CELEBRATING 10 YEARS!

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CELEBRATING 10 YEARS!

Buy us a beer!

Italy Unfiltered: Beers & Culture

by | Jan 9, 2024 | Beer, Travel | 0 comments

Five weeks in Italy, a journey of epic proportions, all masterminded by Chuck, our very own Gandalf of trip planning. It is a whirlwind journey of history, culture, and culinary delights, punctuated by surprise detours, generous sips of local brews, and endless staircases. 

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Italy Unfiltered: Beers & Culture

This is different from your run-of-the-mill travel guide. It’s a humorous and surprisingly informative tour of Italy, Chuck-style. So grab your beer, sit back, and get ready for a ride with Gandalf through Italy.

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Gandalf of Travel Planning 

This article? It’s Chuck’s travel planning masterclass, jam-packed with juicy tips, handy-dandy guides, and secret sauce resources, that made our trip an epic experience. And let’s not forget the sprinkling of hilariously entertaining tales that add a dash of color to this adventure!

We’ve tossed in our full itinerary at the end of the article. Feel free to steal it; we won’t tell. But remember, in the spirit of Chuck, always leave room for a bit of spontaneity!

Five Weeks in Italy 

We started with a month in Florence. Our time there was dotted with trips to Cinque Terre, Venice, Milan, Bologna, Pisa, and Lucca. The final week in Italy was split between Sorrento and Roma. If I hit the rewind button, Venice would be our starting point for a few days before heading to Florence.

Italy’s weather from mid-January to late February was glorious, with an occasional day that demanded warm clothes, especially in Venice. (Word to the wise: Layer up!)

By staying a month, we got an extended stay discount–basically a week for free. It felt like a week too long in Florence. And, believe it or not, we were itching for new scenery by the end of that week. 

But let’s start at the beginning. 

Air France – An Unexpected Twist

“Listen to me!” the airport security guard yelled. Her eyes sort of bulged, and little specs of spit flicked out of her mouth. I stopped talking and stood mute. She grabbed my travel-size bottle of saline solution, which had been in a clear plastic bag. It got VIP treatment, briskly escorted away to a neighboring security line. 

And just like that, our connecting flight to Florence was out of the window. But hey, at least Air France hooked us up with lounge passes and tickets for the next flight. Bonus! The staff found a bag of ice for my swollen wrist! I was a week out from surgery to repair my broken wrist and still recovering.  

Upon landing in Florence, we were greeted by an onslaught of sideways sleet. Our exit from the plane was down a flight of stairs on the tarmac, under the sleet’s unforgiving assault. Result? A drenched welcome to Florence and a potential ad for investing in hard-sided luggage. But no matter, we were thrilled to have finally arrived!

Florence Apartment 

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Just a block from the Ponto Vecchio, our apartment was a charming oasis in the heart of old Florence. This is your first of many nuggets of advice: stay near a major landmark. It’s an instant fix for any map-related confusion. 

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Speaking of which, Google Maps had its off days, so a good old paper map proved to be a trusty backup. My sister Dianne and her hubby, Greg, were traveling with us. She picked up a small map and kept it tucked in her iPhone case. She’d whip it out when she was sure we were lost. 

Our apartment was a zippy 10-minute walk from the train station, making it a perfect launchpad for our first month of day and overnight excursions. With world-class restaurants literally right below our apartment, food choices were hard but delicious. And Chuck? He was a champion of the beer run! 

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Shopping 

Street merchants are regulated and sell the same merchandise as the stores Dianne had heard before she arrived. Our best deal on leather products was from the booths by the central market. Dianne got a smoking deal on a backpack, half off the listed price. She is an expert haggler. I am not; I pay the prices listed. 

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Grocery shopping is different in Florence compared to the U.S. You can buy just about anything at the central market.

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Sprinkled around the city are smaller neighborhood markets to buy fresh produce and meat. 

Nugget of advice: Grocery stores don’t use the ridiculous little plastic bags like we do. If you have a favorite reusable bag, bring it. Otherwise, you’ll need to purchase a bag for hauling home your goods. Actually, the Italian grocery bags are awesome. We use ours weekly here at home.

Farmacia 

All health-related products, such as cough drops, are purchased at a Farmacia, a.k.a. the pharmacy. Unfortunately, I visited Farmacias more frequently than I would have liked. 

The Farmacia etiquette goes something like this: You wait in a queue, and when it is your turn,  explain what you need. You might get quizzed about your symptoms. They will produce what you want from behind the counter. Even simple pain relievers or cough drops require a quiz. I found the price ranged wildly. (I was charged $12 for 24 tablets of Tylenol, but my sister was charged $4.)  

Waiting at the pharmacy is normal. They may close during the middle of the day or open late or not at all. I had to wait for several hours for one to open. Once it opened, I had to wait a long time for the pharmacist to finish with the customer ahead of me. They were discussing a skin condition, which felt overly detailed, in my opinion. 

When it was my turn, I explained I needed something for my cough. “Is it wet or dry?” The pharmacist asked. 

Not sure I said “both.” 

She thudded a bottle on the counter. I said, “I just want cough drops. I have a cough suppressant already.” 

The evil eye doesn’t even begin to explain the look I got. Without breaking eye contact, she thumped on the counter cough drops and said, “12 Euros.” 

Carry multiple credit cards. Not all are accepted—Discover never and American Express sometimes. If they do take Amex, they’ll sigh dramatically and say, “I must get the other machine.” Also,  ATMs are not equal. Some charge huge fees! Find an  ATM attached to a bank; you’ve at least got a better chance of getting a reasonable fee. Better yet, seek out the ATMs associated with credit unions for the best deal.

Protip: You must present your passport, or a scanned copy, in-store when purchasing the goods to get a tax-exempt stamp. 

Dr. Charlie

Funny story! During our first shopping trip in a food market, we ran into Dr. Charlie, a retired University of Michigan emergency room doctor. He was sporting a hat with block M that matched the block M on my sling. Who knew my sling would be a conversation starter? 

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Our chatter in English caught the attention of a young woman buying dishwasher soap. She hoped we could read the label on the bottle she held—was it laundry detergent or dishwasher soap? Thankfully, Dr. Charlie could help her!  

Learn Some Italian 

We studied Italian using Duolingo for almost a year before the trip. Could we help the young lady in the food market? Not with certainty. Could we navigate a menu? Mostly, but with fingers crossed, the waitstaff could speak English. 

When traveling by taxi, it can be challenging to communicate with drivers who don’t speak English. To help with navigation, it’s a good idea to carry postcards or a piece of paper with the address of your destination written on it. This will make sharing information with drivers or asking for directions easier.

Wine Doors

We counted among our new Italian friends, Sergio, the matradee at the Osteria Belle Donne, where we discovered our first wine door. He waved and called out to Greg each time we passed. 

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He probably just remembered us because of the fuss we made taking pictures of the wine door. Who am I kidding? It was the extravagant tip we gave him. We were always trying to figure out how much to tip. This guide would have been useful before the trip.

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We picked up a handy brochure at Belle Donne detailing all the wine doors in Florence. We learned about wine doors by watching the fifth episode of “Searching for Italy,” starring Stanley Tucci. In fact, we became obsessed with Italy because of Stanley, which led to an obsession with Stanley. (Not unlike Chuck’s obsession with Bill Murray. At least we didn’t carry Stanley’s head around on a stick.) 

Stanley Tucci

I knew we had a problem when Chuck sent not one but two emails to Stanley’s wife, Felicity. An excerpt from one of the emails: 

After my wife and I listened to Stanley’s book Taste: My Life Through Food and having watched both seasons of Searching For Italy, I wanted to write to you and Stanley to convey our deep gratitude.

We recently re-watched Big Night, and while the first time was great, the second watching was fabulous. All the little family stories that Stanley shares in the book, such as the ring game, his admiration for chefs and their art, the love of food, the pre-opening of the trattoria, and of course, the fucking timpano, come alive on the screen after you’ve read his book.

My wife bought me a hard copy of the book for Christmas last year, and it is a superb companion to the audiobook. I must say that we ran out to this store called Total Wine to obtain supplies to make a negroni 🙂

Chuck’s message goes on for several more paragraphs and finally ends with an invitation to dinner or drinks. Well, they missed out. 

The Negroni and Spritz

Ah, the tantalizing tipples of Italy – Negroni and Spritz. They’re a must-sip when you’re there, but heed these drinking tips:

  • Drink only one Negroni. Ask Chuck what happens if you drink several and have museum tickets the next day. The sprint from the map room to the loo was one for the books, and it was a marathon, not a sprint. The memory still makes me giggle. 
  • Don’t fall for the allure of Caffe Gilli. Yes, they’re the founding fathers of the Negroni, and their location oozes charm. If you are tempted, be warned they are extremely expensive.  
  • Instead, head across the street to the rooftop bar of La Rinascente department store in Piazza della Repubblica. The view is amazing, and they have a Hugo Spritz, which is delicious. There are many rooftop terraces/bars in Florence. Find one while you are there. 

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Italian TV 

Terrible colds had us benched for several days. While recuperating, we got acquainted with Italian T.V.! After several hours of game shows with English subtitles, we found the 1970s drama series, “Columbo.” The episode with Special Guest Star Johnny Cash was particularly fun. 

The wifi in our Airbnb wasn’t great, and if we weren’t lying on the couch with a cold, we wouldn’t have cared. Some AirBnBs offer high-speed internet, so if that is a priority, you may want to confirm before booking it.

Postcards 

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During the pandemic, I started sending personal notes to friends I hadn’t seen in ages. Last fall, this sort of morphed into a thing where I’d send my friends postcards most weeks. Well, I couldn’t stop just because I was in Italy. 

The post office was conveniently located around the corner from our apartment. The staff was helpful, and although they didn’t greet me by name, they seemed to recognize me when I bought stamps.  

It took about six weeks for the postcards to arrive at their destination in the U.S., which was odd. Greg mailed a package to his friend in South Dakota, which only took four days. 

Drivers

A couple of day trips were impossible by train, so we hired a driver. 

Alessandro Cammilli was our driver for our Siena – San Gimignano Day Trip, which I will take a deep dive into later. He is a former policeman and a great guide with many funny stories. He lives in Florence but will transfer just about anywhere in the area. He also drives to cities like Rome or Venice to pick up customers and take them on stops along the way to their destination in Florence. Soft-spoken and very knowledgeable, you can’t go wrong with Alessandro.

Francesco Marrapese was our driver for our Amalfi Tour. He has a wealth of knowledge to share and is very funny. More than a few times, he had us laughing out loud. Francesco lives in Sorrento but will drive you anywhere. He picked us up in Naples to take us to our place in Sorrento and drove us back to the train in Naples. This transfer service is key if you stay in Sorrento as it saves you the hassle and time of waiting for the regional trains.

Train Travel

No, we didn’t rent a car but became proficient train travelers. 

We loved using the Italia Rail website to book our train travel. Before we left, we used it to book the longer high-speed travel from Florence to Naples, Florence to Milan, and Naples to Rome. While in Italy, we used this site for just about all our train tickets. I say “just about” as we had to buy tickets at the Cinque Terre train station for travel on that coast.

If you are new to train travel in Europe or Italy specifically, check out The Man in Seat 61 (or just Seat 61 for short). This guy has a huge site dedicated to train travel. There is a ton of info that is definitely worth checking out. All that said, here are some tips we learned on our adventure: 

  • Be sure to validate your ticket (only needed for the regional trains, not high-speed). 
  • On longer trips, we opted for business class on the high speed (Frecciarossa). While a little more expensive, you get an assigned seat, and the chairs are much more comfortable. Plus there is plenty of room for luggage.
  • Book your high-speed travel ahead of time. You can get a cheaper rate when you book ahead and get peace of mind as you know you have seats secured.
  • Pack light – Hauling a big bag on the regional trains is a lot of work. An international roller bag and a small backpack are much easier to navigate.
  • Have a little cash on hand in Cinque Terre, as some of the train stations between the five towns (Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore) do not take credit cards.

Pisa – A Happy Accident

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We had a happy accident on our train ride to Lucca. About halfway, there was much Italian blaring from the speaker and consternation between the other train occupants. There was a brief explanation in English about a problem with the track. We assumed we should sit tight, but the train soon reversed and returned to Florence! 

We jumped on the train to Pisa when we got back to Florence. The train ticket collector on the train reversing back to Florence said it was an option. When the train ticket collector headed to Pisa looked at our tickets, he shook his head. “No,” but let it slide. We were lucky. (I’ve heard horror stories of getting slapped with huge fines if you’ve got the wrong ticket!) 

Pisa wasn’t on our list. We’d read it isn’t worth it. I’d disagree. The tower and cathedral are a short walk from the train station. We had a lovely afternoon.

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If you are headed to Cinque Terre from Florence, you must go through Pisa. Get off the train, stow your bags, and explore for a few hours. 

We’ve got more pictures in our gallery

Surprises  

Every trip has a few surprises. A happy accident if you will. Where you say,” Jeez, that was fun and unexpected.” We had a few of them. 

Toward the end of our stay in Florence, we were treated to an Air Show. The Italian Air Force’s Frecce Tricolori was practicing on February 12, 2023, and flew over the city most of the morning, creating a stir of unease. I even checked to see if a war had broken out somewhere.  

Later that day, we encountered a large crowd on the Ponte a Santa Trinita. There was a feeling in the air that something was about to happen. So we found a spot on the bridge among the locals. The jets didn’t take long to fly over with their green, white, and red plumes. 

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Exploring the flea market outside Santo Spirito with the locals was another surprise. It is on the second Sunday of every month. The piazza was filled with tables loaded with all sorts of trinkets. We wandered pretending we were Italian, although I’m sure we fooled no one. 

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Then, there was Greg’s fried artichoke in Rome. To say we were surprised when it arrived is an understatement. Fun fact: The peak season for artichokes in Rome is from February to May. The artichokes are deep-fried until they open up like flowers and become crispy, often referred to as “Jewish-style artichokes.” 

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Someone suggested the world’s oldest pharmacy, the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy! Messy Nessy has a great article about it. It wasn’t a surprise, but definitely not on our list before the trip. 

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The glowing orb moving across the church floor was more a mystery than a surprise. I’m still grateful it wasn’t an apparition but a fancy clock. The meridian clock in the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence, Italy, is a fascinating historical timepiece with unique features. It consists of a small hole in one of the church’s walls through which sunlight passes. The sunbeam hits the line at solar noon throughout the year, indicating the sun’s position in the ecliptic or its apparent path across the sky.

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Florence Food Tour 

Thank God we booked a food tour of Florence during the first few days of our stay. We won the lottery when we were assigned Tommasso as our guide. His wife, Carlotta, joined us. Awesome doesn’t begin to describe it. 

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They introduced us to food we would never have tried and sprinkled in facts about the city. Our food exploration led to trying schiacciata, like a smashed submarine sandwich with prosciutto and cheese. 

The “traditional” Florentine sandwich of lampredotto, which is slow-cooked tripe (aka cow stomach), is not for the faint of heart (or stomach). We also had a spicy beef cheek sandwich, which was delicious. Pappa al Pomodoro is a traditional tomato and bread soup that you and I would probably call a stew as it is a thick and hearty meal. 

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Finally, we had crostini—one served with white beans and kale, the other with chicken liver pate. The chicken liver is another acquired taste, for sure. This food tour adventure was fueled by plenty of chianti red wine.

We highly recommend Withlocals.com – We used them for this tour and Pompeii. 

You can find more pictures in our gallery

Night of Meat 

I will always think of this experience as “Dario – Night of Meat.” We’d watched Chef’s Table featuring Dario Cecchini and just knew we had to visit Dario’s restaurant in Panzano called Panzanese. Some say it is “Tuscany’s best meat restaurant. Perhaps it is the best in all of Italy.” 

But the problem was getting to Panzano. You need a car. When Tommasso, our food tour guide, asked if we’d like to have dinner with him and his wife Carlotta, we were excited, but he didn’t say where; just meet him on the bridge at 6:30, I think he said. We were elated when he told us he had reservations at Panzanese’s! 

But the car ride left a little much to be desired—steep, winding roads through the mountains in the dark. I won’t name names, but someone is prone to motion sickness, and we had to stop several times for that person to puke. 

The first course was already in progress when we arrived. We rushed through the butcher shop to the dining room, where they made room for us at the large communal table. And quickly, we were served beef tartar. The meat just kept coming after that! On the table were bottles of red wine, called a “Fiasco.” Tommasso joked, “Yeah, after drinking a couple of them, it will be a fiasco!” 

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Find a way to eat at Panzanese. It is an incredible experience, from the drive to the mountain town to the first bite of beef tartar to the last drop of Grappa Cecchini. You’ll make friends, sing a bit after the first “Fiasco,” and then wonder how you ate all that meat. And the protip: find someone to drive and be your designated driver! 

We’ve got a bunch of pictures in our gallery. 

Villa Bardini 

While hiking to Michael Angelo’s Park (Piazzale Michelangelo), we found ourselves looking for a bathroom and stumbled upon the Elliot Erwitt Exhibit at the Villa Bardini. Thank goodness we needed to pee, as it ended up being one of my favorite art exhibits while in Italy. It included 70 shots, displaying Erwitt’s iconic images where he cleverly blends humor and emotion with brilliance. 

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We have more pictures in our gallery

Venice

Tumbling out of the train station, we found our first water taxi waiting to ferry us into Venice. Stepping on the bobbing taxi, I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. As we cruised down the main canal into the city, we were treated to unobstructed views of the city, flanked on both sides by historic buildings. Gondolas, vaporettos (public water buses), barges carrying produce, and sometimes garbage glide by. No cars are allowed, so there isn’t the hum of automobiles.

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Our stay needed to be longer. It was a quick overnight, and it was windy and cold. So I literally was wearing all the clothes I bought in my overnight bag. The food was amazing, as was Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica. Yes, we took a gondola ride, but did you know they can’t start until 9:00 am on the dot? 

 
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The sidewalks are a rabbit warren, winding around the city. We could have spent 2 or 3 days here. When you go, take your time and experience this fabulous city up close.  

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We have a few more pictures in our gallery

Cinque Terre 

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When anyone asked, “What are you most looking forward to in Italy?” My response was always, “Visiting Cinque Terre.” It is a string of brightly colored seaside villages on Italy’s coast and home to the Azure Trail between Riomaggiore and Monterosso al Mare. Like Venice, it was an overnight visit. We found a cute apartment in Vernazza, the Sea Breeze, and had an excellent early lunch at Ristorante La Torre before tackling the trail between Vernazza and Corniglia. 

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the strenuous hike to the restaurant, which the locals referred to as the castle. It was straight up. But the views and the food were worth the death-defying hike up the crumbling steps. 

It was during our train ride on the regional train to Vernazza we learned a valuable lesson. Even if the car is empty when you take your seats, always sit with your traveling buddies. 

Minutes before the train left the La Spezia railway station, our car filled with Italian teenagers on a school trip. There were hundreds of them smushed into every seat. A young couple took the seats directly in front of us. He looked like a character from a Mafia movie and was playing the mob boss’s son. They watched us through hooded eyes, never smiling, sometimes checking their phones for important messages. I kept thinking, “Is this real?” 

We’ve got more pictures in our gallery. 

Fiesole

We were looking for a diversion after checking out David at Accademia Gallery. A couple at one of the train stations on the Cinque Terre coast gave us cryptic instructions on how to purchase bus tickets to Fiesole to see Museo Civico Archeologico. She showed us amazing pictures but was a little loose with details on the bus ticket purchase — something about a newspaper stand not far from Accademia Gallery selling bus tickets.

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She warned about buying your return tickets; the bus ticket sign was hard to see. That was pretty much it. We deserved gold stars for finding the booth. Little did we know that was the easy part. 

We got on the wrong bus and then jumped off after realizing our error, but only after I stamped my bus ticket. (It is bus 7!) The road to Fiesole was not for the faint of heart or if you get motion sickness. I believe I’ve mentioned we travel with someone prone to it. Thankfully, the bus was nearly empty. 

The Roman Theatre and view were impressive and matched the woman’s picture. At this point in the trip, we were starting to experience museum fatigue and found ourselves becoming 12-year-olds again. Chuck began making funny one-liners to go with the museum’s artifacts. Like, “Honey, could you get me my penis bowl. Let’s celebrate tonight.” 

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Or this one, “Did someone just cut the cheese?”   

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We have a few more pictures in our gallery

Siena & San Gimignano with Wine

Alessandro Cammilli picked us up at our apartment–no odd meeting location. As we buzzed down the road, he asked if we wanted to see Florence American Cemetery. Of course, we stopped for a walkabout. It is a somber yet beautiful space honoring so many Americans who gave their lives in World War II.

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Alessandro warned us San Gimignano would be mostly closed; it was the off-season, and he was right. Even the famous gelato store, Gelateria Dondoli, was closed. 

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Then we were off to Siena! With Gelato on the brain, it was our first stop in Siena before weaving our way into the heart of the city where the Palio horse race takes place.

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Alessandro met us at the Siena Cathedral, or “Duomo.”  

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Our final stop with Alessandro was a ‘lunch and learn’ at Azienda Agricola Altiero. Months after we returned from Italy, we watched “Drops of God” on Apple TV – a must-see for wine enthusiasts. While watching the show, I couldn’t help thinking about our experience at Altiero in Chianti Classico. We discovered authentic winemaking there, mirroring the show’s exploration of wine’s complexity and beauty. 

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We’ve got more pictures in our gallery

Bologna 

While window shopping in Bologna, we spied rice balls! Intrigued, we entered Atti Tortellini. You know the saying, “Priceless?” It applied to the conversation Chuck had with the store’s staff. Miraculously, we left with rice balls and sauce. Duolingo for the win!

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Bologna’s street markets are worth the train ride. But the real gem is the Towers of Bologna.

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If you have to pick just one tower to climb, pick this one. We climbed a bunch. Someone said on Facebook after I posted yet another picture of us climbing to the top of the tower, “You must have calves to steel!”

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We’ve got more pictures in our gallery

Last Supper 

Seeing the Last Supper in Milan felt like a pilgrimage and something my mom would have liked seeing. She had a framed copy of it in her bedroom. She always stuck her palms from Palm Sunday Service behind it. 

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You absolutely need reservations. These fill up fast. Bookings open up three months prior. You need to watch the site for when the next block becomes available. Do not delay booking, as they will be gone in a flash. 

We took the high-speed train from Florence to Milan and got off at a station about 5K from where the Last Supper is located. The train station had an odd feel about it. I’ll admit—a bit deserted. We didn’t know it then, but it was for drop-off only. 

After seeing the Last Supper, we grabbed a drink and ordered sandwiches to eat on the train at a strange little bar not far from the drop-off-only station. While getting ready to leave, Chuck checked the train tickets only to learn we needed to get our butts over to the Central Train Station! 

Milan’s gigantic train station was worth the long train ride and the sprint across Milan to catch the last train back to Florence.  

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We’ve got more pictures in our gallery

Museum Overload

Having museum overload was a shocker; mix things up a bit. Here are a few museum tips: Visit the Duomo Museum before climbing the steps to the top of the dome. You will gain a better perspective when you learn about how it was built.

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You shouldn’t miss the dwarf in the Pitti Palace; it will leave you scratching your head.

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And could you please explain what is up with the ass lamps?

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Links to museum galleries in Florence: 

Cooking Class

Our brains were mush after days of museums and cathedrals, so we took a pasta cooking class in Florence through Caf Tours. This delightful culinary experience was exactly what we needed. We got to wear aprons, crack eggs, knead, and roll dough. We met more travelers from around the world and eventually ate the delicious pasta, ravioli, and gnocchi that we made ourselves. 

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We’ve got more pictures in our gallery

Amalfi and Pompeii Tour 

Sorrento, Italy, was our home base while exploring the Amalfi Coast. I’d recommend Francesco, our guide. He did his best to make it fun, but February is not the Amalfi Coast’s best month. Sure, there wasn’t a crowd, but a lot was closed and mostly overcast. The views are amazing nonetheless.

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Sorrento is a lovely base for exploring this area. The town’s main pedestrian thoroughfare (Corso Italia) is delightful.

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If you can, get seafood over at Da Bob Cook Fish. It is tucked away at the end of the Corso Italia. The food is outstanding, even if the restaurant’s name is a bit strange. Our apartment in Sorrento was super cute, comfortable, and close to the train station. We highly recommend it.

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Visiting Pompeii in February is ideal – no crowds, and it wasn’t 100 degrees. If you go, request Raffaele as your guide, and don’t skip the Herculaneum. Raffaele is an archaeologist who brings the ruins of this famous city to life. Walking with him, you could envision what life must have been like before the devastating eruption of Vesuvius.  

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We’ve got more pictures of the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento, and Pompeii-Herculaneum in our gallery

The Vatican 

We got tickets for an early morning private tour of the Vatican, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s Basilica. Our LivTour’s guide was fantastic. He was very engaging and funny while still providing a ton of information. It was a bit of a rip that the Vatican doesn’t allow pictures of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Greg tried and got in trouble.

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We added the Scavi tour to see St. Peter’s tomb. It is a special tour you arrange with the Vatican Scavi office. We felt holy by the time we left—sadly, there were no sightings of the Pope. 

We’ve got more pictures in our gallery

Colosseum and Forum

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Like Pompeii, you must tour the Colosseum and Forum. It was crowded in February; I can’t imagine it in July. We once again used LivTours for a complete tour of each of these ancient places. If you can, take the tour that includes the Colosseum floor to gain perspective on what those games may have looked like from the gladiators’ point of view.

We’ve got more pictures in our gallery. 

How was the beer? 

As you probably know from reading our other stories, we enjoy a good beer. As much as we want to experience the sights and sounds during a trip, checking out the local food and beverages is key. The beer in Italy is great but different. I say different because if you are a U.S. hophead, you may need to temper your expectations (more on this in a bit).

Italy Florence - Dragonfly Pub - Steam IPA

The primary beer in almost every store is lagers from Peroni, Moretti, Poretti, and Ishnuso. These are all great, clean, and refreshing. Anyone who loves lager beers (including most folks who enjoy Bud or Miller) will like these. These big brands typically have variations such as red ale (rossa), bock, wheat, and a few venture into IPAs.

Italy Florence - Beers

With the IPAs, you run into a difference with some of these bigger brands. While it may say “American IPA,” these beers are generally not quite the hop bombs you get in the U.S. Many, such as Poretti’s American IPA, are damn good beers but a little more malty than at home. All said you’ll be happy if you explore Italian beers with an open mind and mouth.

Italy Florence - Beers

Chuck tried as many of the local beers as humanly possible and devised a list of recommendations. The list is Florence-centric, as we spent a lot of time there. If you have your favorites, please let us know in the comments.

  • Birra KaizenIPA – I had this gem at Osteria Le Pietre just across from the Pitti Palace. It is clean and fresh with a dry finish and not a ton of hops bite, yet a pleasant nose. 
  • Archea Brewery Black IPA is outstanding. You get just enough hops to know they are there combined with the dark malt, which makes this beer sing. 
  • Vapori di Birra Geyser Pale Ale. I enjoyed this delightful pale ale while enjoying the sun on the rooftop bar at Rinascente Firenze, which overlooks Piazza della Repubblica. It lives up to the name with a bit of tingly carbonation. This beer is well-balanced and perfect for a day in the sun.
  • Birrificio del Ducato Machete Double IPA packs a punch as it is very much like what you would get in the United States—a big dose of hops and a bit of boozy sweetness.
  • Toccalmatto (Zona Cesarini) Pacific IPA is a traditional American style IPA with a floral nose and slightly bitter finish. This is a crisp and drinkable beer that won’t leave you with tongue fatigue from a boatload of hops.
  • Birra Del Eremo Fair IPA – I ordered this beer just because the label features a wild boar, and I was having cinghiale (wild boar) at Trattoria 4 Leoni. Here is an example of an IPA that is more in line with the European style of an IPA, where the hops are less prominent, and the malt comes through. 
  • Chianti Brew Fighters La Bestemmia strong ale – besides loving the name of both the brewery and the beer name (which means The Blasphemy), you have to love the taste of this excellent Belgian strong ale.
  • Birrificio Sorrento Minerva – I very much enjoyed this excellent red ale with dinner at Inn Bufalito in Sorrento. A great malt finish went very well with the buffalo mozzarella and steak.
  • Birrificio Artigianale Ofelia Piazza Delle Erbe Saison – This beautifully rendered saison paired up perfectly with the pizza at Aciugheta that we had in Venice. It was a perfect light and dry beer accenting the delicious pizza.
  • Green Dog Birrificio Crew Pils – After a short but intense hike to Ristorante La Torre in Vernazza (Cinque Terre), we enjoyed a fabulous meal with million-dollar views. Of course, you need a refreshing beer that is as bright as the sunshine. The Crew Pils fit the bill perfectly.
  • Budejovicky Budvar Original – Sure, this isn’t actually an Italian beer. Still, it makes for a great beverage after a long day of skipping through Florence’s streets, avoiding being hit by bikes, buses, and cars while your mind reels from another art attack. It also goes great with cured meats and cheese.
  • Steam Brew Imperial IPA – Another beer that isn’t actually Italian (it is German), but who cares; it’s delicious. The Dragonfly Pub (see more below) carries the full line of steam brews. Drink this one with whatever the hell you want, as it is fantastic.

Italy Sorrento Minerva Beer

Great Pubs with Great Beer in Florence

Dragonfly Pub

Italy Florence - Dragonfly Pub

We were out for a stroll with no particular destination in mind. Greg stayed back at the apartment as we did a marathon of walking and more museums the day before. I think we just wanted to stretch our legs, and it was one of those winter days when the sun was out and it wasn’t too blustery.

Our wandering took us past the Dragonfly Pub. A look at their serving door facing Piazza Salvemini caused us to do a double take. I think it was the giant “Beer” sign.

We went inside and found a cozy seat. The entire place is decked out in a steampunk theme with lights and custom-made decor to give you the feel of being in the Nautilus from Jules Vern’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Guido Nannucci, the bartender/manager, made us feel like long-lost friends. We relaxed inside, as sitting in the piazza was a little chilly. We marveled at Guido’s mixology skills as he crafted a vodka and basil concoction. 

As we enjoyed the ambiance and our beverages, we were sure Greg would want to visit, so we hit this fun little pub one more time before leaving Florence.

Beer Stop Pub

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Multiple pubs in Florence serve up craft beer. The hard part is finding pubs that are open earlier in the day. We’d start our days early exploring Italy and would typically find ourselves winding down after a late lunch. Searching on Google pulled up plenty of options, but many didn’t open until 6:00 pm or later. What if you want a craft beer at 5:30?

The answer is the Beer Stop Pub. It is off the beaten path in terms of tourist attractions in Florence, but worth seeking out. The pub is small with a very fun dive-bar feel. They had an awesome selection of craft beers on tap and in cans/bottles. They also whip up some tasty cocktails if that is your thing. The plus for Chuck was the heavy metal music cranking out. Although, he did slightly complain that it was nu-metal and not true metal. Whatever that means.

Archea Brewery

After a morning at the flea market outside of Santo Spirito and the afternoon roaming the streets of Florence, we planned to visit Archea Brewery that evening. While this is one of the pubs that doesn’t open until later in the evening, we made sure to visit.

Italy-Florence-153

Entering Archea Brewery felt like what I imagined a local watering hole would feel like. We were probably the only tourists in the pub. Florence football (soccer) was on television, and many were enjoying the game. The brewery has taps featuring their beers, but you can also get guest taps and craft beer in bottles from other breweries.

We sat in the little room across from the bar and enjoyed a few pints while cheering on Florence. For a minute, we felt like we were Italians. Everyone was having a great time, and we felt at home.

Move On

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Facing north into Piazza di San Giovanni just steps from the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo, and the Giotto Tower is Move On. In addition to craft and mega-brew beers on tap, they have a record store upstairs.

The vibe is laid back and makes for a great place to hang out for a beer and rummage around the records. The walls have lots of cool posters and photographs too. However, I wouldn’t recommend them for food as it is basic and pricey.

Mercato Centrale

A key part of any visit to Florence is Mercato Centrale. A short walk from the train station, you can pick up a wheel of cheese, a huge steak, fresh fruit and vegetables, and much more; however, if you’d rather enjoy some prepared food and a delicious craft beer, head upstairs.

Italy-Firenze-Food-Tour-2023-61

Here, you’ll find a ton of awesome food, from traditional Italian to Asian to Texas BBQ. To wash down your meal, La Birreria del Mercato Centrale has you covered. They’ve got the standard Moretti beers and a nice selection of craft beers in bottles and cans. While this place can get busy, especially on a Sunday afternoon, it is worth it for the experience. Grab a cold one and soak it all in.

Itinerary for Italy

More Hot Tips

Always carry your passport! You never know when you might be involved with the police. At various train stations, we were randomly asked for our identification. Your state driver’s license might work, but why worry about a potential hassle?

Carry at least 4-5 euros in your pocket; water closets are not always free. You never know when you might have an overwhelming need for the toilet. Plus, most toilets do not have seats, so be prepared to “hoover.” 

Know the name and the address of your hotel or Airbnb. See tip #1; you never know when you might be involved with the police. Don’t worry; we didn’t get in trouble with the law.

Do not rely on Google. It gets flakey sometimes. It gets confused in the rabbit warren of streets. Always have a paper map in your pocket. 

Photo Galleries

We were there for five weeks, so yes, there are a lot of pictures. 

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