Reviewed by Mary Ann Boylan (June 2013)
I am thrilled that I had decided to join [Russ and Elke's European Travel Bella Toscana] Tour. It was advertised as a food and wine tasting tour and the trip did not disappoint me. I ate the most delicious and diverse meals. Breakfast of fresh breads with jams and nutella, cereals, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, fresh fruit, juice, coffee and tea were waiting for us when we awoke each morning. One day Russ and Elke prepared a delicious brunch of scrambled eggs and vegetables, sausage, grilled asparagus, and fresh bread.
Many lunches were served outside overlooking hills, valleys and ancient towns. I ate pasta, hamburgers with fries, Panini, salads, cheeses, meats, vegetables, and soups. I visited a farm and learned about the process of making cheese and lunched on farm grown produce. After touring a winery I [was] treated to a wine tasting with a full lunch of breads, cheese, olive oil and meats.
On the first evening at the villa the owner Sylvia had prepared platters of delicious foods. Prosciutto wrapped around melon slices, assorted cheeses, stuffed red peppers, olives from the villa’s garden, and assorted meats, bread and bread sticks were served. We ate four additional dinners at the villa. One night we ordered pizzas, the other nights Russ and Elke prepared delicious meals. I especially [loved] the risotto and the pasta with Bolognese [sauce].
Restaurants begin serving dinner after seven o’clock and I dined on the most fabulous foods. The first [of the] five star restaurants I went to was in Siena called Antica Osteria Da Divo. I ordered bean and spinach soup, cinghiale with pasta, and for dessert I ate chocolate fruit with a cookie. The next gourmet restaurant was La Cantinetta di Rignana in Greve. My antipasto was soft cheese with truffles and sundried red peppers over greens. This was followed by tortellini. The pork ribs came next followed by biscotti and dipping wine. Lamole, another Greve restaurant, was my favorite because the view from the outdoor seating deck was breathtaking, the owner and servers were attentive and knowledgeable, and the food was outstanding. This dinner was introduced as small bites. Bruschetta and liver pate were served on bread, soft cheese with truffles, grilled vegetables with prosciutto, ravioli with a red sauce, and ravioli with pear slices in a cheese sauce followed by tiramisu was the tastiest meal on this trip. We next visited Fattoria dei Barbi for dinner. The meal began with platters of meats, platters of grilled vegetables, liver pate, risotto, pork in gravy with roasted potatoes and ended with custard with chocolate syrup. The food was delicious. The final evening of the trip was a return to Lamole. Once again the meal was outstanding. A paper thin slice of beef was the base for grilled vegetables, a delicious poached egg was surrounded by pureed asparagus, and thin sliced beef was plated with grilled vegetables and homemade potato chips. Dessert was gelato and a fruit pie.
On this wine and food tasting tour I enjoyed wine with every meal except breakfast. I sipped wine before meals, with meals, and after meals. I tasted white and red wines, grappa, and limoncello. I visited wineries where I learned the process of making wines. I was given a lesson the different effects the weather had on the grapes during a specific year and what flavors we should taste. Russ and Elke took me to Le Cantine di Greve, a wine tasting cellar with over 100 different wines to taste. Russ introduced me to wines we had not found during our trip but he felt I should experience. In the restaurants the waiters were also helpful in suggesting which wine would pair best with our food selections. I have returned home with a better understanding and appreciation for the wines produced in the Chianti Classico wine region of Italy.
Now you may think I did nothing but eat and drink on this trip. You would be mistaken. I took the train into Florence, twice, and visited the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David, the Uffiz Gallariai, the Duomo, the Church of Santa Croce and the Church of Maria Novella. I shopped the stores of Via Ponte Vecchio and bought a gold bracelet. I visited and walked many walled medieval towns. The streets are narrow. Flowers are everywhere. They are hanging from window boxes and are placed in planters on the ground and along walls. The doors to the houses are magnificent. Each town has a beautiful church and I visited everyone. The streets are made of cobblestone and several towns were extremely hilly. I visited a medieval castle where the Baron still resides. His estate has beautiful gardens, olive trees and grape vines as far as the eye can see. I shopped at outdoor markets in Greve and Panzano where I bought gifts and some produce to share at the villa. In Pienza, I climbed to the bell tower and was able to see across all of Tuscany. A guide led us through the town of Luca where I walked in a park created on the top of the wall. And every day when I was tired I would stop and get a gelato or sit in a café and order a cappuccino.
Let me tell you about the wonderful tour guides and companions I traveled with through Tuscany. I was a first time single traveler who was very nervous. Elke arranged for my air flight, transportation from the airport and a picnic lunch the first day. Russ and Elke planned the most organized vacation. They thought of every detail and prearranged our daily excursions and meals so that all I needed to do was get in the large van, follow the maps and written description of the towns, meet at the designated times and be swept away to the next event on the itinerary. Bill and Jayne, Lee and Tom rounded out our group of seven. Before we left New York, Bill gathered information about transportation to the airport and asked if I would like to split the cost of long term parking. What a great idea! I didn’t need to navigate the airport by myself. Jayne called to give me some insight about electric plugs, money and safety when traveling. In Italy I met Lee and Tom. Tom spoke several languages and was a much better communicator that most of us. Lee and Tom suggested I accompany them when we went to Florence since it was our first time visiting the museums. The van was the place we were together as we traveled from place to place and in the van we told stories, getting to know each other. We laughed and laughed. This trip was the most memorable vacation I ever had. Thank you Russ and Elke.