If I had a billion dollars, I would transform all tedious errands into luxury weekend getaways. For example, instead of going to Wal-Mart for basic household supplies, I would just hop on a private jet to China. For new work clothes, I’d skip the Zara sales rack and head to Spain. And to gather refreshments for my upcoming housewarming party, I’d bypass the supermarket crowds and take my shopping list straight to the hillside villages of Tuscany.
But then again, if I had a billion dollars, I probably wouldn’t be shopping for my own wine, cheese and canapés to begin with. I also wouldn’t be lying about the housewarming party and, in reality, while writing this, be sipping boxed wine atop my luxurious, fifth floor air mattress in my shared London “bedsit” …
Regarding Tuscany, I can actually vouch from personal experience: I have been, and it is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and relaxing places on the planet. If I have managed to make it over there, you easily can, too.
So let’s just pretend that my bedsit is actually a newly refurbished, mansion block split level, in need of some freshly imported Italian flavours. Here’s where I would go…
A Taste of Tuscany
If you have never been to Tuscany, or for that matter, Italy, you will likely want to see Florence. With direct links to a variety of countryside tours and villages, this well preserved historic (and delectable!) city could, with good planning, could be the perfect kick-start for further sightseeing and gastronomic adventures.
Prepare for sensory overload: you will be inundated with the highest concentration of Renaissance art and architecture in the world, along with bustling markets, crowded shopping streets, zipping vespas, outdoor concerts, and tourists galore. Yet happily, you will drink loads of Chianti and get your first taste of authentic, delicious Tuscan cooking.
So go ahead and hit all of the main sights (you can do this in a day, on a private tour, if you like), and then, for bit of local flavor, head to the south of the Arno river to some of the quieter and more residential areas. Be sure to spend an afternoon at Piazza Santo Spirito, which is arguably the most delightful, friendly and laid back square in the city. With several cafes, a beautiful Augustinian church, frequent specialty markets, and plenty of shady places to sit, it is the perfect place to sip a glass of wine and admire the easy pace of Florentine life.
Turn the corner and grab a delicious panini and a (deliciously inexpensive) bottle of Chianti and from Gustapanino—the best sandwich shop in town, hands down (trust me, just go). For some home style cooking with a creative twist, you could wander a few blocks north to friendly, family-owned Trattoria 4 Leoni. Try the Fiocchetti di pere con salsa di taleggio e asparagi, and change your understanding of pasta (and pears) forever (I’ll let you discover the deliciousness for yourself). I recommend sticking to their own-label house Chianti, but they do provide an extensive selection of wines from all over the region.
Feeling full? The adventure has just begun! Now it’s time to grab your posh party “grocery lists” and head to….
Florence isn’t for everyone, and neither is Chianti. But it is impossible not to fall in love with the Tuscan countryside. Picture miles of quiet open road, surrounded by endless rolling meadows, lush vineyards, wild flowers and olive orchards. And suddenly, when life couldn’t be more beautiful, you are faced with a majestic, tiered hillside village that looks like a giant medieval castle from a fairy tale book. You find out from the tour guide that you are about to go frolic through its cobblestone alleyways and into its cavernous, 13th century vaults to sip some of the best wines that Italy has to offer. Magic.
Enter Montepulciano, an enchanting cascade of renaissance and medieval architecture, which, perched high upon a hill and surrounded by bountiful, endless countryside, is one of the most memorable and magnificent places in Tuscany.
And most importantly, its wines are world famous.
Wander through the village until you reach the 1000-year old Contucci enoteca, where thousands of barrels preserve the delicate balance of its renowned Vino Nobile. You can then savour the fermented richness of Italy’s finest Sangiovese grapes, with hints of vanilla oak and red berry that will tempt most wine novices (like me!) into connoisseurship.
Emerge from your tasting spree to bask in the afternoon sun and admire breathtaking, panoramic views of the region.
I have been to a ritzy party or two and am accustomed to the occasional brie and stilton platter, but I had never delved into the nuances of cheese tasting before visiting Pienza. This tiny village actually smells like a giant wheel of Pecorino Toscano and is indeed famous for its unique, sheep’s milk (or to get technical, ewes’ milk), herb-infused concoction.
A short distance outside of Florence, this tiny hilltop village, unique in its “pure” Renaissance design and layout, can be easily navigated in a matter of hours. With its friendly shop owners, quaint cobblestone streets, and seemingly trouble-free lifestyle, Pienza, in my opinion, captures the true essence of Tuscany.
Wander in and out of the many food shops on the main street to taste the different varieties of pecorino, reflective of seasonal changes and the unique plants and herbs scattered throughout the surrounding pastureland.
Well, that’s a start. You could then return home ready to schmooze it up with your bottiglie di Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva, to be authentically complimented by the savoury taste of 100% ewes’ milk Pecorino Toscano. Or you could carry on adventuring. Or even better, stay in Tuscany forever. I know I could…