Thursday, August 22, 2013

Girls' weekend in Tuscany

This post is way overdue, but it's definitely one that must be shared.  Last fall when I was enjoying my second trimester, I decided that having a nice and relaxing weekend with my girlfriends somewhere fun was a must.  Lucky for me, I have an incredible husband that couldn't agree more, so he made sure it could happen.  I initially thought I wanted to put my feet in the sand and go somewhere warm. Honestly, the Greek Isles were really high on my list.  But with my due date being early May, I really couldn't do the trip much later than the first part of March.

And to keep it affordable and easy to do in a long weekend, we needed the destination to be somewhere in Europe. Most of Europe is pretty darn cold until the end of April, and the Greek Isles were promising nothing but a mess of rain and nasty weather that time of year.  I decided Italy would be our best bet.  Let's face it folks, when can you ever go wrong with a trip to Tuscany with seven of your closest girlfriends?  Come March, I was pretty relieved we didn't have plans that included me wearing a swimsuit anyhow.

I was blown away that everyone I asked to join me on the trip said, "yes"!  A couple of my friends had to cancel at the last minute, but it was still pretty incredible that six of us were able to go.  It truly was a memorable weekend in so many ways.  I researched endlessly until I found the perfect Villa in Tuscany for our group.  It was called, Villa Poggio di Gaville, and it was an amazing place.

The Villa was located near Figline Valdarno, which sits just to the southeast of Florence.  We were able to catch a train from Figline to Florence in just 20 minutes where we were going to spend the morning with a special tour guide.  Our tour guide is also a good friend I met when I took my German class at Treffpunkt back in December.   Stefania did a beautiful tour.  It was great fun to be guided around the city. This is the third time I had been to Florence and I learned so much on this visit.

Here is most of the crew as we started our tour
Our beautiful tour guide, Stefania, as we overlook Florence
Wanna drive?  Only 150 EUR for 10 minutes!
Kimberly and Jessie enjoying sights on our tour

Stefania taught us much about the buildings and sculptures throughout Florence.  ^^^Here the artist included a replica of his face in the back of the head on this sculpture.^^^  

^^^And in this picture you can see the bridge adjoining the buildings.  The Royal family had a pathway built from the palace across the river into the parliament so that they would never have to be in the elements or mix with the common folk.^^^

Small details that are easy to miss when you visit historical cities without a tour guide. Stefania was amazing.  If you are ever in Florence and want a great and very personal guide, let me know and I'll get you in touch with her.

After our tour ended, some of us stayed behind and enjoyed the afternoon in Florence, and some headed off to drive the hills of Chianti.  I was in the latter group, and volunteered to drive our tiny rental car, which was great for navigating small roads in Florence and fantastic for parking in all of the small towns.

It was an absolutely gorgeous day.  The weather wasn't summer-like as it had been just weeks before, and there was a strong and cold wind, but the sun shined for us all day.

We drove into Greve in Chianti, which was a characteristic Tuscan town.  We just did a quick walk through to get a feel for its charm.

beautiful vineyards lined the countryside
charming character of the buildings
tunnels under buildings revealed picturesque landscapes
We had little luck finding any vineyards open that afternoon for wine tasting, but we were able to locate a shop in Greve that sold olive oil and some of the local chianti wines.  We couldn't leave without each buying a bottle of the rich olive oil.

you refill your own wine bottles from barrels in the store
Vats of olive oil - amazing!

We continued our drive and headed out to Radda.  Greve sits somewhat in a valley, and Radda is a town on top of a hill.  We timed it so that we would be in Radda for sunset in the hopes to catch some amazing photographs.  Even in early March, the Tuscan countryside is a sight to be scene.

Amy, Meg and Me on our drive through the Chianti region
Radda is an ancient town on top of a hill
Buildings were typical of architecture throughout Tuscany

^^^One of my favorite pictures from that weekend is Meg standing on a ledge to capture the perfect photograph as the sun was setting.  It was a sheer drop on the other side of the ledge.  Her biggest fear? That she would drop her camera!^^^

One of the things that made this trip special was all of the food.  I picked this villa because it was owned and run by a well-known international chef.  We opted for the full-board option, which was a perfect way to go for a larger group traveling together because dinner was always scheduled and planned.  After doing our own thing, we would all come together for dinner each evening and enjoy each other's company.  It also took the stress out of trying to find a place to eat for a large group that met everyone's eating preferences.  I have to admit, too, that having a four course meal every night that was chosen for us, was a fantastic way to try things I never would have ordered (and that you would probably never find on a menu!).

The food was amazing and creative.  It had a tuscan flare, of course, but our chef, Jamal Amin, added parts of his local culture to the meals as well.  As a fun activity, Jamal offered cooking course where we create a four course meal with him.  We had such a great time and each learned something amazing to cook.  Kimberly finally learned how to make pasta from scratch, Meg still makes the focacia bread nearly every week, and I got creative and tried to make the pasta sauce and other side dishes at home (one in particular was a concoction of avacado, pear, and pecorino cheese - AMAZING!).

Our cooking session was in the afternoon that Sunday.  Part of our group spent the day at the outlet shops about twenty minutes away, and Amy and I stayed back to do some more driving throughout Chianti.  It was a bitter sweet day for me that holds memories I love to remember and wish I could forget.  At the time we took our trip to Tuscany, my Dad had already been in the hospital for two months.  My Dad had a particularly bad night, and I got a frightening message that morning.  Amy stayed close and provided support as I sat in the dining room where wifi was available and awaited updates.  I also decided to walk around the beautiful grounds at the villa to get lost in my thoughts and take photographs.  Here are a few of my favorites from that morning.  I felt as if I were surrounded by art everywhere I looked...

Once my family told me that there would not be any updates for quite awhile and that Dad was otherwise stable, Amy convinced me to get away and enjoy a drive through Chianti.  It was a fabulous afternoon.  Again, the weather was amazing, and although most things were closed because it was a Sunday in early spring, we truly enjoyed the quiet drive.

We stopped at a few vineyards that surround castles.  They were all closed for the season, unfortunately, but when we arrived at Castello da Verrazano, they allowed us to take a walk around the grounds.  So beautiful.  I would love to come back here to see the inside and taste the wines they grow along the hillsides.

Castello de Verranzo from afar
Winery at Castello de Verranzo
Inside the grounds of Castello de Verranzo
Our next stop before heading back to the Villa was completely by accident. Nestled in the hills just a couple kilometers above Greve is a small fortified village.  Beautiful Montifioralle was such a pleasant surprise, and it's where we ended up spending most of the afternoon. (And I was so relieved I had a tiny rental car or a visit to this town would not have been possible that day!)

Pathway into Montefioralle
More beauty in Montefioralle
We stopped at a little hole in the wall - literally - for wine tasting.  The chianti wines were personally grown by the owner of the shop on the hillside adjacent to the town.  I let Amy do the drinking, while I tasted and enjoyed the meats and cheeses that came with the wines.  It was such a quaint, behind the scenes shop with no frills that we sat on plastic chairs at a plastic table and listened to the locals enjoy an exciting football game.  It was too much fun, and the food (and wine) was delectable!

The wines we tasted - so good we brought some home
The little hole in the wall shop where we stopped for our wine
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around Montefioralle enjoying priceless scenes like this artist drawing the streetscape. Such a beautiful town...

The streets of Montefioralle
Amy and me
Our last day came too quickly.  We took our time eating breakfast and chatting with Jamal.  Somehow we remembered to have our photos taken with him.  I truly hope we can return to his villa again some day.  If you are heading to Tuscany, I can't recommend it enough!

Me and Jamal - such a beautiful morning!

Meg, Amy, me, Jamal, and Jessie at Poggio di Gaville
Such an incredible weekend with my friends right before my father passed away.  It was nice to be able to ride on the memories we shared to get me through such a difficult time.  

Turns out, Big R and I are kind of huge fans of Italy, and we decided that Tuscany was a region worth visiting during a season when grasses were green and flowers were in bloom.  So, we are heading back for a long weekend in Tuscany with our family for Labor Day.  My pictures will pail in comparison to the magic he'll create on he's camera.  We will be staying in a villa on the other side of Tuscany, and we plan on seeing some other parts of the region including Siena and San Gimignano.  

Stay tuned

1 comment:

  1. These pics are making me even more excited about going to Tuscany next summer! I can't wait to immerse myself in the Tuscan culture and history. I've already searched for some Tuscan Villa rentals online! It's going to be a trip of a lifetime!