The fox emerged from the olive groves, crossed the outdoor terrace and slowly walked through the open door into the dining room where I was hosting my group's arrival dinner just four nights ago.

We were staying in a series of restored Tuscan farmhouses on the Antonori family wine estate. The fox wasn't on the itinerary. Our Italian hosts immediately walked up and fed him some rather good pappardelle with a bit of rabbit sauce. He took what he could, looked us over and preceded to walk back out to the terrace to sit in his regular spot to finish his snack. It turns out that he makes an appearance just about every night at 10:05.

He dined alone while the restaurant cat stared him down from a safe distance. They had learned to coexist.

The client sitting next to me wondered if "an animal will be joining us at all of our future meals"?

Thirty-four years ago, I was summoned before a board and informed that I had been granted a sum of money to launch a school in Europe. I began my planning in the south of France, but karma and cost soon brought me to the Tuscan hills. I lived in a large villa for six years, with the company of my teaching staff and 75 or so high school seniors from the U.S.

Time passed, and some 20 years ago I figured out a way to return to the neighborhood on a regular basis. The result was a corporate division dedicated to Culinary and Lifestyle tours of Italy.

Yesterday we went to the walled town of San Gimignano. The wonderful thing about the views out of the windows at the restaurant La Cisterna is that nothing has changed. No chain stores or little box housing developments dot the magnificent hillsides.

And that is really what makes so much of Europe, and particularly Italy, so wonderful. From the first time you see it and fall in love, you can sleep secure in the knowledge that when you return, years later, it will not have changed.

The red rooftops of any new homes in the villages must conform to antiquity; only seven primary Tuscan colors are approved for painting the stone facades.

It was market day. I wandered through the belts and the bras and the socks toward the back of the stall area. I was looking for someone. He was there, standing in his open truck, swatting away a few bees. And as I approached, he noticed me but did not remember.

He reached down and ever so delicately sliced a piece off the whole roasted pig that lay on the wood slab before him. Flavored with fennel, rosemary and sage, the roast pork panini sandwich brought back a flood of memories.

I had last bought a sandwich from him in 1971.

On Sunday, we took our group off to tour the home of Machiavelli in San Caasciano.  We walked across the road to dine on a "light" lunch of real Tuscan bruschetta (topped with chicken liver pate, not tomatoes), olive oil marinated roasted chicken and grilled Florentine steaks.

Later we drove to Impruneta, where we entered the small, clay-covered workshop of Mario Belli. He is not very used to guests, but he explained his craft through our interpreter and decorated and shaped glassware on an ancient potters wheel in front of our eyes.

He has been in this workspace, doing this work for 52 years. There are no apprentices to be found. The work is too delicate, the workspace too primitive to attract the young.

Last night, we went to a small hamlet high in the hills not far from Radda in Chianti. Sixty-three folks live in this village, among them a mother and daughter known throughout the region for their traditional cooking skills. The hamlet has two businesses, a bar/restaurant and a rather excellent small wine and olive oil shop specializing in the excellent local products.

I kept staring at the group of mature villagers -- none, I was told, under 80 -- who were laughing and recounting the events of the day, no doubt speculating a bit about our group of 24 people.

They laughed, they poked fun at one another, and they glowed in the approaching twilight with that special look reserved for the deeply contented.

The cook and her mother taught us how to cook while adding several liters of fine red wine to nearly every dish. Then, under a canopy of stars, sitting on a terrace overlooking the hamlet's vineyards, the lights of small villas visible in the distance, the residents of this village presented plate upon plate of their own dishes, the food they enjoy in their own homes.

As we hugged the villager's good night and I saw tears in the eyes of some of my friends here, I remembered, once again, that travel ought to be, in its truest sense, a search for authenticity.

Contributing Editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen Ltd., a vacation planning firm, and has been named to Conde Nast's list of The World's Best Travel Specialists since the list began.


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