It is the final day of our stay in Italy. I am at the airport in Rome saying goodbye to our 16 couples, who were trusting enough to join us on this somewhat experimental approach to vacationing in Italy.
We had created what I call a "CLT," a contemporary lifestyle tour, that emphasized experiencing real life in Italy while doing our best to gain an understanding of what it might be like to live in the country. I would like to share some of the things we did during our 11-night stay so you have a clear picture of the way I interpret CLT versus traditional, historical, check-off-the-main-sites touring.
We avoided tourist-packed Venice, Florence and Rome. Instead, we spent nights in Bologna, Perugia, the Tuscan countryside and a world-class spa in a section of southern Tuscany that few tourists ever visit. (Look up San Casciano dei Bagni on a map for reference.) We drove Ferraris at the factory and on the roads around Maranello. Later in the tour, we drove a convoy of vintage Fiat Spider's around the undulating countryside. We stopped at a small village that housed the original Roman baths.
We learned how to make gelato at a school and then did a gelato walking tour with a well-versed Italian gelato guide. We learned that you never, ever want to eat gelato from a store that has the gelato scooped high atop its container. No serious gelato-maker would do this, as it is pure show for the tourists and is a likely source of bacterial contamination.
We visited a public high school where many of the students were studying to enter careers linked to tourism. We were face-to-face with 20 bright, extremely well-spoken teens. The students were, as Europeans, far better traveled than many of us visitors. The Q&A exchanges were fascinating, and I will always remember the student, peering in my direction, who wondered aloud, "Why do most Americans know so little, if anything, about European history?" No one had a great response.
We met the top truffle producer in Tuscany and went out on a "hunt" with his two best dogs. Afterward, we had a truffle lunch. I thought the truffle gelato was a bit much, but I purchased about $300 worth of the salsa tartufo in small jars to carry home. Fortunately, the drug-sniffing beagle at Newark Liberty gave me a pass.
The most heart-warming feature of our journey was a visit to Volpaia, a small village in the Tuscan hills where, 22 years earlier, we had met chef Carla and her mother, Gina. The village has four restaurants now and 22 residents. These ladies had conducted the most fascinating cooking courses for our groups. I didn't know if I would see Mama Gina on this return trip. She would be 86.
During one cooking lesson, years ago, she ran screaming out the back door and jumped on the back of a cart filled with grapes. She lay in the grapes gathering them up in her arms and came back to the lesson, passing them out so everyone could taste them just before the production of the village's famed Chianti classico.
Mama Gina did show up, still laughing, still full of life. Two weeks before, she had overturned her van not far from the village and had to be pulled out through the back window. They were slowed in their progress because she was laughing so hard.