I had heard many wine drinkers raving about Tuscany, and travel enthusiasts craving Florence, but it wasn’t until I visited this stunning part of Italy myself that I fully understood its appeal. From the moment that the coach stopped at the Piazzale Michelangelo lookout point and I got my first glimpse of the city skyline, I knew I was in for a pleasant surprise. Looking at the city from above, my eyes were entertained with every colour of the rainbow. From the terracotta, orange and burgundy hued buildings; the small but iconic yellow arches of the Ponta Vecchio bridge; the incredible green pattern of the Duomo; and the blue summer sky reflecting onto the Arno river – I didn’t even get my camera out because I wanted my eyes to absorb every colour in detail.
All Roads Lead To Red Garter
On our first night, the squad did Welcome To Florence, which started with a quick walking tour with a local guide. From the Roman ruins under the Town Hall; the old myths depicted in the Palazzo Vecchio sculptures; and the many galleries that hold incredible pieces of art and history – everywhere you look is like an open air museum! One of Florence’s biggest creative industries is leather making, with beautiful quality bags, jackets and gloves showcased in markets and stores throughout the city. Therefore, the next part of the tour goes to Leonardo’s Leather Shop, where we had a brief leather making demonstration and learned how to identify genuine leather from faux leather. You can also find the gorgeous puzzle rings there, which men used to give their wives as wedding rings, so that they could tell if they’d taken it off to be unfaithful while they were away (don’t worry, there’s a Youtube tutorial now that tells you how to put it together, so you don’t have to wear it for the rest of your life!).
I was sure not to eat too much before I did this activity, as the final part of the night is an enormous dinner at Red Garter. Florence is famous for its glorious Italian food, and you really can’t go wrong with the selection of pasta, pizza, seasonal dishes and aperitivo spreads on offer (we pretty much lived off aperitivo at Oibo, where you pay €10 for a drink and get a buffet of delicious snacks for free). At Red Garter, the menu will open with a fresh tomato bruschetta, a selection of amatriciana and pesto pastas, huge meat dishes (or salad or ensaladas for vegetarians), and an ice cream dessert. Once our bellies were full, we rolled next door for an insane night of karaoke and good times. Faith and I got up onstage to ‘perform’ Kesha’s “Tik Tok” – the unofficial theme song of our trip since she woke the squad up with it on our first morning in Paris.
The Grape Escape
It would be a waste to pass through Tuscany, one of the wine capitals of the world, and not take part in a tasting of the incredible Chianti wine from the region. The squad went on The Grape Escape tour with Italy On A Budget and even though I don’t drink, there was so much to offer in the form of information, views and taste sensations. The belief in this area is that wine came from the gods, and that the word ‘Chianti’ stemmed from the word for water – so you can see how vital it was! In fact, the average Italian drinks 26 gallons of wine per year, so it is still a very important part of their lifestyle and culture.
Our first stop was a family owned business that has made wine and olive oil since 1720. Here we tried different varieties, ranging from whites with hints of apple, to smooth reds, and a deliciously sweet dessert rosé. To prevent us from drinking on an empty stomach, we also tasted various flavours of their signature olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The owner demonstrated simple things that helped us to enjoy our wine tasting experience even more – how to hold a wine glass properly, the correct way to swirl and aerate it in your mouth to experience the full flavours, and what types of food to pair the different wines with.
The next winery was a similar tasting experience, except we got a tour of the factory where the grapes were sorted, washed, skinned and fermented, and learnt about the processes of each of the different wines we’d tried, from conception to packaging. The most spectacular part of this venue was the expansive views of the Tuscan countryside. I may have been slightly tipsy by that stage from having a few sips of wine, but that was definitely a view I won’t forget. Our afternoon was spent at a nearby medieval village called San Gimignano, which will not only delight you with the ‘World’s Best Gelato’, but will also live up to all of your dreams of what an old village in the Italian countryside should look like.
Life In Florence Is A Pisa Cake
Florence will be as fast paced or as relaxed as you make it, but there really is an abundance of things to do in the city and its surrounding areas. I spent my days checking out the stunning city centre, before finishing up with a gelato or two. Last year, I spent a particularly hot day chilling out in the Boboli Gardens – the grounds of the Pitti Palace that used to house the Medici family. We also took the train to Pisa, where Jordan, Wes and I competed for who had the best pose around the leaning tower, which I won with a backbend from my contortion days – suckers!
When the golden hour started to approach, the squad all reached for the sky and headed for the highest points we could find. If you have some cash to splash, you can visit Hotel Minerva’s little rooftop pool and bar for €20 per drink, or for an incredible free view, head to Piazzale Michelangelo and sit on the steps, enjoy the busy atmosphere and the incredible view of Florence’s orange sunset. We were treated every day until our final evening in beautiful Florence, when we watched our last bittersweet sunset from the lookout. Bellissimo!