Our Trip To Tuscany

This 1998 trip to Europe was our best effort yet. All the facets of the trip came together perfectly. We had great weather, great accommodations and a wonderful place in Italy to visit.
Of course having a large group of people who supported each other was the clincher.

Our pickup at the BMW Delivery center in Munich on June 29 involved fourteen people in five cars. We had a 528i stick, a 528i automatic, an M-3 coupe, an M-3 sedan and a 323is.
All went smoothly and we were on the road to Italy by 11:00AM. Three cars caravaned and two made their own way down to Verona, a four hour drive and our first stop on the way to Tuscany.

What can you say about Verona. It was only intended as an overnight stop along the way but Romeo and Juliet's hometown has special charm. We could have spent days here, but we made the most of our one night. We happened to be in town when Whitney Houston was making her only appearance in concert in Italy in the 2,000 year old Roman coliseum, and there were tickets available. She put on a great show. The coliseum has perfect acoustics and she charmed the Italian audience. They cheered for encores.
We toured the town before the concert and had an excellent meal in one of the many sidewalk cafes. Verona in the summer is a 24-hour city. We did some shopping and took in a few more sights the next morning before we made the second leg of our trip, the four hour drive to Radda in Chianti. Three of the members from our group met up with a friend in Verona and split off to tour Venice and Northern Italy in the 528i. The remaining eleven people, in four cars, headed south.
Radda was to be our home base for the next week of touring.

Radda in Chianti is located in the middle of the Chianti Hills 3/4 of the way between Florence and Siena. The town proved to be an excellent jumping off point for our daily expeditions.
To discover the wonders of Tuscany, we planed to fill the next two weeks with wineries, cultural events, restaurants, and shopping. For our first seven day stay we chose the most charming of accommodations, Fattoria Vignale. Vignale is a converted estate, remodeled into a small hotel. It has everything we wanted, clean, beautiful rooms, secure parking, a large swimming pool, and breakfast served on a terrace with great views. Sylvia and her staff made us very comfortable and gave us advice on local ristorante.

The next two days, we took part in an event which had been my reason in planning the tour for early July, The Palio Contrada. The seventeen neighborhoods (contrade) of Siena stage a horse race to decide who will own the noble banner for one year. To call The Palio Contrada simply a horse race is to contradict six hundred years of history, medieval myth, and incomparable pageantry. The Sienese invest so much drama and emotion into this event. I can understand why my father, who saw the race as a child, never forgot it.
It was my turn sixty five years later and I was not disappointed.
The race takes place in the Piazza del Campo, the small town square. A clay track is laid around the square and the people stand in the center watching the horses race around three times. Our little group stood, shoulder to shoulder, with about two hundred thousand screaming Italians. A two hour pageant takes place before the race. The contrade parade in medieval costumes and armaments, tossing flags, and showing off their horse and their colors. The actual race is a wild, no-holds barred affair with the jockeys trying to punish each other and still maintain the speed to win. At least once in your life you've got to see the Palio Contrada. We don't have the opportunity in the United States to take part in such a spectacle.

After the excitement of the Palio, our next day was calm and relaxing. We were given a private tour of the most famous of the Chianti Classico vineyards, Badia in Coltibuono. Our guide was, Roberto Bianchi, one of the most personable of the winery staff. Lorenza de Medici has her famous cooking school on the grounds. It's a charming place with an excellent restaurant. The wine shop had such a good selection, we all brought home several bottles. Roberto also invited us to a street party in our town the next evening. A man of many talents, he is also a drummer in a rock band. They were the featured group and luckily all their songs were in sung in English.

On Saturday we went to the famous Arezzo antique market held only on the first weekend of each month. The market is very colorful with an extensive selection of goods, not just antiques. We spent the whole day there, found some great bargains, and had a wonderful meal at the "Buca de SanFrancisco", a restaurant hollowed out of a rock cavern in the center of town. I can't recall any meal in Tuscany that was a disappointment. Tuscan food and its preparation rivals the French and is my personal favorite of all the Italian regional cuisines.

Sundays are a day of rest in Italy. You can take your pick of a ancient church, or hang out by the pool. All the stores are closed. Some of our group made the forty minute trip to Florence to spend the day. Another smaller group went to one of my favorite small towns, San Gimignano, an old textile center, known as the mini-Manhattan, for it's pre-Renaissance towers.
The old part of town is almost perfectly preserved. We tried a "wild boar" salami from one of the many small specialty shops. They also claim the finest quality gellato in Italy.

Monday we did one of the short tours suggested by the Michelin Green Guide to Tuscany, visiting the castles of Meleto and Brolio, driving through vineyards and groves of olive trees. We stopped in the town of Castelnuovo Beradenga to see the famous Madona and Child by Giovani di Paolo, in the Church of Santi Giusto e Clemente. We did not see any people until we went for a drink in a small local bar. I think the entire population of the town was crowded around the television watching Italy play France in a World Cup soccer match. Of course we had to join in and cheer for Italy. When Italy lost the game the locals had to console us. We had become part of their village. We're invited back in four years to watch the games in their bar. We drove on to Siena and finished our tour with a meal at Ristorante Guido, a seven hundred year old establishment near the site of the Palio.
Tuesday we drove to our next home base in Montepulciano.

The next three days we stayed at a working farm in the hills above Valiano de Montepulciano, The Borgo Tre Rose. If this is farming, it's farming Tuscan style. We watched the grapes grow. We hung out at the pool. We ate wonderful meals. We also treated ourselves to a morning at one of the famous spas in the area, Montepulciano Terme. That afternoon we visited Pienza. The movie, "The English Patient", was filmed there and the streets in one part of the old town are named after the emotions. Take your pick: The Via del Amore (the street of love). The Via de Bacci (the street of kisses). The Via del Abbracciare (the street of embrace). The Via del Attraccione (the street of attraction). Part of our group took the short drive to Perugia. Assisi is also close to this location. We had read Under The Tuscan Sun, so our last stop in Southern Tuscany was a tour of Cortona. The views of the valley are spectacular from the town ramparts.

Our next home base was the city of Lucca near Pisa. We spent our last three days here. We went to Pisa. I had to make sure the tower was still leaning. We went to a wonderful little family restaurant, Trattoria Da Leo in Lucca. We also drove out to the coast. For an island boy, a day at the beach at Forte Dei Marmi was a treat. The beach here is almost like a painting with so many multicolored beach umbrellas put out by the local beach clubs.

BMW allows you eighteen locations to drop your car off for shipment back to the U.S. Some of the group left from Paris, some from Amsterdam. Three cars decided to make it a straight shot to Munich for our drop off. It only took seven hours from Lucca, with Autostrada and Autobahn all the way.
It was going to be hard to top this 1998 trip for fun and variety because we just barely scatched the surface of things to see and do.
We did it in 1999 by repeating a week in Tuscany coupled with a trip to Provence, in France. Give me a call at BMW of Honolulu, 808-597-1225, for more information on tours,
or check back at the web site.

  

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