Updated: Sep 1, 2018
Without a doubt, one of the most picturesque gastronomic sensory overloads you will ever experience. The moment you arrive, you can instantly see how Tuscany was a natural inspiration for artists and the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The golden sun rays laying like silk upon the rows of olive trees and vineyards, nestled amongst villages older than most countries.
Needless to say we were quite excited about this part of the trip. As we had finished up in Cinque Terre quite late in the day due to the late 5pm checkout and us wanting to fully explore the area, we stopped off at an amazing farm called Chioccia D'Oro en route to Tuscany (thanks once again to park4night). This was another spot where instead of paying to stay, you simply eat at the restaurant instead. Well what a treat that turned out to be. We were the only camper there, and they were a 0km restaurant (all the meals were 100% made with ingredients from their farm - the pork sausages were from their pigs, the gnocchi was made with their potatoes). Brigid loved wandering around all the vineyards and animals (even though we were about to eat their relatives and friends). Nevertheless how was the taste you ask? Simply outstanding. One of the most flavoursome of the entire trip.
(Our matching excited shots are after Bidi found a litter of kittens on the barn roof and Dan found Shetland ponies in the vine yard)
One of the best parts of travelling with a van, is that a lot of the trip is unplanned, and therefore you don't really have any expectations for certain spots as you park up for the night. Chioccia D'Oro was one of those magical moments, when you realised you were sitting amongst a bunch of Italian families and no tourists (except us), eating some of the most natural tasty food on the planet, in a beautiful isolated location amongst nature on a farm. Furthermore the local Italians were celebrating several birthdays at the restaurant, meaning that there was a DJ pumping out a whole bunch of Italian and cliche western classics which everyone was singing to...
Excuse us trying to explain the uniqueness of this moment, but it really was one of those moments where you think "how did we get here?", "gosh we are lucky" and "travelling by van is by far the best way to see the world". Watch the video above to see what was a small sample of this random evening.
Once we left what Brigid dubbed as "Ben Carry Farm Park" after a childhood animal farm she used to visit, we hit the road. Initially we planned to travel to Pisa to see a tower that leans... even though we had heard it was pretty lame. Luckily insider knowledge once again came to the rescue, and we headed instead to Lucca based on the suggestion of the farm owners. It was also on a more direct route to Florence, so would save about 35minutes driving.
What a brilliant decision this had turned out to be, as we parked up next to the unique Renaissance-era city walls. We spent three hours here wandering through the old town, including the Anfiteatro Romano / Piazza Anfiteatro, ascending the unique Torre Guinigi with it's oak trees planted on top of the town, and circumnavigating the city walls themselves. Dan was quite excited as this was his first real Tuscan experience. However this was only the beginning, and next we headed on to a great camping spot called Agricampeggio Cipollatico up on the hill and overlooking the famous Tuscany countryside. Oh and it had a pool too. Not a bad spot to relax for a few hours after a solid few days playing tourist.
As we were a bit behind in washing and "life admin", we spent that evening and the next morning giving Gary a good clean, getting a whole bunch of washing done, and planning our route.
We also had to try book an oil change, which is great fun in a country where you don't speak the language. We tried calling Volkswagon as we thought we might get a minor service done at the same time. We then visited an official VW dealer, which resulted in them telling us to call someone else, who when we called, told us to call the same VW dealer who told us to call them in the first place... so once again we were in this super-efficient European circle of death.
Luckily the parking spot in Florence we had planned, which was only €18 for a 24hour period and only a 30minute walk into the old town, was right next to a solid looking mechanic. So we booked Gary in for an oil and filter change. Naturally as they are Italians we got completely ripped off, but that's their culture; taking advantage of tourists and charging you for everything. Honestly, usually this would really piss us off, but given we were on a tight schedule in Italy and needed the oil change, we didn't care too much. Nevertheless, if you are planning to drive through Italy and will need an oil change or a service (which you should do in another country if you can), we definitely recommend getting a quote on paper first, and locking it in at that rate.
When we first parked up, we headed in that evening to watch the sunset at the famous Piazzale Michelangelo. Having grabbed a bottle of wine and plastic cups from Gary, this is a simply stunning spot to sit and watch the sunset over Florence. Not a bad introduction to the city, and to get your bearings either!
We then wandered down along the river for one of the best meals we had on our trip (yes there is a common theme here in Florence and Italy - almost every meal was one of the best we have ever had). Once we had devoured the crab fettuccine and wheatmeal spaghetti with swordfish, we headed back to our parking lot 100% satiated. The perfect fuel ahead of a day playing tourist.
The next morning we grabbed the bus into the old town (€2.50 per ride on the bus or €1.20 if pre-bought at shops), passing directly through the Porta Romana, the original entry gates into Florence. Once we arrived in the old town, we grabbed a coffee at Caffè Concerto Paszkowski purely because it looked good (also only €1 at the bar). We would later find out it was quite famous in Florence and even mentioned directly in Dan Brown's Inferno. Next we headed directly towards Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Brunelleschi's Dome. The structures are simply outstanding! The exterior of the cathedral was unique, colourful and spectacular. We didn't end up going inside as the lines were massive (2-3 hours), so headed straight to see David.
Unfortunately the line to get into Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze was also insane. So we grabbed some snacks from a local market and headed to the oldest Botanical Gardens in the world to have lunch. Even at only €4 entry, this was definitely not worth it, as the gardens are severely run down and you're not even allowed to sit on the grass to eat. Nevertheless, after some fuel, we headed back to see David and only had to queue for approximately 1 hour. We are glad we avoided being tempted by the "€40 skip the queue" people everywhere, as the standard entry is only €8, and well worth the one hour wait. And then suddenly, we were standing in front of one of, if not the, most impressive sculpture in the world.
It's actually quite amazing how something as simple a marble statue can capture your attention. It really is a unique piece of art, and something so deceptively life like. 100% worth the time and energy to go see. Following about 30 minutes just sitting there admiring David, we headed across town to the Uffizi. Access was quite expensive (€20) and furthermore we paid the €4 surcharge in order to guarantee our entry at a later time than when we initially had arrived given it would save us two hours in a queue, and allow us to maximise our time in Florence. We then used this additional time to head down the Arno river and explore this part of the city. We headed across the Ponte Vecchio towards the The Boboli Gardens (but after seeing the entry was approx €20 we skipped it) and headed further north through the cute winding streets full of various random nick knacks, eventually finding a cute little garden bar called Santa Rosa Bistrot right next to some of the old city walls that once provided another access point to Florence.
We then headed back to the Uffizi to see Michelangelo's Venus amongst a million other paintings and statues, which I'm sure people more knowledgeable in art history would be able to provide a much longer list of accolades. While stunning, this place was simply huge. We spent about three hours here, but could easily have spent another four to five if we were to truly try and see everything.
Next we grabbed a bottle of wine and some snacks, before watching the sunset behind the Ponte Vecchio bridge (from the Ponte alle Grazie bridge). We then headed to a Scottish pub we had noticed earlier that was not too far away, to watch the France v Belgium Football World Cup semi-final. It must have been an official Belgium supporters location or something, because it was full of ultimately disappointed faces covered in Belgian face-paint. Finally, based off a suggestion from the pub, we headed to an excellent Pizzeria for yet another amazing pizza (unfortunately we didn't save the name or location sorry), before walking about 50 minutes back to Gary to crash for the night.
The next morning while Gary's oil change was being completed, we went for a walk up around the observatory which wasn't too far from our parking spot. It offering beautiful views of Florence and the obviously rich estates around the hills to the southwest of the city. Eventually ending back up at the Piazzale Michelangelo for one final view of Florence before heading back to Gary to hit the road towards Siena.
This was a simply stunning drive through the Tuscan countryside. We had already researched a number of small villages on the way based on a small brochure we had picked up earlier. So en route we popped into one of these villages, called Castellina in Chianti for lunch and to explore. We ate at a simply unique restaurant called Ristorante Sotto Le Volte down a back little alleyway / tunnel which is part of the original town walls dating back from several centuries ago. Simply amazing.
Technically the town was actually in the province of Siena, but it's essentially the same as Tuscany. We then checked out the castle, which really can't be missed, offering a good snapshot into the history of the town, whilst also providing exceptional views of the region. Finally we headed back to our parking here, and discovered that it was actually built with campers in mind, offering free power and a dumping station, all for only €12 per 24 hour period if you were staying overnight. We ended up spending an extra hour hear on the grass as Brigid napped and Daniel blogged, all whilst plugging Gary in to try and charge our leisure batteries a little bit more ahead of the few days of freedom camping coming up.
Following another 30 minutes of stunning Tuscan roads weaving in and out of vineyards, we pulled into our free carpark on the edge of Siena we had found on park4night. A perfect free spot for one night. We then immediately headed into Siena and straight to the Piazza del Campo for picnic including a bottle of wine and some cheeses we had picked up on our way in. A much cheaper way to sit and enjoy the ambiance than pay for anything at the tourist traps that are the restaurants in the plaza. We then found a good spot to watch the England v Croatia Football World Cup semi-final (in which Croatia would make an epic come back), and then headed back to Gary.
The next morning we headed in to ascend the Tower of Mangia, which Brigid could remember from her earlier high school visit. The narrow staircase was cool and the views from the top were simply unparalleled of Siena. A perfect place to start our day's exploring. We then continued walking around the city, including walking down a million quaint little streets and another million churches. One of which was of coarse Duomo di Siena, and whilst simply stunning from the outside, looked very similar to that of Florence, and instead of forking out the ridiculous €20 to go inside, we both decided we would rather spend the total €40 saved on scrumptious Italian food and wine.
We then grabbed some meats and cheese from a local market and headed up to Giardini Pubblici for a picnic. One of the few places in Siena where you can actually sit amongst some nature and sit on the grass. Eventually after four hours of circumnavigating the town, criss-crossing through almost every street, and then an hour sitting reflecting on the beauty of Siena during our picnic, we decided we would hit the road that afternoon, heading towards a small town en route to Rome (our initial plan was to head the next morning).
While we say this a lot, this was once again another masterstroke, as we pulled into the free parking provided by the small town of Torrita di Siena. A simply brilliant initiative by the local government, providing a parking spot for campers, with electricity, water, and waste dumping, all for completely free, whilst the location provided an easy and short 5 minute walk into town, where you are likely to spend more on a meal that goes directly into the local economy anyway. Speaking of which, Dan immediately found a great little restaurant called Piccola Trattoria Guastini, with a terrace overlooking the beautiful Tuscan sunset, where we ate like kings, devouring several courses, including hand-made pasta (including pigeon ravioli) and local wine for a total cost of about €30 - less than the cost of entering that church earlier ;).
And what a way to finish Tuscany it was. Suddenly our week floating through this magical place was over (we will DEFINITELY be back). There are so many other small Tuscan towns and alternate routes we can take through this stunning region. However, the show must go on, and when we woke the next morning, we drove Gary directly on to one of the many roads leading to Rome... (they all do right?).
Bidi & Dan :)