As the days get colder and colder down here in New Zealand and I try to wrap my head around the idea that I am wearing a parka in July, I can’t help but reminisce on last summer, sweating my way around Europe.
I’ve been meaning to put together some of my favorite photos from the Pisa region of Tuscany for approximately 9 months, but I guess it took a solid week of me waking up and being to see my breath INSIDE my house for the kick in the pants I needed to actually put it together.
And looking through all my photos, I can’t help but sigh and smile.
You see I was lucky enough to visit this part of Italy not once but twice in the past year. The second time was for work and it involved hotel inspections, not quite so fun, but still, it takes a lot of work to make Tuscany suck.
I actually stepped foot in Pisa the city back in the winter of 2007 on my very first backpacking trip around Europe. It was freezing cold, raining and I took the train from Florence to Pisa as a day trip to see the Leaning Tower, like most people.
What I found surprised me.
My first impressions of Pisa was that it SUCKED and I couldn’t leave fast enough.
First impressions last a long time, and I hadn’t felt compelled to revisit this area of Italy again until 6 years later. I’m a big believer in second chances, and first impressions at 19 aren’t *always* the best, am I right?
What I found surprised me. Not only did Pisa NOT suck, I actually really liked it. I think it had something to do with the fact that Pisa is far more than just a city with a leaning tower. It’s a whole region of Tuscany completely overlooked by tourists who head to Cortona, Florence and Montepulciano.
Tuscany is so much more than that.
If you head west towards the coast, you’ll be greeted by the sprawling Pisa region, with the same famous rolling green hills, flower fields and weird cyprus trees and restored medieval farmhouses that make Tuscany so iconic, but without the tourists!
My kind of Italy!
So come with me on a visual journey to an area of Italy most people don’t see, but remember this is our secret!
1. Wine and relaxing at Casale Podernovo
I think it’s pretty rare for a person to say their favorite part of a trip was the hotel where the slept, and that is certainly true for me, for the most part.
However, allowances must be made when you’re sleeping in a restored historic farmhouse complex complete with a winery. Yes, a winery. On the property. Dreams do come true.
For me, these kinds of properties are the reason I love Tuscany so much. And at Casale Podernovo, they get it.
Because you more or less need a car to get to these properties, it means you get the full on Italian experience that can be more difficult to find in cities.
This also means because these agriturismo estates are own there own usually on a sizeable amount of land, you get a more secluded, relaxed experience. Something I am always a fan of.
It took an hour walking around Casale Podernovo watching the sun set and drinking their wine to change my mind about Pisa – can you blame me?
I mean, just look at it!
Fresh after a few days of shooting around Tuscany, Emiliano and I were happy to finish our trip at this farmhouse in Terricciola near Pisa. While shooting for a little bit for our Tuscany video, but we made sure to take a break and really enjoy the property.
Far from the city lights, I can remember almost as if it were yesterday the bright evening skies over the estate and watching the stars come out one by one in the warm summer evening.
Of course, being a total nerd, the perfect ending to my day was getting to fall asleep underneath an exposed wooden beam ceiling.
The next day I had to myself, exploring Casale Podernovo all morning and hanging out in the sunshine.
I have no shame in that remembering that is what prompted me to finally capture those feelings into words on this post today.
Can I go back yet?
2. Exploring untouched San Miniato
Fastforward 3 months and I was fresh off my first big blogging speaker gig at TBDI in Rimini and headed back to the Pisa region to explore for a week.
I was excited to return to an area of Tuscany I was keen to get to know better.
I was also secretly stoked to be there in autumn, which is my favorite season.
Our first stop – San Miniato!
Never heard of it? Me neither.
Etruscan in original (that’s older than the Romans BTW) San Miniato is a beautiful little Tuscan town overlooked by pretty much everyone.
This is how I imagined Cortona to be like before Frances Mayes set up shop and brought half of America with her.
Arriving at sunset we were quickly shown to our rooms at the Hotel San Miniato, and I was pleased as punch to discover I was placed in the Napoleon room.
After all Napoleon was a fucking boss.
Again, few things make me happier than a hotel with a view, woodbeamed ceilings and a canopy in a historic building.
Please excuse me while I have a Josephine moment.
And if San Miniato couldn’t get any better, it’s world famous as a truffle destination. The elusive white truffles nonetheless.
Little-known fact about me, I am basically a truffle I love them so much. And not of the chocolate namesake, I’m talking the rich strong extremely pungent mushroom variety.
Given half the chance, I will always chose a dish on the menu that involves truffles.
Please take a moment to imagine my pure and unadulterated joy when we had a truffle tasting menu for dinner, and for my last course I ended up with a big bowl of handmade past covered in nothing but white truffle shavings.
The next day we spent wandering around the old part of town, taking in the sweeping views over the surrounding countryside and perusing the local market.
And if the truffles from the night before hadn’t won me over, the freshly deep fried zucchini flowers sure did.
How did I miss this being a thing and how had I gone 25 years without trying them?
San Miniato was one of my favorite surprises of the year, and I could totally imagine myself spending a week there exploring the town.
Plus truffles and fried zucchini flowers please!
I love Tuscany!
3. Scaring myself at Volterra
Even older, Volterra is a neolithic settlement in Tuscany turned stunning medieval town.
Again overlooked by many tourists who chose to head to nearby San Gimignano, Volterra was another great surprise. I spent the late afternoon wandering the dark narrow streets, popping in for a coffee here and there, and maybe a wine or two because hey, we’re in Italy, before watching the skies darken into my favorite blue hour.
Staring at the beautifully preserved medieval buildings, it doesn’t take much for you to realize this is a place that has seen a whole hell of a lot of history.
And it kills me to actually mention this, but I feel obligated to tell you that Volterra is an important place in the vampire fiction series Twilight.
The thought of Twilight makes me physically ill, and I hope none of you guys are fans, and if so, I am sorry I am not sorry to tell you to ship shape up and find some better books to read. Feel free to Tweet me for suggestions.
While the movie was shot elsewhere, in spite of it’s unfortunate relationship with the worst book series on the entire planet, Volterra is thoroughly creepy in its own right.
Home to an abandoned insane asylum that once held 6,000 patients and was shut down in the 70’s for being “too cruel.” More nightmare-induing photos here.
4. Revisiting Pisa and digging deeper
Ah and finally back to Pisa itself.
As much as I loved the rest of the region, I was nervous to head back to a place where I had such unloving memories.
Putting on my game face, I decided to keep an open mind and not dislike it out of sheer stubbornness. A problem we all have, right? Or is that just me?
Actually don’t answer that.
Of course it rained the entire day we were there.
And not just spitting rain here and there, I am talking bucketloads after bucketloads, where the streets turn into rivers and there is no hope for dry feet.
Of course in the main square in Pisa, where the famous Baptistry, Cathedral, the monumental cemetery and famous tower stand, offers no shelter whatsoever.
It was like dejavu all over again. God damnit!
However, the main difference between then and now is that I grew up and realized I am not allowed to dislike a place based on the weather, no matter how wet my feet were.
And being the total architecture and history nerd that I am, there’s no way I couldn’t love a place like Pisa.
The beauty of the main square is unparalleled in the rest of Italy, and it’s so beautiful, with the pure white marble echoing across the vivid green grass covered in Asian tourists trying to take the iconic “holding up the tower” picture.
Which of course I indulged in.
The last night we went out with a bang at the Bagni di Pisa Palace and Spa. At this point I had seen so many hotels around Tuscany for work, I was about to cry, and I would have been perfectly happy sleeping in a hostel if that meant the freedom from looking for hotel flaws and evaluating room decor.
(I feel like I should add I was not obligated to mention any of these hotels on my blog, but I picked my favorites that I couldn’t resist sharing, because look at them!! I’m not a hotel whore, I swear!)
Though of course they saved the best for last, putting us up in the magnificent Bagni di Pisa. An historic luxury spa hotel property 4 km outside Pisa, it was a total surprise. And yes, the palace in its name is a pretty accurate description.
It took a solid minutes to walk to my room.
Images courtesy of Bagni di Pisa.
Now, have you seen the Grand Budapest Hotel?
First off, if not, go see it now, it’s Wes Anderson at his finest. Anyways, I digress.
The story is centered around the Grand Budapest, one of those incredible luxurious turn of the century European hotels where people went on vacation, you know, just for the hotel.
The Bagni di Pisa felt EXACTLY the same way! The Italian version! It’s as if time has stopped somewhere around 1915 and as you walk down the corridors you’ve stepped back in time. Like I felt there should be bells rung so we could go back to our rooms and have our maids dress us for dinner, Downton Abbey style.
And like the rest of Pisa, this palace has also yet to be discovered by tourists. What a gem!
Basically they had to drag me out of the marble spa and hot pools after they closed. I am not joking.
If I had to put my finger on a reason why I came to love the Pisa region of Tuscany, it must be because while it is totally overlooked by traditional tourists, it’s filled with amazing and beautiful spots.
Gotta love a place with character and layers! After all, over the years I’ve found that some of the most worthwhile destinations are the ones you have to look past the surface to begin to love.
I could be wrong but I have a feeling Pisa won’t stay a secret for long, and if you want my advice, go there now and spend a few days in the countryside exploring.
Don’t just go to see a lame leaning tower. Pisa is so much more than that.
Have you been to Pisa? Did you see more than just the tower? Would you be interested in exploring some of these small Tuscan towns one day?