Day 1: Arrival
I’ve traveled quite a bit and used various airlines, from low cost carriers like Wow to more premium carriers like Lufthansa. I didn’t know what to expect when traveling with TAP Air Portugal. This post isn’t an airline review, so I won’t go into it, but needless to say, I would not recommend flying TAP if you want to maintain any kind of sanity.
We arrived in Bologna and settled into our hotel. The street where the hotel was located was irrevocably Italian. It’s hard to explain, but the people, the buildings, the cars, the clothes drying on lines on people’s balconies have all been oddly charming. Bologna is not a huge city, it’s not a tourist destination and it’s far from perfect. It’s kind of a dull town, but I think that’s what makes it special - it’s representative of true Italy.
Day 2: Dolomites-Bound
After an amazing breakfast at our hotel, we packed up and headed out to the Dolomites. This was the most exciting part of the trip that Natalie and I looked forward to most. The drive out to the Dolomites from Bologna is about 3 hours, and costs about 20 Euros in tolls - if you want to go toll-free, it will take about 5 hours.
Tip: Driving in Italy isn’t any more confusing or stressful than in other European countries and cities. However, beware - most Italians DO NOT use blinkers. It can catch you off guard, but once you get used to it it gets better. The highways are also often “free” speed. This is usually signified by a white circle with a line.
Tip: Beware of the numerous speed cameras scattered throughout Italian towns. They will ding you for going even 10 km/h over the limit. Drive below the speed limit to be sure you are safe. Do not cave into the pressure from tail-gating locals.
After arriving in the Dolomites and checking into our lovely hotel, we went on a nice walk through St. Christina - a town smaller than the main town in Val Gardena, Ortisei, but arguably cozier and cuter. We took some photos and enjoyed the scenery. Everything in Val Gardena is super clean, super well maintained, and the views are fantastic.
Our hotel also came with a somewhat full featured spa on the first floor so we decided to check that out. Even though I can’t post photos on here since it is a nude area, I’ll say that the Jägerheim spa is lovely considering that it’s just a hotel spa. Featuring relaxation areas, complimentary teas and juices, sauna with aufguss infusions, steam room, jacuzzi and an outdoor pool and relaxation area.
Dinner at Jägerheim is something to write home about. Gourmet, meticulously put together, delicious, mouth watering, I could go on and on.
After Dinner, we took a drive around the valley and stumbled upon Mante Pana - an alpine overlook with great views of the Sassolungo Group and Val Gardena. We spent some time capturing the lovely night landscapes.
Day 3: Seceda
We slept in a little bit and unfortunately missed sunrise. After an amazing breakfast at our hotel, we headed up Col Raiser gondola, conveniently located 100m behind our hotel. Col Raiser took up up to Seceda - arguably the most scenic hiking spot in the Alps.
Tip: There’s a lot of hiking. If you’re an avid hiker and photographer, come here at least for a week, maybe more.
We wandered around, took many photos of the gorgeous meadows, cliffs, and Sassolungo. Natalie also wore the dress my mom made and we took some portrait shots. I think the photos came out pretty well. Mountain queen status 100%.
For lunch we stopped by at a small beer hut for an absolutely delicious barley soup and beers. There’s always something special about meals at these cozy alpine huts.
After wandering around Seceda, we took the Seceda gondola down to Ortisei. Ortisei is a really lively, pretty mountain down, a it bigger than St. Christina, not as cozy, but awesome if you’re looking for something more upbeat.
Day 4: Sassolungo/Langkofel
Rainy day. We took a rickety two-person gondola up to a hut close to the summit of Langkopfel. The gondola didn’t slow down, so you had to run into it before it left the platform. At the top, “catchers” stood by, ready to catch you as you fell out of the tiny gondola onto the platform.
After exploring the moody mountain meadows, we headed into Ortisei to enjoy Mar Dolomit pool and sauna center. Though a highly-rated spa, it was awful inside. Mar Dolomit has definitely seen better days. Spa facilities appeared dated, jacuzzies were cold, and they require swim caps in the pool area - what? Half the facilities were closed, I’m guessing because it was low season. Extremely unimpressed, we left early and went back to an aufguss session at our hotel which was frankly 10 times better.
Tip: The Dolomites are actually part of an alpine region, Tyrol. Tyrol has its’ own culture, own traditions. The Dolomites at one point, were part of Austria, so the language and the culture is largely Austrian and German. You’ll notice that a lot of locations are named in two different ways, sometimes the Italian name is more known, sometimes the German. Sassolungo or Langkofel, Seiser Alm or Alpe Di Siusi, Ortisei or St. Ulrich.
Day 5: Seiser Alm, Verona
Last day in Val Gardena was rainy once again. We went up to Seiser Alm, which is the largest mountain plateau and meadow in Europe, however the clouds didn’t give way to any views.
After leaving the Dolomites, we experienced some crazy road rage in Bolzano.
Arriving in the Verona area, we checked into our farm stay hotel, we headed in to the city explore Verona. Smaller Italian cities like Verona have very sharp city limits - one minute you’re in farm country, the next you’re in the middle of the old city. We were in for a big surprise! Verona, while a bit rough around the edges, was very vibrant, cozy, and authentic. We loved the cute streets with multi-colored houses and dined at a very “locals-only” kind of restaurant. The pasta was amazing, but I wouldn’t expect anything less - Italy is the birthplace of pasta, after all.
Day 6: Liguria
After checking out of our farm stay hotel and yet another amazing breakfast, we headed into Parma. Parma is just OK. Cleaner than Verona, but not as cozy.
Arriving in Liguria was stressful. The road navigation around La Spezia was a bit hectic - lots of winding roads and strange turns. All while trying to avoid the ZTL. Eventually we managed to find our Airbnb. We checked in with our lovely host Gianna who was very happy to see us and gave us a tour of our amazing, clean, modern apartment.
Judging by the quality of our Airbnb and photos we saw on the web, I was excited to see all of the Cinque Terre towns. Without much time left in the day, we decided to take the train out to Riomaggiore, only about 8 minutes by train.
Arriving at the train station in Riomaggiore, we stepped into a third world country filled with tourists. This isn’t meant as an offense - just describing what the scenery looked like. Dirty streets filled with trash, cigarette butts, graffiti everywhere. The famous trail along the sea “temporarily closed” since 2012 due to government funds being re-allocated for other projects, mainly refugee “help”. This confirmed it - Italy is falling apart. We thought maybe once we turned the corner from the train station to the main part of town, it would get better. It got worse. My comments stop here. The pictures will tell it all.
Day 7: Cinque Terre (Take 2)
Second day in Liguria was better. We visited all of the towns in Cinque Terre and found a few - Manarola, Vernazza and Corgnilia that were fairly clean. We stopped by at a few cafes and bars for Aperol Spritzes and some wine. Manarola was clean and scenic, and it offered an amazing sunset view which was very popular with photographers. Still, Liguria was just ok - some parts are scenic, but the scenery is often overshadowed by crowds of tourists and filth.
Day 8: Elba
We woke up at our La Spezia Airbnb and without much hesitation hit the road to go south to the island of Elba. Isola d’Elba. I didn’t know what to expect. Few blogs talk about Elba and only a few tourists visit the island. A few compared to Cinque Terre. The ferry was very efficient and delivered us to Portoferraio within an hour from Piombino. When we arrived in Elba, we instantly noticed the laid back vibe. There weren’t tour busses filled with hoards of tourists like there were in Liguria. Our first hotel was an unfortunate experience - crowded, small beach, terrible food, and rock-hard beds. We woke up at 2 am and booked a different hotel for our second night on Elba because staying at Valle Verde was simply unbearable.
Day 9: Marciana
After a restless night, we weren’t up to any strenuous hikes so we decided to drive around the island and stop in at various towns and hamlets on our way to our new hotel farther west on the island. Our favorite town was Marciana - a sleepy, clean medieval hamlet with some amazing food spots that cater to the locals and seasoned tourists. We stopped by at a small family-owned vineyard. At first we didn’t see anyone on the property, but then the owner came out and offered us a tasting. He offered us generous pours of delicious homemade wine and we ended up buying a bottle.
We later checked in to our new hotel which was miles and leagues better than the disgusting Hotel Valle Verde, and we spent some time exploring the rocky beaches.
Day 10: Around the Island, Siena
On our final day in Elba, we decided to drive around the rest of the island, looping around to Portoferraio where we hopped on our return ferry. We stopped by at another vineyard, tasted more wine and had a great time. Upon boarding the ferry back to the mainland, we were entertained by a hilarious sight of a ridiculously large Polish tour bus getting hung up on the ferry ramp.
After struggling with how much of a tourist trap Liguria had been - we decided to cancel our stay in Florence after hearing that Florence is even more tourist-infested than Liguria. Instead, we opted to spend two days in Siena and explore the wine region of Tuscany. We arrived in Siena and spent the evening exploring this ancient city. At first we thought Verona was lovely, but Siena might have kicked Verona out of the ballpark. Siena was clean, magical, and had a more walkable and upscale feel to it. We found its ancient, mysterious streets very cozy and had a great time exploring. At the end of the day, we grabbed a delicious dinner made by an Italian grandma at a cozy restaurant off-the-beaten-path.
Day 12: Tuscany
Tuscany is a massive region, so we decided to spend a full day exploring the beautiful countryside, tasting wines, and capturing the magical landscapes. We stopped by in more cozy medieval towns, and found two wineries that had great tastings. Unfortunately, with the dry, dusty climate, without much lush vegetation or rain, comes haze, so capturing Tuscany in the middle of the day can yield less-than-ideal results.
Day 13: Photo Shoot
We had a terrible experience with an Airbnb Experiences photographer cancelling our shoot last minute in Liguria. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because we found an amazing photographer who was gracious enough to offer us a shoot in Tuscany. I think this was the best luck we have had all trip - we had our photos taken in an absolutely magical place, by an extremely talented photographer. After our amazing sunrise photo shoot in Tuscany, we headed off to Bologna to continue our trip to one more destination - Lisbon!
Travel Tips and Notes
Driving is stressful and challenging. Most Italians drive extremely fast, no one uses their turn signals, and people get extremely frustrated if you are going the speed limit. Even going 10 km/h above the speed limit infuriates people. We had numerous very scary road rage incidents. The important thing is to not give in to the road rage. Italy has more traffic and speed cameras than I have ever seen, so it’s in your best interest to follow the posted speed limit, especially in towns and villages.
Speed limit signs are far and few. In the states, as soon as you get on a new road or highway, you see a posted speed limit. In Italy, you often go many kilometers before seeing a posted speed limit so you’re often left guessing.
If you’re road-tripping through Italy, be prepared to pay a lot in tolls. I think in our two weeks here, we’ve totaled about $60 in tolls. Avoiding them usually doubles the driving time wherever you’re going.
Beware of ZTL (Zona Traffico Limitato) areas. Most Italian towns and definitely cities have extensive areas of restricted traffic. Sometimes they are gated, but often they are just marked with signs. If you’re not paying attention to special ZTL signs, it’s easy to drive in and face a fine, often a hefty one. It’s best to research ZTL zones for the city you’re going to ahead of time.
While tipping isn’t really a thing in Italy, a lot of restaurants will tack on a “cover charge”. Usually $1-2 a person, it’s not clearly advertised so it’s best to either just be ok with it, or ask upfront.
Jacuzzis are not hot. We visited numerous spas and hotels that has jacuzzis, and they all had room temperature water. Doesn’t seem like Italians enjoy hot water in their whirlpools.
Don’t touch produce with your bare hands - always use a plastic glove or a plastic bag to pick up any non-packaged items. Not doing so might get you some glares from the locals.
Don’t rent anything larger than a sub-compact and be sure to call the rental car company in advance to make sure you will get one. A lot of roads in Italy you simply won’t be able to drive without hitting something if you have an SUV. Never mind parking in tight spaces that are very common across Italy.
All municipalities in Italy have a town hotel tax which is charged separately from your stay and you will still have to pay it if you pre-paid for your stay. Most hotels will let you pay the $4-10 tax with your credit card, but some will require a cash payment so be sure to always have some cash on hand.
Wine tastings aren’t as simple are they are in the States. While there are numerous wineries across Italy, you can’t just pop in for a quick tasting in most places. Places that have open tastings are clearly marked with a “wine tasting” or “digustacione” sign.