Close your eyes. Imagine you are sitting outside, sunlight hitting your face and the Tuscan hills surrounding you. What comes to mind. I’m guessing your first thought was of wine. Tuscany automatically brings visions of vineyards and people happily clinking glasses filled with wine to the forefront of our brains. But did you know there is so much more to Tuscany than vineyard hopping and wine tasting. Below are ten ideas for things you can experience in Tuscany besides drinking wine.
OLIVE OIL TASTE TESTING
Did you know there are over one thousand varieties of olives growing in dozens of countries on six continents? Before stopping into a local olive oil distillery in Tuscany I was clueless! Olive oil testing involves a three step process. First, you want to warm the olive oil up, this is the key to releasing the aroma and flavor of the oil. After pouring 1–2 tablespoons of oil into your glass you will place one hand in a cupping position under the bottom of the glass and one hand on top. The bottom hand functions to warm the oil, while the top hand contains any smell particles. Next, swirl the oil around a few times to release the smell into the air. After swirling comes sniffing. Bring the glass up to your nose, remove your hand and smell the oil deeply. Make sure to take note of the aromas you are smelling.
Finally, it’s time to taste the oil. The best way to experience the full flavor of an olive oil is to slurp it — yep, things will get noisy! Take a sip of olive oil, enough to coat your entire tongue and mouth. Hold it in your mouth to warm it a little and notice the flavors. Then suck some air through the oil to make a slurping sound. Then, exhale through your nose. I will never be able to grab a bottle of EVOO at my local grocery store again without thinking back to this experience.
SHOPPING FOR LEATHER
Buying leather in Florence is practically a rite of passage. Leather goods make for a perfect souvenir from the city and if you’re patient you’ll always find a bargain. So where do you find what you’re looking for?
San Lorenzo Market is the obvious destination for an initial browse. Here you’ll find plenty of stalls and shops lining the streets, with a huge range of products. You won’t find fancy brands or high fashion labels, but instead a vast array of bags, coats and jackets for all tastes. It is pure leather, but the quality of the manufacturing can vary, and it’s usually reflected in the price. If you talk to one of the locals, you will soon know the difference between full grain leather and “genuine” leather (full grain is about twice as strong as genuine of the same thickness that has had the grain shaved off.) Don’t be shy about asking for a discount and make sure you try things on before deciding.
According to Italy Magazine, these are four telltale signs to watch for when buying Florentine leather:
Aroma: The item should smell musky and natural. Steer clear of anything that smells like chemicals.
Suppleness: The leather should feel smooth, supple, and soft, not stiff.
Color: The highest quality natural leather in tan or brown can stand on its own, without any added color, to reveal the natural grain. It’s also about 10% heavier because its more dense. Dyes often mask lesser quality leather to make them look like full grain, but the leather falls apart over time.
Stitching: The stitching should be tight and regular, with small stitches sewn close together. Some leather workers use industrial grade thread and hardware to make a bag that will last a lifetime without the fancy label.
LEARN TO COOK A LOCAL DISH
Tuscan cuisine is among Italy’s best regional food — and taking a cooking class in Tuscany is a great way to get acquainted with the region’s specialties. You can learn how to prepare them so you will be able to recreate the dishes once you are back home. As a bonus you will have a delicious meal to feast on at the end of the evening.
I recently spent an evening in Tuscany enjoying the company and cooking of Mirella. Mirella’s love for food and cooking comes from her paternal grandmother (nonna) who she used to help in the kitchen as a young child. As an adult she began trying out her nonna’s recipes for herself. Her grandmother was a highly skilled top chef and an expert in the history of Florentine cuisine from the Renaissance period. After Mirella completed her schooling, she decided to follow her passion for cooking. She has recently become more and more interested in organic food as a means of eating more naturally and also of safeguarding biodiversity. She loves going to markets and local producers to look for ingredients that can be used fresh in her recipes. On days when her husband Stefano is available, he will also join Mirella in the kitchen. Mirella has a different menu for every season, as she prefers using seasonal ingredients. Our menu included ravioli stuffed with spigot, Catherine de Medici pork bites and chicken cacciatore. Not only was the food delectable, but spending an evening with two individuals who are so passionate about what they do was a rare treat.
E-BIKING THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE
About four years ago my husband and I spent a week biking through Provence in France. The hills of Provence were were quite daunting but I believe Tuscany may have them beat!. This time I decided to give my legs a break and give e-biking a try. The verdict, I’m hooked! I didn’t give a second thought to the many hills we encountered, I simply kicked the bike into overdrive and enjoyed the scenery. We rented our e-bikes through Tuscany Bicycles and also had Elizabeth, the shop’s owner, plan out and accompanied us on our route. Our ride started in Gaiole in Chianti, a quiet and very beautiful village known as home to the world famous vintage bike race called L’ Eroica. We proceeded to bike south towards Siena on the Chiantigiana road, then continued on to a gorgeous 11th century castle, one of the largest and best maintained fortified castles in the Chianti area.
Along the way we stopped for a beautifully curated picnic, prepared under an enormous double Oak tree called Il Leccione, which was featured in an Italian movie called Stealing Beauty or in Italian, Io Ballo da Solo.
We rode on a mix of gravel and paved roads, stopping to admire quaint villages and castles along the way such as Lucignano, Monti and Castello di Cacchiano. Our e-bikes allowed us lots of time for photo taking and enjoying the moment. The route featured a couple challenging climbs, but the e-bike made climbing a breeze, as if someone was there giving me a gentle push up the hill.
VISIT A LOCAL ESSENTIAL OIL DISTILLERY
Essential oils may not be the first thing that comes to mind (or the second or third) when you think of Tuscany but it was an incredible surprise to discover the villa we were calling home for a week was also home to over 360 acres of flowering plants used in the creation of essential oils. Field upon field of Helichrysum, Lemon Balm, Clary Sage and Lavender. The owner of the property, Jerome, was generous enough to give us a tour of the distillery as well as sample and purchase some of their products.
GO ON A GELATO CRAWL
You may have heard of a “pub crawl” but if you’ve never experienced a “gelato crawl” you are in for a treat. I don’t know a better place to experience one than Florence. A few things to note and look out for before you begin your crawl:
Avoid gelaterias that serve neon-colored gelato.
One common example of this is with pistachio flavor. Normally, pistachio should be a pale sage green color. However, some stores that use artificial flavoring will serve neon green pistachio gelato. This is a red flag because it implies that the ice cream is produced with artificial ingredients that won’t taste as good as their natural alternatives. If on the other hand you enjoy a banana flavored Laffy Taffy now and then, go ahead and dive into the neon colored Gelato.
Watch out for stores that display large mounds of gelato.
Many stores will try to attract customers by displaying large, extravagant mounds of gelato in their cases. They do look appealing and definitely catch your eye, but stores that feel they have to do this in order to bring in customers generally will have lower quality gelato. My top three picks for gelaterias in Florence are: Gelateria La Carraia (located by the River Arno near the old Carraia bridge); Gelateria dei Neri (located behind the beautiful Piazza Signoria); Il Procopio (their award winning signature flavor is an almond gelato with candied orange peel, toasted pistachios, and almond slices).
EXPLORE A HILLTOP VILLAGE
Medieval hilltop towns are a regular feature of the landscape in Tuscany. Some say its most defining one. With their fortified walls, towers and stone streets, these towns are so well preserved that they give visitors the impression they’re travelling back in time. None more so than in San Gimignano. Even by Tuscan standards, San Gimignano has a definite ‘wow’ factor. This well preserved town center has fifteen towers that stand vigilant over the town. They tell the story of a violent and dangerous era when the most powerful families competed with each other to build the tallest one, both for protection and for show. Here, stone streets and atmospheric squares envelop the visitor inside a world of pure Medieval nostalgia. History is everywhere here. Enter the Cathedral for its vivid Medieval frescoes or sit in the square and enjoy the atmosphere. It is a favorite for tourists, but is no less charming for that.
SIGN UP FOR A LOCAL RUNNING TOUR
Did you know such a thing exists? I only discovered this a few years ago. I was in Copenhagen and looking for someone to run with since I was traveling alone. The company, Go Running Tours, is in most cities worldwide and allows you to choose the distance you wish to run. You will then get a personal running tour with a local. In Florence, our guide, Lapo gave us a beautifully curated tour of the city (at our own pace) while simultaneously providing us with a history lesson (as well as local recommendations, still not sure how he was able to do this).
GO FORAGING FOR HERBS AND WILD ASPARAGUS
This may not sound glamorous and not at all how you planned on spending your Tuscan holiday but trust me when I say, do not miss out on an opportunity to try this. We were able to spend a few hours in the woods with Marco, a local forager, discovering different herbs we would later brew in tea. The highlight of our time was discovering wild asparagus and then scurrying off to see who could find the most. I can’t begin to tell you how thrilling it is to finally pick your own!
WAKE UP EARLY AND CAPTURE THE PERFECT PHOTO
There is nothing better than capturing a city as it wakes up. People are a little less guarded, willing to say hello and flash you a smile.
If you go to Tuscany don’t “wine” about how there is nothing to do if you don’t drink. Instead, explore, ride, taste and bask in the tuscan sun and take it all in from your own private villa. (O.K. you’re only renting the villa for a week, but what a week it will be!)