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Ultimate European Road Trip, Part One: the Car and the Plan

MacanPhoto credit – Porsche Collection – Web Page

We were planning a return trip to Europe in 2015 and it was also time for us to purchase a new car. We narrowed the field of possible car manufacturers down to four and coincidentally all of them were built in Germany.  So we thought how cool would it be to actually order a car from a local dealer and pick it up in Europe for an extended road trip… the trip of a life time.

Selecting a New Car

We were most interested in finding an exciting car to drive and a real value for the money.  Over a four month period we did a great deal of research, showroom visits, and most importantly it came down to the test drive experience.  The final four were the Porsche Macan S, Mercedes Benz GLK350/ML350, Audi Q5/SQ5 3.0 TFSI and the BMW X3/X5.  Surprisingly the four contenders all priced out in a narrow band width when configured with comparable features.

Choosing a European Delivery Plan

They all had comparable European delivery packages with some airline discounts, hotel stays, taxi vouchers, museum passes, factory tours, souvenir photos, and gift shop credits.  Interestingly when it came down to offering discounts on the actual vehicle the story got a little different as Porsche did not offer a discount, but Mercedes, Audi and BMW did ranging from 5% – 7% off MSRP.

But there was something about the Porsche European Delivery Program that made it stand out from the others in our mind.  It is a really well prepared presentation, and focused on you the driver and the adventure that awaits you in Germany… check it out:  http://www.porsche.com/usa/eventsandracing/europeandelivery/

The Winning Vehicle and European Delivery Program

In our final analysis it was hands down the Porsche Macan S. The exciting body style of a crossover and an exceptional interior design with all of the nice-to-have items set the car head and shoulders above the other competition.  The test drive put the icing on the cake… this is a performance vehicle in a crossover body that stirs the soul of any car enthusiast.

Securing a Delivery Date

The car/manufacturer decision is now behind us and the fun of actually building a car goes into high gear (no pun intended).  Using their configurator tool you can build “your car” and add the accessories.  This tweaking process goes on for a period of time until the “final” version is completed.

As a side note, the sales team assisted throughout the process and made a few good suggestions along the way.  Refreshingly their contributions were helpful and there was not any up selling.

The demand for this model is pretty strong and with a global production set at only 50,000 units we had to make our commitment sooner rather than later.  Our next step took place in late February when we signed a document and put down a relatively small deposit in order to secure a slot in their production planning process.

Requesting a delivery date in early September could get a little tricky since the factory closes down for six weeks in the summer… the entire month of August to be exact.  We are planners and not being able to even book our flights was getting very, very frustrating.  Maybe we should just forget this romantic idea and just simply accept delivery in the States?

As things have a tendency to work out… and patience prevailed… by early April we were confirmed in the production queue for an early September delivery date.  Let the planning begin!

Be Careful for what you Ask For

So we asked for a delivery date in early September… perhaps the 2nd.  Our logic was to have the car definitely ready in the first week of the month.  We really figured on a pickup date of the 4th all along and they can simply keep it in the factory for a few days… or so we thought… wrong!

We soon learned that when dealing with Porsche you will get amazingly accurate information exchanges and a requested delivery date (if at all possible) will be set in stone.  So it was… more precisely, it will be ready for us on the 2nd at 8:30 AM at the Zuffenhausen factory in Stuttgart so please be there at 8:15 AM.

Oops we now have a logistics problem as we arrive in Stuttgart at around 9:00 AM on the 2nd.  So after bugging them (the dealership sales team and the European Delivery Program team) for the confirmation of a date we now wanted a revised date!   Once again they came through and we re-established the new date of the 4th.  On the surface you say it is no big deal to change the date… but it is a big deal.

Porsche just doesn’t give you the keys and wish you safe travels… there is a well thought out procedure in place and there are limited number of time slots available for any given day.  Their intent is to provide you with a “heart pounding – straight from the factory” experience and not a “here you go, have a nice day.”

The Documentation Packet Arrives

About thirty days before the car was to be delivered, the final paperwork was executed and funds exchange hands as the vehicle must be paid for by either a lease, financed, or a cash transaction as a final step in the procurement.

So after we completed this milestone there was a tendency to think… what the heck did we just do?  But alas, there was also a package waiting for us at the dealership and its content spun us back up to the anticipation and excitement levels we experienced from the beginning of this adventure.

The gift is a handsome leather binder containing the car’s “birth certificate” window decal, complete with VIN numbers and a listing of all the options that you built in the final configuration.  Along with a thank you letter, all the hotel details, taxi vouchers, “European Delivery” gate badges to get access to the center, “Macan Quick Start Guide”, Factory Collection book, a driving tour guide book produced by the Porsche Travel Club, and they even included a special discount for the “Porsche Experience Center” in Atlanta.

We were expecting an envelope with the hotel and taxi vouchers… Porsche continues to surprise us with a first class act and a significant customer appreciation embrace.

In Summary – Hooked

This vehicle is for a driver… their designs maximize the driving experience… your pulse rate increases in the test drive sessions and you make the decision… “I want this car”.   I do not need another car… I just want a Porsche!  Yes, we are hooked!

Please follow us as we embark on the Ultimate European Road Trip… Part Two of the series:  The Itinerary.

  

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired.

© Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

Independent Travelers – Spoleto, Italy – More than Just a Festival

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We selected Spoleto as our base camp for the exploration of the Umbrian Region because of its central location and easy access to the surrounding major cities such as Perugia, Orvieto, Assisi, and it was a short drive from Rome.  But as we discovered during our one week stay, there is a lot more to Spoleto than the famous summer time festival.

Spoleto is a UNESCO World Heritage City, and has an exceptional collection of museums ranging from early first century archaeological displays to contemporary modern art and all are being maintained in beautiful venues.

When you add the outstanding restaurant options, regional shops and the fact that Spoleto is just a fun place to walk around… we simply fell in love with this medieval walled city high in the hills of Umbria.

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The Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds) was created by composer Gian Carlo Menotti in 1957.  His intent was to establish a friendly competition between American and European “worlds” focused on concerts, opera, drama, dance, visual arts and discussion groups exploring the sciences.  Inevitably there were a few spin off festivals such as “Spoleto Festival USA” in Charleston, South Carolina and Australia’s “Melbourne International Festival of the Arts”.

After the Festival – Exploring the Antiquity that Defines Spoleto

So what do you do in Spoleto after the circus leaves town?  Armed with an inspired itinerary and a spirit of adventure Spoleto reveals another side… so the journey begins.

The Rocca Albornoziana Fortress and the National Museum of the Duchy of Spoleto

The most obvious structure to explore is sitting on top of a hill known as Sant’Elia and is the dominant landmark in the city’s skyline… the Rocca Albornoziana Fortress.  This monument dates back to the late 13th century and was constructed as a military castle to emphasize the papal power in the territory and was also used as a holiday retreat for the local pontifical governors.

From the Rocca you are afforded excellent views of the city and countryside.  An additional reward for your efforts is a visit to the exceptional National Museum of the Duchy of Spoleto which is headquartered inside the fortress.  The artifacts on display range from the 1st Century through the 15th Century and are divided into three themes: the Christian community, the Lombard Duchy of Spoleto, and the Carolingian period.  (Please check the internet for more details.)

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Marble Statue circa 1st Century

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Marble Portraits circa 1st Century

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The Bridge of Towers

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Leaving the Rocca you have a leisurely walk back to town but first we suggest a slight side trip to one of Spoleto’s most famous landmarks… The Bridge of Towers (Ponte delle Torri).  The bridge crosses a deep gorge and links the Rocca to another fortification on the other side.  It is about 262 feet above the gorge and about 750 feet long.  The footpath is very wide and is a popular attraction for those that are not afraid of heights… the photographic opportunities make the extra effort worth it!

The Roman Theater and the National Archaeological Museum of Spoleto

Walking back from the Rocca you discover another amazing archaeological site which is tucked away in the city. The Roman Theater was built in the first century and was literally combined with the former church of St. Agatha as they actually used some of the theater’s walls in the construction of the monastery.

This collection of ancient Roman structures is currently housing the National Archaeological Museum of Spoleto.  The museum does an outstanding job documenting the history of Spoleto with permanent exhibits of the Bronze Age, the Iron Age and the Roman era.  (Please check the internet for more details.)

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Marble Portrait of Emperor Augustus from the Roman Theater circa BC

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Weaving tools that were excavated in 2008

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After the Festival – The Journey Continues from Antiquity to Modern Times

The Collicola Palace and the Civic Gallery of Modern Art

As you continue your journey you now transition into modern times of Spoleto and the experience is breathtaking.  The Collicola Palace is an extravagant aristocratic building that was built around 1730 and originally inhabited by the nobles of the Collicola family.  The building was purchased by the city of Spoleto in 1932 and is now the home of the Civic Gallery of Modern Art.  

The gallery was created in early 1950 by a small group of local artists who were intent on organizing a contemporary art center.  Based on selected artists such as De Gregorio, Marignoli, Orsini, Raspi and Toscano, and the sculptor Leoncillo Leoncilli the project was born.

Their collective efforts resulted in being awarded the prestigious “Spoleto Prize”.  This honor is presented to those remarkable Italian personalities who have distinguished themselves in various sectors of endeavor whether professional, artistic, business, scientific, cultural, religious or philanthropic.

The gallery has featured works by Calder, Tomato, Turcato, Consagra, and Sol Lewitt.

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Modern Art on display in Spoleto

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The Theatre Caio Melisso Spazio Carla Fendi Restoration

Continue your exploration and arrive at the Theatre Caio Melisso which is one of Italy’s first theaters.  This valuable structure has undergone many transformations over the centuries from its 14th Century glory, to being abandoned, and now, with the generous support of Carla Fendi (The Italian luxury fashion house) this ancient Spoletan theater has been brought back to its past stature.

In 2007 The Carla Fendi Foundation took over the renovation project (the initial focus was the incredible original curtain and the stage area) and created a beautiful environment to enjoy concerts, plays and art installations.  The theater was renamed in her honor and gratitude for her generosity to Spoleto.

Theatre Caio Melisso Spazio Carla Fendi Theatre

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In Summary

 The Spoleto Festival is by far the most publicized attraction of this ancient walled city but there is so much more to see and touch.  The numerous museums featuring vast collections of antiquity, and the modern art center with its dynamic exhibitions are all treasures to behold.

You owe it to yourself to explore the many facets of Spoleto and it only requires that you be inspired and follow a slow travel itinerary.

 After all, what is the hurry… be inspired!

  

© 2015 Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

Photos © 2015 Bob and Janice Kollar

Independent Travelers – A Trip to Grottaferrata and Ostia Antica, Italy… Where?

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We were visiting Frascati a few years back and some “locals” recommended a restaurant in nearby Grottaferrata… we were actually staying at their hotel but they insisted we go to another place for a dining experience.  They told us it was excellent, featuring authentic regional food – they even booked the reservation for us.  So how do you refuse three guys in suits on an elevator in Frascati?  So we went!  Years later we were passing through the Rome area and so begins another adventure of inspired travel itineraries.

The Adventure Begins

 We arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport (aka Leonardo da Vinci Airport) late in the day with plans to stay in the area for one night before heading out on a road trip through Italy.

There are a few options to consider… go into Rome via a one hour plus taxi ride, staying at the airport Hilton Hotel (the only hotel at the airport) or getting a rental car and staying at a hotel just outside the airport area.  We opted to get our rental car and begin our road trip with a side trip to a special place.

The Locanda dello Spuntino – Grottaferrata, Italy

 Less than thirty minutes from Fiumicino is the restaurant “Taverna dello Spuntino” which we enjoyed on that earlier trip to Frascati and vowed to return to after an amazing culinary experience.  The restaurant is located within the hotel “Locanda dello Spuntino” and we choose to stay at this gem of an inn for our first night back in Italy.

The staff at the reception area set the tone for our brief stay.  They were warm, welcoming, and projected the feeling that they were genuinely glad that you chose their hotel.  We found this excellent four star hotel to be charming and a great value for the money. (Something to note… the Italian star rating system is a reference point to consider when making a hotel reservation decisions in Italy… not absolute, but as another reliable data point.)

This boutique Inn was recently restored with loving hands and extremely skilled craftsmen. There are ten unique rooms so please go to their webpage for more details and book early, as they are popular!

The restaurant once again was a gastronomic delight and the hotel surpassed our expectations.

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Locanda dello Spuntino

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The History of Grottaferrata

Grottaferrata dates back to 1004 with the Basilian Monastery of Santa Maria, founded by Saint Nilus the Younger.  Over the years this famous Byzantine-Greek monastery was known by many names, and finally settled on The Abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata.

The legend goes that at the spot where the Abbey now stands the Virgin Mary appeared and requested that Saint Nilus create a church in her honor.  Today it is the last of the many Byzantine-Greek monasteries and the monks (Catholics of the Byzantine-Greek rite)   follow the teachings of St. Nilus and St. Bartholomew and still live and work within these ancient walls.

The Abbey of Santa Maria di Grottaferrata

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While in Grottaferrata take your time, be a slow traveler, and explore the area with its many interesting and antique sites such as Abbazia di San Nilo a Grottaferrata, Villa Aldobrandini, Palazzo Colonna, Frascati Cathedral, Tusculum, Lake Albano, and the Papal Palace of Castel Gandolfo. But especially go to nearby “Ostia” which is less than forty minutes away.

A Brief History of Ostia Antica

Ostia was originally known for the salt flats along the Tiber River’s mouth (ostium) and the community harvested sea salt which was used as a food preservative… around 600 BC.

In 400 BC, as the Roman Empire began to develop, they invaded Ostia and built a naval colony and fort to protect the Tiber River access to Rome which was nineteen miles upstream.  As the Roman Empire came into its own, the enhanced seaport of Ostia became a very strategic as well as valuable asset.

By AD 150 Rome controlled all of the Mediterranean and Ostia flourished as a very busy and prosperous commercial port.  With the fall of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century the port was abandoned and poverty and disease ravaged the city.  A malaria epidemic swept through the city of over 100,000 residents and became a deserted ghost town which was eventually covered in silt as the Tiber River retreated from the coast line (Ostia is about two miles inland today).

Covered In Mud Is a Good Thing

Ostia sat abandoned for centuries but the silt kept the buildings, streets, infrastructure, artifacts and history intact and to a certain degree protected it from the scavengers that went after the decorative marble stones and other valuable building materials for their own use or for sale.

The city is well preserved and is, in fact, one of the most amazing archaeological sites in all of Italy.  In addition to the architecture there are magnificent frescos and impressive mosaics that portray the wealth and prestige of this historic center.

Amazing Archaeological Site and No Tourists!

Slow travelers with inspired itineraries and a thirst for the unusual, venture to sites such as this… but not the “typical tourist”.  You can take a commuter train from Rome Center, which is thirty minutes away, but it is not on most tourist’s destination list… what a shame!  Here you can explore the remains of the city… the warehouses, apartments, mansions, baths, shopping arcades and get a “look” into how the Romans lived nearly two thousand years ago.  It is as wonderful as the Forum and Pompeii… but no crowds!

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In Summary

This side trip was inspired by asking three impeccably dressed Italians in an elevator about the local restaurant options.  Independent travelers step out of their comfort zone… we encourage you to ask the questions and expand your knowledge.

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired!

© Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

Photos © Bob and Janice Kollar

 

Independent Travelers – The Surprises of Heidelberg, Germany  

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Two independent travelers with an inspired itinerary were on a road trip from Munich to Alsace, France and selected the university town of Heidelberg as a stopping point to keep their drive time reasonable.

Road Trip Basics

We begin planning our road trips well in advance of the actual journey and strongly recommend using the free app from Michelin (viamichelin).  Getting familiar with the tool beforehand gives you the confidence to use it during your road trip.  Check it out to learn more.

The drive was uneventful and a little longer than expected due to road construction but we try to leave a little slack in our plans… less stress, the slow travel way.

Our hotel research was also done well in advance, since this was our first visit to a new region of Germany.  The selection process came down to location and proximity to the “Old Town District”, The Neckar River and the famous “Old Bridge” and, of course, the Castle.  Using “Trip Advisor” to scan the options we selected the “Hotel Hollaender Hof” and booked directly with the hotel.  We requested a room with a nice river view and on a high floor… the booking was confirmed.

The Hotel

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Surprise One – The Perfect View – Corner Room Overlooking the Bridge

When we are close to our departure date we do some pre-trip research and usually check the events calendar of the local tourist boards.  We noticed that on the date of our visit, purely by chance, there was a special celebration known as  “The Illumination of Heidelberg Castle” which has a spectacular fireworks display… located right on the Old Bridge… right out our hotel room windows!  If you can, try to book room 340.

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The hotel is positioned on the river and we expected that the parking may become a challenge but to our surprise there was more than ample parking disbursed throughout the town.

Surprise Two – Fine Dining on a Small Side Street

After checking in and getting oriented we started to look for restaurants for our first night in Heidelberg.  We checked out “Yelp” and it suggested a few places close by, but we were hungry and the hotel had good reviews so we went downstairs and found a table on the outside terrace.  The menu consisted of “typical” German fare which we have been eating since we arrived in Munich and we looked at each other… and since the service was very slow, with no drink order taken, we shrugged our shoulders and literally snuck out of the terrace with a little mischievous grin on our collective faces.  ”Hey, didn’t you find a great place on Yelp and it was nearby too?”

The ”Oskar Restaurant” was located on the side street next to the hotel and it became surprise number two.  It was wonderful.  The seating outside on a very warm night was peaceful and romantic.

Their menu was upscale, extensive and definitely unique… we started, of course, with an excellent dry German Riesling wine, followed by warm bread with a tasty herb spread, and a tiny cup of cold tomato soup.  Then onto the more serious treats of beef carpaccio, a grilled octopus salad, and for the main course we split a beautifully prepared skin-on fried sea bream served on a bed of leek risotto with lemon sauce.  Dessert was a biscotti and sherry for a nightcap!

As a side note, many people are reluctant to order German white wine after having it stateside because it is usually sweet.  We found the German wines to be consistently excellent and to avoid the sweet offerings simply ask for a “Trocken” (dry) wine in a modest price range and you will be surprised.

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Surprise Three – The Heidelberg Castle

The main tourist attraction in Heidelberg is their famous Castle and that was the target on our second day in town.  We headed out to the tram and enjoyed a brief but very scenic ride up the mountain to the first stop, the Castle.  It is possible to continue the tram ride to the top of the mountain if you were so inclined (no pun intended).

Views of Heidelberg from the Castle
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The Castle Ruins

The Heidelberg Castle is actually the famous ruin of the original structures dating back to 1214. Over the centuries it was expanded, destroyed by lightning, rebuilt, and damaged by wars and more fires and rebuilt again.  The present structures were once again destroyed by a lightning bolt in 1764 but fortunately they are regarded as a German landmark and are now being preserved.

A visit to the Castle really deserves a dedicated four hour visit (a morning or an afternoon) and is greatly enhanced by a guided tour which is the only way you can see the interior of the castle.

Second alternative is renting self-touring headsets and paying a nominal fee for admission to the Castle Courtyard which enables you to check out the enormous oak wine barrel (holding 58,100 gallons of wine), and also tour the Pharmacy Museum… all at your own pace and schedule… the slow travel independent approach.

You can also simply walk along the outside of the castle and explore the grounds with their beautiful gardens and take in views of the city… all for free.

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Surprise Four – The Charming Village and lots of Interesting Shopping

The tram back to the village deposited us right in the middle of the “Old Town District’s” charming cobblestone streets and their amazing assortment of shops.  The options were vast and the surprise was just how many excellent shops as well as how many blocks were in the “Old Town”.  We only spent a few hours here and that was just not enough.

Unique Bakery Offerings and Handcrafted Souvenirs

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Street Scenes

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Surprise Five – The Pre-Fireworks Dining Experience and the Extraordinary Fireworks

The ships in the Neckar River began amassing at midday and the crowds started to build all afternoon until becoming massive at sunset… tens of thousands of people on both sides of the river in a festive and happy mood… after all it IS a celebration!

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With the aid of a German “Open Table” app, we booked our dinner at the “Wirtshaus Zum Nepomuk” which had outdoor seating and was right next to the hotel.  Our plan was to eat relatively early and get back to our room-with-a-view in time for the extravaganza.

 The light-the-fuse time was getting close so we skipped desert and made our way back through the crowd to our hotel room.  We opened all the large windows, opened another bottle of wine, set up chairs overlooking the crowds and the “Old Bridge”.

 The Celebration

The history behind this spectacular is credited to the “Elector Palatine” Friedrich V, when he first brought his newlywed bride, Elizabeth Stuart, back to Heidelberg in 1613 and he greeted her with a fireworks show.  The celebration has continued ever since and in 2013 (the year we were there) the event celebrated its 400th anniversary.

The spectacle begins with the castle gradually being encased by a red light and eventually the lighting effects completely cover the structure… representing fire.  The special effects would have made Walt Disney proud!  After a few minutes the “flames” fade and the firework show over the bridge begins.

The Castle “On Fire”
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Photo credit: oldheidelberg.com from Heidelberg Castle Illuminations Collection

The following YouTube URL is a brief video of the finale of the pyrotechnic extravaganza. We shot it from our room at the Hotel Hollaender Hof, and caught the action at eye level… enjoy!

Surprise Six – Heidelberg Needs a Longer Visit

As slow travel proponents we really missed this one.  The village and surrounding areas offer so much.  Our slip-up was to use this as a way station instead of a destination… we hope you may learn from our mistake.

After all, what is the hurry… be inspired!

  

 

© Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

Photos © Bob and Janice Kollar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Independent Travelers – Driving a Vintage Alfa to Tuscany’s Fabulous Hotel La Chiusa

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A pair of independent travelers with an inspired itinerary decided to satisfy two proverbial “bucket list” adventures… driving a vintage Italian car through Tuscany and returning to one of our favorite hotels and its exquisite restaurant. When you have the ability to create your own itinerary the planning process can become a creative adventure.

The Inspired Itinerary – The Hotel La Chiusa in Montefollonico Becomes a Magnet

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The ristorante and hotel, La Chiusa (www.ristorantelachiusa.it) located in Montefollonico, Tuscany is situated in the hills southeast of Siena. It is an old farmhouse converted into fifteen unique rooms with the fantastic bonus of operating one of the best restaurants in Italy.  The owners, Dania Masotti and Umberto Lucherini are two of the most gracious as well as delightful personalities that you would come across and Dania is an excellent chef too. She also offers cooking classes and has written a cookbook based on her culinary skills and knowledge.

On our first visit to Italy over twenty years ago we stayed at this hotel which was and still is recommended by “Karen Brown Travel Adventures”. Our room and the view was perfect and it had a large soaking tub which is an unusual feature.  The people, the atmosphere, the room, the views, and especially the dining experience have made an indelible impression on us after all these years.

The second visit to La Chiusa was not a planned return and only happened because when we arrived at our hotel, Residenza d’Arte in Torrita di Siena during riposo (nap time) we found that  everything was closed for the afternoon. We were famished after a long drive so we set out in search of the suggested alternatives and somehow our “Travel Angels” led us this way and that until we literally stumbled upon the familiar La Chiusa farmhouse.

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We approached the gentlemen sitting at a table doing paperwork and told him “we stayed here eight years ago.  Is it possible to get some bread, cheese and maybe a glass of wine at this time of the day? “

Umberto looked up, smiled and said “I remember you!”  We were skeptical, to say the least, but it turned out he has an uncanny memory and was not kidding. “Please sit at the table under the chestnut tree and we will bring you something to eat”.   He selected a white wine and the feast began.

 The View From Under the Chestnut Tree

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Umberto’s Spontaneous Lunch Begins with an Excellent Wine

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We finally raised up our hands and said ”basta” (enough) we cannot eat anymore…..

The experience was magical, the food was “simple” and spectacular. The way we were treated was the epitome of Italian warmth.  They endeared us to them.  We vowed to return again one day and added it to our bucket list.

The Inspired Itinerary – Returning to Tuscany with Two Bucket List Items in Our Sights

Establishing a Base Camp in Spoleto

Two of the leading benefits of using a vacation rental versus a hotel are the cost savings and the more spacious accommodations. With the per night unit cost being more reasonable you can take an overnight trip to another village by simply packing a small bag, leaving the bulk of your luggage in a locked up apartment and off you go! We opted to go back to La Chiusa.

Bucket List Item # 1 – Renting a Vintage Car for Touring Tuscany, Italy

We perused the internet and determined that “zephyrus-classic-car-rental.com” had the best selections, reasonable prices and were the most responsive to our numerous questions. We selected their Duetto Osso di Seppia which is a 1966 Alfa Romeo (no… not the one from “The Graduate” fame as it was already booked). The company also offers travel tours and other organized events but being the independent types we opted for a solo rental plan.

Booking the car was a bit of a challenge and a leap-of-faith too. We had to prepay the rental fee with a credit card (which added some level of security) and kept an open line of communications with the Zephyrus Team. They were very responsive but you never know until you actually get there and see the car.  “Meet us in the town of ‘Chiusi Chianciano Terme’ at the railroad station and look for a red Alfa”… another leap-off-faith. Will they be there?

The Car

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We got off the Autostrada in Chiusi and began checking our GPS and road signage for the railroad markers but no need as Matteo anticipated our possible confusion and met us on the off ramp.  We followed him to the parking lot where we would drop our Hertz rental.  We signed some paperwork and he gave us a few mechanical instructions and “Oh, yes, your GPS will work… the cigarette lighter is right there”.  And off he went with a cheery “CIAO”.

And there we sat, in this old car whose exterior was certainly cherry, but whose interior left much to be desired… we are talking original 1966.  OK, so we familiarized ourselves with the clutch, brakes, mirrors, and we are ready to head into the Tuscan countryside… plugged in the GPS, but, sorry, the cigarette lighter doesn’t work.  Oh well, we have a map and we kind of know where we are going.

Driving a classic Italian automobile has its moments to say the least. The gears were “grinding”,  the clutch is hydraulic and very stiff, fumes from the stinky exhaust waft through the car and you start to think… what on earth are we doing?

The Why – Driving a Classic Automobile in Tuscany

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Rumbling down century’s old country roads and viewing the Tuscan hillside in a red 1966 Alfa is simply so much fun that any car enthusiast has to experience it for themselves. This Alfa had a 1570 cc variation of the Alfa Romeo twin cam four cylinder engine, coupled with dual Weber two-barrel side-draft carburetors which, all said and done, produced 109 horse power @ 6,000 rpm, packaged in a 2,183 pound body.  When you added the five speed manual transmission, disc brakes and an independent front suspension you had a classic design and a pretty nice ride. It attracted people so much so that they waved and greeted us, and other cars gave us the right of way… apparently Italians still love this car.

The Views from a 1966 Alfa

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Getting lost in a foreign country, with only a map and a smile adds a little excitement to your day.  As a possible solution we fired up the iPhone and Google Maps to find our way to La Chiusa and found out the stark reality that cell coverage is spotty… no joy and no lasting signal.  Back to asking the locals for directions using the car as a conversation magnet.

The “driver” specifically asked the “navigator” not to go into a large city and to avoid traffic at all costs. So naturally we wound up in Montepulciano at their busiest traffic junction and at the most hectic time of the day!  Driving a vintage automobile in the countryside is a heck of a lot more fun than sitting in traffic with an uphill slope and the reflection of the front end of a tour bus poised right on your bumper in the rear view mirror added an interesting twist to the day… va bene (so be it)!

Bucket List Item # 2 – Returning to La Chiusa in Style

We have all heard the expression “the third time’s the charm” and so it was at La Chiusa.

We made it to La Chiusa in the late afternoon, parked the Alfa and found a glass of wine to celebrate the survival of this part of the adventure. We enjoyed a spacious room, with a fabulous view and a soaking tub!   We then proceeded to have a gourmet Tuscan meal prepared by Dania and hosted by Umberto.

Our gracious hosts helped us celebrate our wedding anniversary by making a “special” cake for dessert.  Along with fine after diner drinks and singing Italian songs late into the evening… we really had a unique celebration.

The owners, Dania Masotti and Umberto Lucherini Represent the Essence of Italian Warmth and Hospitality

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After all, what is the hurry… be inspired.

© Inspired Travel Itineraries with Bob and Janice Kollar

Photos © Bob and Janice Kollar

The Independent Traveler – Why book a vacation rental in Venice, Italy?

The “Street” where we lived

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We have visited this diverse and wonderful collection of islands known as Venice numerous times but have never really “seen” this fascinating city until we rented an apartment for one week for an independent, slow travel experience.   As luck would have it, our “street” turned out to be a main gondola route complete with music and serenading gondoliers.

 Two approaches to visiting “The Floating City”

A visit measured in days

On our first visit to Venice we were day-trippers and stayed for two nights at the “Romantik Hotel Villa Margherita” which is located outside of the city.  Our next visit we stayed for three nights at The Pensione Accademia in the city. The previous visits exposed us to so many new things that we decided to return several years later, this time booking an apartment in the city for one week.  We “officially” transitioned to independent, slow travelers with an “inspired itinerary” as our guide.

A visit measured in hours

This remarkable city of approximately 60,000 “locals” somehow manages with over 16.5 million tourists a year. Most of these visitors are day-trippers spilling out of tour buses and cruise ships usually with limited time to explore. They go to the must-see sites such as the Piazza San Marco or the Rialto Bridge or have a quick lunch and a gelato with a brief stop at the traditional souvenir shops. They are on a tight schedule which is designed to maximize their time and the number of sites that they visit. But at least they had the opportunity to see new vistas and points of interest during their adventure. Hopefully they can return for a closer look next time.

The Independent Traveler’s preference is to secure a Vacation Rental

 The How – Finding the right vacation rental

We went online and checked “HomeAway.com” and “ViewsOnVenice.com” and found the “perfect” place for us.  The rental websites are full of pictures, descriptions, location maps and, best of all, previous renter’s comments.  There are a wide variety of units and a large price range to choose from.  You will find that a two bedroom place in the “best” location equates, price-wise, to a mid-range hotel room.  You are now comparing the space of an apartment verses the usually small square footage of a hotel room.  With the vacation rental you can get much more value for the travel dollar.

The apartments are usually stocked with the basics and the rental companies provide you with 24 hour contact communication, current tourist information, restaurant suggestions, and the location of neighborhood grocery stores, including cheese, bread and wine merchants.  In addition, the agents are a very helpful resource in case of problems.

The Why – Key motivations for a vacation rental

One of the main advantages of apartment/villa living is experiencing a destination as a “local’ and feeling the vibe of the community.  Add to that the adventure of being in a foreign country and living on your own (with a safety net… the rental agent). For instance, when they came to our rescue after we locked ourselves out of the apartment.

 The What – Living in unique and historic homes

Apartment Views

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The Experience – Getting acclimated to your new environment

Taking your time to venture out in a new city is so rewarding and one of the best ways to get oriented is to hire a local “private walking tour”.   A two to three hour tour on your schedule gets you a resident’s perspective on the “best” their hometown has to offer and where to find the hidden gems of Venice.

Part of the “Independent Traveler’s Mantra” is to learn a few simple phrases in the language of the country that you are visiting, which can be a lot fun and practical too. Shopping for your daily groceries is fun as well as the “normal” thing the locals do every day. The skipping-stone tourist cannot take advantage of the delicacies that are now available to you… a big plus for the slow traveler to savor.

By the time you return from your first “food run” you will have a pretty good understanding of the layout of the new community that you have just adopted. By the second time you venture out the community has a pretty good understanding about you and they may even start to greet you. Being smart merchants they recognize the “new locals” and want you to return to their shop throughout your visit.

Restaurants started to offer us their better tables, on-the-house specialty dishes or desserts, and the wine merchants began to suggest their favorite wines (sometimes less expensive ones too) and ”try this one on the house”…. We did say they were smart business people!

One of the key benefits – Let the INNER CHEF OUT

As you stroll through your new neighborhood you learn where the “good stuff” is sold and one of our favorites was the famous Rialto Fish Market (Mercato del Pesce). The fish cannot get any fresher than this and the variety is a seafood lover’s paradise. We would go there in the morning and select the ingredients for that evening’s meal.

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The apartment affords you the opportunity to COOK

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The apartment allows you to serve a meal that YOU created in Venice

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 The apartment provides a casual place to enjoy local wine in local Venetian Glassware 

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In summary – Do you need any more reasons?

The adventure of being in a foreign country and living on your own

A completely relaxed atmosphere with your exclusive space to enjoy

Having your morning coffee or tea in your “jammies” in the privacy of your own kitchen or terrazza

Taking the time to actually wander around and discover the “real” Venice and her people

Enjoying a pre-dinner glass of wine or a cocktail on the terrazza in your comfy “sloppy” clothes

The freedom to do whatever you want and on your own terms and timing

You can take an overnight excursion to another city, if you like… the cost of the rental vs hotel makes this a possibility

Immerse yourselves in the wonders of Venice….the culture and her people…. Slow down and enjoy.

What is the hurry…….be inspired!

An Independent Traveler’s Approach – An Exceptional Dining Experience in Polignano a Mare, Puglia, Southern Italy

 

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“Honey, I still don’t see any action in the restaurant!”  

We were sitting on the balcony of our hotel high above the Adriatic with a view directly into a large, empty, open air restaurant built in a cave which was also high above the crashing surf. For experienced independent travelers we were getting a little concerned. Did we just make a big leap of faith on a good friend’s recommendation to go to this isolated location for an exceptional dining experience?

The Journey of Faith and a Twinge of Adventure

After a 3 ½ hour long, uneventful drive from Positano on the west coast of Italy to Polignano a Mare on the east coast of Italy we arrived at this ancient village located several miles below Bari.  We rarely plan  a one night visit as it is against the ‘mantra of slow travel” but this was a very special restaurant and hotel highly recommended by our friend who lives in Milan.  With adventure in mind, we made the exception.

We arrived in the middle of  “riposo”, or “nap time”, so this small town was literally closed up for a quiet period. One of the telltale clues were the single chairs in front of the doorways. In this southern part of Italy the chair’s orientation sends the message of ‘do not disturb’ if their backs face the street and If their backs face the doorway, then a guest is welcomed….simple but effective.

We had time to spend since our room was not available so we toured this very old fishing village and came across a World War II Memorial that had fresh flowers and an American flag! The town still remembers the American Troops that helped to liberate it back in the day.

The Hotel and Restaurant

Polignano a Mare was settled in prehistoric times and is believed to be the site of the ancient Greek city of Neapolis of Apulia.  Today one of the main attraction is the Hotel Ristorante Grotta Palazzese which is considered one of the most romantic in the world.  It has 25 rooms of quality and uniqueness with spacious, arched ceiling accommodations built into the solid limestone rock. The beautiful dining area has been hosting the local nobility since the 700’s and the fortunate visitors since.

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Our room would soon be ready so we parked the car and went in search of a wine merchant to buy a bottle of local wine to enjoy in our room before dinner…it is one of our traditions.  That would not happen.  Nothing was open.

We returned to the hotel and explained to the hotel manager, in our best Italian, that we had been out looking for a nice bottle of wine and he was puzzled… “Why would anyone search for a bottle of wine outside the hotel if we have wine here that we would be happy to deliver?”  Well, OK, that was logical and in a few minutes a bottle of sparkling wine, in an ice bucket, with two glasses arrived on a silver tray.  So we sat on our stone balcony watching the waves crash 100 feet below on the side of the hotel, anticipating a fabulous dining experience.

The Dining Experience versus Anxiety

So, now it is close to our 9:00 pm reservation time.  We are dressed and still looking towards a dark restaurant.  This is silly… we are now really hungry and we know it would be all but impossible to find somewhere else to eat.  We might have to dip into our road rations of Chez-its and Goldfish crackers!

We poured another glass of wine and began to feel a little anxious and discussed  a Plan B (Snack Food and Asti Spumante). To the refrains of…. “I’m sorry… I hope this doesn’t turn out to be a bust”.

At that moment we suddenly see a dark figure walking amongst the empty tables.  A candle is lit, then another, and then another!  Soft lights appear as do more waiters in white gloves and tuxedos adjusting table linens and silverware.  There is LIFE!

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At Last……Dinner in a Grotto

Having been ready for over an hour, we bolt out the door, walk around the entire hotel, finding the obscure entrance, hurrying down a narrow flight of stairs to beat the crowd just off an Italian tour bus and finding that our reservation was intact.  The restaurant is in a cave.  The ceilings and walls are rock.  You can feel the fresh, salty air wafting in.  It was truly magical.

We were led to a beautiful table on the side against a railing that was at least 100 ft above a surging ocean in the dramatically lit grotto.

And Now Dinner Begins

First we ordered a beautiful white Italian wine, Fiano de Avellino Fenli Disen Gregorio… and they started us with an appetizer of smoked, lightly breaded shrimp plus marinated cucumbers and radishes complimented it with a glass of Asti Spumonti.

The waiter spoke a bit of English but wanted to speak very fast Italian.  He was rushing us and, in my best performance, I said, “scusi, lentamente per favore!” (slow down, please!) and we were good for the rest of the meal.  Don’t let the servers rush the meal.  They truly believe that Americans want to eat and run.  Not us.  We want to savor every bite.

And so we continue with Mare di Adriatico, (a seafood medley from the waters of the Adriatic), artichoke crab cakes, Sea Bass Carpaccio, Linguini a Mare, Ravioli a Mare, octopus in tomato sauce,  each one better than the other.  Every plate we ordered seemed to be delivered with a complimentary dish we did not order!  And a never empty glass of the sparkling wine.

When it was time for the main dish, a beautiful whole sea bass, skinned and filleted at the table, we could only taste a small portion.  There was simply no more room in our stomachs.  Then they brought biscotti and lemon sorbet.

Basta Finito… Enough, we are FINISHED!  A true dining experience in true Southern Italian style… the restaurant was still seating at midnight!

The next morning upon checking out we found that the meal was included in the price of the room… the wine was extra so our meal came to about $40.

We rank this exceptional meal as one of our TOP TEN dining experiences  and It was certainly worth the drive across Italy… now we are off to Rome!

Go to:  www.grottapalazzese.it/ for the hotel and restaurant

www.polignanoamare.com/ for info on the town

An Independent Traveler’s Approach to “going local” in Dubrovnik, Croatia — The Pearl of the Adriatic

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The best way to actually “see” Dubrovnik is to take your time and spend a few days exploring this remarkable destination, at your own pace, as an independent traveler with an inspired itinerary.

Dubrovnik joined the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979 and is known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic” because of the white stone walls that surround the city. These walls run an uninterrupted course of approximately 1,940 meters (6,360 ft.) in length and were built in the 13th century as a defensive barrier for this maritime republic.

This small Adriatic city has a population of approximately 43,000 and has become a very popular destination for cruise ships, so much so that one of the city’s biggest challenges is to limit the number of cruise ships docking in its port. There are still over one million passengers visiting Dubrovnik per year so planning your independent traveler’s itinerary becomes a small challenge.

We arrived via a flight from London directly into the Dubrovnik airport which was uneventful until the Captain notified us that it will be getting a little “bumpy”. Our flight happened to coincide with very high winds and concluded with a very “interesting” cross wind landing which was applauded by all of the passengers…welcome to Croatia! We prearranged for a car pickup with the hotel and arrived at the Hotel Bellevue at just around 10:00 PM. We were very hungry and still a little rattled from the landing.  We were told that the dining room was closing soon so we dropped our luggage and headed straight for the restaurant. They were very accommodating and told us “don’t rush, take your time, enjoy!  We will leave the kitchen open!”  A great bottle of Croatian white wine appeared and a perfect meal followed. Welcome to Croatia…again!

Our first meal in Dubrovnik was excellent and set the tone for our entire visit.

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The Bellevue exceeded our expectations throughout our three night stay. Everyone was gracious, friendly and had a glad-to-see-us attitude.

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We found this welcoming attitude everywhere we went and it finally dawned on us that the local merchants recognize that the independent travelers are the ones who are more likely to patronize their hotels, restaurants, bars and shops. So you can get the best of both worlds…a beautiful destination and merchants that really cater to you as their primary source of revenue.

Do your planning well in advance and immerse yourself in what each destination can offer. Select the top five things that interest you, prioritize them and try to incorporate them into your day as a goal and not a must-do event. You are no longer the skipping-stone-tourist, you are becoming a slow traveler, and an independent traveler…enjoy the freedom.

One of our suggestions is to go online and find a ”private walking tour” in order to set your orientation and get to the best of what is available. We selected Carol Sosa, an American whose parents were born in Croatia. She is an expat and is married to a Croatian…you cannot get more local than that!  Carol proved to be a wealth of knowledge and gave us the “insider’s perspective” of the city.

As a side bar, Carol became our emissary to meeting other local people and that introduced us to yet another view of Dubrovnik….on a road less traveled. We went where the crowds don’t go and ate at her favorite restaurants that feature authentic food, Croatian beer and wine, and a warm as well as a welcoming ambiance. Check out the many side street restaurants for exceptional food and prices…follow your nose and review their posted menus before you make your decision.

A Typical Side Street Restaurant and a Grilled Seafood Platter

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A Favorite and “Local” Recommended Side Street Restaurant

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Overflowing, delicious, and very fresh Seafood Platters as well as Grilled Meat Platters are the “typical” fare of this beautiful seaport city.

Another aspect of Dubrovnik, besides the great food, is the music venues from street musicians to late night open air jazz clubs….very romantic under the stars.

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When your visit is measured in a few hours compared to a few days you really minimize your options. If that is the best that your travel schedule permits, well that is OK, but an independent traveler sets their own pace. While most tourists get exposed to the Wall and a walk between the two city gates along the Stradun before heading back to their ships, we preferred these views of the Stradun…when we had the city all to ourselves.

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One of our “favorite locals” introduced us to unique shops and they advised us on what sites to visit, how to avoid the large groups, and especially how to see their beloved Dubrovnik.

Check out the RONCHI Hat Factory which was established in 1858 by Euphilius Ronchi who came to Dubrovnik from Milan, Italy. RONCHI has been in business ever since and has survived three wars and five different governments. Today’s heiress, owner and designer Marina Grabovac Ronchi is a delightful person with a quick smile. She still uses the same old technology of handicraft while making the unique and extravagant hats. The shop was fascinating and the reasonably priced hats are great for travel, and make for an excellent souvenir as they are one of a kind.

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Also check out the wide array of museums that afford you the chance to learn about the history of this village which that goes back over 1400 years. Go online and select what you consider to be the most interesting sites or refer to the following:

Ethnographic Museum

Marin Drzic House

Maritime Museum

Cultural Historical Museum

The Dubrovnik Aquarium

Dominican monastery and museum

One of our recurring themes is to slow down, stay in places for longer visits and plan day trips to surrounding villages. That is the mantra of the independent traveler’s approach and affords you the chance immerse yourself into the culture as well as the country. Get a good map, a decent GPS (Garmin is excellent), rent a car (no less than a medium/standard sized), learn a few phrases and finish it off with a great sense of adventure and a touch of a positive attitude.

So what is the hurry?

Take your time to really enjoy San Gimignano in Tuscany – the City of Beautiful Towers

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San Gimignano is a classic medieval walled hill town in Tuscany with a history dating back to 63 BC. During the middle ages, the town was an important center for trade and for pilgrims traveling to or from Rome. “Tower Envy” was the name of the game back in the 11th Century when the original San Gimignano had 72 towers, built by patrician families probably to demonstrate their wealth and power. Today the historic center is a UNESCO world heritage site for its architecture. Its 14 surviving medieval towers create a beautiful skyline visible from the surrounding countryside. 7 of these remaining towers are around Piazza del Duomo and the tallest tower is Torre Grossa, 54 meters (177 feet) in height, dating from 1298.

San Gimignano currently has a population of just under 8,000 and attracts millions of tourists from all over the world. The city is obviously packed with tourists most of the year and can be a bit crazy during the height of the summer season. Just trying to find a parking place can be challenge!

But there is a much better way to immerse yourself in this wonderful destination and that is to adopt an independent tourist’s mind set. Slow down and spend more time in each interesting location. Instead of 14 cities in 16 days try 4 cities in 16 days. You just spent a great deal of time and money to get here so what is the hurry?

Some people like to say they “saw” a lot of cities on their vacation but in reality they rushed through a maze of sites as someone droned on and on about facts that you cannot even remember! One of the saddest sites to see are the tour buses full of people traveling along on the highways through beautiful scenery and everyone is fast asleep. If you wanted to take a nap stay home!

Let us introduce you to the independent tourist’s approach and immerse yourself into the culture as well as the country. For starters the internet makes the planning phase easy and fun too. Plan the trip months in advance, get a good map, a decent GPS (Garmin is excellent), rent a car (no less than a medium/standard sized), learn a few phrases and finish it off with a great sense of adventure and a touch of a positive attitude.

With regards to visiting San Gimignano book a local hotel or even an apartment rental inside the walls. We used The Parker Company (theparkercompany.com) for our apartment selection and they proved to be an excellent resource. Having close proximity to this village is a must since you have so much more flexibility than the typical day trippers that invade the place.

Getting up a little early affords you the chance to score amazing breakfast pastries or breads at the local bakery and returning to your “home” for a leisure breakfast. If you prefer to “eat out” in the morning before the “troop ships/tour buses” arrive, savor a traditional Italian breakfast of caffeine and sugar at one of the many a coffee bars located throughout the village. Remember the no-no…no Cappuccino after noon so enjoy them in the morning only.

Wander around town for some souvenir shopping and possible snacks but keep an eye out for the first wave of “invaders”. First sign and it is time to venture out into the beautiful Tuscan hills. Armed with a list of preselected destinations (be realistic in the count with three as an average), a map and a GPS hit the road for a drive thru breathtaking vistas. EXPLORE!

During the day explore the Tuscan hillside, the open air markets, the small towns nearby, find a unique place for lunch, the vineyards, the olive oil stores, and the cheese merchants (one exceptional dairy farm is locate directly on the road going to the village) and plan on returning in the late afternoon.

The crowds board the ever present tour buses and recede from this medieval masterpiece like clockwork (5:00 PM and gone). Once the hordes vacate the city it reverts back to a tranquil environment and transforms you into the days of yesteryear…..simple Italian living amongst the “locals” that are fortunate to have lived here for generations.

In the early evening walk around the town (hands clasped behind your back is optional but common) and greet everyone with a simple nod, smile and “buonasera” (try it…..it is catching). After a day you will know the places to shop, and the popular restaurants to dine at……ask a local too.

Now the real fun begins as you are way more than a “typical tourist” that hits and runs……..you are living vicariously yes, but still more intently than the skipping stones that just invaded “your” town. The local merchants actually recognize you after a while and are very open to gaining a possible repeat customer (good business sense too).

Dusk and the cooking is going into high gear as everyone is preparing for the evening meal. As a side note….Italians usually purchase the ingredients for the meal that very day so everything has to be fresh……try it…..cook something in your rental unit. The abundance of excellent ingredients makes everyone a better cook! As we walked across the cobble-stoned streets we were enjoying the many fragrances, garlic and olive oil wafted through in the air and we were getting hungrier by the minute.

The best way to find the “right” place to eat is by following your nose…..check their menu which is usually posted outside the restaurant….check if the place full of tourists or locals (locals know the best spots)…..then go for it.  Order the house wine in a carafe, an appetizer or two, a salad and sharing a main dish is OK and quite a common practice since the portions are usually large enough.

After dinner you can stroll around the city and keep in mind that it is perfectly safe since most everyone is from the area and “bad guys” are not welcome……the locals look out for each other. Keep in mind that you are actually in a place where people have lived for generations and you are in their community….not a hotel or cruise ship or guided tour full of strangers and being controlled by someone else’s schedule…..you are a slow traveler and independent.

As you stroll you most likely will hear music…….a violin musician practicing…..accordian musician practicing……a flutist playing a haunting piece under the ancient arches for the acoustics and if you are really lucky you will come across an orchestra rehearsal. Picture this….warm September moonlit evening, walking off dinner, wandering through the town and we stumble upon an orchestra rehearsing classical Italian music in a school auditorium…..a free open air concert. So we had to take advantage of it as we danced in the courtyard to a spontaneous musical experience.

Bella Italia.

So what is the hurry?