Monday, September 29, 2014

Candelaria Design Tour Italy 2014 - Day 5 - Villa Piazzano and Cortona

Sunday is one of my favorite days. How many times do I say this during the trip…..!

It's our first full day in the country. Fresh air, birds singing, the fog slowly disappears from the valley floor as the sun peaks its first rays over the hilltops of this magical land that time has forgotten. I got the coffee going, started a nice fire in the fireplace, and slowly my travelers, not sure where they are by now, awake and started their day. Today we get to sleep in a bit as we don't have to be to our first destination until 11 am. So it was nice to see everyone discover the homes and watch the fog lift for the first time.

Today we start the day at the Villa Piazzano Villa Piazzano. One of my favorites…..see there I go again! But truly, this is. I stumbled upon this property in 2000 by making the wrong turn down the road….I've discovered a lot of great things during my travels that way.  Once I realized I was on the wrong road it was too late as I was quickly mesmerized by the Italian cypress alle that seemed to never end. Only after a mile of repetitive trees did it end at this amazing villa. When I first saw this property back then it was in poor order and was really nothing to get too excited about. I saw a family strolling the grounds and asked them if they knew what this place was. They indicated they had just purchased the property and were in the process of restoring it. Well, seeing it now some 14 years later and it is simply marvelous what has been accomplished. This is a premier  destination if you are ever in this area. Beautiful grounds, amazing history, friendly and charming staff, and all at the foot of Cortona, Tuscany and Umbria. I cannot think of a better place.

So after our drive in which again mesmerized us all, we parked and made our way into the Villa where we were all welcomed. We were given a short tour of the Villa, the wine cellar, which is terrific, and then it was off to brunch on the garden terrace overlooking the pool. This beauty of this setting is hard to capture in words or pictures. It can only be understood by a visit. The sights, smells, warmth of the Tuscan sun, colors, and then ultimately the taste of the food - what a plethora of stimuli. That is what Italy is all about…..!

The brunch they prepare for us is a masterpiece - a true work of art. Carefully arranged in the dining room, this brunch is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the palate. I think my travelers spend more time photographing the food as they do eating it. Of course this is all accompanied by prosecco!

A quick group picture and it was back to the country homes for a siesta and time to just grab a breather after the hustle of the last 5 days.

Before you knew it, it was 4 pm and time to make the drive back over the mountain to Cortona for a fun evening in the city famous for the Frances Mayes book and then movie, Under the Tuscan Sun. And Tuscan sun we had. Wow, what a beautiful late fall day. We walked through the main street to our restaurant at the far end of town and then turned my travelers loose to go explore. Cortona was having a street antique fair and so it was very busy, really alive and a great time to see the energy of this vibrant hill town. Our dinner reservations was at 7 pm and gradually everyone arrived and dinner was on!

I love this first dinner in the country side. Different items on the menu and the prices always blow people away. Nearly half to a third of the prices in Florence. From 70€ in Florence per person for wine and dinner to 20€ per person for wine and dinner in the countryside! No drop in quality - in fact I think the quality is better. This year we dined at the Trattoria Dardona, which is terrific. Veal porcini, wild boar pasta, and of course bisteca - amazing.

After dinner it was time for some gelato down the street, a cigar and a stroll through the now quiet and tranquil streets back to our cars and the drive home……magical.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Candelaria Design Tour Italy 2014 - Day 4 - Drive to Umbria

Ahhhhhh - the most stressful day of my trip. Putting 15 novice drivers behind the wheel who do not have a clue as to where they are going and all need to stay together in a convoy down the Autostrada! It has always been an adventure, but fortunately for me, always a successful one!  The reward is ending up at the Country Houses in Umbria and finally truly relaxing.

We started our Saturday, Day 4, with breakfast at the Hotel and then a few of us walked to the San Lorenzo Marketplace to stock up on some goodies for our trip to the country and gifts for friends and family back home. The San Lorenzo Marketplace is fantastic. I wish we had one like this in Phoenix - although I would be there everyday picking up fresh meats. fish, veggies, fruits, nuts, berries, olive oil, and of course truffles!!!! I LOVE this place! A quick cappuccino and then a little shopping and it was back to the hotel to pack up and get ready for the rental car adventure.

Ok so the first step is getting everyone checked out of the hotel as transport vans are there at 12 sharp to take us to the rental car location. Checking out went smoothly as it usually does. The transport vans were there for the most part. One made it right to the front door of the hotel, the other two were around the corner and down the street. You see around the corner here in the old part of Florence can mean a space of about 9 feet to make a turn….! So we loaded up some of my travelers at the front door and others had to hike down the busy streets to find the vans in the now crowds of people filling the streets.

So right away everyone is separated. Then I come to find they have moved the pick up location from the airport to in town. Ten years ago - in town - meant really in town. If any of you have ever been to Florence you know that driving "in town" is a big no no even for the most seasoned driver not to mention trying this with 15 novice drivers. So when I heard this my stress level went through the roof! The driver assured me it was not the "In town" location I remembered and that I would be happy with where they were taking me as it was "close" to the airport….????

So off we went - now we were all in adventure mode! As we drove I could tell we were in fact getting very close to the airport which eased my trepidation. I like the Florence airport because you virtually make one turn and you are on the Autostrada heading south towards Rome and our destination. Well our new location was just a few blocks away and underground in a nice air conditioned garage as opposed to the old airport location in full sun - so much better.

Ok then I prepared everyone with the fact that it would take a good two hours to get our 8 rental cars. I always receive a few raised eyebrows but after two hours of getting us all checked in everyone was shaking their head in awe of how well I predicted that. You see in Italy NOTHING moves fast!  As quickly as you can come to terms with that and accept that you are much better. If you expect the efficiency of America you will be disappointed your entire trip. When in Italy chill out and just roll with it and enjoy watching their dramatic banter. Every action is filled with Italian drama!

So after two hours we  had all of our cars lined up in our convoy order with Isabel driving the lead car and me navigating. We were OFF!

Oh but not too far….. we probably went about 4 blocks when the car behind us was flashing us in seemed like utter panic. So at the next stop light I jumped out of my car and ran back to see what the problem was. My rookie driver was shaking in horror ad quickly described the problem….the car would not shift out of first gear. My choice now was to try and get everyone off to the side and wait as I would drive the car back to the garage or see if I could figure out what was wrong in

the middle of a busy thoroughfare with cars honking and gesturing at us to get moving! Meanwhile my other 6 cars were behind us wondering what was going on??? Quickly, I asked the driver to get out, run up to my car and jump in on the passenger side with Isabel and I would try and drive her car and see what was going on.

Luckily, the stick was just in the wrong location and so I was able to get things going! At the next light I flashed Isabel and we did one more Tuscan Fire Drill and shifted back into our respective cars and we were off! Always and adventure…..

A quick two hour drive down the Autostrada and some of the most beautiful countryside and before we knew it we were in Umbria.  From the A1 south we take a left to Perugia and then the exit for Tuoro where we went up and over the hill and then drop down to Lusciano-Niccone Valley and our Umbrian Paradise. We stopped in the small market in Lusciano-Niccone and made that shopkeepers week.

With provisions in tow we made our way throughout the valley and then up a dusty and very steep road to our Country Houses. I love the arrival - from a luxury hotel in the busy city of Florence to these charming stone Country houses with stunning views of the valley below embraced by the hills of Tuscany and Umbria… doesn't get much better than this.

With everyone settled and unpacked its up to the main house Casa LaPietra for a home made meal by our host Elizabeth Wholey who runs the operation. She prepared us a wonderful meal featuring truffled hardboiled eggs, peppers stuffed with local sausage, baked figs stuffed with gorgonzola cheese and wrapped in bacon. This was followed by homemade lasagna and a salad dressed with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and honey - the best. This capped off with pana cotta and fresh local berries…..heaven.

Ok - we made it to Umbria. From dining at the Villa San Michele the night before to dining in an old Country Farmhouse Kitchen - that is the contrast I love to paint for my travelers. Both so different, yet both so magical and amazing. Welcome to Italy!

Candelaria Design Tour Italy 2014 - Day 3 - Florence

Good morning from Italy!

On Day 3 we enjoyed everything about Florence! We started the day with a walking tour led by none other than me. I love this experience - rising before the crack of dawn and heading out onto the streets before a soul awakes. The streets are empty, there is very little sound, and the indigo light of the morning sky gradually transforms and brings this time capsule of the Renaissance into another day. I believe 9 of my travelers answered the bell and joined me in the lobby at 6 am. We were off and walked for 2 hours exploring the Piazza del Duomo, San Lorenzo Market, the Piazza Republica, the Palazzo Pitti, and the Piazza Republica along with many streets and sights along the way.

We then made our way back to the hotel for a lovely breakfast and then a group of us went for a quick climb up the Giotto's Campinile - what a work out only to be rewarded by an amazing view! All of these structures are unbelievable - the craftsmanship, the thought and engineering all constructed over several years and three architects. Started in 1334 by Giotto di Bondoneand then finished in 1359 by Francesco Talenti. 25 years to build and of course it is stall standing some 650 years later. A far cry than some of our grand stadiums that are lucky if they last 25 years! You have to love our disposable way of life today….

After the climb we took a quick pass through the interior of the main cathedral and returned back to the hotel for a quick cat nap. Then Isabel and I grabbed a quick bite and then joined 10 of us for a guided walking tour of Florence including the Accademia where of course the David is housed. We toured the Cathedral one more time - only in amazing detail, the Accademia and then the Palazzo Vecchio and the Piazza del Signoria. So fascinating to get an understanding of all the challenges and time these people went through to virtually survive and at the same time express themselves both from an artistic and political manner. Its funny how things seem so different now in modern life yet are so the same. We share the same struggles to put food on the table three times a day, protect ourselves from danger and our enemies, yet strive to create beauty along the way.

With the tour complete we all gathered for in the lobby for our trip up the hills above Florence to the Villa San Michele for cocktails on the terrace and dinner on the loggia overlooking the city. What a magical time to drive up the hill - out of the hustle and bustle of the city and to the cypress dotted hills of Tuscany. The dinner at Villa San Michele is truly a highlight of the trip. I have had the same waiter, Antenello, for over 10 years. The building was originally constructed as a monastery by none other than Michealangelo, and it is truly spectacular, sophisticated, and elegant. Belinis were served on the terrace, followed by a fantastic dinner of mushroom raviolis, salad, and sliced roast beef with a Brunello sauce. Only to be outdone by an amazing dessert. What a treat and what a contrast to dining on the streets the night before.