Welcome to Lunigiana!

Get to know the paradise under the “other” Tuscan sun…

Ahhh, Tuscany… the rolling green hills, endless olive trees, a glass or two of Chianti… it’s hard not to fall in love with this gorgeous region. But did you know there’s another side to this paradise, equally beautiful but with its own special character?

I never did, until Leo showed me.

In the northernmost part of Tuscany, bordering Liguria, lies Lunigiana, blessed with an ideal position between the lush mountains and emerald sea. It might not be (nearly) as famous as Val D’Orcia, Siena, or Chianti, but that gives this area the genuine vibes and authentic warmth that set it apart. You won’t find a tour bus for miles, and you’ll see more mushroom-hunting than wine-tastings. (Don’t even get me started about the AMAZING foods that are typical here – in fact, I’m planning another post just for that right now).

The view from one of our favorite restaurants in Malgrate (stay tuned for our post on the best Lunigiana eats!)

We must admit, our trips here are usually an indulgence – a little escape from the chaotic city life. Especially during sweltering summers, the air here is a refreshing, welcome change, and we relish in the cool, pristine streams. Driving up, you’ll notice the lush, green mountains that will give you a tropic bliss – I swear, I’m always reminded of Hawaii when I look around here (even because waterfalls are a dime a dozen!)  We always come home feeling refreshed and rejuvenated – that’s what happens after a week of stargazing and waking up to the sound of birds chirping.

Vico is overflowing with nature – bright flowers, lush green hills, and endless beauty.

The main “city” in the area is Aulla, but there are other moderately-sized towns surrounding it, including Pontremoli and Villafranca in Lunigiana. Our favorite, however, is charming Bagnone. Castles, bridges, and waterfalls galore, you’ll truly feel like you’ve entered a Disney book (even The Daily Mail declared it one of the top 10 “fairytale” villages in the world). No traffic or city bustle here – life takes on a new, slower tempo. (The only traffic you might come across is a sheep crossing!)

The picturesque town of Bagnone, which serves as the “center” for our visits.

Up the hill from Bagnone are more villages, although some are so small that just a few people inhabit them year-round. Vico (the same name we tend to give to the whole area when we drive up) has several “sub-” villages, including Vico Valle, Vico Monterole and Canneto.

Our home base, beautiful Monterole.

While Vico boasts the only actual bar among these small villages, the others are home to some of the most beautiful trails I’ve seen. They’ll take you to rivers with water so clear we often drink it, panoramic views of the stunning valleys below, and waterfalls that will convince you you’re in Heaven.

Leo taking a dip in the freshwater pools of Vico Valle.

A number of agriturismos in the area are beginning to pop up, and you can even eat an unforgettable homemade (and farm-fresh!) dinner right in someone’s living room – or, on a terrace overlooking a stunning vista of the green valleys. (But again, more on that in the next post, since there’s soooo much good food to cover!!)

Earth’s gifts are abundant here! Many residents can be completely self-sustainable just from their gardens.

Even if hiking to see waterfalls and swimming in pristine natural ponds isn’t for you, there are plenty of things to do to keep you occupied (but above all, relaxed). In Bagnone, there are (sometimes) more bars than people – and they’re all adorable, whether you want to enjoy a coffee or sip a spritz in the main square by the river. There are also boutiques and artisan shops, and don’t forget the little markets selling local products including hams, cheeses and wines!

 

The delicious spread set up for us by one of our neighbors, including homemade wine!

While the peaceful seclusion is part of what makes this place so special to us, it’s also well-connected to some of Italy’s finest gems. We often take the train from Villafranca (a town very close to Bagnone) to the Cinque Terre, a trip that takes just less than an hour. It’s also an easy drive to Lucca or Lerici, and about two hours by car from Milan.

Beautiful cherry blossoms line the road leading into Monterole.

I’ll always be in love with those postcard-perfect, world-famous Tuscan towns in the more southern parts of the region. But I’m so grateful that I got to discover the other side of Toscana, one that now holds a very special place in my heart. It’s still untouched by commercial tourism, so we highly recommend you take the chance to visit this little piece of heaven while Italy’s best-kept secret is still under wraps! Stay tuned for our next post, which will feature our guide to our favorite local foods and restaurants!

Our Favorite Day Trips from Rome

Sure, even an eternity wouldn’t be enough to see everything the Eternal City has to offer. But when you need a break from the traffic and city bustle, try one of our favorite escapes, especially perfect for beating the summer heat…

love living in Rome. I live in one large open-air museum, and it’s basically impossible to grow bored here. But, when the sweltering summer heat comes around and the tourist invasion begins, even the most avid Rome-lovers can appreciate a quick getaway to some of the fabulous hidden gems that surround the city.

Lago di Bracciano – Trevignano Romano

Just about 30 minutes outside the city lies Lake Bracciano, a drinking water reservoir for Rome and therefore one of the cleanest lakes in Italy. Three towns border the lake: Bracciano; Anguillara Sabazia; and, our favorite, Trevignano Romano. Motorized boats are prohibited on the lake, so it’s an ideal place for swimming, sailing, or canoeing. Trevignano Romano boasts some of the cutest lakeside bars and cafes, where you can sip a Pinot Grigio and take in a delightful summer afternoon alongside the resident swans. We’ve spent so many gorgeous spring and summer days enjoying aperitivi and bottles of white wine in these little bars. We’ve even brought our own bottle, a pizza, and a beach towel – the more economical (but also really fun) option. The town is full of adorable boutiques and gelato shops, so there’s something for everyone here.

Sometimes we like to indulge in a nice ham and cheese platter (literally my favorite thing in the world), lakeside…

Sometimes we like a DIY situation. 👌🏼

By far the most convenient way to reach Trevignano Romano is by car. However, if you don’t have one (or any generous Roman friends with cars), Bracciano can be reached by train from Rome in just under an hour. From there you’ll need to hop on a bus to Trevignano. Not the fastest method, but we feel these towns are definitely worth the day trip!

Rome’s Beaches

If you don’t have the time or budget to chase down the dolce vita of the Amalfi Coast or the Riviera, don’t fret. You can still enjoy some fantastic seaside living, on one of Rome’s many charming beaches.

Santa Marinella is a quiet, beautiful seaside gem with a suburban-vibe. You’ll see the local joggers, dog-walkers, and babies in strollers, all out and about, enjoying the sunshine. Clean beaches, elegant beach clubs and bars, and a laidback atmosphere make this one of my favorite spots to chill. Being from California, the beach reminds me a bit of Santa Monica’s sleepy shores.

Kicking back in Santa Marinella.

Passoscuronot far from Rome’s Fiumicino airport, is another excellent choice if you want your feet in the sand and a drink in your hand. We visited Nautin Club just last week, and rented two lounge chairs for the day (14 Euros for the two of us). We soaked up the sun for a few hours, but perhaps the highlight was our lunch at the club’s restaurant. We ordered a perfect Gewürztraminer, before our very knowledgeable waiter brought us a delicious seafood salad laced with avocados. I followed this with a starter, rather than a main course, but this place did not disappoint. My fried calamari and shrimp were exactly what I needed. Leo opted for a plate of spaghetti alle vongole (clams), a dish we’ve both had countless times, but this was really something else. We could try to recreate it, but we would only be disappointed.

At Nautin Club, Passoscuro.

We had originally agreed that we wouldn’t order dessert (since we are at the beach and in our swimsuits, after all) but our waiter’s recommendation we decided to share a delizia al limone from Sal de Riso and it was heavenly.

Castel Gandolfo – Lago Albano

It’s known as the pope’s summer residence, but for us it’s a perfect spot to enjoy a spritz. The shores of this large lake are dotted with bars, cafes and restaurants, and much like Trevignano Romano, you can easily rent a paddle boat for the day or take a swim. Plus, it’s easily reachable from Rome’s Termini station in just around 40 minutes.

Two more of my favorite things: Campari spritzes and Castel Gandolfo.

Our Guide to the Cinque Terre

What to see, eat, drink, and do in Italy’s beloved Riviera towns…

We can’t get enough of these five towns, and we make an effort to visit them every chance we get. We’re not claiming to be experts – we just want to share with you some of our favorite things and must-do’s, along with some tips we’ve picked up along the way. Ready? Andiamo!

Where to Stay

The beach at Monterosso al Mare.

Each town has something uniquely characteristic that makes it hard to compare it to others. You might be a Vernazza-person, for example; or maybe Riomaggiore is more your fancy. We’ve learned that we’re Monterosso-people. For us, this town has it all – a pristine beach (the only town to boast one); the Riviera allure of more glamorous neighbors like Vernazza; and, just a few steps inland, a maze of adorable streets filled with inviting shop windows and aroma-filled bakeries, giving you that sense of small-town coastal Italy.

Old town Monterosso al Mare, lined with shops and restaurants.

Every time we’ve come here, we’ve stayed at Casa di Zuecca. It’s a few steps in from the sea, just off the main square of the town. The rooms in this B&B are modern and pristinely maintained. Stefano, the owner, is the best host. Each morning he sets out a spread of fresh focaccia, cheeses, hams, and pastries for breakfast, which you can bring upstairs to the property’s rooftop terrace (along with your coffee, of course.) The terrace is also a great place to kick back in the afternoon for an aperitivo. Rooms are very fairly priced, but book ahead, as it’s often filled up for weeks or months in advance.

The view from Casa di Zuecca’s rooftop terrace.

Where to Drink

If you have the time, there’s one place you must absolutely stop during your Cinque Terre holiday. Hop on the Cinque Terre Express Train over to charming Manarola and prepare yourself for the best aperitivo with a view at Nessun Dorma.

This hip but casual bar boasts one of the best views of the coast, as well as of Manarola itself. Their cocktails are fabulous (Leo usually goes for their strawberry daiquiri). I usually stick with wine, ordering a local Cinque Terre vino bianco. Get your cameras ready – your Instagram and Snapchat friends are about to get very jealous.

Leo’s favorite strawberry daiquiri from Nessun Dorma in Manarola.

In Monterosso, we like to start our beach days off with a piña colada from Nuovo Eden bar. It sits right above the beach, so if you can bare to leave your towel, you can enjoy a cold Moretti with minimal effort. (Oh, apparently this is also a gelateria too. In case your first concern isn’t alcohol, unlike us.)

If you like piña coladas (for breakfast)… at Nuovo Eden.

In the main square, and right down the street from the Casa di Zuecca, you can order a glass of prosecco for as low as €3. Now, if that isn’t the life…

These are just our usual pit stops, but in each town you’re sure to find no shortage of places that will quench your thirst. Just check out the menu, and if you like the spot, stick around and relax. As for non-alcoholic beverages, these towns have some of the best lemonades that you can find in virtually every bar of cafe. Get ready to make that sour pucker…

Where to Eat

It’s not hard to find great food here – on almost every corner you can munch on heavenly focaccia, and it’s an option that’s as economical as it is delicious. There’s a great spot right outside the train station in Monterosso al Mare – it’s usually our first item of business when we arrive.

Looking for an unforgettable romantic dinner with your travel partner? Try L’Ancora della Tortuga in Monterosso. Leo brought me here for my birthday last year and it was divine. The sunset we witnessed from our table was literally the realization of so many dreams (that vision board I made a few years back sure was useful…) But, while the view and romantic atmosphere is unmatched, the seafood dishes here are equally enchanting. The pasta with vongole and the spaghetti ai frutti di mare were wonderful. And, again, everything here is photogenic – hope your social media accounts can handle it.

The dreamy view from L’Ancora della Tortuga.

In the old town of Monterosso, another of our favorite options is Ciak – great value for great food. Try their gnocchi al pesto, a dish this region is famous for (and, as you’ll see, for good reason.)

How to Get Around

If you’re into being healthy and active and sweaty and all that (in other words, not us) – you can follow the famous hiking trails and see the five towns (and breathtaking views) on foot. If you happen to be more like us and just want to make it to the beach or plate of pesto as quickly and comfortably as possible, the Cinque Terre Express Train will be your best friend.

Trains leave every few minutes, and cost €4 per person each way. If you plan on taking more than four trains in a day, you might consider the Cinque Terre Card (€16 for one day, €29 for two days.) Tickets can be purchased directly at the station.

There is also a ferry, which transports you between towns for €5 per person per way. You can also book tickets to see the nearby towns of Portovenere or Portofino.

We hope you found this info helpful. Please let us know if you have any tips for seeing the Cinque Terre, or if you have a favorite place/memory you’d like to share! We’d love to hear your insight.

What is an aperitivo?

In Italy, between around six and eight in the evening, you’ll see them everywhere, in every corner bar or beachside hangout: Italians congregating for the ritual of the aperitivo.

If you love food and drinks as much as I do, then you’ll understand and appreciate the Italian logic of prepping your stomach for food by consuming food (and alcohol – Don’t forget the alcohol!)

Throwing a small one back, especially if it’s comprised of something bitter, usually has the effect of making one hungry – thus, “opening” (“apertus” in Latin) one’s appetite. But, you can’t just be left hanging there with an empty, rumbling stomach until dinner, right? (Especially since dinner time here can start at 8:00 p.m. and on). That’s why there’s no aperitivo without a little something to munch on. In many bars, either more simple ones or, in many cases, more touristy, that something can be as basic (but nonetheless essential) as potato chips and peanuts. In other places, you might be served (what to me is) the equivalent of a small meal – which, as an American, gleefully shocked me. Ain’t no one brining you free food with your Chardonnay at Applebee’s! I could live off some of the pre-dinner spreads I’ve been served here without ever touching dinner.

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A tasty spread of pizza squares and small sandwiches to accompany our Campari spritzes, at Mario Tornatora, a well-known establishment just downstair from my apartment in Rome.

What I’ve noticed as an outsider is that, equally important with what’s on the table or in your glass, is who you’re with and how you’re relaxing. Aperitivo time is the break at the end of a day’s work, where one can transition from work-mode to home, mingle with friends, or simply enjoy a moment of peace.

Leo and I have been lucky to sip martinis and spritzes in some of the world’s most beautiful settings. But some of our best aperitivi were found in the least-suspecting places, like the corner bars in our own neighborhood, usually full of gray-haired gentlemen smoking cigars and playing cards. And for our friends who aren’t living on the boot with us, it is so easy to make your own aperitivo at home, and it’s a habit I would strongly recommend picking up. We’ll be sharing some recipes and tips for making your own delicious spread in your own kitchen. Everyone everywhere can join the fun and live the sweet life!

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Lakeside, in Trevignano Romano, a more basic spread but one with a heavenly view!

Stay tuned for those recipes I mentioned, as well as travel tips and drink inspiration.

Salute!