Pisa, Florence, Parma and Lake Como
With an early start on Friday we flew to Pisa and started our tour of stunning villas, gardens, Leaning Tower and ate some of the best Italian pasta to date!
Pisa is an interesting place for a quick stop en route to Florence but I learnt one thing about the place that is important for clients if you are going to stop. It is hugely worthwhile to have a guide booked in advance meet you there for an hour to give some sense of history to the place. The tower is just one part of the square, which also has a church, old hospital and graveyard. Our guide told us the American clients have a lovely phrase: hatch, match, patch and dispatch! It is all in one place and easy to stroll around. You will have to excuse the stalls selling miniature versions on the right of the path but I was surprised how beautiful the place was and the tower has recently been cleaned so looks wonderful.
From Pisa we drove straight into Florence. I have stayed here before but again our tour guide brought the place to life. We visited the Uffizi gallery with a timed entrance and strolled past everyone who had not pre-booked tickets and had waited over an hour. It is easy to pre-book a ticket and I will always do this for my clients. You could spend hours there but in just over an hour with humour and such amazing knowledge Francesca told us about the Medici family and their history with the collection and city in general including the bridge they built across the river on the Ponte Veccio to be able to move about the city without meeting the commoners. Standing in front of the birth of Venus and being told how the artist used the same faces in his other piece called Spring is something you would not necessarily be able to see alone but it really brought the art to life. The movement away from painting religious scenes to rich aristocratic private clients is also well documented.
From Florence centre we drove out for about 20 minutes to Villa la Massa. It is a stunning old Medici villa on the bank of the river overlooking rolling Tuscan Hills. The only things to drag us into this century were the two Ferraris parked in the drive. They do not fit the place as everything about it was understated. The main lounge is cozy with an open fire and comfy sofas, the bar is inviting. The barman insisted we try his latest invention he is entering into a competition. I hope he wins, it was delicious.
Dinner was relaxed and delicate in the peaceful dining room. This property is not for people who want to be seen, quite the opposite in fact. A quiet, charming property with hourly access into Florence but for those who want to come back after a day exploring to a pool, by a river with wood pigeon song rather than a city property.
The next morning with an early start we were off to Parma, home of ham and cheese. We tried both more than once! What really amazed me on this trip was how much I liked Parma. I would not have included it necessarily but seeing it in glorious sunshine and on a peaceful Saturday it is somewhere I would certainly return to. It is a place for foodies who want to explore the region and all it has to offer. The main city is gorgeous and well worth a day to explore followed by dinner at one of the lovely local places in town.
We then hit the road again for a couple of hours to Lake Como and our last stop for two nights at Villa d’Este. I have seen photos of the lakes and how stunning they are but they do not do the place justice. It is breathtaking and incredibly unspoilt. Having the lake as the centerpiece keeps everything shimmering in any light and the hotel is quite simply incredible. It is a grand palace with Ming Vases and Milano chandeliers and the most courteous staff. It has a reputation of being one of the finest hotels in the world and is easy to see why. It is not for everyone but for anyone who enjoys the refined approach it is incredible. The gardens and general feeling of the place is of peaceful elegance and dinner in the main restaurant was delicious. Gentlemen are required to wear jacket and tie. We also ate at a local restaurant about a five-minute stroll in Cernobio. It was a packed out place and we were quite clearly the only non-local guests. I would thoroughly recommend it but will also book a table for clients, as you cannot just walk in on a Saturday evening.
The next day we visited two beautiful villas on the lake, which are now owned by the Italian equivalent of the National Trust. You can transport yourself back to a time of Italian aristocracy like no other since and to be able to walk around rooms full of priceless furniture loved and used by the last owner who only passed away in 1988 was amazing. His collection of artifacts was unbelievable as he was an explorer and even conquered Mount Everest. He was also a chain smoker and enjoyed a pipe so a surprising combination!
Then it was over the lake on a small 10-minute car ferry to Bellagio. I know it is uncouth but I always think of the Vegas hotel. I can now see why they chose the name, as the place is a sparkling gem of luxury. Hugely expensive in places but then we sat down for a sandwich for 4€ which is pretty reasonable right on the lake in a busy trattoria. The village is on a hill so cobbled steps may not work for everyone but if you can leave the lake front and stroll up the hill the place is full of hidden gems and pretty shops.
There is a lovely option to see the lake from the air. A local seaplane can take you on a half an hour flight for two people for 75€ each which is great value compared to road trips.
That was our trip in a nutshell. It was my first time to the lakes but not my last. There is something so special about Italy; the food, the sunshine, the people and the incredible properties. You can stay at the palaces and luxury properties or a lovely three star boutique place and have the same experiences of the beauty of the place but if you stay at one place for a real treat it has to be Villa d’Este and enjoy a glass of Prosecco on the lake front.