There are advantages to taking a tour but there are also discoveries to be made on your own. Three friends recently went to Italy on an independent trip. We flew into Rome took the train to Florence, rented a car and explored Tuscany.
San Gimignano is a wonderful medieval walled city and a small hotel in the nearby countryside, Casolare le Terre Rosse, was the perfect place as a base. The staff was extraordinarily helpful, the room was pleasant, the outside area, including an infinity pool, was exactly what you visualize for a Tuscan vacation. With a plethora of restaurants nearby, good food was always at hand.
"It's not 'pizza wine'," we were told at a wine-tasting at Castello di Meleto near Giaole in Chianti. How true! Real Chianti Classico is definitely not pizza wines nor is it the wine bought by college students. The tour of the castle and the wine-tasting were outstanding. Many of the castles in the region produce their own wine and have tours and tastings.
On a day-trip to Sienna, we explored El Campo and some of the city's districts which compete in the world's wildest horse race. El Campo is unusual in that it is a shell-shaped plaza in the center of the city. Twice a year the paved area around the perimeter is covered with dirt and ten of the thirteen districts enter a horse with the district's honor at stake. There are no rules in this race except that a jockey cannot grab another horse's bridle. Anything else goes and they do mean anything! On the day we were there El Campo was full of activity of another sort - restaurants, street vendors,shops of all kinds busy with tourists.
On one of our explorations, we discovered the walled town of Monteriggioni. It sits high atop a hill (looking somewhat like a prison or fort), has only two streets and is a wonderfully friendly little town. Sitting in the plaza with conversation in Italian swirling around, a nice cold drink, good friends, and bright Tuscan sunshine is hard to beat.In Florence, Michaelangelo's David is awe-inspiring and definitely a "must-see." No matter how many copies you've seen, the original is incomparable. The Duomo,Ponte Vecchio,statuary throughout the city, shopping in a variety of markets combine to provide plenty of activity. Of course the leather goods and Italian scarves are particularly enticing. Roma! One of the great cities of the world. True antiquity lies in the midst of a modern bustling city. The Roman Forum, the Pantheon, the Coliseum and the Vatican City are as impressive as always imagined and the artwork and the Sistine Chapel are truly amazing. Unfortunately Vatican City during high tourist season is extremely crowded. However, the center of Rome is very walkable and the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps make you feel as if you are in those old wonderful movies. Near the Trevi Fountain in a little restaurant was one of the best meals ever - homemade ricotta-filled ravioli in pistachio cream sauce - bellissima! Strolling through the city and taking the time to enjoy an afternoon drink complete small appetizers at any of the numerous cafes and watch people adds to the enjoyment. Trains, planes, automobiles and lots of walking - a great way to go. Italy definitely does not disappoint.