Have you met the infamous Bella Marcelo? If you didn't read my last blog post, let me quickly introduce her once again. Bella is my no-nonsense, badass Italian alter ego. Bottom line: Don't mess with her. If Bella ever faced off with a bully, she would effortlessly pummel her opponent without even flinching. My ball-busting sidekick often takes charge, affects change, and embraces life with gusto. Is world domination her ultimate endgame? Heck yes. But even a powerhouse like Bella must eventually cower and retreat. Did her temporary demise occur during our Tuscan road trip? Sadly, yes.
Bella met her greatest nemesis the day Typhoid Myra barrelled into Tuscany unannounced and definitely uninvited. Typhoid Myra is a rapacious bloodsucker capable of immobilizing healthy, happy individuals including my formidable Bella. But rather than begin this story on a sour note, let's start with several travel suggestions for intrepid road warriors. Typhoid Myra can wait for now.
Bella's Tips for Road Trip Survival
Tip #1: Don't assume that your driving companion can operate a standard/stickshift.
When booking your rental car, request an automatic so both you and your travel buddy can take turns driving an Alfa Romeo across the Italian countryside. It's only fair, right? My friend didn't follow this tip and was stuck behind the wheel the entire 5 days. I would have offered to drive, but I was 16 the last time I handled a stickshift. I won't bore you with my rickety clutch + insurmountable hill + rolling car horror stores. You get the gist. Switching to a standard after so many years would have increased the likehood of crashing into Tuscany's picturesque hillside and defacing its pristine terrain. I couldn't risk getting Bella banned from her own native country, right?
Tip #2: Beware of Italian tailgaiters. These crazy drivers will likely ride your tail even if you're driving 20 kmph above the speed limit. Pretty scary if you're navigating an unfamiliar, curvy roadway. Stay calm. These speed demons will find a way to pass you even on single lane highways.
Tip #3: Set your GPS language settings to Australian just for kicks.
To prevent inevitable trip ennui, have a little fun with your GPS. Want to laugh hysterically when your Australian guide recites lengthy Italian street names? If so, choose the male Aussie - It's freaking hilarious! If you're still bored, try singing the Australian Kookaburra song repeatedly. Your travel companion will love it.
Refer to my Kookaburra Travels to London blog or watch this awesome YouTube video for inspiration. Hardip and I viewed this animated singing bird repeatedly. Don't ask why. We're goofballs, and we flaunt it.
Tip #4: Be prepared to pay occasional tolls depending on the roadway you're using.
Have plenty of euros ready for surprise tolls throughout your journey. Toll amounts can range from 2 to well over 10 euros. Not sure how tolls are calculated, so be prepared for variable fees. For detailed Tuscan driving information, please click here.
Hilton Grand Vacation Club - Our Haunted Getaway
It took roughly 3 hours to travel from Venice to our 2-bedroom Tuscan villa. Borgo Alle Vigne is situated in central Tuscany overlooking a breathtaking hillside. This brand new facility has 16 one, two, or three-bedroom suites equipped with kitchen, laundry, dining room, and possibly a ghost or two. The latter was not part of the official accommodation description, but I truly believe Casper was our guest for several nights. We can't explain the mysterious post check-in occurences such as televisions turning on/off, mobile apps getting deleted, or cell phones automatically "facetiming" each other late at night. I won't share other strange incidents that followed, but I will say that the entire experience was beyond creepy!
Not wanting to lounge inside our haunted home all day, we constantly roamed the countryside visiting notable Tuscan towns such as Chianti, Pontedera, San Gimignano, Pisa, and Florence. We stopped by Lucca as well, but that will be the final blog of this 3-part Italian series.
We had a plethora of Tuscan activities to entertain us beginning with my favorite pastime - wine tasting. It wouldn't be a Tuscan roadtrip without vineyard stops along the way. These two are worth noting: Castello D'Albola and Tenute Nicolai.
Wine Stop: Castello D'Albola
My sister and brother-in-law insisisted that we visit this charming winery in Chianti. Since they gushed about this place, we couldn't resist. I watched as the owner poured a selection of reds while discussing favorite blends with Hardip, a fellow winemaker. We were definitely impressed with their high end release, Il Solatio, so we purchased 3 bottles at roughly 41 euros each. Note: Their Chianti Classico 2011 ranked #46 on Wine Spectator's Top 100 list for 2015 so it was an honor to meet this award-winning winemaker in person. I even purchased a bottle for my brother-in-law's birthday not knowing it received this distinction.
Wine Stop: Tenute Nicolai
While on our way to San Gimignano, we stumbled upon this hidden gem. I don't remember a tasting fee, which may have been waved since we purchased ten bottles of wine and my favorite Italian digestif - grappa.
Tip: Ask permission to explore the grounds and soak up the beautiful greenery. This is exactly what I had imagined when I originally pictured my Tuscan retreat. Living the dream!
It may have been the grappa or the peaceful setting. Either way, Bella was beaming! Hint: Pay attention to this happy face since Typhoid Myra destroyed her later on..
Fresh from my grappa high, we reached the medieval town known for its 14 incredible towers. The Historic Centre of San Gimignano is aptly crowned a UNESCO World Heritage Site, featuring both Gothic and Romanesque architecture. We were starving so we dined at Ristorante Il Pino (ate lamb chops and gnocchi) before exploring a few piazzas and churches.
We were told by fellow travelers to visit one of two gelaterias dubbed "The Best Ice Cream in the World" just steps away from the town center. Unfortunately, I don't remember if the gelato lived up to that accolade since one of the patrons repeatedly dug into his butt crack while using his free hand to hold an ice cream cone. My appetite was completely shot after witnessing that. Bleh.
My Favorite Italian Experience - Tuscan Cooking Class
This 7-hour activity was the highlight of my entire trip. For 75 euros, you can hobnob with fellow classmates during an intimate, hands-on cooking demonstration with My Tuscan Kitchen.
Both Hardip and I arrived at Agriturismo Il Selvino, Pieve De' Pitti ready to sport our aprons and learn how to prepare a 4-course Tuscan meal, which included the following dishes:
Bruschetta ai Porcini (Mushroom Bruschetta)
Tagliatelle Fatte a Mano (Sausage Tagliatelle)
Manzo al Vino Rosso (Beef with Red Wine Sauce)
Tip #1: Meal prep lasted roughly 5 hours so make sure you eat before class starts at 3pm. Thankfully, the Big Mac in my belly kept hunger pains at bay until dinner was served at 8pm.
Tip #2: Shenanigans are allowed. Since I can't let 5 hours pass without being silly, I tinkered with my food by creating a happy face (using two eggs + flour) to represent how I felt throughout the entire demonstration. Giggles took over after that.
Overall, the class honed our meal preparation skills. This was our first time using a mezzaluna (concave knife often used to dice vegetables) and also our inaugural attempt creating pasta from scratch. Here are 2 short video clips highlighting our coordinated chopping and tagliatelle preparation.
The night ended with an incredible meal sharing stories with 12 other fellow cooks from all over the US. There was plenty of wine, food, laughs, and digestifs to keep us satiated throughout the evening. We left savoring each delicious morsel and wanting to repeat the shared dining experience in the near future. Grazie to our hosts, Signora Laura, Arianna, and Natalya. Buonissimo!
Group dining at Podere Borgaruccio
Hardip and I had so much fun eating with fellow travelers that we made sure to re-live that dining comradery the following evening. Podere Borgaruccio is part of a working farm, which produces wine and olive oil just 20 minutes from our villa.
Patrons show up, sip wine, and share a few rounds of antipasti, entrees, and dessert for roughly 40 euros per person including gratuity. That night, we met several travelers from Denmark who were biking from one Tuscan hotel to another. Loved hearing about their backgrounds and why they chose Tuscan biking vs. driving.
Tip: Shared dining is the best way to meet new people from other countries so adding this to your agenda will ultimately enrich the trip.
Tip: Make advance reservations since cooks only prepare enough food for a handful of guests. We called at least an hour prior to secure our spots.
Pontedera - Home of the Vespa Exhibit
The hotel clerk told Hardip about this must-see museum just north of the Hilton Vacation Club in the industrial town of Pontedera. Museo Piaggio showcases a vast collection of Vespas including vintage scooters dating as far back as 1943. Definitely one of my favorite displays within this 3000 sqaure meter facility. The best part? It was free.
While Vespas are the main draw for 40,000+ visitors each year, this museum also featured original Madame Butterfly costumes, which were worn onstage many decades ago. The temporary collection also included current costume designs, juxtaposing old against new. Stunning contrast for such exquisite workmanship. My designer nephew would have loved this exhibit.
This Pontederra based-museum easily ranks as one of my top 10 favorite European museums. Loved every detail.
The "Not So Leaning" Tower of Pisa
I've been to Italy numerous times, but never visited Pisa until now. Bella and I emphatically refused to join the millions of visitors who flock there each year to take that "special" photo with this iconic tower. So with Hardip's help, we went against the grain and snapped a non-leaning tower photo making it appear perfectly upright. I was thrilled with the outcome since it was completely outside the norm. Bella scoffs at convention.
We didn't stay long since there wasn't much else to see so we made one lap around the area before we continued our road trip towards Firenze.
Florence - The Birthplace of Typhoid Myra
So we're finally at the point when Typhoid Myra reared her ugly, infectious head. After 4 glorious days traversing the Tuscan landscape, Bella and I started feeling extremely lethargic and listless. It began with a throat tickle, followed by an intermittent flow of nasal drippings. Harmless enough. But as we toured lovely Florence on top of a freezing City Sightseeing bus, what started as a inoccuous cold morphed into a full blown, debiliating sickness that took Bella and I down for the rest of the night. Damn you, Typhoid Myra!
My childhood friend who I have known for several decades, drove all over Florence at 11pm searching for a pharmacy. After an hour, he purchased the medication needed to survive the night. He even raided the Hilton supply closet for 2 additional tissue boxes since Bella and I went through several already. What an incredible BFF!
Thanks to his heroic efforts, I was able to deflect Typhoid Myra's stubborn advances and capture a few stunning shots of Florence including my favorite church ever, the Duomo. Thank goodness this was my 2nd visit. Since I lacked the energy to explore many sites this time around, I've included a link to the original blog post from 2007, which covers a lot more ground.
Here is my favorite shot of the magnificent Duomo.
Mercato di San Lorenzo
Hardip and I made one last stop before heading back to Venice for our late night flight to London. Since we purchased 17 bottles of wine during our trip, we searched for items to protect our investment. Mercato di San Lorenzo was the ideal spot for finding most things on a visitor wishlist: olive oil, salami, candy, fruit, knives, wine, and even bubble wrap!
Tip: For those who leave Tuscany with several bottles of wine/grappa, make sure to wrap each one with clothing or bubble wrap. Hardip entered one of the wine stalls within the Mercato and offered a euro for each wine-saving sheet. You can also find packing tape at the FedEx location within the Santa Maria Novella Train Station.
So this was one of the best trips I have ever taken despite being ill the last couple of days. 5 days is not enough time to cover the entire Tuscan countryside, but we did our best. What an amazing excursion! I have one last blog to write to complete this Italian blog trilogy.
Arrivederci, Typhoid Myra! Bella is fully healed and ready to take on Lucca.
Original Trip Date: September 20 - 25, 2015