When travelers talk about Tuscany their eyes often glaze over as they reminisce about its unforgettable beauty-undulating green hills covered with twisted grape vines and silvery olive trees, atmospheric hilltop towns perfect for whiling away an afternoon, medieval monasteries and hidden castles just begging to be explored, and (here their voices often drop in great reverence) the simple, seasonal, utterly sensational food coupled with world-class wines.
As much as I like to hike, I LOVE to EAT which is why Hedonistic Hiking’s unique culinary walking tour “A Tuscan Harvest: Chianti, Castles and Tuscan Cooking” had my name written all over it.
Originally, I was a little hesitant about signing up for this because:
a. My “bestie” Joan, who was joining me, considered a 3-block walk to the store a “hike”!
b. I’m a bit of a control freak that spends endless hours researching my trips, so I wasn’t sure how I’d do an organized tour with everything planned out for us.
c. Full disclosure: I don’t always play nicely with others so I wasn’t sure how I would do hanging with the same bunch for seven nights.
Fast-forward to a few weeks after my return and all I can say is that you all owe me a huge thank-you! For anyone considering a culinary hiking trip, I have saved you all that wasted time researching tour companies since I can personally vouch for Hedonistic Hiking: Food, Wine, Walking, as it really is “all that” and more! Proof of the pudding is that Joan and I were the only “newbies” in the group. The other seven repeaters that made up this fabulously fun, active and food-loving gang consisted of two well-traveled couples from Miami, and three wonderful women; a Brit, a New Zealander, and a retired (and highly decorated) Aussie policewoman who was on her 10th trip with Hedonistic Hiking!
Inside Tip: After getting her list of faves, next time I want to join them on a delicious adventure to the Italian Lakes, the Dolomites or possibly Slovenia. Or if anyone is in the nabe, they also host Australian trips.
As to my pre-trip doubts:
a. Each hike offered a slower-paced version or a more challenging route so Joan and I could each hike at our own pace.
b. After giving up the control reigns it was quite a treat for me not having to worry about making reservations, buying tickets, or mapping out routes, all in a foreign language. H.H. made it easy-peasy and stress-free, where virtually the only decision you make is:
“Would you like red or white wine with your lunch?”
Plus, when they say “Genuinely all-inclusive” they aren’t kidding. My hand never touched my wallet the whole week, except to buy some truffle oil to bring home.
After chatting up the group there was a general consensus that the main reason they kept coming back to H.H. was because of the fabulous owners, Jackie (English) and Mick Parsons (Aussie) who fell in love with each other and Italy in the 1990’s. Thankfully, they chose to share with us their three great passions in life: outstanding walking, delicious food and fine wine by creating Hedonistic Hiking in 2007. As a team (with over 35 years experience working in the travel industry) they are totally professional, exceptionally organized, extremely knowledgeable about all things Tuscan, and friends with the area’s finest foodies, winemakers and chefs, who warmly welcomed us into their homes and restaurants.
Jackie, who is fluent in four languages and is a born teacher held us spellbound as she would explain Tuscany’s confusing history, point out the most important works of art in an ancient church or museum, or read-aloud to us during lunch from a Tuscan story book. As our hiking leader, she was unfailingly patient, good-humored and encouraging.
Mick, could best be described as modern day Crocodile Dundee with the added benefit of being a professionally trained chef and wine aficionado, guided us with equal fervor through tastings of a Brunello di Montalcino or a local Chianti that costs about the same as a bottle of water. If I got tired during a morning hike, it was thoughts of one of Mick’s superb, gourmet picnics, featuring farm- fresh veggies, cheese, meats, homemade soup, healthy salads and local wine, would give me a second wind.
For one week I happily hiked over cypress-lined hill & green dale, leisurely taking in the sights, sounds and flavors, delighting in the knowledge that I was also working off all the scrumptious food and wine I eagerly consumed.
A sampling of some special treats included: a private tour of a surprisingly note-worthy museum at the charming, artist town of Casole d’Elsa, a free day to explore Siena, where we sipped our morning cappuccino at the Piazza del Campo-the site of the legendary Palio horse-race, and interacting with a plethora of fabulous local chefs and world-famous winemakers.
One fun-filled evening we learned the time-honored techniques for rolling out fresh ravioli and gnocchi under the tutelage of the Chef Nicola, who taught us our new-found skills in a sixteenth century kitchen, a private tour and tasting at the Renzo Marinai organic winery, where one of the secrets to producing such exquisite wines is that they play classical music while the wines are in barrel believing that the sound waves make for happier wines!
Nothing could top Mick’s marvelous al fresco lunches, but other standout culinary moments included dinner at a traditional trattoria where we supped on an intensely flavored ribolita (a poor man’s soup made by re-boiling veggie scraps) or the earthy wild boar pappardelle enjoyed at Trattoria La Torre which is one of Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, favorite spots. My own personal faves were a tie between an unforgettable 3-hour lunch seated on the outdoor terrace of Ristoro di Lamole, in Greve, where the hits, such as their homemade burrata over grilled pumpkin, Tuscan ham and artichokes, and an ethereal red onion flan generously oiled with shaved truffles, never stopped coming.
Equally memorable was our final (sob) dinner at the best restaurant in Radda in Chianti, La Botte di Bacco, where the chef/owner told us that his cooking conveys his joy of life, which was reflected in the artistically presented duck carpaccio, black truffled tagliatelle, and tender steak Florentina paired with giant glasses of quality wines.
We stayed at two unique boutique properties, which worked out well logistically since we only had to repack once. Our first “home” was at the secluded luxury villa, Relais La Suvera, perched above the sleepy hamlet of Piesvescola.
This medieval fortress, which served as the sumptuous residence of Pope Julius II in 1508, is now an atmospheric 5-star luxury hotel surrounded by gorgeous gardens, an outdoor pool, stables and farmhouse. It was a complete hoot, staying in this museum-quality stately home, where the restaurant is in the old mill complete with olive press; the spa with hydro-massage bath is made from a medieval cistern; and the beautifully appointed rooms are adorned with antique four-poster beds, sumptuous fabrics and artwork from the owner’s private collection.
Our next move was to Palazzo Leopoldo, formerly a patrician villa dating back to 1310, located in the center of the medieval center of Radda-in-Chianti. This bustling town is perfect for stocking up on the local Chiantis and olive oil to bring home. The hotel also offers a wellness and fitness area where you can enjoy massages, sauna, Turkish bath, and indoor swimming pool with hydromassage area.
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