When planning Florence with my mother, she booked us two tours with Walkabout Florence, one to see Tuscany and the other to visit Cinque Terre (pronounced chinca terra). I was reluctant to lose to whole days in Firenze, but now I would highly reccommend these trips out of the city if you have some extra time.
First on the 'Best of Tuscany Tour,' we explored Siena, saw the oldest bank in the world, and the Bascilica of St. Catherine. Upon seeing the black and white marble interior, I can say that I have never been so enamered of stripes as in that moment. Just as beautiful were the inlaid marble floors, creating intricate scenes in unusual colors. Our tour group also learned about the horse race famous to the city, the Palio, which pits the city sectors against each other in this religious event. A delicious farm-to-table meal followed with paired wines made on-site. The tour guide was native to Tuscany and entertained us on the bus rides with interesting bits of knowledge about the nature and people of the region. Then we went to the nearby city of San Gimignano, known for its medieval towers. Once holding over a hundred house-towers, the wealthy families protected themselves in their height. When a feuding family or enemy attacked the tower, servants would drop stones and hot oil on the assailants. Now only a handful of towers stand, but among them is a townhall covered in frescoes and an award-winning gelato shop (my raspberry and rosemary gelato was my favorite in all of Italy)! Lastly, we headed for Pisa and her Field of Miracles. Unfortunately, we were at the very end of visiting hours for the Leaning Tower, to climb it we would have needed tickets in advance. Since we didn't have enough time to really explore and most sights were closing, we opted to relax with some coffee and hot cocoa. We really liked this tour, but it is somewhat rushed. It would be worth it to spend more time in each city, or even take day trips to each. Still the sights were beautiful and the tour informative and fun.
Cinque Terre is five, brightly-colored towns perched above the Mediterranean Sea. We once again signed up with Walkaway Florence for a tour of the towns and a hike or two in between. Unfortunately, it rained all the way through our eleven hour trip. This meant that many shops were closed and sandbags piled high as the towns have a history of flooding. Still our small group visited Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. A few members of the group did take a short and very wet hike, but the tour guide changed up the plans and we spent some extra time in the villages and sightseeing. The seafood lunch in Corniglia made me a little nervous as it included sardines in lemon ceviche, a crab fritter, octopus, and cuddlefish, but it was delicious. The rest of the trip was marked by sheets of rain, soaking wet jeans, and deep puddles. It was about a three hour drive to and from Cinque Terre, and if I ever visit again I would recommend taking two or three days and staying in the area in order to truly appreciate the gorgeous seascape and tumbling villages. It was nice that we nearly had the towns to ouselves, bar a handful of locals, yet I could help wishing it was warm enough for a dip in the sea or the boat ride the tour includes during the warmer seasons. Still, we had a good time with our little tour group, running to jump on trains and exploring in the rain. Even the gray skies and the squish of my sneakers couldn't take away from the beauty of the Italian Riveria.