Bologna

Italy is usually synonymous with famed dishes bolognese ragu or lasagna but Bologna, home of these iconic dishes is rarely touted as a must see Italian city. My friends, if we can impart any travel advice on to you it would be to visit Bologna.

Not only is Bologna home to Italy’s (arguably) most famous pasta dish, it also boasts Europe’s oldest university dating back to 1088.

Bologna is filled with historical architecture echoing an ancient past but the lively university students bring vibrant life to the city making for the perfect contrast of old and new culture.

 

Top things to do

Quadrilatero

Quadrilatero, the old medieval market and food shopping area is a great starting point to explore Bologna. Although it can become overrun with tourists around lunchtime the traditional stalls, pasta shops and quaint eateries set the vibe of the city.

Eat at Osteria dell’Orsa

We gained the pounds hunting down the best bowl of Bolognese in Bolonga to save your waste-line (you’re welcome). At a hefty 6 Euro Osteria dell’Orsa is the tagliatelle Bolognese of your dreams. Fun fact; authentic Bolognese isn’t made with spaghetti! It’s made using tagliatelle.

Towers of Bologna

The ‘Two Towers of Bologna’ or Torre degli Asinelli & Torre delle Garisenda are the main landmarks of the city. Garisenda, the smaller of the two towers has an impressive lean that would rival the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Asinelli stands 102 meters tall and If you need a workout and can face the 500 stairs to the top the views from of Bologna are incredible.

Piazza Maggiorey

Grab an aperitif facing possibly the most unattractive church we’ve come across in Italy, the San Petronio Basilica or ‘the unfinished church’ with initial foundations laid in 1388 and finished in the 1950’s this monstrosity is the 10th largest church in the world.

The cafe’s across the square are a great place to catch the afternoon sun and the San Petronio Basilica is the perfect talking point. Useful when you’ve been travelling with the same person for four months.

Put on your walking shoes

Bologna is flat, fairly condensed and the perfect city for exploring on foot thanks to it’s 40km of Porticos. A Portico is basically a porch that lines the street sheltering you from the rain, sun or any other ghastly attack from mother nature.

Weekends in the city centre

Every weekend the main city streets are closed to vehicles and taken over by buskers, street performers and hundreds of locals giving the city a fairground feel perfect for families.

Calabria

If you want to experience old Italy, you know the Italy you might be familiar with from those Hollywood mafia movies where everyone’s out to kill ‘Tony’, then visit the Calabrian Coast.

Calabria is a completely different Italy to what we’ve come to know in the central and northern provinces. The people look and sound different and the food has a uniquely Calabrian twist.

We based ourselves in Tropea, the beautiful coastal heart of Calabria. Tropea’s historic centre, built 50 metres above sea level has a rustic, alfresco charm with 180 degree views of the perfect crystal clear ocean below. The town centre is compact and filled with restaurants, cafes and outdoor bars.

Tropea beach, below the historic city, has a completely different, almost ‘caravan park’ vibe. Restaurants and bars line the waters edge. These beach bars make a perfect host to catch an unforgettable sunset, Aperol Spritz in-hand with the silhouette of Stromboli smoking away in the distance for dramatic effect.

What to do

Tropea Beach

This free beach (rare for Italy) is totally brag-worthy. Boasting brilliant aqua blue water, yellow sand and hidden beach caves; you’ll want to spend all day relaxing by the shore. And relax we did.

Saint Mary of the Isle Sanctuary

This picturesque church has medieval origins and is the emblem of the city. Perched above the ocean it’s a showstopper for sure but it’s best feature is the church garden with sweeping views of the beach below and Tropea historic centre behind it.

Stromboli by night

A cruisy hour long boat ride from Tropea lies one of Europe’s most active volcanoes, Stomboli. Surrounded by black beach and puffing a pungent nasal cleansing sulfur, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could live here without the constant fear of being part of a ‘Dante’s Peak’ style thriller.

Once you take in an island sunset you board the boat for an explosive volcanic fireworks display… If you’re lucky you might just catch it on camera; which we didn’t.

Technically by visiting Stromboli you have visited Sicily, just a nice note to add to your travel checklist.

Reggio

Reggio Calabria may not have an historic centre like its trendy counterparts but what it lacks in historical monuments it makes up for in style. The stunning promenade reminiscent of Nice in France, is a stone throw away from Messina, Sicily divided by the narrow Strait of Messina, just 3km away. The city is young and vibrant with great promenade shopping and good restaurants. Reggio is well worth a visit.

Scilla

The enchanting fishing village of Scilla is a perfect photo-worthy pit stop. Scilla is known as Little Venice, for its position almost immersed in the sea and an easy walk from the marina through the narrow single street of the village will give you plenty of wow moments.

Pentedattilo Ghost Town

If the walls in Pentedettilo could talk they would have an epic tale to tell. Invasions, massacres, Greek era, Roman era, Byzantine domination, natural disasters; man, Pentedettilo  has experienced it all.

Established in 640 BC by the Greek Chalcis who colonised the area, this once bustling village was abandoned in the 1783 after a sever earthquake and has been slowly rebuilt by volunteers since the 1960s giving us a glimpse into Italy’s bygone era.

At first glance Calabria is not as refined as Italian beauties like Florence, Tuscany or Rome. It appears to have been forgotten, left behind and run down around the edges. But looks can be deceiving. Calabria is filled with natural beauty, the food is fresh, full of flavour and the best we have tasted so far and the people were so friendly we felt at home here. Definitely add it to your travel bucket list.

Have you explored Calabria? Where would you recommend visiting.

Lucca

For almost a month we called Lucca home. We honestly found it hard to leave this elegant, calm walled city and decided that when we win lotto we will retire here (now to start playing Lotto).

We rented a sweet little apartment just off Piazza San Michele, it was in the perfect location, close to the action but hidden from tourist traffic. After 6 weeks washing our clothes in the bathroom sink you can imagine how overjoyed we were to have an apartment with a washing machine.

Lucca was established by the Romans in 180 BC, the city is steeped in centuries of history. But it was Elisa, Napoleon’s sister that gives Lucca its leafy charm after it was gifted to her by Napoleon after he concurred the city in 1805.

Most travelers we spoke to were visiting Lucca on day trips from Pisa or Florence but this little gem is worth at least a couple of days exploring within the walls.

Top things to do

Ride a bike around the city walls

We rented a four wheeled bike and rode on top of the city walls. It was so much fun, we decided we looked extremely touristy already so ramped up the cheese factor by playing a few Dean Martin Italian classics full volume. The old city walls have been converted into a fantastic tree lined pedestrian/bike only street strewn with parks, picnic areas, sculptures and benches.

We walked the walls every night after dinner and loved the city perspective from above. It really is such a charming place.

Torre Guinigi (Guinigi Tower)

Lucca’s most famous tower, the Guingi Tower built in 1384 is certainly a showstopper. Wanting a more refined look the wealthy Guingi family crowned the tower with Holm Oaks around 1600. The tower is an impressive feature of the Lucca landscape but not so impressive from the rooftop. I would recommend climbing the Clock Tower for Instagram-worthy shots of the tower.

Opera Recital

At 7pm every evening during the festival of Puccini you can enjoy an opera recital playing the most popular pieces from Puccini (composer of Madame Butterfly) and classical numbers from Mozart. The recitals take place at San Giovanni an old church with high ceilings, providing perfect acoustics for the show. Tickets cost 20 Euro at the door or 18 Euro before 6pm. For more information visit the Puccini Festival website.

Church of Santi Giovanni e Reparata

We are rather ‘church fatigued’ 6 weeks into our Italy tour (seriously how many churches do they need?). San Giovanni surprised us with a hidden layer of intrigue. The old church was originally the site of a 14th century Roman baths. The almost perfectly intact mosaic encrusted baths are tucked away in the church basement and for a measly 4 euro you are free to explore the historic marvel unaccompanied. The church also has a tower that is open to public. However, if you are scared of heights like Dan the man best skip the tower as it doesn’t seem overly safe and featured mesh flooring giving a head-spinning views of the church floor 80 meters below.

Explore the Bastians

The city wall defensive bastians have been transformed into living works of art, with giant sculptures and classical musicians busking by day and beautifully lit by night the tunnels within the city walls are not to be missed. We couldn’t find much information on the history or purpose of these bastians but they were fascinating none the less.

Take a nighttime stroll

Lucca by night is filled with romance. City lights, spotlit monuments, quiet streets emptied of day tripping tourists on a balmy summer night stroll is the perfect way to end the day.

Day Trip to Barga

Carved into the hills, with sweeping mountain views and only a scenic hour bus ride from Lucca is Barga. The town is small enough to spend a leisurely afternoon exploring but for the outdoor-sy types among us you could spend a day or two taking advantage of the hiking trails, fishing spots and natural wonders that surround the town.

This arty town is filled with galleries, boutiques and plenty of Instagram photo fodder.

In typical Felice style we may as well have renamed Barga ‘desert-ville’, we started our day with coffee and a baked ricotta tart, followed by post lunch gelato and afternoon tea at Theobroma La Cioccogelateria sampling the very best mini-cakes on offer. This seriously has to stop, my jeans are getting tight eek!

We had a little picnic overlooking the valley and mountains in the distance. Sounds idyllic doesn’t it? I love picnics and suggest one every few days. Daniel always goes along with them, I thought, like me, he was a fan of the humble picnic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We searched for a good spot. Grass was a bit dry and dirty, a dog poo over there, cigarette butts over here, so a concert picnic we had and then he broke; “why the fuck do you always insist on having a bloody picnic, they’re shit. I hate picnics. They’re dirty, uncomfortable, flies everywhere. Never anywhere to sit. No more picnics. I hate picnics”! I don’t think I stopped laughing for about two days. So, no more picnics from the roaming Felice’s. haha

Between dessert stops we hiked one of the short bush trails, checked out the hilltop church (similar to the rest if I’m honest) and window-shopped around town.

Barga was well worth a visit. Even the bus ride to get there was delightful.

 

 

 

 

Day Trip to Montecatini Terme

Using Lucca as a base for three weeks has allowed us to slow down the pace and get immersed in the clam Tuscan way of life. Mornings are long and relaxed drinking coffee and strolling around the city discovering hidden bastions and kiddy parks. Afternoons are spent perusing the local grocer’s fresh ingredients for homecooked dishes or sampling famed gelato.

Recharged and ready for adventure we’ve plotted an itinerary for day trips to nearby towns. Lucca is centrally located with great train connections throughout Tuscany providing plenty of exploration options.

This morning we had grand plans to visit Cinque Terre located only 1.5 hours from Lucca on the 8am train. However, our naughty night monster, Eleanor had other ideas waking us up every 90 minutes through the night so we opted for an adventure closer to home and headed to Montecatini Terme instead.

Montecatini Terme is just over 30 mins by a train from Lucca, best known for its thermal spas and the Funicular (train). Montecatini is made up of two main areas, Montecatini Terme where the thermal spa is located at the foot of the hill and the hilltop town of Montecatini Alto. The regular train will bring you as far as Montecatini Terme and the Funicular railway, located 15 minutes by foot will take you up to explore the hilltop town of Montecatini Alto. Or, if you’re fit and brave you can choose to hike to the top. But be warned it’s steep and not at all baby friendly.

Once at the top, Montecatini Alto is a nice stroll around. The ancient city is perched on two hills, joined in the middle by the town square where you can find some nice restaurants and shops. In between the old city walls, fortress, churches and towers you’ll see views for days over the “new” town and beyond. If you choose to bring a stroller be prepared to push it on rough terrain up steep hills (babycarrier FTW). Our trusty Ergobaby 360 carrier is worth its weight in gold for these types of towns, we don’t even bother with the pram anymore.

After our walk around the old city we stopped off for a quick Espresso before heading back down on the Funicular. It’s a pretty view of Tuscany from the top but we there wasn’t all that much to see or do in Montecatini Alto.

Montectini at the foot of the hill seemed to be a more happening city, filled with designer shops, restaurants and cafes.

We bee-lined straight for ‘the must’ see attraction, the Montecatini thermal Spa to sip on ‘healing thermal water’. The grounds of Termi di Montecatini originally built the 15th century (and later updated 1777 and again in 1919) are worth the visit if the healing properties in the water aren’t enough to lure you in.

The grand buildings surrounded by parkland are decorated with elaborate architectural columns and travertine courtyards with stunning fountains and pristine gardens. The interior of the spa was decorated by artists of the early twentieth such as Galileo Chini, Basilio Cascella, Giuseppe Moroni and Sirio Tofanari. The most photographed feature of the Termi is the large open air fountain by the entrance.

The thermal spa is great for people watching. The number of elderly people drinking from ‘the fountain of youth’ was astounding. We couldn’t believe how many busloads of beautiful old Nonnos and Nonnas funneled through the doors. At one point we thought there must be an aged convention going on at the spa.

Eleanor once again stole the show, waving and smiling at the crowds before being passed around the Nonna’s while we tried to understand what they were asking us in Italian. No matter how many times we said “Inglese” (English), they just spoke in slower Italian.