Italy: the Apuan Alps and Orvieto
We made a 10 km circular alpine trek that began and ended in Fornovolasco, an adorable, itsy town parted by a stream, with stone bridges and buildings and a single restaurant. (Our trek is the day 4 itinery outlined here, except that we did it in reverse.)
The trails were well-marked and easy to follow. We climbed up, up, up, past a couple of old stone houses, before reaching the most incredible land-bridge I've ever seen.
It was overcast at first, so that the view of hill-towns beyond and below were obscured by mist, but when we returned to the land-bridge after climbing to the peak, we could see all the way to the sea -- about 100 miles. Each of the peaks had crosses on top, and early in the trail, there were religious icons (mostly Virgin Mary statues) tucked in nooks in the rocks. There are also a few caves (essentially big holes in the ground) between the bridge and the peak, but we were trying to make it down before dark and didn't have time to explore.
The views on the way back were amazing -- nifty rock formations, several wide-open shots to the sea -- but the rolling gravel underfoot landed us both on our asses and could have launched us off a cliff. So yeah, if you make this trek, go slow and be careful.
It was nearly dusk by the time we made it back, and we were starving. Of course, the restaurant in town didn't open for another few hours and anyway, we had to get to Florence because Bruce was flying out early the next day. It was only a few hours. We figured we could wait.
Driving through some unknown industrial town, we noticed a crowded bar patio. We knew what that meant, at that time of evening -- aperitivo! So we pulled over and bought a glass of wine, primarily for the free spread that accompanied it. (You won't find this in Florence or other big cities, but nearly every small town we visited gave away finger foods with early-evening drinks. It's a great way to stave off the "hangries," since most restaurants won't serve dinner before 8.)
By the time we got to Florence (and got lost, since the hotel that claimed to be a mere 500 feet from the airport was also roughly 500 feet from any true road), we were too exhausted to attempt going out.
The next day, my first alone, I took a train to Orvieto, a classic Umbrian hill town. It's so high that you have to take a funicular up. Everyone subsists on the grapes they grow (Orvieto Classico, a crisp white wine, my favorite of the trip), and there's an important 14th century cathedral.
Photos aren't allowed inside the cathedral, which is most moving when the afternoon light streams through the stained glass and slants across the frescos (painted by Luca Signorelli and others).
Otherwise, Orvieto was a lovely respite before moving to a crowded city and hostel. I stayed two nights, ate well (lots of wild boar and gelato), and wandered. At night there were a few trendy bars, but mostly it feels like a small town. The stone streets and buildings seem cozy, softened by glowing lanterns. Teens gather on the steps of churches, and mothers stroll about chatting, their no-bedtime offspring skipping beside them.
Everyone seemed relaxed, and life felt absorbed rather than studied.