ROAD TRIP IN TUSCANY

We had  tons of unquestioned answers running through our minds when we decided to do this Tuscany road trip.

How will Svit behave in the car? Will he eat normal? Will he sleep at night? How will he behave on sightseeing’s? Lots of questions which started to fade away during our 5,5h drive from Ljubljana to Florence. Our not yet 2 years old  boy was handling everything perfectly. We had few rest stops on our way before we reached the Tuscany area.

Tuscany is touristy for obvious reasons. They have fabulous food, incredible scenery, warm people that love children and of course most fascinating history —the list goes on and on. When it comes  to traveling with a toddler, and we all know this is the most difficult age not just for traveling, being “touristy”  is actually  a good thing in terms of infrastructure to handle all of those visitors, which in turn means that parents have reliable resources to ensure travel goes as smoothly as possible. They speak surprisingly good English almost everywhere which is very handy if your Italian doesn’t go further from CIAO.

Our plan was to spend the first few nights in Florence and from there enter further into the hearth of the region. From Florence we went to the hills of Chianti region where we were based for next couple of days. After that we headed to Cinque Terre, the west coast area on the edge of Tuscany region. On the way there we stopped for few hours in Pisa and Lucca town.

What you need to know coming to Tuscany with a kid?

Rent a villa or stay at the Agriturismo (Farmhouse). Don’t come in this lovely area and then stay at the hotel. This is an excellent way  to have loads of extra space for the kids and you don’t need to compromise on the beauty and luxury of your accommodation. Unlike what it may seem, it can also be an economically smart choice.

Please be realistic with sightseeing plans! It will save you a lot of disappointments and bad mood because you know that kids get tired of looking at old buildings that are just stunning for you, right?

Road conditions. While main highways run through Tuscany and are efficient for getting across the region, most of the charming hilltop villages you will want to explore are down windy, narrow, and very slow roads. Things that look like they are in close proximity on a map may actually take quite a bit of time to get to due to the condition of the road. A classic example is exploring the Chianti towns of Gaiole, Greve, and Radda—the roads between these towns are incredibly slow—definitely worth it—but visiting just these 3 relatively nearby villages will take all day when you include lunch (not a fast affair in Italy), potty stops, parking, and of course, getting lost. A good map is a must. This scenic route is also filled with bikers and cyclist who are enjoying it so you have to be extra careful.

One thing that is very kid-friendly about all of Italy is the food—the bottom line is that the very things that most kids love—pizza and pasta—are plentiful there. Restaurants do not have kid’s menus per se, but many will prepare whatever you want for your children (assuming it is Italian). The result is that finding kid-friendly restaurants is relatively unimportant. Note, parents should travel with a me-too type seat, since not all restaurants have high chairs.

It’s hard to choose just one because both a stroller and a backpack come in so handy. A backpack is definitely great for all of those towns with steps and cobblestone streets, but a stroller can be essential for restaurants and enjoying all the leisurely walking opportunities (a key part of enjoying Italy!)

FLORENCE

Florence is really really beautiful but if you are traveling with kids you have to be aware that the sidewalks are not made for strollers because they are dated to Roman times. We were often forced to get off the sidewalk because the mopeds and cars were partially on the sidewalks and when you add incredible noise to that equation than you will understand that we weren’t too sad when we left it.

Maybe we will return alone when kids will be old enough to stay at home to fully enjoy it.

Piazza del Duomo (Florence Cathedral)
Piazza del Duomo (Florence Cathedral)
Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge)
Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge)
Perseus Statue
Perseus Statue

 

We were really hopping our next experience will fit us better. And thankfully it did. Soon after we entered the green hills of Chianti region.  The so called »wine trail« route between Florence and Montalcino was really stunning.

We made a few stops at the Castellina and Radda in Chianti, medieval little towns with lots of towers and old buildings. Only wines from this area can have the Chianti Classico label (the black rooster).

Chianti Classico Logo
Chianti Classico Logo
Let's taste some Chianti wine
Let’s taste some Chianti wine
Medals won
Medals won

It is a beautiful area that is popular with cyclists, wine enthusiasts, as well as those wishing to visit the region’s castles.  Greve, Radda – you have to be aware that it’s really hard to find open restaurant for lunch all around this area, or entire Italy for that matter (they serve breakfast and dinner and in between they are closed for business).

Castellina in Chianti
Castellina in Chianti
Castellina market day
Castellina Market day
Greve in Chianti
Greve in Chianti
Radda in Chianti
Radda in Chianti

 

Gaiole in Chianti
Gaiole in Chianti

Svit was getting kind of restless so we have reached our destination just in time to get him out of the car. We have found our little piece of Tuscany heaven ( http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g616195-d1153802-r106256582-B_b_Le_Querciole_Del_Chianti-Barberino_Val_d_Elsa_Tuscany.html#CHECK_RATES_CONT )

Le Querciole B&B
Le Querciole B&B

The next few days were just amazing. We were surrounded with great views and the hospitality of our hosts was just out of this world.

Home made breakfast
Home made breakfast
Great view
Great view

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We could stroll around the house when we came back from the sightseeing’s or simply lounge or play with our boy in the gardens.

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The location was also perfect for exploring great towns in the area. We went for a half day trips to Siena, San Gimignano, Pienza, Montepulciano, Volterra… I know these are just the name of the towns that doesn’t tell you a lot without photos (if you are not Italian of course), so here we go…

SIENA

Siena is a classic Tuscan medieval hill town. Only slightly larger than Lucca, Siena is another lovely town. Once you get through the stress of parking, the reward is on your palm. The Piazza del Campo—the main public space in Siena—is one of the most beautiful, dramatic squares in Italy. Every street seems to pour into this iconic center (shell shaped and sloped). This is where the famous horse races, or palio, happen biannually.

Piazza del Campo
Piazza del Campo

Towering out of the piazza’s periphery is the Palazzo Publico and its tall tower—climb 503 stairs for some sweeping views of the city and the countryside. Then there’s the Duomo, a stunning striped church that seems too big, visually and physically, for not only its piazza but also the whole town. Go inside and be awed by its frescoes, the tall gothic columns and its intricate marble floor.

Piazza del Duomo (Siena Cathedral)
Piazza del Duomo (Siena Cathedral)

You will be pleased and your toddler will be pleased by the car-free, enormous space with hundreds of pigeons to chase. Svit was absorbing all of this from his stroller, saving energy for later year’s visit I guess.

VOLTERRA

The small hill town of Volterra recently gained fame from Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels. The medieval part of Volterra was built with a local yellow-grey stone, and like many other Tuscan towns, it has its own, small, collection of Renaissance pieces. But Volterra’s history is older than the middle Ages and the Renaissance: it began with the Etruscans. It was one of the oldest Etruscan communities, known as Velathri, so no wonder it has an important archeological museum known throughout the country.

Volterra
Volterra

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Chianti Towns

The sad fact is that visiting hill towns in Chianti are a bit like visiting churches—they may all be extraordinary and different—but at a certain point they start to look the same. That said, there are many wonderful, small towns to explore and appreciate.

SAN GIMIGNANO

San Gimignano. The town is famous for the towers built by its wealthiest citizens as symbols of their power. There used to be 72 towers in the town, only 14 are still standing. San Gimignano is also a stop on the Via Francigena, the ancient road used by pilgrims linking France to Rome.

San Gimignano
San Gimignano

Soon we were back on the road again, but before we said goodbye to Roberta who really made everything possible for us to feel like at home.

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So our next stop on the way to Ligurian coast was…

LUCCA

About an hour northwest of Florence, Lucca is one of those towns where you can escape the crowds of Tuscany’s main cities (Florence and Pisa) while enjoying all of Italy’s urban beauty. On the outside Luca is surrounded by Renaissance walls that are topped by tree-lined avenues perfect for biking or walking, and on the inside it’s all narrow streets perfect for getting lost. Check out the two churches—San Michele in Foro and the Duomo, or Cattedrale di San Marino— at night when they lit up, elaborate facades drip with white and shadows.

Wall around Lucca
Wall around Lucca

PISA

I’m a bit embarrassed to say it but this stop was really a half an hour Mc Donalds and a few Piazza dei Miracoli “must do” photos.

Leaning Tower of Pisa
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Baptistry
Baptistry
Duomo
Duomo

CINQUE TERRE

The Cinque Terre consists of five beautiful hillside towns (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso) on the west coast of Italy. This area is extremely picturesque and shouldn’t be missed. However, it is also a bit expensive. There are only a few hostels and most accommodation and sit down meals are pricey.

After Svit had his meal and we had our much needed coffee we only had a good hour drive to La Specia, a town that represents a gate to Cinque Terre region.  We choose The Affittacamere Tre Frè appartments, but sadly this time our luck ran out ( http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g187824-d650161-r64968355-Affittacamere_Tre_Fre-La_Spezia_Province_of_La_Spezia_Liguria.html#CHECK_RATES_CONT ) We didn’t get much sleep during the night because of the noise of the other guests since the walls were paper thin. Sadly the weather forecast was very bad too, so after having our breakfast we headed straight to the nearby train station. The train is the ideal means of transport in the Cinque Terre. The runs are very frequent, especially during the summer. The Cinque Terre Train Card includes unlimited train runs on the line La Spezia – Levanto, free use of the eco buses and free access to all walking paths and free entry to different museums (train timetable: http://www.cinqueterre.eu.com/en/cinque-terre-timetable ).

I must admit that traveling from town to town on a train is really efficient and great for the kids. The ride is not too long and on it you have everything from sea view to the tunnels.

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So there is never a dull moment. But bear in mind that taking stroller with you around here is not the best idea.

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The 5 villages

Each of the five villages of the Cinque Terre has its individual characteristics. Some are pasted on the flanks of the hills (Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza), one is located on a cliff high above the sea (Corniglia) and one even tries to present itself as seaside resort with a sandy beach (Monteosso).

The five villages are car-free. During the day there is a great rush of tourists who stroll along the many shops, where local merchants try to make their day. In the evening, when the day trippers have left again, peace descends on the villages and the towns show their true face.

For a visit to Cinque Terre, you need at least 3 to 4 days. If you want to include a few attractions in the neighborhood, you will have to make choices even if you stay there a week.

Rent a room in Manarola and have breakfast in the bakery / bar close to the small harbor. When you finish, go up to the cemetery to see the sun rise over Manarola. By 10, you will see the first herds of tourists arrive in the village: time for a walk to Groppo or Volastra up in the hills.

Manarola
Manarola

In Vernazza stand still at the bottom of the stairs that go up to the station. Try to imagine that the whole street here turns into a swirling mass of water. The big poster on the right shows what really happened here on October 25, 2011. You can feel only respect for a community that has been so badly affected and still manages to get back on top!

Vernazza
Vernazza

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To see where the water came from, go to the Castel Doria. From the top of the tower you have a magnificent view on the valley behind Vernazza. If the weather gods strike here, all the water flows in only one direction…

In Riomaggiore you can rent kayaks in the small harbor. If the weather is fine, be sure to take your bathing suit with you and ‘sail out’ to view the Via dell’Amore and Riomaggiore from the sea.

Riomaggiore
Riomaggiore

Visit the churches in Monterosso al Mare. The ones in the old town center are quite special. Go also up on the hill to the Chiesa di San Francesco and even a little higher to the cemetery, from where you have a great view on Monterosso and Punta Mesco. Have a cup of Illy coffe, bruschetta, some local Birra Moretti and of course gelato for the kids.

Monterosso al Mare Beach
Monterosso al Mare Beach

In Corniglia, go into the town center and be sure to continue on the narrow ‘main street’ till you reach the Terrazza di Santa Maria at the very end. Enjoy the panoramic view of the coast from south to north. Sunset is the ideal moment to be there!

Corniglia climb (Svit was enjoying in daddy's backpack)
Corniglia climb (Svit was enjoying in daddy’s backpack)

Must do: Do a boat trip to all five towns. Swim in the sea. Eat gelato and granita. Sun bathe. Take a walk. Relax. Eat.

Hike the Cinque Terre – Any traveler or local will tell you that you must hike the Cinque Terre. There really is no other way to see it. In fact, most people come to the Cinque Terre to go hiking. The views are amazing and simply can’t be described until you see them yourself. The coastal walk (the blue trail) is the easiest path and the best way to see the towns. If you want something more difficult, walk the red path through the steep hills and vineyards.

Go swimming – The water is so blue that you will just want to jump in. The cool waters also attract the locals especially the children who like to jump of  the nearby rocks. During Italian holidays, the beach areas get very crowded.

We took this photo in August same year when my wife and I returned to CT alone
We took this photo in August same year when my wife and I returned to Cinque Terre alone
One more can't hurt:)
One more can’t hurt:)

Our first road trip with our boy went bye so quickly and with no problems at all. So on our ride back to Ljubljana, while Svit was sleeping we were already making plans for our summer Thailand trip.

 

KOH SAMUI

Koh Samui is a perfect vacation spot for exotic holiday with your little ones. Of course saying that doesn’t mean that all travel lovers wouldn’t love this island as well. The scenery is just beautiful and you can find a perfect sandy beach just for you. If you are party animal Samui has a very lively night life, lots of bars, clubs and restaurants. But if you prefer a more peaceful stay, you can easily find yourself a bungalow amidst palm trees right on the beach.

We took a flight with Bangkok Airways after Qatar adventure from Venice via Doha.

Flight buddies
Flight buddies
Sleeping during Doha Bangkok flight with Qatar Air
Sleeping during Doha Bangkok flight with Qatar Air
Meal at BKK airport before onwards flight to Koh Samui
Meal at BKK airport before onwards flight
Killing some time on Bangkok Airways flight to Koh Samui
Killing some time on Bangkok Airways flight to Koh Samui

The cost for spending you holidays here compared to Phuket or let’s says Hua Hin for example is lower here, but still much more expensive when compared to the northern part of Thailand. Genuine local food at reasonable prices is going to be hard to come by here, since many places charges a higher price for the lovely views they offered to their guests.

It’s fair to say that most locals here are not as friendly and smiling as they are in the north of the country or on not those touristic islands (like Koh Jum or Koh Yao) and the service isn’t that good either. We were very lucky with the staff of the resort that we stayed in (http://www.promtsukburi.com/ ). The place was just amazing, affordable, and very clean and located on a gorgeous Thongtakian Beach where we could play on the beach or in the shallow waters, or just laze in the shade when the sun was too hot.

Promtsuk Buri Resort grounds
Promtsuk Buri Resort grounds
Plenty of space to run around at Promtsuk Buri
Plenty of space to run around at Promtsuk Buri
Hammock where you can spend your afternoons
Hammock where you can spend your afternoons
Edita's bungalow was just across from ours
Edita’s bungalow was just across from ours
There is never enough protection from the sun
There is never enough protection from the sun

You can read our review about this great place here: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g2314594-d736569-r122810792-Promtsuk_Buri-Maret_Ko_Samui_Surat_Thani_Province.html#CHECK_RATES_CONT

We also booked a car with their help and everything was just perfect. There also a huge Tesco Lotus supermarket just 10 min drive away. 

Tesco Lotus Supermarket
Tesco Lotus Supermarket

This was our second visit to Koh Samui so we sort of knew things to do and see.

Wat Kiri Wongkaram
Wat Kiri Wongkaram

Big Buddha Temple at Buddha Beach
Big Buddha Temple at Buddha Beach
Hi there
Hi there

Wherever you are staying on the island, you will need a vehicle, as there is not much of a public transport system, only taxis. In our opinion the most convenient means of transportation in Thailand is a scooter. But since we were with our little boy we rented a car instead. You can go around the island in just under an hour.  

Gas station
Gas station
We had a hard time finding kids car chair
We had a hard time finding kids car seat

I advise you to carefully consider the information about the beaches and villages of the island before you book a hotel.

MaeNam Beach

The beach is long with yellow sand, not crowded, there were a very few people (we loved Koh Samui for this reason. It is so easy to find a beach where you will be alone!). There is a sharp descent into the sea; you don’t need to walk 100 meters off the shore to swim as it happens in some places.

Mae Nam beach
Mae Nam beach

Bophut Beach, the Fishing village

We’ve stopped here for some sweets and coffee on the way around the island

Bophut Beach
Bophut Beach

The beach is long with yellow sand; the sea water seemed more or less transparent. Generally the place is picturesque and interesting. The fishing village is quite small. It is filled with an abundance of restaurants (mostly Italian) at medium and high prices. It is located not far from the main attraction of the island – Big Buddha.

Chaweng Beach

The most popular beach. This is a place for lovers of nightlife and filled daily life. Here you will find an abundance of restaurants, shops, a night market and lots of people. Beaches in Chaweng are not the classic turquoise water beaches. When we were there (June) the low tide was around late morning till late noon. The exposed sand was quite muddy and had crabs which were nice to see and show the kids, but not so nice to walk to where the water was deep enough.

We left this place for our next visit to Chaweng Beach
We left this place for our next visit to Chaweng Beach

The beach is crowded; you won’t succeed in lying down in silence on the white sand. As I already said the sand on this beautiful beach is whitish, and the sea water is clear.

Chaweng beach
Chaweng beach

Chaweng is very noisy at night. Lots of cars, drunken tourists on motorbikes, a bunch of transsexuals on the streets – chaos in one word. I would suggest this place for only those who like a very lively nightlife.

Crystal Bay / Tongtakian

The most beautiful beach on the island! A small beach between Chaweng and Lamai, surrounded by large rocks on both sides and palm trees from the road. We really hit the jack pot with our pick of the resort. The water is blue and crystal clear. The sand is white, and there were very few people at the beach. Kids can also play safe on the beach and shallow waters.

Beach at Promtsuk Buri Resort
Beach at Promtsuk Buri Resort

If you like snorkeling, you should definitely come here. Of course, you won’t see much, as Koh Samui is not very good for snorkeling, but I am sure you will manage to see a dozen different beautiful fish as we did.

Lamai Beach

The second most popular beach in Samui after Chaweng Beach, but more laid back. Every Sunday in the local village you can enjoy the night market with street food and a variety of Thai trinkets and clothing. There are also plenty of restaurants.

Lamai beach
Lamai beach

Not far from Lamai you will find waterfalls, a variety of activities, for instance riding the elephants, while in the southern part of the beach you can snap a picture of the famous Grandfather and Grandmother Rocks.

Rock formations
Rock formations
Grampa rock
Grampa rock

Of course we had to go on elephant ridding with Svit, since he was talking about it since we have landed.

Elephants are sooooo big
Elephants are sooooo big

If nice resorts, reliable internet and electricity, great customer service and lots of dining out options are a must for your holiday, and you don’t mind nice but not idyllic beaches, than Koh Samui is perfect for you. The bonus of being so developed is there are a couple of shopping centers with AC and fast food chains, which is always nice when it’s hot outside and the kids are tired of local foods. But honestly if you look pass the development and if you dare go out of your comfort zone (do that please) Malaysian Perhentians are better choice for a toddler.  But we still had a great week of relaxing holiday here and I’m sure we’ll be back someday. Just not that soon.  Our next destination was Koh Phangan and no, we weren’t there for full moon party:)

KOH PHANGAN

We took an early morning fast speed catamaran ride to Koh Phangan. The Lomprayah catamaran leaves from the pier on Mae Nam beach and after a hectic boarding we were on our way.

Calm seas await
Calm seas await

After good 20 minutes we reached the Thongsala Port on Koh Phangan, where our driver was already waiting for us. Finding a good beach on this idyllic island can be a bit tricky due to the tidal situation during summer months. Since we were there in July the west coast was sadly out of the question so our choice was North-east of the island where are not one but two gorgeous beaches at Thong Nai Pan – Thong Nai Pan Yai (big) and Thong Nai Pan Noi (little). Back in the day there were just a collection of small bamboo huts on the beach here but recently these have made way for the bigger, more lavish beach resorts. It remains a chilled out place however, especially at the southern end of the beach where many of the more classical, rustic Thai style accommodations keep the good old vibe going strong.

View in front of Havana Beach resort
View in front of Havana Beach resort

Our place Havana beach resort is located the begging of the Thong Nai Pan Yai. We had a bit smaller room but it was sufficient since the huge pool made up for it.

Funny shape, right?
Funny shape, right?
Monkeying around
Monkeying around

While kids can play on the beach or in the pool adults can grab an excellent and very cheap Thai massage next door at the beach. There is also a small 7/11 on the main road few min from the beach. You have quite a few resort restaurants to choose from at this beach. But if you like Indian food Havana is a place to be

Havana Beach
Havana Beach

 5 min long tail boat will bring you to Pan Noi beach across the bay where two upscale resorts are situated. We went for a look a quick coffee there one day and it’s really a beautiful place there.

to Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach
Short boat ride to Nai Pan Noi beach
Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach view
Thong Nai Pan Noi beach view
Coffee at the beach
Coffee at the beach
Beautiful scenery on Yai beach
Beautiful scenery on Noi beach

At the night you can watch the lanterns up in the air all over the island…so of course we had to try it too.

Lantern for a wish
Lantern for a wish

If you have enough of lounging around and doing nothing you can always take a boat trip around the island. It was a half a day trip with long boat (of course the roof it’s a must because of the little fellow) that we did not regret.

Quick nap on the snorkeling trip around Koh Phangan
Quick nap on the snorkeling trip around Koh Phangan
Snorkeling trip around the island
Snorkeling trip around the island

Beautiful coastal scenery, waterfall, hidden lagoons and of course top arguably the best beach on the island, called Bottle Beach.

Bottle Beach
Bottle Beach

The sand is powdery white and the water is a gorgeous aquamarine yet clear colored. Make no mistake, this bay is an absolute gem but if you’re coming to Koh Phangan especially for Bottle Beach make sure you don’t come at a time of year when it will be difficult to reach the bay. During the monsoon months it gets very windy and choppy around the headland that leads to Bottle Beach and as a result boats might not come here. If you want to be sure of being able to get here then come here between February and March when clear blue skies and calm blue seas is the order of the day at Bottle Beach.

Sneakers pancake (yes, THE chocolate bar inside)
Sneakers pancake (yes, THE chocolate bar inside)

Overall Koh Phangan has lots of stunning beaches and it’s less crowded and developed that neigbouring Koh Samui. Yes, Phangan-parties on the beach or jungle are the best in the world, but it’s just a small part of the island’s life and just one of many Koh Phangan’s faces. This days we can see more and more families with children here – because it’s hard to find place better for that type of holiday (except Haad Rin beach with nightly parties). Almost everywhere in Phangan you can find lots of small cafes and restaurants with Thai & International dishes. If you cooking by yourself, there is fresh fruits, veggies, and all other stuff on the markets “Tesco” and other smaller shops. 24 hours available “7/11” – 9 shops around the island.

Can we take him home pleeeease?
Can we take him home pleeeease?

As usual our vacation shifted into the second part and we still had one more Thai gem island to visit. So Koh Tao is next… We are wondering how it looks after 5 years when we were here.