The Cruise Port Livorno was the next stop on our Mediterranean Cruise. Livorno is on the western side of Italy and from the port, one can access Pisa, Florence or any number of hill towns in Tuscany.
Our original plan was to take one of the excursions to Florence, but the one we chose was canceled at the last minute so on an impulse, we jumped on an excursion called The Essence of Tuscany.
This was one of those fortuitous decisions that made me later wonder if perhaps a little travel angel had guided our journey.
Because the entire day from start to finish was positively perfect.
Our day started early so my sleepy girl was thankful for the bus ride from our cruise port. I had to nudge her occasionally though to look out the window at the happy landscapes. Immediately we fell head over heals for our easy-going adorable guide, Chiara.
Her soft voice speaking occasionally over the microphone on the bus was a subtle interruption rather than a startling announcement.
She let us know that we would be visiting two Tuscan hill towns with a stop for lunch at a country villa in between. At both towns she would show us a few things, but then let us roam on our own until an appointed time.
(It would not be until I had been on two other Carnival excursions that I would come to fully appreciate how very perfect this arrangement was. More on this later.)
We started in the town square. Chiara told us the very best spot for gelato, which we were happy to eat, even at 10 in the morning. She recommended two local flavors, white wine and chocolate. They were both divine.
Mary Polly had berries with lavender which was also sublime.
After gelato we wandered around the square and the surrounding towers for a while.
San Gimignano is famous for its preserved towers and walls which date back to the 12th, 13th and 16th centuries.
Mary Polly loved exploring this small town.
It is walled in on all sides, and everything eventually leads back to the square so it is virtually impossible to get lost, which is why it is a wonderful place to just let yourself go.
Go ahead and get lost and forget your way because the wandering of these little alleys and cobblestone walkways is magical.
Every doorway seemed like it might open to a wonderland.
Mary Polly and I both kept pointing out doors we’d like to live behind.
This might explain the fairly ridiculous number of pictures of windows and doors I have from our time in Italy.
Some places looked like they might be homes to hobbits or dwarves.
Or even fairies.
Soon we had wandered up to the old fortress and park that overlook the town.
We climbed to the top of the tower and sat for a while to enjoy the view.
I showed Mary Polly the exact spot in the park where Taido and I had enjoyed a picnic lunch many years before. We listened to musicians playing in the park, and wandered in and out of olive groves.
Then we made our way back down to the square.
Everyone was filled with the same delight as we were, talking about how perfect San Gimignano was. We got back on our bus and drove a short way to our lunch spot.
At lunch, we were greeted with the most welcoming sight.
Long green checkered tables lined with local wines, olive oil and Parmesan cheese were shaded from the noonday sun.
We filled up these tables and had a lazy first course of bread, cheese, pancetta and bruchetta.
Then we had pasta. More bread of course. And traditional Italian custard for dessert.
We exchanged stories over lunch.
I might also have cornered Chiara to see if she could arrange an Italian Countryside 40th birthday trip the following year. Maybe it was the wine, but I was pretty much in love with her by this point.
Next we went to Volterra. Thankfully, we had a little drive (and a little nap) to get there.
Volterra also has beautiful towers, but it is mostly known for its Roman ruins from the 1st century.
We stood on a small ridge above the Roman Theater while Chiara told us the its history and gave us a few more tips about walking through Volterra.
Here she is. So cute, right?
Then she let us go and wander the village on our own.
I loved this striped stone work on the buildings. It’s from the 13th century (I think…I kind of lose track).
We wandered inside a couple of the churches and Mary Polly even lit a candle for a loved one.
I could look at ornate ceilings and arches and artwork within old European churches for the rest of my life. So fascinating to me.
More wandering through beautiful streets.
More getting lost and dreaming about staying in Italy forever and ever.
More finding our way back to the beginning by way of tiny alleys.
And fairytale gateways.
We were sad for our Tuscany day to be over because we loved it so much.
It would have been fine with us if our boat had left us there for a day or two more, but it was time to get on our bus and head back to the Breeze.
Goodbye lovely Italian countryside!
If you go:
There are a few slightly tedious details I would love to share with you about taking this particular excursion with Carnival and about excursions in general.
I hesitate to share them here because this post is already quite long and this part is kind of boring. However, this is exactly the kind of information I was searching madly for before I went on this cruise so here they are. Please feel free to skip to the comments and just tell me how much you want to go back to Italy with me next time.
1. Why choose The Essence of Tuscany as an excursion?
The ports of Livorno (Florence/Pisa) and Rome are back to back on this cruise, as they seem to be for most Mediterranean cruises. I cannot wait to share about our time in Rome, (next week?) but its pace was dizzying, as it should be if you only have one day in Rome. Had we done a similar day of touring monuments and museums in Florence as we had originally planned, I am not sure if we would have been to appreciate our day in Rome quite as much. This is even more true for Mary Polly. We walked miles and miles every day of trip, are both in reasonably good shape and enjoy a challenging day of sightseeing. However, this more easy going day in Tuscany turned out to be her favorite part of our entire two week trip.
2. Why do an excursion at all? Why not just go on your own?
Believe me. I asked the internet this question a lot, because excursions are not cheap. We only did three excursions in eight ports. The other five we did on our own.
However, Livorno (which is an hour from Florence) and Civitavecchia (which is an hour and half from Rome) are both industrial ports. You have to hire some kind of transportation just to get out of the port area. There are lots of people (via the mind-numbing chat threads of Cruise Critic) who get into smaller groups and hire excursions on their own outside of Carnival. I think the main advantage of doing this is that the group size is smaller. They are not necessarily that much cheaper (though they can be a little), but since it was my first cruise in the Mediterranean, it just seemed safer to me to book with Carnival. I would love a smaller group size and I would love to hand choose a guide (for example, obviously if I were going back to Tuscany, I would be calling Chiara), but the thought of Mary Polly and I ending up in a car with four drunks from Cleveland, Ohio was frankly worse to me than the thought of being on a bus with 50 people.
How does the excursion work exactly? Do you have to stand in line for a long time? What is the group size? Don’t you waste a lot of time waiting on other people all day?
The group sizes on Carnival’s European excursions are quite large. There are close to 50 people on each bus. In the past when I have cruised with Carnival in the Caribbean, you just get off the boat and find your excursion, but on the Carnival Breeze, they have a system where you go into the theater to get grouped for your excursion. On your excursion ticket is a time that you need to be in the theater. The excursions that were leaving for Florence and Pisa had the earliest times, around 6:30 or 7am. Our excursion wasn’t leaving until 8. We, of course, arrived early to the theater because when I am unsure about a situation I tend to be a little nutty about the details. So I watched many of the other excursions leave the theater first.
What happens is that as you enter the theater you are handed a number on a little sticker. This turns out to be your group number and your bus number. Apart from the fact that this makes you feel a little bit like you’ve been branded and herded like a cow, the numbers are actually make things move quite efficiently.
Because I was early for my excursion, I was handed the number of the first bus leaving for my tour. As it turned out, there were several Essence of Tuscany buses, as there were several of all the other kinds as well. So serendipitously I discovered a detail that I found very helpful for all of our other tours. If you arrive early for your excursion, you are placed on the first bus leaving. This also means you will be the first bus to arrive at all the sights, ooh and also at lunch. This was certainly nice on our Tuscany tour, but proved to be even more helpful on our Rome tour since there were so many more buses going to all the different sights.
Also, and more importantly, if you are early for your tour, then your bus tends to be made of people who are responsible and on time. This detail saves you being on a bus with people who don’t mind being late. It seems like a small, petty thing until you are waiting on a bus full of people ready to go to the Colosseum, but you are held up by someone who thinks the entire
world tour revolves around them.
Once I realized all of this on our Tuscany tour, you can bet that I was a half hour early for our Rome tour, where there is a lot more stopping and starting. Mary Polly was not really loving me when we had to be in the theater at 6am, but we were on Bus #1 to Rome.