Review: Pisa, the Cinque Terre and Portofino
Escorted Tour - Coach
Now Lucca here - you know it makes scents
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On a two centre guided tour of Tuscany in Northern Italy with the incomparable Riviera Travel, my wife and I flew into Pisa airport, a surprisingly short hop from the UK.
Be warned that Pisa airport has banned tourist buses and has installed a short rail shuttle called PisaMover, which in my view, has been poorly designed.
You now have to leave the airport by foot, take a walk, take a lift up (not enough of them), a short walk, take a one stop ride on the shuttle, a short walk, a lift up, a short walk, a lift down and then a walk through an underground car park to the waiting buses.
What an absolute palaver, and all whilst lugging cases.
Our first hotel was in the outskirts of the ancient walled town of Lucca.
Unusually, this is not a hilltop walled town as so many are in this region.
It is built on the flat and so is easy to walk around.
This is a dreamily picturesque town which once had 250 towers defending it’s position. Sadly, there are only two of these preserved today, the stonework having been scavenged over the centuries for other buildings.
These are the Guinigi Tower with it’s hanging gardens and the panoramic viewpoint of the city offered by climbing the Torre della Ore.
The town walls are an enormous and complete circular construction some 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) long and 30 metres wide. They now have a wide foot and cycle path along the top and round the flat perimeter, with two rows of trees offering shade to those below.
The route to the south-east borders the amazing botanical gardens, the perfume of which drifts in the air as you pass – try it, you know it makes scents!
It takes about an hour or so to walk completely around the walls.
From here there are terrific views of the surrounding countryside and distant hills.
Within the walls is the stunning church, Duomo San Martino, the oldest basilica in Tuscany, which contains priceless works of art by Tintoretto and Ghirlandaio, amongst others. The town is virtually traffic restricted so walking around is an absolute pleasure.
The central Piazza dell ’Antiteatro is an open plan cobbled area built on the footprint of the long gone Roman amphitheatre and is only accessible via four small, vaulted doors. It is like entering the lions den, only with more cafes.
Lucca is a very pleasant and picturesque city.
Our hotel here was the four star, Best Western Grand Hotel Guinigi.
However, this well maintained hotel is some thirty minutes walk from Lucca along quite a busy road and there is nothing to see or do in the vicinity of the hotel.
It has 167 rooms and offers a small gym with a sauna and an adjacent sun-bed terrace.
Bike rental is available to take advantage of the lovely cycle rides in the area.
Our room was clean, newly decorated and spacious with a huge bed, but had a view only of a courtyard. Other rooms had long distance views to the rear.
There was a large screen tv., though no channels in English.
Our bathroom was a good size and had a waterfall shower head over the bath regulated from the bath-taps.
Breakfast is continental style with all the usual suspects and was quite acceptable.
Evening meals were tasty, though quite basic however and were not up to four star standard in my view.
All staff were very friendly, courteous and eager to please.
Excursions whilst at this venue included at trip to the beautiful and typically Italian hilltop town of Campiglia Maritima. There is a small ruined castle at the top of a hilly walk and wonderful sea views.
From here we visited another hilltop town, this time Castagnito Carducci, again with long distance views to the sea.
A visit to a local vineyard was disappointing, taking place in a modern concrete underground bunker with barrel storage and wine vats. We had little opportunity to see the vines or processes and spent almost the entire time underground.
Not the vineyard visit I and many others had expected. The wine tasting was good but the product expensive.
Of course we had a visit to the city of Pisa to see the once in a lifetime vision of the Leaning Tower and associated church. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This area is immaculately kept and the Tower certainly has an impressive lean!
Taken alone, this is well worth the visit.
The centre of Pisa is just a few minutes walk away from the Tower.
Again, be warned! If your idea of a lovely city to visit is a faded, paint-peeled, graffiti-ed, fly-posted area of huge crowds whilst being constantly and persistently hassled by numerous African itinerants selling cheap jewellery and fake branded sunglasses and watches and at the same time, putting yourself in imminent danger of being pick-pocketed, then this is the city for you, my friend.
You will be pounced on by these traders from the minute you step off the bus, whilst you walk around, if you sit at the edge seats of cafes and restaurants, to the moment you step back on the bus. One even tried to board our coach.
The cafes and restaurants here in fact offer good food at reasonable prices so it is a shame that the experience is spoiled somewhat.
Onward to our second base, down the coast from Genoa (lovely cake!) this time
to Santa Margherita Ligure which is only a fifteen minute bus or ferry trip to Portofino.
Situated a ten minute walk from the lovely centre and marina of Santa Margherita and right on the promenade facing the sea, the four star Best Western Hotel Regina Elena is a lovely hotel which has it’s own private beach just across the road, complete with a jetty, sea swimming platform and beach-side restaurant/bar.
At least, it would have had if ALL the privately owned hotel beaches along this small area of the bay were not closed for extensive ground-works. The jetty and sea swimming platform had been removed. This meant a pile-driver, heavy machinery and drills working from 8am. We were not informed of this in advance, which was a poor show. It will be excellent when finished. A good job we were off on daily trips.
I would have taken advantage of the facilities here to snorkel in the Ligurian Sea, a corner of the Mediterranean Sea, between the Italian Riviera and the island of Corsica.
Just as well then that the hotel offers a rooftop solarium with heated swimming pool and Jacuzzi (May to October). The pool has wonderful sea and mountain views whilst the hotel also features a small fitness room and has bike hire.
Our room was very pleasant, clean and with a double bed, large screen tv with an English news channel. The bathroom had a good walk-in shower.
The large balcony overlooked the private beach and bay, so such a shame about the work taking place.
Breakfast was again the usual continental style as featured in many hotels of this type. There was plenty of choice and of a good standard.
Evening meals were a step up from the previous hotel and were acceptable
without being brilliant. The circular restaurant had views out over the bay and to the hills bordering it. The hotel lounge and bar were quite grand and a great place to relax. Once again the staff here were excellent.
Prices in this region for food and drink are around the same as the UK, though you do need to shop around. If you sit at a marina-side café expect to pay around £23 for two 33cl beers and two sandwiches.
There are several superb bakery shops in the town serving topped focaccia bread and large pizza squares for just a couple of Euros, which you can sometimes eat inside at a small bench with stools.
Excursions from here included a 3.5 hour sea trip to the five towns of Cinque Terre, small villages which cling to the rugged coastline of the Italian Riviera. These consist of the five beautiful hillside villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
This area is another UNESCO World Heritage Site and is well worth seeing.
These pastel coloured towns can be visited from the coastal walking trail which goes through all of these lovely villages or by hopping on the amazing railway but is best seen spectacularly by way of an exhilarating sea trip. We saw dolphins from the boat!
We visited three of the most popular towns and all are well served by cafes, bars and restaurants. The streets are steep and the steps can be slippery and uneven. You do need to be quite fit to explore these towns in any depth.
The towns offer very pretty sights with many photo opportunities.
The famous resort of Portofino is a short, three mile ferry hop from Santa Margherita Ligure. I think it should be called Very Portofino.
Very small, very picturesque, very quaint, very exclusive, very crowded, and very expensive. It has a limited number of shops and these are mostly up-market, of the likes of Rolex and Balenciaga etc.
You will be able to gape in awe at the luxury motor yachts of the rich and famous which are often moored in the small harbour.
There is not much to do here to be honest, except visit the castle, and then chill-out, eat and drink in the small seafront square before catching the ferry back. Very relaxing.
All too soon, time to face the PisaMover again at the airport.
Now you may get the impression that I did not enjoy this holiday. You would be wrong because it was an excellent sight-seeing trip. The only disappointments were Pisa centre, the wine tour and perhaps some of the evening meals.
There were some really lovely people on the trip and the Riviera Travel rep was a delight and very helpful, making an excellent and knowledgeable ambassador for the company.
84 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.