A Whirlwind Week in Florence
At the risk of repeating myself, I’d like to point out that Fall is my favorite time to visit Tuscany. Brandy and I, with husbands in tow, just returned from a productive and fun villa-scouting trip. We visited some old friends, returned to some favorite spots, and toured some incredible new properties that we are proud to add to our portfolio. But my favorite part of the whole experience was the moment we first emerged from the taxi in the middle of the city, familiar sounds and smells rushing in, jet-lag weighing on our eyes, when that old feeling of being in Florence came rushing back.
After unpacking our bags and rinsing the airplane from our skin, we stepped out into a glorious Florentine sunset. If you plan your flights wisely and arrive in the early evening, that first night is always so much fun. The excitement of being in Florence, combined with anticipation of the days to come, are enough to fight back exhaustion long enough to enjoy dinner before settling in for sleep.
We decided to start with an old, reliable choice for dinner. Buca Mario, located around the corner from the upscale shopping street Via Tornabuoni, is a hidden gem that we’ve visited before and plan to revisit again and again. Through the small, unassuming door, the restaurant opens up to an enormous system of underground caves that were once the wine cellar of a nearby Renaissance-era family palace. Tables are tucked into various rooms, and the friendly, efficient staff is there to introduce you to mouthwatering traditional Tuscan fare. Though I haven’t done it myself, this would be the right place to try the famous bistecca alla fiorentina, which is essentially just an enormous, lightly seasoned T bone steak. Following the last time I dined at Buca Mario, I wrote about the delicious experience. This time did not disappoint me either.
Walking Tour of Florence
One of the best experiences of this trip was our morning walking tour with Freya of Freya’s Florence. Because we’ve been on the classic Florence tours with her before, we opted for a slightly more obscure experience this time. She walked us through the spectacular Santa Maria Novella church, starting with the breathtaking Renaissance-era facade and into the vast gothic-era interior. A study of the frescoes that grace the walls within the church, the family chapels and the extensive courtyards that were once the cloisters of the resident Dominican friars is a fascinating lesson in history and art. Walking into one particular chapel within the cloisters, known as the Spanish Chapel in honor of a Medici duchess of Spanish descent who made the chapel her special meeting place, was an almost overwhelming experience. Every inch of the chapel’s walls were covered with stunning frescoes that read like a book. Freya gave us a moment to catch our breath before guiding us through the story of what 14th century Dominican catholics felt was important, namely, the history and beauty of their religion and how it leads to salvation.
Santa Maria Novella also houses what some believe to be the world’s oldest pharmacy, dating back to the early 13th century. The enormous and beautiful pharmacy is now more of a museum, but one can still purchase products made exclusively for the SMN Pharmacy, mainly perfumes and scented lotions. Back in its prime, the pharmacy building was adjoined to a space that housed sick people, and a special chapel into which they could be carried in order to hear mass.
It was another outstanding day spent with Freya. We took the opportunity to discuss future collaborations, including plans for multi-day tours through Florence and Tuscany for our clients. Contact us to learn more.
Girls Day Trip- Montecatini Terme
Montecatini Terme is a spa town not far from Florence, built atop some of Tuscany’s many natural hot springs. Brandy and I seized this opportunity to visit the town while also catching up with some good friends from my days living in Florence a few years ago.
Montecatini Terme is a quick and easy drive from Florence, so it makes for a great day trip. The town itself is lively and full of shops and cafes. What many visitors find surprising is the fact that there are no obvious outdoor thermal pools in sight. In some of Tuscany’s thermal towns, you can work your way, bikini-clad, from pool to sulfur-smelling pool.
But the way to experience this particular spa town is to book a visit to one of their many private spas. For a small fee, you can relax in the indoor, natural thermal pools, and may also obtain a spa treatment. One spa just outside of the center of town, Grotta Giusti, has an elaborate underground cave system where visitors can scuba dive in the thermal waters. I’ve heard this is an intense and fantastic experience, but sadly that spa was closed the day we visited. Many people also visit Montecatini Terme to drink the healing waters that spring from the earth, which according to legend can heal anything from high blood pressure to constipation. We did not taste the waters, but did take a relaxing dip at one of the day spas.
For lunch, we ventured up the hill to Montecatini Alto. If you time things right, you can ride a funicular to the top, which looked gorgeous (but we didn’t time it right). Montecatini Alto proved to be the most pleasant part of the day. It’s a charming, quaint town perched high on a hill with incredible views, much like Pienza or Cortona but closer to Florence. We were thrilled to have stumbled upon this town. Lunch at Casa Gala was a highlight of the trip, and the perfect way to wrap up a fun day of relaxation, good food and great friends.
Upon making our way back to Florence, Brandy and I reconnected with our husbands to cap off a great day by tasting the world famous bellini cocktail at Harry’s Bar. Of course, I’ve enjoyed a bellini before, as any true Italophile should. But to sip the drink at Harry’s Bar is to go back to the source. The Harry’s Bar located in Venice is where, in the 1930s, the iconic drink was born. Owner Giuseppe Cipriani created the peachy, Prosecco-based beverage and named it after the color of a saint’s robe in a 15th century painting by Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini.
Wine Tasting in Tuscany
What October trip to Tuscany would be complete without a harvest-time visit to a winery? The last time we brought the husbands on one of our business trips was in October 2013, when we were lucky enough to catch the southern Tuscan wineries in the midst of gathering their ripe fruit.
This time we stayed in Florence, so we were closer to the famous Chianti region. As opposed to some of the smaller, lesser known wineries we’ve loved in the past, this time we decided to check out a major Tuscan label, Frescobaldi.
The Frescobaldi family has resided in Florence and the surrounding hill towns since the middle ages and are still around today, run by three Frescobaldi Marquis brothers. In fact apparently the youngest generation of the noble family has a member who attends the International School of Florence, where my daughters went to school when we stayed in Florence in 2014. They own and operate a hugely successful wine label called Marchese de’Frescobaldi, whose wines are produced in 2 or 3 locations not far from Florence. One such location is the Nipozzano castle, a stunning medieval castle nestled in the hills of the Chianti Rufina region (not to be confused with the more well-known Chianti Classico region). A mere 30 minute drive due east of Florence takes you to this magical place.
We arrived for our 3pm tasting appointment in style- chauffeured by our long time friend and driver, Massimo. Any day trip spent in Massimo’s car is a treat. He has comfortable cars, is a knowledgeable guide, safe driver, and a pleasure to chat with. We were greeted at Nipozzano by incredible, breathtaking views. Even non-wine drinkers would enjoy touring the old castle and taking in the surroundings. In our case, we are all wine drinkers.
Our feisty tour guide, Laura, expertly led us through the wine making facilities and showed us the ancient caves where wine is stored in French oak barrels. My favorite area was deep inside one of the caves, where the family stores the special limited run wines it makes to celebrate the birth of each Frescobadi child. Apparently they produce 100 bottles for the arrival of a girl and 500 for a boy. Not sure I agree with their thinking on the numbers there, but the concept of each family member having his or her own special wine is sweet. We saw some old dusty bottles still remaining from family members born in the 1800s.
Following our tour, we returned to the shop where a table was set up for our tasting experience, complete with the perfect Tuscan snack to accompany each wine. We enjoyed salami, prosciutto and pecorino cheese with honey and sweet jams along with the 3 wines we tried. My favorite was the Montesodi, made of 100% Sangiovese grapes. Brandy, Bob and Brad loved the Vecchie Viti, a blend derived from some of the property’s oldest vines (“vecchie viti” means old vines). They were all delicious.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. After returning from our day spent in the vineyards and anticipating a very early flight the next day, we were ready for an early, easy dinner. Once again, we went with an old reliable. We simply love Obica, and have written about it many times before. So I’ll keep it short here and just say they do a great job, with nearly perfect food all based on several variations of mozzarella cheese, and with possibly the best location in central Florence. Obica is located in the palazzo Tornabuoni, the palace that once belonged to the family whose name has been given to the fanciest shopping street in town. The restaurant occupies an interior open air courtyard in the palace- simply stunning.
After a whirlwind week of great food and wine and time with friends, we returned home and back to reality. The good news is that being back to reality includes planning Tuscan adventures for our friends and clients. With new properties and new adventures under our belts, we’re ready to take your call…