By Jeanne and Joe Kovacs
When our guide spoke of a light lunch at a farmhouse, we expected a small, rustic homestead with some cheese, wine and bread. Well, we could not have been more misguided. It turned out to be a spacious villa that survived the ravages of medieval times. Nine generations of family ownership created manicured landscaping and elegant period furnishings throughout the lovely mansion. We dined in a formal setting on a four-course meal of delicious Tuscan fare. In our next life, we’d definitely choose the life of a farmer here.
Our journey began in Florence, the capital of Tuscany. Our hotel was a centrally located former palazzo, with its rooftop terrace allowing a clear view of the town center. It was magnificent in the afternoon sunlight! It was our second trip to this beautiful city, adding a bit of nostalgia to our wanderings through its narrow streets. We even had gelato at the same shop as we did eight years before. First came quick visits to its stupendous Duomo, still the largest brick and mortar dome in the world after 500 years. Then on to the famous gallery of Accademia and the impressive city center, the Piazza della Signoria, that witnessed so much of the city‘s history. We then strolled “off the beaten path” to discover some hidden treasures of the city. First we walked to a local market, where cheese, pastry and fresh produce is sold. Then we visited Le Murate, a 15th century nunnery, later an infamous prison. Today the renovated building is a favorite gathering place with coffee shops and art exhibits.
After the walk we rewarded ourselves with a “light lunch,” Tuscan style. Then we resumed our wanderings through the city center.
A short ride to Greve-in-Chianti rewarded us with a view of the local marketplace and an imposing statue of explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, a local hero of worldwide fame. Then, the guide at a hilltop winery impressed us with the intricate process of winemaking. Tasting a variety of Chianti products was a delightful chore for us. Following the wine tasting, we lunched at Villa il Leccio, which our guide described as a “local farmhouse.” This villa is part of the Agriturismo circuit where old country estates are converted to small hotels. A bit of bed-and-breakfast concept, transplanted to Italy. As we returned to Florence through the rolling countryside, we were serenaded by our guide to the tune of “Chianti Roads, take me home … ” Well, you get the idea.
Lucca and Carrara
On the way to Livorno to embark our ship, we stopped by at Lucca and Carrara. Lucca is perhaps the best preserved medieval town in Tuscany, completely surrounded by its 17th-century city walls. Its narrow streets lead to the site of a Roman amphitheater, where thousands used to watch gladiators 2,000 years ago. Unfortunately, no time to visit the home of Puccini, one of Joe’s beloved composers, who was born here. But there is always time for another delicious lunch with local fare.
Next stop was the Carrara marble quarries. The city is world-renowned for its exquisite white marble, used in Roman monuments and by Renaissance artists like Michelangelo. The underground ride into the mine was illuminating, though a bit ghostly. That night, we were bussed to the busy port of Livorno, where we boarded our little ship, the Arathusa. With 50 passengers and 25 crew members, the small ship could directly reach hidden harbors inaccessible to larger liners. She was to be our home for the next seven nights. To make the first night more memorable, we were treated to the captain’s welcome dinner, followed by an excellent performance by a talented duo of Italian musicians.
While the Mediterranean is a small inland sea on the world map, its fury is legendary. On our first night to the island of Elba, we were “treated” to its power. The giant waves sent everything aboard flying across the dining hall and each cabin. At the captain’s urging we retired to our cabins, praying to survive. In the morning the crew faced a monumental cleanup task.
On the following nights the sea — and the passengers’ stomachs — settled down enough so that we could again enjoy the journey. Elba has been well known since Napoleon was exiled to this island 200 years ago. Derisively made the Emperor of Elba, he introduced lasting changes to the local way of life, until he managed to escape. We were treated to a great lunch by a local family, while our hostess described life on the island as isolated in the winter and too crowded during the vacation season.
The island of Corsica, under French flag, has its own colorful history. The island was pirates’ lair in the old days before Genoa conquered it. Eventually it became part of France, in spite of its dream of independence. Bustling Bastia, its second largest city, hosts the impressive Terra Nova, a 17th-century citadel and Napoleon’s white marble statue.
The Ligurian coast
The five once-isolated fishing villages are called Cinque Terre — five lands — in Italian. The quaint beauty of these tiny hamlets clinging to the steep shoreline and along the picturesque little coves is known throughout the world. Of course now they are hardly isolated. While we enjoyed the sparse traffic through the narrow streets, chatting with vendors and tourists, in the summer this area is completely overrun by hordes of visitors. That is the price of success. A leisurely walk along the beach led us to a tasty light lunch in a local restaurant.
The next day brought us to another scenic part of the Ligurian shore. The story of Portofino shows what happens to an idyllic, remote fishing village once it is discovered by the Hollywood stars and the Italian high society. The little bay is surrounded by old homes painted in all colors of the rainbow with boats gently rolling in the water. Of course, the fishing boats are now replaced by million-dollar — or million-Euro — yachts from all over the world. Still, the view is breathtaking.
Nice and the Cote d‘Azur
The early morning sunshine reflected on the hills and villas of the famed French Riviera. Protected from wintry weather by the high Alps, this strip of land is perhaps the most expensive real estate in the world. Once the exclusive playground of the rich and famous, it’s now visited by millions for its balmy weather, its panoramic coastline and sights of how “the other half” lives.