Here in Belgium, there are school holidays for 2 weeks around Easter so I thought it was the perfect time for a spring trip to Italy. There are so many places in Italy to go, it was hard to decide but I settled on Tuscany because most of our travel in Europe has been to big cities, and we just wanted to go somewhere and relax, maybe do some hiking (as much as we could with a 5 year old). So, we headed first to the Galfagnana and then to the island of Elba.
We flew into Pisa, picked up our rental car and headed north. We drove through Lucca, with its beautiful city wall and onwards to Barga. We stayed just a couple of kilometers outside the town at a lovely Agristourismo called Al Benefizio. The road there was narrow, winding and steep but it was worth it. We stayed in a lovely apartment in the old stables, with a balcony with the most amazing view of Barga over the valley, and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The woman who runs the Agristourismo also keeps bees and they were just getting very active with the warm days we were having.
We only stayed 2 days but we really enjoyed our time. In the morning, a baker would arrive with his van full of breads, pizza, focaccia and croissants, which we would enjoy on the balcony. That first day, we played hide and seek in the olive grove, then we explored nearby Barga, walking up to the castle and church at the top and exploring the little alleyways that wind through the village. We had the most delicious gelato, in cones filled with chocolate, at Theobroma.
The next morning, we hiked from our lodgings up the mountain behind us, the hotel owner’s dog, Cookie was our tour guide. The trees and flowers were just on the verge of blooming and the air was crisp and fresh. The views were amazing, it was so nice to be in the mountains again. Cookie showed us a shortcut back down through the olive trees to the Agristoursimo. In the afternoon, we drove up to Castelnuovo di Galfagnana and explored the town and bought some chestnut beer and dried sausage to sample.
We said goodbye to the mountains and headed south towards the port of Piombino. There we caught the ferry to Elba. The ferries are huge, transporting cars, trucks and people and even have kids play places. Since we were there in April, it was not crowded at all. Elba is probably most well known as the island that Napoleon was exiled on, but it is also surrounded by crystal blue water and a variety of beaches and small towns. We arrived in Portoferraio but our Airbnb was in Porto Azzurro so we drove our car off the ferry and headed about 20 min across the island to our base while in Elba. We settled in and went out to explore the small port town. We found many restaurants and shops a few minutes from our door and continued further to see a small beach of pebbles adjacent to the harbor, then a trail that wound up along the cliff side. It was beautiful up there, with many prickly pear cacti and flowers as well as stunning views across the bay. My son called it a “cactus forest” and thrilled in exploring the area. After a little exploration of the fort up on top of the cliffs, we headed back down for some dinner. We ate at an amazing restaurant called Tamata, which had a very tempting tasting menu but we opted for a la carte instead. N had the octopus (yes, he is 5), T had a local fish, and I had tuna encrusted with pistachio and served with crispy pork and tabasco. It was amazing. N & I shared the “sea of chocolate” dessert. I don’t know how they made the chocolate the texture of sponge (I found that bit odd) but the fresh cream and the chocolate raspberry coral were yummy!
In the morning we decided to hike to a beach from Porto Azzuro via the trail we had explored the previous night. It was a beautiful walk, around the tops of the hills and overlooking the sea the whole time. We found our first beach at Barbarossa and searched for beach glass and interesting rocks. Then we continued on to another beach where they were building some umbrellas, preparing for the summer visitors. A little further on, we came to a beach with black sand and all kinds of interesting volcanic rock. N thought the black sand was really cool and scooped around with joy. In the afternoon, we drove to some other beaches that were not too far away but we were disappointed to find they were dirty and seemed to be in abandoned summer resort towns. I’m not sure if things get cleaned up in the summer but they were disappointingly not kept up to their potential.
The next day we decided to take a road trip around to the other side of the island to see what it was like. We headed first to Portoferraio and wandered around up by the fort and found the house that Napoleon lived in while on the island. We counted the stones steps to the top and wandered through some shops around the port. Then we headed on to Capo Bianco, but couldn’t figure out how to get to the beach so we went on to Spiagga Di Sottobomba and climbed down the steep stairs to the beach. It was beautiful, white rocks both large and small everywhere. The sound of the stones washing back in with the waves was incredibly soothing. N was throwing all the large stones into the waves and when I asked him why, he said he was trying to get down to the beach (the sand). I told him we could take off our shoes and go in to the sandy part and he was all in for that. Our clothes got a little wet but it was worth it.
We got back in the car and followed the windy roads to Procchio and then to Marciana Marina. The latter was my favorite town on the island. It had small shops and restaurants and a charming promenade along the harbor. It seemed cleaner and better maintained than other towns and the harbor had a curved pier that added to the beauty. From there we drove up hair pin turns and steep drops past Poggio and onward to Marciana. The views! Wow! We drove back on a different road, the SP27 which was not a large road like the others, but a nerve-wracking single lane drive through enchanting pine forest with moss covered rocks. If only there had been some guard rails my nerves would have been a little soothed. I needed a break so we pulled over at the ruins of San Giovanni church. Set in a forest with large boulders and wind-twisted trees, it was a calming site. We drove through Marina di Campo and finally found a sandy beach at Lacona and stopped to play for a bit before heading back to Porto Azzurro for some pasta.
We spent our last day in Pisa, doing the touristy things you do there- visiting the Leaning Tower and checking out the Keith Haring mural, then got up early to fly home. Can’t wait to see some more of Italy in the future!