Travel Happiness: Tasing Tuscany

Travel Happiness
Tasting Tuscany
by Art Richards
President, Richards World Travel

Florence, with its world-famous artwork, justly draws travelers from around the world. But to fully savor Tuscany, you need to put up a fork and indulge in the world's simplest yet exquisite cuisine.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of escorting a tour group to Italy with a major emphasis on the Tuscany area. We stayed in a villa, enjoyed cooking classes, and explored the surrounding area by motorcoach and the local train. It was a 30-minute train trip to the middle of Florence.
One place we visited was Siena, a lovely medieval town. Here residents are found enjoying the passeggiata, the traditional evening walk as the setting sun slowly tints the stonework of the surrounding curved buildings a glowing pink. You must dine in a local trattoria, where the task of deciding on dinner, is a bit complicated. There is just so much good food, not to mention the local breads and the large bowls of riboletta, the vegetable soup that is a menu staple across Tuscany. Thickened with unsalted bread, it is hearty fare first made like many Tuscan dishes...to sustain peasant farmers slaving away in the region's olive groves, vineyards and wheat fields. Hmmm, the riboletta smells wonderful. The hand-rolled spaghetti, known as pici, served with local mushrooms and rosemary, is a must! In Tuscany, food is too important to be rushed.
There is much to see and do in Tuscany. Let's look at the city of Florence. What can one say about Tuscany's main city that hasn't been said a million times before? Central Florence is one of the world's most beautiful urban environments, stacked to bursting with some of mankind's greatest artistic achievements. The 15th-century-domed cathedral, the Duomo, dominates the old section of the city. A few short blocks away, the Ufizzi Gallery is home to priceless artworks by Botticelli, Raphael, Titian and many other masters. At the Galleria dell'Accademia, book ahead to avoid the long lines to view Michelangelo's masterpiece, David.
Volterra is something of an anomaly in lush Tuscany. Its rooms are in mining and the surrounding landscape is more rocky than green. But you're not here to enjoy the view-you're here to shop! Volterrans have been digging alabaster out of the ground since ancient times, and today delicate alabaster jewelry, boxes and other small items are sold in shops throughout town.
Cinque Terra lies just north of Tuscany and consists of five villages hugging the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. The rugged paths that were once the only means of transportation between these beautiful but isolated settlements are now popular with hikers. If you're a novice, try the Via dell'Amore, a one-mile path leading from Riomaggiore to Manarola. Intrepid hikers head for the more challenging two-mile trail from Corniglia to Vernazza. These villages are wonderful spots to sample the fresh seafood that makes the area so unique.
San Gimignano is located about 35 miles from Florence and is a walled city of about 15 medieval towers. Climb the tower known as the Torre Grossa for an incredible view.
If you have ample time, a trip to Rome is a must. Rome is just a 90-minute trip by train. Some of the city's great sights are the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain, and St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
Every town in Tuscany seems to have a culinary specialty, so don't miss the chance to sample as wide a variety of these delicacies as you have time to eat! Siena's signature products are baked goods like ricciarelli (almond-paste cookies). Lucca is known as one of the best places to stock up on that Tuscan staple-olive oil. Prato is famed for its biscotti, and Montepulciano is widely known for its vino nobile di Montepulciano, the area's "noble wine."
Cuisine is one reason why gourmets around the world adore Tuscany. Everyday, every village and town will call your spirit to want more. I believe I could enjoy a month very easily in the area and never tire of it. The big battle might be how not to eat so much, but with all of the walking and touring available, you can easily build a healthy appetite. Tuscany is certainly an area not to be missed.

Richards is the owner of Richards World Travel, Inc. (www.richardsworldtravel.com).