Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Five Under-the-Radar Experiences in Tuscany

The mere mention of the place conjures up intense images of rolling hills in the Italian countryside, making the notion of farm living seductive than ever before.  There is not a person I know I would mention the word to that wouldn't emit a wistful sigh for a second.  Gold sunshine, cackling chickens, olive groves, and yes, a mirage of Tuscany will not be complete without fantastic wine. 
Tuscany is a bubble in everyone’s heads, it seems like.  Especially if you’re a gastro junkie, Tuscany must be on your bucket list.  For some reason though, the countryside of Tuscany gets bypassed a lot by tourists making their pilgrimage to the Italy’s greatest capitals – Rome, Venice, Milan, and Florence (which is in the region of Tuscany, by the way).  And a part of me selfishly wants to keep the tourist buses away, to be honest.  It seems like the people who actually make time for Tuscany are over the age of 50 and/or retired. 
The reality is, Tuscany is very accessible from any of these capitals by train or car.  While it is dreamy, it is not completely out of reach.  A word of warning though: the region of Tuscany is vast and its topography is very diverse – hills, valleys, mountains, rivers, coast, great cities (rival cities Siena and Florence are both in Tuscany).  The most difficult part is narrowing down which Tuscan experience wins your favor. 
I am the proud architect of our itinerary in Tuscany and to orchestrate this trip, I started with the most basic of tools in any traveler's kit: a map.  For me, this is the perfect canvas because by staring at cartography, you actually get a very objective sense of what really is out there (as opposed to taking someone else’s word for it).  And then I married that map up with the things we love to experience (in Tuscany or outside of it) and the amount of time we would spend there. 
The outcome was ridiculously good.  If I would rank the best trips of my lifetime, this (and the rest of this entire Italian road trip) would be up there.  What made our experience of Tuscany incredible was just that – it was ours.  It catered to our passions and our quirks, our desires and madness to excavate the hidden gems of a place not yet written about in a guide book.  It satisfied our stubborn insistence to experience a place like locals as much as possible, integrating with the indigenous culture, experiencing daily life separate from our own.  We are fanatics about the outdoors so it was thrilling to not be in a museum and be outside.  We are also insane about slow, authentic food, and we have found just that and more in Tuscany.  The rumors were true about Tuscany after all.     
So here are some five under-the-radar experiences in Tuscany that could either serve up a dose of travel inspiration, or help you gather a little bravado about jumping off that tour bus and giving a do-it-yourself itinerary a whirl.  I swear my life on these experiences and if you are able to do them in this order, the better. 
1.  Stay in an Agriturismo.  
I have just the perfect one in mind but I have vowed to keep this one a secret lest the place get overrun by tourists.  I, however, am open to bribery.  Maybe.

An agriturismo is a working farm usually run by Tuscan families who, while making a living in the farm, also provide lodging and meals B&B style to guests.  There is a whole slew of them ranging in size and luxury, but I am convinced that we ended up at the best one judging from the impression of Tuscany and Italy we were able to bring home with us. 

We stayed in a small agriturismo in Monteriggioni that only had ten rooms if that.  We had  breakfast of local yogurt, cheeses and homemade jams and cakes, but the highlight was definitely dinner, when we would sit at the table with our fellow travelers from across the world.  Emiliano, our perfect Italian host would bring in one course at a time (which he lovingly prepares in the kitchen with his wife), announcing what dish it is, where the ingredients come from (his garden, the neighbor's, truffle foraged last winter, his friend's farm, and so on).  This is also the place where I learned how to make fresh tagliatelle by lingering in the kitchen while Emiliano worked.  

The sun would spill in our bedroom window every morning, just as the rooster would crow.  
2.  Mountain Bike in the forests of Punta Ala. 
Italians are obsessed with bicycles (and anything with two wheels, in general).  Driving around Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, you would always, always see cyclists of all shapes and sizes, climbing hills mostly.  What I did not know was there is also a strong mountain bike culture in Tuscany.  There were mountains in Tuscany?  I had come across Punt Ala while after staring at a map and daydreaming about the possibilities.  Then I read about a mountain bike race called the Superenduro Pro that would have just wrapped up when we got there.  

The Dutch is a zealot for anything bicycles and I myself had just invested in a sweet mountain bike prior to our trip. I figured that getting our ass kicked on the trail was a way to negate the overindulgence in pasta and dolci in this Italian trip (it was the last form of intense heart-thumping we would get until the holiday wrapped up).  We rented bikes from PuntAla Cycle Tours and Mario, mountain bike guide extraordinaire, took us around the cross-country trails with some challenging climbs (I had to walk parts), some technical downhills, single trail switchbacks, and towards the end, a small portion of the forest with some fun jumps (I only dared to do one).  I LOVE LOVE LOVE this part of our trip and I am so exhilarated we got to experience Tuscany's wild side.  An entire blog post on this MTB adventure here  

3.  Catch sun in the Tuscan beach of Spiaggia Violina.  
A little Italian vocabulary lesson.  Spiaggia.  This is a very important word to learn. Say it again.  Spiaggia.  The beach.  

Tourists often don't realize that Tuscany has a beautiful coastline.  Why do I know this?  Planning this Italian road trip required me to pore over maps for hours.  I went through dozens of iterations of possible itineraries inland, but my eyes keep stealing glances on that big blue area to the west of Tuscany.  I. MUST. GO.  

I'm sure there are many gorgeous beaches in Tuscany, but the one we went to Spiaggia Violina, called such because supposedly, when you walk barefoot on the this sand, you'll hear violins.  It was empty and beautiful.  One can only walk or mountain bike (like we did) to this beach and when we went in May, it was desolate and quiet.  According to Marco, our mountain bike guide, it gets really crowded in the summer.  

4.  Wine Cellar Tour and Tasting in Carmignano.  
Tuscany is synonymous with Chianti and Montepulciano, its most famous growing regions for wines.  But how about Carmignano in a northern Tuscany villa established by the Medicis of Florence?
I've tasted this wine back in January at a restaurant in Park City.  I thought it was stellar and it had haunted me since.  None of the wine distributors in town carried it.  Months later, when I realized I was going to Tuscany, I researched this winemaker and made an appointment for a tasting.  I exchanged emails with Serena Bonacossi (member of the family that makes this wine) and arranged for a tour and a tasting.  We were also invited to stay for lunch.  It was a wonderfully lazy afternoon doing what we all ought to be doing on lazy afternoons - having an amazing meal while sipping on astounding wine with a sweeping panorama of vineyards and olive groves before you.  More on Capezzana on this blog here!

5.  Go to a thermal cave and then enjoy the thermal pool at Grotta Giusti in Monsummano Terme.  
Thermal baths have long been an Italian history and tradition to promote wellness and health.  If you look back to the ancient Roman times, the Romans went to communal baths to get clean but in a way, also to be social.  Tuscany has many natural mineral and thermal baths, but Grotta Giusti in Monsummano Terme is unique because it also has an underground "thermal" cave where you can descend to and bask in its natural heat.  I have never seen or heard of anything like it.  Until you try it for yourself, you would have to trust me on this - it was delirious. Especially after the intensity of being on a mountain bike saddle the day before, and the headiness from the wine tasting at Carmignano, an afternoon of relaxation was well needed.  An entire post on this unique find on the blog here!
Photo credit: Grotta Guisti.  (I did not bring a camera in the cave.)
I never imagined I would one day have the opportunity to experience so much of Tuscany. It was daunting to plan an itinerary around unchartered territory (for me, at least) sans a guidebook, but in the end, it was worth every bit of the anal retention and neurosis that went into planning this sought-after Tuscan reverie.  

Did we get lost?  Yes, many times, and at one point even ended up at a military outpost on a mountaintop.  A cheery "Buongiorno!" to the Italian soldier and we prevented getting in further trouble.  Did we drive more than we thought we would?  Yes, but without it we would not have seen so much of Tuscany than we did.  Would we do it again?  In a heartbeat!

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