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 we had met a walking tour there in 2016 (see my post on Lucca, Pisa and the Garfagnana.) 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 trips to Pisa and Vinci, and where not to stay.
Where not to stay
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 it had already filled up. 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 what is known as the 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 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 Alto. 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.
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.
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. As I wrote in a post two years ago, 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 (number 10) then follow the street to the church and torre, numbers 11 and 12.
The gallery below shows one of the 6 remaining torri, along with the streets and ring road in Alto.
After returning to Montecatini Temre, we ended up in a crowd of people @ a classic car show along viale Verdi. Again I took some pictures for the boys who are car crazy, especially about Italian cars..
Car rally in Montecatini Terme
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 )
Two years ago 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.
Here’s what I wrote this year: 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.
We ate at Il Vicolo in 2016 and liked it so much that it was on our restaurant list for 2018. This year 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.
I Porci Comodi (Pisa)
(They just have a Facebook page but here’s the TripAdvisor page https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187899-d9592233-Reviews-I_Porci_Comodi-Pisa_Province_of_Pisa_Tuscany.html )
Knowing that we would be wandering around Pisa one of the days we were staying in Montecatini, I did some research on enotecas that were open all afternoon, finding two that looked good–I Porcini and Cantina Tipi. Somehow I thought Porcini was the better one which turned out not to be the case at least from the standpoint of having a place to sit and eat.
After the botanical gardens, we walked to I Porcini which we realized too late is just a tiny street food place. We were standing outside, trying to decide what to do. Before we could move on one of the guys—who are all funny and cute—talked us into getting drinks and food and sitting in the nearby park which was not so much fun. The food was great, more than we could eat, but the flies and heat, not so much.
(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 at I Porci, 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.
In 2015, while staying near Lucca, we drove into Pisa and loved it. (See Lucca, Pisa and the Garfagnana ) We tried again in 2016 but couldn’t get near the centro due to a huge fair. So I suggested to my sister that we take the train from Montecatini which turned out to be fairly easy. But the day didn’t turn out as planned, mainly due to the unbelievable heat. Here’s my journal entry: When our train to Lucca was late, we didn’t think we’d make our connection to Pisa but we did, getting in about 11:10am. We found our way easily to the Arno, then walked through P. Cavaliere and back down the main street until we found via L’Arancia where there are two wine bars, Cantina Tipi and I Porci.
From there we walked to P. dei Miracoli which just didn’t have the same impact as last time, probably because of the heat. We bought tickets to the cathedral and baptistry. I sat in the cathedral while Sue took pictures. (And even though I have extensive galleries of the cathedral and baptistry in my Cathedrals post, I had to include more here.)
From the cathedral we went in the baptistry. While we were on the upper level, the staff closed the doors and performed what sounded like a Gregorian chant. Here’s the video my sister took during the chant. You have to turn up the volume on your device to hear it.
From Piazza dei Miracoli we walked down via Santa Maria to the Botanical Gardens. They looked gorgeous online but the heat and mosquitoes drove us out after taking a few photos. TYJ we got in free because of our age.
Our final stop was I Porci (see above) where we ate our lunch in the park.
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 could 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.