Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Self-catering Apartments - Are They Right For You? Part 3: Riomaggiore Appartamento Giovanna

   On our first two trips to Italy we stayed in Florence and took fantastic day trips to see the sights in other towns and cities. Traveling several times by high speed trains of Trenitalia and Italotreno, it was fairly easy to visit Venice and Rome just for a day. And, if you buy your tickets online before you leave for Italy, you can save as much as 50%,  but be aware if you do that, you probably won't be able to change your ticket or your travel dates. Though trying to see Venice or Rome in just a day may seem impossible (it is), but in just two hours you can be in Venice, where you can walk around for 5-8 hours, have lunch, aperitivo, wine, take the Vaporetto on the Grand Canal to St. Mark's, and cross the Rialto Bridge. In Rome, you can see the Pantheon,  Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum and have lunch before boarding your train for the two hour trip back to Florence. We just wanted to be sure to get a taste in the event that we were unable to return to Italy. Another place we saw on our first trip was Cinque Terre. We signed up for a full day hiking tour that took us by air-conditioned coach to Cinque Terre (more on the tour in another post). It's a fairly long trip whether on a tour bus or taking the train on your own. We left Florence at about 8:30 in the morning and didn't return until 8:30 in the evening. A long day, but a good value and well worth the time.

Cinque Terre scene.

View from Appartamento Giovanna in Riomaggiore..

View from Appartamento Giovanna in Riomaggiore.

   On our second trip in 2014, this one with another couple, we chose Cinque Terre as a great place to celebrate my sister-in-law's 60th birthday on September 29th. To do this, we needed a more relaxed adventure, so we rented an apartment in Riomaggiore, one of the five towns. All four of us packed small travel bags for our overnight trip. We were traveling light on regional trains! We kept our apartment in Florence, as well.

   I searched on to find a budget friendly apartment in Riomaggiore. After checking on a few places and reading the reviews, I selected a nice one bedroom apartment with stunning views of the sea and town. Appartamento Giovanna fit the bill perfectly. The cost was $162 split two ways. There was a double sofa bed in the living area along with the very nice bedroom, so the four of us were quite comfortable for one night.The apartment has a fully equipped kitchenette for making meals along with a dining and a living area (all one room). While the place was small and cozy, it was also spotlessly clean. We knew it was a fantastic choice!

Appartamento Giovanna - Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre.

Some of the provisions at Appartamento Giavanna.


Living & Dining Area. Bedroom doorway.

   Here is my review of Appartamento Giovanna:

   Location, cleanliness, amenities and extras like, wine, pasta, coffee, tea, jelly, croissants, soap, towels - everything we needed! The provisions were above and beyond! Frederika took our call and sent Paulo to lead us up to the apartment. Paulo met us at the train station and walked with us to the apartment the most scenic way. Breathtaking views. And, Giovanna was waiting for us at the apartment. She was so friendly, helpful and just plain wonderful! The apartment was bright, cheery, super clean and seemed brand new. It comes with such fantastic views. Just steps down to the center of town and the sea. Everything was perfect! We do hope to rent this apartment again for a longer stay. We would totally recommend Appartamento Giovanna!
(While we liked everything and it all worked out perfectly for the four of us, someone with mobility/physical conditioning concerns should know that it is an uphill walk from the train station (on the street, sidewalks and stairs) all the way from the town center.)

   The walk down the hill into the center of town and the sea takes about 8 minutes; going back up to the apartment takes about 12 minutes. The sights are beautiful all the way. There are plenty of restaurants,
gelato shops and pizza places to choose from as you walk. Be sure to be at the water's edge for a spectacular sunset. Plan ahead and make a reservation at one of the restaurants facing the Ligurian Sea. We had a nice lunch with wine overlooking the stunning sea view at Bar Conchiglila. We had dinner at Enoteca Dau Cilla, but were unable to get a table outside with a view. We had tried earlier in the day to make a reservation for a table outside, but we were too late. However, the unique grotto-like room where we ate our dinner was just perfect. And, we had enjoyed the spectacular sunset before dinner!
Lunch check for four.

Reserve a table for dinner in Riomaggiore.

Riomaggiore sunset!

   From our wonderful experience, I highly recommend Giovanna's apartment to anyone who desires a super clean, well-equipped, modern apartment with stunning views in a great location. I would suggest making your reservation early.

  Up in my next post - our fantastic self-catering apartment in Bologna...


Saturday, April 9, 2016

Self-catering Apartments - Are They Right For You? Part 2: Florence Aurora Apartment

  Yes, there are a myriad of choices when it comes to finding lodging in Italy, specifically in Tuscany. Villas, hostels, campgrounds, hotels, apartments and, even convents. Whatever your preference, do your homework by reading reviews, visiting websites, studying photos, mapping out the location, contacting owners with your questions and  talking to friends who have already visited. Having done all that, you can be pretty confident with your choice for places to stay.

   When we first began looking for an apartment to rent in Florence back in 2011, we were so impressed with the Tripadvisor reviews for the Aurora Apartment (see photos and reviews) and its owners that we immediately requested a reservation. Much to our disappointment, the apartment was already booked for several of the days of our stay, but Gabriele, the owner mentioned that he had a three bedroom apartment, Casa Iris (please see my previous post), that was undergoing a complete remodel and would be ready in time for our stay. We did rent that apartment in 2011 and in 2014 when we returned with friends.

   Contacting Gabriele while making plans for our last-minute adventure to Tuscany in September 2015, we asked if Aurora would be available? Fortunately, we were able to reserve the apartment this time for our seven day stay in Florence, after spending three days in Milan and 3 days in Bologna on the way. Aurora is on the same street as Casa Iris but closer to Piazza della Liberta.
Via Madonna Della Tosse looking toward Piazza della Liberta.

Via Madonna Della Tosse looking toward the parking garage entrance.

   So, fast-forward to November 14, 2015 when we got our first in-person look at Aurora. Just perfect! The building is very safe and secure.  While smaller than Casa Iris, it is fully equipped with stove, refrigerator, clothes washer, pots & pans, dishes, microwave, dishwasher, toaster, coffee maker, hair dryer, iron and ironing board, TV/DVD player, heat and air conditioning (that you control) and everything else you might need. The bedroom is spacious (much like Casa Iris) and the sofa converts into a double bed.The quiet apartment is also decorated perfectly by Stefania with antique pieces including a huge armoire that is hundreds of years old! The Internet and WiFi work very well. You can't go wrong here, but be aware, there are two flights of stairs. There is even a small, nice and very quiet caffe/bar on the street level and, believe it or not, there is a German style pub right down the street.
Kitchen at the Aurora Apartment.

   We stayed with what we knew by renting this apartment. Gabriele and Stefania, once again, helped make our third visit to the wonderful city of Florence a memorable one. By returning to their wonderful apartments, Florence is beginning to feel like a second home to us. With the help of our hosts, we have learned which buses to take, where to get groceries and wine and where there are some great restaurants nearby. You can reserve one of their apartments with confidence, especially, if it will be your first trip to Italy.
Debbie and me enjoying Florence in October 2014.

  Next up, Part 3: a delightful apartment we rented in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre in 2014.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Self-Catering Apartments - Are They Right For You? Part 1: Florence Casa Iris

   As you're planning your trip to Italy, you'll have to decide early where you'll spend your nights. I'm guessing that most people traveling on vacations far from home choose to stay in a hotel, an inn or B & B, a rental villa or self-catering apartment. There are choices for every taste and budget. In each of our stays in Italy with one exception in Milan, we chose to rent an apartment. This worked out very  well for us each time.
   One of the best things about renting an apartment, aside from the obvious like saving money on meals, is the chance to live in an Italian neighborhood away from the tourist center hustle and bustle. If you're lucky enough to find an apartment with a balcony, you can open the doors to listen to the everyday sounds of Italian life. You don't usually get that by staying in a hotel in the city center.
   In 2011, after reading many reviews on Tripadvisor, Flipkey (Tuscany) and/or, we were able to choose the best apartment for us. Our budget calls for spending no more than 100 euros a night, if possible, for lodging. Of course, a good exchange rate can definitely save you money. With a dollar/euro exchange rate of $1.39 a 100 euro/night apartment would be $139 per night, but if the rate is only $1.10 like on our last trip, the nightly cost is only $110 - a big savings!
   Once you've decided on a location, don't forget to read a lot of reviews because budget is hardly the only criteria to use when searching for your perfect place. When we were looking for our first apartment in Florence, the reviews describing the owners and the service they provided alone convinced us to go ahead and reserve Casa Iris (take a look at the owner's photos here). Not one of the excellent reviews turned out to be an exaggeration. So, on our very first trip to Italy we chose this apartment based more on reviews than on price - there were other apartments we found that were cheaper, but none compared to Casa Iris in any other way.

  The apartment is spacious and spotless with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a nice eat-in kitchen equipped with everything you need for meal prep including some food staples, a small balcony and a large comfortable living room with a flat-screen TV which we never used. The Internet and wifi worked quickly and well. There is even a small washing machine to do your laundry. There are two flights of stairs, which was not a problem for us. The apartment is secure with with keyed entry into the building as well as into the unit itself.

   If you do choose to rent a car, there is an underground pay parking garage right across the street. Be aware that you will not be allowed to drive or park in most of the city center. If you're caught, be prepared to pay a stiff fine. One store nearby, that we visited daily, was the Essalunga Supermarket on Masaccio (about a 8 minute walk from the apartment). You can find whatever you need there, including excellent wine at very reasonable prices. There are several city bus stops within about three minutes of the apartment door. Two of the buses will take you to points in the city center like the Santa Maria Novella (SMN) Train Station and points in between and, one where you can board Bus #7 to Fiesole. The city bus service in Florence is excellent.

The location of Casa Iris near Piazza della Liberta, (a local landmark) far enough from the sometimes noisy City center (citta centro), but close enough for walking. It's approximately a 20 minute walk to the Duomo at a steady clip and 25-30 minutes to the SMN train station and the SITA bus station. The Uffizi Gallery is about 20 minutes walking and The Accademia Gallery are about 15 minutes. We found that Casa Iris was ideal for all of our day trips to other cities like Venice, Rome, Siena, San Gimignano, Bologna, Pisa, Lucca and many more. Plus,there is so much to see in Florence that is just a 20-30 minute walk away or a 10-20 minute city bus ride. Here are Tripadvisor's top 10 attractions in Florence. You can not be bored!

   We loved everything about this apartment from its amenities to its location, but especially, its owners Gabriele and Stefania, who were there for all of our questions and solved any minor problems immediately. Their attention to detail can't be beat. Our 16 day stay was perfect! We liked this apartment so much that we rented it again, for two weeks in 2014. Gabriele and Stefania also have a smaller one bedroom apartment which we rented for 7 days in 2015, Aurora Apartment on the same street that I'll feature in my next post.
Door to Casa Iris
Barry relaxing on the balcony at Casa Iris

Debbie hanging out laundry

Great internet and wifi!

One of three very nice bedrooms

Calling it a night...

Keeping out the sun...

Lunch at Casa Iris