After scorching on the streets of Rome, falling in love with Florence, and being attacked by bugs outside of Siena, it was time for the beach. We’d heard about Italian beaches--banana hammocks and big umbrellas packed like sardines on small stretches of sand. I’d researched the hell out of where to go with Skinny Jeans looking for a sandy spot, not too touristy and not too sharky. (Any vacation that includes the ocean would be amiss without an irrational fear of shark-infested waters.)
Enter in Elba Island.
Elba, located in the Tuscan Archipelago, is the third largest island in Italy. Its claim to fame dates back to 1814 when it was home to Napoleon during his exile. But its crystal clear, blue sea and beautiful beaches are Elba’s true treasures. A mix of leafy land and serene sea makes Elba the perfect destination for diving, snorkeling, mountain biking, or soaking up the sun (apparently Elba is exempt from sunscreen or skin cancer) like the rest of the Italians.
To get to Elba, we took a ferry from Porto Piombino. It was a slow-moving gigantic rig that allowed us to take our car with us and gave us gorgeous views of the island’s shores. From the port in Elba, we made our way to the southern end of the island, Lacona, where we’d rented a one-bedroom apartment from Mini Hotel. The fine, golden sand of Lacona beach was the perfect spot for Skinny Jeans to build a sand castle and the clear, warm, calm waters were perfect for me to keep an eye out for sharks. With no current or undertow, we spent hours splashing in the sea and floating on our newly purchased blow-up raft. With our toes danging off the edge and the warm water lazily lapping, I almost forgot we were in the ocean.
It wasn’t until a tanned man in a Speedo emerged from the waters holding a leggy octopus by its head that I remembered we were most definitely still in the sea. We gawked as he carelessly walked his catch to the shore, plopped it in a sand bucket full of salt water, and saved the creature for supper.
After a few days at Locona, we headed West to Fetovaia and spent a day at the stunning beach and at Hotel Montemerlo - Campo nell'Elba, a sister resort of MiniHotel. While much smaller than Lacona beach, the beach at Fetovaia is surrounded by cliffs that contrast with its blinding white sand and the water looks fake it’s so blue.
The thing about Elba that had me enthralled wasn’t the beach, wasn’t the grilled octopus I’d eaten for dinner (don’t worry, I didn’t take the one from the sand bucket), wasn’t the dangerous cliffs or the local aquarium highlighting just some of the strange sea creatures.
No, the thing about Elba is the women. The women walk the beaches in bikinis no matter their age, no matter their size, no matter how the tiger stripes stretch across their bellies or the dimples dot their thighs. In my stylish black one-piece suit, I stood out like a sore thumb. While I covered all my imperfections, they unapologetically put theirs on display. Sure, there were picture-perfect women wearing thong bottoms and nothing else, but for every one of them, there were three women--young, old, thin, thick--baring it all without a blink. And after a couple of days, this normalizing of bodies became so empowering that even I started to care less about what mine looked like and more about how beautiful and interesting the shapes and sizes made an already stunning shoreline look. As I watched Skinny Jeans skim the small waves, I couldn’t think of a better place for her to learn to love her own body and for me to appreciate mine.
Thank you, women of Elba, for showing this American how beautiful we all are.
Where to stay:
Mini Hotel, Lacona- all the necessities, large fully equipted kitchen, no pool, but close to beach and beachside parking available. The BEST hospitality from check-in (informative with loads of island discounts) to check-out (sent us with a parting gift of homemade jam).
Hotel Montemerlo, Fetovaia - with our stay at the Mini Hotel, we had access to this hotel’s amenities which included parking near the beach and a pool. The lunch we ate poolside was incredible.
Where to eat:
Bagni Orano di Enzo e Francesca- On Lacona beach. I recommend the grilled octopus!
Il Gelato Dell'Artista- great Lacona beachside gelato
Hotel Montemerlo - Campo nell'Elba did a great lunch next to the pool
What to do:
The Elba Aquarium- fascinating look at what lurks beneath
Lacona Beach- golden sand, calm waters, huge crowds
Fetovaia Beach- white sand, dramatic cliffs, blue waters, big crowds
Both the Lacona and Fetovaia beaches are great for small children!
I received a media rate stay at Mini Hotel in exchage for this post.
I romanticize. It’s true. It’s why I’ve ended up, more times than I can count, doing something that I’d convinced myself would be fabulous but would later discover is kind of terrible. Other people tend to see the writing on the wall, but I like to slap a thick coat of rose-colored paint over the message and call it an accent piece. It’s the kind of thinking that’s led me bounding towards a cruise ship dreaming of the glistening open seas, my turquoise sarong effortlessly tied (I mean, come on, already there’s a problem here) as I bask in the sun alongside a shimmering, crystal-clear pool. In reality, I find myself slightly sea-sick, desperately tugging at my wind-whipped cover-up as it flaps over my face and dragging a screaming child out of an onboard cesspool while wondering if I might have the symptoms for scurvy. It’s why I’ve found myself skiing slopes way too steep for an amateur or screeching down mountain bike trails I have no business walking let alone riding. It’s the wind in my hair, the gorgeous, sunny day, the careless put together image of myself that tends to wash over the real-life hot mess express I am typically running to catch.
This is the exact kind of thinking that landed me in the middle of Tuscany, 20 miles outside of Siena, on a farm known for its pigs and prosciutto, startled awake at one in the morning with a grasshopper the size of a stapler on my forehead and a mouse in my bed.
But let me back up.
Tenuta di Spannocchia
I’d heard about Tenuta di Spannocchia through endless Googling and researching. I wanted a true Italian agroturismo stay. I wanted to step away from the hustle and bustle of Florence and Rome and roll back into time. I wanted the picturesque rolling hills, the Tuscan sun, the Diane Lane. And Tenuta di Spannocchia promised to be all that and then some.
Settled on a 1100- acre organic farm, Tenuta di Spannocchia has been home to folks from all around the world. A muse for scholars, artists, musicians and environmentalists and a pillar for sustainable living. The farm produces certified organic olive oil and wine. The vegetable garden provides all the necessary ingredients for their authentic, rustic cuisine. And the farmhouses, available for rent, date back to the 12th Century. But it’s the pigs, the Cinta Senese, a heritage breed native to Tuscany that was almost extinct before Spannocchia started breeding them, that are the main attraction.
Obviously, the perfect spot for people who have no concept of farm life.
A Warm Welcome
Upon arriving, Casa Dami--the farm’s largest and oldest house-- had been prepared for us. With three bedrooms and two bathrooms, it was plenty big for the four adults and three kids I had lured to the countryside. Three single beds for the kids were neatly set up in the main floor stone bedroom while a queen-sized bed was waiting in each of the rooms upstairs for the adults. A gigantic fireplace took center stage in the cozy living room and windows facing out to the rolling Tuscan hillside dotted the dining room. Our hosts had filled the farmhouse kitchen with an overflowing basket of vegetables from the garden, fresh eggs, warm bread, and a bottle of wine.
Outside, there was a lovely pool with a ping pong table and some shady trees--a fast favorite among us all. A small reception area sold wine and olive oil and other fruits of the farm and a large common space hosted a cocktail hour and delicious family-style welcome dinner for guests and interns alike.
Too Hot to Handle
But, as the temperatures rose (it got over 100 degrees), the heat began to burn the edges of the picture I’d been painting in my head. Words like rustic and secluded and authentic started to take on a different meaning. Rustic was code for sweat-through-the-mattress hot at night and bye-bye wifi. Secluded meant it would take 30 minutes just to find a market that wouldn’t have what you need. Authentic meant mosquito bites the size of quarters and grasshoppers so green they looked like they were radioactive.
And while our stay was everything it promised to be--rustic, secluded, authentic--and the pigs were exactly as described, and the farmhouse was just what I’d ordered, this farm just wasn’t for these city slickers.
So, when I awoke at one in the morning with a grasshopper the size of a small stapler on my forehead, jumped out of bed like a rocket, and ripped off the bed sheets (in search of the insect) only to find a trail of mouse poop, it was time to say goodbye.
Tenuta di Spannocchia was everything it said it would be. I, somehow, missed the message.
Where to Stay: Tenuta di Spannocchia
What to Do: Cinta Senese Tour, Siena
Where to Eat: Made our own meals at the farmhouse
I received a free Cinta Senese Pig Tour and Tasting for our group of seven in exchange for this post.
I sometimes dream of spending the afternoon inside a sprawling art gallery, getting lost in the endless halls of hanging canvas, and studying the intricacies of each piece-- every brushstroke, smudge, and drip. I’ll make up stories about the artists and what their work means, say something snooty to the person next to me as we contemplate. “See how the tiny paint bubbles pepper the negative space? How obviously optimistic.”
But, if I’m real, I don’t really get art. I want to get it. But, I get bored of galleries just about as fast as I do watching golf on t.v., and the fanciest thing I have hanging in my house is a print of Kandinsky’s Concentric Circles I picked up from Ikea when I was in college. How obviously cliché.
So, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d feel about Florence, or Firenze as they say in Italy, home of world-class masterpieces and birthplace of the Renaissance. With its gorgeous backdrop, Florence is the stage for all the greats: Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, and Galileo. Would any of it make sense to a girl who gets her art from Pier One?
I decided to find out.
After sizzling in Rome at the Colosseum and Vatican, we turned up the heat (if that was even possible) and headed north on a train to Florence to get a taste of haute couture. It was a quick trip by train and our hotel, the Ambasciatori, was a skip from the station. We dropped our bags and decided to tour the town.
Since the crowds and heat were high in July, we skipped the Uffizi in favor of the Accademia Gallery--home of the David. Now, I’d prepped Skinny Jeans just about as much as I could. I explained we’d be seeing a very famous sculpture and that he would be, well, naked. After a multitude of questions (“Will we see his privates?” “What happened to his clothes?” “Will we see his butt?”), I thought we were good to go. Come to find out, it was the adults who took the audible gasp, blushing and giggling like seven-year-olds, upon seeing David in all his massive glory.
Being the art aficionados we were, we promptly staged photos of us pinching his cheeks while gawking at his chiseled butt. Someone had to corroborate the obnoxious traveling American theory, why not us? Solid first introduction to sculpture, if you ask me.
After the David, we explored a bit, got lost in an outdoor market and stopped on a whim at an incredible, quaint gelato spot tucked into a fold of the city. Little did we know that Ettamo, with its award-winning strawberry balsamic gelato, was a fan favorite. It was exactly what we needed to beat the heat and feel like we’d been let in on yet another secret from Florence.
The day of wandering and wangs led us back to our hotel to freshen up for dinner. After the sunset, we walked to what ended up being my favorite part of our entire trip: Trattoria Marione. The small restaurant was a true gem and absolutely everything you’d want in a Florence trattoria (not as fancy as a ristorante, but a step up from an osteria): servers who knew their shit and kept bringing out specialties and aperitifs, if you asked for them or not, a bustling atmosphere, and, of course, bistecca alla fiorentina.
Now, I had heard about this steak, a classic in Florentine fare, and hadn’t thought much of it. I’m from Colorado where beef is what’s for dinner, and I am no stranger to the meat sweats. However, nothing in the states quite compares to the Tuscan breed of cattle, the Chianina, and the unique butchering and cooking that comes only from Florence. Cooked from room temperature at a high heat for just 3-5 minutes, the steak is legit rare, and served with no condiments, just a bit of salt. It is, to be exact, pure heaven for those unafraid to gnaw a T-bone the size of a tennis racket.
Me + Florence
While Florence is known for its artists and art, what I loved most were the lesser-known things about the city: the Museo Galileo which we had all to ourselves on a Uffizi free day or Ristorante Zocchi hidden along a white-knuckle, winding road just outside the city. When it was time to leave, I felt like we’d become friends, Florence and me. We’d giggled through galleries, taken down some serious steak, and gorged on gelato. She didn’t even care that I didn’t (and still don’t) know how to say Uffizi. If that’s not a girlfriend, I don’t know what is.
There are a few rules about visiting the Vatican you need to know. First, women must cover their knees. This means long dresses are preferred. Second, women must cover their shoulders. This means you’ll likely need a scarf or shawl to pull over your sleeveless maxi dress. Third, men must also have their knees covered. This means every American man who has ever visited the Vatican in the summer has spent hours measuring the length of their cargo shorts, sitting and standing, moaning about the audacity of God to ask they cover their hairy legs (Adam didn’t have to!), and eventually succumbing to the fact he’ll die in full-length pants in 90+ degree heat.
The baby on this trip was not Skinny Jeans.
Inside the City Walls
Our tour guide, Katia (same as from the Colosseum) met us early at the Vatican doors. We skipped a few lines and were led towards a long hallway adorned with statues where she explained a some things to us before heading inside and making our way to the Sistine Chapel.
As we sat on a marble ledge, Katia took out a long, laminated picture and handed it to the kids.
“Who is this?” she asked, pointing to a man sitting at the center of a table.
“Have you heard of the Last Supper?” she asked.
I pretended I was letting the children have a chance to answer.
“Jesus?” Katia asked, eyes widening.
She continued to explain the frescos in the picture, as simply as she could. Stories of Moses. Stories of Jesus. Every once in awhile, Katia asked “Do you know…?” and “Haven’t you heard…?” and I wished I paid more attention all those years I went to mass. Skinny Jeans blurted some random references to Little Mermaid and, perhaps, Captain Underpants just to prove she’s a heathen and the rest of us were grateful she broke the silence so we could get on to the good stuff.
Katia led us through incredibly intricate museums of sculptures, tapestries, and maps. We passed through as a mob of hundreds, looking every which way to take it all in. Now knowing her audience, Katia skipped the scriptures and pointed out the tapestries that had eyes that appeared to follow us and answered questions about where all the penises have gone on the sculptures.
Inside the Sistine Chapel, guards regularly shouted, “SILENCIO!” and no photography was allowed. It was smaller than I expected, but still breathtaking. Katia had explained several key pieces of the ceiling (e.g, a super-buff Jesus, a serpent wrapped around the naked body of a man who’d protested Michelangelo, someone holding the skin of another) that made Skinny Jeans excitedly point in recognition.
St. Peter's Cathedral
From the Chapel, we were on to St. Peter’s Cathedral. Katia had a story for practically every nook of the enormous church, and we spent hours spying for animal carvings in the ceiling, rubbing the feet of St. Peter for good luck, and looking at embalmed popes.
While our visit to the Vatican wasn’t the most sacred, it was certainly the most memorable and we were all glad we did it. The city holds secrets and stories that are fascinating to all--even those who think Christmas is about Santa.
But, if the Vatican just isn't your thing, be sure to check out our other adventures in Rome.
When in Rome
It’s taken me this long to figure out where to even begin. Our three-week trip to Italy now seems like a dream, a blip in the summer where we traded in the normalcy of good old American pool parties and firework dotted skies for endless gelato and oven-hot cities where the streets twist like grapevines. Over our 20 days of wine drenched wander, we went from Denver to Munich to Rome to Florence to a farm outside of Siena to an island out in the sea and back. We traveled by plane and bus, train and ferry, and made ourselves dizzy driving along the rolling hills of Tuscany. It was exciting and strange and difficult. There were times we longed to come home and times we were desperate to stay.
Italy or Bust
Our adventure started with a red-eye to Munich. We flew with Lufthansa, which wasn’t my favorite. Leading up to the flight, I had a difficult time getting anyone to help me with the kids menu to check for Skinny Jeans’ allergies. Apparently, not a single person knows what the hell is in the food they are serving. While I’m completely accustomed to bringing food for Skinny Jeans, the flight was over 10 hours long and one can only keep food cold for so long. The safest bet was the vegan meal, but you try feeding a seven-year-old flaccid tofu and fart-smelling broccoli.
We landed in Munich where, much to our surprise, there was a play area right by our gate. In the couple of hours we had to wait for our next flight, Skinny Jeans made friends with kids from different countries, all speaking different languages. It was incredible to watch how much language and nationality meant nothing to a bunch of kids playing hide-n-seek.
Calling Rome Home
Rome was our next stop and we got there just in time to enjoy the afternoon and settle into what would be our new digs for a few days. Opting to stay somewhat close to the action, we chose the Hotel Serena, a modest boutique hotel with breakfast and fat and friendly dog at the reception. The room included a queen bed and a twin--perfect for the three of us. After unpacking, we wandered around for a bit, taking in the bustling streets and blowing off the eager waiters all vying for our business. As the temperature spiked to 95 degrees, we were on the hunt for something to cool us off. A trip to oldest gelateria in Rome, Fassi, did the trick. Tired from travel and exhausted by the heat, we went to bed early, cranked the air conditioning as high as it would go, and didn’t even mind the rock-hard mattresses.
Explain it to me like I'm five
The next morning, we met my sister and her family who had just arrived from the States, and took the bus to the Pantheon where our tour guide, Katia, was waiting. Katia was recommended to us by a friend, the principal at the American School in Rome. As a group of seven with kids ages 7, 11, and 15, I was worried about how to keep everyone engaged during the three-hour tour. Rome, to a kid, looks like it’s broken, like a run-down apartment complex where the slumlord refuses to fix anything. But, Katia did not disappoint. In the time we spent with her at the Pantheon and Colosseum, she was able to bring the ruins to life with her captivating stories (and trusty iPad). And while the Pantheon was stunning with its giant oculus and the Colosseum breathtaking and surreal, my favorite part of the tour were the lesser known stories and secrets Katia shared. Like, did you know the pope has his own personal store where he gets his socks? Or, that behind the Pantheon there’s a sculpture of an elephant flipping off (among other things) a monastery because the artist was in an argument with the priest who lived there? History buff, I am not. But give me a good, gross story, and I'm in like the rest of the kids. Katia quickly learned her audience.
Our first full day in Rome was soaked in history, mysteries, and more sweat than I’m proud to admit. We were off to a great start and ready to tackle the next thing: The Vatican. In 100 degree heat. With a kid. Just us and about 1 million other tourists. What could possibly go wrong?
Where to Stay: Hotel Serena. Simple and small. Close to the train station and lots of restaurants.
What to Do: Pantheon and Colosseum. When in Rome!
Where to Eat: I can’t say our first day included any fine dining. We popped into a ristorante, La Piccola Cuccagna, for classic Roman pizzas before the Pantheon. It was good and the Peroni was cold.
Fassi is a fun place to visit, lots of antique gelato-making machinery and delicious gelato.
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