I'm just back from my summer holidays and after a brief hiatus from writing this blog, I'm happy to back so I can get writing again after what has been a fairly hectic time. In the last month or so, I've graduated from university (celebrated that A LOT) and then I volunteered at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, which was an awesome experience.
Now I've just arrived back home from a fortnight in Italy, Tuscany to be precise, and seeing how I would feel a bit late to the party writing about the Games (with football back this weekend we've all moved on already), I've decided I'll try my hand at a holiday review.
My two week adventure began in the ancient walled city of Lucca, as made famous by the BBC's Top Gear a few years ago. The feature which was highly evident in that show and became abundantly clear almost immediately was just how small and narrow every single street is. If you've ever been to the old town part of York you'll know what I'm on about but this was on a whole new level, it really was astonishing.
The situation is so bad that there are actually defibrillators posted at various points, almost like post boxes, because in the case of an emergency it's incredibly difficult for an ambulance to actually get in and quickly. Of course that doesn't stop other vehicles from having a go, I swear there are some cars that have just been abandoned by owners who have simply given up trying to navigate their way back out of the city centre.
It is for this reason that the main way to get around Lucca is on a bicycle. As a keen cyclist myself, this was something I loved. On every street corner there is a rent-a-bike shop, you just ask for a bike, go on your merry way for a few hours and upon your return, pay the man a few euros, it's easy. What's more you can actually cycle along the top of the wall around the city, a great way to seek out a particular attraction and a far easier and less stressful ride when compared to trying to navigate the inner streets. I even rode a tandem for the first time and of course at that exact moment was overtaken by Lucca resident Mario Cipollini who for those of you who don't know, is a former cycling world champion and multiple stage winner of both the Tour de France and the Giro D'Italia. It was probably the worst lead out that arguably the greatest sprinter in cycling history has ever received, but at least I got a nice story out of it.
Pisa was about a half hour drive from Lucca and of course I couldn't miss the opportunity to go see the Leaning Tower. To see it in the flesh was remarkable, it actually looks surprisingly small close up and there's a lot of fun to be had in trying to take the perfect 'look at me I'm holding up the tower' picture. It's almost just as amazing a sight to watch so many hundreds of people all doing synchronised stretches and gymnastics poses in a line as they have their photograph taken. A particularly fun game of 'who can photo-bomb the most pictures' naturally ensued. Other than that, there isn't so much to Pisa if I'm honest, the tower is of course the focal point but you'd think with it being there for so long the locals would have been able to work on something more to offer tourists so they can really make a day of it.
One city that you can definitely make a day of, and I duly did, is Florence. My best advice is to get there early, I took the train from my Lucca-base. My reasoning for this is so as to get in the shorter early queues for the gallery where Michelangelo's David is held. It's a truly stunning piece of work, the feet are a bit large for my liking, but I'm no expert on such things.
Afterwards there's much more to see. I could have stood for hours admiring the intricate and staggering beautiful design and architecture of the Duomo and then you can get lost just casually wandering around looking at all the other magnificent buildings that make up the city. Eventually you can make it down to the river and cross the Ponte Vecchio for some more stunning views before heading back up into the city centre via a never ending street of designer shops. It's a truly delightful way to spend a day.
For a less fun time, don't do what I did and get caught in a thunder and lightning storm on the last train back to Lucca, so that when you take your paper car park ticket out your pocket at the station its completely sodden thanks to the rain. A useful tip, none of the intercoms or emergency phone numbers worked so it's a good idea to befriend the station master so that he can let you out. My new friend Marco thankfully spoke perfect English and thanks to some of the most exhilarating driving I've ever done, we were able to trick the barrier into freeing my hire car.
For the second week of my trip I drove down the autostrade, engaging in a friendly overtaking duel with a police van (it is Italy after all) along the way to stay in the Chianti region, yes that's Chianti as in wine. I was staying in a lovely rented apartment which was lovely but a bit modern in comparison to its surroundings in a sleepy town called Gaoile, so naturally this second week was more relaxed.
I did manage to go to Siena but felt this was a disappointment after the earlier visit to Florence. The central Piazza del Campo was a lovely spot to sit and have a coffee (always excellent in Italy) but other than that it just seemed to be a city made up entirely of shops selling leather handbags. I enjoyed my visit to the small medieval town of San Gimignano much more, but this one may be down to an individual's preference I admit.
Much of the rest of my time was spent touring Chianti's many vineyards and sampling the local produce. That meant a fair bit of wine was drunk, all of it lovely in my opinion, and I made sure to squeeze a few bottles of my favourites into my case. On top of that, I was given many different cuts of salami and prosciutto to sample along with a variety of cheeses served with honey. I had no idea the latter combination would work so well but it does. Typically in Italy the food was all lovely throughout the fortnight. A popular dish in the Chianti region is a wild boar stew which I highly recommend you find time to try. I could get used to gorging myself on anti-pasta and pasta before my main course even arrives and then still finding room for a dessert. I don't think a day passed by on my trip where I didn't buy ice cream gelato twice. I'll end this food review here before I'm offered a spot on the judging panel of the next series of Masterchef.
Obviously as with any holiday or trip away there were things that annoyed me during my time in Tuscany. For instance, whilst I entertain the idea and culture of having a siesta in the afternoon, the fact that it means entire towns shut down during the middle of the day is hardly ideal. In the little town of Gaoile the local supermarket was barely open 6 hours a day and the problem was even more of a problem back in Lucca where so far as I could tell, shops opened and closed whenever they felt like it. It was like walking into a different city every night. In fact I'd go so far as to say that if the Italians could bring themselves to work full days they might even start to solve a few of their economic woes. Alas those are problems for people far more important than I to solve.
Other little things that annoyed me included my hire car, which was cool Fiat 500L. Unfortunately for a car made in Italy, where tiny roads are the norm, the turning circle was bigger than Jupiter's meaning that if I got lost, it meant big problems. The radio also annoyed me. No matter what station I selected it seemed to be the same man and woman double-acting coming out the speakers and they only seemed to be able to play the same six songs, the worst of which was an Italian karaoke version of Madonna's 'Like a Virgin'. I damn near stopped the car on the autostrade when that came on.
Also, whilst cycling is popular in Italy, the amateurs appear to be much lazier than their British counterparts. Like us they get all dressed up in the fancy lycra (regardless of how large they might be around the middle) but they just amble along in the middle of every road at 4mph. Getting stuck behind one whilst driving, listening to 'Summer' by Calvin Harris for the 18th time that day was borderline torture. This makes sense though because every single city I visited had a huge torture museum, I was clearly just being prepared. I even discovered a whole new kind of torture mechanism when I encountered a spring loaded toilet seat in a small café. That was an erm... interesting experience.
All in all though these were all just minor nuisances and can't detract anything from what was a thoroughly enjoyable and culturally educating trip. Meals are much more of an event in Italy it seems and that is something I very much enjoyed during my time there. The food was excellent, as expected. The wine was even better, again as expected. It was however the cities, the intricacies of their designs, the details of their architectures alongside the views witnessed from the hilltops in Chianti that really stole the show. I thoroughly recommend you all take a Tour of Tuscany.