A TUSCAN JOURNEY OF (SELF) DISCOVERY
Many dream of sipping on a glass of Chianti while overlooking the Tuscan hillside. My recent trip to Central Italy's countryside and cities allowed me to do just that. It quenched my thirst for the taste of this fermented grape beverage in addition to providing me with a refreshing change of pace, which kept my sanity intact (at a time when I was on the verge).
So many places in this world that gain notoriety have a level of bullshit to them... Mostly to draw more people into the "illusion".
I don't think that Tuscany is one of those places. Somehow it has retained an everlasting feel of true authenticity and quality of life. So many places have been molded to the travelers that they cater to, this beautiful land acknowledges them but stays true to centuries of culture and tradition. What you expected me to say, I imagine? Yes, as cliché as it sounds, it is still absolutely true.
My husband Bryan and I along with our group of friends all shacked up in a small Tuscan town called Vico D'Elsa to celebrate the retirement of our friend Patty, who retired from British Airways. She chose to make a rustic farmhouse with a vineyard the home base for a month while visiting most of central Italy. She arrived before us and got the lay of the land, which also allowed her to become familiar with our host, Vittoria who was just a little bit of everything you would expect. Vittoria was a spunky rough around the edges Italian gem that could not have been more helpful and generous during our stay. (farmhouse shown below)
Not only did this centuries-old farmhouse offer the best views of the vineyard and surrounding valleys but, it also came with an infinity pool that had been added 2 decades earlier. The property was part of a larger working vineyard that has an exclusive with Buca Di Beppo, the national restaurant chain, to provide Chianti, nationwide.
Also, we could not have visited at a better time than THE HARVEST. Trucks dripping of juice idling at stop signs, transporting their cargo full of fruit destined for bottles of VINO.
By the time this European holiday had arrived, I was absolutely whole-heartedly on the verge of a personal meltdown. While everything in my personal life was in line with my wishes and desires, my professional work-life balance was a flaming-hot bag of dog shit that continued to burn on my doorstep, and I had no garden hose to extinguish it. I hinged so much of my "return to normal" on my ability to take this much-needed time off and find my center and balance. It was either that or quit my job upon my return. I would wake most days to sit by the pool and listen to the birds while intermittently listening to a course on Life Coaching. So many of the items that were covered directly correlated with my own life either at that moment or at some point in my past. The coaching course was sparked through my work with a Life Coach, a journey that I had just begun before departing for Italy. Coaching is something I recommend... Therapy looks at your past but not so much emphasis is placed on your path for the future, something equally important. A coach is someone to hold you accountable and remind you of the goals that you set for yourself.
Okay enough about me, Back to Italy...
I want to share a place where you'll find more locals than tourists: The River Elsa. It has its source in two springs, one at Monte Della Montagnola at Palazzo al Piano and the other at Molli. Frequently in the summertime, these springs are dormant and produce smaller amounts of water, during that period they sometimes call the river "The dead Elsa". The first productive spring, known also to both the Etruscans and the Romans, is called "LE CALDANE". Does a trail follow this crystal blue Italian spring? Yep, exactly! I couldn't get the song out of my head while we were hiking the valley, so here it is in case it's been a decade since you've heard it.
If I were to live in a city within Italy, Florence would be it. A beautiful, walkable city in its entirety. More culture than you can handle. Bistecca Florentine is a dish of the region and, if you're a meat-eater that loves a hunk of raw salted meat, it may be your thing.
San Gimignano is an Italian hill town in Tuscany, southwest of Florence. Encircled by 13th-century walls, its old town centers on Piazza Della Cisterna, a triangular square lined with medieval houses. It has a skyline of medieval towers, including the stone Torre Grossa. The Duomo di San Gimignano is a 12th-century church with frescoes by Ghirlandaio in its Santa Fina Chapel. We rented electric bikes to make our way to this town, which was visible from our farmhouse. We enjoyed this town so much, we went back for a 2nd visit during our stay. I will say, parking is limited (like so many Italian towns) so the bikes were a good call.
What a romantic city, absolutely everywhere you turn you are blessed with a view of a bustling canal and rich historic architecture. Even with large crowds, this city doesn't feel crowded because if the layout containing endless quaint walkways throughout... Many of which may just get you lost (until you learn to follow the small signs and arrows that point towards familiar locations). The best location for mussels/claims and seafood dishes in all of Northern Italy.
Even if it sounds cliché, take the gondola ride!
The gondola is a flat-bottomed rowing boat specially adapted to conditions in the Venetian lagoon. The earliest recorded use of gondolas in Venice dates back to the 11th century. In the year 1600, it is thought that there were more than 10,000 gondolas operating in Venice. Today, there are only 400, and they are almost exclusively used by tourists only.
In order to become a professional gondolier you need to obtains a license from the guild. Licenses are only granted after periods of training and apprenticeship, and an exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in maneuvering the gondola through narrow canals.
Don't skip this City on your trip to Tuscany. Getting there EARLY is a big plus because parking can be a challenge. If you like to shop, this is your kind of town, bring your comfortable walking shoes, like most places in Italy. The Piazza in Siena is absolutely enormous. The historic center of Siena has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site. Siena is famous for its cuisine, art, museums, medieval cityscape and the Palio, a horse race held twice a year in Piazza del Campo. Below you'll see us celebrate happy hour on a slanted historic street in the city.
HOT SPRINGS... Not something you would think of when you think of Tuscany. I heard rumors of a few in the area and we decided to make an entire day of hopping to the various hot springs. If you like to soak in warm volcanically heated natural springs, don't miss the Bagni San Filippo springs, they were my favorite. It is located in the municipality of Castiglione d'Orcia in the Province of Siena, not far from Monte Amiata. It is a hot spring, small, and has the presence of calcium deposits, which form white concretions of calcium carbonates as waterfalls. The hike to the springs is a very short 10 minutes, and you can lounge as long as you like.
There is another hot spring in the cute town of Saturnia however, I would suggest going there on a weekday during off-peak hours. That spot is a bit over-run in my opinion and doesn't offer the same vibe as the first location I described.
THE TRAIN. I always forget how much Europe has it together with train travel. Fast, reliable, and comfortable. We took the train from our little town to Florence, and then to Venice and back again. WIFI, snacks and all that you could ask for on a high-speed rail to our destinations.
In summary, anywhere in Italy is an adventure that everyone should experience for themselves. Take the time to immerse yourself in the speed of their culture and use that to your advantage. It's hard to pump the brakes on our need for speed but, there is beauty and value within a slower more relaxed atmosphere, of which you'll find everywhere in Italy (aside from the freeways, lol).
A few parting thoughts...
ALWAYS go for the house white/red wine. It's the quality/local vino and very affordable.
Ask what the special of the day is... Many times it won't' be on the menu and it's best to eat what is fresh and chosen by the chef.
Try an Aperol Spritz during your long lunch... It's the drink of the locals.
Practice extending your meal times... Meals in Italy are HOURS long! Get in the practice of slowing down and enjoying the many courses that your dining location of choice has to offer. When we returned home, I felt rushed at mealtime!
I don't think I had one bad meal my entire 15-day visit. Don't be too picky about high ratings or popular restaurants, pretty much every restaurant that you'll walk into will serve you quality and care when it comes to their menu.
I'll leave you with a photo of Peter, our friendly Peacock on the farm. He is a big fan of Cheerios!