Traveling from the U.S. to Italy often means scurrying around your destination, hungry to take it all in, but finding time, and possibly money, in limited supply. For one thing, the standard annual leave in the U.S. is a measly ten days. “That’s crazy!” I hear those of you in Europe exclaim. Sad, but true. The other thing is that until recently – when the Euro dropped to around 1.19 to the dollar – the exchange rate has not been kind.
No matter, there are still ways to get around and in our case, get a great taste of Tuscany.
To get around we rented a car – it wasn’t too expensive – around $200 for seven days, and while I was dreaming of a little Fiat 500, we got a zippy Alfa Romeo instead, which did well on the freeways. Incidentally, I am a big fan of paying tolls to use the freeway. They’re well maintained, not too crowded, and take you mostly directly to where you want to go. We covered a lot of kilometers during our trip – relying pretty heavily on Google maps to find out location. The one thing that isn’t cheap is US carrier data roaming fees. No matter, here are my favorite things to do and places to visit:
1) Take a cooking class on a farm
We saw a cooking class taking place inside the main food market in Florence – all gleaming stainless steel and uniforms – but what appealed far more, was visiting an organic farm and cooking in its historic kitchen. We went to Spannocchia, just outside of Siena. The class starts at 9am with a tour of the gorgeous terraced vegetable gardens before heading to the kitchen to cook. The group of around 8 eats the meal prepared – a lovely lunch with wine. Tutte bene! Detailed write-up here. The price is 90 Euro per adult and half that for kids. Monkey came along and really enjoyed himself.
2) Stay in a medieval town.
This isn’t too hard to do in Tuscany because the entire region is littered with tours, turrets and narrow winding streets that meander through villages on the top of a hill. We returned to a place I had been about 35 years ago on a family holiday – Castello di Gargonza – a few miles from Monte San Savino. No surprise, it hasn’t really changed – after all, it’s already weathered over 600 years.
3) Or stay on a farm
There are plenty of ‘agriturismo’ signposts around the countryside – these are working farms that rent out a few rooms. Another great way to experience authentic Italy.
4) Go horse-riding through the vineyards
We found a wonderful riding stable, La Fogliarina near Monte San Savino, run and owned by Justine, who speaks perfect English, thanks to her British mum. Our horses Camilla and Galaxy, were well kept, and gave both of us an awesome ride. We got to hang out brushing the horses before our ride, and hosing them down afterwards. Justine took us up in to the hills via vineyards and olive groves and even through the very narrow medieval streets of a tiny hamlet, Oliveto. This expedition was a big highlight of our trip. The cost was 35 Euros for adults, and 25 for children, for an hour’s ride (much cheaper than back home). Bring cash to pay. Massive bonus for us Lab lovers, is that Justine has about 10 English labs – both yellow and black – and it made us a teeny bit dog-sick for our own hounds.
5) Eat at a butcher’s restaurant
The majority of farming in Tuscany seems to center around grapes, olives and pigs. When I asked Justine during our ride where she likes to eat, she pointed me to the butcher’s restaurant in Monte San Savino – La Delizie di Aldo. We almost skipped it because the menu only features meat. But after wandering inside and seeing the huge porchetta roast, complete with perfect crackling and stuffed with herbs, we decided to go for it. And was I glad that we did. A HUGE plate of roasted pork cost just 10 Euros and was completely satisfying. Seasoned to perfection – as I found all our food to be during the trip – it’s served with the local sliced bread (made without salt) so you can make a sandwich should you choose to. I was blown away when I visited the cellar (to find il bagno) and found row up row of prosciutto haunches ageing gracefully aka covered in mold. There were also beef ribs laid out to age too. The real deal.
6) Visit a market and buy a porchetta sandwich
If you can’t find a butcher’s ristorante, then the next best thing is to visit one of the many markets around Tuscany. E.g.: Montepulciano’s market is on Thursday morning and Cortona’s is on Saturday. Expect to find everything from Tide to knives, t-shirts to cheese on sale. The charcuterie vendors, in addition to selling fabulous whole salamis, slices from gargantuan mortadella rolls, each have a huge roasted pig (but rolled and without the head and leg) which they serve sliced in buns. It really hit the spot.
7) Try to find little corners of unspoiled Italy
This is becoming increasingly hard – tourism, it seems, has become increasingly vital to the country’s economy. Florence is just overrun – so if you do decide to go, arrive early in the day and hit places like the Uffizzi before the crowds show up. One of my favorite towns, which I first visited 20 years ago (and it’s definitely accumulated more tourist boutiques since) is Cortona. Yes, of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, but nevertheless it has managed not to over-gentrify itself and remains grittily authentic. Keep walking up the hill above the main square and you’ll find yourself away from the tourists and able to quietly drink in the amazing views of Lake Trasimeno in the distance. Another evening, we parked the car just outside of Monte San Savino and went for an evening stroll. Heading up a virtually unpaved road we wound our way through olive groves and found not only amazing views, but also a rainbow to boot. And not a soul in sight.
8) Rent mountain bikes and get lost
Well you may not actually want to get lost, and it wasn’t our stated intention, but it added a whole spirit of adventure to the outing. After all that eating of pasta, cured meats, panna cotta and gelato, we needed to burn a few calories. Let it be said, we are not mountain bikers. I can barely change the gears without something going awry, but we stuck it out and ended up a the bottom of a really big hill – like it was about 3km to get back up to the top. And yes, we took a wrong turn. And yes, Monkey wasn’t really that game for this adventure, but whaddya gonna do except keep on biking?
9) Eat gelato every day
Or at least, eat gelato every day if you’re 12 years of age and can get away with it. For me, I only indulged when I knew it was really, really great. A high quality gelateria, Grom, can be found in the major cities – and it really was worth the splurge. Salted caramel and dark chocolate for me. A cone with fragola e limone for Monkey.
10) Check out local festivals and events
While we were there, Arezzo hosting its annual medieval parade and jousting event – the whole town participates, there are horses, knights and so forth. Very fun. We were glad to run into the rehearsals one night by accident. Montepulciano seems to have a classical music school and theatre with concerts and dance events happening on a regular basis. Although geared towards tourists, I loved this town. And wine is a big deal here, so if that’s your thing, you’ll be happy here.