Ahhhh Tuscany, a place where Italian cottages nestle amongst the rolling hills, and an endless amount of vineyards bless the beautiful and herbaceous countryside. While planning our trip to Europe, visiting Tuscany was one on the top of our bucket list, but as young travelers on a budget, we had to keep in mind to visit with in our means. After researching the best options for visiting, we chose to travel with the company "Italy on a Budget Tours," and chose the "Grape Escape" itinerary. My boyfriend and I were VERY happy choosing this day trip, and became one of our highlights during our 6 week exploration of Europe.
The Grape Escape
Our trip to the tuscan countryside began in the city of Florence, where we met up with the rest of the crew that we would be traveling with. Our Italian tour guide, humorous and informative, equipped us with florentine history and wine facts from the region.
Our first stop was to a local and family run winery in the Chianti region. This winery was also a wine school, which was great to start our wine tasting adventure. We were served about 8 tastes of wine, a variety of cheeses, olive oil, balsamic, meats, and salad! We even tasted a truffle oil, and learned the hunting techniques for the precious truffle mushrooms. My favorite fun fact of the day was learning that truffles were hunted not by people but by…pigs! The best are female pigs in heat to sniff out these hard to find fungi. Dogs are the second choice for hunting truffles, but since they are more prone to eating these treasures, pigs are the first choice. After sipping away and eating delicious Italian appetizers, we had a few moments to wander around the property.
Second Sip Stop
Our drive through the tuscan hills will be imprinted in my mind for many years to come. Our large tour bus gave us a good vantage point for staring out the window to see out and above. Although it didn’t rain, the clouds were starting to roll in, which made for a beautiful skyscape.
Our second winery was a small family run business, that had their family home nestled in the vineyards. Our tour group of about 20, sat at a large outside dining table overlooking the rolling hills and vineyards. We toured the brewing facility, where the owner told us about their beginnings and brewing process. We were shown around the picturesque property, and led to our tasting. We were only allowed a few minutes after our tasting to wander around before we were taken to the old medieval town of San Gimignano.
We had about an hour and a half to explore this medieval town built up on the hills of Siena. We were told to go to “Gelateria Dondoli” which is known to be world famous for their gelato, but don’t be mistaken by the gelato shop 20 feet away that claims to be the best! The line was very long, but moved at a quick pace. Up at the gelato counter, their was an overwhelming amount of creative and desirable flavors to choose from. I went with three flavors- the Vernaccia, which is actually a white wine that is local to San Gimignano, a lavender-blackberry, and espresso. My usual suspects for ice cream back in the states is Moose Tracks, but I had a “When in Rome” moment and went all out. When visiting San Gimignano, you must try Gelato Dondoli, and do yourself a favor by getting at least two flavors and one outrageous one!
After getting our gelato, we walked around the cobblestone streets, gazing at the gothic and romanesque buildings. We wandered around the viewpoint area to take some pictures and eventually walked around the town square.
Traveling for 6 weeks, we had to pack very light. We brought with us a small suitcase and a backpack, so coming home with souvenirs and trinkets was tricky. I knew I wanted to buy at least one item to take home with me to remember our trip, but it had to be something that would be purposeful and nostalgic. As we were walking back to the tour bus, we came across an Italian woman that sells personalized aprons, and sews them right in front of your eyes. As a wannabe top chef and an avid cooking experimentalist, my “Queen of the Kitchen” written in Italian apron is by far the best souvenir I could have bought.
All in all, our trip to Tuscany could not have gone any better. I think next time we visit Italy, I would like to rent out a home in the hills as a quiet and peaceful retreat.