What is there to discover on a beautiful autumn trip to the London countryside and Northern Italy? Once again, I realize that it is the people that make the place. But I also learn how rewarding solo travel and my own good company can be.
The adventure begins with a visit to my dear friend Sophie and her precious family in the Cotswolds. (Sophie and I met in 1994, back in our wilder days living as expats in Saigon, Vietnam.)
We laugh a lot and cover quite a lot of ground in that stunning part of the world in just two days.
And then it’s an easy flight to Pisa, Italy to sightsee and then visit with my son in the midst of his NYU semester abroad program in Florence .
In total it is a beautiful eight-day planes, trains and automobiles adventurous jaunt. Following are the highlights, along with my suggestions for those who may be contemplating a similar trip.
While meandering solo, I discover far more artistic exploration in my photography.
I enjoy working on my selfie-stick skills and revel in having limitless time to soak up the art and architecture.
It feels great to stop wherever, whenever and to linger longer. I love changing tack at any moment I decide, just to walk a different road or see a different sight.
And it is pretty great to crank up the heat in the bedroom at night, without a fight.
My first few hours in Italy are spent at Piazza dei Miracoli, the Field of Miracles, to take in the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. I ascend the tower at sunset, climbing all the way up the almost 300 worn smooth, slanted, white marble steps that circle up to reach the belfry.
The whole experience and the views are spellbindingly worth it. So my advice is to purchase a ticket to climb the tower in advance at opapisa.
Then dining alone at the grand Bagni di Pisa Hotel in Giuliano Terme turns into a powerful personal moment, sitting at a large round table as sweat collects and other patrons talk and pause. Thin attentive waiters hustle and speak Italian and I realize it is relaxing to not understand them. Self-consciousness bubbles up, like the effervescence in my water glass bouncing off the crisp linen tablecloth beneath it.
But a sense of freedom and a feeling of empowerment rise up to match it, and accompany my main course. And I swear the food and wine taste better, without the distraction or exertion of the usual dinner conversation. The gastronomic experience feels more pure—more in focus.
And later that night when my son texts, “Hey mom, I’m free tomorrow now,” I scrap my plans to wander solo around Cinque Terre, indulge in a hot chocolate massage and take a thermal steam in Bagni di Pisa’s Grand Duke’s Grotto to hop an early morning train to Florence instead.
And I am happy to say that Italian trains are still the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to get around Italy—thank you Tranitalia and your easy self-serve station kiosks.
We spend an unbelievable day touring Tuscany with his friends, which includes a farm to table meal at Madonnabella with olive oil and wine tastings thanks to Tours by Roberto
Roberto was highly touted in my Florence and Tuscany travel book by Rick Steves.We also have sensational walking tours of Siena and San Gimignano.
Our group cannot be happier with Roberto, as he has an unmatched knowledge, sense of humor and passion for Siena and the surrounding area that makes him a total hit with every visitor.
The day ends in Florence, eating dinner at the unbelievable Michelin star restaurant in my hotel, The St. Regis, perched on the Arno River.
I love knowing that no matter how much I wander the streets of Florence by foot, getting lost and found, seeing art and popping into tiny shops, I can sink like a finished puppet into a bed fit for a princess.
The St. Regis makes me feel like a Medici, with my room’s balcony overlooking the sunset and the Ponte Vecchio, with its near perfect reflection in the stillness of the river.
The next day I buy a Firenze Card which I highly recommend. I buy mine at the Uffizi, allowing the line-cutting to begin there, and last for 72 hours. I love cutting the lines and the flexibility to pop into any sight on a whim, so the Firenze card is a total win for me. It’s also good remember that a lot of museums are closed on Mondays.
I take my time in the Uffizi, led around like a best friend by the mini-tour section in my guide book by Rick Steves,
then spend less time exploring the Boboli Gardens and Pitti Palace.
But on the upside, I do have the place almost all to myself. And as the sun sets, I collapse with Jello for legs onto the vast stone open space in front of the Palace, just as they shut the front door on me.
Then I fall further in love with cozy art-filled Florence, so much more so than the last time I was here 30 years ago. And I vastly prefer it to the overwhelming grandeur of Rome—which I manage to make into a whirlwind day trip by train the following day.
But back to Florence and its historical center, strolling is best done at all hours of the day and night, preferably with a gelato in one hand and a tummy full of pasta. It never gets old to come upon riveting pockets of history, gorgeously tucked in every square, and around every corner.
I find the winding streets of its pedestrian center are rich little pieces of neighborly heaven with mouth-watering smells wafting non-stop along each adorable narrow street. And the overall warmth is added to by the sounds of Italian voices, so dramatic and songlike. It seems they are always trying to plead a case or make a point. These vocals mix with the cacophony of clattering dishes and clinking glasses to create for me, a Thanksgiving Day symphony.
Then there is that moment when I reach the Galleria dell’Accademia on my last day and walk right up to Michelangelo’s David and stare up at him to study his face, trying to decide if he’s just conquered the Giant— or is just about to. And I pause to treasure that my son is carving out time from his studies and his friends to spend time with me.
I also do not tire of wandering back and forth over the Ponte Vecchio, both day and night—never getting quite enough of this bridge’s cozy historical beauty.
And I buy little treasures on it, just as I’d done 30 years ago, in some vain attempt to bring that bridge home with me. And I keep finding myself drawn to the sun, and to being near the water. I appreciate the art, the statues, the buildings, the churches, the ancient ruins, the architecture, and the flood stories.
At times, I feel lost in it all, surrendering to the genius of these artists and to the incredible beauty they managed to create—and it feels pretty good.
I especially enjoy wandering around the Santa Croce church complex where so many of these masters of art and science have their final resting place.
Naturally, I find the shopping in Florence superb, especially at Peruzzi where I find great quality leather. The food is excellent everywhere of course, but I find it especially amazing at LaBuchetta where the Angels and Demons pasta leaves me utterly speechless.
The non-stop walking is the only reason anyone can leave Italy without being 20 pounds heavier. It’s just easier and makes more sense to walk everywhere when you are in the heart of Florence and I love that about this city. And then of course, there is all that climbing.
I climb up and down nearly every bit of the Boboli Gardens, and my son joins in for the jaw-dropping climb to the tippy top of the Duomo, and even he is speechless when we summit.
I then get a runner’s high on my quick solo clip up the steep pedestrian path to reach Piazzale Michelangelo, on my final night. I get there breathless, just in time to see a spectacular sunset bathe Florence in a Baskin Robbins Rainbow Sherbet glow.
Church bells ring out while a two-man band plays catchy tunes. What a perfect way to end this fantastic journey.
Advice to my semester abroad son: Oh how I love your student housing. The building, the neighborhood and the location could not be better, right by the river and beside all that terrific shopping and eating.
Take advantage of being so close to so many sights and go see them all. I’m so proud of you for adjusting so well to life abroad.
Please do make sure to go see the Uffizi. Go on a cold or rainy day, just not on a Monday. Get a longer term Firenze card to cut the lines. Also, go see the Santa Croce complex, while the weather is still warm, as the outdoor area is the best part and it’s just around the corner from your apartment and you will see Michelangelo’s tomb and Galileo’s too.
Go see the Baptistery and the Duomo museum, since we ran out of time for that. On a pretty day, go sit in the Boboli Gardens with a good book and take your time there. Hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo and enter San Miniato church while you are there—I was not able to to in it.
See all the sights as much as you can. You will regret it later on if you don’t. Drink wine slowly and soak up your surroundings more. Worry less and focus all your energy on your studies, on being present, and on the happiness of others. Try to make a difference.
Watch the Italian movie called Blessed Madness. I saw it on the flight home and you might understand bits of it now since you are taking Italian. I think you will enjoy it.
What to Do Before You Go:
I brought only a small rolling carry-on hardcase on this adventure. I got mine from Tumi and was reminded of the beauty of traveling light. It does mean packing light, but being so streamlined gives greater appreciation of purchase made, and allows more time to be in the moment.
Some advance planning and research are essential and will most certainly shape your experience. Reading blog posts from Road Unraveled and On the Luce and checking travel websites like Backroads and plenty of travel articles online got my pre-departure juices flowing.
But as a product of the 80’s, I still find a trusty guidebook absolutely essential, especially when paired with my iPhone camera. I love having a physical book in hand to underline, scribble in the margins and dog-ear the pages. I still have the beloved, tattered Let’s Gobooks that my best friends and I poured over like Bibles when we backpacked around Europe during and after college. So before departure, I went to Patrick at Arcade Booksellers to purchase Florence and Tuscany by Rick Steves with research afforded it by Adventures with Sarah. The mini-tours in the book are just fantastic and they are the best companion. I saw the Uffizi following his written tour and felt like I had a local best friend pointing out the best parts as I went along.
I’m so happy that I went to Sport Tech Sports Store for brand new sneakers from Saucony which were the only footwear I took with me. I put countless miles in them to traipse across smooth stones and streets, up all sorts of stairs and hills, over grassy hillsides, along rivers and down museum halls.
In addition to the train travel around Italy, multiple flights were involved in this trip—for which I must give the biggest shout out to Dennis Konnov at Book Me First Class for securing the perfect seat on the perfect part of the perfect plane each time. Delta and British Airways were solid, but Air Italy won me over with its enormous legroom in business class on its Milan to JFK route.
In addition to booking my flights with Dennis ahead of time, I booked top rated hotels Bagni di Pisa and St. Regis Florence based on location and reputation. I chose Bagni di Pisa in San Giuliano Terme, for its four-minute train ride to Pisa San Rossore Station which is just a four block walk to the Leaning Tower. It was a plus that it boasts a thermal spa, and a forgotten gem feel with frescoed ceilings throughout.
It is a good idea to book some tours ahead of time. I pre-booked both our Florence Cathedral Guided Tour with Dome experience with Accord Solutions and my climbing time for the Leaning Tower of Pisa with Opapisa.
For next time: I vow to see Puglia, Cinque Terre, Lucca, and Montepulciano. As for Florence, I’d love to go back and and have a few AirBnB experiences, which I always love, and take advantage of some walking and bike tours.
Timing: This trip took place Oct 15-23, 2019 and was ideal in terms of both temperature and crowds–not too hot or cold while crowds were minimal and manageable. I do always find September and October to be the best months to travel in Europe.
Oct 15: JFK to Heathrow, via Delta Airline
Oct 16 Heathrow to Burford, via H & R Minicab
Oct 18: Heathrow to Pisa, via British Airways
Oct 19: Pisa to Florence, Train; Siena and San Gimignano, via Minivan
Oct 20: Florence sightseeing
Oct 21: Florence to Rome, train Rome to Florence, via train
Oct 22: Florence
Oct 23: Florence to Milan, train Milan to JFK, via Air Italy.
The trip from JFK to Westchester was made fast and easy with Global Entry and Uber. Then post-trip, when I needed a taste of Italy, I just went to Sunrise Pizza for their great food served with authentic Italian attitude and kindness.
Weather: It was hat and gloves weather in the sunny, cool and crisp Cotswolds. Then arriving into Pisa, the warm humid air had me stashing my jacket, hat and gloves. I did not take them back out for my Florence stay, that warm day trip to Siena and San Gimignano, the hot day trip to Rome or even on my last day in Milan.
What to buy: Leather is of course such a good item to buy in Italy, so I bought a leather jacket in Florence—just like I did 30 years ago. And I absolutely love my stovetop Italian espresso maker from Alessi that I bought duty free in the Malpensa airport departure terminal in Milan.