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A first-timer's take on the best of Tuscany
I experienced the unparalleled beauty and wonder that is Italy a few months ago.
It was the last leg of a four-week budget holiday around Europe with my partner and, if I’m honest, it was the country I was least looking forward to visiting.
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I thought we'd seen it all. The cathedrals, the castles, the little stalls selling Nutella-filled donut cones. It was all starting to blur into one. I still can’t distinguish individual churches and restaurants without referring to my journal entries and scrolling through my 3000 photos.
Italy remains crystal clear.
We’d spent the previous three nights in Venice and had arrived in Florence. At first, it seemed like any other European city. We only had two nights here, and I’m ashamed to say that on the day we arrived, we explored for about an hour before collapsing on our bed to watch TV and sleep until dinner. Packing up and moving every four days gave exhaustion a whole new meaning.
We found an amazing pizzeria down the road from out B&B. The menu was the mother of all menus. An A3-sized piece of brown paper listed dozens upon dozens of drinks, appetisers, pastas and pizzas.
Everyone has always told me that Italian pizza is boring and flavourless when compared to the westernised version us Aussies have created by chucking on anywhere from five to 15 different toppings. Let me just say that our mozzarella sucks. The Italians know where it’s at. Soft, stretchy and flavoursome, I could have lived off plates of the stuff.
Our first stop was Siena, an incredible Medieval-looking brick town. What fascinated me most was the town square, the Piazza del Campo, set in a valley encircled by buildings on much higher ground. We were told the Palio di Siena, a world-renowned 90-second horse race that attracts spectators from across the globe, was held here. I looked around the square and thought it surely impossible that 10 horses could race safely in such a small space without injuring themselves or bystanders.
It was quite a leg workout walking up the winding streets to the Duomo, but so worth the pain. This was the first cathedral I’d seen that was made out of black-and-white stone and, as if the exterior wasn’t grand enough, the interior was extraordinary. Elaborate Gothic arches ran from ground to ceiling, gold and stone mosaics lined the marble floors, and huge and colourful biblical paintings adorned the walls. I’d never seen so much colour inside a cathedral before!
The gelato disappeared far too quickly and soon enough we were on the road to our next stop.
We stopped for lunch at a local family-run farm and winery, on a hill that overlooked the rolling, lush Tuscan fields. You could see the boundaries where different wineries and croplands met and I couldn’t count all the shades of green on both my hands. It was breathtaking and looked like something taken straight off a postcard.
Our four-course meal started with bruschetta, which I was surprised to find out traditionally does not include the tomato, onion and basil topping that we’ve come to know and love. Essentially it was toasted crusty white bread drizzled with home-grown olive oil and sea salt. So simple, but absolutely delicious.
We finished with a basket of almond biscotti and the most beautifully sweet and tart dessert wine I’ve ever tasted. When dipped into the wine, the flavours in the biscotti skyrocketed, and it became a delightful mix of almond essence and sweet fruit.
I was sufficiently buzzed after four glasses. In my experience, wine and sun is a recipe for sleep – I could feel myself dozing off as we tried to take some pictures with the country backdrop. A short ride to San Gimignano provided the opportunity for a power nap, and if I thought I would wake up refreshed and energised, I was very wrong.
San Gimignano is a tiny town built atop a steep hill comprising of several hundred-metre-tall brick pillars. If we thought the slopes in Siena were bad, we were definitely not prepared for the trek up the main street. The cobbled ground and what felt like a vertical climb made our quads feel as if they were on fire. So much regret for neglecting my cardio!
The street was lined with bakeries, Medieval torture museums and little stores selling handmade jewellery and replicas of movie relics, including wands from Harry Potter and Arwen’s necklace in The Lord of the Rings.
Several rest stops later and after what felt like an eternity, we made it to the main centre, where a ‘Gelato World Champion’ winner was located. The queue spanned halfway into the square, but this didn’t stop us from waiting 20 minutes for a much-needed sweet treat. We decided on a double scoop of peach and vanilla herbs and spices. The vanilla was so-so, but the peach blew my mind. The perfect blend of tangy and sweet, icy and creamy, I imagine it’s what Heaven is made of.
If you’re not sold by the sights and scenery, I’m sure you will be by the food. I know I’ll be going back, if only for more of the world’s best gelato and mozzarella.