Tour of central Italy
Rolling hills with on every top an old town
In the hilly center of Italy, with fields, vineyards, forests and sunflowers, it's as if on every hilltop in Umbria and Tuscany there's an old town: MonteGridolfo, Urbino, Gubbio, Perugia, Assisi, Spoleto, Monteriggioni and Pienza. Along the Ligurian coast are five hard to reach villages on steep rocks: Cinque Terre.
Travelogue & photos: Marianne Bekkering
It's 3 AM and we drive the car on the car sleeper train. The destination of this trip is the area just north of the middle of Italy: Marche, Tuscany, Umbria and Liguria. We take the car sleeper train from Den Bosch to Bologna to save travelling time.
At half past eight in the evening we are in the dining area of the train, watching the Rhine and the many castles against the surrounding hills. It is a splendid and relaxing way of travelling. We arrive in Bologna at noon the next day and about an hour later our navigator leads us out of the city.
Castello di MonteGridolfo
A medieval fortress on a hill top
We drive to Rimini via secondary roads and then to MonteGridolfo, our first stop.
Castello di MonteGridolfo is a wonderful medieval fortress on a hill top. It was restored in 1987, at which time the old Palazzo Viviani was converted into a hotel.
We enter the village through a narrow, old entrance gate and I'm happy the car's mirrors are retractable.
In the village are some little restaurants, beautiful old streets, a town square and a large outdoor restaurant where you can dine in the evening. Only 14 people live in this village.
Our room has an incredible view of the surrounding landscape. We change quickly and enjoy a cold beer, after exploring the village. In the evening we dine on the town square: carpacchio and pasta. Plain Italian but very good food.
Urbino and San Marino
A walled medieval town and a city state
After breakfast in the romantic garden behind thick walls we are on our way. The navigator is on 'touristic' and leads us though endless hilly and beautiful areas with little mountain villages on almost every hilltop.
Our first goal of the day is Urbino, which is about 25 kilometres away. A very beautiful, walled medieval little town with many buildings from the Renaissance period, on top of a hill, 485 meters high. It's a beautiful view. Especially because the villages here are built with a rose-red kind of stone.
The most important landmark of Urbino is the 15th century Palazzo Ducale which has unusual towers. The best place to see them is from the old bastion. The façade, with rows of loggias above each other, has long served as the entrance of the city. Urbina is very well restored - maybe even too well - and worth visiting.
Urbino has find many steep and narrow streets and beautiful squares. On one of those is a kind of flea market. We have a cup of cappuccino while looking at everything that goes on there and then walk to the old bastion, which is situated a little higher on the mountain. The bastion in itself is not very interesting but the view of the city is marvellous.
After we've seen everything we wanted, we drive on to San Marino, which is another 45 km. away. Again along secondary roads with great views of the hills and patchwork-like fields. From afar we can see the distinct towers of San Marino.
San Marino is an old town and a mini republic, with it's own stamps and a national football team. It's a nice enough place, but very commercial. Many duty-free shops - due to the low sales tax - and therefore many people who come here to shop. What strikes us as odd, is the large supply of fake weapons on display.
We walk to the towers on top of the hill en then stroll down again. A thin pancake for lunch and then we are on our way back to our wonderful lodgings in Monte Gridolfo.
In the evening we have a delicious dinner at a restaurant with outdoor seating on the edge of the village, with a beautiful view of the surroundings. Above the sea there's lightning in the distance.
A walled medieval city with a Roman theatre
After a nice breakfast we pack our bags and are on our way again. First to Petticchio, known from a Dutch television program 'the Italian dream'. The journey again leads us through a hilly landscape along small roads. This time not only patchwork fields but also fields full of sunflowers. Blossoming broom adds its own yellow to the colors of the landscape.
In reality Peticchio also is a nice, sleepy, medieval and beautifully restored little village. We walk around and enjoy the scenery. We were planning to have a refreshment here but it is noon and everything is closed.
The landscape is getting rougher, with higher hills and instead of fields there are woods in this area and less mountain villages on hill tops.
We drive on to the beautiful, completely walled medieval Gubbio, which has a Roman theatre from the 1st century.
When you drive up to the city you can see it spread out against the mountain. In 1624 Gubbio was under the authority of the pope and it has many churches, many of which are certainly worth visiting.
But you'll also find the beautiful Palazzo di Consoli, a medieval entrance and lovely, steep and narrow streets. We wander through the streets. It's warm, so a nice and cold granita limone is more then welcome.
Then on to our final destination of the day, our lodgings for the next 4 nights in Relais du Cannelicchio in Umbria. This is a completely restored fortress from the 13th century, with a beautiful view of the surroundings.
This time we have an apartment next to the fortress, with our own little terrace in the garden. In the evening we dine in the restaurant in the fortress.
An old city center with majestic buildings
In the morning we drive to Perugia. We skipped this on our last holiday here because it is quite a big city, but this time it is very tempting. And it turns out to be a very good choice.
Perugia has a marvellous old centre. It has a medieval atmosphere but is based on an Etruscan design from the 5th century B.C.
It isn't hard to find the parking garage on the Piazzale Partigiano, which is next to the escalator which takes you to the old part of town, the 'centro storico'. Halfway you find the ruins of an old fortress from 1543, the Rocca Paolina.
It was built by the prelates, who didn't shy from tearing down several other buildings to get what they wanted.
The people certainly didn't appreciate this and as soon as the prelates lost their control over the city they tore it down. Only a small part is left and you pass that on your way to the 'centro storico'.
At the top of the escalator you suddenly find yourself in the old centre, with grand buildings like the palazzo di Priori. Part of this building is the richly decorated Sala di Notari, dating from 1290.
This hall, with beautifully painted arches along the ceiling, used to be the meeting place of the legal experts, but is now used as a convention hall.
I'm disappointed to see light blue, modern-looking chairs. It would have been much better with chairs in a more matching style.
After the Palazzo we stroll to the Duomo, with a white-and-pink marble front and a richly decorated entrance. Left of it is a sculpture of pope Pius III, who allowed the people of Perugia some freedom. On the other side of the entrance is a pulpit from the 15th century and the Fontana Maggiore.
We stroll on to the Etruscan entrance gate of August, from the 3th century BC. In between we see many beautiful narrow old streets. Perugia is really a beautiful and very interesting city.
Arched streets with passage ways scattered on a hill
In the morning we drive to Assisi via secondary roads. The city can be seen from afar, sprawling over the hills. It has beautiful churches and buildings, picturesque, arched narrow streets with passage ways and alleys.
It takes quite some time to just see the Basilica di San Francesco. This church consists of three layers. The upper church, which is the largest, receives most sunlight. The lower church, which is sober and darker, has beautiful frescoes; It was originally meant to house the grave of the saint.
Beneath the lower basilica is the crypt with the tomb of Francis of Assisi. In 1997 this church was severely damaged by an earthquake. So badly that a part of the ceiling came down, but within 2 years everything was restored and the church was opened to the public again.
After lunch we climb to the fortress on the top of the mountain, the Rocca Maggiore from the 12th century. It is delapidated, but the view of the city is magnificent.
Spoleto and surroundings
Narrow mountain roads and great panoramic views
The next day we take a trip trough the mountains in the area near Spoleto. We pass Trevi and then drive into the mountains. On both sides the views are spectacular.
We have lunch in a small trattoria in the middle of nowhere, called Trattorino Pittina. As a first course we have very nice crostinos and then a finger-licking good pasta with truffles. After this, HJ orders a veal dish but I've reached my limits.
After lunch we slowly drive back to Deruta, where we buy a piece of Pecorino cheese for the evening, and drive back to Relais du Cannelicchio. It's already our last night here.
A gorgeous green landscape with vineyards
Today we drive in about 3.5 hours, through hilly terrain with quite some woods, to Tuscany, where we'll stay the next 4 days. We pass Montepulciano and then continue on to Asciano and our next accommodation in Casa Bianca, roughly 10 km from Asciano.
It turns out to be a real gem as well. A tiny old village, carefully restored. The main house and stables are transformed into rooms and apartments.
Our room is in the main house. We have lunch in the garden: Italian ham and melon with a nice cool glass of white wine. All of this with a view of the garden and the little village.
The next day we take a tour of the wine valleys in the Chianti area. A beautiful green and roling landscape with some nice villages and many places where local wines can be tasted and bought.
The weather is sunny and warm. In Radda di Chianti we treat ourselves to great Italian ice-cream and then go back to Casa Bianca, where I take a dip in the garden jacuzzi. By then it's time to change for the 'gala' dinner - with live music - in the courtyard. Life can be sooo busy!
The dinner is very nice, the vocalist good (think Andrea Botticelli); the ambiance great and of course the company too.
A walled medieval village on a hill
The day starts out cloudy and quite cool (23 degrees centigrade), but soon the sun breaks through the clouds and the temperature rises again to a nice 32 degrees. We drive by a beautiful road through wine and sunflower fields, alternating with woods to San Gimignano, our favourite city in this part of Italy.
But the closer we get, the more it looks as if the foreboding, dark grey clouds are exactly above San Gimignano. The first raindrops soon confirm our fears, and a real cloudburst will follow soon, so we decide to go on.
A little further on we see Monteriggioni, a beautiful, tiny, completely walled medieval town on a small hill. A beautiful sight.
The sun is really trying and shows itself just as we arrive, so we stop here and look around. Gliding and sliding on the wet and muddy parking place we pick up the car again and drive back to Casa Bianca. On the way we see the vapour of the rain rising from the hot earth between the hills.
Arond Monte Amiata
Pienza has narrow streets and squares with potted flowers
Today we take a tour around Monte Amiata, a volcano in the area, about 1700 m. high. The dark clouds around the volcano stay near the top and, except for a few drops, it stays dry today.
It's beautiful here, with hills, woods and great views.
Everywhere are signs pointing to ski lifts. Our guidebook tells us there is a good chance of snow here in the winter. The top of the volcano is bare, so that is probably where the skiing takes place.
In the nicest place, Santa Fiora, we have a cup of coffee and take a stroll before driving on.
On the way 'home' we make a stop in Pienza, which is a gorgeous little town on top of a hill, with a lot of narrow streets and a nice square. There are potted flowers everywhere.
A crowded sea resort in Liguria
With pain in our hearts we leave Casa Bianca and drive to Sestri Levante in Liguria, our last destination. It is quite far and we decide to take the highway for part of the way. Near Lucca we exit the highway and take a beautiful tour through a valley.
We have Italian ice cream for lunch in Castel Nuevo di Garfagnana, a nice village. In Aula we enter the highway again, and continue on to Sestri Levante. This turns out to be a very busy beach resort and it takes some getting used to, after the quiet countryside.
Our hotel is directly on the beach and easy to find. In the evening we dine in the restaurant of the hotel which has a nice view of the beach and the sunset.
Five hard to reach villages on the Ligurian coast
Today we take a boat to the Cinque Terre villages, a little to the east of Sestri Levante.
The Cinque Terre are five villages on the Ligurian coast: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. In the old days wine and olive production were the means of living but nowadays tourism is increasingly the main source of income.
The villages are colourful and located between the sea and the mountains, which steeply rise from the sea. They are interconnected by a railway and footpaths and are on the Unesco list of World Heritage since 1997. It's very hard - if at all possible - to reach them by car, but easily visited by boat.
The first village we visit is Riomaggiore, which is farthest from Sestri Levante. While we sail to Riomaggiore we have a first glimpse of the other four.
Riomaggiore is a pretty little village, with brightly coloured houses, right up to the seaside. Very enchanting indeed. We have an hour to look around. A cappuccino on a terrace and then it's time again to board the boat to sail to the next village.
We sail past the three other villages to Monterosso, which is the biggest of them with 1560 inhabitants. Monterosso has a bigger beach than the other villages, and is therefore a bit less scenic than the others.
We explore the eastern part of the village first en then enter the other part through a tunnel.
Vernazza, the third village of this tour is supposed to be the most picturesque, according to the guidebooks, but we are a bit disappointed. It seems to us that it's more the view from the mountain of the village than the village itself that is scenic. After an hour we board the boat again to sail back to Sestri Levante.
There we wander around in the old centre with its artistically painted walls of old buildings. It looks like it's plaster work but in reality it's flat and only painted.
I was told that the streets are too narrow for plasterwork, but that a painter doesn't need that much space. The painters use templates with tiny holes which Enable them to recognize the pattern.
A picturesque town with gorgeous, brightly coloured houses
The next day we take the boat again, but this time westward bound to Portofino. There is a strong wind, and because it won't be easy to dock the boat in the respective harbours, we wonder if the boat will sail at all, but we are lucky. Our first stop is the medieval monastery of San Fruttuosa, just around the cliff, and then on to Portofino.
Portofino is a picturesque little village with brightly coloured houses. There are big yachts in the harbour. All the big names in fashion design have stores here: this is territory of the super rich in this world. It's nice to look around... and then leave again.
The boat is having a hard time going back and from time to time all we see is either the sky or the sea, while the waves are crashing over the deck.
Sad to say, it's time to say goodbye to this beautiful and pleasant country. In Livorno we drive the car onto the car sleeper train and then we are on our way home again. On the way we pass the Cinque Terre villages and the next morning the Rhine and the castles on the hills.