After 3 days of trade show, and 4 days of tightly planned touristing through Rome and Florence, I was more than ready to surrender the responsibility of planning to someone else.
A friend had recommended Viaggi D’Ambra to us as a guide for the Tuscany area of Italy. I had initially looked at doing the trip as Rome/Florence/Venice run but two things made me reconsider this.
First, a 5 day schedule constraint made this trip doable, but nearly suicidal. Secondly, my sweet wife applied the most poignant puppy dog eyes I have ever seen when I informed her that I did not see how we had time to do Tuscany on this trip. I promised her I would bring her back and she agreed with good, if somber, graces but I knew at that point I had no choice in the matter.
So, Venice went in the rubbish bin. It is the Las Vegas of Italy anyway.
I made the call to Azzurra and Christian at Viaggi d’Ambra and scheduled a day of wine and villages in the Chianti region of Tuscany.
For the first time, that was the entirety of my plan and I have to say that it was positively liberating to know that all I had to prepare for was being in the hotel lobby at 9:30. No museum tickets, no reservations and no timetable. Just some trust in a highly recommended guide.
Christian picked us up promptly at half past in a van that could have held 8 but was clean and well air-conditioned. He quizzed us briefly on what we had done in Florence so far and when he found out that we had not been to the Piazza de Michelangelo he took us on a quick detour assuring us that it was truly the best view of the city.
“Better than the top of the Duomo?” I asked naively. He gave me a “just wait” kind of look and drove us to the top of the hill it was perched upon.
True to his word the view was spectacular and we took some more panoramic pictures and he good-naturedly took a group picture of the 4 of us with beautiful Florence in the background. He even knew how to frame a picture!
We piled back into the van and made our way towards the village of Greve in Chianti. He filled the trip with a discourse on the vagaries of the Italian wine system, patiently explaining the differences between IGT, DOC and DOCG. He talked about the grapes that were grown in different regions and how important preserving the character of the regions were whether it was a simple Chianti or a more complex Brunello. He was obviously passionate about the topic and also explained the similar systems they had for the regions other pride; olive oil.
On the way down the main thoroughfare through Chianti he stopped at one of the vineyards to show us the way the vines were planted and pruned and we even saw the beginnings of a bloom on one plant. The rolling hillsides were already teasing at what I hoped I would see in Tuscany and were the obvious inspiration for many of the Napa sites I had seen.
Or first real stop was in Greve in Chianti. The tiny village was built up around a central square. Well, a central triangle anyway! Christian pointed out that it was one of the few towns in the area that was built in a valley instead of on a hill. He explained to us that is was a trading village that had grown up around a crossroads of a main East/West and North/South intersection. Even today the center of town converts itself into a large open air market on the weekends that draws people from miles around.
There in the middle of town is the Antica Macelleria Falorni. This butcher has been continually providing fresh meat to the area since 1729 and is a fixture of the town center. We stepped inside and tried a taste of a simple Chianti with a couple of the foods they had laid out. He explained that the winery we were going to did not have any food available and he wanted us to experience that way the wine changed with bread and olive oil, local pecorino cheese and of course the prosciutto. Although I am familiar with the concept of finding balance in a wine by pairing it with foods, it was interesting to have it applied with all of the local ingredients.
We also saw the statue to the “famous son” of Greve, Giovanni de Verrazzano who discovered New York harbor.
We took a few more minutes to wander the center section (squareangle maybe?) looking at some souvenirs that were notably cheaper than in Florence. We also wandered into the village church which was refreshingly simple after the opulence we had witnessed earlier in the week.
From there we made out way back into the countryside to a winery called Le Fonti. Christian apologized that the big Italian wine festival was going on in the south and that most of the owners were gone, but he had set us up an appointment at Le Fonti.
We were met there by a tremendously charming man who described himself modestly as a pensioner whose daughter now owned and ran the vineyard. The pride in his eyes belied that statement and he may have slowed down but he is definitely still involved in the process.
Le Fonti is a small, family owned vineyard that produces about 40,000 bottles a year of 5 different wines and a couple of grappas. The owner who hosted the tasting for us was Conrad Schmitt. Not exactly a good, Italian name!
He told us of his background in publishing and his interest in getting into the wine industry. He was roundly rejected when he tried to purchase a vineyard in France (they don’t really like any outsiders) and he ended up on this picturesque hillside to start his viniventure.
He guided us through the tasting from a simple table wine to a Chianti, Chianti Classico and a Super Tuscan. All quite nice and increasing in complexity as we went.
A couple of sips of wine and we were definitely ready for a true, Tuscan lunch. So we piled into the van and headed for Volpaia.
A traditional Tuscan lunch is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Peasant food raised to artisan level, it comes at you in waves of carbohydrate frenzy.
From the top there is bread salad, farro, various bruschetta, ribbolita and a pasta whose name I can’t remember that was about the thickness of my pinkie. Finished up with a tira misu and an espresso just to make sure we would not slip into a coma before we explored the limited scope of Volpaia. And yes, since you asked, it was every bit as good as it looked.
Our epic lunch was punctuated by staccato bursts of visitation and laughter from the proprietress Paula. Her personality was as sun soaked as the Tuscan hills and I am sure the food tasted even better because of her smile. She chattered at us endlessly in Italian like we could understand what she was saying.
We could not resist asking for a picture with her. She tried to take the camera away from us to take our picture before we made her understand we wanted her to be in it. We are all laughing like clowns because Christian has just let us know that her protestation was “I am no Top Model” and she was cackling at the top of her lungs.
If I could have chosen only one thing to bring back home it would have been Paula. She was impossibly full of life and filled with the vigor of Chianti.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the village of Volpaia and taking in the ancient village and picturing ourselves 700 years I’m the past.
Portions of the walls and original towers were still visible and you could really get a sense of what the town was like hundreds of years ago. Most of the town is now owned by the Volpaia winery but there are still people living there. You could also rent a villa if you really wanted to get away from it all.
The beautiful countryside in Chianti will really get its hooks in you. The people are warm and welcoming, the food is divine and it is truly a place that I did not want to leave.
It was a magical day that progressed into a warm sleepy trip back to Florence to prepare to head back home. We were much quieter on the trip back as we realized the whole adventure was about to come to and end. I am so glad that we put ourselves in the care of Viaggi d’Ambra, they knew exactly what we needed after a hectic 4 days in the cities of Italy.
When we returned to Florence around 6, we realized that we had a dinner reservation at 9 PM. We were not sure that we would ever eat again after the glories of a lunch in the Tuscan hillside, and sure enough as the night drew to a close, none of us could picture going out for food.
We retired to our rooms for a short sleep before heading to the airport and a very long day of traveling home.
There is no place like Italy.