Here are some of my favorites:

Osteria del Bugiardo for simple but amazing dishes in a lovely, rustic space.

Antica Bottega del Vino for an enormous wine list (no, really) and the best Florentine steak outside of Tuscany.

Osteria La Mandorla for the quintessential neighborhood wine bar. Just look for the "Vini-Liquori" sign and the crowd congregating with wine glasses outside.

Osteria Caffe Monte Baldo for a spritz and some cicchetti. When it's nice, do it alfresco.

L'Arte del Gelato for some of the city's best ice cream.

Romeo, Romeo! O where art thou Romeo?

Romeo, Romeo! O where art thou Romeo?

2. Valpolicella - If you've had enough of the soave and prosecco and you're looking to change it up with some delicious red, add this place (and wine) to your list. Believe it or not folks, Tuscany isn't the only place for good red. Here you will find, like the name suggests, Valpolicella Classico which is your everyday wine, Valpolicella Ripasso (DOCG) which has been aged a bit longer giving it a bit more character, and Amarone delle Valpolicella which is the region's most prestigious wine made from dried grapes giving it a higher alcohol content.

There are many wineries in the area to choose from including the world-renown Azienda Agricola Giuseppe Quintarelli (known for its amarone), Azienda Agricola Valentina Cubi (known for its bio-organic wines), and Azienda Agricola Scriani Fumane (if you're looking for a place that's open on Sundays). As with most wineries, you will need a car to access these places but this area is only a short 30-min drive from Verona.

To soak up all the wine you'll be tasting, I highly recommend making a reservation at Enoteca della Valpolicella which is a restaurant located on a fully-functioning farm and vineyard. Everything on the menu is fresh and locally sourced from the farm whenever possible. Pasta is handmade each morning and the tagliatelle was some of the most delicate, thin ribbons of delight I've ever had. If they offer a chef's tasting, I highly recommend. It is an excellent way to taste some of the local dishes.

Enoteca della Valpolicella

Enoteca della Valpolicella

3. Treviso - Not only is this small city pretty to look at with its greenery and unique canals, but its location makes it an excellent place for a day trip away from the tourists in Venice or to stay the night before your early departure from Marco Polo International airport. It just feels less touristy here and sadly I think it gets overlooked because most people flock to Venice. If you're staying the night, I recommend the adorable, family-run B&B San Leonardo which only has 2 rooms and is located on the ground floor of the family's home. The decor is especially cozy and you really feel like you're staying at a friend's home rather than a hotel.

The nice thing is that there isn't a whole lot of sightseeing in this town which makes for a leisurely and relaxing stay. It is small enough that you can walk the entire city to see it. Some spots to check out are the main area of Piazza dei Signori, the interesting Fontana delle Tette (Google it....), and the pretty Canale dei Buranelli

The food and drink in Treviso is delicious too, and should not be missed. Here are some of my favorites: 

Osteria Arman for traditional dishes an a cozy, vintage atmosphere. 

Osteria dei Naneti for the most delicious panini and wine. This place gets busy but eating and drinking outside is common practice and quite enjoyable!

Antica Osteria al Botegon by Porta San Tomaso for the best spritz and cicchetti.

Cantinetta Venegazzu for a lovely glass of wine in an informal local's atmosphere.

Cafe due Pomi for yummy espresso in a tiny hole in the wall.

The streets of Treviso

The streets of Treviso

So if you're looking for some balance on your next Venetian vacation consider these 3 places which are totally doable in a day or just one night. It is some of the places that you don't hear as often in conversations about Italy that end up being the ones you remember most. I'm so glad we decided to stay in this area rather than doing what most people do and head south to Florence or Rome. 

Curious about how to enjoy Venice? Check out my previous blog post.

And lastly, stay tuned for my next post which will be about another great area to explore from Venice....the mountainous, South-Tyrolean region of Trentino! Yes, we're headed to the Alps!

Ponte Pietra, Verona

Ponte Pietra, Verona

Small piazza in Verona

Small piazza in Verona

What a view from the Castelvecchio Bridge, Verona

What a view from the Castelvecchio Bridge, Verona

Veronese buildings

Veronese buildings

Arena di Verona 

Arena di Verona 

Excited at the wine list at Antica Bodega del Vino, Verona

Excited at the wine list at Antica Bodega del Vino, Verona

Valpolicella vineyards

Valpolicella vineyards

The streets of Treviso

The streets of Treviso

Salute!

Salute!

Fontana delle Tette, Treviso

Fontana delle Tette, Treviso

The picturesque canals of Treviso

The picturesque canals of Treviso

5 Tips on Traveling by Train in Europe

Okay so I thought it might be helpful if I took a break from writing about all the glorious destinations I've visited to provide you with a little info on train travel in Europe. It's the easiest way to travel within Europe and an essential part of getting around so you're likely to be taking one on your next trip and trips thereafter. Here are 5 tips I put together, from experience, that should make your planning process go a little smoother. AND will help you save some money. Knowledge is power, right?

  1. Do not use sites like Rail Europe or The Train Line. Please. They are 3rd party sites that sell you valid tickets, yes, but they often mark up the prices to make a profit. While they take care of the legwork for you and are easier to navigate, it's not that difficult to do it on your own through the National train company directly and you'll save some money. All you need is do a little research (which luckily I've done for you), have some patience and you're guaranteed to get the cheapest fare. I put together a list of train companies in Europe and which countries they are based in (see below). Once you arrive on the site, just look for a little British flag or "EN" in the top right corner to switch the language to English if it is not already the default language. NOTE: You will most likely have to pay in local currency, but even after the exchange rate you're still saving money.
  2. Rail passes (Eurail, Interrail) really only make sense if you plan on backpacking through Europe and moving around A LOT. Even so they aren't necessarily the best option. Personally, I've never found the need for a rail pass and they've always been more expensive than buying individual tickets. If you've had experience saving money on a rail pass, please comment below and let me know!
  3. High-speed trains, which bring you between major cities, should be booked as far in advance as possible. These trains have a tendency to sell out especially during peak season. Advance purchase will ensure you're getting the train/time you want for the best price. Tickets usually go on sale 3-6 months in advance, depending on the train. If the site says something along the lines of "no trains found for this date" it is likely because it is too early to book and they have not released the schedules yet. Just keep checking back and you'll get it.
  4. Commuter or local trains cannot be booked in advance. Most, if not all, go on sale the day of. These are the trains that usually bring you from major cities to smaller towns and do not have assigned seats. They are similar to what the Commuter Rail is to Bostonians, the LIRR is to New Yorkers, etc. If you try to book a ticket in advance for a train that utilizes the commuter train system, you will likely not be able to go through with the transaction. NOTE: Even if only part of your journey includes a commuter train, you will probably not be able to purchase the ticket in advance. In this case, you should purchase the high-speed leg only and then on the day of travel you can purchase the commuter leg.
  5. With several budget airlines operating in Europe sometimes you can find cheaper airfare than train fare, but before you jump on that plane think about a few things. While the flight is likely shorter in duration than your train journey, you should factor in the time it takes to get to the airport, check in, drop bags, go through security, etc. as well as what it costs to get to/from the airport on both ends. Also, airports tend to be quite a ways outside the city while train stations will bring you directly to the city center where you can connect to other modes of transportation if needed. Not to mention, trains are often times a nicer, more comfortable experience and you get to see some pretty scenery out your window. The only case flying would make more sense is if you're looking to cover a decent chunk of mileage or if you would need to hop on/off a bunch of trains to reach your destination (i.e. Naples, Italy to Nice, France).

LIST OF NATIONAL TRAIN COMPANIES

NOTE: these companies are based in the countries mentioned but some connect you to other countries. That should not affect your search or pricing. Also, when the site lists all the train options for your route, make sure to check the number of connections and duration, which are always stated, to make sure you're getting as direct and quick a route as possible. If you don't see your country listed, please let me know.

Renfe - Spain (the high speed train is referred to as the AVE)

SNCF - France (the high speed train is referred to as the TGV)

Trenitalia - Italy (the high speed train is referred to as Le Frecce)

CP - Portugal

SNCB - Belgium

CFL - Luxembourg

Thalys - The Netherlands

Eurostar - England to/from Paris and Brussels only

National Rail - within the UK

Irish Rail - Ireland

DB Bahn - Germany (the high speed train is referred to as the ICE)

OBB - Austria

SBB - Switzerland

CD - Czech Republic

MAV - Hungary

HZPP - Croatia

DSB - Denmark

SJ - Sweden

So there you have it and you should be good to go. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to comment below. Lastly, don't forget to validate/stamp your ticket in the machines on the train platform. High speed tickets purchased online in advance don't need it, but any ticket purchased the day of at the station or from a machine needs a stamp or you can face some harsh fines onboard. Happy traveling :)

Awesome Alternative Accommodations in Italy: the Agriturismo

Castello di Bibbione
Castello di Bibbione

In my last post about places to see in Tuscany, I mentioned that you have some options in where/how you stay. Florence provides a great home base for taking day trips and is chock full of hotels, B&Bs, hostels even. It is also a common jumping off point for organized tours and public transportation such as trains and buses. But a great, affordable alternative is to experience an agriturismo. Agriturismi are actual working farms that offer accommodations in its farmhouses or villas. The style of accommodations can vary-- from rustic to luxurious, traditional Tuscan to modern-- and some even offer swimming pools and spas. One thing they all have in common is that they produce some type of food, usually olives for olive oil or grapes for wine, that you get to sample and bring home as a souvenir. Yes, you're technically staying on a farm but since you're in Tuscany the scenery is spectacular and nothing like Old MacDonald's. I've stayed in both a hotel in Florence and an agriturismo in the countryside and both were lovely experiences in their own way. The most memorable though was my week at Il Castello di Bibbione, an agriturismo in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, known for being Niccolò Machiavelli's hunting grounds. It is located just 30 minutes south of Florence, about 40 min north of Siena, and close to the autostrada (the major highway) which made it a perfect location for exploring. The grounds consisted of a castle which had a few separate rooms, a 4-bedroom villa for large groups, several 1 & 2-bedroom apartments, 2 swimming pools and a breakfast room. At one point in time it used to be a small village so the buildings are all in walking distance of each other. Each room/dwelling was outfitted in rustic yet charming Tuscan décor and each had its own kitchen so you could cook a meal with the food you picked up from the local market that day. Some apartments had outdoor patios with a grill and the villa even had a wood-fire pizza oven built into the side of the building. You can bet we took advantage of that!

Two things that you probably won't find at an agriturismo are daily room service (although you can request new linens if necessary), and a concierge (however the receptionists are very knowledgeable and friendly). That doesn't necessarily mean you won't find high-end amenities though if that's what you're looking for. They do exist, especially with luxury agriturismi popping up on the map more and more lately (I just saw one on Jetsetter). Also, some do not have restaurants onsite or only offer meals during part of the day, so that is something to keep in mind. But hey, it gives you a great excuse to get a flavor for local life at the market in town as you stock up on provisions. Which brings me to my next point.

A car was imperative for staying at the agriturismo and for exploring the area. You might be able to find some that are accessible by bus but more than likely you will be quite off the beaten path so I highly recommend renting a car. Don't be scared, rent that Fiat and have fun with it! Cars, especially stick shifts, are pretty inexpensive to rent ($100-150/wk for a standard size). Automatics are tougher to find but it is possible and you do need to reserve one in advance. Note: it's totally worth renting the GPS with your car or you're stuck reading maps and I bet it's been awhile you've had to do that, thanks Google. If you're not keen on driving, then you might be better off staying in Florence where you can catch trains, buses and tour groups.

Important note about driving: If you are renting a car, be sure to watch for signs indicating you are about to enter a Limited Traffic Zone or Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL). You are NOT allowed to drive in these zones which are usually found at the historical city center of most cities in Tuscany and you WILL get a ticket. They have cameras set up that take pictures of your license plate and the rental agency will mail you a piece of paper in Italian several weeks later when you're least expecting it. More info on ZTLs here. Also, when on the highway watch for signs indicating a speed trap known as Controllo elettronico della velocità. You are always warned ahead of time, several times actually, that one is approaching so just keep an eye out for the sign with a little policeman on it and slowww down. Yes, that is probably why you see all the people ahead of you randomly braking. Do yourself a favor and take the hint.

Tuscany is such an amazing destination that no matter how you see it you will find enjoyment. But I hope that this article encourages you to trade the chain hotel for an agriturismo on your next trip. You might surprise yourself--I know I did--and find out there's more to traveling than staying at the Hilton.

Note: If you're not sure about how to go about finding an agriturismo, let me know below or shoot me a message and I'll show you a few websites that I've found to be helpful.

The view at Castello di Bibbione

The view at Castello di Bibbione

Villa il Poggio, Castello di Bibbione

Villa il Poggio, Castello di Bibbione

One of the two pools

One of the two pools

Tuscan living room

Tuscan living room

Pizza oven

Pizza oven

Our Fiat for the week. Meep meep!

Our Fiat for the week. Meep meep!

7 Places to See in Tuscany

Tuscany. One of the largest and most-visited regions in Italy. It is no wonder that it tops many people's bucket lists with land comprising of vast plains, gorgeous green rolling hills, hundreds of vineyards and lots of quaint, medieval hillside towns. It is such a beautiful place words cannot describe and that photos don't do justice topped off with some of the most delicious food and wine around. If this dreamy destination is not on your list, it should be. And for a decent chunk of time. There is so much to see and do in Tuscany that you really should plan to spend at least a week to get a taste of the wonderful culture. And then you should go back and do more. Better yet, you should just move there like Diane Lane does in Under the Tuscan Sun. But if that cannot happen well then here is a list of 7 places to see on your next trip to Tuscany that will have you longing for more.

A street in Florence

A street in Florence

PISA

Home of the Leaning Tower and pretty much nothing else. A half day is more than enough in this touristy city and trains run regularly here every day from Florence (about a 30 min ride). The Leaning Tower can be found in Piazza dei Miracoli. It is free to wander the grounds but you have to buy a ticket to climb it. I've never felt the need to do that. There are tons of tourists here so you will probably just want to get your picture and turn right around. Avoid eating or drinking near the Leaning Tower because those places tend to rip off tourists. Instead stop at Il Crudo in nearby Piazza Cairoli (Piazza Cairoli 8) for a delicious panino.

An obligatory picture with the Leaning Tower

An obligatory picture with the Leaning Tower

FIESOLE

Another great day trip from Florence, this charming little town is located up on the hills slightly north of the city so has a spectacular view and also has a cute little piazza with trattorias and gelaterias. Make sure you wander the side streets up the hill because there are spectacular views once you reach the top. If you are staying in Florence and unable to spend time exploring the Tuscan countryside but want a taste for it, this is the place to go. It is a quick 20 minutes on ATAF bus number 7 from Piazza San Marco. Purchase your tickets inside the tabaccheria. Make sure to validate (stamp) your ticket in the machine as soon as you board the bus.

Views from Fiesole

Views from Fiesole

SIENA

Another major city of Tuscany but smaller than Florence and a little over an hour south. You will want at least a full day to explore this city. Piazza del Campo is the main square full of places to eat and bustling with people. Definitely fun to wander around. For an amazing Tuscan meal off the beaten path in a super cute tiny square with a great outside patio, visit Enoteca I Terzi (Via dei Termini 7). Also, the Duomo (Piazza del Duomo 8) is supposedly one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Tuscany, especially the interior. Other than that have fun and get lost wandering the streets, my most favorite activity.

Lunch al fresco at Enoteca I Terzi

Lunch al fresco at Enoteca I Terzi

CERTALDO ALTO

Definitely a lesser known town in Tuscany, my husband and I stumbled upon this place when we were searching for a town with a city hall to get married. This one definitely fit the bill-- old and medieval, perched up high on a hill with gorgeous views of the rolling Tuscan countryside, quaint, and filled with cobblestone streets for strolling. Cars need a special permit to drive up here so visitors must park at the town below (Certaldo proper) and take the funiculare up the hill, which just adds to the charm. It is a really small town that you don't need a full day for but is a great place to relax outside with some wine and bruschetta at a cute little cafe like Enoteca Boccaccio (Via Boccaccio 37) taking in the scenery. It's about 45 min to an hour south of Florence.

The quaint town of Certaldo Alto

The quaint town of Certaldo Alto

SAN GIMIGNANO

Another quaint medieval town great for wandering around located about an hour south of Florence. A few hours are perfect for exploring the many cute streets lined with shops and places to grab a bite or drink. This town produces one of the few white wines in Tuscany, Vernaccia, and it's pretty good so make sure to have a glass! The views on the drive to town are so amazing and exactly how you would picture Tuscany. This town can get pretty crowded but escape the masses and have a delicious panino and glass of wine for lunch at dal Bertelli (Via Capassi 30), a cute little spot off the main tourist drag that offers local ingredients.

The towers of San Gimignano

The towers of San Gimignano

MONTERIGGIONI

This small, fortified medieval town still has its walls intact. Walk along the walls for amazing views of Tuscany and relax in its piazza with an espresso or prosecco. You don't need more than 2 hours here because it is so small. It's about an hour south of Florence and on the way to Siena.

The view from the walls of Monteriggioni 

The view from the walls of Monteriggioni 

Not mentioned in the list above but something everyone should include in their trip is a visit to a winery. There are literally hundreds in Tuscany to choose from whether it be a huge, well-established brand or a small, family-owned name. On my last trip, I visited the new Antinori Winery (Via Cassia per Siena 133, Bargino) which was down the street from where we were staying. Antinori is a huge production (some bottles can be found in the States) and the facilities were nothing short of spectacular. On my next trip, however, I plan to make it to some of the smaller, independently-owned wineries for a more intimate experience. Here is a helpful site that lists all the wineries in the Chianti region of Tuscany and here is another helpful resource that includes some other Tuscan wine regions as well. Be sure to check the winery's own website to make sure they are still in business and for more details on their hours.

The crew at Antinori Winery

The crew at Antinori Winery

Curious about where to stay? You could choose to stay in Florence which serves as a good home base and has plenty of hotels. For a splurge, stay at the Westin or St. Regis which are centrally-located, on the river Arno and housed in buildings with beautiful architecture that make you think for second you're in a museum. OR, you could opt to stay in the countryside in an agriturismo which is an excellent and affordable option (you will just need a car). What is an agriturismo you ask? Well, my next post will be all about it and the agriturismo that I stayed at, so check back soon or follow me to receive a notification.

Wondering about Florence? Read my post on that here.

Not on this list but a top priority for my next trip to Tuscany are the towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano for their exceptional wine-- Vino Nobile and Brunello. If you've been to either of these places, I'd love to hear all about it including any wineries you visited. Leave me a comment below, per favore!

And as always, if you have any specific questions about Tuscany I encourage you to ask away! Happy traveling :)