Montecatini Terme

Montecatini Terme 2016

My sister and I first visited Montecatini Terme in 2016 and I originally included that trip in my Lucca and the Garfagnana post but after visiting again in 2018 I decided to do a new post combining the 2016 and 2018 trips.  I’ve divided this post into sections for 2016 and 2018, as well as sections on activities, restaurants and hotels.

Prior to our 2016 visit, we had been in Firenze and Chianti for about a week with my niece and took the train from Firenze after my niece left for home.  It’s only about a 50 minute train trip and other than almost getting off at the wrong station (Terme, the one on the east side of town, rather than Centro) we had no problems. We arrived on a Saturday, the day before meeting a group for a Tuscany walking tour.  (You can read about the tour in my Thoughts on choosing a tour group, airline or place to stay post).

Where to Stay

Hotel Ercolini and Savi

The tour group was booked into this hotel so we added an extra night upgrading our room in the process.  Other people said their rooms were tiny and their beds were hard but we were quite comfortable.  I loved their terrace and we sat outside almost every evening (and some afternoons) having our wine. The only thing we didn’t like was the hotel restaurant (La Pecora Nera).  Tripadvisor says it’s the top restaurant in Montecatini but the staff treated us like garbage. (see more below)

near Hotel Ercolini and Savi

After settling into our room we walked up viale Verdi to the funicolare, stopping along the way to take pictures of Parco delle Terme and some of the side streets. [Montecatini Terme was added to the UNESCO Heritage Sites along with other European span towns in 2021.]

That evening we ate at La Pecora Nera (see Where Not to Eat below and my Places to Eat post) then had our after dinner drink on the terrace.  It was mid September and the weather was perfect.

Montecatini Alto

The next morning (a Sunday) we first checked out a nearby lavandaria then walked to the funicolare, arriving about 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 of the church but  ended up back where we started.  We continued on the ‘ring road’ until we reached the main piazza.  We stopped at 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 focaccini.

It was close to 2:00 pm 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.  She’s also the patron saint for fire fighters, ergo the rather odd equipment next to the church.

outside Santa Barbara

We tried a few side streets as we walked back to the funicolare, 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 in the front but I squeezed into a seat as far back as I could get.  As we dangled there loading (stuffing) people into the car, I was in full press panic mode but it was an uneventful and pretty ride down.

la funicolare

And while it was cloudy and cool in MA, it was sunny and nice in MT.

We stopped at the Mercato on the way back to the hotel (see more about the mercato below in the 2018 section) where my sister bought a jacket.

Montecatini Terme market

After our experience at La Pecora Nera, I did some research and suggested Il Gatto Bianco for Monday night dinner since we would be on our own that night.  So from the Mercato we walked to the restaurant and timed ourselves going back. We were pleased to find that it was only 12 minutes since it looked further on the map.

We met our tour group on the terrace late afternoon and I thought it was going to be a great group which turned out not to be the case (see Thoughts on choosing a tour group, airline or place to stay post).  After drinks the group had dinner in the hotel restaurant and I wrote that it tasted like leftovers from the night before.  We got to talking and laughing with another couple and finished up all the wine on the table.

The next day, a Monday, was a free day so my sister and I first did laundry. Afterwards I walked around Montecatini, from the park back through Piazza del Popolo and down Corso Roma while she looked at churches.  This is what I wrote in my journal: 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. I’m on a quiet lovely street—via Romano, I think.  There’s a beautiful building across from me in shades of gold and yellow surrounded by palm trees that reminds me of Sevilla.

along corso Roma

Before coming here I walked through Parco delle Terme looking at all the buildings.  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.  Its interior—at least what I could see—is gorgeous. 

A few minutes later I wrote, ‘Ahhh, now that I have a birra and panino, I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.

We had a fabulous dinner at Il Gatto Bianco that night and I’ve written about it below in my restaurant  section of this post and also in my  Places to Eat post.

Our final day in Montecatini Terme included a group trip to Firenze.  Having just been there the week before, I wandered the city ending up at one of my favorite enotecas while my sister joined the group for a tour of the Duomo.  We didn’t get back until close to 7:00 pm and were lucky to get into another great restaurant, il Vicolo, which our guide suggested.  I’ve written more about it below my restaurant section and also in my  Places to Eat post.

(2018) Montecatini Terme, one more time

Montecatini Terme was a last minute choice as I struggled with our 2018 itinerary.  When my sister said she wanted to see Assisi, I originally thought we could travel by train from Bologna to Arezzo, then to Perugia (with side trips to Assisi and Cortona) then Chianti and Firenze.  But Arezzo was surprisingly difficult to get to and the hotels were extremely limited.

Montecatini Terme popped into my brain because of our 2016 trip.  I had liked it and as a spa town it seemed to have frequent train service from and to the major towns in Tuscany including Bologna.

Unfortunately our return didn’t start out well since I picked a dud of a hotel, Hotel Reale, and we had some of the hottest weather I’ve ever experienced in Italy. Using parts of my journal, I’ve divided this posts into sections on places to see, places to eat, our side trip to  Vinci, and where not to stay.   We also did a day trip to Pisa which you can read about in my Pisa post.

Where not to stay

Hotel Reale

I chose this hotel over Ercolini and Savi where we stayed in 2016  partly to save a little money and partly because it looked gorgeous on line.  Here’s the review I wrote after our stay: I told myself I’d never get fooled again by a web site but once again I got sucked in by pretty pictures. What looked to be beautiful hotel with a garden and pool is a 1950’s throwback with tiny rooms, plywood furniture, no fridge and a hairdryer and phone from the Flintstones. Add a surly staff that won’t make dinner reservations and you have the stay from hell. The coups d’grace was being told that the hotel chef was excellent. Dinner [which we had one time only] was mediocre at best.

The one positive was a good location, close to the main piazza and an easy walk to the park and funicolare to Montecatini Alto.  I used the pool once after a long hot day of walking. I wrote: I just did a few laps in one of the coldest pools ever; rivaling the cruise ship.  But man it felt good and hopefully it helped my hips and ankles which are killing me. And I do have to say that the front garden and pool were pretty and made for a nice place to sit and relax especially after a hot day.

 

‘Fannying about’ in Montecatini Terme and Montacatini Alto

I met a very funny woman from the Boston area on my volunteer trip in the Puglia.  She referred to our wandering around town after teaching as ‘fannying about.’  I thought that was the perfect description for what we did during our stay in Montecatini.

Our first afternoon, after checking in to the dismal Hotel Reale, we wandered to the NY Bar  on Corso Roma, two or three blocks past  Piazza del Popolo.  I’d stopped there in 2016 and thought it was a great place for hanging out.  We had ‘una birra e un vino’ and some snacks, and relaxed while people watching.  I hooked on to their wifi and found an e-mail from Come and See Italy saying they had room for two on their Monday wine tour, something I’d tried to book before leaving on our trip but at that point it was full.  So after we finished our drinks, we walked over to their offices and made our reservation.  I later wrote that I was very thankful the tour came through or Sue would never have forgiven me for the dud of a hotel.

On our first full day in Montecatini Terme we pretty much wandered from one end of town to the other. We first walked to the train station and got our Pisa tickets.  From there we walked through the Parco delle Terme (or Parc des Thermes), which consists of several thermal spas, some functioning others not, paths and gardens.  We took some photos of the grounds and attempted a couple of Montecatini Alto on its hill above the valley.  The gallery below also includes some pictures of the buildings near Corso Roma, Piazza del Popolo and viale Verdi.

As we came out the park exit I saw a sign for Alto and once again took us on a (steep, uphill) frolic and detour before I realized we were on the road to the town itself, not the funicolare.  So we backtracked and found the funicolare just a few meters from the park entrance.

We took a couple of side trips looking for a laundromat and electronics store.  Then we went in search of a restaurant near the park and of course went two blocks the wrong direction before we turned around and found it.  We just ordered bruschetta and a caprese salad plus birra e vino.  The caprese was delicious but the bruschetta and service, not so much.  Plus we got charged 37 euros due to the coperta e pane (cover and bread) charges.  We walked up to one of the spas wanting to see a Kandinsky exhibit but it was 16 euros which we decided was a little too pricey.

 

Modern Art Gallery of Montecatini

Sunday morning about 10:30-10:45am, we walked to the Palazzo Communale and found the Modern Art Gallery which was very nice and free.  The best part, I thought, was a painting by Joan Miro and the docent’s explanation of how they received it.  I’ve scanned in parts of a brochure on the gallery and here’s a link, montecatini art gallery, along with a few pictures from the gallery.

The Mercato

Montecatini  has a fairly extensive open air mercato just off viale Verde. There’s a huge range of merchandise, both in terms of quality and type–leather, clothes, household goods, etc. Some is just Chinese junk but a number of shops have quite nice products made in Italy.  We walked through at least twice this year and I came very close to buying a lovely scarf that was made in Italy but decided I’d better save my euros.

Montecatini Alto

We spent Sunday afternoon taking the funicolare to Montecatini Alto and  ‘fannying about’ the town. We got to the funicolare about 2:05pm and they started selling tickets @ 2:20pm.  Dangling from a cable car is not one of my favorite things, but you get incredible views of the valley. Plus as you get to the station in Alto, there are lovely views out over the valley as you can see in the pictures below. We saw some people hiking up a steep path near the cable car route and I’d be willing to try it some time.

We found the main piazza (Piazza Giusti) after a couple of tries and went to the same restaurant as two years ago.  This time, though, the owner/manage was extremely unfriendly insisting he was busy and we could only have panini.  He charged us 5 euros for tiny panini and 6 euros for a tiny beer, 3+ euros for water and 2+ for espresso.  So just before we left I wrote a nasty note on the bill.  Still sitting in the piazza is  great for people watching.  We saw some exhausted cyclists coming into the piazza but nothing as interesting as the ferret on a leash that we saw two years ago.

We walked up the steep street to the church of St. Barbara. (I don’t think that’s the correct name but next to the church is a display about St. Barbara, patron saint of Montecatini Alto and firemen.) We continued around the torre (tower), then walked the ring road taking photos, finally returning to the piazza.  We then sat at another bar and had lovely spritzes for 5 euros.     We got to laughing about the owner wearing two different colored shoes.  I took pictures to try to convince my grandson that it’s the latest style.

We accidentally took the long way around to get back to the funicolare but enjoyed the walk, then caught the 5:30pm tram down.

The map below is probably too small to read but you can orient yourself by looking for Piazza Giusti  (the area ringed by numbers 6 through 9) then follow the street to the church and torre, numbers 11, 12 and 13.

The gallery below shows one of the 6 remaining torre, along with the streets and ring road in Alto.

After returning to Montecatini Terme, we ended up in a crowd of people at a classic car show along viale Verdi.  Again I took some pictures for the boys who are  car crazy, especially about Italian cars..

Vinci and Sommavilla wine tour

Come and See Tours (Highly recommended) https://www.comeandseeitaly.com/

As I wrote earlier, I tried multiple times to make an online reservation but had problems with Come and See’s payment platform.  I, then, made a reservation through Viator which they canceled the next day.  Sue and I considered renting a car for a day and driving there ourselves but the car rental would have been more than a $100.  We decided we’d stop on our way to San Leonino which wasn’t the best solution. So I was extremely happy when Come and See contacted me our first afternoon in Montecatini and we were able to walk over to their office and make a reservation.

We thought Vinci was a lovely town but as I mentioned in my journal entry, it was difficult to enjoy it due to the gale force winds.  Still we got some beautiful photos.

Here’s my journal entry: 10:40pm:  Holy [expletive] I’m drunk!!  But Sue loved, loved, loved the tour and we ended the day with a really good dinner at Il Vicolo.  We had a super nice guide and a nice group of people.  The down side was that by the time we got to Vinci, we had gale force winds which made both walking around Vinci and sitting outside for the tasting very difficult.  But we had 4 big glasses of wine; one white and three red + bruschetta, salami and cheese then vin santo and biscotti inside the winery.  Sue bought 2 bottles of wine at the vineyard.  Then we all sang Volare on the way home.   It was a great way to end our stay in Montecatini and I wrote a review highly recommending Come and See Italy.

You can read about more wineries in my Vineyards and Enotecas post.

Where to eat

Il Gatto Bianco

(They just have a Facebook page but here are the TripAdvisor reviews https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g194830-d2370902-Reviews-Il_Gatto_Bianco-Montecatini_Terme_Province_of_Pistoia_Tuscany.html )

In 2016 we stumbled on this little restaurant which is about a 15 minute walk from the centro.  We had a fabulous dinner, mainly because our waiter, Edison, was super nice despite being the only waiter on an extremely busy night.

We asked him his name as we were finishing our meal and he said ‘my mother’s sister named me so I would be a bright light; so far not so much.’  But my sister and I disagreed.  He is a very bright light.

I ordered a mixed seafood grill and my sister ordered a spaghetti carbonara.  We oohed and aaahed over the presentation of the carbonara and Edison said, “hers is better’ and it was; a beautiful plate of langostini, prawns, a fish filet and the obligatory squid. (I have to admit I’m not wildly fond of squid and was trying to hide it when Edison told me I wasn’t finished.)

Here’s what I wrote in my 2018 travel journal: Dinner was nice but damned if I didn’t almost get us lost again.  First I turned left too soon then apparently got us on the wrong street going east  (?)  TYJ I saw a sign pointing to Il Gatto so we headed that direction but it brought us out @ a totally different spot and I was completely discombobulated.  Plus, contrary to what it says on TA, it didn’t open until 7:30pm.  We walked down the street and sat on a wall while I tried to figure out how we got there.  I said the ‘A’ word and Sue didn’t disagree.

 I had gnocchi in tomato sauce and Sue had her usual carbonara.  We shared crostini and a nice bottle of white wine.  Our waiter was nice but definitely not Edison.  By the time we left there were only 7 other tables of people sitting outside and none inside.

Il Vicolo

http://www.ilvicolo.eu/

We ate at Il Vicolo in 2016 and as I recall, we each had a glass of prosecco, pasta, wine and dessert for under 30 euros.  I chose a pasta with pesto sauce that was the best I’d ever had.  We liked it so much we put it on our restaurant list for 2018.

In 2018 we went twice.  The second time was great; the first time not quite as good.  Both times I made reservations and both times I was very glad I did because it was extremely busy with only two wait staff who never stopped running.

Our first night was Sunday evening after our visit to Montecatini Alto.  When we got to Il Vicolo it was packed and we had to wait for a few to get a table.  We didn’t mind that much because we ran into a Brit couple we’d met at the train station and had fun talking with them.  When we finally got a table, we realized how hot it was on the patio since there was no air moving and people packed in very closely.  By the time we got served, it started to cool down and clear out.  We had pasta, salad, wine and crème brule’ for 31 euros; a little more than last time (2016) I think but still good value.

Our second time (the very next night) it was extremely windy and cool.  As we walked up one of the wait staff called, ‘Barbara,’ and was happy to seat us inside.  We had an excellent pizza, more wine (which we didn’t need since we’d been to a wine tasting), insalata mista,  dessert and limoncello.  It was all delicious.

Caffeʹ Biondi

(They don’t have a website but here’s the TripAdvisor page https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g194830-d8404197-Reviews-Caffe_Biondi-Montecatini_Terme_Province_of_Pistoia_Tuscany.html )

We didn’t eat at Caffeʹ Biondi but I want to give them a shout out for being very nice to us on the Saturday night we returned from Pisa.  Having eaten a huge late lunch (see my description of i Porci Comodi in my  Pisa post), we decided just to go out for drinks and dessert.  Here’s what happened: It was 8:00pm by the time we both got through the shower.  We circled the piazza a couple of times finding everything too busy or expensive.  So we came back to the bar/restaurant at the hotel around the corner from Reale.  We asked if we could have a wine and dessert and the guy said ‘of course.’  And seated us towards the back of the terrace.  About 10 minutes later another guy came out and said the table was reserved.

 Embarrassed and pissed we circled the piazza again and finally settled on Caffe’ Biondi—or more accurately they settled on us.  (As an aside the whole town was absolutely packed with what looked to be mainly locals.)  We walked in to the café thinking they had gelato but it was a case of desserts.  The woman manager signaled for a waiter and we were immediately seated outside.  The prosecchi were 6 euros each (ouch) and they tried to charge us 7 euros.  But the dessert–some type of chocolate coated flan—was phenomenal.  Plus we had a front row seat to the craziness in the piazza—hundreds of people in every possible outfit. The gallery below shows the restaurant that kicked us out along with Caffe Biondi and the craziness around us.

Where not to eat

La Pecora Nera

Since this restaurant is attached to Hotel Ercolini and Savi where my sister and I were meeting a walking tour and also was ranked #1 on Tripadvisor, we decided to try it the Saturday night before meeting our group.

Initially the front desk told us the restaurant was booked then later said there had been some cancellations.  Since it was our first time in Montecatini Terme, we decided to take one of the cancellations.

We arrived a few minutes early and were curtly informed that we did not have a reservation.  When I informed the waiter/maître d’ that I had been there when the concierge made the reservation, he hurried down to the front desk then had a whispered conversation with some other staff in the hallway, each of whom seemed to be saying, “not in my restaurant.’

We were finally seated in a room by ourselves and as one of the wait staff poured our prosecco, she whispered ‘complimentary’ as if she thought we were too gauche to know.

By then we were so uncomfortable, we ordered as little as possible to get out of there—ossobuco for me, which was OK but I’ve had better, and cheese stuffed crepes for my sister, which were very good.  We sat alone for 20-30 minutes while the staff peeked in at us every few minutes as if we were animals in the zoo.

Three Italian couples were eventually seated in the same room, one of the women carrying a dog who was treated better than we were.  Then a large Italian family came in.  After that the wait staff were in and out constantly refilling wine and water glasses at the other tables but barely looked at us.

We were finally able to get someone’s attention, and ordered an espresso for my sister and a profiteroles to share.  The waitress practically flinched and rolled her eyes.  We couldn’t get a check so we finally got up and went into the hallway and were hustled to the front desk to sign the check as though they thought we would leave without paying.

I think Montecatini Terme and Alto are  very enjoyable places to see, in and of themselves, plus it’s relatively easy to get to other cities such as Lucca and Pisa by train or car from Montecatini.  While I didn’t do a good job of picking a hotel in 2018, there’s a good selection of hotels at moderate prices and a number of good restaurants.

2021: In honor of Montecatini being added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, here’s another galler of Parco delle Terme.

 

 

 

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