Wendy Squires savours the delights of hassle free travel through France and Italy. Here’s part 3 of her story …
On the way to the fruit and vegetable market of Saint Ambrogio in central Florence, we picked up the delightful bon vivant and chef Libero, of Ristorante I Tre Pini fame
Not content with showing us how to cook our lunch for the day, he insisted purchase the fresh produce as well, taking us on a tour of the colourful local markets.
With veges in hand, we headed back to his restaurant in the Chianti Hills, where his staff greeted us with flutes of Diamante Blue, (sparkling wine with a hint of blue curacao for colour and taste) before dressing us in paper aprons and hats to get to work making fresh pasta, biscotti and other treats for lunch.
No one present was immune to Libero’s charms as he danced, dined and drank with us as we were serenaded by local musicians and singers, his lust for life as enchanting as the surrounds he calls home.
It was a lunch that could have easily tipped in to dinner, but an evening in Florence certainly provided a soft landing. Sitting al fresco eating pizza so thin it crunches and crumbles in your mouth in the Piazza Della Signora a with moonlight illuminating the famous Palazza Vecchio tower was unforgettable, as was the stroll across the Pont Vecchio, the golden bridge still the site of Florence’s renowned jewellers today.
The following day we reluctantly left our Chateau for the trip back to Rome, stopping outside of Florence in the hills of Frisole overlooking the city’s Renaissance domes for lunch at Fattoria Di Maiano the elegant estate of the equally dashing Count Francesco Miari Fulcis.
Again, we were treated as visitors to a home –if you can call the city block-sized mansion a home – by the Count himself. Taking us on a tour of the cavernous rooms of Villa Di Maiano (only ever used as a summer residence it’s too hard to heat), used as the location for the film A Room With A View, we were then escorted to the working part of the property to see its organic olive oil production.
From freshly picked olives to grassy green glossy oil, we watched the process happen before our eyes, before savouring a feast prepared by the count’s daughters, and savouring the very oil we just watched being pressed.
It’s intimate experiences with locals such as these that make a trip truly memorable, and there are now more than 90 Be My Guest experiences Trafalgar offers globally (lunch in Scotland with a bagpipe-playing host I hear is a hoot).
Our final night in Rome was far from a disappointment however, as we all gathered for at The Cabiria restaurant for a farewell meal. And once again, it was an unforgettable experience in elegance, innately Italian in every way.
Back at our hotel, a group of us too intoxicated by the romantic city to sleep decided to have one more Chianti, and went off a roaming through Roma.
We came across a buzzing piazza and veered off down an empty cobbled side street. Singing could be heard spilling out of a small unlit bar doorway and we entered to find a large Italian family gathered, singing and playing guitar.
Invited in, we sat, as old songs were sung, hands clapped, tears shed, wine consumed and arms outstretched.
As I looked across at my fellow travellers in that bar with me, I knew they were now true friends, people I would happily travel with again, not to mention visit thanks to open invitations to stay in South Africa, Canada, the US and the UK.
By travelling with others I managed to feel like a citizen of the world again, forged strong bonds and challenged staid preconceptions with the most delightful results.
It was a truly life-changing trip and one in which the only time I ever felt like I was on a bus tour was when I was curled up on a comfortable bus, on my way to another truly unforgettable adventure. And I will always cherish and appreciate every guided second of it.
TIPS FOR MAKING THE MOST OF A GUIDED TOURS
* Ask the tour operators for advice on where to go and what to eat. They know the areas inside out. What’s more, they love their jobs. Use them.
* Take advantage of maps offered. They are easy to follow and can allow you the freedom of roaming efficiently and without getting lost.
* Do what you want to do. If you have seen Michelangelo’s David before, then skip the trip this time and spend time wandering Florence. It’s your time. Make the most of it.
* Be on time. The tours are designed to give you plenty of free time to do what you want. Being late only slows down other travellers and can mean big delays to the next stop with traffic. The guides know what they’re doing and there is always a sound reason for set times.
* Wear comfortable shoes, as cobbled roads are hell on heels. Scooting down back streets and climbing ancient stairs are all part of the fun. But take a pair for evenings by all means – dress up and enjoy.
* Try to speak at least a bit of the local language. You will find even the basic bonjour will be welcomed.
* Eat everything. Ditch the diet a while. Local breads, cheeses and wines are as different as they are delicious and a seminal part of the cultural experience. And as Be My Guest experiences are included in the tour cost, you need not worry about how much you are eating or spending.
* Take time to sit and savour. It’s hard when there are so many things to see and do to just take time and breathe in the street life. Stop for a coffee and watch the locals go by. You will learn much just watching, listening and admiring.
* No need to pack super light. With Trafalgar, you will only have to touch your luggage to unpack or pack again, with porters assuring its safe arrival in your room and next destination.
* Take time to talk to fellow travellers. First impressions can often be wrong and the people you thought you would least get on with wind up new best friends.
* Shop. Why not? But try to avoid big chain stores and explore the local boutiques, galleries and curious. This is where you will you will find that one-off unique piece you will treasure forever.
* Relax. Everything is done for you – travel, tickets, opening times, luggage…. There’s even a toilet on the buses. Use the transit times to relax and look. The journey is often as rewarding as the destination.
Wendy Squires travelled as a guest of Trafalgar Tours.