Doug and I spent the day in Brooklyn recently. We decided to drive in and as we crossed over into the Borough, the motto graced the sign was “Believe the Hype”. Hype- it comes up in so many aspects of our lives: movies, books, vacation destinations, trendy restaurants. I remember one particular Friday evening in Rome when a group of friends decided to head out of the city for dinner. We made our way to the lakes, a popular spot for weekend dining for Romans. One of our group had heard about a fabulous new place in Bracciano. Apparently ½ the population of Rome had the same intel because when we got to the restaurant, there was a 90 minute wait. Romans aren’t the most patient bunch, so we decide to try a different spot along the lakeside. Back into the car, return to the serpentine road that winds around the lake from village to village. Another stop, another 90 minute wait and so we continued on in this pattern several more times. At this point those first 90 minutes had long passed, it was around 10pm and we came across another local joint. The 10 of us filed into the place at which point the leader of the pack took one look around the restaurant and said “Nope. There are not many people here. It can’t be good.” Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and we were able to sit down to a perfectly delicious weekend dinner (though a cardboard box might have tasted good at that point). This is a condition that plagues us all. We want to be the first to discover a new hot place. We want it to be incredible. But if it truly is so incredible, it is not going to stay undiscovered for long. Then we lament that it’s too crowded, overdone, “so yesterday”. Often times it just doesn’t live up to the hype. Like a movie that was probably really good until your friends wax poetic about it for hours and then nothing can satisfy that expectation.
It’s a risk we take. And of course Italy being as popular as it is, falls into that trap quite often. Those who have travelled to Italy often now shun any thought of going to Rome, Florence or Venice – WAY too common. They yearn to discover Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily. And then there’s Tuscany. Does it live up to the hype? Under the Tuscan Sun, Seinfeld (no villas in Tuscany) and an endless stream of iconic photos of the countryside can sometime suggest that it has in fact been done to death. How can a region that is the size of New Hampshire be THAT great???
Well, while it is not my favorite region (do you know which one is??? Stay tuned…) Tuscany is that great. Here is a list of what makes it so and why you should never turn your nose up at the possibility of a trip to Tuscany…
1. The coolest towns you have never heard of – of course you will go to Florence and Siena but what about Pienza, Montefioralle, Panzano, Bagno Vignoni. These idyllic towns are quintessentially Tuscan and will have you longing to return to the region over and over again.
2. Wine – Some of Italy’s best wines come from Tuscany and the wine/vineyard culture that goes with it is an integral part of the region. If you are at all into wine, Tuscany is the place for you. From delicious table wines to the prestigious Brunello di Montalcino, Tignanello and Sassicaia, there is something for everyone. These, paired with the delicious local cuisine make for a divine culinary experience.
3. Cheese – I would return to Tuscany just to taste the pecorino of Pienza – in ravioli, on an arugula salad or melted with pear on crostini. Pecorino is a DOP product, meaning that it’s production is government protected and regulated, and if you have never tried fresh pecorino (as opposed to the more commonly found aged pecorino) you are missing out.
4. You can ride on top of city walls – make your way to Lucca, one of my favorite cities in the world. This city in the northwestern part of the region has charming historic center, wonderful people, a piazza that retains the form of the amphitheater that stood there in the Roman age and a walking/bike path that was created on top of the medieval walls. Great for a day trip, even better for an extended stay.
5. Tuscan Hospitality – Some of my most exceptional experiences from a hospitality standpoint have been in Tuscany. Especially when you get out of the larger cities of the region, the people are genuine, simple, generous and interesting. The Tuscan attitude is contagious and not only are the Italians who live in Tuscany wonderful, but so are those expats who have been bitten by the Tuscan bug. There was a reason they can and an even more compelling reason that they stayed. From Scotsmen (Villa Bordoni) to Brits (Siena House) and South Africa (Vignamaggio), there is a warmth and relaxed attitude toward life in the countryside in Tuscany that makes it a place that one immediately wants to call home.
6. Traditional meets Modern (Petra, Antinori) – two of my favorite vineyards have incorporated magnificent modern architecture among centuries old vines. The contrast is striking and impressive and I think it shows that these winemakers are in touch with the modern world while preserving the ancient winemaking traditions. Check out their websites to see for yourself. Better yet…. Go there!
Tuscany – “Believe the Hype”