At one of my weekly Thursday lunch dates with my dad last summer, he mentioned that he wanted to surprise my mom for her 65th birthday by taking her to Italy without any plans so they could “figure it out as they go” (my trademark description of my preferred means of traveling to foreign lands). That was an interesting idea, but being that I’ve explored nearly 35 countries this way, I understood the potential challenges my sweet parents might face.
The following Saturday, my mom and I went to Christina’s cooking class and Robert made an announcement about the cooking tours that they host in Italy. “Wouldn’t that be awesome to go on one of those trips, Ardene?” my mom excitedly asked, and I responded (having had a light bulb moment based on my previous conversation with my dad) “Yeah. That would be cool.” Through covert emails and phone calls with my dad (you know how moms seem to hear and know everything), I suggested that he take my mom on a Christina Tour because not only would it be a perfect present for mom but surely he could benefit from a week of freshly prepared, vegan, macrobiotic food too! The next time Robert, Christina, and I went out for lunch all Christina had to say was “If your parents are coming to Italy then you have to come too, Ardene,” and I enthusiastically agreed.
Dad and I met Robert and Christina in the city last December and we posed for a picture that we had printed poster-size saying “Pack your bags; you’re coming to Italy with us!” So when you heard that screaming last Christmas morning...yeah...that was my mom after she opened her gift.
The seven-month anticipation of our trip lead to quite high expectations, and even the ride from the train station to the thousand-year-old, newly refurbished villa where we stayed exceeded these expectations! Italy bombards your senses with...well...perfection. Delighting in seeing the rolling Tuscan hills speckled with perfect rows of grape vines and olive trees, hearing the clatter of well-used pots and glasses, being entertained by the Italians’ animation when saying even the simplest of things, smelling the scent of sizzling garlic as every meal is being prepared, understanding first-hand how Italian men have the reputation of being “charming,” breathing the fresh and rich air, and of course, feasting on the most delicious, fresh, food...ever!
“Villa Olena” was artistically carved into the gate at the entrance of our stone villa, and everyone had a private, fully-equipped apartment within the villa. For our group though, everyone tended to hang out...guess where? Robert and Christina’s kitchen, of course! There was authentic stone peeking through the drywall providing a rustic look, beautiful tile in the kitchen and bathrooms, amazing beds, characteristic red shutters, a luxurious pool, and a tennis court. We were blessed with perfect weather, and even on the warmest of days, with the shutters and windows closed through the day, the apartments stayed comfortably cool! It was so exciting to return to the peace of the villa each night after experiencing a day filled with incredible excursions within Tuscany!
Each morning I would go for a run, happily exploring the Tuscan hills and feeling filled with gratitude...gratitude for my healthy mind, body, and spirit...gratitude for spending time with my parents, for our amazing relationship, and for their health...gratitude for experiencing Italy in a novel way while surrounded by such inspiring people...these thoughts continued for my hour-long run (with brief interruptions when I feared for my life as the Italian drivers whizzed around the curvy mountainous roads). Upon my return, Robert always asked what route I decided to take (by the last day I was brave enough to run downhill first...meaning that I had a fantastic uphill journey home) and breakfast was served. Our group of eleven people ate our meals on the terrace facing the mountains, sharing conversation, laughs, and stories at the common table. The typical breakfast was miso soup, steamed vegetables, a grain porridge, and espresso! My dad joked that whatever we didn’t eat at dinner the night before would end up in the soup for breakfast, and he was usually right!
Each day’s itinerary was different and fantastically planned! In Florence and Siena, a local guide met us and shared her knowledge and passion for her city as she led a walking-tour. In the breathtaking Florence we went to the Accademia and saw Michelangelo’s infamous and amazing David, the multi-colored Duomo, Ponte Vecchio (any gold-lovers delight), and enjoyed an amazing lunch in Piazza Della Signoria. Being vegan was so easy in Italy even when eating “out,” as every restaurant has the traditional bread soup (ribollita), pasta with fresh tomato sauce, pizza with grilled vegetables, fresh salads, beans and greens sautéed with garlic... my mouth is watering as I’m thinking about this fresh, fulfilling, and flavorful food!
In Siena, our guide told us about the seventeen wards within the city and the famous Il Palio where horses from ten of the seventeen wards race (but the best part of the story is that the horses are blessed in the CHURCH of each ward prior to racing...seriously...we saw the horse entrance for the church...incredible)! She explained that whatever district has the winning horse holds a feast and which the horse is the guest of honor, not the jockey…the horse!
The architecture of these old cities never got old, as I was captivated by photographing the shutters, tiny stone-paved streets, laundry lines, street signs, lanterns, flower boxes, and locals going about their day. Just as amazing as these famous places we visited were the small quaint towns including Montalcino, Monteriggioni, and Poggibonsi. From indulging in Brunello, olive oil, and chocolate tastings, to hearing monks chant afternoon prayers in the ancient Sant‘Antimo monastery, to learning about the Knights of the Templar and feasting (I’m not exaggerating...the meal was 8 courses) at a count’s castle, to visiting hidden-away churches, to seeing cypress trees dotting the hillsides and fields of sunflowers, to delighting in the umbrella covered beach at the “sea” (Italians refer to what we would call the ocean as the sea, but then again, it is the Mediterranean Sea, not ocean), to taking the touristy photos of us holding up the leaning tower of Pisa...we did it all!
Christina made incredible dinners each night with the fresh, local ingredients, and we all benefitted from her love of baking with dessert each night! When reminiscing about the trip I reflect on my gratitude for experiencing such a wonderful culture, for indulging in tremendous nourishment, and for the innumerable moments of pure laughter! And hey, my birthday is coming up, so if you hear a shriek of excitement in a few days, I may have just opened a poster telling me to pack my bags...fingers crossed!