When I traveled to Alberobello in Puglia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was immediately enchanted by trulli that are scattered all over town. Trulli (plural of trullo) are little stone houses with unique conical roofs. They are tiny, white and look like they were plucked straight from a fairytale.
Havens for Hobbits. Lairs of Lilliputians. And it just so happens, you could also stay in a trullo.
From the top of the old town, you can see the jumble of trulli rooftops
Though they are similar, they aren’t identical. I enjoyed strolling through town, admiring each one. Some are smaller, some larger. Each has a different type of door, some are adorned with flowers, others are rather unremarkable.
The cone-shaped roofs are actually stacked, but not cemented together. According to legend, these were designed purposefully to be taken apart at a moments notice, so that when the King came to town, the roof could be dismantled quickly, to avoid a tax inspection. Clever, very clever.
Come along for a stroll, I’ll show you some of my favorite trulli photos from Alberobello
I loved this one with the fruit tree that frames the entrance.
The trained and trellised ivy looks graceful climbing up this facade.
This stark white and weathered trulli looks like it needs some tender loving care.
This owner used pine trees to dress theirs up. The iron exterior lamp centered over the front door, draws your eye up.
You can see the textures of actual stone in this facade. The rustic wooden door with striped green curtains are homey.
A row of trulli along Alberobello’s main street are filled with tourist shops. Check out the pagan symbols painted on each rooftop.
The greenery spilling out of the tiny window must be their version of a window box.
This is the most charming entranceway, the only one I saw with a garden gate.
This close-up is perhaps my favorite. The cloud looks like smoke trailing from the roof and the wild pink roses pop against the white.
What do you think of the trulli? Would you stay in one, or just admire them from afar?
Want to experience staying in a Trullo? Click here to see how I can help!
If you’re planning a trip to France in 2014 (or beyond), you’ll be happy to know there are some new and exciting things to look forward to this year.
Here’s a list of some of the things you might want to add to your travel plans. And if you’re heading to Italy, don’t miss the round up for what’s new in Italy.
Paris (and nearby)
> After a restoration that took five years and went severely over-budget, the Musée Picasso, located in the Hôtel Salé in the Marais will be reopening in June. The garden has been redesigned and they have added a cafe.
> The Musée National Gustave Moreau in the 9th arrondissement reopened in January after a renovation. The museum combines the painters small private apartment with a gallery of his paintings.
> The Eiffel Tower won’t be the only popular attraction with an online reservation system in Paris. The Louvre will join the club when it introduces its own online booking system this year. In addition, the area under the famous Louvre Pyramid will introduce a newly reorganized welcome center.
> The Musée de Montmartre will complete its renovation this year and the addition of the newly created Suzanne Valadon studio, will open to the public.
> On April 14th, Parc Zoologique de Paris, part of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, will reopen after a huge renovation project that lasted six years. A perfect spot for the kids!
> It seems Château de Versailles always has improvements being made. This year the gorgeous ceiling in the Abundance Salon, was restored. Also, French architect Dominique Perrault is renovating the Pavilion Dufour and the old wing of the château, which will create new public reception centers, a 200-seat auditorium and a restaurant. All are all scheduled to open in fall 2014.
> Within walking distance of Château de Versailles is a new spot for both garden and perfume lovers. The Cour du Senteurs, ‘courtyard of fragrances’ combines fragrant boutiques like Diptyque, Guerlain and Lenôtre with elegant gardens. The best part – it’s free.
> The beautiful neo-classical château where Madame de Pompadour reportedly once stayed has reopened after a seven-year and sixty-million-euro renovation. Dubbed ‘Little Versailles’, Châteaux du Champs du Marne is located about 9 miles east of Paris, making it an easy day trip.
South of France
> In Marseille, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation, or the MuCEM opened in the Vieux Port (old port) area. More of a destination than just a museum – it includes a children’s area, two restaurants, a garden and will host cooking demonstration, concerts and other fun events.
> Van Gogh fans will love this new spot in Arles slated to open in April. The Fondation Vincent Van Gogh will be located in the Hôtel Léautaud de Donines and rumor has it, a few original paintings will be on display.
Did you enjoy this post? Subscribe to the newsletter for free updates on France and travel tips to help plan your dream vacation!
The Cinque Terre is a colorful collection of fishing villages in Italy, along what is known as the Italian Riviera. In recent years, it’s become so popular, that for those looking for a bit quieter, less-touristed and perhaps more authentic experience, I generally recommend staying in one of the other nearby towns, just a short train or ferry ride away.
Understandably, there are travelers who will stay in one of the five villages. This overview of the Cinque Terre will provide more information on each town. Today I’ll be sharing some tips. Twenty Dos and Don’ts that will help you have a smoother, more enjoyable visit.
10 Cinque Terre Don’ts
1. Don’t take a day trip to the Cinque Terre. You need at least 2-3 days to see it.
2. Don’t bring a car. You won’t need it. If you must drive to the area, you can leave a car at the parking garage at the La Spezia train station.
3. Don’t visit in July or August. It’s hot and crowded.
4. Don’t expect everything to be open in the winter months, many places close up shop and there is no boat service.
5. Don’t just show up in the summer without a room reservation.
6. Don’t expect luxury hotels. The laid back area lends itself mostly to room rentals and apartments.
7. Don’t hike the trails without a pass or paying the required entrance fee.
8. Don’t expect ferries to run in bad weather.
9. Don’t do too much pre-planning. There isn’t that much to choose from here. Just hike, wander, eat, enjoy the views. Repeat.
10. Don’t worry too much about picking the right town to base yourself. All are within a few minutes train ride of each other. The only exception might be Corniglia, which is the sleepiest town and has no harbor, so it’s not accessible by boat.
10 Cinque Terre Do’s
1. Do buy a Cinque Terre card. This allows you unlimited access to all five villages on train and trails.
2. Do make sure to take some ferry trips between villages, or what I like to call the scenic route. The views from water are breathtaking.
3. Do know the train and boat schedule. You certainly don’t want to be forced to hike back or be stranded because you missed the last train of the day.
4. Do plan on hiking from village to village. If you want an easy walk do the via dell’Amore between Riomaggiore and Manarola.
5. Do visit the TI (tourist information) in each village for maps, ferry times, info about trail closures.
6. Do pack light. Them thar hills are steep, you don’t want to be carrying lots of heavy bags.
7. Do bring good, comfortable shoes for this area. You’ll need them. Fashionistas, this is not the place for stilettos!
8. Do enjoy lots of local seafood, pesto and Sciacchertà wine, all local specialties.
9. Do try to fit in a day trip to Santa Margherita Ligure, Portofino or Portovenere if you’re staying more than three days and boats are running.
10. Do NOTHING. Yes, nothing. Just take time to relax and stare at the landscape and out to sea.
If you need help with your Cinque Terre plans, click here to see how I can help.
Some exciting new things are happening in Italy in 2014. From a new museum opening to a helpful app, consider adding any or all of these to your Italy travel plans.
> If you’ve been to Venice in the summer months, you’ll often get a funky smell wafting from some of the stagnant smaller canals. Well, now there is something to counteract that a bit. A new museum dedicated to the art and history of perfume, located in the 17th century Palazzo Mocenigo.
> In Fontanellato, a small town near Parma, after eight years in the making, the world’s largest labyrinth is set to open to the public this year. The maze, which is modeled after two Roman mosaics, is made with bamboo hedges and takes up a mere 17 acres on Franco Maria Ricci’s estate.
> The easiest way to skip the lines at the Colosseum is to hire a private guide or take a tour. Now you can use your smartphone to book tickets and avoid the lines. Signs with QR codes are being posted near the monument – just scan them with any bar code scanner app and then process your tickets with a credit card. Tickets are €13 (which includes a one euro service fee).
> After 12 years of restoration, Santa Maria Antiqua, a church at the Roman Forum will reopen. Located at the bottom of Palentine Hill, the 12th century church, which has an important collection of artwork, will start accepting visitors this spring.
> About 7,000 LED lights will illuminate the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel beginning in mid-February to help mark the 450th anniversary of Michelangelo’s death. Just don’t go busting out your best version of “You Light Up My Life” unless you want a stern Silenzio! from the guards.
> As of March 1st, Pope Francis is opening up the Castel Gondolfo and the beautiful Barberini Gardens to the public. Located about 10 miles from Rome, it’s a great spot to visit when you when to get out of the city for a day. The gardens will be open Monday – Saturday.
> Speaking of Michelangelo, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence added a new room on the second-floor dedicated to the artist. The beautifully restored room contains works including the famous ‘Tondo Doni’ and the statue of ‘Sleeping Ariadne’, which it’s believed he once admired. They have also added two new ‘Green Rooms’ which contain 39 works of Roman copies of Greek marbles.
> After 27 years, one of the greatest collection of Renaissance tapestries has returned to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The tapestries represent biblical stories and the History of Joseph.
> Don’t be surprised if you see scaffolding surrounding Florence’s Baptistery. This year, work will start on restoring the eight sides of the facade and is expected to be completed by the summer 2015.
> After a visitor damaged a few statues last September and restoration of Palazzina del Cavaliere, the Porcelain Museum at the Boboli Gardens has reopened.
> A new branch of the Italian food emporium Eataly has opened in Florence on the Via Martelli. If you’re thinking of a visit, don’t forget to read these tips for how to visit.
> All aboard the Nature Train In Tuscany. After a 20 year hiatus, the steam train that runs thru the Val d’Orcia and Amiata Valley has been put back into service. It’s a perfect way to explore beautiful landscapes, Tuscan villages, churches and food festivals, the slow way.
> Palermo just opened an open-air museum called Ecomuseo Mare Memoria Viva, The Museum of the Living Sea. It’s dedicated to the area’s relationship with the sea. More information n the project is available on the website.
If you’re planning to travel to Italy this year, click here to see how I can help.
When traveling to Italy, one of the most pleasurable ways to soak up the Italian culture is by spending time at a bar, either inside or at a table outside on the terrace. In Italy, a cafe is usually called a bar, which should not be confused with the American version of a bar, and it’s a regular part of life for Italians.
To make matters a bit more confusing, a caffè isn’t what you call a bar, but you’ll see the word caffè in the names of some bars – like Antico Caffè de Brasile. It’s also what you order if you want a shot of espresso – un caffè.
Yeah, I know, clear as a carafe of four-day old Maxwell House. Don’t worry, just keeping pounding shots – you’ll be so amped-up and focused on getting your next caffeine fix, none of this will matter.
Since it helps to be armed in advance about what to know when visiting a bar in Italy, here are some things to take note of. As a bonus, because this post is focused on drinking coffee at the bar, I’ve included some definitions of popular Italian coffee drinks.
A few facts about Italian Bars
● Locals tend to belly up to the bar for their espresso, down it in a shot and run
● Cappuccino is only taken in the morning for breakfast, never after 12pm. Follow this rule if you want to blend in like a local and not pegged for a tourist
● Generally, standing at the bar inside is the least expensive option, followed by sitting inside; sitting outside is most expensive – and can often be double the cost. Sitting outside at the cafes in Venice can be very expensive, but worth it
● You will not be rushed to leave your seat. You can sip a beverage and spend hours relaxing, writing in your journal or filling out postcards without worry. Often you’ll have to ask the waiter for the check (il conto) and this is perfectly normal.
● If ordering at the bar, order and pay the cashier first, then go to the bartender, (barista) with your receipt in hand and order your drink
● When sitting outside, you’ll notice sometimes tables are set up with the chairs facing the street, instead of facing each other. It may seem a bit awkward, but this offers prime people watching real estate, so sit and watch life go by – it’s very entertaining!
What’s your favorite Italian coffee beverage?
Once a year, hundreds of wine producers gather under one roof for VinItaly, an Italian wine lovers paradise. During my last visit I was lucky enough to attend a seminar and wine tasting involving a grape called Chiavennasca, which is grown in an area called Valtellina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Lombardy region in northern Italy.
You don’t really hear much about wines from that area, so I was intrigued and excited to learn about this grape unknown to me and sample the wines. And it’s downright fun to say Chiavennasca. Though it’s a lot harder after several glasses of wine. Trust me.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with Nebbiolo, which is the main red wine grape grown in Piedmont. Well, Chiavennasca is the local name for the same grape, which is actually thought to be older than its Piedmontese counterpart, dating back to the Etruscan times.
The sub-alpine climate and more northerly location produce a very different wine than your Borolos and Barbarescos. Nebbiolo will always be a star in Piedmont – but in Lombardy, its Chiavennasca.
Valtellina is located in the Adda Valley, which is about 40km wide, runs east to west near the Adda River and is bordered by Switzerland. All of the vineyards in the area are grown on extremely steep terraces cut into rocky mountain slopes, which is a marvel to look at, but also presents challenges for caring for and harvesting the grapes.
The vines, which are anywhere from one to one-hundred years old are cultivated by hand, and have been for over ten centuries, which is reflected in both the price and the limited quantities of wine produced.
Two of the main varietals have earned DOCG distinction – Valtellina Superiore and Sfursat. Today I am going to talk about Sfursat.
This wine is the most typical and oldest of Valtellina wines. It’s made with 100% Chiavennasca using the same process as Amarone, (another favorite Italian wine) known as appassimento.
Basically, small clusters of sun-exposed grapes are kept on the vines as long as possible to ripen. In late September, highly skilled workers harvest the grapes by hand and place them in wooden crates – in a single layer. No bruising these delicate juicy orbs! Next, they’re taken back to fruit sheds (by helicopter!) to dry in a cool, well-ventilated area for 100 days.
During that time, the grapes shrivel and loose 30-40% of their water and you’re left with intensely concentrated juice in fruit resembling raisins. It takes about one kilo of grapes just to make one bottle of Sfursat.
After spending about two years fermenting in barrel and bottle, the result is an intense, rich, even elegant garnet red wine, with a high alcohol content, with flavors that can include ripe red fruit, prune, coffee, chocolate, tobacco and spices like vanilla and cinnamon, depending on the vintage.
Bottom line : If you love Amarone, you’ll love Sfursat.
One of the oldest and most esteemed wine producers in Valtellina is Nino Negri, who has been a symbol in the valley since 1897. The winery is located in Chiuro, in an old 15th century castle known as Castello Quadro.
Negri has been making their Sfursat “5 Stelle” since 1983. Their 2001 Sfursat was awarded ‘Best Italian Red Wine’ by Gambero Rosso, which is no small feat. And their winemaker, Casimiro Maule, who’s been at the helm since 1971, was crowned winemaker of the year in 2007. So you know you’re getting quality wines made by very talented and passionate people.
Since only the best grapes are chosen to make this style of wine, they don’t produce Sfursat every year. And when they do, only a select 25% of grapes make the cut. Their Sfursat is aged for 18 months in new French oak barrique, bottled and held for another six months before release.
Since Negri was the featured producer at VinItaly, I participated in a vertical tasting (which means tasting several different vintages of the same exact wine) of their Sfursat. We sampled Sfursat 5 Stelle Vallentina DOCG vintages 1997, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2009.
They were all very good, but my personal fave was 2001, which had a cherry aroma and flavor, as well as a mineral quality and a long finish. I also liked the 2009, which is the most current vintage. But if you have the opportunity to try any of them, I wouldn’t hesitate one bit!
And if you happen to be staying in southern Switzerland, or in the Italian Lakes Region, a visit to the area would make an unforgettable day trip, provided you have a car. I can all but guarantee you’d have a fabulous experience touring, tasting and learning more about the elegant wines, surrounded by terraced vineyards and picturesque landscapes.
Photos © Fredrick Wildman
Are you a food and wine lover heading to Italy? Find out how I can create a custom foodie adventure.
When I speak with potential clients, one of the biggest concerns that comes up has to do with budget. Many people dream of traveling to Italy or swoon over the thought of spending time in France, but think they can’t afford it. Sure, vacations can be expensive, but they don’t have to be. There are lots of ways to stretch that almighty dollar, and still have an awesome time.
Start by Traveling off-season, which will ensure you’re getting the best bang for your buck. Then follow it up with these surefire tips and you’ll be saying HELL YES to that dream vacation you’ve always wanted to take, but keep putting off because you can’t afford it.
And in case I have to remind you – you work hard and you deserve a nice vacation, don’t you? Yeah, you do.
Limit your destinations
Think twice about an itinerary that includes a world-wind tour of the entire country in ten days. It’s not only unpleasant (think packing and unpacking at each hotel) and not a good use of your time (imagine how many bottles of wine you can drink instead of the aforementioned packing and unpacking), but a good chunk of change will be spent getting from location to location.
Whether you’re buying train or airline tickets, car rental (think gas, insurance, tolls) or hiring a private driver, your budget will get eaten up faster than you can say “just throw it on the credit card!”
Instead, stay in one spot. If you’re afraid you’ll be bored – take a day trip in between to split up the time and purchase a last-minute ticket on a local train. Or just rent a car for a day.
As a bonus, you’ll get to immerse yourself in one destination and learn more of the culture, meet more of the locals, even become a regular at your neighborhood café. Double bonus – you’ll have more negotiating power when it comes to asking for a discount for a longer stay at the hotel.
Experiment with Airports
One of the largest trip expenses will be airfare, so it makes sense to save as much as you can. I’ve already shared tips for scoring deals on airfare, but you should also play with airports as well. Sometimes the difference of flying into one airport vs. another can be a few hundred dollars cheaper. One example is Rome and Milan. Both are large airports in big Italian cities. And though Rome is a great central base, flying into Milan is consistently less expensive than Rome. And though I don’t really recommend spending all of your time in Milan, you could easily get to the Italian lakes region or even Piedmont.
And though direct flights are the most convenient – you should also consider booking a connecting flight instead. Do your homework, research your options. It might just make sense to take advantage of flying into a particular airport and then decide where you’ll actually spend your vacay.
Photo Credit : Gigi62 on Flickr
Pick a different (less popular) location
Some of the most popular and heavily-touristed destinations command the highest prices. You can still have a great experience in other lesser-known destinations. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t visit the areas that I list here – almost every spot deserves a visit. But if you’re talking saving money – here are some suggestions :
You get the idea. Right?
Fill up on Free
The fact that you’re reading this means you’re not going on an overpriced luxury bus tour and you’re traveling independently. So consider yourself lucky because you’ll already be saving a
busload boatload of cash. And since your days are your own to do what you wish, just know that you don’t need to spend a ton of money filling up an itinerary, especially in Italy or France.
You could fill an entire vacation with free activities. Or things that only cost a few bucks. Obviously, you’re going to have to allow yourself a budget for activities, food and incidentals, but you can keep costs to a minimum by working these suggestions into your plans
You may also want to check out my tips for eating on the cheap while you’re on vacation.
And speaking of free – I’ve got some more fab ideas for things to do for free or cheap in these cities:
Now over to you. What surefire tips do you have for saving money on your vacations?
Want more tips like these? You may want to join my newsletter for a dose of Italy, France, food, wine and travel related tidbits!
Milan is an often overlooked city on many Italy travelers’ itineraries. But once you compare airfare to Milan and realize it makes an excellent spot to fly into when touring northern Italy, you’ll definitely want to spend some time in the city center. If you find yourself with a day on either end of your trip, here are some things to do in Milan that will give you the best of what the city has to offer.
The best place to begin any visit to Milan is at the Duomo. This iconic church has a piazza outside which is perfect for a sit down to get your bearings for a few minutes and adjust to Milanese life. After a few minutes watching the world go by, you can enter the church for free (you know I love free). While the interior is well worth taking some time to soak up, it is the Duomo’s roof which is its major attraction.
You can actually walk on the roof of the Duomo, which offers some reasonable views across the city in good weather. Wandering through the church’s spires is an interesting way to spend an hour or two and you should be rewarded for your efforts with a closer view of the city’s symbol, the Golden Madonna, which is set atop one of the spires.
If architecture is your thing, then a visit to Sforza Castle may be in order. With its original foundations dating back to 1358, the castle is steeped in Milan’s history. However, it wasn’t until 1450 that Francesco Sforza, a military power figure during the renaissance period, decided to turn it into his permanent residence and began the long process of construction that would culminate in the castle we see today.
The construction period extended beyond his lifetime and, most notably, Francesco’s fourth son, Ludovico Sforza, drafted in the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and other renaissance artists to decorate the castle. Coincidentally, Ludovico is also the man who commissioned ‘The Last Supper’.
Speaking of Da Vinci, his great work, ‘The Last Supper’ is also housed in Milan. The Santa Maria delle Grazie church limits the amount of time which visitors can stay in the same room as the work by selling tickets. And since tickets are often sold out weeks and even months in advance, if you want to include this highlight of the city in your day in Milan, make sure you plan ahead.
The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the oldest shopping mall in Italy and has an unusual local tradition associated with it which makes it even more worth checking out. In the middle of the mall are four tiled areas representing four northern Italian cities. Turin is represented by a bull. His, ahem, manly bits, have been worn down over the years because people believe that spinning on that particular spot brings good luck. So, spin away.
La Scala is Milan’s famous opera house and while you may not have time to see a show, it’s well worth making some time to visit the museum, which means you also get a chance to see inside the theatre itself, if only briefly. It’s still less expensive and time-consuming than going to see an actual show. And you won’t have to pack a ball gown.
As the day draws to an end, you’ll want to get yourself to a good spot like Radesky Café, Corso Como 10 or Obikà for aperitivo: the cities almost beatified period between six and eight in the evening, when the bars throw open their doors for pre-dinner drinks, served with a host of complimentary food. Not something to miss out on!
Milan has a lot to see beyond this, but these suggestions will give you a taste of northern Italy’s business metropolis if you only have a day to spare.
Want to make the most of your time in Milan by hiring a guide, or arranging a private visit to the last supper, get in touch – I’d love to help!
Photo Credits Flickr : Taboada Testa, Maesk, Keith Havercroft, From the North
No doubt about it, Tuscan wine is delicious. And even though it’s tasty at your own dinner table, there’s no better way to sample it then by touring the vineyards and wineries in Tuscany. Otherwise known as “the source”. You can’t get views of green rolling hills and cyprus trees from your dinner table.
But before you say, yeeeehah! let’s hop in the car and drive through the Tuscan countryside and we’ll stop at some wineries, it may not be that simple. Instead, slow your roll and follow this practical advice for a the most fruitful (yep, I had too) and enjoyable Tuscany wine tasting experience.
It’s bigger than it looks
Tuscany is a pretty big region. Everything looks right around the corner as the crow flies, but you can’t be fooled by that. You know all of those jaw-dropping photos you see of the green hills, terracotta rooftops and rows of grape vines, with the occasional windy dirt road? Well, those are the roads you’ll be driving to get from vineyard to vineyard, at 10 miles per hour, switchback after switchback, kicking up dust. This means it will take a really long time to get from place to place. So consider that when planning your visits. Google maps can be a pretty good tool in gauging times and distances.
With hundreds of wineries in Tuscany, you may feel the need to visit as many as humanly possible. For the reasons listed above, that isn’t practical. Instead of a wine tasting marathon, think of it more like a wine crawl. Don’t cram ten spots in one day, aim for three. Two would be ideal. Everything in Italy is done slower, so your visits will be more leisurely. You won’t have time to really experience and savor your wine if you rush through tours and tastings and drive all over the place. Spend more time at each winery and less time in the car.
Bring maps. Lots of them. And GPS.
It’s inevitable. You’re going to get lost at some point. So, I encourage you to bring along a GPS – whether it’s one you get with your rental car, or from your smartphone. I also highly advise you to bring a current, good ol’ fashioned road map of Tuscany. A very reliable one is the Regional Map of Toscana from Touring Club Italiano. Use them in tandem. It also might be a good idea to have a list of phone numbers for the wineries you plan to visit handy. You might just need them.
For more specific info and maps with vineyards and wineries visit the following Tourist Offices:
Know where to base yourself
I like to split the Tuscan wine region into two main areas, Chianti Classico to the north, and Val d’Orcia (think Brunello and Vino Nobile) and Maremma to the south. There are about 30 other varietals, but these are the most popular.
In order to find the best place to situate yourself, you need to consider several factors including, how many days you’ll be in Tuscany, how much of your trip you’ll devote to wine touring, what type of wines you like to drink and wish to learn more about, the type of wine-drinker you are (fun vs. serious), and what other towns you’re planning to visit during your time in Tuscany. Each situation is different, and sometimes a consultation can be helpful.
As a general rule, the area between Florence and Siena is a good place to base yourself for touring the Chianti Classico area, and Siena is a nice base for exploring and tasting Brunello, Vino Nobile and Rosso di Montalcino. If you only have a day or half-day, pick the style of wine you’re most interested in and focus on that area. Avoid basing yourself in Florence if your goal is to explore the Val d’Orcia and sample Brunellos. That’s just not the best use of precious tasting time. Or gas money.
Apparently, some Tuscan vineyards are a secret
Don’t expect vineyards and wineries to have large commercial signs, loaded with flashing lights and arrows announcing their location. You can bet there won’t be a cute Italian dude dressed like the fruit-of-the-loom grape cluster flagging you down in front of the entrance. Trying to find some lesser-known properties gives new meaning to the term Hidden Gem.
In some cases, you won’t even find the slightest hint that behind those iron gates or up that small dirt path, sits a highly-respected winery on a gorgeous estate. For whatever reason, some are well-kept secrets. I’ve had this experience before. Driven past the entrance, entered through a side gate and drove down a tractor path through the vines. Don’t ask me to explain or understand it. Just thank me for warning you and consider the wine your sweet reward for being persistant. Go you!
Make an appointment. And keep it.
Visiting vineyards and wine tasting in Italy isn’t the same as it is in the U.S. There aren’t always set tasting times and hours. Some larger producers, like Banfi or Ricasoli operate within normal business hours, and have staff, so you may be able to show up unannounced. But the majority of your visits will be to smaller vineyards and for that reason you should make an appointment.
And after making that appointment, it’s important to keep it and be on time. I know it’s common sense, but smaller producers are mostly family run and don’t have a staff waiting around, staring at the door in hopes that you will walk through. This is especially important in the fall, during Vendemmia (harvest time) when all hands are on deck. They are being kind enough to take time out of their busy lives to welcome you for a visit and show you around. Please, please be mindful of this, and respect it. Otherwise, it’s just plain rude. And it makes the rest of us look bad.
Mix it up
I like a nice combination of tours and tastings at larger operations as well as smaller mom and pop producers. You’ll have very different experiences at each place, learn different techniques, meet different people, sample different wines. Some will be structured, others more casual. Some might serve food, or have olive oil to sample, others offer a meal or a walk through the vines or tour of the cellar. Maybe throw in an organic winery. So mix it up for a diverse well-rounded experience. Drink. Experiment. Compare notes. Drink. Ask questions. Eat. Take photos. Drink. Take a walk. Have fun!
Take a guided wine tour
The best way to avoid having to worry about anything I’ve mentioned above, is to arrange an escorted wine tour. This also benefits the one unlucky soul who may miss out on tasting the juice after being volunteered (possibly by force, or being on the losing end of a cruel version of “Rock, Paper, Scissors – Tuscan Wine Edition”) to be the designated driver. A tour with a local, who has relationships with the wineries, can give you a more relaxed, insiders look . You’ll get to stare out the window at those gorgeous views, rather than having a meltdown in a poppy field in the middle of Tuscany, because your GPS has led you astray. It’s a no brainer, right?
If you’re heading to Tuscany and would like me to arrange a guided wine tasting experience, get in touch, I’d love to help!
Traveling by train is one of my favorite ways to get around in Europe. So I’m very excited to announce that April 2nd, France launched a new budget high-speed train service, which will be run by the national rail company, SNCF. It’s called Ouigo.
Get it – ‘we go’. Pretty clever, huh?
Since Ouigo is aimed at budget travelers, services are considered bare bones, with no bar cart, no food available on board and a one-bag restriction. In similar fashion to the budget airlines, you can bring an additional bag if booked in advance for €5, or if you wait until boarding time, that fee becomes €40. Additional fees apply for things like booking by phone, ticket changes and getting a seat near an outlet.
But one good thing – speed won’t be sacrificed. Ouigo trains will offer the same travel times as the traditional TGV high-speed trains.
This may not be the most convenient option for those heading to Paris, as the Ouigo station is located in the suburbs, near Disneyland Paris. However, for those on a budget, a trip from Paris to the Mediterranean coast can cost at little at €10, which is worth be the slight inconvenience of getting to Paris’s city center via another RER train.
Traveling to cities like Lyon, Marseille and Montpellier should be a bit easier as those stations are a bit more central, but still located on the outskirts, which keeps costs down. Other stations include Nimes, Valance, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence – making it a great way to access many great locations in the South of France to explore both the Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon regions.
You can book tickets by visiting the Ouigo website here (in French). At least one reservation page seems to be in English, so perhaps an English version is in the works. They certainly aren’t winning any awards here for user-friendly website design, but what do we expect for such bargain prices?
So what do you think? Will you Ouigo?