Hi, we're Hunter and Sarah, a husband-and-wife, luxury wedding photography team. We’re also educators, helping other photographers build profitable and sustainable photography businesses.
Last Fall, in late-2021, Sarah and I were exhausted. We had already photographed almost 25 weddings in the prior 3 months, and still had 15 more to go in the 3 months that followed. It was during this time that we started having conversations about planning something BIG to look forward to in 2022. At the same time, we had also been throwing around the idea for years of retuning to Italy one day, just the two of us.
These two conversations converged, and we realized that, with our 5th Wedding Anniversary fast approaching, June of 2022 might be the perfect time to pull the trigger on a BIG international vacation! June is usually one of our busiest wedding months of the year. In 2021, we had six weddings in June alone!! But for some odd reason, our June of 2022 was completely empty. It felt like the stars had aligned, and just a week or two after we started throwing around the idea, we were putting down a deposit with a travel planning company!
Now that we’re back, we’re making an addition to our “Travel with Hunter and Sarah” series, Italian edition!
Our trip began like any good European adventure — with a red-eye flight out of a nearby international airport! It was Washington, DC for us, and the 7ish hour flight was fairly uneventful. Sarah slept for almost the entire flight. I didn’t sleep at all. But that’s pretty classic for us ????
We arrived in Frankfurt on the morning of our second day with a few hours to kill. Where caffeine failed, pure excitement to be in Italy soon kept us going! Despite some crazy lines at the airport (so much for German efficiency), just a few hours later, we had arrived in Florence!
This is where the misadventures begin ???? We hailed a cab for the ~15 minute ride to our AirBnB. This quick ride across Florence was so jerky and halting and jarring that I got more motion-sick than I had ever been in my life. I was seconds from demanding our driver pull over so I could be sick on the side of the road ????
Thankfully, I held it together long enough to arrive at our destination, carried our bag up the four flights of steps, and made it into the apartment. But before I could even sit down to catch my breath… wait. Where’s my phone? “Sarah do you have it? You DON’T?!” It dawned on me with sudden dread: I had taken my phone out of my pocked to see how many torturous minutes we had left in this cab ride from hell, and left it on the seat of the cab. My phone was the one we had activated with an international calling plan (i.e. the only one with service), and we couldn’t find the WiFi information for our AirBnB. And even if we could call my phone, the driver hadn’t spoken a word of English!
We’d been in Italy for less than an hour, and I had already lost my phone ????♂️ Luckily, my wife was calm and collected. She found the WiFi info, called my phone, and — to our delight — a woman sitting in the backseat of the cab picked it up and answered in a British accent! She told us she was staying at the Grand Westin, and that she’d leave it with the concierge. By some miracle, Sarah had noticed where it was on our drive over, and was able to navigate us there without any internet service.
And I mean it when I say miracle, because Sarah is incredibly directionally challenged. But in the end, we got my phone back, and immediately got gelato to celebrate! ????
We checked out our cute rooftop-apartment AirBnB, showered off the airport grossness, and got dressed for dinner! As we waited for our reservation at Culinaria De Gustibus Bistro, we explored some of Florence and took in the sights and the sounds.
Then… we figuratively (and literally) let our hair down and finally ate some delicious Italian pasta ????
After dinner, we did everything we could to keep ourselves active and awake until bedtime (so we didn’t accidentally fall asleep at 8:00 PM and wake up at 4:00 AM) ???? But we both slept like rocks for 10 or 12 hours that night.
The next morning we woke up refreshed, grabbed a quick breakfast — espresso, sweet pastries, and a few meats and cheeses, of course! Then, we had a private walking tour of Florence to kick off day 4!
We walked almost the entire old city over 2 or 3 hours, checking out some of the more prominent cathedrals, two millennia of architecture, and places of cultural import. Sarah and I were struck — as Americans often are when we visit Europe — at the sheer age and volume of history present.
What began as a Roman fort more than two-thousand years ago developed into a region capitol, a center of commerce, then the heart of the renaissance, and eventually even the capitol of the new Kingdom of Italy!
Sarah laughed out lout when our guide showed us the “modern” façade of the Duomo — the cathedral at the center of Florence that was once the largest in the world. It was modern because it was an addition made in 1850s ????
After our tour (and a quick stop for pizza and another espresso), we hit a quick power nap before getting back out into the streets. Our AirBnB was right off the Arno river, so we had to stop every time we crossed the Medieval bridge and take at least one picture!
That night we grabbed dinner (more pasta, duh ????) at Trattoria Zà Zà near the city center. It was definitely a bit touristy, but still had great food! We also began a nightly tradition of ordering a bottle of prosecco with dinner, and sharing it over the course of the meal ???? Neither Sarah or I drink alcohol very regularly, so it was yet another way that made the trip special. But don’t worry — we stopped for gelato again that evening (maybe you’re noticing a theme ????).
Maybe it was the prosecco and gelato combination that prompted the Sarah to do the following when I — without warning — pulled up my phone and said, “Do something cute!” ????
The next morning — the start of day 5 — we had a group cooking class in the home of our instructor! It was a very fun — and very practical — class, where we learned to make a few simple Italian classics like caprese salad, tagliatelle pasta and gnocchi dumplings. Let’s just not mention the fact that we couldn’t hail a taxi so we ended up taking city bikes/walking to the class, and were 30 minutes late ????
That afternoon, we booked a guided tour at the Galleria Academia — a small museum centered around Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the David. The rest of the museum was interesting as well, full of various works from the medieval and renaissance periods in Florence. But the David was definitely the star of the show! To think about how someone carved such a lifelike statue out of anything — much less a flawed piece of marble that no one else wanted to carve — was unimaginable.
We spent the rest of our final afternoon in Florence exploring more of the city, and stopping along the way to take in the sites and snap a few photos. But of course we also made one last stop for Florentine gelato and espresso at Ditta Artigianale, our new favorite coffee shop!
That night, we went big for our last night in Florence and ate at SE·STO on Arno, a rooftop restaurant with dual views of both the river and the city! The food was good and the views were even better, but my favorite view was the one from across the table ????
Overall, we enjoyed our time in Florence a lot! The city was full of energy, and we walked 8+ miles every day as we traversed the old city for meals, museums, cafés, and more gelato!
The next morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast at a nearby café, then picked up our rental car and headed out of the city! We planned to pick up the rental car, then swing back by our AirBnB to grab our bags on the way out of the city. What no one told us was that our AirBnB was in a historic district, which is completely closed to all cars except taxis and buses ????
Between that and the frequent road closures and re-directs, the two miles between the rental car pickup, our AirBnB, and getting outside the city limits were the most stressful 25 minutes of my life. I was not amused (as you can see in the photo above). But once we got outside the city, the views improved greatly!! While driving through Florence was incredibly stressful, driving about 90 minutes into the Tuscan countryside was a joy! And of course, when we arrived at Castello di Spaltenna, our 14th century monastery-turned micro-hotel, it was definitely all worth it!
After the hustle and bustle of Florence, this quiet Tuscan countryside escape was the perfect foil. It was the epitome of Tuscany, and even our room still felt a bit monastic with it’s stone floors and wooden ceiling. It was a cozy place to stay for sure!
But, after a few hot days in Florence, we were thrilled to just be able to jump in a pool! When we went down that afternoon, we were the only people at the entire pool, so I grabbed a video of Sarah getting in for our social media. By contrast, Sarah made me do an entire photoshoot! ????
That night, we had a reservation at Il Pievano, a Michelin-star restaurant on the ground floor of our hotel. Neither Sarah nor I had ever experienced a Michelin-star meal, so we didn’t really know what to expect. But we were NOT disappointed.
Over the course of almost FOUR hours, our server brought us plate after plate with just one or two bites of food each. While I was worried at first about still being hungry, I lost count after the 20th small-plate, and got lost in the candlelit ambiance, wine-pairing, and fascinating combinations of flavors, textures, smells, and sounds. A highlight for Sarah was a savory French macron — the meringue cookie was flavored with dill, and a goat cheese mousse that replaced the usual buttercream center. For me, it was one of the dessert courses, a cucumber sorbet over a Greek yogurt mousse with meringue kisses.
We woke up on our 6th morning after a great night sleep in our Tuscan monastery! We hopped in the rental car and drove to Sienna, another small but well-known city in the Tuscan countryside (“Letters to Juliette”, anyone?!).
We — of course — immediately stopped for pizza and gelato. But once we were fueled up, we spent an hour or two exploring the steep, hilly city!
And when we say steep, we mean it! There were places where you’d be walking up a steep, narrow pathway and it would suddenly just turn into a staircase ???? But the city was beautiful, and we stopped near the center square for another espresso.
We then hopped in the car to get over to our next activity: another cooking class! Only this time, we had a problem… We couldn’t get any service on our phones! While Sarah could view a map of the region, it wouldn’t let us pull up any directions. So, using her aforementioned skills of navigation, she looked at the maze of crisscrossing highways, roundabouts, and gravel roads, and somehow navigated us 40 minutes away to our cooking class ???? It was another stressful car ride, but we made it on time! And we arrived at a VERY cool agritourism farm outside of Sienna.
In addition to the private cooking class they were holding for us that afternoon, they kept bees and sold honey, hosted workshops on sustainable agriculture, hosted truffle-hunting expeditions with their dogs, and had a full restaurant downstairs! And of course, almost everything we cooked with or ate was sourced on their farm, or on the farm of one of their neighbors.
While the cooking class we took in Florence was more approachable — a cooking class for everyday cooking — this was an authentic Tuscan experience, using rolling pins instead of a hand-crank pasta roller, and doing things as they had been done for hundreds of years! But both were equally delicious. Our instructor was an Italian chef who didn’t speak a word of English, so we actually had a translator who was relaying his instructions (and even snapped a couple pics for us).
That night we explored the Castello a bit more, and it was my turn to lead the photoshoot!
Which I think was for the best, as we can all probably agree that my wife makes a better model than I do ????
Although we also couldn’t help but admire the beautiful architecture that had stood for so many hundreds of years!
Day 7 was a chill day — and a much appreciated one! We knew the next few days would be as action-packed as the last few, so after our massage appointments at the hotel’s spa, we hung by the pool all afternoon. Sarah napped, and I read. Once again — a classic for us ????
For both lunch and dinner that day, we walked down the hill from the Castello to the nearby town. The entire town was walkable in 5 or 10 minutes, but the three places that we had lunch, dinner, and gelato at during our time at the Castello were all excellent! Specifically, Osteria Al Ponte where we we dined at for dinner that last evening in Tuscany had delicious Italian food!
The next morning, we were up at 5:00 AM so we could check out of our hotel, drive back to Tuscany, drop off our rental car, and be on the 8:00 AM train from Florence to Bari! After a LONG train ride, a quick connection, a second, shorter train ride, and a quick trip in a TukTuk we were safely in Polignano a Mare!
This small, seaside town south of Bari (the regional capital of Apulia) served as the perfect third and final destination for us in Italy. It was also the first time either of us had laid eyes on the Adriatic sea! After checking out the view of the seaside cliffs, we grabbed a snack at Bar Luna to regain our strength after almost 7 hours on trains.
While all three of the places we stayed during our trip were wonderful, Itaca Home to Explorers was by far our favorite! This little town-home was tucked away right off a main square in Polignano, a very quick walk to anything we wanted to do, with a rooftop terrace and a view of the sea!
Another highlight was the little 3/4 bath tucked away off the bedroom… apparently not made for people my size ????????????
We ended our 8th day of travel by exploring Polignano, and eating at a wonderful seafood restaurant that — like many places in this region of the world — was essentially carved into the rocky cliffs that make up the area.
On the 9th day, we woke up early (at 5:00 am for the second morning in a row ????) for a photoshoot… but this time we weren’t the ones taking the photos! We worked with Sissi and Carmella of Le Vélo Fotografia, who did a great job capturing our relationship in this 5th Anniversary Photoshoot.
Although, it was a good thing that we knew how to pose ourselves romantically already… Their English was somewhat limited, and our Italian is all but nonexistent ????
But they captured some great images of us, and we’re so grateful to have spent the money on the session during this once-in-a-lifetime experience!
After the session, we grabbed breakfast at Bar Luna again, which quickly became our go-to every morning in Polignano. Then, we took advantage of the fact that we were up early to head to the famous Pietra Piatta Beach!
Although the rocky beach was different than what we’re used to in the US (water shoes DEFINITELY would have been a good call), it felt great to just soak up some sun and dive into the salty Adriatic when we got warm. We spent the rest of the day eating at small cafes on the main drag, and photographing the beautiful architecture throughout the city!
Between the cliff-carved buildings, all the beautiful and unique doors, and the colorful buildings, it felt VERY Mediterranean.
We woke up on our 10th day, and took a private transport to nearby Bari. It was in this much larger city that we indulged in the most touristy activity of the entire trip… Segway food tour! ???? Even though all the locals stared at us as we zipped by, it was actually pretty fun to troll around the city on Segways. The private, guided tour itself was the perfect combo for us: 50% historical sites and 50% eating food everywhere we stopped.
Back to Polignano that afternoon, we spent a few more hours at the beach, then just trolled around the town eating more good food, drinking more Limoncello Spritzes at Olio su Pane, and snapping photos of each other along the way!
That evening, we even caught the start to a festival that was being held in the city while we were there! When a full marching band sauntered into the square we were walking through and started playing… we were hype ????
Our 11th and final full-day in Italy was almost entirely unplanned. We woke up for (of course) another breakfast full of pastries and coffee! This time we couldn’t decide which two pastries were our favorite… so we got all 3 ????♂️ Then, we were back to the beach again for most of the day (with a quick gelato break in the mid-afternoon, of course). The beach was always pretty packed, but we didn’t even care. The warm sun and cool Adriatic made the crowds worth it!
That evening was the meal that we had been most excited for since arriving in Polignano. We were going to have dinner at the restaurant at Grotto Palazzese, a restaurant carved into the cliffs above the Adriatic! When we saw it on our Itinerary, Sarah actually recognized it from seeing it on social media!
We took lots of photos, because the space and the ambiance was absolutely breathtaking! But the food… was actually terrible ???? For their standard 4-course meal with one glass of wine each, we spent just shy of $600 on a dinner that was so bad, we left 2 of our courses unfinished… and went out for pizza afterwards. It was pretty big disappointment, but we tried not to let it bother us too much. We had gotten tourist-trapped, which was bound to happen eventually. Plus, in the age of social media, people will travel far and wide and pay as much as they need to in order to eat in a restaurant this beautiful… no matter what the food itself is like ????♂️
With that, our trip was coming to a close! We woke up the next morning, and took a transport back to Bari to fly out. Thankfully, our flights were long, but there were no serious delays or cancelations, and all our bags ended up where they were supposed to be. Although our small plane from Bari to Munich lurched downward so suddenly that — for a brief 5 or 10 second period — Sarah and I literally thought the plane was going to fall out of the sky. But apparently it was just some “clear air turbulence” and everyone survived ????
By the way, it should come as no surprise that our first act back on American soil… was to stop at Taco Bell ????
But, that was it! We drove the two hours from DC back to Charlottesville that night. Even though we didn’t get home until what was 4:30 AM Italy time, it was good to be back and sleeping in our own beds!
While this wasn’t our first trip to Europe or even to Italy, it was the first trip we took by ourselves. We’d consider ourselves pretty novice when it comes to international travel, so here’s a few lessons we learned.
1. If you hire a travel planner, make sure that they have plenty of experience planning trips to your destination. In the midst of our crazy Fall 2021 wedding season, we knew that if we tried to plan an international vacation ourselves, it just wouldn’t happen. And when we mentioned we were thinking about hiring a travel planner, a close friend of ours recommended a close friend of hers for the job! We relied heavily on that recommendation and a small amount of initial research, but were honestly so busy and overwhelmed at the time that we didn’t consider any alternative options.
While we certainly don’t regret hiring someone to help us plan our trip, we certainly wouldn’t hire the company that we hired again. It wasn’t SO bad that we want to mention them by name here, or leave them a 2-star review online, or anything like that. But there were enough preventable hang-ups, miscommunications, almost-missing-our-train-because-they-told-us-the-wrong-address-on-the-other-side-of-Florence, and missed expectations that, if we were to do it again, we’d rather just save those thousands of dollars and plan the trip ourselves.
2. All the best sit-down restaurants need a reservation… every single night. While there are plenty of cafes or casual places where you can grab a focaccia or a sandwhich, if you want to sit down and enjoy a nice meal (at least during June when we were in Italy), you need a reservation almost every night of the week. So be sure to plan in advance!
3. Tuscan bread is… bad. We thankfully heard this in advance, so we weren’t caught off guard. But Tuscan bread is baked without salt. While Tuscans claim that other bread is too salty once you’ve added the salted meats and cheeses or pesto, to us, Tuscan bread just tasted like… nothing. It tasted like nothing.
4. Most restaurants don’t even open for dinner service until 7:30 or 8:00 PM, and most dinners take at least 2 hours. So no early mornings. Because we spend the summer shooting engagement sessions just before an 8:00 PM sunset, Sarah and I often eat dinner early most of the year (which is also better for your health so you aren’t’ still digesting when you go to sleep). And we’re also used to quick and efficient American wait staff who get tipped based on their convenient and friendly service, and get paid more if they can turn over more tables. While late dinners that last for 2+ hours didn’t bother us in and of itself, it was all the early-morning wakeups AFTER the late dinners that began to drag on us.
5. Get an Italian to book your taxis. We were wondering why we were having such a hard time booking taxis in Florence, until the instructor of our cooking class let us in on a secret. Some of the taxi companies will answer the phone, and if they hear an American or British accent, will just say, “Sure sure, be right there,” and then hang up and ignore the call. Thus being 30 minutes late to our cooking class ????
6. It’s worth the extra money to stay in the city center, so long as you don’t mind walking. Because our AirBnBs in both Florence and Polignano a Mare were near the city center, we did a LOT of walking, and almost no taxi rides. The convenience of being able to access food, drinks, cafes, historical sites, attractions — everything — by just a 15 or 20 minute walk was honestly the best.
7. The best gelato doesn’t look as exciting as the fake stuff. As a general rule, if all the gelato in the shop is BRIGHT neon colors, and has mountains of stuff (like full-sized candy bars, or entire bushels of fruit) sticking out of the top, it probably isn’t authentic or homemade. Another rule of thumb that an Italian told us: if the pistachio gelato is green, it’s fake. If it’s brown (the color when the nuts are actually roasted and ground up), it’s probably authentic (and therefore more delicious)!
8. Spend the extra money to fly the red-eye first class… or regret it all night long. Refer back to “I spent our 7 hour, overnight flight attempting unsuccessful to sleep because I was sitting up, cramped, in economy”. It took us a full day or two to recover from that, so it probably would have been worth the extra money to have a seat that laid flat!
Well, that’s it! Thanks for following along, and check out the links below if you want more adventures with Hunter and Sarah!