You'll soon find yourself with some new friends when you explore Italy in a small group, writes Chanel Parratt.
"I HATE tourists," says Luis, my Back-Roads tour guide. For a moment I'm left scratching my head. "We are not tourists, we are travel companions, he says.
There are six Australians, five Canadians, two Kiwis and one American on my Back-Roads Tuscan Treats tour. A great mix of people. And travel companions is a fairly accurate way to describe how a tour with Back-Roads works.
I had 13 companions on my journey through the Italian region of Tuscany; the most the company takes is 16. Starting in Florence at De Rose Palace Hotel, we met in the lobby for introductions and dinner at a nearby restaurant the first of four included in the nine-day tour. The small talk got covered quickly. Names were remembered and we knew a little about each other by the end of the first night.
Chris and Jill from Adelaide were cementing an already longstanding friendship, Murray and Sue from New Zealand had been saving for some time this was a bucket-list experience for them. Kevin and Carolyn from Brisbane have been on tours before and wanted one with greater flexibility, no rigid 6am wake-ups or six-hour bus trips, and Andre from Montreal chose Back-Roads for the size of the group and the places we were staying.
The next morning we met Alessandra for a guided tour through his home city of Florence. It's more outdoor museum than city and she waxed enthusiastic about the Uffizi art gallery and its impressive collection of Botticelli, da Vinci and Michelangelo. We saw Florence's oldest basilica, Santa Maria Novella, spent time at the Piazza del Duomo and walked along the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. By the end of the first morning, that sense of being travel companions was already coming through. Unlike other groups we passed, we didn't wear name tags, weren't led by clipboards or mascots on sticks and weren't subject to megaphones or PA systems. The following 24 hours were ours to enjoy on our own explore Florence by whim or tick off must-sees such as the Statue of David or the San Lorenzo leather market.
On day three we met our driver, Fabio. Our luxury coach had room for 20 so we could spread out and, where necessary, accommodate any "extra luggage- we picked up along the way. As the name suggests, Back-Roads likes to take the back roads. We traded highways for hills as Fabio (never in a rush, never without a smile) expertly drove the winding roads. With the intensity of the city behind us, we arrived in Lucca.
With its heart encased by a well preserved, 17th-century wall, Lucca felt small, memorable and medieval. Narrow lanes, antique shops, galleries and tucked-away restaurants created the first and quite possibly only complaint of the trip two nights just wasn't enough. Dinner was noisy, our table a hive of conversation as we worked our way through four delicious courses and plenty of the local Monte Carlo red. A woman at a nearby table asked if we were all friends, surprised to find we were part of a tour.
The following morning, we set off on a day trip to the coastal Cinque Terre area of the neighbouring Liguria region. The path between its five villages was closed for maintenance but Luis easily changed our plans and we caught the boat instead. Hopping between the villages of Riomaggiore and Vernazza, we settled at the village of Monterosso al Mare for lunch and had gelato by the water.
Back in Tuscany the following morning, we set off to Volterra, stopping at Pisa along the way. Our small group arrived long before the crowds and we were able to split up and explore the buildings that interested us most. We stopped at La Sterza, the home town of famed tenor Andrea Bocelli, for a typical Italian lunch at Ristorante da Pasquino, before making our way to Volterra and our 14th-century accommodation, Hotel San Lino. Luis took the group for a guided tour through the hilltop town, where views of the 16th-century Medici fortress were framed by the green and gold of Archaeological Park.
An impressive collection of Etruscan artefacts and 3000 years of history on display in the Museo Guarnacci and the Museo della Tortura served as a timely reminder of what life for the less fortunate was like during medieval times. Left to our own devices, dinner was an impromptu group picnic in the hotel courtyard; cured meats, cheese, bread, sweet clementines, biscotti and wine shared among friends another reflection of the travel companion concept.
The next day we saw Siena, home of the famous Il Patio bareback horse race that carries more weight with impassioned locals than the soccer World Cup. The afternoon was spent at Dievole winery, where we learnt (and tasted) what makes a real chianti classico. We left Volterra and spent the morning in San Gimignano. I'd caught glimpses of the city's famous towers on previous days but nothing could prepare me for the city itself: the 900-year-old well in the town's historical centre, the woman roasting chestnuts outside its medieval walls, and the old men sitting by the church drinking espresso.
For lunch, we stopped at the even smaller Certaldo the home town of Italian poet Giovanni Boccoccio and our not-so-famous driver Luis. The Ristorante A Casa Tua delivered my favourite meal of the trip.
Just when I thought the Tuscan Treats tour couldn't get any better, we arrived at 16th-century Villa la Palagina for our final two nights. I was already struggling with the concept that I had to return home and this villa did not help. With its panoramic views, elegant interiors and swimming pools, it's better than you can imagine. Sting owns the villa next door. A cooking class with chef Stefano in the rustic cellar was a fun way to pass some time. Badly cut pasta and focaccia were on the menu for lunch that day. Dinner was bittersweet. Generous amounts of food and wine came through the swinging kitchen doors but it also represented the end of a fantastic tour.
Luis was right, of course. By the end of the trip we were all, at the very least, travel companions.
Written by Chanel Parratt - The writer was a guest of Back-Roads Touring Co.