DayTripQuip™: A Free Bus Tour Of “The Prato You Do Not Expect”


That’s Prato

Phone: +39 328 00 21 009

Web: ThatsPrato.com

Prices: € € € € 

Abbey (Badia) of Santa Maria of Montepiano

Across the piazza from Chiesa Santa Maria Novella, a free bus will take from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station to various itineraries in and around Prato, a town between Florence and Pistoia heading toward Lucca and Pisa. You pay only for the entrance to museums (if applicable) and your lunch.

Monastery of St. Nicholas -Courtyard

The Province of Prato has organized these free weekly tours available on ten consecutive Sundays from May to July, taking four routes/itineraries with both Italian and English Guides:

  • CONTEMPORARY ART AND INDUSTRIAL ARCHEOLOGY
  • WHEN THERE WERE THE ETRUSCANS / ETRUSCAN PAST
  • THE NOBLE TRAIL: VILLAS AND CASTLES
  • THE PATH OF PILGRIMS

I emailed That’s Prato, asking for a reservation for the Path of the Pilgrims tour which was quickly accommodated with a reply the following day for the next Sunday. When we arrived at the train station on Sunday morning, the group was in front of McDonald’s next to Track #1 as promised. We gave them our name, waited until everyone arrived, then made our way to the other end of the station where the bus was waiting.

Monastery of St. Nicholas – Fresco

In a modern tour bus with air conditioning and comfortable seats, we were quickly on our way to Prato, a historic city (comune) and one of Italy’s newest provinces (Provincia di Prato), established in 1992 from the Province of Florence. There were about 30 tourists on the bus for The Pilgrim’s Walk tour, mostly Italians and, oddly enough, from the Florence area no less.

“THE PILGRIM’S WALK:

The Prato area has a long history associated with monasteries and holy places as well as Marian devotion, Which dates to the Early Middle Ages. This tour retraces some of the stops made ​​by pilgrims as they journeyed through the Apennines.”

Our first stop was the Dominican Monastery of St. Nicholas (admission € 5) in the city of Prato. Established in the 13th Century, the monastery has beautifully decorated chapels, a pharmacy, dining hall, and many other rooms with fabulous frescoes and antique furniture. One of the resident nuns accompanied us on the tour, providing details of the history and tales of the ancient building.

Small Lake – Montepiano

We then took a route through the city streets and squares of the old town, then up the winding mountain road to the top of the mountain for lunch in Montepiano, a small town in the Bisenzio Valley. After a reasonably priced (€10) two course lunch on the small lake, we hiked up the hill to Abbey (Badia) of Santa Maria of Montepiano, a small church also from the 13th Century with a fresco of Saint Christopher which sits on what used to be the main road from Florence to Bologna for hundreds of years.

Fresco of St. Christopher – Santa Maria of Montepiano

We then made our way down the mountain to Vaiano and the Abbey of San Salvatore with its small, but very interesting museum. This quaint complex dates back to the 11th Century and has a serene courtyard with fountain and bell tower, halls with ancient frescoes, and a museum with historic artifacts, the abbey’s original kitchen, a small chapel, and trap door that leads to a 1,000 year-old lavatory. 

Abbey of San Salvatore – Paiano

Our bus driver then took us on the 40-minute ride back to Florence by the appointed hour of 6pm as promised, leaving us at the Santa Maria Novella train station where we had started our journey.

Kitchen (Fireplace) – Abbey of San Salvatore

That’s Prato recently added free tours on eight consecutive Sundays in September and October with the following itineraries:

  • ART AT THE TABLE IN THE RENAISSANCE / ART AND FOOD IN THE RENAISSANCE
  • THE PATH OF PILGRIMS / THE PILGRIM’S WALK
  • THE NOBLE TRAIL: VILLAS AND CASTLES

A trip by train to Arezzo or Siena, for example, will cost you €16 per person for train tickets alone, so for just €15 including lunch and museum entry (both optional), you will not find a better value when visiting Florence in terms of day trips.

You can email thatsprato@po.camcom.it, visit their website: http://thatsprato.com/, or call them at +39 328 00 21 009 to request your spot on the tour.

CombatCritic Gives 9 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better! 


Read More Reviews By CombatCritic On Yelp – “Elite ’14/’15” – And On TripAdvisor – “Top Contributor” – And Don’t Forget To Subscribe To TravelValue TV on YouTube

Title: DayTripQuip™: A Free Bus Tour Of “The Prato You Do Not Expect”

Key Words: Prato, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, train, Santa Maria Novella, Montepiano, Vaiano, abbey, monastery, fresco, church, antique, travel, value, Firenze, Florence, Italy, free

DayTripQuip™: Ancient Arezzo … An Antique Aficionado’s Allure


DayTripQuip™: Take the train (Regionale Veloce: 1 hour 10 minutes – €8.10/person each way) from Santa Maria Novella Station in Florence. The train station is in the center of Arezzo and just three blocks from the historical center (centro storico), a Roman amphitheater, ancient churches with famous frescoes, a beautiful cathedral containing the mummy of a pope, and a fabulous piazza. Restaurants, antique stores, and shops abound, providing a quaint respite from the crowds of Florence for a few hours at least.

Piazza Grande
Roman Amphitheater
Chiesa San Francesco
Chiesa San Domenico
Duomo San Donato
Pope Gregory X

Fresco of Maria Maddalena – Piero della Francesca

Piazza Grande – Benigni’s “La Vita e Bella” Was Filmed Here

Title: DayTripQuip™: Ancient Arezzo … An Antique Aficionado’s Allure

Key Words: Arezzo, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, train, Benigni, La Vita e Bella, vita, bella, film, movie, duomo, cathedral, fresco, church, antique, antiques, travel, value, 

Clean, Safe, Fair Priced and Unlike Anthony Bourdain … Some Reservations


Hotel Heritage Home

1603/4 Main Bazar, Pahar Ganj

Near RK Ashram Metro Station

New Delhi 110055, India 

Phone: +91-987-352-9223

Prices: $$$$$

New Delhi (Paharganj), India: I found Hotel Heritage Home on TripAdvisor and made my reservation on Booking.com after reading numerous good reviews. The hotel is just a few blocks from the Ramakrishna Ashram Marg Metro station (opposite end from the train station) on Main Bazaar and just around the corner from Café Festa. It was easy to spot because of the good signage in front. It has a clean, open, rustic feel with a long entry through automatic glass doors, a small reception along with a travel office, an elevator and a rooftop restaurant. The area around the station is seedy to say the least, but vibrant, energetic, and colorful although filthy as is the case around much of Delhi.

Arriving at 1:30 AM after a 30-hour journey, I decided to defer to the hotel to pick me up at the airport. My driver spoke little English, but was right where I was told he would be with my name on a sign. The drive took about 25 minutes with little traffic due to the early hour. The trip was quoted at 900 Rupees ($14.65), not unfair by American standards but 500 Rupees more than the “standard” (400 Rupee – $6.50) fare from the airport to Delhi. In fact, when I inquired about my return trip to the airport, I was quoted 400 Rupees, so maybe there was a “late arrival surcharge”, an not totally unreasonable assumption.

I booked a “standard” room (1200 Rupees/night – $19.50), but found out the next say I was upgraded to a “deluxe” (normally 1800 Rupees – $29.25). The room was basic with marble floors, a large king bed, flat screen TV and cable, a small wardrobe, mini-sofa and table, and a bathroom that also serves as a shower due to the lack of a curtain or door. The room was fortunately in the back away from the street with no windows, which is not a bad thing considering I am sensitive to light and noise when I sleep and Main Bazaar is extremely loud due to the crowds below and the incessant honking of horns that Delhi drivers seem to thrive on.

The hotel’s travel office is convenient and helpful, but based on the prices I was quoted you may be better off booking your (train/bus/hotel/sightseeing) reservations online or directly with the provider as travel agents (and most other businesses) in this area are notorious for overcharging tourists. I will defer my opinion until I can compare quoted charges with online/counter prices through the respective purveyors.

Their rooftop restaurant is “relatively” quiet and inviting with plants, three parakeet cages, and local furnishings with several tables sitting below their own canopy for shade from the warm Delhi sun. The waiters speak barely passable English, but are attentive, efficient, and friendly. The menu has few beverage options, including bottled water, coffees (30-35 rupees – 55 – 60 cents), teas, shakes and other local drinks as well as vegetarian breakfasts, appetizers, pastas, sandwiches, and several options from India. There is no Diet Coke or other low calorie soft drinks and the coffee adequate, seemingly instant and likely Nescafe. The offerings are cheap by American standards, but not great. In two visits, I tried the egg and potato breakfast (80 Rupees – $1.30), accompanied by two pieces of toast (butter and jam), and a coffee with milk (35 rupees). It was adequate, but an excellent value. For dinner I went with the butter chicken (170 rupees – $2.75 – normally, one of my favorites) and an order of garlic cheese naan (60 Rupees – $1.00). The butter chicken came in a tomato-based sauce that tasted like sweet spaghetti sauce, not the creamy, savory variety I have come to love in restaurants in the U.S. and England, and the naan was slathered in butter/oil, a bit too much for my taste.

My biggest disappointments were the unexplained airport surcharge mentioned earlier, the horrible and nearly non-existent internet, and the phantom (500 Rupee) SIM card charge for my iPhone. The internet seemed to work OK upon my arrival and I was fortunately able to Skype with my wife and let he know I was alive, but it was “down” the next two days (the manager said it was their service provider’s fault) and accessible the next two, but so slow that my browsers gave up trying to load. Google also locked me out of all my email accounts because they thought someone was trying to hack me from India, but I could not access my ten accounts to resolve the issue due to lack of internet. What fun! When I told the manager that I wanted to get a local SIM card for my phone, he gallantly offered to have a colleague help me out. I was quoted 500 Rupees ($8.15 for a SIM card) and 495 Rupees for 2GB of 3G data. The data is an excellent value compared to American standards, but when I went to the Vodaphone store in Connaught Palace the next day because I could only get 1G data service throughout Delhi, I was told that “SIM cards are free, you should not have been charged for one”. Oh well, live and learn!

There are much cheaper (and more expensive) options available in Delhi, but if you are looking for a reasonably priced hotel, centrally located near the Metro in an area not abundant with clean, modern facilities, then Hotel Heritage Home is a good option, but be careful about add-on services as they are likely highly inflated.

CombatCritic Gives Hotel Heritage Home 6 Bombs Out of 10 

… Would Have Been 8 If Not For the Airport Surcharge, Internet Fiasco, and Extraneous SIM Card Charge .. MORE BOMBS ARE BETTER!

Title: Clean, Safe, Fair Priced and Unlike Anthony Bourdain … Some Reservations

Key Words: Hotel Heritage Home. hotel, heritage, home, New Delhi, new, Delhi, metro, train, Main Bazaar, main, bazaar, budget, travel, value, TravelValue, CombatCritic, TripAdvisor, trip, advisor

DayTripQuip™: New Delhi to Agra … The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort


Taj Mahal and Agra Fort Day Trip

If you want to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, make a day trip out of it rather than staying overnight in Agra. Agra has few redeeming qualities other than these two extremely impressive landmarks in my opinion and spending even one night should be avoided. Let’s face it … Agra is a pit!

There are bus tours available or you can take a train from the main New Delhi station if on a budget, but I would not recommend the train unless you have confirmed reservations both coming and going. If planning a visit to Varanasi by bus, car, or train, another option is to visit Agra on the way as it lies between New Delhi and India’s holiest city. However, by the time you pay for two or more bus tour tickets, you could hire a private cab to take you to Agra, leaving New Delhi at 9AM, visiting both Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, stopping for lunch and some shopping, and returning to New Delhi by 9PM.

                                    Agra Fort Exterior                                       

My wife and I hired a taxi for the day at our hotel near the New Delhi train station, charging us 7,500 rupees ($120.00) for the itinerary described earlier. We left around 9:30 AM on a Sunday morning, a good day to go to as traffic is quite a bit lighter in New Delhi on a Sunday morning. It took us about two-and-a-half hours to get to Agra Fort, including a pit stop, traveling on the toll road, which costs a little more than the toll-free route, but shaved an additional two hours off the journey … each way!

A foggy morning, we decided to visit Agra Fort first to let the clouds burn off a bit before we headed over to the nearby Taj Mahal. We picked up our “complimentary tour guide” who briefed us on safety/security details upon arrival where “hawkers” and “pickpockets” reportedly would be waiting for us when we exited the taxi. The hawkers were no worse than any other tourist attraction in India and pickpockets are not a problem as long as you use a little common sense and pay attention to your surroundings.

Agra Fort is beautiful, impressive, and crowded. Entry was 350 rupees ($5.70 each) and we spent about an hour walking through the grounds, snapping photos, and learning about its history from our guide. We may have very well missed something as we found out later that our guide was cutting corners and not totally truthful in order to move us along so we had time to go shopping at a marble factory he was “touting” (“receiving kickback from”, a common practice among taxi drivers and tour guides throughout India and elsewhere).

The Taj Mahal is open every day except Friday from sunrise to sunset, not “6am to 7pm” as advertised by About Travel’s “India Travel Expert” in her Taj Mahal Travel Guide: What to Know Before You Go. There are three gates, but we entered through the East Gate (described as the “VIP gate” by our guide), paying 750 rupees ($12.15) each for entry, jumping on a tram for the short ride to the entrance. The lines were short both to buy tickets and enter the grounds, so this may very well be the best available option.

Once inside, there is a large courtyard to traverse before entering through the “Royal Gate”, an ornate red sandstone arch where the enormous Taj Mahal looms in the background as you enter. Having seen countless photos and heard numerous stories about the Taj Mahal for many years, I was very interested in visiting, but until I actually saw it in person, I had no idea how impressive it actually is.

The long, narrow reflecting pond is cut in half by a raised terrace where “Princess Diana’s Bench” or “Lady Di’s Chair” is located, the location of a famous photo taken of the princess during a visit to the Taj Mahal in 1992. We were told, as were many other tourists apparently, that the bench closest to the “Royal Gate” (on the opposite side of the terrace from the Taj Mahal) was where the photo was actually taken. But I assumed it was actually the other bench (closest to the tomb and, oddly enough, ignored by most tourists even though it offers a much better photo opportunity) where it was taken, a hunch that was confirmed the next day when I checked the internet for the photo.

There is a small museum (free) on the West side of the grounds halfway between the Royal Gate and Taj Mahal that is well worth a visit. I knew it was there and as our guide tried to steer us toward the tomb I asked if we could visit, but he said “it’s closed for renovations”. I could see that people were entering and leaving the building, so I insisted on going over to check. “Oh, they must be letting a small number of people in, you are very lucky” he exclaimed as we walked up to the doorway. The museum has four small rooms with artifacts from the site and other interesting exhibits, so take 30 minutes and visit.

You can read about the Taj Mahal in many places, so I will not elaborate here. I will say that it is absolutely breathtaking and a MUST SEE in your lifetime, this coming from someone who has traveled to 51 countries and having seen many of the most beautiful and famous attractions in the World. Even though the tour guide lied to me about the museum, normally a deal breaker, he took 4+ hours out of his day to show us around Agra, so I gave him a 500 rupee tip ($8.20 – he probably would have gotten 1,000 rupees if he had not lied), a small price to pay for an experience of a lifetime.

CombatCritic Gives The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort 10 Bombs Out Of 10 … More Bombs Are Better!

Title: DayTripQuip™: New Delhi to Agra … The Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Key Words: Agra, New Delhi, new, delhi, Taj Mahal, taj, mahal, fort, taxi, bus, train, travel, tour, day, trip, quip, DayTripQuip, CombatCritic, value