My wife and I have had the pleasure of conducting a number of cultural tours to Europe, the most recent of which was this past June. We visit three of the world's greatest cities: Rome, Paris, and London. We see some of the finest art the world has ever known. We tread where kings and emperors trod. We see amazing performances. We shop in some of the best markets anywhere. We see sights many only dream of seeing. And yet, from the feedback we receive, our experience in Tuscany almost always rises to the top as the highlight of the three-week tour.
There are many reasons for this. Of all the phases of the 3-country tour, these days based half an hour outside Florence contain the most human contact with the local population. We are hosted by two wonderful families: the Ammirabile and Volle families. Our housing consists of newly renovated studio apartments overlooking the valley pictured above. (You could do worse than waking up to that every morning.) In between our day trips into Florence or to some of the "hill towns" of Tuscany, we share in experiences that are an inviting window into what appears to be an almost idyllic lifestyle.
Our good friend Caty (Caterina) heads up the meal preparation and offers lessons in Italian cuisine in the process. We enjoy some pretty delicious food throughout Europe, but everyone seems to agree that Caty's cuisine is the finest -- whether pizzas of all kinds baked in her outdoor oven with olive and other local woods, to pasta cooked just right or even simple bruschetta, every meal is a feast.
Perhaps it's how closely the Ammirabile family lives to the land that makes them so endearing. The family runs both a wine growing and an olive oil business, and one of the highlights of our time is the tour of the vineyards by Giovanni, the patriarch of the family. A committed Christian, Giovanni explains the role of the winegrower while alluding to Jesus' teachings on the vine and the branches. The man knows what he is talking about. He has been "pruned" himself more times than I know about -- and yet the sparkle in his eye as he talks about his vineyard indicates a faith that has survived his trials. His wife, Grazia, doesn't attract attention to herself but has a heart of gold.
Even though food is not the focal point of our Tuscan adventure, it is surely the time spent at the table that stands out in our participants' memory. A welcome contrast to the too-often rushed American meal, it is often surprising to realize how long we've been lingering at the table, simply enjoying the moment, being together in such a pastoral setting.
Whatever the case, you can be sure these few days in the Tuscan countryside will be an ingredient of the World to the Wise cultural tours for years to come. Between the bustle of great cities like Rome and Venice, it is like landing in a bubble of peace and tranquility.
Ask anyone who has been with us and you will most likely be answered with a sigh.