Back-Roads Touring – Puccini, Porcini and Prosciutto: Part 1

Tuscan Treats and the Cinque Terre Tour with Back-roads Touring
The Ponte Vecchio in FlorenceCats cowered and donkeys fled as the Tuscan hills came alive to the sounds of 13 slightly sozzled voices belting out “Volare!” Ably accompanied by our opera-singing driver, Sergio, on guitar, and our nattily-dressed tour guide, Dario, this impromptu post-lunch concert was one of many memorable moments from our 9 day autumnal tour of the back roads of Tuscany, courtesy of Back-Roads Touring.

Manarola - one of the Cinque TerreOur journey had begun 5 days earlier in Florence at the Pitti Palace Hotel near the Ponte Vecchio, and taken us through rolling Tuscan landscapes to the ancient cities of Pisa and Siena; around walled hilltop settlements of Lucca, Volterra, Monteriggioni, San Gimignano, and up into the picturesque, pastel-coloured coastal villages of the Cinque Terra before concluding in a luxurious Villa in the heart of Chianti country surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
  
Sergio, our driver, with our luxury mini coachOur small group – couples and singles from America, Australia, Canada and the UK – were travelling in the spacious comfort of a luxury 25-seater Mercedes mini-coach.  The maximum group size for a Back-Road tour is 18, and we had set off with 15 but two had sadly dropped out following a medical emergency. The age range was mostly 40s to 70s with a couple of young Americans joining in from the travel industry.  Several of our antipodean travellers were veterans of previous Back-Roads Tours through Europe and spoke highly of their experiences and the quality of the tour guides.

Etruscan gate in VolterraDario, our tour leader, was a well-travelled Tuscan who shared his considerable knowledge of the history and culture of the many places we visited. His English was excellent and accent charming, though his accounts of the Romans and Etruscans “farting” reduced several of us to helpless giggles (slight mispronunciation of “fighting”).  Sergio, our courteous, careful and considerate driver was also a talented musician who endearingly broke into song at every opportunity and greeted us cheerily each morning with a tuneful “Buon giooorrrrrnooooo!”

Puccini concert in LuccaOur Tuscan Treats tour proved to be a visual, aural and culinary feast:  magnificent cathedrals of pink, green and white marble; museums full of works by Michelangelo, Botticelli; vertiginous ancient towers with awesome views; olive groves and vineyards glowing golden in the autumn sun; Tuscan hills echoing to the strains of Puccini and Verdi performed by Pavarotti, Bocelli and our driver Sergio.  Gastronomic treats included: pecorino cheese, home-smoked prosciutto, freshly-gathered porcini mushrooms, sea food line-caught by local fisherman, ruby red chianti classico, fruity balsamic vinegar, award-winning gelato in every flavour imaginable, and bitter expresso coffee.  Our cookery class offered the satisfying experience of kneading warm dough to produce fluffy focaccia topped with crunchy poppy seeds and aromatic rosemary, doused in peppery olive oil.

Carlo distributing samples of his 30 year old balsamic vinegar at Sant'Agnese FarmInside Siena CathedralThe itinerary was relaxed but busy.  There were no “crack of dawn” starts, but good time keeping was required for our group’s timed entry to the popular museums; meeting up with specialist tour guides; catching trains and ferries; and staying a few steps ahead of the crowds streaming from cruise ships and coaches at popular locations.  Dario was politely assertive in keeping us on schedule, and careful to ensure no one was left behind, although at times it must have felt like trying to herd cats as individuals disappeared to grab a final photo, dive into a shop, visit the WC.

Included in the tour were 8 nights’ good quality bed and breakfast accommodation in charming small hotels, 4 evening meals in local restaurants, 2 lunches, and a free “Award winning” gelato.  Throughout the tour Dario recommended local establishments for additional coffee breaks, lunches and evening meals, happily organising group bookings for those who wished to eat together, though there was no pressure to join in. Every day we had the honour of meeting many lovely locals, truly passionate about their businesses, services and produce.

Misty Tuscan dawnAlso included in the tour costs were: the Whispers tour of Florence (listening to a guide through an ear piece); specialist tour guide in Siena; entrance fees to Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence, the Baptistery of St John in Pisa and Siena Cathedral; Cinque Terra ferries, trains and coastal walk; olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey and wine tasting at Sant Agnese farm; Chianti wine tasting at Verrazzano Castle; an Italian bread and pasta cookery class.

Pisa - the Baptistry and eponymous leaning towerWe took the tour in mid-October when it was surprisingly warm and humid, with heavy thunderstorms at night:  ideal weather for mosquitos. Sergio kept us topped up with bottles of cold water from the coach fridge.  Our small coach was able to travel along back roads and pathways inaccessible to larger vehicles.  However, it was not allowed inside several of the towns and villages visited, and apart from Pisa, where we took the “fun train” from the car park to the tower, we generally had to make 5-20 minute walks, often involving steep and winding pathways and stone staircases with few hand rails, to reach our destinations before embarking on walking tours lasting up to 3 hours.  Also, it was not possible to park close to the hotels in Lucca and Volterra, although porters transported our luggage to and from the coach.  A good level of fitness is required for clients to participate fully in this tour:  my partner ducked out of the longer walks and at one stage Dario helpfully decided to call a taxi to transport a couple of those who were flagging.
  
View from the tower in San GimignanoDuring our free time Dario recommended and helped arrange additional activities such as attending a spine-tingling performance of Puccini arias in the composer’s home town of Lucca; walking the perimeter of the city walls in various towns; climbing numerous Tuscan towers; and an 8k trek through Tuscany hillside, visiting an ancient olive oil farm, to walk off the delicious but heavy lunch we had prepared during our cookery class.   Knowing Dario has trekked in Nepal, only two of us fitness fanatics were brave enough to join him on his “free time” walks.  However, several of the trails we had planned to follow had been closed due to landslides following the heavy rain.

Teatro del SilenzioWhilst travelling, Dario suggested a few detours: a visit to the magnificent Teatro del Silenzio, an open air amphitheatre located in a stunning position near tenor Andrea Bocelli’s home town of Lajatico where he performs one concert each summer (it is silent the rest of the year); coffee in the tiny, walled hilltop village of Radda in Chianti; and lunch at the delightful organic farm – Agriturismo Fattoria Lischeto – full of interesting sculptures. It was here that, emboldened by generous supplies of Chianti, I started humming “Con te partirò”.  Within seconds Sergio produced a guitar and joined me in a duet, which rapidly moved on to a rousing group rendition of “O sole mio” followed by “Volare!”  Memories are, indeed, made of this.

How to travel
Carole and John took the 9 days/8nights “Tuscan Treats and Cinque Terre” tour with Back-Roads Touring in October 2014.  The company offers a range of tours throughout the UK and the rest of Europe.  

•  Read Puccini, Porcini and Prosciutto – Part 2
•  Read Puccini, Porcini and Prosciutto – Part 3
•  Read Puccini, Porcini and Prosciutto – Part 4
•  Read Puccini, Porcini and Prosciutto – Part 5

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