June 12, 2014: Arrival Venice
When I told my teenaged children that we had been invited to a wedding in Italy, “Venice” popped out of my daughter’s mouth as if she was waking from a dream and testing for potential reality. “Of course,” I told her. “We will start in Venice.”
The planning began in earnest when I contacted Andrea Grisdale and her team at IC Bellagio, my preferred destination specialist for custom travel to Italy. People always ask me, “What do you sell the most?” The answer is Italy, and IC Bellagio has become my go to inbound tour operator. Through them I have been able to create many memorable experiences for my clients, and procured difficult reservations (papal audience, tickets to view Da Vinci’s Last Supper, securing a specific guide when needed) and I had a mental list of what I wanted my children to experience on their first visit to Italy.
We arrived in Venice and our transfer assistant was waiting front and center just beyond customs with our name on a placard. Our flight had been delayed by over an hour, but everything was handled smoothly and we were quickly on our way via water taxi. The Luna Hotel Baglione is just steps from St. Mark’s Square, and we were warmly greeted by the staff on our arrival. The concierge quickly secured lunch reservations for us at Osteitia alle Testiere, a small and coveted restaurant within easy walking distance, and we were off to explore the city.
We crossed St. Mark’s Square, ogled at the cathedral, poked our heads into shops like Venini, which offers one-of-a-kind glass objets d’art, crossed little bridge after little bridge, and eventually arrived at Osteitia alle Testiere. We ordered sea bass with fennel and pasta with truffles and although these exact items were ordered several times during our trip, they never were as perfect is they were on this, our first meal in Italy. Other highlights of our first day included: comfy beds and quiet rooms for our post lunch naps and a Bellini in the hotel bar with fresh peach nectar.
June 13, 2014: Venice
For our only full day in Venice, the next morning we met our guide Alessandra at our hotel. We started with St. Mark’s, the jewel of Byzantine architecture in Italy. We marveled as the two sculptures on top of the clock tower moved and physically struck the bell to ring in the hour. We ducked through the Bridge of Sighs to see the prison of the Doge’s palace. We sipped coffees and hot chocolates at Café Florian. An excellent morning indeed. Alessandra joined us for lunch at Aqua Pazzo, a Napolese style pizza place situated on a beautiful square not far from the Opera House. We had plans to go on to the Guggenheim, but jet lag can be pesky. So nice to have the Hotel Luna to come back to after a long day.
June 14, 2014: Leaving Venice/Arriving Florence
After our nice breakfast, we said good-bye to Hotel Luna and with our transfer guide, water taxied to the train station. I cannot overstate the value of having an Italian guide help us at the termini. There was no question of understanding which track to go to, which car was ours, and the help getting the luggage on the train…well, laden as we were with bags, I honestly do not know if we would have made it on without him! Arrival in Florence went smoothly as well and our transfer guide safely delivered us by minivan to the exquisite Four Seasons Florence, the restoration of Catherine de Medici’s 15th century palace, and its gardens, Giardino della Gheradesca, which composes 11 acres. We felt like royalty.
After a quick lunch pool side, we met up with our excellent guide, Cynthia, and were off to see the David, a quick walk made shorter by cutting through the gardens.
Fifteen years ago, I had traveled to Florence and had made an attempt to see the David. Sadly, I had not preplanned, and the lines to the entrance of the Academia were choked with cruise ship passengers and other tourists, and after some wait, I abandoned my hopes of seeing Michelangelo’s masterpiece. With the help of IC Bellagio and Cynthia, the line we encountered on my second visit, while substantial was inconsequential. Cynthia spoke to someone, showed something and we were admitted promptly, like magic.
The David is extraordinary. Seen from different vantage points, Michelangelo captures the young hero’s bravery and vulnerability in the face of the giant. While the proportions appear askew, the sculpture was meant to be high above its audience in an alcove of the Duomo, a place it ultimately never resided. About a week before our arrival, the rules at the Academia changed, and photographs of the David are now allowed. Of course I took several, but truly they do not portray the magnificence, and so I will not post any here.
After a delicious sampling of gelato, we proceeded on to the Duomo and the Baptistry. The exterior of these two marbled buildings generated admiration from my teenagers due to the beauty and intricacy. But it was at the Piazza della Signoria, where the David did reside for many years in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, that another sculpture really captured their attention. Cellini’s 1545 bronze sculpture of the young Perseus grasping the head of Medusa in his outstretched hand won the prize of the day. Perhaps it was the green color which made this piece stand apart for them…or it could have been the serpents, or the hooked sword, or Medusa’s beheaded body at the boy’s feet. Lots of colorful drama, for sure.
The day ended back at the dining room of the Four Seasons, where we celebrated a special dinner for my son Max’s fifteenth birthday.
June 15, 2014: Florence
In Cynthia’s capable hands, we spent the next whole day following in Professor Langdon’s footsteps, albeit in reverse. Our morning began at the Uffizi, being dazzled by Botticelli, and Titian and Gentileschi, before culminating in special tickets to tour the exclusive Vasari corridor, peeking out of the oculus windows to look down at the masses of people below as the Medici had once done. We exited at the beautiful grotto where Langdon had entered the corridor, and puzzled to which door he had gone through. And all before lunch, which we had happily at Trattoria Leoni. Cynthia ordered best, a savory ravioli with pear.
After lunch, we visited Palazzo Vecchio, and in the Room of the 500, found the tiny green flag with the help of a map, but could not make out the words, “Cerca, Trova.” Cynthia outlined the real mystery behind these words and the possible lost paintings of da Vinci, which was every bit as fascinating as Dan Brown’s version. She also pointed out a painting of unknown origin from the 16th century which depicts the Madonna, with Florence in the background and, wait for it…a possible UFO in the sky. We also found Dante’s death mask, right where it was supposed to be.
Leaving the large, heavily trafficked sites behind, we made our way to the Church of Santa Margherita dei Cerchi, or Dante’s church, where he met his beloved Beatrice at the age of 9, and later saw her marry someone else. A basket of letters in front of her tomb fills daily with messages asking Beatrice to help the writers with their own star-crossed loves. Dinner took place at Trattoria l’Parione, which we enjoyed.
June 16, 2014: Florence
This day we departed from history and fine art, and explored the culinary traditions so fabled in Italy. We checked in at 9am at the Apicius International School of Hospitality and met our Chef, Vittoria, and we were off to the market. Here we ogled the just picked fruits and vegetables, the fish freshly caught, all manner of meats and breads. We sampled balsamic vinegars, olive oils, sun dried tomatoes, pistachio butter (like peanut butter but better), fresh cherries, and stuffed pastries. Yum.
Back at the cooking school, Vittoria taught us to make handmade pasta. My boys pounded chicken breasts after deboning them and then stuffed them with spinach, cheese and herbs before sautéing them. My daughter and I made chocolate soufflé. After our efforts, we dined on our accomplishments. More yum.
We opted to relax in the afternoon at the hotel, our palace, and ate a quiet dinner poolside.
June 17, 2014: Florence/Umbria
Although the Italian countryside opens itself for exploration when you rent your own car, there are important factors to be aware of before taking this option. There are very few automatic transmission cars in Italy and they cannot be guaranteed. Italian roads are very narrow, thus cars are very small, thus there is not a lot of room for luggage. Suffice it to say, I ended becoming reacquainted with a stick shift and we had to leave half our luggage at the Four Seasons for pick up on our return.
Our first stop was Arezzo for a quick lunch, and then on to the Perugina Chocolate Factory, where we learned to make their famous Baci with Chef Max. This was a definite highlight for the kids, and so messy that it will not be repeated at home!
We then made our way to Assisi, where we checked in to the Hotel Nun and Spa, located above the town with views looking down on it. We were greeted with refreshing beverages and friendly staff.
June 18, 2014
We enjoyed this small, walkable town and the wonderful Giotto frescoes at the Basilica of St. Francis. The spa at the nun, set in Roman excavations, is not to be missed. My fifteen year old and I also hiked up to Rocca Maggiore…this old castle perched high above the town does not come with a lot of instructions…you enter and you find your way around. We found ourselves all the way at the top of the highest tower, far too many steps to count, but the view looking down at the basilica was extraordinary.
June 19, 2014
This day, we drove back to Florence and took a train and a private transfer to Lake Como. After the long day, we couldn’t have been happier to arrive at the Grand Hotel Tremezzo. Much like the Four Seasons in service and attention to detail, we could not have been better received by Elena de Santis. Our rooms overlooked the beautiful lake, and the balconies were a cozy place to take it all in. The children were so happy with the three pools and the hiking trails and the pizza making restaurant and the lake (I could go on), that they begged to stay three nights rather than our scheduled two. This was quickly arranged thru IC Bellagio guest ambassador, Julie O’Donnell, adding one night at Como and taking away one night in Milan.
The evening of our arrival, we took a private boat to the then brand new, Palazzo del Vice Re, an exquisite bed and breakfast offered exclusively through IC Bellagio. We had a fabulous tour of this property by Andrea Grisdale, and then joined other friends and colleagues for a special dinner in their cantina.
June 20, 2014
Bellagio is considered by many to be the most picturesque town in all of Italy, and it did not disappoint. Stunning gardens, cobblestoned streets, wonderful shops and dining, this town is the hub of any Lake Como experience. On Andrea’s recommendation, we lunched well at Trattoria San Giacomo, bumping into a couple we had met the night before. We felt like locals.
June 21, 2014
After all our amazing experiences, the summer solstice was spent relaxing at our fabulous hotel. We enjoyed the pool, the hiking trails, the fondue restaurant and fireworks over the lake. A true Italian holiday.
June 22, 2014
We were sad to leave Lake Como and head to Milan, but we had entrances to see the Last Supper and our flight home the next day. We enjoyed our brief visit to the fashion capitol, and Leonardo’s amazing fresco was worth every effort. Da Vinci, we learned, did not like the speed he would have to work with the traditional wet plaster application of a fresco, so devised his own. Sadly, his technique has not remained adhered to the wall. After many restorations, it is slowly flaking away. See it while you can.
We had our own last supper in view of the stunning basilica, and said our farewells to Italy.
Many thanks to IC Bellagio for this wonderful experience.