Arrivaderci Roma! We had only three days in the capital and lost plenty of sleep trying to make the most of them. Some rest and relaxation was firmly on the agenda now and what better place to do it in than Tuscany. So further North we go, travelling along the highway nicknamed Via Aurelia after the ancient Roman highway that it was literally built on top of which was once an important defensive route to connect the North to the South for ease of military transport (seriously, so much history everywhere you turn!).
Porto Ercole is our next destination, which is in Southern Tuscany in the region called 'Maremma' which is famous for its wine, sunshine and unlike the rest of Tuscany, it's beaches! We chose to stay at a very modern golf resort set in luscious green forest called Argentario Resort & Spa which rests in the middle of what once an island. We checked in and were amazed with the style and architecture of the hotel and our room, perfectly blending Mother Nature with modern luxury. Our room boasted its own private garden terrace to sun-bake outside in the serenity of the outdoors and inside a huge bath (seriously, invite your friends because you could fit 4 people in there easily). Downstairs, the spa area was even more amazing, with a huge heated indoor swimming pool which you could swim directly through into one of the outdoor pools, plus a jacuzzi, wellness spas, sauna, hot/cold therapy, solarium, huge gym and spa treatment rooms. Gianni hit the gym straight away (that is how he relaxes), but I opted for a massage instead (one of the best I have ever had) because that is how the rest of the world relaxes! Not knowing the first thing about golf I decided to leave that for the pros and admire the 18 hole international golf course from my garden terrace. Gianni though headed for the driving range and to my surprise he actually wasn't half bad (how is my husband so good at everything)!
That night we opted for dinner at the hotel restaurant, served on the huge outdoor terrace under the stars. We ate like kings once again, a beautiful vegetable soup appetiser followed by a simple spaghetti with tomato sauce and fettuccine with baby squid. Delicious authentic meals. For mains the chef spiced up the presentation of the herb crusted lamb rack and potatoes and Gianni chose the perfectly pink eye fillet with spinach (plenty of protein he says). For dessert we decided to retreat to our room and served beside the bubbles of our bathtub was a hazelnut semifreddo with cinnamon apples and a delicious gooey chocolate fondant with rich chocolate gelato. Five star food to match the five star accomodation.
Feeling certainly pleased with our chose of hotel, we spent the next day exploring the island. Note, I say 'island' because it feels like one and it actually used to be one, but over time the sea currents created long sand banks on either side of the mountain which then joined it to the mainland! This not only created an amazing unique landscape with a large lagoon and two stretches of long (and rare) sandy beaches but it also means that you can easily access the area by car. You could spend a whole week in Maremma lapping up the sun at the coastal towns and venturing a little further inland to the wineries but we went on a crash course trying to see it all in one day! A beautiful sunny day spent exploring the history and Spanish castles at the two main ports (Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole), up the mountain in between them to savour the stunning views from the Convent of Padri Passionisti, around the panoramic cliff roads above the turquoise waters of the rocky beaches of Cala Moresca and Cala Piccolo and finally a bike ride around the Feniglia forest where the sandy beaches await.
Many of the beautiful parts of this area are still best accessed by boat, a private charter will take you to any of the 100's of private hidden beaches around the 'island' and even out further to Isola del Giglio but in all honesty, a map and a car (or even a bicycle) is all you will need to enjoy this untouched paradise. Working up an appetite we headed inland for dinner to Capalbio, one of the many historic Tuscan villages you can happily get lost in. In fact if you cannot make it down south to Matera (see our blog here) then there is a town close-by to here called Sorano built on a mountain top which also has some ancient caves like the Sassi worth visiting!
The jam-packed itinerary of our second day was a testament to the blissful relaxation Argentario Resort & Spa had provided on our first day! Now it was on to our final coastal destination in the north-west of Italy; you may have heard of a pretty place called Portofino? Before we reach there though we would pass some gems of Tuscany which you cannot afford to miss....
The main highway takes you to a turn off for Pisa and just 15 minutes from that exit you reach the centre of the old town and the infamous leaning tower. The Italians call this place the Piazza Dei Miracoli (plaza of miracles) which is a fitting description when you see the sheer size and weight of this marble tower leaning ominously at an angle that just cannot be safe. Most postcards don't show you the amazing location and surroundings of the tower though nor the fact that it is actually dwarfed by a grand glorious cathedral and equally impressive baptistery which all glow against the lush green lawns. When we arrived the skies were dark grey and a big storm looked like it was rolling in so we decided to take a few obligatory pictures and head for a quick inside a nearby restaurant. In the short 45 minutes we spent at lunch though the miracle plaza worked its magic and when we returned the skies were blue and the sun was shining! Yes, I was too chicken to climb the tower but a trip inside the church is a must. As with all big touristy areas you should be mindful of your bags, but it was also beautiful to see how many locals were just basking in the sun on their lunch breaks on the grass; I wish my office had a view like this every day!
Having visited the other two iconic towns of Siena and San Gimignano on our honeymoon two years ago we decided to skip them this time (although I will be taking my parents to see all of Tuscany again next time as I want an excuse to return!). So from Pisa we stayed off the highway and instead took the coastal road north to a beach-side town called Viareggio. Gianni has a few relatives also from this area which is a fun-loving town known for its Carnivale! The main strip is lined with hotels and paid beaches and in summer-time is jam-packed with Italian Beach-goers. A few minutes further up the road we reached Forte Dei Marmi which Gianni promised me I would love; and he was not wrong. Find a park absolutely anywhere you like (and avoid the ZTL traffic zones) and take a stroll because around every corner of the pedestrian only zone is beautiful shops of big-name luxury brands, cute boutiques, pasticceria's and cafe's. I am staying here next time for sure. From here it is only another hour drive back on the freeways that weave north up, around (and underneath) the alps near the coastline, past La Spezia, toward our next gorgeous destination!
Special Thanks to: