Where to stay

Apartments or hotels?
Before I write about some of my favorite hotels, (and this will be updated as I try new places) I want to comment on the growing trend to stay in apartments typically through VRBO or Air BnB. During our 2015 trip in France and Italy we met several people who were staying in apartments and they were all enthusiastic about the experience. So when I learned that my niece would be with us for our first week this past September (2016) I looked into an apartment in Florence for our first three nights. We prefer staying in the Oltrarno since it’s a bit less crazy than the centro plus you’re close to the Boboli and Bardini gardens and other sights. So I found through VRBO what I thought was a nice two bedroom apartment in the Oltrarno, close to all the sights and restaurants.

However, when I found that my niece had changed our airline reservations so that we got to Florence at 11:00 am I contacted the owner to see if he could meet us at noon. He said 3:00pm was the earliest we could check in so I decided to cancel and find another apartment through Air BnB. (As an aside it was a total cluster trying to get VRBO customer service to cancel and refund our money.)

The second time around I asked each owner if s/he would allow us to check in by noon, pretty much getting a resounding no. Then I came across what looked to be a spectacularly beautiful ‘penthouse’ apartment on Piazza Santo Spirito supposedly with a 360 degree view. I contacted the owner and he agreed in an e-mail (luckily) that he would let us in by 12:30pm. Then three days before we were to leave, he reneged saying he couldn’t let us in until 3:00pm. I went ballistic pointing out that he had promised to let us in early and that this would ruin our plans to walk to Piazzale Michelangelo after checking in. When I could finally find a customer service number for Air BnB, they were very helpful, and were able to access the e-mails proving the owner had promised an early check in. They contacted him and he said his employee could let us in at 1:00pm.

We arrived a little early and sat at a little café next to the apartment building having a coffee. When 1:00pm came and went, I contacted Air BnB. Shortly afterwards, the door to the building opened and the employee said ‘5 more minutes’ which turned into 15.

And then the fun began. I’d been so taken with the apartment and the ‘360 view’ that I didn’t see that it was an 8 flight walk up on uneven stone steps. Needless to say my sister and niece were not happy although I think the constant up and down helped me lose a couple of pounds on that trip. Plus we found that the furnishings were worn and none to clean, especially the kitchen which was poorly equipped and had almost nothing in the way of cleaning supplies. The final kicker was that Piazza Santo Spirito was never quiet. Our first night, a Saturday, the partyers were going strong at 2:00 am and the following night there was a huge religious rally in the piazza until very late.

On the plus side we loved being able to come back after a jaunt and have a snack or a nap and just being able to keep bottled water in the fridge was a great convenience. My niece, who generally hates continental breakfasts at the hotels, loved being able to have fresh coffee (even with paper towel filters) and fresh fruit and yoghurt plus meats and cheeses for snacks. Our absolute favorite part of the apartment was being able to sit out on the balcony in the evenings and have a glass of wine and yak and listen to the party in the piazza.

 

Florence skyline from Santo Spirito apartment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hotels in Italy

Turning to hotels, I’ll talk about some of my favorites in Italy then add two that we liked in France and eventually a few that were disappointing.
Hotel Belvedere di San Leonino
I ‘discovered’ Hotel Belvedere when I was planning our 2010 trip. My sis wanted to visit some of the places I’d been on my bike trips so I looked at the Backroads web site and I found that they used this hotel on their Chianti trip. Further research on the hotel’s web site showed a lovely hotel.
Here’s my first impression from my 2010 journal along with pictures from that trip:
We tried to follow Roberto’s directions to get to the S222 but got way off course. It was nothing short of a miracle that we finally saw a sign to Castellina and got on the right road, eventually finding Hotel Belvedere.
And mama mia this place is gorgeous; beautiful grounds, pool, and lovely room. We rested, showered, came into the bar, where we’re at now and had a glass of wine.

I’ll also add in here my first impression of dining at Belvedere. If you’re lucky enough to stay there when they’re serving outside do not miss it!!
Our dinner last night was al fresco and it was fabulous. We were given a glass of champagne to start, (make that prosecco) then we had carpaccio, spaghetti with ragu, strawberry tiramisu and chocolate flan. I ended the feast with a Sambuca bringing back fun memories of my first bike trip in this same area.
We laughed the whole time about a woman apparently there with her parents who talked for 2 straight hours, possibly in Hebrew. Not sure if it was Sue’s first experience with the leisurely meals in Europe (she has been to England and Ireland) but she seemed to love it as much as I do, especially the people watching.

Something that stayed with me from the meal described above was when the ‘manager’ walked through the seating area and saw that I was finished. Instead of getting up in my face like most serving staff in U.S. restaurants and asking if everything was OK, she just snapped her fingers and my plate was whisked away.

 

 

On a post trip note, when we stayed here in 2010, if you ate all your meals at the hotel, you could sign up for the evening meal and decide whether you wanted all the courses or just appetizer, main course and dessert which we chose. I haven’t seen that option on our last two visits and it seems like their menu is now heavily tipped towards meat dishes.

We came back twice in 2014, first with my niece and her friends and about a week later with my daughter.
Again here is my journal entry of our first night there which now make me flinch but I  want to be honest plus it leads into my comments about the staff.

Last night turned into a drunken brawl. Not only have the headache from hell, we embarrassed ourselves and offended the wait staff.  It started w/ 3 bottles of wine before dinner, then rolled downhill after that, especially after an Australian couple joined us. The food wasn’t as good as it was 4 years ago which didn’t help. The ‘group’ finally took it outside, getting louder and drunker despite R and I trying to shush them.

As you can see from these pictures we were feeling no pain and we definitely enjoyed the patio.

A fun and liquid dinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite our poor behavior that night overall the staff remained pleasant and helpful, and said nothing other than leaving a note on Rachelle’s bed which kind of annoyed her since she and I were trying to quiet the group. The staff helped us with reservations at Osteria di Fonterutoli plus gave us detailed directions on how to get into Siena to meet the guide they recommended. And our guide was phenomenal. We had a 4 hour private tour of Siena, where I learned more than my three previous times combined.

When we returned with my daughter, we had a very enjoyable time at Belvedere. It was the end of October but we had two spectacularly beautiful days and were able to take walks in the vineyards surrounding the hotel.


We had drinks and dinner at the hotel our first night and here’s what I wrote then:
Anyway our pre-dinner time was very enjoyable as we sat in the bar having wine and chatting about everything. Dinner was surprisingly good. L had ribollita and steak; I had tortolloni and insalata mista and Sue had tortolloni. As usual, despite our vows otherwise, we finished with crème brulee and then had a smoke on the patio, finishing our wine in the bar.

But what was  most memorable about that trip, was our last morning. We were leaving for Ladispoli and I was pretty nervous about getting there then getting my daughter to the Rome ariport the next morning and then back to Florence.

It was another gorgeous Tuscany day, bright sun and sparkling blue skies, and we were standing near the front patio reluctant to leave, when one of the staff came up to us and gestured to the west saying, ‘Our gift to you.’ In the distance we could see San Gimignano and I later wrote in a review that Belevedere represented everything I loved about Tuscany.

On our most recent trip, September 2016, we came to Belvedere after 3 nights in Florence which my niece had not enjoyed because it had been hotter than expected. This time there were a couple of negatives, mainly the room which my sis and I shared which was very small and faced the road giving us a night time of barking dogs and traffic noise. Also for the first time I had a less than pleasant encounter with one of the front desk staff, over my asking to borrow a pen.

But we did enjoy the fact that we had a small seating area outside our rooms and we had pre dinner drinks here our first two nights and a light supper we’d bought in Castellina our last night.

The absolute best part was that the hotel restaurant served dinner outside our second night and even though we’d had a huge lunch and winetasting, we had a fabulous time as I wrote in my journal:

We got to eat outside, perhaps the last of the season. Sue and I had insalata mista and an incredibly decadent chocolate soufflé. We also shared a large antipasto of meats and cheeses. We all limited ourselves to 1 glass of Chianti and the pre-dinner prosecco. But the odd little maître d’ brought us an after dinner drink—a sparkling dessert wine.

Al Fresco dining at Belvedere

My sis took a beautiful picture that night which you can see below:

Full moon at Hotel Belvedere

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve always booked on their website http://www.hotelsanleonino.com/ and have found their staff to be very helpful and responsive with bookings.

Villa Cheli

After talking my sister into going to Luca after our visit to the Cote d’Azur, I started my usual research on the usual sites. I’m not actually sure how I found Villa Cheli but I’m definitely glad I did. I chose this hotel in part because we planned to have a rental car in order to see both Lucca and Pisa which looked to be easily accessible from the hotel. (It turned out to be way more complicated getting in and out of Lucca and parking outside the walls than I thought it would be even after I researched the driving instructions but part of that was having the misfortune to go to Lucca on the last day of a huge local festival.)

While the hotel is closer to a main road than it appears to be from the online pictures, the grounds and pool are lovely and our room was spacious and nicely furnished. We ate at the onsite restaurant every night but one.  It is not only convenient but has good food at reasonable prices. The bar offers a wide range of wines and other beverages and we enjoyed sitting on the patio at the end of the day, having a glass of wine.

In 2015 my only complaint was that there were no screens on the windows and for the first time in my 7 visits to Italy there were swarms of mosquitoes. We had to leave the windows open at night to keep the room cool and I had huge welts on my arms and hands by the end of our 4 night stay.

In 2016 I talked my sister into returning to this area and Villa Cheli after our walking tour that ended in Rome. Our tour group stayed in less than great hotels and with one exception, the restaurants they used were mediocre at best.

So when we returned to Villa Cheli after a long day of train travel and then picking up a rental car, we thought we’d died and gone to heaven (a recurring theme in this blog) when we saw the hotel rising above its beautifully landscaped grounds with flowering shrubs, olive trees and palm trees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our room which looked out on the pool area seemed especially nice after the dark cramped hotel in Rome.

Both rooms we’ve stayed in were charmingly furnished with an armoire, table and desk, painted white with floral decorations which seems to add to the peaceful feel. There’s also a small fridge which is handy for snacks, water and the wine we always seem to be carrying.

We barely dropped out suitcases in the room before buying a bottle of wine and sitting outside on their patio for 2 hours. I think we had even better food in their restaurant this trip and their wait staff was exceptionally nice, even giving us a free wine and a lemoncello our last evening.

A rainy night at Villa Cheli

Our heaven was almost ruined though when a large bus of 40+ French tourists pulled up. When we got to talking with them, they were interesting and fun but they had a tendency to sit by the pool talking until late then get up very early. I would definitely come back but if you have a low tolerance for noise I’d advise checking with the hotel before booking.
I also wrote in a review: And a note to the people doing the wild thing. Really?! This is not Tom Bodette’s house.

http://www.villacheli.it/en/

 

 

Villa Betania
In 2014 I came up with a crazy brainstorm that we should drive from Florence to Milan at the end of our trip so we could stay near the airport before flying out and not have to deal with train schedules. That idea was a disaster that I’ll discuss in another blog on driving and renting cars. But as part of that idea I came across Villa Betania which looked like the perfect place– about a mile and half out of the centro, free parking and what looked to be a delightful site.

And it did turn out to be a real find–beautiful grounds and garden (and the picture of me I used for my ‘Why another travel blog?’ article was taken in that garden.) Plus it’s in a lovely residential area and sitting in the garden having a glass of wine became our favorite end to a day of dealing with the crowds and heat of the centro.

Which brings to me to one of my favorite aspects of Villa Betania, their staff. My sis and I chose to stay here for 5 nights at the end of our 2015 trip and with one exception the staff went out of their way to be helpful. We were not only exhausted but furious when we arrived on a Thursday afternoon, having driven from Lucca to the Florence airport, where Hertz jacked us around and tripled the cost of our rental (more on that later) then the cab driver took my sister’s money and shorted her 20 €s.

The garden at Villa Betania

I believe it was the manager who showed us to our cool and airy room (which is somewhat surprisingly furnished in a rather Swedish modern style) and when we asked about opening our bottle of Buonamico sparkling rose,  sent one of the staff members out to the garden with a tray of glasses, snacks and a wine opener. Later (after I’d taken my sister through a frolic and detour the back way to Ft. Belvedere and beyond) we asked about where we could eat and they ordered out for us and we sat in the garden having salads and wine.  We couldn’t stop smiling and laughing.

And that became our go to place after hitting the museums–sometimes for beer and lunch, sometimes for a glass of wine.

 

Unfortunately 2015 was the year of the mosquito and we sometimes had to head into the bar. While it’s small, it’s very pleasant and again the staff is quick to bring a glass or bottle of wine. We had one blip with the only female concierge. We had ditched our plans to go to Quattro Leoni for dinner our last night and asked about restaurants in the area. She told us there were some along via Senese a street that sort of runs parallel to via Poggio. Here’s what I wrote in my journal on that adventure:
On the advice of the concierge we walked up the street parallel to via Poggio to check out a restaurant. I thought we would come to the street that crosses via Poggio but it didn’t look like we were going to get there so I took a chance and tried a street that miraculously came out at the corner by Villa Betania. Sue said I got the Daniel Boone award for finding the hotel. [Post trip comment:  We never found the restaurant ergo dining in at Villa Betania.]

We decided to clean up and have wine in the garden and then ordered in food, sitting in the bar, giggling over nothing until fairly late.

The gardens of Villa Betania

And as an aside no matter how late we stayed in the bar the concierge never seemed to get irritated with us and when I say giggling over nothing, I’m sure the concierge was ready to shoot himself after 2 hours of that.

My final comment is that you do have to be prepared for some serious walking. Although you can reach Ft. Belvedere and the street to Piazzale Michelangelo fairly easily going the back way from Betania, there’s no way to get back except by what seems like a long walk uphill. That said my sister and I did it one night after dinner in the Oltrarno, when it was fairly late and had no problems. Plus there is a bus to the centro that picks up across the street. Unfortunately it has changed its route so it’s not quite as convenient but it is doable.

https://villabetania.it/en/

Hotel Silla
In 2014 I came to Florence a few days ahead of my sister, niece and her friends in order to have a little downtime. I spent the first two nights at a strange B&B (Monte Oliveto) at the edge of the Oltrarno, then moved to Hotel Silla the night before the gang was arriving. I had chosen Hotel Silla because of their location, next to the Arno on the edge of the Oltrarno and because they had access to the garage. After meeting the gang at the airport, we were picking up a car and I thought I’d be able to drive us here without too much trouble. Wrong!!
I couldn’t wait to get out of the weird B&B and after arriving at Hotel Silla, this is what I wrote in my journal:

Feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. On the terrace @ Hotel Silla, having a beer and a water and peanuts and for the first time feel that maybe, maybe I made the right decision in coming. And Silla seems to be a good choice. My room was ready when I got here @ noon and it’s clean and pleasant. Both the clerk who checked me in and the one who got me my beer were pleasant and helpful, the latter making reservations for us at Quattro Leoni tomorrow night.

After the crazy drive from the airport to Silla I wrote: ‘After getting settled we sat on the terrace for an hour, then walked up to the Pitti Palace where I showed Rachelle the little lithographer’s shop which she loved. Then it was back here, shower, change and go to Quattro Leoni.’ (more on it in the restaurant section.)

View from the terrace at Hotel Silla

 

Enjoying the terrace at Hotel Silla

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My niece and her friends stayed here their last night in Florence and yet again we had a crazy drive from Montalcino to Florence to Silla and the airport (and again more on driving in another blog.)

I booked my sister and me in to Silla our last night in Italy, September 2016 again because of location. I knew we’d be tired coming in from Luca and Pisa and would only have about a half day to wander Florence one more time. And I think Silla is the perfect location for that; you just walk out the door cross the bridge and you’re almost at Santa Croce, which is exactly what we did, making a loop through the city and returning to the hotel. We, of course, had a wine on their beautiful terrace before and after dinner.

The terrace at Hotel Silla

As I said in a review, it still has the best location, terrace, and staff of any hotel we’ve stayed in. It just needs some updating.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

www.hotelsilla.it/

Palazzina Cesira, Montalcino, Tuscany

When my sis asked me to take her to the places I’d biked in Italy, I started looking into staying in Montalcino first (although in retrospect it would have been simpler to reverse our itinerary and start in Florence).  When our bike group stayed in Montalcino we stayed at Hotel dei Capitani on the edge of the centro.  But I found the following web site http://www.montalcinoitaly.com/ which I learned later was created by Roberto, who with his wife is the owner and host of Palazzina Cesira a 13th century building that has been restored as a B&B.  If I understood Roberto correctly the building was originally a home owned by his family which he inherited.  I thought it looked lovely and booked us for three nights. (And strangely enough some of our pictures over our two visits are almost identical to what you see online.)

 

As I’ve written in my blog on Montalcino, it would be difficult to find a better host than Roberto.  He not only waited up for us that first night when we arrived at 10:00pm after traveling for nearly 36 hours, he, as he does with all his guests, asked us what we wanted him to prepare for breakfast, then told us to sleep in since the fresh bread didn’t arrive at the baker until at least 8:30am.

Palazzina Cesira

If you have heavy suitcases, you may not like the steep stairs to the rooms.  We managed OK but it was a bit of a struggle.  Our room that first stay had a window on the street but was still quiet and seemed light and airy.

The next morning, we had fresh coffee, freshly squeezed juice from blood oranges, made to order omelettes plus several side dishes.  We chatted with Roberto and spent probably close to 2 hours talking about where we lived and where we wanted to visit in the area.  Roberto gave us a map and itinerary which was pretty much what we had already decided we wanted to see.

Breakfast at Palazzina Cesira

 

 

 

 

 

He also recommended Enoteca di Piazza which we loved and from which we had a case of wine shipped to the U.S.  He also recommended il Grappolo Blu where I’d eaten with some other bikers on my earlier trip. (The enoteca is diagonally across from the B&B shown on the left.)

We enjoyed our stay so much, my sis and I booked another 3 nights in October 2014 when my niece and her friends asked to see Montalcino.  They could only stay one night, then my daughter arrived and stayed the last 2 nights, going to all our favorite places–Pienza, Sant’Antimo and Banfi Winery.  She was amazed when Roberto and his wife not only let her sleep late but made her an egg white omelette.

The garden Palazzina Cesira 2014

We had a room for three that time that overlooked a garden.  The furnishings were a bit dark for my taste but the room itself was spacious.

Our room Palazzina Cesira

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

France

Hotel L’Atelier, Villeneuve les Avignon

I came across this hotel on one of the booking sites while researching a trip to Provence and once I found their web site, I thought I had discovered a hidden gem.  I was mainly looking for a hotel outside the city since my sister and I planned to have a rental car but this promised to be a lovely oasis.

Unfortunately the pictures of beautiful rooms and grounds are somewhat deceptive.  Yes, the deluxe rooms have lovely patios and there is a very nice terrace for other guests but when I finally found the hotel after an hour of driving around and around Villeneuve, I was not pleased that our room was a tiny space at the top of three flights of narrow stone steps, that it did not have an actual bathroom, just a shower stall in one corner and a toilet stall in the other and that you have to know to ask in advance to reserve a parking space, something no one at the hotel told me even though I wrote to say we were renting a car at the Avignon train station.  Having been traveling for more than 30 hours, I was exhausted and cranky and pretty much lost it (for which I apologized the next day) when I saw the reality and found I had to park several blocks away.

Despite these disappointments, there are a number of positives that should be mentioned; a generous breakfast, the ambience of Villeneuve les Avignon which is a lovely village with fairly easy access to other towns and sights (leaving aside the nerve wracking challenge of getting through Avignon) and generally helpful concierges.

What I will take away from this experience is to look at other booking sites for more information and make sure that what I see online is what I’m booking.

http://www.hoteldelatelier.com/en/

Hotel du Soleil

I’m not sure how I found this a charming B&B in a lovely residential area of St. Raphael; my usual web research I suppose.   While it can be challenging getting through St. Raphael, the owners and hosts gave us very clear directions from Frejus plus there is plenty of parking and unlike many hotels you do not pay extra or need to ‘reserve’ the parking.

It is a 15-20 minute walk to the marina (where we ate every night) and to the town center; the walk is pleasant and gave us an opportunity to see many beautiful villas.

The owners are extremely helpful in terms of providing directions and ideas for trips in the area and I loved having my own little pot of hot coffee and milk in the mornings.

Our room was small but we had a delightful balcony plus were able to sit in the patio area in the evenings after dinner and have that last glass of wine.

My only minor complaint was that the sound proofing is not great and you can hear everything and I mean everything as other guests return at night.

http://hotel-dusoleil.com/

 

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