43 TU3A members travelled by Enterprise Coach from Tonbridge and arrived at Gatwick airport around midday on Tuesday 2nd May.It was a very good flight to Pisa during which we had wonderful views of both the north of Corsica and the Italian islands in the Adriatic Sea.Ludo, our guide for the week, greeted us at the airport and introduced us to our driver, Fabio, who, it turns out, could be the best driver in Italy!
After allocation of our well appointed rooms, and settling into the slightly faded opulence of the hotel in Montecatini Terme (a spa town), dinner was served and we looked forward to the following day, which was to be spent in Lucca.During the coach journey Ludo talked to us about the history of Tuscany and the rivalries and wars between Lucca, Pisa and Florence and how the competitive spirit continues today.Through heavy showers, interspersed with sunshine we saw the beautiful views of the Tuscan hills and the walled hilltop villages with towers competing in height, as an indication of superiority.In Lucca we wandered through the narrow streets of the 16th Century Romanesque town, visiting the amphitheatre and the first of the amazing frescoes which were to be a continuing thread throughout our visit.
Later in the day, we experienced to a short tour of Fattoria il Poggio, an old family farm which grows and processes both olives and grapes.Then we were treated to a delightful traditional Tuscan lunch of home produced cheeses, cold meats and olives followed by pasta, followed by pork, chicken and spicy sausages, all accompanied by salads, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and various of wines from the farms’ vineyard, which we were encouraged to drink at every opportunity!
Siena was our next visit.A wonderful town and an excellent guided tour and history of the Cathedral, Piazza and the traditional Palio horse race.Lucca and Siena became wealthy and important towns mainly due to the Via Romea, the Roman Road on which Pilgrims travelled in the Middle Ages, from Canterbury to Rome. The day was followed by an adventurous few hours drive through wonderful countryside and magnificent views, ending with yet another excellent farmhouse meal.Luckily the rain, which had threatened all day, held off until we were settled. Then it came down in torrents!
We certainly saw a lot of Tuscany, and Ludo told us interesting stories of Italian history, which sadly, many details of which this writer finds hard to retain!Florence was our next visit.A wonderful city of exceptional buildings and architecture – the Cathedral, Duomo, the Accademia , the Uffizia Gallery and the Ponte Vecchio c1354.Sadly, Florence seems to have become a victim of its own success and the crowds of tourists made it difficult for us to see all that we wanted to, which wasn’t helped by an EU Conference in the Accademia , attended by Jean-Claude Juncker, involving the inevitable security and diversions.A few days are needed in Florence to do it justice.
Saturday was a peaceful, if wet, day, visiting Museo Villa Puccini.Situated on a beautiful lake, this was the house Puccini composed most of his wonderful music, which played in the background as we were guided around the small rooms packed with the composer’s manuscripts, documents, photographs and personal artifacts.After his death Puccini’s body was interred within the house, a room having been especially converted into a ‘chapel of rest’.On our return to Montecatini Terme the weather improved and many of us took the cable car up to the medieval walled town of Montecatini Alto for lunch and to take in the terrific views of the spa town, the plains and the hills beyond.After our descent it was appropriate to ‘take the waters’ at the Spa (clear and somewhat salty), and wander around looking at the lovely frescoes above the spa ‘taps’ and the peaceful fountains, columns and gardens.
It was a warm, quiet day in San Gimignamo and the old walled city of Volterra, where, as usual, there was much to see and absorb, including the Alabaster Museum.However, to many, the highlight of the day was the surprise appearance of a beautiful white horse, prancing into the piazza, ridden by the one and only Andre Boccheli!
Our final morning was in Pisa, where once again we were treated to a knowledgeable guide who explained, amongst many historical details,that not only did the Tower lean, but the Baptistry also.Pisa was once a port and therefore built on sandy soil - not a particularly good foundation to build magnificent religious structures.After free time in Pisa, including an excellent lunch, we were driven to the airport, where we said a fond farewell to Fabio and Ludo.
The flight and drive from Gatwick to Tonbridge was uneventful, and we all thanked our terrific organisers Jean, Neil and Geoff for an extremely entertaining and informative holiday.
My first U3A holiday, and what a good time I had! Thank you very much for making it possible and for all the behind the scenes hours of planning, booking and general management you must have done to make it go so smoothly. There were moments - inevitably with such a large group - but you kept smiling and made it easy for everyone. I have made some new friends and lots more acquaintances and will look forward to seeing familiar faces on future days out. With my best wishes and appreciation
Thank you all for organising such a lovely holiday, I really enjoyed it and
hope you all did too.Many Thanks
First of all our thanks must go to Neil, Geoff and Jean for organising this trip for43 members of the Tonbridge U3A. It went like clockwork with the odd exception.
We left Tonbridge on 2ndMay, and were picked up at Willow Lea, where the coach was early, this was obviously a good omen, and arrived at Gatwick early after an uninterrupted trip along the M25, Is this a first! All passengers were checked in and away we went. Arriving on time at Pisa airport we were met by our wonderful escort Ludo and the very good driver Fabio. On arriving at our hotel in Montecatini Terme, we were ready for our evening meal and then off to bed.
After breakfast we left for Lucca, a fortress town, where they have built houses on the old Roman amphitheatre. This was followed by a trip to Fattoria al Poggio in Monte Carlo for a light lunch and wine tasting after seeing how they produced olive oil. I always understood wine tasting to be a mouthful of wine and then spit it out, not the large number of bottles on the table to be consumed, this was wonderful and the food was good too!After purchasing some wine and oil from the farm shop we made our way back to the hotel, just as well Fabio didn’t indulge in the wine.
Thursday we went to Siena, such a lovely town, famous for the Palio horse race held twice a year. We visited the gorgeous cathedral and the wonderful library with its beautiful painted ceiling and murals on the walls. After this visit we headed for a rural farmhouse restaurant for dinner. As I understand it the original venue closed a month earlier and was replaced by another restaurant and this is where the first drama of the holiday occurred. This place was in the middle of nowhere, and Fabio showed what a wonderful driver he was by finding the place. Unfortunately the restaurant was situated one kilometre down a winding road that the coach couldn’t get down. It was then arranged that the restaurant staff would ferry us, using their cars, to the restaurant, some of us decided to walk and work up an appetite. After a lovely dinner and wine we departed the restaurant the same way as we arrived, by now it was raining quite hard. Unfortunately for one of the party the return journey was rather painful, no names mentioned, as she got in a car the driver started to pull away and this poor lady was left prostate on the ground, bruising and scraping her face and body. By the end of the holiday her face was black and blue but I cannot vouch for the rest of her body. We returned to the hotel without further incident.
Friday was Florence, which used to be my favourite Italian town, but has now been surpassed by Siena. It was boiling hot on this day and after a lovely visit to Florence which included yet another large ice cream we returned to the coach and had to wait for two stragglers.
Saturday we went to Torre de Lago, to the home of Giacomo Puccini, which was very interesting, also interesting was how our guide managed to walk around on such high heeled shoes. This was a half day visit which allowed us time to discover Montecatini Terme and the old town of Montecatini Alto.
Sunday was our last full day, we visited San Gimignano, another fortress town that now has 13 towers as opposed to the 72 towers it once had, not sure how these were incorporated into this town. This place is nicknamed the “Small Manhattan”. We then moved to Volterra which is situated very high above the valley and famed for its alabaster craftsmen. En route we were held up by an accident which shortened our visit a little. However we all met up at the requested time and place apart from the same two stragglers from Friday. This time they were really late and Ludo set out to find them and couldn’t locate them, so we met Fabio and moved to the place where we had been dropped off and there they were. What was really annoying was the fact they did not apologise to the organisers or the rest of us for holding up the return journey for well over half an hour.
Monday and our last day in Italy, we went to Pisa and visited the lovely sites which are all situated together. Some intrepid people even climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower.
We then returned to the airport and said our good byes to both Ludo and Fabio, boarded our plane and returned to Gatwick where our coach awaited us.
All in all this was a very well organised trip, we saw a lot of the sights of Tuscany and once again many thanks to the organisers for a wonderful holiday and we look forward to the next one.
Thank you to everyone who has written, emailed and called the members of the Team