First stop on our way to the Tuscan villa: Pisa!


The Leaning Tower of Pisa was intended to stand vertically but it began leaning shortly after construction in 1173. The height of the tower is 55.86 m (183.27 ft) from the ground on the lowest side and 56.70 m (186.02 ft) on the highest side and well, it just looks neat!

 Flashpacking Wife jumping in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Flashpackers at the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Due to the long line up, we opted not to climb the 296 stairs to the top but chose instead to wander around, marveling at it’s beauty from below.

Then it was time to hop back into Lucy and continue our drive to the Chianti region in Tuscany where we had a villa booked for the week.

Olive tree in Tuscany

Tuscan villa - Flashpacker style

 We were greeted by the sounds of a thumping bass when we arrived at Il Paggino in the late afternoon. Turns out the owners were having a big party to celebrate the end of a successful season (our week was the last one until they shut down for the winter) and they were testing the sound system. They invited us to join the party – which we did after our pasta dinner and two bottles of wine…

Dagmar in Tuscany

Eleanora and Francesco were such friendly and fun hosts and we had a blast joining them and their friends for our first Tuscan style party. Which consisted of vast quantities of delicious food, Chianti, a massive bowl of sangria, karaoke and of course, some dancing.

Karaoke - Italian style

 After a day of recovery (too much sangria for me!), we took a day trip to Florence where we took in the sights and sounds of this lovely but tourist crowded city. Sitting on the steps of a church on the edge of a typical square, we reveled in the rays of sunshine while enjoying the music of a band. This was a much needed reprieve after we had somehow managed to drive into the city – a stressful experience of one-way-much-too-narrow-maze-like-streets filled with pedestrians who are in no hurry to get off the road despite the appearance of a car.

Florence is a great city to walk in – avoid driving there at all costs! (Parking can be found on the outskirts). Besides the Statue of David (which is a must see!), there are some really cool buildings to admire.

Beautiful church in Florence

A day trip to Sienna was also on the agenda.


Houses in Sienna

One day, after Curtis dropped the ladies off in Radda in Chianti (the nearest town to our villa), we headed off in the opposite direction and visited the charming little town of Volpaia.

It was here that we discovered the gastronomical delights of truffle pasta and wild boar. You can read all about our exquisite dining experience at La Bodega on Curtis’s travel blog.

Another highlight of our Tuscan experience was the truffle cheese – what a combo! I had read an article about truffles before we arrived in Italy and found out that at one point, truffles were being sold for more than the price of gold per pound! Which only made me want to try them more. They did not disappoint.

Hills of Tuscany

Unfortunately when we returned from our eating orgy, we found out that Jackie had taken a spill while walking on the side of the winding road – and broken her arm and ankle. Which meant an all day trip to the hospital on our final day in Tuscany and one passenger sporting a couple of casts on our two day drive back to Frankfurt.


Our first three days were spent in Malcesine on Lake Garda, a charming town built on the largest lake in Northern Italy. There is plenty to do there from boating to mountain biking but since our colds were still sucking our energy, we opted for less strenuous activities such as eating pasta, passing time in cafes with a campari and soda (Curtis’s drink of choice) or a glass of prosecco (mine) and going for walks along the lakeshore. We rented two bachelor style apartments at a complex called Laura and Jasmin’s – which enabled us to do some cooking and, more importantly, gave us some privacy. The previous apartment we had rented housed the four of us, living family style. Eating breakfast and dinner together every day and sharing a bathroom with my mother in law and her 75 year old friend got to be a bit much at times. There wasn’t much amore going on with side by side bedrooms – not to mention the thunderous snoring emanating from Jackie.

Lake Garda

Our next stop was a brief but oh so exquisite one. We stopped in Verona to visit one of my favorite wineries – Villa Rinaldi. They don’t usually do public tastings unless expecting you, but this family run winery was very welcoming and hospitable.  Cinzia, one of the daughters, let us choose three wines to taste, while telling us about her family history. How she would accompany her father to the vineyards at harvest time as a young girl or how her palate began to appreciate and distinguish the subtle differences in grape varieties or vintages.

Each wine we tasted was more delicious than the last. When the Amarone passed my lips (a grape variety I was unfamiliar with), I could understand how Bacchus (the god of wine) could call wine “nectar from the gods” – that’s how exquisite this was.

Cinzia of Villa Rinaldi

Just as we were all raving about the 2001 Rinaldi Maior Amarone Della Valpolicella, Curtis asked if we could try the Corpus Amarone Reserve wine. After a slight hesitation, she opened a bottle and, I have to admit, I fell in love.

It was like pouring liquid velvet and silk into my mouth – with flavours of cherries, chocolate, spices and dates. If wine could dance in your mouth, this one would be doing the tango.

It was so heavenly that for a moment I was going to pay the 110 euro price tag – but then I gave my head a shake and plummeted back to the reality of my bank account. The four of us purchased a bottle of the Rinaldi Maior Amarone to be enjoyed later – a mere 45 euros – and totally worth it.

All of that wine tasting whet our appetites for lunch so with bellies full of great Italian cuisine at a local restaurant, we hopped back into Lucy to continue our journey and ended up at the Ferrari Museum in Modena.

 Flashpacking Wife at the Ferrari Museum

Flashpacking Curtis at Ferrari Museum

Wiping away the drool after admiring dozens of beautiful machines, we managed to tear ourselves away from the cherry red Ferraris and continue to our destination of Parma.

Curtis and I had read a John Grisham book, Playing For Pizza, that was set in Parma and had the most tantalizing descriptions of the mouthwatering food. So we were keen to go.

Arriving after dark and finding all the hotel rooms either booked or insanely expensive, we stumbled upon something in our price range – a hostel.

 The only room available however, was one with two bunk beds. While the thought of a real honest to goodness pajama party had Dagmar filled with schoolgirl glee – this prospect felt like the cherry on top of my shit sundae. Because I had spent the entire day (most of it trapped in a moving vehicle) – with a 75 year old woman who was becoming more and more irritating to me. The irritation I was feeling had been building up for days. Listening to phrases such as, “look how green the grass is here” or (every two hours like clockwork), “Curtis, do you need a break?” (from driving) or, “I’m just going to move this book or open the window or blow my nose or whatever small movement I am making I feel I have to announce to the entire car.” You get the point. Not to say that Jackie is not a nice person because she is. Being thrown into a practically 24/7 situation with an elderly stranger – one who has obviously grown very accustomed to constantly talking to themselves – is tough. If she hadn’t been 40 years my senior, I would have (nicely) asked her to shut up. Since I could never speak to someone her age like that, all of my animosity boiled inside of me, festering like a pot of cheese fondue.

And now I was stuck bunking up beside her.

Bunking at the hostel

Which turned out to be a good thing because the four of us went out for dinner and had a lovely time. That Parma ham is so good, no one could feel anything but giddy after the first bite.

Upon a recommendation from the hostel, we had chosen a nearby restaurant with a family vibe. Checkered tablecloths, jugs of wine and filled with locals – it was the perfect spot.

While Curtis and Jackie both ordered a pizza, Dagmar and I had the calzone. Which is nothing like any calzone you could possibly eat in North America. Unless you’re Italian and your grandmother is visiting from the old country and makes it for you – then maybe.

It arrived filled with Parma cheese and Parma ham and was the size of a football. And I ate the whole thing. Every last bite. That’s how good it was. Cheesy, meaty, doughy goodness.

Calzone filled with parma ham and cheese

Next stop after the pajama party in Parma was a town called Lucca where we rented a house in the woods for two nights. When I say, “in the woods”, I mean it. There was no way one would be able to find it on one’s own. The owner had to meet us in town and we followed her Fiat Panda for many, many kilometers through the middle of nowhere until she drove to the very edge of a cliff, threw the car in reverse, spun the car around and made a dash up a driveway that was so hidden and covered with leaves that it was invisible from the direction we had come. With nervous laughter, we followed suit, and found a beautiful old house perched amongst the trees at the top of the steep driveway. If we hadn’t had a GPS, we would never have found our way back to it once we left.

House in the woods outside of Lucca

We made a day trip to Cinque-Terra, which consists of five colorful towns built into the cliffs along the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a beautiful spot, especially when the sun is shining – but it was one day when our luck with the weather didn’t last. The rain was so intense that there was no hope of staying dry – or of hiking the trail connecting the towns – because it was just too slippery and dangerous. After exploring the first town, we hopped on a train to the last town, getting a slight taste of the scenery from our rain-splattered windows.

Cinque Terre

Surrendering to the fact that we were going to get soaked, Curtis and I walked around exploring and even cheered on one brave soul who was determined to take a dip in the sea – who turned out to be Canadian.

More Cinque Terre

Wet Flashpackers in Cinque Terre

Losing track of time and realizing that we would have to run back to the station to catch our train, we sprinted back only to find our train was delayed. After waiting for almost 30 minutes, a train approached with an announcement in Italian and the four of us boarded, assuming it was ours.

When it whizzed by our stop without stopping, we found out it wasn’t.

Luckily the next stop wasn’t too far out of our way and didn’t cost too much to get back. We made it back to Lucy before getting locked into the parkade and wound our way back through the rain slicked mountainous road to our house in the woods.

Next up: Pisa & Tuscany!

Venice, Italy – Part Two (or Venezia, Italia – Parte Due)

The soulful sounds of an Italian opera reached in through the window and coaxed me from my slumber. As I became aware of the conversations floating up to me from the passers-by below our window – it hit me. I’m in Italy!

Flashpacking Wife in Venice

Italian is one of the most beautiful languages ever! It’s beautiful to listen to and beautiful to speak. Simply put – Italian is sexy!

At one time in Italy, there were hundreds of different dialects of Italian spoken. This got to be pretty confusing so the powers that be decided there should be one dialect chosen as the common or “official” one for all of Italy. From all of the dialects submitted, they chose the most beautiful – the Florentine dialect Dante used when he wrote his Inferno.

Imagine choosing the most beautiful dialect from an already beautiful language – no wonder Italian is the most romantic of all the Romance languages!

Flashpackers in Venice


We awoke from our nap in time to start thinking about dinner. Wandering the “streets” of Venice at night is even more magical than during the day. The lights from the buildings are reflected in the water of the canals and it’s the best time to window shop. Stores are closed but they display their wares – beautiful masks and glassware – in lit window displays.

Masks in Venice

We found a nice little restaurant several twists and turns through narrow alleys later and enjoyed a delicious risotto with a wonderful bottle of Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine).

Masks in Venice

Breakfast was included at our hotel so we were disappointed when we went downstairs the next morning to find that it had already finished. Feeling very confused, we soon discovered that Venice time is an hour ahead of London time….

When we weren’t eating pizza, pasta or risotto or sampling all of the delicious flavours of gelato (Ferrero Rocher was to die for!), we spent our time wandering around, just taking it all in.

Typical Venetian building

Piazza San Marco is one of the most photographed squares in Venice – and possibly the world. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by amazing buildings, huge crowds of people, millions of pigeons and musicians serenading the customers at the outdoor cafes. There is a beautifully baroque church and a tall bell tower, which offers amazing views.

Flashpacking Wife in Piazza San Marco

St. Mark’s Church

After our three days in Venice were up, we hopped onto a vaporetto (water bus) which took us along the Grand Canal to Lido and to our beautiful B&B, the Casa Delle Rose. There are three rooms at the B&B – the Green Room, the Blue Room and the Pink Room. All are amazing (I made sure to peek into each one) – ours was the Pink Room.

This place was fabulous, the photographs on their website didn’t even do it justice – and our host Stefano was really nice.

Lido has a totally different vibe than Venice. For one thing, there are cars on this island, but there is also lots of space. It’s more “normal” – it doesn’t have the quaint old world charm of Venice and isn’t covered in hundreds of snaking canals. What it does have though, is a fabulous beach. It also has some great running trails (we were trying to keep a balance between all the gelato and pasta and keeping active).

You can rent these funny two seater (side by side) bikes, which were just too silly to resist. We rented one for an hour – which was enough – those things are hard to pedal up hill!

Flashpackers on double bike in Lido

Flashpacking Curtis on double bike

For my birthday dinner, we wanted to go somewhere special. We had avoided most of the bad food/bad wine tourist traps that are prevalent in Venice, mostly by sticking to places a little more “down home” looking – and ones that were frequented by locals. We had a few fave spots that we frequented for the deliciously simple four cheese pizza or the home made ravioli with good house reds. The only bad house wine we were served tasted like cherry coke – but well, we managed to drink it anyways.

Chatting with a British/American couple over breakfast – we got a recommendation from them for a great restaurant – Casin Dei Nobili. If you are ever in Venice, this place is a must! Outstanding food and wine at reasonable prices, great atmosphere and service. We LOVED our fresh pasta and the bottle of pinot grigio we ordered. The chocolate dessert was heavenly and they even gave us free digestifs at the end of our meal – limoncello – a lemon flavoured licquer.

The place got packed and we found it amusing when one of our fellow diners was given the royal treatment – his own chair and some tasty snacks. He remained very well behaved while eyeing his neighbor’s pizza.

Dog at a restaurant in Venice

 We considered taking a gondola ride but after checking with a few gondoliers and being quoted 80 – 100 euros for a half-hour ride, we opted to stand on one of the main bridges instead and enjoy the sights and sounds of many gondolas for free.

 Gondolas of Venice

 As our magical time in Venice came to an end, having almost eaten our fill of Italian delights and tickled our tongues with enough Prosecco bubbles, we were ready to say ciao ciao and head back to Frankfurt. But first, a final picture of the Darth Vader statue that sits majestically and strangely on Lido.

Darth Vader on Lido

 With that, we hop on the vaporetto which whisks us to our bus, which whisks us to the airport, where we fly to Frankfurt to meet up with Curtis’s mom and her friend for a month long road trip. Stay tuned.

Venice, Italy – Part One

Faced with the wonderful dilemma of where to spend my birthday, I tossed around a few ideas. Amsterdam? Prague? An exotic island in Greece?

The possibilities being practically endless and not knowing when else in my life I would be spending my birthday anywhere I wanted in Europe – I really debated this dilemma for some time.

I asked friends who had traveled in Europe before for advice.

If you could spend your birthday anywhere, where would it be?

Celest recommended Vienna, Austria and “not just for the amazing ice cream”. She also recommended the Czech Republic and Paris of course, but she knew we’d already been there.

Teena thought I would enjoy both Amsterdam and Prague, in entirely different ways.

When I asked a group of fellow diners in the UK where they would go, Nestor very authoritatively yelled out, “Venice!” He then went on to rave about what a wonderfully magical place it is. (I didn’t find out until much later that he hadn’t actually been there – claiming he hadn’t found a boyfriend special enough to go with.)

Venice at night

His enthusiasm got me thinking though and the more I checked out the discount airlines flights, the more sense Venice made. We were able to fly to Venice from London on Easyjet and then from Venice to Frankfurt on Ryanair. The flight dates matched up perfectly, the price was right and I was all set to book it until I realized how difficult it is finding accommodations in Venice. Especially reasonably priced accommodations!

I found a lovely looking B&B on Lido (a short ferry ride away from Venice) called Casa Delle Rose that was “only” 90 euros a night. (Which was a lot more than we’ve been spending on accommodations but is actually a very good price for Venice.) They only had a room available for 3 of the 6 nights though. Further seeking yielded the small and extremely well located Hotel Falier, right in the heart of Venice. We really splashed out on this place at 120 euros per night (including breakfast and wifi) but it was my birthday.

Our room at Hotel Falier

There are two airports in Venice – Marco Polo airport is about 20 minutes from the city and Treviso is approximately 90 minutes away. Easyjet flies into Marco Polo while Ryanair uses the Terviso airport.

We arrived in Venice without any kind of guidebook whatsoever – our plan was to wing it – with a little help from the ‘net of course.

Arriving at Marco Polo, I awoke from my slumber just in time to see the scattering of islands that comprise Venezia with the waterway road network that snakes between them. There were dozens of motorboats following each other like ants, their path clearly marked.

There are two bus companies that provide transportation to the Piazzale Roma. A.T.V.O. (blue coach) costs 3.00 euros and has luggage facilities and seats for passengers (this is the one we took) and the A.C.T.C. (orange coach) without luggage facilities (okay if you don’t have a backpack the size of a small elephant) and sitting/standing room, which is half the price at 1.50 euros.

Or, if you have buckets of money, you can take a private water taxi from the airport straight to your hotel for about 100 euros (for 2 people with luggage).

But then you would miss out on all the fun of navigating your way over the bridges, along the canals and through the “streets” (alleyways!) of Venice – carrying the weight of a small hippo on your back – for the very first time. And I’m not being facetious!

Venice is an absolute maze of bridges, alleys, old buildings and canals – that’s the fun of it!

Canal in Venice

A reasonably short walk from the bus station, we managed to find our hotel without getting lost (which is a miracle in Venice!) When I saw our room, it was so pretty I had a hard time believing that this was only a 2 star hotel.

Feeling famished, we set off to find lunch and experience our first meal in Italy. Which was very exciting – since Italian food had been my absolute favorite since I was a kid.

We found a quaint pizzeria in a quiet courtyard and ordered our first pizza in Italy. Along with a tomato and bococcini salad and some house red – our meal was delicious.

When our bill arrived, we noticed there was a “cover charge” or “il coperto” and a service charge. The latter having been crossed out, we assumed it meant that it was up to us how much we wanted to tip. But paying a cover charge was a bit of a surprise until I did some reading up on it and discovered that this was simply how things are done in Italy. The cover charge ranges from 1.50 – 3.00 euros per person and is meant to cover the cost of bread and a glass of tap water (although no self respecting Italian would ever deign to drink tap water!) Some restaurants will state “no cover charge”, but overall, it just comes with the territory when in Italy and we got used to it.

Stuffed full of pizza, we sleepily sauntered back to our room for a much needed afternoon nap…and awoke a few hours later to the salient sound of opera drifting in through our window.