A few weeks before my birthday I told my boss my frustration that I might have to spend my birthday at home. I mean, there’s a pandemic, what can I do. This isn’t the first time I didn’t have a birthday celebration; I’ve had years of training as birthdays weren’t much of a big deal in my family. Nevertheless, it doesn’t make me feel any less unhappy. So, he had a suggestion to travel via Google Maps. The concept is not new, I knew friends who did this before and shared their virtual trips on social media. I was never compelled to do it because I thought if I can’t go there in person then what’s the point? But since my boss put this to me as a challenge, and maybe he’s onto something, I indulged. And this is how this Tuscany Google Virtual Tour came about.
At the end of this post I will try to answer the following questions:
It’s September already so I may have procrastinated a little bit. But yesterday, I finally found the time a.k.a willingness to do it. My initial plan was more complicated, which involves doing everything that I would have done if this trip was real. I even created a PowerPoint, intending to present it to my boss. But rather than excitement, all I got was unnecessary stress. So I was like nope, this isn’t working.
I changed to a simpler approach meaning I didn’t do all the work. I only included the basic tasks of planning a trip, e.g., searching for flights and hotels. To simulate the act of traveling I used Google Maps street view and Google Search.
But before we proceed with the legwork, we need to settle this question first: Are we allowed to screenshot and use Google Maps images?
I found the answer on their Permissions and Geoguidelines page, which states that,
“Generally speaking, as long as you’re following our Terms of Service, these guidelines, and you’re attributing properly, you can use our maps and imagery. In fact, we love seeing creative applications of Google Maps, Google Earth, and Street View.”
Cool, we can use Googe Maps photos as long as we properly attribute it to Google and that it’s for non-commercial use. We can now continue with the Tuscany Google Virtual Tour.
Open Google Map and enter the desired destination
I chose Italy as it is one of the places I’ve been wanting to see and Tuscany because of their breathtaking countryside. Based on the map, it would take 20 hours to get to Florence, Italy from Manila, Philippines.
Check flights on Skyscanner
I was curious as to how much a roundtrip flight would cost so I checked it on Skyscanner. The first option is to fly direct from Manila to Florence, it would cost me around 61,000 pesos or about 127 US dollars. It’s slightly cheaper if I fly to Rome instead, then from there take another flight to Florence. It would set me back to around 51,000 Php. Which option did I take? Well, I know this is fantasy, but we must be a bit realistic, so I definitely took the second option.
Check in to a hotel
Whenever I travel I prefer staying in the city center for convenience. I found one that is reasonably priced with good reviews from previous guests on Booking.com. It’s called the Hotel Pitti Palace al Ponte Vecchio, a mere 18-minute drive from Florence Airport.
An overnight stay in a double room is around Php 4,000 with taxes and other charges. The room has a bathtub and shower, toilet, queen-sized bed, a closet, and TV. Toiletries and towels are also provided, but the thing that I loved the most is the bidet. When I went to Europe two years ago, none of the hotels I’ve stayed at have a bidet. At least with this trip, I don’t have to worry about that. I know many people can get by with just toilet paper, but I’m Filipino, I need a bidet.
Start Google Virtual Tour
Now here comes the fun part, using Google Map to tour Tuscany. Tuscany is a region in central Italy known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. There are many beautiful spots to see here that I didn’t know where to begin. I decided to do it the way I did my France and Spain trips, I focused on the capital (Florence) and picked a town in the countryside (Val d’Orcia).
Walk along the streets of Florence
Florence is the capital and the most populated city in Tuscany. It was called the Athens of the Middle Ages and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 for its rich arts and culture and historic monuments and sites.
Instead of featuring the tourist spots, I’ll be showing what I usually do on my first day in the city, search for coffee and food close to my hotel. I used Hotel Pitti Palace as my starting point, it’s located along Borgo San Jacopo street.
I turned left and saw these icons on this street view. When I hovered over them, they show the name of places, which I reckon are recommendations from Google.
I need caffeine and a quick Google search showed me that there is a good café about 3 minutes away from the hotel. So I walked the length of Borgo San Jacopo, the street is lined on each side with different boutiques and restaurants. The zooming action to navigate the streets was making me dizzy, but still, I continued.
I missed the alley where I was supposed to turn so, I had to turn back. Damn, even on a virtual tour I still get lost, lol. Anyway, I found the alley, Via Toscanella, turned left, and continued walking.
Whenever I see something pretty I stop to take a picture, like this house with plants hanging on the windows. It’s how I imagine my house would look like if I’m living in Europe.
I walked some more and when I turned the corner, I realized that I have successfully found the café that I’ve been looking for, Caffe degli Artigiani.
I went in and the first thing that I noticed is these photos of people’s faces on the walls. I wonder who they are. The place is small, but the bar is packed. There’s a coffee machine, pastries, and even alcohol on the shelves. I came for coffee so that’s what I got and a piece of croissant. Then I went outside, took one of the empty tables, and finished my coffee in silence.
Now that I’ve had my coffee fix, it’s time for pizza. I am in Italy after all, it would be a crime not to eat their pizza. Based on my little research, some pizzerias have coperto, usually at 1.50 euros, which is a fee you pay to get a table. I’m alone, I don’t need a table. I would order it to-go and take it back to the hotel.
I saw a blog that recommended Da Gherardo, a 7-min walk from Caffe degli Artigiani. I walked along Via dello Sprone, past Via Maggio and Borgo S. Jacopo then went straight ahead Via Santo Spirito. It was a long walk, didn’t feel like 7 minutes at all. Then I crossed the intersection to Borgo S. Frediano, but for some reason, Google wouldn’t let me go toward this street. I had no choice but to find another way so I turned to Piazza Nazario Sauro. This pizza, better be worth it.
In the corner, I turned left to Lungarmo Soderini. Obviously, I’ve taken a longer route to the pizzeria but the view of the river made it seem worth it. Just look at this river, what a lovely sight.
Then I turned to Via di Cestello and continued down viuzzo del Cestello. It led me to Borgo S. Frediano. I turned left and continued walking, the pizzeria shouldn’t be too far now.
Hooray, I found Da Gherardo! But wait, it’s closed! Goddarn it!
Explore Val d’Orcia, Siena
As much as I enjoyed the city, I think it’s time for me to get some fresh air. Thus commence my journey to the countryside in a town called, Val D’Orcia. It is located in the province of Siena, an hour and 40-minute drive from Florence. The scenic views of the valleys on the side of the road alone would make you feel like you’ve stepped into a dream.
Doing a virtual in this region was a bit challenging as the street views are not many and as detailed as the ones in Florence. I was on the road for a while, not knowing where I was and where exactly to go.
Somehow, I ended up on Montepulciano while I was searching for a place to eat. I googled for the best restaurant and Osteria Acquacheta came up in the recommendations. I started walking from Via del Teatro. I kept walking and kept getting lost. Seriously, why does this keep happening to me even on a virtual trip?
After what felt like a lifetime, I realized that I had been walking past the restaurant for several times like an idiot.
After eating I explored the rest of the town. Bistros, pizzerias, and wine bars come aplenty, as well as shops that sell a variety of things. It’s the kind of place where you could easily lose time without realizing it. Many spots are instagrammable, each corner reveals an amazing surprise. From the plants and flowers hanging on the windows, walls covered in vines, to houses and buildings built by bricks and stones. This town is simply beautiful, I can’t wait for the time when I’d be able to visit Val d’Orcia in person.
Now that I’m done with the virtual tour, I will answer the questions I posted earlier.
Is it fun to do?
At first, it wasn’t. I couldn’t get myself into the role play and it didn’t help that the zooming motion when moving into the map made me dizzy. After a few hours, I’ve gotten the hang of it that it soon felt like I was walking those streets myself especially when I started getting lost, a typical occurrence whenever I travel. Instead of getting frustrated, I found myself enjoying the challenge.
Is it difficult to do?
Nope. Google Maps is easy to use and since I have been traveling a long time, it was easy for me to figure out what to do. I think the ony challenge is that it’s very time consuming. I started doing this around 4pm and ended at around 10pm. That’s how long it took to finish this post.
Is it a good enough alternative for actual traveling?
The answer would be no. Sure it was fun, it was kinda like playing a game, but it doesn’t replace the joys of being able to do it all in person. I had fun imagining I was drinking that coffee or looking out the car window mesmerized by the view of the countryside, but to me, traveling is not like reading a book where it is better inside my head than the movie adaptation. Traveling is so much better experienced than read.
Still I’m glad that I took this challenge from my boss because fake as the tour may be, the fun that I had from doing it was real.