A Taste of Tuscany

While returning to Montecatini from a trip to Pisa, I had time to reflect on my travels in Italy. I realized that over the years I’ve visited close to 25 cities — and about three-quarters of them more than once (Florence 3x, Rome 3x, Venice 2x, Montecatini 2x, Pisa 2x, Lucca 2x, etc.) You get the idea. Amazing, isn’t it? 

And, while I probably won’t go back again next year, I am in no way done with Italy.

The Traveling Sisterhood has been making annual trips since 2006. In fact, our first group trip in 2006 was the Italian Riviera. In subsequent years, we went to Greece, Spain, Brazil, Argentina and this year we spent a 9 nights in Tuscany. Here we are at the beautiful Verrazzano Winery in Chianti where we toured the grounds and had a wine tasting and fantastic antipasto lunch. L-R: Mary, Joan, Mickey, Carolyn, Maryann, Irene, Dolores, Katie, Glorie, Josie.

We chose the Francia e Quirnale hotel in Montecatini Terme as a home base and made daily day trips from there to other cities. The word ‘home base’ has real significance here because the staff at the hotel truly made us feel at home. They were attentive, helpful and professional with arranging tours, nightly restaurant recommendations/reservations and genuine friendliness. The hotel exudes old world charm with ample and exquisitely-decorated public areas, but also generously provides contemporary touches like free wi-fi throughout and fully renovated and modern bathrooms. It’s family-run and staffed with long-term employees manning the key areas of operation (front desk, dining and bar). In fact, 3 of the 5 of them have already friended me on facebook — so we’ll be friends forever!

If you haven’t been to Tuscany, the countryside is lovely. It’s mountainous and lush with wineries, olive groves, nurseries and farmland. On the other hand, it seems that every city has a medieval center with walls, towers, baptistries, duomos, cathedrals and churches (I still don’t know the difference). History dating back thousands of years is evident at every turn.

We chose to hire a guide and a driver for a day in Chianti, a split day in Siena and San Gimignano, and a morning trip to Pisa.

Other than that, we took the train or hoofed it (a lot!).

Our first experience at the ticket machine for TrenItalia was a lot of laughs.

Off we went every morning to a different city…Lucca, Florence, Pistoia and Montecatini Alto, the medieval town on top of of the town we were staying in which required a funicolare ride up the mountain.

Of course, we ate and drank well (and a lot.) Isn’t that why everyone goes to Tuscany? 🙂

Non ti mettere in cammino se la bocca un sa divino.
Don’t start your walking journey if your mouth does not taste like wine.

I was all about trying different things to eat. Tripe made it to the table 3x. Some other interesting meals included boar ragu, amaretto gnocchi, zucchini cream, pappa pomodoro (so good), lots of porcini and truffles galore. They were served with pasta, risotto, pizza and in custards. We even tried a truffle creme brulee appetizer one night. Salads were wonderful and fresh and we ate the BEST tasting tomatoes! Of course, there were gelati (that’s plural) and there’s nothing more delicious to end a meal (for me) than cantucci (almond biscotti) dipped in Vin Santo.

Gi amici son come i fagioli, parlano di dietro.
Friends are like beans, they talk behind your back.

The cooks in the Tuscan kitchen have a gentle hand. I expected the food to be good and fresh, but I was somewhat surprised that it was mildly flavored. With the exception of truffles, which have a distinct  and lingering taste/aroma, no other spice or taste of garlic overpowered any dish (in contrast to the heavily garlicked Italian-American food we’re accustomed to on this side of the Atlantic.) I didn’t miss it…just saying. I think every pasta we ate was ‘fresh’, although I did see dry pasta in the stores. I guess even the Italians take shortcuts on occasions. I must say, though, we missed the salt in the bread. And almost every single dish was finished with a (more-than) drizzle of olive oil. That I liked! 🙂

•      •      •

A great way to end an active vacation is spending a few hours at a spa.  Montecatini is a ‘spa town’ and is famed for its thermal springs — so we ‘took the waters’ (drank bad-tasting water that is supposed to be good for you) and had some ‘feel good’ treatments before our long journey home.

Arrivaderci bella Toscana…I hope to see you again soon!

Starting to think about 2012…Joan

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