There are many good road trips all over the world, but driving through Tuscany, a region in central Italy, is an altogether another level of experience. Known for its dessert wine Vin Santo, made from a variety of region’s grapes, the countryside is a perfect picture book where green hills are dotted with slender cypress trees standing in line, sunflower fields and vineyards at every corner. On the way, every single town is worth stopping by.
It is imperative to feel safe and comfortable while driving, so we hired a tourist Volvo bus in accordance with our budget from Firenze (Florence city, capital of Tuscany) early morning 7 am in the summer month of June two years ago.
The lush green countryside and rolling hills were a sight to behold, needless to say, the Tuscan sun beaming on our faces and the breeze seething through our hair. Many stupendous little villages also dotted the region.
The itinerary detailed here are the places I had visited, encompassing every beautiful village and hilltop Tuscany had to offer. Buon Viaggio!
We had started our journey from the gorgeous city of Florence, known for its art and culture. After driving around for a little over two hours, our first stop was Montalcino, a beautiful historical town perched on a hilltop in Tuscany. If you love wine, this is a special place to be as wine knowledge, passion, and quality are exceptional. Even if you don’t drink, the sheer pride and interest in wine-making will make you love this town. Though you reach this town by car/bus, you discover this place on foot.
Known for the production of delicious wine, the famous Rosso and Brunelleschi di Montalcino, there were stunning views over the surrounding countryside and wonderful food and wine to give the perfect company.
On our way to Pienza countryside, we stopped at San Quirico d’Orcia to take pictures of the beautiful, scenic countryside. Pienza is Tuscany’s ‘Ideal Town’ perched atop a beautiful hill in scenic Val d’ Orcia, with incredible history.
Here the architecture blended beautifully into the landscape, and there were pretty alleys and excellent food too. Though we met with occasional rains here, we could completely immerse ourselves in this remarkable town.
It is another stunning Tuscan town famous for its views and wine. The famous wine produced here is Vino nobili di Montepulciano, and the town also houses a historical town centre with pleasant streets, beautiful piazzas, churches and breathtaking viewing terraces over the countryside. The street was long, meandering and delightful; dotted with cafes, restaurants, shops, local souvenirs, local textile and kitchenware. Excellent wine and olive oil are also produced here.
We continued with our Tuscan countryside trip on the second day from Florence.
After driving for an hour and 10 minutes, we reached Siena at 10 in the morning. It is a city famous for its Palio (horse race) that takes place twice a year and its characteristic narrow streets flanked by brick buildings. The traditional Sienese dishes include Crostini neri, toasted bread with liver; Pappardelle con leprechaun, ribbon shaped pasta with a sauce made with hare; Pici, long thick spaghetti with a rich sauce and ribolita.
The world’s best gelato and ice cream are served at Gelateria Dondoli, an award-winning gelateria in San Gimignano. That is the reason we stopped here. There were countless astounding and delicious gelatos here, and a long queue waited outside to get their delicious pick. We had to wait for an hour, but it was worth the wait. San Gimignano and its surroundings are well worth visiting to enjoy historical monuments and taste great wines. There are a dozen tower houses, which form a beautiful skyline with its hilltop setting and encircling walls.
Our last destination was the city of Pisa, best known for its iconic Leaning Tower, a World Heritage Site. It was a crowded place full of tourists. I could see many Indians also here. It took almost two centuries to complete the Leaning Tower. The tilting towards the north started with the completion of the second floor because of the bad soil underneath it. Pisa is a Greek word meaning “marshy sands”. The terrain in this area is mainly made of clay, and for this reason, it is not strong enough to sustain such a tall construction. The Bell Tower of Romanesque rises next to it in the Piazza dei Miracoli.
That was the end of our Tuscany countryside trip covered in two days. By the end of it, I was exhausted. Black poplar trees were found in the countryside on our way back to Florence. The peculiarity of these trees is that oyster mushrooms grow here, pushing through the bark of trees after a cold rain. Finally, we were back in Florence. This road trip was not so much about the destination, but it was about the journey in between.
All I can say is breathe deep, take your time and soak in the beauty of Tuscany!
(All pics courtesy Upasna Prasad)
Pompeii is a city in Southern Italy’s Napoli region where history has its testimonials preserved till today. Two years back, while in Rome with my family, we went for a short and sweet day trip to Pompeii.
The easiest way to get to Pompeii from Rome is by train, which is only about an hour and a half each way. From Rome’s Termini Station, we took the high-speed train to Naples’ Napoli Centrale Station. I must add here that it is always better to purchase tickets in advance. From Naples, we hired a taxi to take us to Pompeii en route to Sorrento.
The sleeping Mount Vesuvius overlooks this ancient city. The entire city was destroyed by the deadly volcanic explosions of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Nearly 1000 years later, in the 18th century, this city was discovered by archaeologists.
It is a city frozen in time as it was entirely buried under 12 metres of ash and lava, preserving it for centuries to come. The weather being hot and sultry, as we walked down the cobbled streets and lanes, we got the impression that everyone had been doing their chores, having the slightest idea that their last acts would provide a window to ancient life for the later generations.
Everything has been protected from the normal decay of time, including Pompeii’s paintings, furniture and tools of everyday life. The most significant discovery is human plaster casts – the ghostly impressions in the ash left by the city residents who were buried alive. It was an eerie experience to come across the plaster casts of human bodies, animals and plants. A large of Pompeii still remains unexcavated, and work is going on to dig out the remains.
Pompeii has two theatres – the Teatro Grande, the larger of the two can seat 5000 spectators. It is still used for summer performances.
We spent around three hours in this creepy yet fascinating city before heading back to Rome. Though the sight of the people frozen in their final moments trembled me, but it is a must-visit for history buffs.
(All the pictures in the slideshow are by Upasna Prasad)
It was London calling, and I was there too with my family in tow in the summer of 2018. One bright sunny morning, five of us decided to take a full-day tour of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, (commonly known as Kew Gardens). Located in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames in southwest London, it borders the river Thames between Richmond in the south, with Brentford to the north. This UNESCO World Heritage site officially opened to the public in 1840.
For the best experience, one would want to visit on a day when it is not raining. Whatever be the season, there is always something special to see at the Royal Botanic Gardens, with surprises at every turn. We were lucky as there was plenty of sunshine, making our day most enjoyable. Plants being voiceless, we had plenty of time to soak it all in.
We arrived there at around 11 am and the Gardens closed by 5 pm, so we couldn’t manage to see everything, but we did stop at various picturesque spots to take pictures; this being the largest and most diverse garden in the world!
We boarded the land train that provides a hop-on, hop-off service with seven stops around the gardens. The ride helped us maximise our sightseeing as much as possible, as we were not keen on the full trek on foot. We were blown away by the breathtaking view of nature, and the hours spent at the Kew Gardens slipped by too soon.
We revelled in the fresh air and open space. It was overwhelmingly peaceful for all of us. Our first stop was the iconic Victorian Palm House with a rainforest environment. The plants were dedicated to the world’s tropical regions. The Victorian Glasshouse is impressive; we ascended a rustic spiral staircase to view everything from above.
We were in for a surprise as we continued walking to the Temperate House. There were vast variations of plants from all around the globe that needed 10 degrees Celsius or above to survive.
Outside the Palm House were beautifully manicured roses. We could inhale the scent of scores of roses in this stunning Rose Garden. The scent lingered along the mowed walkways between the beds.
We also experienced the lustrous beauty of a perfectly trimmed Grass Garden with feathery seed heads catching the light of the low sun with leaves turning shades of yellow and bronze.
It was a good day outing, amongst nature and away from the grime of the city. We purchased tickets at the Victoria Gate and hired a Kew Explorer Tour, which gave us a better understanding of the gardens.
A lot of it remained unexplored, and we wish to visit Kew Gardens once more to cover the rest of the green and serene spot in London. If in London, do plan a trip to Kew.
(All photos of the slideshow by Upasna Prasad)
Hands that rock the loom also hold the flame of hope burning bright for the handloom sector. Coupled with interventions by government and entities working in this field, artisans both young and old, can go a long way in making my handloom, my pride.
In the summer of 2017, while holidaying in Seville, Spain, my family of three decided to venture out on a full-day trip to Gibraltar. It was an impromptu plan. We hired a tourist minibus that took five hours to reach the southernmost tip of Spain overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
For those unfamiliar, Gibraltar is a British territory at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula in Southern Europe. It has been under the sovereignty of the British kingdom since 1704 but has since then been claimed by Spain. Geographically, it is located in the ‘Strait of Gibraltar’ with the narrowest point between Europe and Africa.
The Schengen visa law is not applicable to enter this small city of 34,000 people living on a 6.5 km square area. We had to take a UK visa to grant us entry into the city.
Upon arrival, our bus stopped half a kilometre away from the Rock of Gibraltar, and we had to walk towards the Rock and enter the city. It is undoubtedly the most distinguished landmark, and we entered the Rock to see the stalactites and stalagmites.
We were welcomed by an old European tourist guide, who had served in the army previously. And like the Rock, he was a strong and sturdy older man who showed around the place and doubled up as our chauffeur, driving the huge Volvo bus that carried other tourists and us for a fun roller coaster ride around the city. Gibraltar is hilly with steep, sharp slopes. There were some dangerous, meandering curves around the city, and every time our bus took a sharp turn, my heart sank into my boots.
Luckily the sky was clear, so we could easily see African Morocco overlooking the sea on the other side of the Rock. Tourism is the primary industry here, and a year-round warm climate is an added charm for the tourists who flock in hordes. I lost count of several caves and tunnels that we traversed during our trip to the city.
After a brief tour of the lighthouse of Gibraltar at the Europa point and the rocks of Gibraltar with its world-famous Gibraltar macaques, we decided to halt for sumptuous lunch at the city centre.
An interesting feature was the runway of the Gibraltar airport near the Rock. Ahead of the runway lay a typical street. We waited at the barrier for the incoming and outgoing aircraft. It was unique and exciting to look at this feature.
I must admit that we were scared of the Gibraltar macaques (monkeys); they were omnipresent. A barrel dotted the entrance of the Rock, and we somehow made our way inside.
Gibraltar is full of them, and it is illegal to drive them away. The guide told us that every Gibraltar macaque had a unique code in Gibraltar and the city authorities knew the exact count of macaques present in the city.
After spending around five hours in this beautiful city, we made our way back to Seville, Spain, with wonderful memories of the Rock, its pleasant weather and meeting and greeting the many macaques dotting the picturesque landscape.