beaches, Italy, restaurant reviews, road trips

Food and wine in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein… part six

Now comes the scenic part of our trip… moving from Emilia-Romagna to Florence by way of the west coast…

As we were preparing to leave La Locanda del Borgo at Torrechiara Castle, Bill asked me if I wanted to go to Florence by way of Bologna, or by way of the Italian coast. Bill knew that I had visited Viareggio in 1997, back when I was just 25 years old and had a second class one month Eurail pass. At that time, I was broke, and traveling with friends who are now married to each other, live in Northern Ireland, and have six kids! We stopped there by chance, mainly because it had a beach, and we wanted to swim.

I had been wanting to visit Viareggio again, mainly because I have such fond memories of the pension where we stayed. It was a one star place– very cheap! But you could get half board there, and the food was excellent. Plus, I remembered that they asked us what kind of wine we preferred. My friends preferred white wine, so that’s what we got. They brought out a big jug of it every time we ate, over our couple of nights there.

We didn’t have time to stay in Viareggio for more than just lunch, but I was excited to see it again. Going by way of the coast also meant that we could finally visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is only about a half an hour from Viareggio. I’ve been to Italy a bunch of times, but never managed to see that very well touristed monument before last week.

Another bonus to going by way of the coast was that it took us through some absolutely GORGEOUS terrain… much prettier than what we would have seen, and did see on the way back, going by way of Bologna. Below are some photos I managed to get on our way to the coast as we made our way to Florence. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to get a good shot of Torrechiara Castle from the drive out. The view of the castle was much better on that route, but there was never a convenient opportunity to catch a shot of it from the car, nor were there any good pull off points. Pity. But at least I got some very beautiful photos of the countryside.

As soon as we stopped in Viareggio, I noticed a small “healthy fish restaurant” called e.Dai near where we parked the car. I knew that was where we’d have lunch, after we went to the sea, so I could touch the water. It was confirmed when I saw the toilet near the door (not every place obviously had one, and we both needed one). It was still too chilly for swimming, but lots of people were walking on the beach, and there were guys there hawking their wares. One tried to sell us a beach blanket, but we were only there to look at the water for a minute. I would like to go an Italian beach and stay for a few days. But it was nice to smell the air and look at the water… I even enjoyed seeing the seagulls. I grew up near the ocean, and I have missed beaches in the time we’ve been in Germany. Below are some scenes from Viareggio. It has kind of a carnival vibe.

After our quick visit to the water, we headed to e.Dai, where we were promised “healthy fish” dishes. I don’t know about that, but it was a nice change of pace to have fish instead of Parma ham or meat from other hooved animals. I miss seafood, too. The fish place did offer something new, but it wasn’t a cheap place at all. We both had sandwiches and wine, and the bill was about the euro equivalent of $50.

After lunch, we made our way south to Pisa, where we found a very convenient pay parking lot with a sparkling clean public toilet. A kind looking lady was collecting one euro from those who needed to use the toilet. I heard one American guy grumble about the price and say he wouldn’t pay it. I was happy to pay, because I had a feeling it cost the same at Pisa; the facilities wouldn’t be nearly as clean; and there would be a line. Sure enough, I was right. So, if you ever find yourself at that parking lot in Pisa and you need the facilities, I’m telling you it’s a good deal. Go ahead and pay the euro for a glorious piss. At least it’s clean, and you don’t have to wait. The lady who collects the euros keeps it immaculately clean!

We chose not to buy a ticket to see the Tower of Pisa, the cathedral, and the baptistery up close, mainly because we were pressed for time. These photos are just of the exterior, which one can visit free of charge. We also knew that climbing the tower meant lots of heavy breathing in confined spaces while wearing masks. I would like to visit again and do a proper visit. I’d also like to see the city itself, which I know is very vibrant and interesting in its own right. Hopefully, we’ll have the opportunity. April is a nice time to visit. It’s not too hot!

After our brief visit, we got back on the road to Florence, where we would spend the next three nights, and meet our wine tour group. More on that in the next post.

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booze tourism, hotels, Italy, road trips, wine

Food and wine in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein… part three

Onward to Italy!

When I originally started planning this trip, I looked at hotels in Modena, Bologna, and Parma. I finally decided on Parma after reading a couple of blog posts written by other people and looking at the lodging available there. Originally, I chose a highly rated B&B in a suburban part of Parma, but then I read some of the reviews and changed my mind. The place was called “beautiful”, but people complained that it was in a boring suburb of Parma. I had some other doubts when I read the owner’s responses to some of the more negative comments she got.

Then I spotted what looked like a very beautiful place in Torrechiara, which is about ten miles from Parma. La Locanda del Borgo is a B&B located on the grounds of Torrechiara Castle, a manor that dates from the 15th century and sits atop a hill. For a very reasonable price, you get a tiny room with a shower and breakfast. Next door to the B&B is a restaurant, and across the cobblestoned passageway, there’s a shop where you can buy Parma ham, Parmesan cheeses, and some very delicious locally produced wines. If you want to, you can sit outside of the shop and enjoy a bottle of wine while you eat slivers of Parma ham and nuggets of Parmesan cheese. This property was significantly less expensive than the other one was, and Bill loved the idea of staying at a castle. So I booked it on Booking.com, and looked forward to our visit.

I see now, from looking at the official Web site, we were in the Bianca Room, which is a “double room” priced at 110 euros per night. I don’t know why I didn’t book a superior room, which was only 20 euros more per night. I usually splurge when I can. Maybe it was unavailable. If we ever stay at La Locanda del Borgo again, I will definitely go for the superior room, because the double room was tiny.

On the way to Italy, we stopped at one of the ubiquitous Autogrills. The one we chose was not one of the better ones, as it had an Italian fast food restaurant called Old Wild West. We should have been smarter and driven a little bit further, but we stopped there for lunch. I was reminded that not all food in Italy is delicious. But that was one of the very few places where our “green passes” were checked. On May 1, the green pass check became obsolete.

We arrived at the castle on April 24th, a Sunday. There were many people there, visiting the castle for the day, which can be toured every day except Mondays. Consequently, parking was a challenge. There are a few public lots at the bottom of the hill, but given how much luggage we had, it would not have been feasible to haul our bags up the hill. Bill actually got quite a workout when he was forced to park down there once because there simply wasn’t any parking near the castle. As it was, the day of our arrival, we had to park around the back of the castle, where lots of people’s cars lined the dirt road. On the positive side, once the castle closed, people cleared out of there and Bill was able to move the car closer.

The views at the castle are absolutely beautiful. We did try to tour the structure on our first arrival, but COVID rules were still in place, and there were too many people were already in the castle when we wanted to go. So, we decided to hit the bottle shop, instead. That turned out to be a great use of our time. The shop owner was blasting fun music from the 70s– think ABBA, the Bee Gees, and Chic. We drank two bottles of beautiful wines… I know, I know… my liver and kidneys are crying uncle just from the memory. But it really was nice wine. I wish we’d bought some to bring home with us. Below are some of the photos I took of the castle before we started drinking…

As you can see, Bill was loving the wine and freedom from work!

Breakfast at the B&B was served from 7:00am until 10:00am. On offer were cream filled cornettos (like Italian croissants), plain cornettos, Parma ham sandwiches, boiled eggs, fresh fruit, cereal, yogurt, coffee, tea, and juice. During our visit, COVID rules were still in place, so we wore masks when we were inside, except for when we were in our room.

At the bottom of the hill, there was another restaurant that wasn’t open during our visit. There was also a little plaza where there was a bar, pizzeria, and shop. Not far away was a grocery store, where Bill found us some snacks. I’d say my favorite part about our stay at the castle was the wine we drank. It was outstanding. I’m going to see if I can order some to come to our house!

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On fire for Firenze…

Bill and I left Torrechiara this morning and decided to take the scenic route to Florence. I had told him many times about visiting the beach town of Viareggio when I was in my 20s, on my way home from the Peace Corps in Armenia. The year was 1997, and I was traveling with a couple of my friends from summer camp, where we all worked during the summer of 1994. Those two friends, Dawn and Chris, are now married and have six kids. Chris is Irish, so they live in Northern Ireland. Dawn was pretty happy when I sent her a couple of pics and a shout out from Viareggio, which was one of my favorite stops on that monthlong tour.

We also visited Pisa today. That was my first time there, and all we did was check out the leaning tower. We didn’t even try to climb it, or explore the Duomo or Baptistery. However, I think I would like to go back to Pisa at some point and explore it more. I hope we’ll have a chance. Today, it was just very crowded, and I didn’t feel like dealing with the COVID crapola. One of the nicest things about that visit, besides finally seeing the famous tower, was the toilet at the parking lot. Yes, it was one euro to use it, but it was sparkling clean and there was no line. It was a euro to pee at the tower, too, and a lot of people were doing it. I’m glad we went at the parking lot.

We got to Firenze/Florence in the mid afternoon. Bill went nuts trying to figure out parking. I ended up checking in by myself, which was a real nutroll. This hotel we’re in has a very old style elevator. But, the rooms here– just seven in all– have frescoes on the ceilings.

We walked to the main plaza… I had forgotten how huge the cathedral is. I don’t know if we’ll tour it, since we did that during our visit in 2013 and I still have photos. 😉 But we do plan to visit the Uffizi tomorrow. Bill will probably go into shock. He loves Florence, and he loves looking at art. This city is huge and bustling, especially compared to where we’ve been. Lots of Americans are here, too. This big American guy sitting near us at the restaurant where we had dinner advised us three times to get the Florentine steak. it was 800 grams… I think we’re having that on Friday, and I won’t be able to get close to finishing it, anyway. I barely finished the filet mignon I had two days ago. Bill had to help.

Anyway, so far this is a wild trip, but we’re having fun. I look forward to writing the whole story when we get home next week. I have a feeling, this will be one of my more entertaining series.

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Life in an Italian castle…

We arrived in Torrechiara yesterday. Our new digs are on the grounds of the very impressive castle there. Italy is still knee deep in COVID protocols, so people are still wearing masks here, albeit in a decidedly half-assed fashion. Still, we managed to have a really fun time yesterday, after we walked around the area around the 15th century castle and headed back to our B&B, which runs a bottle shop. They also serve local gourmet delights like Parmesan cheese, salami, and prosciutto. We hung out and drank a lot of wine while people watching and listening to disco music from the 70s…

I took a few photos, but I can’t seem to upload a group of them today. So here’s a teaser…

I think we will enjoy this phase of the trip! Time to go eat breakfast and see what else there is to see in these parts.

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