In 2015 my sister and I visited this area for the first time. We had been in Provence and the Cote d’Azur and after dropping off our car in Nice (a story for another blog) we trained it to Ventimiglia and then to Genoa where we spent the night at a nice hotel across from the train station. The next morning (after a total cluster with Hertz trying to get our rental car, (again a story for another blog) I drove us in a torrential downpour through the mountain passes. We loved this area and came back in September 2016. Below are my journal and photos from the first trip.
To this I’ll add a few comments about Lucca, Bagni di Lucca and Montecarlo from our second trip, but not my entire journal which would not only make your eyes glaze over but would probably be a case of TMI since my sis and I weren’t getting along too well on that trip plus I wrote way too much about a French guy who was hitting on me.
I’ve also included Montecatini Terme and Montecatini Alto in this blog although they’re not technically in the Garfagnana; however they’re quite close to the area and seem to fit here.
September 12, 2015
A long travel day that started out kind of rough. The B&B owner told us it would be difficult getting into Nice and finding the train station and he was right. We stumbled on a gas station just as we got into town and the owner gave us directions but sent us the wrong way. We finally found the station but circled endlessly trying to find Hertz. We finally pulled into a Budget garage and a guy there said,‘top of the Ibis’ after we said we just needed directions,
And we circled again not seeing a sign for the Ibis, finally parking in a short term lot by the station which turned out to be next to the Ibis but we had to go back out and down a ramp them up 6 stories to park.
We paid for the car and went to find a taxi for the other train station. Luckily the cab driver was honest and said we could get tickets for Ventimiglia at the main station, contrary to what people said on Tripadvisor.
It was a zoo so Sue stood in line at the ticket window and I stood in line at the kiosk. She got tickets first so we were able to get on the 11:00 am train which was packed. That’s when we learned we had to walk down and up some steep stairs to get to the right track and dragging Sue’s giant suitcase up and down the stairs was a misery.
When we got into Ventimiglia, we just plopped down in a little café in the station since there was nowhere to leave our bags. Everything was pre-pay so I just got us waters and a beer for me. We wandered over to the waiting area between 2:00 and 2:30 pm to wait for our track to be announced and got to talking with a nice Australian couple who’d had an equally tough time dropping their car off in Menton (sp?) and missed their reservation.
We boarded on time, once again with help from some young guys carrying our suitcases. The train was late leaving and we were stuck in a group of 4 seats with another couple all the way to Genoa.
TYJ there was an escalator from the track down to the station but the up escalator to the outside was broken. So we drug our cases upstairs and went to the taxi stand finding that our hotel was only a block away (and TYJ again for an honest cab driver who told us.)
Anyway we were thrilled with the Hotel Continental; huge room and bathroom, an elevator and a really good restaurant next door which we hit right at 7:30 pm starving.
September 14, 2015
Villa Cheli is everything it looked to be online; absolutely gorgeous.
But getting here yesterday was hideous; 2 ½ hours driving in torrential downpours, after finding out that our car reservation was at a closed office forcing us to change it to the airport office for 80 euros more. But it was much easier to get on the A12 from there and the woman at the office loaded our bags in the pouring rain, plus the car was right in front.
I followed the hotel’s directions after getting off the A11 and ended back up on the A11. So we got off at the next exit and this time we found our way here.
As soon as we checked in we had a couple of glasses of wine, then cleaned up and rested, eating dinner in the hotel restaurant which is convenient and good.
Today as usual didn’t go as planned. Traffic in Lucca was insane because of some festival. I got us lost trying to find parking and it’s a miracle we got back to the centro storico, found parking and were able to spend 2 ½ hours walking the city–San Frediano, Piazza Anfiteatro and, my favorite, the botanical gardens.
Then we walked the wall, returned to the car and tried driving north to Bagni di Lucca. Once again I got us lost ‘cause I turned off the SS12 too soon. So I gave up and drove us back here, where we bought a bottle of wine and a bottle of water, sitting on the patio for 2 hours.
We had dinner at a little pizzeria down the road from the hotel since our restaurant was closed. We had a salad and huge calzones, wine and water and dessert for 29 euros, plus got to talking with a nice English couple who had done the same thing we did Sunday, looping through the A11 twice.
[post trip comment. The restaurant is Nonno Marianno’s and when our calzones arrived I yelled ‘OMG!” in rude American fashion; but it made the English couple start laughing and broke the ice with them.]
September 15, 2015
4:40pm: Back from Pisa and it generally went better but we’re both sweaty, gross and tired. I’m sitting outside and I think Sue is taking her shower.
It was a fairly easy trip in and we were headed the right direction when Sue said, ‘There’s parking.’ ‘Where?’ I followed her direction and soon we were in a traffic mess completely lost. Eventually I parked @ what turned out to be a supermarket. We followed the signs to the center and once we got oriented and found a parking garage, we hiked back, got the car, parked again and came in through the SE ‘porta’ walking through the San Antonio district south of the Arno, then crossed the Arno and headed to the main ‘via’ walking along the Arno.
We both thought the city was beautiful and were amazed by the tower, cattedrale, and battistero.
Sue took a zillion pictures, then decided she’d get a combined battistero/cattedrale ticket. I tried to get a free cattedrale ticket, finding that they’re timed and I couldn’t get one until 3:00 pm. (And I plan to write about the cattedrale in another post.)
While Sue went in the cathedral, I wandered around, then sat outside the baptistery, thinking I’d catch her on the way out. After awhile, I walked back toward the tower, eventually meeting Sue who hadn’t spent as much time there as I expected.
We started back, stopping @ Piazza dei Cavalieri which is lovely, then took some photos along the Arno.
As we walked back through the San Antonio district I suggested stopping at a little bar. Sue didn’t like it so I said, ‘You choose.’ The only two other bars were small and hot so we ended up at the first option. Not exactly charming but we needed to rest, drink and pee.
We got back here easily, stopping for gas. Sue had a bad moment thinking she had left her camera at the restaurant last night but found it in her suitcase.
September 16, 2015
Overall a very nice day. We made it through Lucca and up to Borgo Mozzano without too many blips. We stopped there to see the devil’s bridge which is amazing–an arched stone bridge from the middle ages.
From there we went to Bagni di Lucca, a small spa town. We parked and walked into the main piazza where we had coffee and pastries. Then I asked the café owner for directions south to Pescia and Montecarlo.
When we got on this crazy mountain road, I thought she’d sent us the wrong way but we stuck it out and finally started seeing signs for Montecarlo.
We stopped at Fattoria di Poggio just before Montecarlo ‘cause I’d read about it on Tripadvisor but it was just a huge restaurant. So we drove into Montecarlo which is a lovely town and stopped there for lunch.
After lunch we headed towards Lucca and spotted another vineyard that I’d read about online; Buonamico. It was terrific. We tasted several wines, ordered a case and bought a bottle of sparkling rose to take with us to Florence.
We sat at the pool for over an hour after we got back then cleaned up, had our usual dinner followed by wine and a smoke on the patio.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
6:20 pm: Feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. At Villa Cheli after a long day of travel that for the most part went fairly smoothly. The diciest part was making the connection to Pisa after our train got to the Firenze station. We only had 10 to 15 minutes and I was sweating bullets that we were on the wrong train. But we got to Pisa Centrale OK and found the ‘Pisa Mover’ bus to the airport. We had to wait 20 minutes @ least for the car rental shuttle but had no trouble getting our car and miraculously found the SS12 and Villa Cheli. We’ve already had 2 glasses of wine on the patio and I’m totally drunk.
September 29, 2016
5:50 pm: A very nice day that I think Sue enjoyed. I know I did. After a leisurely breakfast, we headed into Lucca and just had to do one extra loop before finding the parking lot we used last year. I took us the wrong direction initially but finally got us on track to Porta San Donato.
We strolled along the wall to Piazza San Frediano (seeing a little trattoria that we came back to for lunch).
Sue took some photos there then we strolled through Piazza Anfiteatro stopping 1st at a tabacchi for water and smokes, then as we wandered the piazza we were taken by a little shop where an artist had some very unusual watercolors of Lucca. We each bought 1 for 5 euros (that will cost me $40 to frame.) (The artist’s name is Bianchi Giampiero.)
We decided to walk up the Torre Guinigi which gave us some beautiful views and photo ops, although it was marred by a bunch of German kids running up and down the stairs.
From there we walked to the wall and took it to Porta San Donato. I ran to the parking lot and put more $$ in the meter then we went to the little trattoria where I had a really good salad and a huge beer.
We got back to the car about 3:00 pm and I got us out of the centro Ok but almost got us on the autostrada. Yikes!! I corrected that and got us here about 3:30 pm. I put on my swimsuit and sat by the pool for an hour basking in the sun and peace. I, then, walked out front and asked Sue if she wanted to break open one of the bottles of Il Palagio pinot grigio.
We were enjoying a wine & smoke when a huge busload of French tourists arrived. They seem nice but dinner will be a cluster and they’ll probably be out by the pool til late.
Anyway we both agreed it was a great day, especially compared to the last week.
I went up to shower and then Sue and I went to Nonno Mariano’s—the little pizza place down the road. We were the only Amerikanski’s but had a wonderful meal of green salad for me (and I mean green only) capricciosa pizza (ham, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and a fried egg) a chocolate tarte and wine for 24 euros.
Post trip: The last two days were disappointing compared to 2015 since my sis and I weren’t getting along on Friday when we went back to the Devil’s Bridge (see Museums, Monuments and interesting sights) then through Bagni di Lucca and Montecarlo.
We tried to go to Pisa on Saturday and there was a huge fair or Mercato and after circling the centro for what seemed like an hour we gave up and came back to Villa Cheli, picking up some lunch on the way. We sat on the patio for awhile having wine and pizza then I spent the afternoon at the pool.
That night we tried to go back to Nonno Marianno’s but couldn’t get in so ate at the hotel. Our nice waiter gave us a complimentary glass of wine before dinner and a complimentary lemoncello afterwards which we drank on the upstairs balcony because of the rain.
So I’m just going to add some more photos and comments about Bagni di Lucca and Montecarlo and hope to get back to Pisa some day when I’m not driving.
I looked at a couple of web sites on Montecarlo but I think my sister’s pictures are better than the ones I saw on those sites. It is, as one blogger said, ‘a sleepy village.’ But it’s great for people watching as well as the views out over the valley. Our first time there in 2015 we had a good laugh at a group of German bikers who were pounding down beers then got back on their bikes.
It’s a great place to stop also if you’re checking out vineyards. My sis and I have stopped twice at Buonamico which is just up the road from Montecarlo and which I plan to add to my Vineyards article.
Montecatini Terme and Montecatini Alto
While these two towns, linked by a funiculare, are in the Valdinievole area rather than the Garfagnana area, I think they’re close enough geographically to include in this blog.
My sister and I visited these towns for the first time in September 2016. We were meeting a walking tour there and came in a day early from Florence.
We took the train which was an easy 50 minute trip and below is my (slightly edited) journal entry from our three and a half days there.
September 17, 2016
In the bar @ our hotel in Montecatini Terme having a glass of wine while Sue takes a shower. I bought tickets for the 1:30 train from Florence since I thought Sue wanted to walk to the station but we got talked into a cab by the concierge. The hour and a half wait was a drag but we had no trouble finding our train and getting seats.
I almost got us screwed up when I thought I should get us off @ Montecatini Terme station and not Centro, my original choice. But an Italian guy straightened me out. After studying a bronze map at the station, we headed out and found the hotel pretty quickly.
After unpacking a few things, we did about an hour walk up to the funiculare—our plan for tomorrow. We also looked for restaurants and a laundry.
I like Montecatini Terme; it’s quiet and pretty and the hotel is pleasant.
September 18, 2016
8:40am: @ breakfast nursing a headache with a cappuccino; the headache woke me in the night and was probably caused by the smoke we had on the patio after our bizarre dinner last night. [Post trip comment: I’ll include a review of La Pecora Nera in my restaurants blog; suffice it to say it was awful.]
8:20am: Slept better than I thought I would after vast quantities of wine last night but woke between 7:30 and 8:00am. After yesterday’s entry (most of which I’ve deleted) I went up to the room and Sue was up. So I puttered around reorganizing things ‘til close to 11:00am when we headed out. We checked out the lavondaria which we plan to use this AM and were at the funiculare by 11:30 am. A cable car arrived at the station soon after we bought our tickets. The ride up was lovely and didn’t bother my vertigo. After we reached the station we walked over to the wall and took some pictures.
We followed the wall about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way around the town then hiked up to Chiesa della Carmine where I lit a candle for the boys. [We were following a grandfather and his grandson and a little dog and took some pictures of them because they were so cute.] We walked back down a street to the right but ended up back where we started. We continued on the ‘ring road’ until we reached the main piazza. We stopped @ a couple of shops and I bought some post cards.
After a stroll around the piazza, we settled on one of the restaurants having a birra and a foccacini.
It was close to 2:00pm by then so we used the bagno, paid and walked up to another church and tower (or up a hill to the side of the church, in my case.) I found a plaque saying the patron saint of Montacatini Alto was St. Barbara which I thought was pretty cool. We tried a few side streets as we walked back to the funiculare, taking some more pictures. There was a big crowd already for the first afternoon car so we waited inside until it loaded up and left. When the next car came, Sue wanted to stand out front but I squeezed into the furthest to the back. As we dangled there loading (stuffing) people, I was in full press panic mode but it was an uneventful and pretty ride down. And while it was cloudy and cool in MA, it was sunny and nice in MT. sigh.
Sue stopped and bought a jacket in the Mercato. I was going to buy some soft pants but the owner kept trying to give me M/LG so I skipped it. From the Mercato we walked to the restaurant where we may eat tonight. Sue and I had a little spat over where it was and I won.
We timed ourselves going back and it was 12 minutes. By then it was close to 4:00 pm so Sue took her shower while I wrote post cards and sent an e-mail to Merry. I had to wait about 20 minutes for the bathroom to cool down, then showered and dressed.
[There’s a section from my journal at this point about meeting our group for the first time that I plan to include in another post about group travel.]
1:30pm: Sitting outside a little bar hoping I can get a beer and something to eat ‘cause I’m hungry, thirsty and my dogs are barking. The bartender waved me out here but so far no service.
Sue and I did the laundromat this AM which was a bit confusing but a nice lady helped us even using her discount card which saved us 2 euros. But I stupidly threw my pretty pink silky AT Loft blouse in the dryer shrinking it and turning the silky fabric into something that feels like cardboard. $22 down the drain. Sue and I took our clothes back and hung some things up. I tried using Sue’s wrinkle release (which I’m always rolling my eyes over) on the blouse but it didn’t help.
Sue left to see some churches. I dinked around then found the street into the park we passed yesterday to and from the funicolare. It’s lovely although I don’t understand why some of the buildings seem abandoned while others are being restored or are in use. I found the building we saw from the street Saturday and it seems to be a spa. It’s interior—at least what I could see—is gorgeous. So wish I had a camera.
2:00pm: And now that I have a birra and munchies, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m on a quiet lovely street—via Romano or Corso. There’s a beautiful building across from me in shades of gold and yellow surrounded by palm trees that reminds me of Sevilla.
Post trip comment: I like all the towns I’ve mentioned and especially the Garfagnana area although I find it somewhat disheartening that there are a number of paper mills in the valleys and as I looked across the valley from Montecarlo to Montecatini Terme, the development reminded me of the Colorado mountains.