Saturday, June 6, 2015

Travel Report : An Italian Holiday (with an Intro to Istanbul)

Like most people, traveling to Europe had been a wish of mine for the longest time. Unlike most people, though, I and my travel companion don't wish to stretch ourselves thin trying to hit all the famous spots like mad in a matter of one week. Hence, we decided to take the free, easy, and slow way of traveling by not joining a group tour and taking matters into our own hands.

First up was the destination. Deciding to go to Italy - specifically Tuscany region - was easy because we wanted to go last year but didn't manage to. After countless hours of research, we chose to base ourselves in Pisa and we drew up a game plan of places and activities we wished to see / do. After dreaming of embarking on a European vacation for what felt like an eternity, things had started to shape up. There was only one and a half months to go, finally it was truly upon us! The lodging had been booked. Cooking classes, booked. Air tickets, paid. Insurance, paid. Visas, obtained. I even managed to sneak in a walking tour in Istanbul since we'd be having a 10-hr layover there on our way back. There was nothing else left to do except for waiting. And wait we did, counting the days patiently to our holiday until finally, it arrived.

We were very excited but first, we had to endure an 11-hr long flight to Istanbul and then another 2.5-hr flight to Pisa. It was definitely an experience: having a meal at 2:00am thousands of feet up in the air somewhere over Thailand, trying to sleep in a position that was neither sitting nor lying down, being awakened somewhere over India and finding yourself flying among stars, and having Mulder and Scully once again be there in one of the most important moments in my life in the form of in-flight entertainment, it was...unbelievable. (Can't say I'm a fan of the long-ass flight, though, unless I get to fly business class someday. Here's hoping!).

Italian coastline has been sighted!

Anyway, 18 hours later and finally, we've arrived in Pisa!

Pisa is so much more than just the Leaning Tower

I'm not going to bore you with a detailed chronicle of our trip so here are the highlights (warning: photo spam ahead):

Day 1
We got to our apartment rental, bought some groceries at a nearby supermarket and proceeded to sleep our way through the rest of the day because we were so exhausted!

Our home for the week
PAM supermarket near our apartment rental

Day 2
We woke up at 5:00am fresh in Italian time and started our journey early. We walked to the Leaning Tower (our rental was just nearby) and practically no one was there! It was heavenly!
Nary a tourist in sight!

Behold, the majestic Leaning Tower!

We then walked all the way to Pisa Centrale Station, having some Italian breakfast and seeing the famous Arno river banks for the first time along the way.
Arno river
Cappuccino, a pastry, and a panino

We hit up Lucca that day.


Le Sorelle, their soaps make for great souvenirs

Villa Bottini


On our way back to Pisa, we had dinner at one of the cafes on Borgo Stretto. There was a street demonstration about LGBT-related issues, I assumed by the university students when we were there. I understand it is one of the hottest current topics in Italy.

Dinner in Pisa

Day 3
We had booked a Tuscan cooking class for the afternoon. The place was in Peccioli, somewhere between Pisa and Volterra. A driver was supposed to pick us up at Pontedera train station so we decided we'd just go to Pontedera earlier and explore the area until then.

Just outside Pontedera train station

We originally wanted to see the Vespa museum but we got off at the wrong exit and consequently never found it. Pontedera is a small, sleepy, mellow Italian town and it was around lunchtime so everybody was seemingly nowhere to be found! Having been working and living in Singapore for the past 7 years, it admittedly took some getting used to but we ended up find this characteristically Italian trait charming.

We decided to go to this restaurant called La Cantinetta Vini right opposite the only big hotel (that we know of) in Pontedera, Hotel Rotunda. The owner didn't speak English and there were many Italians coming in to dine so we felt this place was legit. We proceeded to order Pappa Al Pomodoro, Ravioli (I assume with ragu), and Eggplants parmesan. They were delicious, and for the same price we paid for dinner the day before!

Lunch in Pontedera

Next we headed up to our cooking class in Peccioli. The drive along the way was amazing and the farm house where the cooking class was conducted was just charming.
Ca'Solare, where the cooking class was conducted
We met up with Arianna from Arianna and Friends who would be posing as our translator and assistant that day, Lucia who was the cook and parla solo Italiano, lol...and then we were introduced to Bill and Cherie Conway from USA who would be taking the class with us.

The next five hours proved to be one of the most fun I've ever had in my life. Bill and Cherie were just so nice and warm. We chatted up about a lot of things while making fried vegetables, risotto with Italian sausage and leek, pork with chianti (no liver or fava beans involved =p), and cherry tart, and then we got to enjoy them all out in the yard with fine wines and even finer vista. We concluded the day with Moka coffee and finished it off with grappa a.k.a. "The Coffee Killer" for a true and complete Tuscan meal.

Joining this cooking class was one of the best decisions I made for this holiday and I would recommend Arianna and Friends wholeheartedly to anyone who's interested in this sort of things. You can check the schedules and prices here. Arianna is charming, friendly, and funny ;-)

No apology for the lack of photos, I was just enjoying my time too much

Day 4
We hit up Florence and boy, was it touristy! Tourists as far as the eyes could see. Tourists on your right, tourists on your left, behind you, in front of you! Oh, did I mention there were tourists everywhere? ;-p

The churches were amazing but there were just too many tourists. Luckily, as we moved away to Piazzale Michelangelo, their number gradually decreased to a much, much more comfortable level.

Once we got to the top, the view was totally amazing! Suddenly, I got why Florence was so famous. It was indeed breathtaking.

The money shot

On our way back, I bought a beautiful piece of jewelry from one of the shops on Ponte Vecchio. Nothing fancy but I adore the design, it was this little piece of Italy that I brought home with me ;-)

Day 5
On the way to Peccioli
Another cooking class, this time centered around pasta. We met up with Luca, our assistant and translator and were introduced to Nick and Anna, this couple from London who'd be taking the class with us. It was another fun outing and it's just mind-boggling how good all the pasta turned out, considering how simple and uncomplicated the ingredients and techniques were!

We learned to make gnocchi, ravioli, and tagliatelle by hand with three different sauces. We made this tomato sauce using Grinzoso tomatoes and it just tasted like heaven. It almost made me sad to think I could never replicate the sauce outside Tuscany - or Peccioli for that matter! FYI, I tried to look for the same Grinzoso tomatoes we used for the sauce at PAM and we couldn't find any! Sad face.

Pasta Lab

Anyway, Luca taught us a little bit about olive oil and wine during the class. About the olive oil, basically he told us that there's this 3-tier category of quality and when I tried to apply this newfound knowledge when shopping for olive oil in my usual upscale supermarket here in Singapore, about 99% of them failed. There was only one brand that passed, and it merely belongs to the 2nd tier, whereby at PAM I could find some that belong to the 1st tier easily, and for (relatively) cheap!

How could I ever enjoy Italian cuisine again after this? I've tasted the best and there's just no going back >.< Desperate to replicate the tomato sauce we made at the farm, I bought a jar of tomato sauce from PAM (made in Italy, mind you) and it just didn't measure up. How Tuscans could live outside Tuscany is beyond me. Everything must taste like bland wet paper for them =p

Day 6
Being architects, we feel like it's our duty to visit the Carrara marble quarry. We originally intended to go after the pasta cooking class but we canceled at the last minute because we were worried we would have reached Carrara too late in the afternoon.


Carrara is another town as sleepy and mellow as Pontedera but some part of the town looks new. The train station is small and on the train, when you almost reach Carrara, you can see the dramatic fog-drenched peaks of the Apuan Alps where the marble quarry is.

Now, if anyone of you reading this post is planning to visit the quarry as well, heed this advice: get a cab or a car! It is THAT far. In theory, you can take a bus up until certain point and then continue on foot for a few miles (as was advised to us by the Tourist Office). However, this bus that you're supposed to take, it keeps irregular hours. I'm still unsure if my understanding is correct, but I understand there is one that leaves the bus terminal at 2:30pm and then strangely, the next one leaves at 6:00pm. We missed the former and since the quarry closes at 6:00pm we decided to just (drumroll, please) walk our way up, thinking it wasn't that far.

Boy, were we wrong!

That bridge is more than a hundred years old

What followed next were miles and miles of steep uphill country road, snaking in between woods and small villages at the foot of the mountain all the way up to the quarry. I swear we crossed several different villages on our way up. At times, we thought we were just going to give up, not sure if we were even heading in the right direction but we persevered until finally we reached the quarry.....and the last tour just LEFT!

Holy %$^&! All this and for nothing?!

Luckily, the tour operator, in a decision that was probably driven by 30% business sense, 70% kindness, and definitely 100% pity said, if there were more people coming in the next 10 mins, they would be willing to conduct one more tour. We'll take it! So we waited impatiently, hoping and praying that someone would show up and dramatically, a couple of people did at the last minute and before we knew it, we found ourselves riding in the van going inside the tunnel to the quarry!


It was amazing to be inside a room that was all made out of marble. ALL OF IT. The floor, the walls, the columns, the ceiling, they were all marble. How fancy!

Inside Carrara Marble Quarry

Day 7
This was our last day in Italy and we intended to just take it slow. We hit up Livorno in the morning, taking in the surreally beautiful Terrazza Mascagni for as long as we could (I got these funny tan lines from my sandals for being in the sun too long), enjoying a slice of pizza, a panino, a gelato, and a mint granita at one of the shops by the seaside, and sightseeing around town by bus. We then got home early and started packing that night.
Livorno's seaside

The surreal view of Terrazza Mascagni

Day 8

Aerial Pisa. Can you spot the Leaning Tower complex?
We bid adieu to Italy and arrived in Istanbul just in time for our sunset walking tour. I booked the one from Arif Yasa Tour and I highly recommend them because their guides are registered (our guide wore his license around his neck). You can leave your belongings in the car with the driver while you walk around town (I didn't have to do this but I've read about someone else who did and everything was alright), and you don't have to pay a single cent until after the tour concludes.
Blue Mosque

So anyway, the driver picked us up from the airport and delivered us to the Sultanahmet district where Erkan, our guide met us. He was an amicable guy and told us all these interesting stories about Istanbul as he took us around town. At one point he told us about the origin of the word 'porn' and joked that it was the National Holiday of Porn in Turkey that day. You just don't joke about this kind of thing, Erkan. You got all my hopes up and for what, nothing? ;->

Anyway, he took us to all these cool places, let us go shopping for jewelry at the Grand Bazaar, brought us to the spice market to get some turkish delights, helped me got a couple of tulip tea glasses, and at various points hand-fed us stuffed mussels and mulberries fresh off the tree (they were yummy!).

Our Istanbul trip in a nutshell

After crossing the strait to the Asian side and a short walk along the promenade at Uskudar to watch the sunset, he took us to Kadikoy, an area that was buzzing with a hipster feeling to it. He specifically took us to this restaurant serving homemade Turkish cuisine (I later found out this restaurant is famous) called Ciya Sofrasi. He chose all the dishes for us and I must say I was not disappointed. They were delicious. I especially love these stuffed eggplants and this leafy green dip with some pomegranate in it.

The restaurant where we had our dinner

By the time we finished dinner, it was already about 10:00pm. We crossed the strait back to the European side where the driver had been waiting to take us back to the airport and said goodbye to Erkan.

Full moon rising

The tour went beyond my expectation as we got to see so many things within such a short time. Sadly, I underestimated the budget that we were scrambling for Turkish Lira towards the end of the tour. I just didn't expect I would be in the mood to purchase so many things since we'd only got a few hours in the city.

Anyway, that concludes our holiday. Even until now I still can't believe I finally got to go to Italy and even better, I got to see Istanbul as well which was something unplanned. To say I'm incredibly grateful for everything is an understatement =)

Wish you a great summer!
Rush Bijoux