Andi Cercos, Travel Consultant
I was fortunate to be able to join an Italy familiarization trip to Florence and Viareggio, which is on the coast about an hour from Florence. If I can assist you with an Italy vacation (or anywhere!), please reach out to me.
By the way…a familiarization trip, or “fam”, is an educational group trip just for travel advisors. They are hosted by tour operators, hotel owners, local attractions and restaurants. The sightseeing pace is intense, like a cram course, but it allows me to see so much, meet key local people and leave feeling like I really got know a part of the world much better.
Arriving in Italy
I chose to fly into Florence and spend three days exploring the many museums in the city. I love wandering the city admiring the architecture and of course people watching! When I arrived in Florence and claimed my luggage, there was that wonderful sight: a driver with a sign, with MY name on it. This transfer was arranged by TFL and the driver was also a guide which meant my transfer included a mini tour.
The Brunelleschi, Florence
I checked into the Brunelleschi Hotel, The Heart of Florence. The hotel is a sister property to the Grand Hotel in Viareggio where we will stay with the TFL fam. I was shown to my beautifully appointed room by the concierge, Sergio. Great space complete with a bottle of chilled Prosecco. The Brunelleschi is in the center of the historic part of Florence. After a good night sleep I enjoyed an “anything you could ask for” buffet breakfast.
Getting wonderfully lost in Florence
Florence is definitely a walking city and a great city to get lost in! With this in mind, I hit the cobblestones. My adventure started with the intention of visiting the Bargello Museum (closes at 1pm), headed in the opposite direction. Slight itinerary change because I found myself at the Straw Market which led to the Ponte Vecchio, very crowded, only one of two times I saw crowds. Once you cross the bridge the Pitti Palace is only a short walk away. I purchase a ticket (10 Euros) that included the Boboli Gardens. Gorgeous museum and gardens, gorgeous interiors and several galleries of sculpture and paintings by Rueben and Rafael. After an exhausting climb to the top of the Bobili Gardens with beautiful views of Florence, I crossed back over the Ponte Vecchio. Next stop, Uffizi Gallery. (12 Euros) This was the first modern museum created by the Medici family. The main gallery of statues was as long as a football field. It was lined on both sides with statues, paintings, and portraits. Off the main gallery there are rooms containing works by Bottacelli and Da Vinci, just amazing. I returned to the hotel around 630 and enjoyed a wonderful dinner.
Getting wonderfully lost in Florence AGAIN
I left hotel at 830am and (once again) headed for the Bargello Museum. After a fortunate wrong turn, I found myself walking along the Arno River. Back on track, next stop was the Santa Croce Basilica (8 Euros). Gorgeous, with sculptures by Donatello and adjacent courtyard and amazing stonework. Finally reached the Bargello Museum (8 Euros). The entrance opens into and amazing medieval courtyard with exterior stairs. It is the National Museum of Sculpture. It includes works by Donatello, Michelangelo, Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. It also houses exhibits of furniture, gold, silver and ivory.
The rest of the day was spent exploring Piazza Del Duomo and Piazza San Giovanni, (18 Euros). The piazzas include the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore; the Brunelleschi Dome; the Baptistery of San Giovanni with the amazing bronze doors, “The Gates of Paradise”; the Giotto Bell Tower, which some tourists climb the 414 steps (but not this tourist, very tight space, I did try, but a third of the way up, I had to climb down) and the Grande Museum. The entry fee does not include entry to Brunelleschi Dome. A reservation for a specific time must be made when the ticket is purchased. Entry also includes the Grande Museum. It is three floors of works of art, some original and some replicas, removed from the church, Bell Tower and The Baptistery for preservation purposes during restorations. It contains works by all the major artists of the time including materials and documents of Brunelleschi’s soaring Dome.
Since it was off season, I did not purchase the Florence Museum Pass. During the summer and holiday seasons, I would recommend that a pass is purchased to avoid the lines. Private guided Skip the Line tours guide can be arranged through TFL. The city was not crowded at all. It is a friendly and safe city. I knew I could always find my way back to the Brunelleschi because my window looked out over the street with the Disney store. Everyone knew where it was located, and it was the only crowded store that I saw.
Meeting up with the group and heading to Viareggio
I was picked up by the TFL driver at 2pm and I had a chance to peek a the hotel where two other travel advisors were staying. They were at the Grand Hotel Minerva, located on the square in front of the Santa Maria Novella Church, with the Santa Maria Novella train station just behind the church.
Our destination was Viareggio, a beautiful seaside community that reminded me of Santa Barbara. Enormous beach with families and kids playing. The walkway was filled with walkers, skaters, and bikers. We were met at our hotel by Federica Tucci, owner of TFL Tours and our host for this fam. After many hugs, we were shown to our suites at the Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte. It is directly across from the beach. Before dinner, I enjoyed a long walk along the beach before the entire group met for dinner in the Grand Hotel Tuscan dining room. At this time, I met the other eight Ensemble advisors in our group, as well as several of the TFL staff, and had a scrumptious meal.
Exploring the Cinque Terre
We met outside the hotel the next morning for our excursion to the Cinque Terre. we were divided into two brand new vans that TFL uses for their tours. It was a beautiful drive to and through La Spezia. When we arrived in Riomaggiore, the vans left us at the top of the long street for our stroll to the water. The vans would meet us later in Monterossa. The street that led to the water was extremely narrow and curved around the hillside, but very few people. I think we were the only tourists in the area. The views were amazing. From the beach you could look up the coast and see all the towns along the coastline. The weather was clear with blue skies that made the view just breathtaking. The coastal walkway that connects all the towns is closed in parts due to a landslide. We hiked back up to the train station and took the train to Manarolo. We navigated the narrow street to the coast and the colorful houses along it, right down to the water. There were many small restaurants, but most were closed.
Then we took the train to Vernazza for a tour of that area. After a restful stop along the water, we all met up at the train station and boarded the train for Monterossa. We had plenty of time to explore the town and walk along the beach. Our guide, Titziani arranged for a restaurant that is usually closed on Mondays, to be open for our group. Lots of seafood and pasta with our two-hour lunch. After another stroll along the beach we met up with our vans and drove back to Viareggio. We had a wonderful dinner of seafood and pasta in one of the many restaurants along the boardwalk.
The next morning, we headed out for truffle hunting. This is a tour that TFL can arrange for any of my clients. On our way, we drove by the Leaning Tower of Pisa, even though it was just a glimpse, the outline was clear. When we arrived at the Savini Tartufi store and restaurant, we met the truffle hunters, Luca and Andrea, with the dogs, Giotto Jr and Biroli. We took a jeep to the woods and the dogs were set free to find the truffles. They were successful and found three good size truffles. Just follow the dogs, they do all the work.
When we went back to the restaurant, we dined on everything truffle: cheese, salami, peaches, tomatoes, mortadella and 4 toasts with assorted spreads made with truffles. And, of course another pasta dish with truffles and it was all topped off with truffle ice cream. I didn’t think I would like anything truffle, but I was wrong, everything was delicious. After lunch we boarded our bus and headed to Lucca. Our guide in Lucca was the one and only Stephania. She guided us through the walled city. She made it fun.
Lucca is a wonderful town with very narrow streets and gorgeous bits of architecture. It is a town filled with locals strolling through the narrow streets. We ended our tour of Lucca at a small restaurant in the cellar of an old castle. We were greeted with aprons and chefs hats (right up my alley!). We didn’t actually cook (thank goodness). It was more of a cooking demonstration. It consisted of chicken cacciatore, pasta with red sauce and tiramisu. We all sat down to dinner with those dishes plus one more pasta dish for good measure.
Back to Florence with the Group
After breakfast, we boarded our bus to Florence. We met our guide Luca and walked to the Accademia. We skipped the lines and were treated to an abbreviated tour of the Accademia emphasizing Michelangelo’s David. It is truly beautiful. Luca gave a brief history of Michelangelo’s life. The we walked around Florence and stopped twice for snacks: coffee and sweets, then Prosecco and mini paninis. These stops were made on our way to have lunch at the Hotel Brunellschi.
After a wonderful lunch of pasta and pasta, we had a hotel inspection. The hotel consists of three buildings, including the Pagliazza Tower. The Tower was originally a prison for women believed to be witches. Later it became part of a church. Today the tower is connected on each side by the rooms of Hotel Brunelleschi. The Liberty rooms are classic rooms with city or Duomo views. The rooms on the other side of the tower are mainly suites with many, many stairs. The hotel has 2 restaurants and a large breakfast room with beautiful hand painted windows. Private tours can be arranged to visit the remains of the prison and even older Roman ruins that were found during renovations.
After our hotel inspection we walked about a mile and a half to our bus for our farewell dinner and last night in Viareggio. Our dinner was on the enclosed terrace of the hotel. We enjoyed a wonderful meal which included a crusted sirloin steak with fried artichokes. It was sad to say goodbye to new friends and the wonderful region of Tuscany. TFL pulled out all the stops and we were treated like royalty. Federica and her staff are just outstanding.
The next morning we had a small breakfast and were transferred to the Florence airport. Arrivederci Firenze!