adventures of an american housewife in the south of france

Italian Road Trip: Riomaggiore, Firenze, Siena, Torino

I almost don't want to finish and hit "publish" on this post because then that means that the trip has been taken, the pictures uploaded, the entry written, and our time in Italy is really over.  For now.  I think the best part about our nearly 2,000 km road trip was realizing how close Italy really is.  It only takes about 5-6 hours to get to the border (depending on what part) and now that we know The Pony can handle it, we're already plotting a time when we can go back. I really believe that driving through a country is such a great way to see and experience a new place.  You get a feel for what the land, the culture, and the people are really like - sometimes good, sometimes bad!  Before we get into the details of our actual trip, I'd like to share notes that I jotted down in my journal throughout our road trip. General Observations & Tips on Road Tripping in Italy - The highways are very well-marked just like France.  You can pretty much get to wherever you're going just by following the signs.  No need for a map or GPS. - Driving from Montpellier through the Cote d'Azur to Riomaggiore was really beautiful.  Lot of tunnels and windy roads. - There are TONS of rest stops all over the place, but despite this fact, we saw countless people straight up pissing on the side of the road about 1" from their car, in full view of passing traffic.  Lovely. - The stereotype is true.  People in Italy drive like maniacs. Maniacs who have no idea how to drive.  It creates an environment where you're constantly changing lanes, no matter if you're in the "slow" lane or the "fast" lane, because someone is always right on your ass trying to get past you. - I guess I sort of forgot about the smog problem in Italy until we were driving through it.  It's really disgusting, a thick yellow haze that just sits on the horizon for miles and miles and miles.  As we approached Torino around 3 or 4pm one afternoon, we thought, didn't they host the Winter Olympics here a few years back?  Where did they have all the events?  As we pulled out the next morning, we saw the huge, snow covered Alps and were awestruck.  They had been completely obscured by the smog the day before.  This prompted me to do a little online research to discover that the smog in Italy is mostly caused from the sheer number of vehicles in the country (and also, a bit to do with oil burning heating systems).  Certain cities have even instated laws that prohibit driving on certain days in order to help deal with the situation.

driving into Torino around 3pm

the next morning - the Alps!

FIRST STOP:  RIOMAGGIORE (CINQUE TERRE) As we planned our road trip, we needed to pick a place to stop on our way to Florence to break up the 8 hour car ride.  We thought about stopping in Genoa, but heard it was awful there.  Then we thought about stopping in San Remo, but I heard it's a lot like Cannes and we've already been to Cannes and wanted to see something different.  When I posted the question of where we should stop on Facebook and Twitter, Cinque Terre was the almost unanimous response. Riomaggiore is one of the 5 (cinque in Italian) cliffside beach towns that make up the Cinque Terre region, just over 200km from the border of France.  The area is a hugely popular summer destination because of its gorgeous scenery, pristine beaches, and the preserved hiking trails that connect the 5 sister towns.  This past October, Cinque Terre experienced some devastating floods, which completely wiped out two of the most popular towns (Monterosso and Vernazza) and caused severe damage to the other three.  Thanks to donations and relief funds, the entire Cinque Terre region is being rebuilt, but Monterosso and Vernazza are still not expected to be ready for tourists for months.  Monterosso is hoping to reopen by spring, but the clean up in Vernazza will probably take longer. So we decided to go to Cinque Terre, against our better judgment, and Riomaggiore seemed the best choice among the remaining 3 inhabitable towns.  Since then, I've been thinking a lot about what I want to say about Riomaggiore, and Cinque Terre in general.  And I guess it's this:  It's not that I regret going there, only that I think we really didn't a chance to judge it fairly.  Obviously, winter is not the ideal time to visit these cliffside beach towns, but this was a different kind of "off season" experience than I've had before.  It was a veritable ghost town. We pulled in around 8pm after 6 hours of driving and no one was there.  Like, anywhere.  We actually had to call the owner of the hotel at her apartment somewhere in town to come back down to the front desk, unlock the front door of the hotel, and check us into our room.  (Which was bare bones without so much as a television.  Hmm).  There was only one restaurant still open (at 8:30!!) and the hotel manager told us we better hurry over there quickly before they closed.  Lucky for us, La Lampara turned out to be pretty tasty (and the people - so nice.  Ask for Diciembre), but really?  One restaurant?  We were lucky we could even get coffee the next morning.  We had a cup and walked around Riomaggiore before heading out of town to Florence.

the town of Riomaggiore

our walk through town

there were little stairways everywhere, which reminded me a lot of Porto

San Giovanni Battista - one of Cinque Terre's monuments

typical houses

our view of the Mediterranean from the top of Riomaggiore

dramatic cliffsides

local fisherman

Aesthetically, Riomaggiore reminded me a lot of Porto, which I loved: windy streets, hills and random staircases that seemed to lead to I'd really like the opportunity to explore the area further.  We contemplated doing one of the hikes to the next town over, but realized we should just save that adventure for another time.  It was a fast 6 hour drive, so we're thinking about maybe coming back in May when more restaurants and shops will be open.  I am ready to give it another shot, but for now I will not recommend Cinque Terre as an "off-season" activity.

back in The Pony we go, led by our trusty mascot, Buttercup!

Our second stop was FLORENCE, which if you read my Do's, Don'ts, Eats you know we had a great time and ate very well.  It was a fast, 2 hour drive from Riomaggiore, although as I stated before, you really should figure out what you're going to do with your car once you reach the city.  We spent 4 days in Florence and I think that was the perfect amount of time. THIRD STOP:  SIENA Oh gosh, we really loved it here. Originally we were going to go to Lucca (another Tuscan town) but we drove by it on the way from Riomaggiore to Florence and decided it wasn't for us (so much smog!). We called an audible and went to Siena instead and we're so glad we did!   The drive from Florence to Siena was beautiful.  There are many toll-free "route" roads that you can take through the Tuscan countryside, but after the nightmare of getting our car out of Florence, we just wanted to get there already, so we took the autostrade about 2 hours south to this beautiful old town and still experienced some amazing views along the way.  Rolling hills, castles, quaint houses nestled in the mountains, it's exactly what you picture when you think of Tuscany. We had a fabulous time hanging around Siena.  We adored our home for the night, Hotel Santa Caterina.  An 18th century villa just outside the old city walls.  There aren't a ton of amenities at Hotel Santa Caterina, but the rooms are large and beautiful, and their garden is amazing.  You can sit and have a drink or breakfast (included!) outside, which is exactly what we did.

the garden at the Hotel Santa Caterina

view from the garden

Old Town Siena has a great university nightlife, lots of shopping, and some interesting churches.  We spent most of our time walking around the old city, taking in the sights, climbing to the top of the Torre del Mangia (a must do! the views were unreal!), and having a few aperitivos on Il Campo, the main town square, at Bar Il Palio.

Hub on Il Campo. Each year, the 17 neighborhoods of Siena are represented in a crazy horse race, called the "Palio", right here on this square!

the Torre del Mangia - the climb to the top was WAY easier than climbing Florence's Duomo

view from the top


the old town of Siena

our aperitivo

There was one downside to Siena....we had our worst meal of the entire trip.  Ugh, I cannot even tell you how disappointed we were.  Those who know me and Michael know that we take our dining very seriously and usually know exactly where to go, no matter where we are.  And when it came to picking restaurants on this trip, we'd been hitting out of the park homeruns in Florence, so we were expecting another amazing meal in Siena.  We did all of our research and all of our multiples sources told us that La Taberna di San Giuseppe was the place to be.  Our hotel concierge confirmed it was a fabulous place that usually needed to be booked 3 days in advance.  We even walked over to the restaurant (well off the beaten path) to check out the menu, which sounded unique and interesting, and saw that it had been Michelin rated for the last 5 years in a row.  Sounds like a winner, right?  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Chris Durham, if you're reading this, I should have listened to you and gone straight to Cane e Gatto. I should tell you that the service was impeccable and the wine was fantastic, but the food....oh the food.  We were incredibly underwhelmed.  We started with an antipasti - a broccoli souffle - that was so bland and cold in the center (clearly reheated in a microwave of sorts) that I don't even want to show you a picture of it.  It was not good.  We moved on to "the specialty of the house" - a Gnochetti with truffles.

can you see the gnochetti under all that cream?

Remember the Gnochetti I had had the night before in Florence? This paled in comparison, even with the truffles.  It was so heavy and laden with cream that I couldn't even finish it.  And by the way, anytime there are that many truffles on one dish, it means they're not the real deal. So we tried the pork dish.  And it was gross.  How can pork be gross?  It tasted like smoked ham (same animal yes, but it should not taste the same).

icky. lame raddichio

Blech, we didn't even want to look at the dessert menu.  After our meal, things actually started looking up when our server took us down to their wine cellar, which is over 2,000 years old.

could this make up for the terrible meal??

This cellar, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is where they keep all their cheese and wines.  It was really nice of our server to take us on this little tour, and it could have been a cool way to redeem our experience, except that this visit was followed by not one, but TWO people running up to us before we left and requested we review them on TripAdvisor.  Wow.  Ok.  If you insist.  But I don't think you want me to do that. The redeeming factor is that we had some crazy cocktails on our way home.  I really wish I could remember the name of this dark, small Jamaican rum bar that we hit up on our walk back to the hotel, but for the life of me I can't!  I've googled it, I've looked on maps, street views, travel websites, everything.  It is nowhere to be found.  All I can tell you is that it's located on Via di Pantaneto near the grocery store, and serves only handmade cocktails that will knock you on your ass.  Just what we needed after our weird dinner. They say you only need one full day in Siena, which is what we did, but I wanted more.  We didn't get to explore the Siena Duomo by daylight, which is something I really wish we could have done, and I really wanted some restaurant redemption.  We thought about extended our road trip and staying here for an extra day, but then Fig took a bad jump off the bed, injuring himself, and we knew we needed to get moving and start our journey home.

Daytime view of the Duomo from the top of the Torre del Mangia

Nighttime view of the Duomo, close up

FOURTH STOP:  TORINO Our fourth stop on the Italian Road Trip was to spend one night in Torino.  It was a nice way to break up the drive home and a very different kind of place from the rest of the cities we'd checked out.  First of all, it felt very urban, sort of like Madrid, and more like where people really lived, without many tourists.  I liked the location of our hotel, Hotel Alpi, because it was right by the river and quick little walk to the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, but the hotel itself was pretty meh.  Still, we got a great deal on the room, they let us bring Figaro, and it had a television. We didn't have a lot of time in Torino.  After Fig's accident, we got a bit of a late start leaving Siena, and although we were sort of planning to extend the trip a few days and see more of this city, it wasn't in the cards.  Fig was in a lot of pain, and we needed to get home to his medication.  Still, we made the most of our time by taking a long walk along the River Po, through the main Piazzas, and doing a bit of pre-Christmas window shopping.

the River Po

who knew a smoggy sunset could be so beautiful??

Ponte Umberto I

cute Hub on our river walk

not sure who this guy is

Piazza San Carlo

Via Lagrange

now this seems like an interesting street...

There were 2 things I really wanted to do while we were in Torino:  drink a Bicerin, and eat some gelato.  Luckily, I got to do both!  We stopped at Neuv Caval'd Brôns in the Piazza San Carlo, who is purported to have the best Bicerin, a hot layered drink native to Torino that is made up of espresso, drinking chocolate, and whole milk.  Drink it in layers like the locals do - don't stir it!

sugar bomb!

and see all the yummy, free aperitivo snacks surrounding my pre-dinner drink? this place was great!

Next, we headed over to  La Drogheria, located near our hotel in the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, for a real pre-dinner drink and what ended up being the best aperitivo spread we found in Italy.  Countless salads, veggies & dip, bruschetta, and more.  And it was free.  Definitely stop by here.

this was only the surface - i was trying to snap a sneaky picture

We were DETERMINED to make up for the disastrous dinner in Siena the night before. Restaurant redemption, remember?  There was no way were going to let our last meal in Italy be another disappointment.  So Michael did a ton of research which led us to the very local spot, Caffe della Basilica.  We doubted anyone would be begging us for review on Trip Advisor here.   No one spoke English, which was a great sign, but did make the menu navigation a bit difficult. They had a huge menu of craft beers, written completely in Italian, so we took some wild guesses.  Michael got a Christmas Ale and I had the Molto Malto which was just what the doctor ordered.

molto malto: more malts!

We started off with a specialty, Salsiccia di Bra con Senape di Digione a l'ancienne, a fresh, local sausage that looks raw, but I'm pretty sure it was smoked.  Or maybe it was raw.  Either way, it was tasty and we survived.

like sushi?

For our Primi Piatti, we had Tagliolini Langaroli ai Carciofi, or Tagliatelle Noodles with Artichokes.  We also got the Tagliatelle al Ragù di Cinghiale, Tagliatelle with Wild Boar Ragu

not the best pic, but it was so good!

mmm mmm!

And finally, for our Secondi Piatti, we split the Filetto di Maialino Senapato alle Nocciole con Mais Saltato all'aceto Balsamico, a Pork Filet in a Hazelnut Mustard sauce with Corn in Balsamic Vinegar. SOOO much better than the pork from the night before! We really redeemed ourselves with this place.

not the most appetizing picture, but i promise you, that hazelnut-mustard sauce was magical.

After our scrumptious and satisfying meal, we headed over to Grom to check #2 off my list of things to eat do in Torino:  eat gelato! Grom is a well-known and very tasty artisanal gelato chain in Italy, which started in Torino.  There are actually 2 US locations, one in NYC and the other in Malibu, so check it out if you can!  They only use fresh seasonal fruit and do not use any colorings or artificial additives.  I had the Crema de Grom, which was made with organic egg cream, Langhe region corn biscuits, and Columbian "Teyuna" chocolate chips. Michael had the Marron Glaces which was made with candied chesnuts from Borgo San Dalmazzo.  Definitely the winner! If we'd been able to spend more time in Torino, I would have checked out the Parco del Valentino and gone to the top of the tallest building in the city, Mole Antonelliana.  Because we were all about sky-high views on this road trip.  It's good to have something for next time. FINAL STOP:  HOME Our drive back home to Montpellier was actually pretty eventful.  We were planning to drive through the Alps and basically take the same route we took home from Annecy, not realizing that we'd literally be driving through the enormous mountains.  Thank God there wasn't a snow storm, because The Pony definitely does not have snow tires and I don't think she would have made it.

clear roads!

We got home safe and sound, fatter than before, and very satisfied with our trip.  Here are my final recap notes on road tripping through Italy:
  • Try to follow the signs on the road rather than a GPS or Google Maps.  It's much, much easier that way.
  • Don't be freaked out if you break down on the side of the road for some reason.  There are rest stops and "SOS" phone booths every few hundred meters.
  • Drive defensively!! Don't let your guard down.
  • This may seem obvious, but try not to fill up on gas right off the autostrade.  It's crazy expensive.
  • Plan to spend a few days exploring Tuscany.  You won't want to leave!
  • DO NOT under any circumstances try to drive your cars into the major cities downtown/centre areas.  Most are under a "Zona Traffico Limitado" and you will be heavily fined.
  • Don't feel guilty if you don't have time to take the scenic route.  The autostrade has some great views too!
Until next time Italy, ciao!!

our sunset drive back to Montpellier

4 Responses to “Italian Road Trip: Riomaggiore, Firenze, Siena, Torino”

  1. shea says:

    Ive stumbled onto your site while searching for an awesome red wine gifted to me recently.
    I cannot express how inspired I am by your “big move.” I went back and read your story-awesome!
    I have had a life long dream, like you and Hub, of living/working abroad.
    I’m a public education administrator facing my 47th birthday (Wed.) with an increasing sense of not following my dreams. :( life is short. I have the courage to pick up and drastically change my reality, with my australian shepherd, Sadie, but my fiancee of three years would never go fo it.
    Any advice?

    • Natalie says:

      Hi Shea!

      Thanks for stopping by and checking out our story :) I must know more about this fabulous wine gift you received!

      I have to tell you that moving here has been one of the best experiences of my life. I’m a very firm believer in “no day but today”, so I will definitely encourage you to work towards making this dream happen for you! Maybe you could start small and look into a short-term volunteer project that you could do on your own over the summer? Many relief efforts, including the ongoing one I mentioned in Cinque Terre, are always looking for volunteers. Does the school system you work for offer sabbaticals? Maybe your fiancee would be more comfortable with the idea if the two of you were first able to take a longer term (2-3 week) vacation to a different country?

      Either way, it’s never too late and I really hope you can find a way to make this work for you! The hard work and time it takes to make something like this happen is absolutely worth it :) Please feel free to get in touch with me again if you’d like to talk further!

      Take care!

  2. i think i just had to wipe the drool off my laptop.

  3. Devika says:

    Beautiful write up and pictures! Could you please tell me what kind of camera you used to capture your pictures? We are planning for our trip to Italy and trying to figure out what would be best (point and shoot vs DSLR). Thank you.

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