“I’ve dreamed of visiting Tuscany for years,” wrote Sheila, one of my oldest friends, from Sydney, Australia. “I know you’re busy, but it would be wonderful if you could meet me there, because then we could have a real catch-up that goes deeper than just a dinner – and I selfishly want to take advantage of your expertise. So what do you say?”
Well, yes, of course, I replied, because as I discovered when we were students in London a long time ago, Sheila is one of the world’s most entertaining people. And how often do you see a friend who lives on the other side of the world?
When it comes to visiting Tuscany, I just might be the friend everyone wishes they had. As a Paris-based food-and-travel writer with in-laws in Florence, I’ve been lucky enough to visit what just may be the most magnificent province of Italy dozens of times in all seasons – and I speak Italian. So I got to work on an itinerary that would give my friend the best of Tuscany in the short time we had to travel together.
Present in Tuscany’s past
This did not involve making lists of museums, castles and churches, because I’ve learned that the most richly treasured moments of any trip are often the ones lived vividly in the present as much as they are encounters with the cultural richness of the past. So I decided we’d visit Florence for two nights and then take the train to Lucca for an overnight stay. Returning to Florence, we’d pick up a car to visit the Chianti countryside for two nights, then stay overnight in Siena, and finally spend a night at a very special hotel near little known Pienza before driving back to Florence.
Just after breakfast on our first day, I picked up Sheila at the Hotel Tornabuoni Beacci, a well-located hotel in the heart of Florence where the entry-level rooms on the fourth and fifth floors are a good value for the money. We met up with Judy Witts Francini, a food-loving American who’s lived in Italy for 30 years, for one of the tours she gives of the city’s bustling Mercato Centrale. We tasted our way through the market – both of us loved the soft, creamy Tuscan goat’s milk cheese known as caprino, and ate nearly our weight in Tuscany’s superb charcuterie, including ribbons of the region’s famous lardo di Colonnata, alabaster-like fatback aged in marble boxes with salt and herbs.
Afterward, we headed for Santa Maria Novella, visiting both the stunning 13th century church and its adjacent pharmacy, a magical place that’s been mixing cures and fragrances since the church was consecrated. Next, a light lunch of paninis – the best in the city, including pecorino cheese with pistachios and gorgonzola with salami at ‘ino, followed by a breath of fresh air in my favorite secret garden in Florence.
During our sojourn, we also enjoyed a long lunch of succulent bistecca at Officina della Bistecca in Panzano in Chianti, a cooking lesson at one of the Antinori winemaking families’ estates, and the enchanting village of San Gimignano with its medieval stone watchtowers.
Two hotels were especially noteworthy: The Borgo Santo Pietro was a splurge that was more than worth it, and La Bandita, a delightful country house hotel near Pienza opened by a former music-industry executive from New York and his charming wife.
But wait. What about the Leaning Tower of Pisa? Well, you can no more see all of Tuscany in a week than you could cover California in seven days, and all good travelers know that you always leave out something important to have an excuse for the next time.
Excerpt from a note received from Sheila two months after our trip: “Every morning when I open the door to my closet, the scent of the potpourri I bought at the Offi cina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella makes me dream that I’m back in Tuscany. I will return!”
Dreaming about a trip to Tuscany? Check out AAA Member Choice Vacations’ Spotlight Tours at AAA.com/MCV to see tour details, itineraries and more.
Top photo: Gustatory and cultural delights flourish in Florence. (StevanZZ / iStock / Thinkstock)
By Alex Lobrano