Tuscany: Sunflowers and tranquility

Convenience, peace, and much perfection, are discovered on a guided holiday in Tuscany, writes Linda Thompson.

Tuscany — that almost mythical place of beauty, peace and tranquillity, so well captured in the movie Under the Tuscan Sun.

My work team has a deal — when we win Lotto we’re all meeting at Auckland airport and moving to Tuscany.

I’ve found just the right place too, on our Insight Road to Rome guided journey from London to Rome.

It’s the former home of Renaissance diplomat and writer Niccolo Machiavelli, where he wrote his political treatise, The Prince, about how to acquire and maintain political power.

His garden has views of Florence’s cathedral in the distance and his historic cellar has secret tunnels which connect it to the city’s oldest restaurants. How convenient.

The views are spectacular, the wine — chianti, prosecco, sparkling limoncello — very drinkable with our lunch. We can even order case loads to be delivered home. How convenient.

After travelling through summer tourist haunts in Paris, Lucerne, Innsbruck and Venice, it’s nice to be the only visitors and to enjoy the quiet and beauty of the Tuscan countryside.

This’ll do nicely thank you.

With its fields of sunflowers, rolling hills, permanent sunshine and uncluttered tiny towns, the central region is known for its landscapes, history, art and wine. Perfect.
It’s full of World Heritage sights — seven of them in this one area — and that includes the historic centre of San Gimignano, which we walk to after our coach drops us off close to the entrance.

This lovely place is known as the Town of Fine Towers, and is famous for its medieval architecture and its 14 well-preserved towers at the top of the hill. Within the town’s walls, the buildings include Romanesque and Gothic architecture, churches and frescoes.

More importantly, it’s also the home of the several-times winner of best gelato maker in all of Italy. Perfect, again.

Our youngest tour member, Alexia from Durban, can indulge her daily three-scoop habit with the best. We all do.

There’s plenty of time to stroll around San Gimi’s lovely streets, browse in the art shops and if we can’t afford the actual paintings, a couple of postcards of them will do.

This is another optional experience on the Insight Road to Rome tour, but it’s another must-do. If you can avoid the summer crowds, this is a perfect example of the Tuscany we dream of.

Then we’re off to the hilltop town of Orvieto, 325m above the valley, this time by elevator, which is a blessing in the heat.

This small town is on a rock pedestal overlooking a vineyard-covered plain. The town itself is tiny, but its cathedral, hidden in the town square until you spot it through the winding streets, is magnificent.

It’s also uncrowded. But we’re in Orvieto to learn to make pasta, from Chef Lorenzo. And then eat it, of course.

Lorenzo guides us through the intricacies of proper pasta making, mixing it up right there on the marble bench in his tiny restaurant. Eleven eggs, 12 if they’re small, plenty of flour. It’s ready in an instant and put aside to rest while he takes out one he made earlier.

Several of our Road to Rome crew get to do the cutting into various shapes, and do the flourish of flipping up their creation on the back of large knife. Fantastico!

And the cooked version is silky pasta at its best. We make the most of it with plenty of Orvieto Classico wine and tomatoes. Perfect.

And then we’re off to Florence, the capital, once settled by high-ranking officers who helped Julius Caesar and were given land near the Arno River basin. This is the birthpace of the Renaissance, where banking and insurance began. How dull.

And how un-Florence. We drive first to overlook the city, where a copy of the statue of David stands above the pink roofs and spires.

There’s Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise and Piazza della Signoria where the square is set up for Calcio fiorentino, a rather violent and vicious version of early football where old grudges are carried out and where blood will be spilled.

But there’s Peruzzi leather to be admired and bought. How could we go home without a glorious Italian leather jacket? Credit cards are damaged again, and we learn about the tanning process and how to tell the difference between good and poor leather.

One floor has only shoes. It’s shoe heaven — and there’s a sale.

Our hotel is something else — a cyber hotel with wild and wacky furniture, black on black corridors and rooms marked by giant portraits of Italian aristocracy. Inside the rooms are carpeted floor to ceiling with red tiles surrounded by fairy lights, purple bathrooms and plenty of glass, lime green wardrobe “spaces”.

Francesca shows us around Florence’s back streets, teeming with history — and a little rain for the first time on our tour.

But as we move into the square to see the domed cathedral of the city, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as The Duomo, we get a taste of the nastier side of the city. Three “tourists” with backpacks and fake cameras jostle one of our group into a corner, picking his pocket and running off with his wallet and cards.

We commiserate at a dinner in the Tuscan hills that night — antipasto platters of meats and cheeses, pasta (of course) prime rib, potatoes followed by tiramisu and panna cotta.

And wine, plenty of it, to soothe our jitters as well as singing and dancing.

Tomorrow we will reach our Road to Rome destination — Rome, the Eternal City.



Insight Vacations

‘ 12-day Road to Rome trip starts in London before exploring Paris, Burgundy, Lucerne, Liechtenstein, Innsbruck, Venice, Pisa and Florence, ending in Rome. Priced from $5725pp including accommodation, transport, sightseeing, many meals, exclusive Insight Experiences and an experienced Travel Director. Book before October 31 to save up to $1000 on flights with Air New Zealand or Singapore Airlines, or up to 10 per cent off your trip price.

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