AN ITALIAN SUMMER ADVENTURE IN TUSCANY
By Bill Dante
Most of us love Italian food and Italian wines. Some of our first dates started with “How about some Italian food?” We love Italian sports cars and the famous “Made In Italy” on our clothes. When we talk about Italy we sometimes think about history starting with the Romans, and then the Renaissance, 1500s and Michelangelo. Even Romeo and Juliet took place in the city of Verona according to Shakespeare. Let’s not forget our favorite Italian singers, actors, actresses and their Italian movies. Whether you have been there or not, we all like to dream about going for the first time or going back again.
It’s no surprise that most of us are very passionate about everything Italian. I have been to Italy many times, starting with the US Air Force, when I was just eighteen. Yes, that was rough duty! But the culture, food and history has stayed with me for a lifetime. I have been back many times and have even escorted groups with people you probably know from Texas. I never tire of charming villages, stunning landscapes, Medieval architecture and of course women on mopeds. Did I say that?
Life in Italy revolves around incredibly delicious food. They say, “The worst Italian food you will find in Italy is still much better than any Italian food back home.” Well unless your grandmother is Italian.
Italians have set the bar for creating delectable dishes and making the finest wines. What is the secret? It’s using quality ingredients in PEAK season. Every region in Italy is know for their food specialties but my favorite is Tuscany.
I’ve spent many trips traveling from Florence to Siena, by car, and visited all the charming towns in-between. I learned from friends that traditional Italian recipes follow the seasons and you should quickly adapt to this thinking. In other words, order food that is in season. Also learning about the glorious and smooth tasting Tuscan wines is a major bonus.By the way, wines don’t have to be expensive to be excellent.
Florence, Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano, Luca, Montepulciano and Livorno are only some of the magnificent cities in Tuscany that you can visit. They are all within a short drive from Rome or Florence.
While near the city of Siena, the olive harvest begins mid-October. I suggest taking a tour of an olive oil mill to taste the “liquid gold” oil as it is coming off of the press. The taste and perfume of the Extra Virgin Olive Oil is like none other. A most memorable experience.
As a visitor to Italy you will agree or find that what is in season is plentiful, and what is not in season is all but non-existent.
The best time to travel is in the fall or spring. A lot of stores close for two week holidays during the summer and it is very humid. (If you’re from Houston then it’s no big deal for you.)
If you haven’t been to Italy then base yourself in Rome and travel from there. Keep your room in Rome and take a small overnight bag in case you decide to spend the night some place else. Once you’ve been to Italy a few times you will then start to go to your favorite areas.
Tuscan trips usually begin and end in Florence. In order to see the very best Tuscany has to offer, visit the region by car or tour bus. However in the cities, train connections between major towns in Italy are quite good. There is now a bullet train that will take you from Rome in one hour to Florence. You can easily adapt your needs to your way of traveling. I love the trains but prefer to drive in Tuscany.
Truly one of the most beautiful places in Italy is Florence. The world famous Duomo is the heart of the city in the old town. The enormous red-tiled dome, which is the biggest brick and mortar dome in the world is a symbol that has defined the city for over 500 years. It’s the staple of Florence’s magnificent skyline. The Ponte Vecchio, or “old bridge,” is a medieval stone bridge over the Arno River. It’s enclosed for foot traffic and noted for its many artisan shops including jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers.
The Uffizi Gallery is one of the most important Italian museums. This is a must and holds a collection of priceless works, particularly from the Italian Renaissance create by artists whose names you will recognize.
BUT, there is a small church close to the Medici palace that you have to visit. In Florence, like a lot of cities, if you were famous then you were buried in a church. The Basilica of Santa Croce is small but you will find the grave and monuments of Michelangelo, who died in 1564 at the age of 89. Also, in the same church, Galileo, Leonardo and Rossini are buried. Trust me, it is very impressive. As you leave the church, go across the street. You’ll find a great leather store for men and women. Now all within the old town section, you can walk to Piazzale Michelangelo for the best view of the city.
TIP: Did you know that you can book a priority entrance ticket to the Dome or museums? This saves a lot of time, as the lines can be quite long during the summer.
From Florence you can drive to Siena. It’s distinguished by its medieval brick buildings and a wall that encloses the entire city. A must see is the Piazza del Campo which is the main public space, regarded as one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares. It’s been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This location has been used in many, many movies that you will surely recognize. Siena is famous for the Palio, a horse race held twice a year. James Bond’s movie, “Quantum of Solace,” was filmed on site with Bond arriving in Siena in his Aston Martin, then found himself right in the middle of the famous horse race.
This my favorite wine. Plus the city of the same name is breathtaking. How can you not love this wine when surrounded by Italian vineyards known around the world.
On the way to the city, the countryside you will experience is the most scenic road in all of Tuscany.
This is the road with the typical (Is there such a thing?) Tuscan landscape that you see in a postcard or travel magazine. There are many charming towns in this area. Old town San Gimignano is right out of a Medieval fairytale. Volterra is nearby, and the perfect place to have a nice Tuscan dinner. The Hotel La Locanda is one of the nicest in the area. Budget wise, you can even stay in a hotel located inside a 15th century Franciscan monetary, the Christo Delle Monache in Volterra.
Next stop is Pisa, as in the “Leaning Tower of Pisa.” It truly is a sight to behold and an unbelievable architectural feat. And yes, it really is leaning. The Pisa town center is less crowded and the Borge Stretto has many restaurants, cafes and shops.
TIP: Rather than staying in Pisa, head towards Luca. It has terrific atmosphere and many nice hotels. Luca was the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini. (La Bohemia’s and Madama Butterfly)
Hotel Palazzo Alexander is a standout. Luca has some of the best Italian towers that truly exemplify Tuscany.
This Italian port city is known for its fresh seafood. The charming seaside town is known as the “new” Venice, because of its system of canals. Remember, Tuscan summers are hot. But a trip to the Mediterranean will help cool you down. Especially if you are sitting and overlooking the sea sipping an ice cold brute of Prosecco with friends.
I wanted to mention the city of Verona for a side trip. It is in the region of Veneto and can be reached by train. It is where the balcony of Romeo and Juliet is located. Fun trip but only if you have an extra day.
I mentioned I would suggest a few movies to get you into that “we need to go to Italy” mood. First, the movie, “Letters to Juliet.” Then, of course, “Under The Tuscan Sun,” and how about “A Room with a View (1985).” Also, there are a bunch of travel films with excellent flyovers to chose from.
Oh, English is not a problem and if you’re interested in a Vatican tour with an audience with the Pope then remember the Pope is out of town during the summer months.
If you can’t go to Italy anytime time soon then try an Italian dinner with your friends. Everyone brings an authentic dish!
Here’s a toast to you with a bold Tuscan wine and a friendly Ciao!