Every so often an envelope arrives in the post that stops me in my tracks. It might be an unexpected wedding invitation, a cute note from my daughter or even a parking fine. About a month or so ago I received a very smart, crisp white envelope from Belmond Hotels, inside was an invitation to join them on a driving trip from Florence to Portofino. The chance to drive classic cars and super cars on the roads and hills of Tuscany and the opportunity to visit the marble quarries at Carrara – what a wonderful invitation. I’d also get to experience the luxury Belmond hotels of Villa San Michele at Fiesole, just outside Florence and the fabulous Hotel Splendido at Portofino. I read and re-read the invitation and quickly wrote an acceptance e-mail. What a great way to start my day!
Now a month or so later I’m being driven in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes from Portofino to Florence to start my adventure. How exciting. I can’t wait. My own Mini Cooper Convertible has been carefully parked at the hotel in Portofino and I’m on my way.
First stop is the Villa San Michele, a fabulous country house in the hills just outside Florence. As soon as I arrive I’m welcomed like a long lost friend and shown to a magnificent junior suite with a private terrace, an enormous double bed and a fabulous marble bathroom. Total luxury!
Next it’s pre-dinner drinks in the garden with our Belmond Hosts. I’m part of a small group of travel and event organisers from all over Europe. Languages being spoken are German, French, English and Italian. It’s great to have the chance to chat in French with a colleague from Versailles and to practise my Italian with the hotel staff. I feel as if I am part of an international team.
After a peaceful night’s sleep in Egyptian cotton sheets it’s time to get ready and enjoy the roads of Tuscany in a fleet of bright red shiny Alfa Romeo convertible cars. We team up into pairs and we’re off through the Italian traffic across the city of Florence to Piazzale Michelangelo for a stunning view of the city. Our tour has been put together very carefully and every detail has been considered.
The Alfa Romeo cars are fun to drive. They are quite simple with manual gears. Great to drive – very engaging. We speed into the Tuscan countryside for a day in the hills of ‘Chiantigiana’. This is heaven on Earth! Rolling hills, magical landscapes and even an olive oil tasting! Bliss!
We stop for a little pre-lunch at Greve in Chianti where a traditional butcher sells cold cuts of every description to a large and eager audience. Beef, pork, lamb, wild boar its all here for us to enjoy. A few little nibbles on a table over-looking the square. This is Italy! There’s even a selection of classic cars for us to enjoy and they’re not ours – even better. New and different!
Next it’s on to Volpaia – a fabulous hilltop medieval town in the heart of Chianti. They make good, big red Chianti wines here – in fact they’ve got a wine tunnel running beneath the ground linking the production from one building to the next. Here at Castello di Volpaia we ate an excellent lunch. Charming waiters explained dishes and wines to us as if their lives depended on it. We were enthralled – we paid attention.
After lunch and a tour of the Volpaia wine making facilities – we were particularly mesmerised by a room filled with chains. Not a former residence of the Marquis de Sade but instead a large room designed specifically for hanging single bunches of grapes to make the prized ‘vin santo’. A strong sweet wine that is made from the juices of dried and aged grapes. Hand picked and carefully selected bunches are hung from individual hooks for several moths during the winter. At its peak the room is filled with hundreds of ‘grappole’ drying gently in the cool air. This process can take several months. That’s fine though – the Italians are patient!
I was very sorry to say goodbye to my Alfa Romeo when we arrived in Volpaia. I think I might have to acquire one of those. After our lunch and tour we were transported in Mercedes minivans back to the hills of Fiesole, just outside Florence. This brings me back to Boccaccio and his tales of beautiful young things escaping the plague in Florence back in the 14th century. Although it would be unprofessional of me not to say thank you to Andrew Carter – he spotted me asleep in the back of the van – when we got back to Villa San Michele and kindly assisted me out of the vehicle.
Amazing, amazing day – thank you so much to all!
I am actually struggling to put into words the quality of the experience that I and my fellow participants experienced. In Italian I have to say ‘Devo dire sinceremente ‘complimenti’ ‘veramente incredibile’….grazie mille….