Experience Italy like a local by staying in a villa. To celebrate a birthday, anniversary, friends' reunion or a family gathering, think villa and not hotel. I did with 7 other family members in the heart of Tuscany. A villa specialist from SIT Italy (based in Italy) that works with Santa Barbara Travel arranged our stay in a beautiful, well-appointed 4 bedroom villa. Perched on a hill, among an orchard full of olive trees, our home in Italy overlooked the rolling green hills of Tuscany. Our picturesque location was just outside the small town of Montaione, an easy drive to San Gimignano, Lucca and Florence.
We had five sitting areas within the villa that made it easy for all of us to spread out or congregate if we wanted to. The outdoor area had several patios to lounge around, an outdoor grill and table with chairs for al fresco dining, plus an inviting large-sized pool to cool down during the day. The villa owners Lisa & Marco were so accommodating and easy to reach by text or WhatsApp.
Staying in a villa had many options, from hiring a chef to cook for you on a daily basis, to only cooking on pre-arranged days. We took advantage of having breakfast cooked and served on Mother's Day. What a treat! Usually I don't like to cook when on vacation, but we decided to take advantage of our kitchen for breakfast and for one dinner. It was fun shopping at the local cheese and meat markets. We were blown away by the fresh fruits, vegetable and variety of food available at the local COOP - a third of the price I would pay in Santa Barbara or LA. Dining out was also reasonable. In our area, we highly recommend Pesce Rosso (suggested by SIT Italy) for dinner and Casa Masi (suggested by the owners of a local truffle company) for local grown food.
Yes - I did mention truffles. The Montaione/San Miniato area is known for their prized white truffles. White truffle season is in November, but black truffles can be found year round. One of my sons is a forager at heart and I knew instantly he would be on board if I signed up for a day of truffle hunting. When I put it out to the whole family, they all wanted to give it a try. We signed up for truffle hunting with Turtufi Nacci, a locally owned business in San Miniato.
Turtufi Nacci owners Monica and Ricardo were so cordial and hospitable. (Monica's grandfather was a celebrated truffle hunter back in the day. And one of Monica & Ricardo's truffle hunting dogs, Maya, is a descendant of Monica's grandfather's hunting dog.) On our hunt, the two most adorable dogs, Bilba (8 months) and Maya (3 years), accompanied us and scouted out black truffles in the backwoods of Tuscany. Truffle hunting used to be with pigs. However, Ricardo advised us that dogs, trained from the time they are puppies, can be trained to retrieve the truffles without eating them. He was quick to point out that it's harder to restrain pigs from eating the truffles, plus getting a pig to hop in your car can be a challenge. Ricardo took us to a secret location to seek out these precious gems of the earth that grow underground. Once we had our truffle find, we returned to the Nacci home/store, and Monica instantly donned her apron and prepared for us an amazing platter of truffle appetizers (truffle bruschetta, cheese with truffles, prosciutto with truffles, olive oil and truffles), followed by a main dish of scrumptious pasta topped with a very generous serving of freshly sliced truffles. After we thought we couldn't eat anymore, Monica brought out a surprise dish of truffle on egg with cream and melted cheese. This was heaven. The Naccis also sell an assortment of truffle products to bring home. Definitely sign up for both the hunt and lunch. This experience was one of the top highlights of our trip in Italy.
Other areas that we ventured to included Florence (everyone has to see Michelangelo's "David" housed in the Accademia Galleria Museum. Take a train as you have a high chance of getting a ticket in the different traffic zones by driving a car in this compact city.) Voltera, Lucca (birthplace of opera composer Giacomo Puccini), the towered medieval town of San Gimignano (best tasting at gelato at Gelateria Dondoli - so creamy it just melts in your mouth) and Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre attracts tons of tourists but the spectacular views are well worth it. I recommend going early to avoid the crowds. To walk the trails between the 5 cities (only one trail was open due to weather damage to the other trails, and they are not opening any time soon) you need to purchase a Cinque Terre card. I highly recommend buying the cards online in advance as the ticket line at the train station is ridiculously long.
We visited 4 of the 5 towns. We parked our car in Spezia and took a train to the first town, Riomaggiore. The village layout of Riomaggiore is pretty steep and boasts many, many steps. It was lovely once we got to the restaurants overlooking the sea. If you don't like to climb stairs, then you may want to avoid this town and the 3rd town Corniglia which requires you to climb approx. 400 steps from the train station. Corniglia is not accessible by the sea, whereas the other 4 towns can be accessed by local boats, in addition to trains and buses. Cinque Terre is known for their pesto and seafood. Our family enjoyed both. However, all the towns including Manarola (my favorite), Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare all have their distinctive charm.
Another activity I highly recommend is to take a cooking class. Our family took a day class at "Tuscan Women Cook". It was a 2 hour drive from our villa, but not far from Siena. This cooking program takes place in the quaint town of Montefollonico. Coleen, the owner of the school and our nonna cooking instructor introduced us to "0 flour" to make pasta dough and how to use the dough in a variety of dishes. This is a hands-on program and a great way to immerse oneself in the area's regional cuisine. 13 Gobbi, the restaurant that hosted our cooking class is open for lunch and dinner, and serves an assortment of entrees, including hot pasta dishes mixed in a giant parmigiano reggiano cheese wheel. I highly recommend it to families, friends and groups!
Travel Tips: Driving a car in Italy can be a challenge, but to stay in Tuscany and enjoy the small towns, you definitely need to rent a car. When traveling to smaller villages by train or bus expect to add extra hours to your itinerary. Definitely rent a car with a built-in GPS. We had our cell phones, in-car navigation system and a portable GPS unit. All of them would give us different directions, but most of the time the in-car navigation system gave us the most direct route. We used it in Tuscany as well as our drive to the Sorrento Peninsula. Note we did not drive the Amalfi Coast; we drove to our hotel in Vico Equense and parked our car in the hotel garage during our entire stay. We hired a driver or took the train from our hotel to visit sites along the magnificent Amalfi Coast (known as the road of 1,000 curves).
I also recommend hiring a guide or joining a tour when exploring certain areas of Italy. There is an advantage of hiring a guide by skipping long lines in Rome (Vatican, Coliseum, and Forum come to mind), Florence (Uffizi, Accademia Galleria), Sorrento Peninsula (Pompeii, Herculaneum). We explored most of the Sorrento Peninsula by hiring a private driver, but invested in a guide to explore Rome, and both Pompeii and Herculaneum. Our SIT Italy guides were excellent as their knowledge of history, local legend and the site highlights of both sites were immeasurable.
Best time to visit Italy is in the spring and fall. The summer is filled with tourists and can be very hot.