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My Summer in TuscanyMarch 3, 2008 By: Ruthanne Terrero Travel Agent
Okay, it wasn't the entire summer. In fact, it was just for several days in late August/early September on a "Taste of Tuscany" program with Adventures by Disney. We started in Rome, where one of our two guides, Marco, met us at the airport, brought us to our car and set us on our way to the Empire Palace Hotel, where our second guide, Cynthia, was waiting. Talk about good first impressions: She stood vigilantly at the front desk until she secured our room keys, an act that got us into our room within 15 minutes of arrival, even though it was still early morning.
We loved our welcome bag, which contained an umbrella, a poncho, hydrating mist and a variety of skin gels and other items that complemented the sturdy backpack Disney had sent each guest prior to departure.
After relaxing, we joined our fellow adventurers for a meet-and-greet cocktail party. Our group was much smaller than most tours (11 in all) and was limited to those who were 18 and older. This particular trip ran over Labor Day weekend, which may have accounted for the smaller size—Adventures by Disney carries up to 42 guests on any departure. Cynthia and Marco told us they'd just had a group of that size which included 16 children. We've heard only good things about those situations, where families bond and kids forge long-lasting relationships.
For now, we were content to hang with our new friends. One couple were fans of all things Disney and had gotten married at Walt Disney World. Others were members of the Disney Vacation Club and had found the itinerary for this particular trip too tempting to pass up. Who could blame them? Over the course of the following week, we were about to explore Rome, sample Umbria and then settle into our headquarters in a Tuscan villa. Pasta making was included in there somewhere, and we were all fairly certain that some very good Italian wine would be making a frequent appearance. Bring on la dolce vita!
On our second day, we were still recovering from our first group dinner the night before (think: fresh fish and a generous portion of handmade ravioli), held at the hotel's gourmet Aureliano restaurant. But we were in fine enough form to meet our guide, Emilio, an expert on Rome. He was the ideal companion with whom to stroll through the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon and the grounds of the Vatican. Imagine having every single question you've ever had about Roman history answered brilliantly as you're standing where the history actually took place.
That evening, we had dinner on our own. Cynthia and Marco turned out to be experts on Rome themselves and served as concierges at an Adventures by Disney desk in our hotel's lobby. We kept it simple; after walking around the neighborhood—which was close to the Villa Borghese gardens and 15 minutes by foot to the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza del Popolo and Via Condotti—we dined outside at an Italian restaurant and forced ourselves to have more homemade pasta.
Since it was late summer, watermelon (a hugely popular treat in Italy, where it's sometimes sold roadside) was in season and guests were ordering platefuls of the fruit. We agreed it had never tasted so good as on that corner in Rome that night.
Departure from Rome was a snap. We'd left our luggage outside the door the evening prior, and Disney saw that it was loaded onto the comfortable motorcoach, which would carry us from Rome to the Umbria region. It didn't take us long to arrive at Orvieto, a charming medieval hilltop town that is accessible via a funicular and is known for its ceramics, wine and olive oil. We had a light lunch at one of the many cafés and then people-watched from the steps of the magnificent Duomo of Orvieto.
Satiated with sunlight, we boarded our motorcoach for the ride to Tuscany. While it was entertaining enough to look out the window at the rolling hills, fields of sheep, olive trees and sunflower plants (it was late August and we'd missed the blooms by about a month), we also enjoyed watching the film Under the Tuscan Sun, which our guides had popped into the coach's DVD player.
As advertised, our accommodations in Tuscany turned out to be at a real 16th-century villa. The land for Villa Belvedere Campoli, in the village of Mercatale Val di Pesa on the Chianti road from Florence to Siena, was deeded by the Medicis and has been owned by the original family since the 18th century. The group stayed in a more modern building on the grounds. Our suite, "the Giardino," felt more like a studio apartment with a full-size living/dining room with cooking facilities, a separate bedroom and a full bathroom with a salon-strength hair dryer and bountiful counter space.
As first-timers to Tuscany, we were shocked to see how truly beautiful the region is, especially from the vantage point of Villa Belvedere, which has its own vineyards (grapes were fully ripe on the vine during our visit) and where soft breezes glide through olive trees that grow on hills that overlook valleys, smaller hills, other vineyards and roadways that lead to medieval villages.
That evening we sat on the villa's terrace and had a private wine tasting. As fascinating as it was, we had to stop to stare at the stunning sunset, which changed its medley of hues with every passing minute. That evening, we dined in the villa's wine cellar.
The next morning, some stayed behind to enjoy the lovely pool while we went on an optional tour of Monteriggioni. We insist you recommend that clients visit this quaint hillside town, which is just half-an-hour ride from the villa. At 9:15 in the morning, only a few shops were opening up, proprietors were putting out their wares, and a little black dog (who seemed to belong to the entire town) was running around in the sunlight in the village square. After taking in all of this, as well as the aroma of fresh tomato sauce infused with basil and garlic wafting in the air, we knew this was where we wanted to spend the rest of our days.
It was not to be, however; we needed to return to the villa for our pasta-making lesson. Foodies, take note: This is a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-down-and-dirty session that you don't leave without learning what really goes into making good pasta. After the lesson, we retired to the terrace for a pasta lunch and some of Villa Belvedere's own Chianti Classico. We rested up after that and then boarded the motorcoach for nearby San Gimignano, a town of towers and winding hills that's filled with shops, restaurants and an expansive piazza.
No visit to Tuscany is complete without a day in Florence, where an expert guide showed us the statue of David at the Gallery of the Accademia, the Ponte Vecchio and a number of other must-see treasures. We had hours and hours to wander through markets and shops and hidden streets until we discovered the ideal restaurant for still more pasta and wine.
The next day served up Siena, where our guide, Nicolette, secured our group access to a rarely open contrada museum, where she explained how the entire city is divided into 17 districts (contradas) whose horses race in the annual Palio di Siena around the city's Piazza del Campo every July 2 and August 16. We had plenty of time to explore the city on our own as well before heading back to the villa for our farewell dinner.
We won't reveal what our surprise was that evening, for each Adventure by Disney concludes with its own treat for participants. What we can reveal is that throughout our entire "Taste of Tuscany" experience, Marco and Cynthia plied us with one surprise after another, whether it was a postcard of the Vatican, complete with stamp, that we were able to fill out and mail from the Vatican post office, or group photos of the adventure we'd enjoyed the day before. The Adventures by Disney team strives to differentiate itself from other tour operators with a number of such amenities, and it doesn't overlook the fact that an abundance of bottled water (gratis) and healthy snacks passed around the motorcoach on every leg of the journey goes a long way.
And so we departed Tuscany, where we'd decided every day feels like Sunday morning, when the sky is blue and just about anything seems possible. Our group disbanded—some in tears, because they'd realized their dream of seeing Italy had finally come true in a way they'd never imagined possible.
For more on Adventures by Disney, visit www.adventuresbydisney.com.