Tuscany—it’s so otherworldly it’s hard to know where to begin. Where to begin? It’s where I’ve gone twice on a writer’s retreat, hosted by my literary agent.
The following are my thoughts after my first visit, when Kyle was able to come with me. (This trip was also not as frugal as most our travels tend to be.)
I love sharing the practicality of family travel—the what to bring, where to go, how to budget sort-of stuff. I want to rouse you to take your kids out the front door in a very real, earthy, attainable way. I want my words to paint accurately the beauty and variety of the world, and to keep it as accessible as possible. The last thing I’d want is for you to read a post and think, “Well, that’s great for them, but I’m stuck here folding laundry and going to Costco.” I’d love it if my words help convert your travel goals into reality; a lovely marriage of art and science sort-of content, I think. This sort of stuff gets me up in the morning.
So therefore: Tuscany. Where to begin? It’s completely fair to make plain that this wasn’t actually a family trip, as most escapades on this blog will be. Kyle and I went on a writer’s retreat hosted by my literary agent, a collective ten of us, all writers or married to one. (This trip was also not as frugal as most our travels tend to be.)
But after ten days in one of God’s great kisses on earth, I can happily say it’s entirely possible to bring children to Tuscany, and we hope to do just that next spring.
Other than two days bookended by Florence, our home base was the tiny hamlet of Castelmuzio, nestled near Pienza and Siena. The town averages a population of 210 residents, and other than a couple restaurants, a grocery co-op, a chapel, and a playground, its hillside is stacked with residential homes. Homes originally built in the 13th century, of course.
Let’s just cut to the chase here: every stereotype of Tuscany exists for a reason. It was almost frustrating that every photo looked like an Olan Mills portrait, what with its ubiquitous background. The air lingered with jasmine and cypress, a sweetness I’ve yet to find elsewhere. Meals start at 7:30 p.m. and end at 10:00, minimum, with one course at a time brought in thoughtful cadence. The wine is the best in the world.
This is why it’s so hard to accurately write about Tuscany: it all sounds so cheesy. After you read this, put on some Louis Armstrong and a striped shirt, go for a ride in your Vespa, and sip coffee out of a tiny cup. That’s how it feels to write about it.
Before I get all angsty about this, though, perhaps it’s best if I simply start this off with a short list of why I loved Tuscany (and really, Italian culture).
Celebrating the beautiful isn’t extra, an afterthought, the icing on the cake. It is the cake. I never saw a shop that wasn’t thoughtfully displayed, down to the candy bars. Nothing in this part of Tuscany (the entire area is a UNESCO heritage site) was modernized or updated beyond simple convenience or safety. Even the topography was a conscious blend of cultivated farmland and wild.
Kyle took a watercolor class because he could. Because they have that available. Church bells still ring every hour on the hour, and I have a suspicion it’s simply because they’re beautiful. Food was presented as art.
It’s also really, really quiet, save for the kids playing and riding bikes at 11 p.m.
There are frequent benches that face the landscape, purely to enjoy the view. Stores typically close in the heat of the afternoon, even though they could make money—but then you couldn’t rest and linger in the warm breeze. Meals take hours because they’re delicious and should be savored.
I saw more bikes than cars.
One afternoon, Kyle and I stopped by a nondescript coffee shop for a quick caffeine hit (this was in Florence, not Tuscany, but it speaks of the same cultural appreciation). While we chatted for a few minutes, several people came and went, most of whom were there to do the same thing as us. Rent a table, talk for a bit.
But there were a few men, blue-collared laborers, it seemed, who were there for to-go cups. Except here’s how it looked: the men ordered cappuccinos, and they stood at the bar and shot the breeze with the barista while they hurried the contents of their ceramic cups and saucers. They stayed. And when their coffee was finished, they left with a hearty grazie.
No to-go cups. (No Starbucks either, incidentally—Italy remains one of the few modern countries that won’t allow the chain.)
I’ve been asked more than any other question, “What was your favorite food?” And I think I’ve landed on a tomato. One afternoon we visited an organic farm, and they fed us a literal farm-to-table meal overlooking their fields (it was as lovely as it sounds). Family-style, they presented platters of vegetables and cheeses and pastas, accompanied by shot glass-sized sips of asparagus soup, followed by panna cotta for dessert. And my favorite bit was this one tomato slice, roasted in salt and pepper and drizzled with balsamic vinegar so succulent it tasted like candy.
My second favorite was a grapefruit gelato purchased on a corner and received gladly in a paper cup. I had a come to Jesus moment. I lost my salvation and found it again.
Not once did I eat anything I didn’t like, and most significantly, for me—my body happily digested everything. No problems with gluten, dairy, legumes, or even small bits of sugar. I even lost a bit of weight, and I ate a ton. Since I’ve returned to the States, my body is waging war with anything I’m ingesting. (More on this in another post, but let’s just say our American food system, from seed to table, is obviously messed up.)
As I already mentioned, the coffee culture involves sitting at wood-scratched tables and sipping palm-sized macchiatos. Enjoyed all throughout the day, there’s no guzzling a half-pint chalice of fuel; it’s enjoyed the way it was meant: slowly, and with friends. And damn, is it good stuff.
Here are a few links, along with a short playlist to enjoy while you read, if that’s your thing. I didn’t actually listen to this music while we were there, but it paints the ambience of Tuscany fairly well, I think. (Yes, there’s some clichéd music on the playlist, but that’s okay with me.)
- Val d’Orcia, the region where we stayed for the bulk of our trip
- Casa Moricciani, our villa for the week
- La Porta, one of the restaurants where we dined (and where I learned about Brunello di Montalcino, my new favorite wine)
- Pienza, a lovely town in Tuscany and birthplace of pecorino cheese
- Watercoloring lessons in Montisi
- Abbey of Sant’Antimo, where we attended Vespers and listened to monastic chanting
- Sant’Anna in Camprena, site of The English Patient and an abbey with an agriturismo restaurant
- Il Casale, location of our farm-to-table experience
My friend Seth was on the trip, too—here’s his most recent post about his experience. It is literally accurate.