Features

/Features

August 2018

Group Travel

By |2018-09-24T20:52:18+00:00August 22nd, 2018|Benefits, Features, General, Travel Tips, Tuscany|

Group Travel

Private, hosted group travel has its perks!  What you should look for.

It’s a common dilemma; you have a group of friends, family or couples who want to travel together.  Group travel may even be a group from your social club, your country club or a business organization where you work.  It could also be a group of bachelorettes or a sorority.  Everyone is excited and ready to sign up but there’s one problem.  One person is in charge of organizing the entire experience, collecting payment and spending hours and hours researching a place that maybe she has never been.  Ultimately, after hours and hours of research, the person can only hope she’s put together an authentic experience for the group and ends up so exhausted, she doesn’t even get to relax and enjoy the trip.

There’s no doubt that the benefits of group travel are clear.  You have time to spend with those you love and may not be able to see very often.  You can explore a new culture or a favorite city together.  It’s a family reunion of sorts where everyone is sharing in the same experiences and creating lifelong memories.  Sharing perspectives throughout the journey is one of group travel’s major benefits.  When you have a variety of personalities and senses of humor contributing to the dinner conversation (or cooking class), it’s a lot more fun!

Experiencing other cultures and other people together is exciting.  You bring those new experiences and perspectives back with you and you’ll be able to reminisce for years.  Group travel doesn’t have to be so stressful and exhausting.  You can hire boutique companies that offer fully hosted, vetted and curated experiences so everyone can enjoy their trip.

What should you look for when your group is ready to travel?  Here are some tips you may want to consider:

First, if you don’t want one person to be saddled with being the group leader and missing out on the experience due to all the planning and executing, look for a company that hosts the entire experience.  A hosted experience is different from an escorted experience.  When you’re escorted, you only see your escort for the excursions you paid for—a few hours a day.

Second, you should make sure that the company you hire is expert in the area you are seeking to travel to.  Guesswork or simple online reviews won’t do.  It’s about living like a local so firsthand knowledge is critical.  The experience should be curated, vetted and executed by those in the know.

Third, if you don’t want to travel like a tourist, avoid companies that utilize the services of large major tour buses.  Nothing feels more like a tourist experience than boarding an enormous tour bus to visit a site.  Choose small group methods of travel so you can live like a local.

Lastly, choose a company that will work with you to customize the experience for your private group. Flexibility is key.  For example, if you want your morning off or a little more time to appreciate a site, you shouldn’t be forced to board the tour bus and miss out!

Keep in mind that group travel is a lot of fun.  The factors to consider when hiring a company for your group trip should help you make an informed decision.  Outsourcing the experience to experts who not only vet, curate and plan the entire experience but also fully host it will allow everyone in the group to relax and enjoy la dolce vita.

Please contact A Toast to Travel for any of your group travel needs and ideas.  In the meantime, safe travels and live well!

June 2018

What are the best wines in Tuscany?

By |2018-06-12T05:45:34+00:00June 12th, 2018|Brunello di Montalcino, Feature, Features, Tuscany, Wine|

What are the best wines in Tuscany?

Italy is known for producing a number of quality wines, and this is especially true of Tuscany. Sangiovese grapes, with their fruity and aromatic aura, are the foundation of Tuscan winemaking. Tuscany’s hilly terrain and warm Mediterranean climate prove beneficial for the growth of these grapes, meaning that Tuscany has no shortage of delicious wine. Whether you desire a journey to experience Tuscany’s best wines or you are simply curious as to what they consist of, here’s a rundown of the best that Tuscany has to offer!

Without a doubt, Chianti is one of the best known and loved wines to come out of Tuscany. Chianti wines are made within the Chianti region of Tuscany, and while they vary in composition, some common traits that are generally shared among them include a dry character, a bright, cherry-like aroma and flavor, and a satisfying level of acidity. Like many Italian wines, Chianti tastes excellent with food. More specifically, it pairs well with many meat dishes (an example being the legendary Bistecca alla Fiorentina, or T-bone steak) and dishes containing red sauce. Chiantis, like many Tuscan wines, are primarily made from the Sangiovese grape.

Another delicious wine originating in Tuscany is Brunello di Montalcino. Known as one of the most rare and expensive wines to come out of Italy, Brunello di Montalcino is grown in vineyards surrounding the town of Montalcino, about 50 miles south of Florence. As per governmental regulations, Brunello di Montalcino must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes. What separates this wine from others made of Sangiovese grapes, however, is the conditions in which the grapes are grown. Montalcino’s climate and altitude are such that the grapes ripen more fully than anywhere else in Tuscany, giving the wine a distinctly unique profile. Brunello di Montalcino retains a fruity character but has darker traits than Chianti, with notes of blackberry, chocolate, and leather, among other things. Like Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino has a high level of acidity, which makes it a terrific wine to pair with food (especially grilled meats).

So while Montalcino and Chianti hold the distinction of being Tuscany’s two main Sangiovese variants, Tuscany is also home to the “Super Tuscans.”  What, exactly, have the super Tuscans done to earn the title of “Super?” While nobody knows for sure where the name originated, Super Tuscans are unique from other Tuscan wine in that they don’t adhere to the strict regulations of the Italian government’s classification system. This allows winemakers to create red blends with non-indigenous grapes, resulting in more inventive, creative and delicious wines. Some super Tuscans retain the use of Sangiovese grapes, whereas others may be made solely from Merlot or a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah; no matter what, though, Super Tuscans all share the tendency to have big, bold flavors and a high level of desirability.

The scope of winemaking in Tuscany is quite vast—some other varieties of Tuscan wine include Bolgheri, Rosso di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano all of which have the Italian government’s seal of approval. If there’s one thing we can be certain of, there’s a Tuscan wine out there to suit any personal taste. On our Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience, good food and good wine abound, so why not take the opportunity to sample the best wines in Tuscany with us at A Toast to Travel?

May 2018

What is an Italian Piazza?

By |2018-06-01T17:17:06+00:00May 31st, 2018|Feature, Features, General, Informational, Travel Tips, Tuscany|

Piazza in Roma
Typical Piazza

What is an Italian Piazza?

A Central Aspect of Italian Life

If you were to embark on a tour of Italy, one of the first things you’d probably be struck by is the ubiquity of the Town Square, or “piazza” as they’re referred to in Italy. Italian piazzas are very open and welcoming spaces, surrounded by beautiful buildings. They are the hearts and life centers and of Italian towns and cities, swarming with residents going about their daily business or simply taking time to reflect, gather, and enjoy life. What is it about these piazzas, though, that makes them so special and alluring? Maybe it’s the idea of a central gathering space in which the citizens of a town can gather, or perhaps it’s the charm that they add to any city. They are a blend of history, architecture and life, all of which blend together seamlessly to create an important cultural phenomenon unlike any other.

Piazzas date back to the Ancient Romans, whose towns typically consisted of a grid pattern built around two main roads. The space where these roads intersected was considered sacred, so large, open spaces flanked by markets, civic buildings, and other various shops were constructed in these areas. This was the template for the piazzas to follow, and in fact, some of these original Roman piazzas are still in existence today! By the time of the Renaissance period, Italian piazzas had fully evolved. An example of this is Piazza Pio II, widely regarded as one of the finest iterations of the Renaissance urban ideal. Located in the Tuscan town of Pienza and built in the 15th century, Piazza Pio II is notable for its trapezoidal shape—a new idea at the time.

Despite the piazza’s distant origins, they remain an important part of Italian culture and identity. Their usefulness and efficiency cannot be ignored, and they manage to provide this while evoking a sense of community rooted in history. Unlike a fine painting or architecturally brilliant church, the piazza’s value doesn’t lie solely in its physical traits. Rather, the human activity within a piazza is an integral feature of the piazza itself. People are the finishing touch that ties every element of the piazza together, like cars on a roadway or candles on a birthday cake. Simply put, the piazza becomes whole when its form is fully utilized. Italians will enjoy their leisure time in the piazza while sitting at a cafe, browsing the markets that can be found within, and simply going about their lives while surrounded by the rich history of their people. It is truly a testament to the architects of these piazzas that they continue to be used as they were originally intended to this day, and this also speaks to the great pride Italians have in their history and heritage.

Part of living like a local in Italy means enjoying a town square, and on our Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience, you’ll have the opportunity to do just that—while being guided by locals—in Florence, as well as the beautiful Tuscan towns of Pisa, Lucca, Siena, and several others. In order to get the most out of an Italian vacation, one must delve into the cultural pillars of the country, and piazzas are an excellent starting point!

April 2018

A Tour of Pisa – More Than Just a Leaning Tower

By |2018-04-28T12:35:37+00:00April 28th, 2018|Events, Feature, Features, General, hidden gems|

A Tour of Pisa – More Than Just a Leaning Tower

Pisa is yet another beautiful city located within central Italy’s Tuscany region, and no tour of Italy would be complete without a visit there. Situated on the river Arno just before it enters the Ligurian Sea, Pisa is perhaps best known for the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of the most recognizable landmarks throughout the world. Built over the course of 200 years through the 12th to 14th centuries and standing tall at 183 feet from top to bottom, the tower is a wonderful attraction. Be ready to climb up a 300 step spiraling staircase in order to take in spectacular views at the top; if you’d prefer to admire the tower from the ground, though, there’s endless opportunities to take photos giving the illusion that you’re holding the tower up with one hand, which is almost a requirement for an Italian vacation. But beyond having a bit of silly fun, there’s much more that cements Pisa as a must-see Italian holiday destination.

Pisa is home to countless churches, many of which date from the Renaissance Period or earlier. Some of them include Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri, which houses a bust made by Donatello; San Fredriano, which was built in 1061 and features a basilica interior along with a crucifix dating from the 12th century, among other things; and St. Sixtus, which was built in 1133 and is regarded as one of the most well-preserved Romanesque structures in town. If you harbor a deep appreciation of architecture and history, Pisa surely will not disappoint. And even if your interests generally track elsewhere, it’s difficult to not be blown away by the living history of the place.

Pisa’s rich collection of historic buildings and artifacts extends to its museums as well. For instance, there’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where you’ll find original sculptures crafted by the influential sculptors Nicola Pisano and Giovanni Pisano. Another terrific museum to visit is Museo Nazionale degli Strumenti per il Calcolo, which exhibits numerous historical pieces of science equipment, including a compass that likely belonged to Galileo Galilei.

Once you’ve taken in the rich history of Pisa and the plethora of incredible historical artifacts you’ll find there, you may take advantage of Pisa’s food and shopping offerings. Dwell among the locals and take a stroll through Piazza delle Vettovaglie, a 16th century town square where you’ll find numerous cafes, butchers, wine shops, and bakeries.  When the hunger you’ll inevitably develop from all your walking and sightseeing becomes your number one priority, stop by Il Crudo Panineria for a delicious panini, then finish it off with a cup of gelato at La Botegga del Gelato, located right in the center of the city. Or, if a slightly more upscale meal is in order, stop by Da Bruno for traditional Pisan cuisine in a trattoria setting.

Not to be overlooked and worth every moment spent there, Pisa is a fantastic conglomeration of Italian culture, heritage, and history. Come for the allure of its most famous landmarks, but stay for the wonderful treasures you’ll discover within its borders. With A Toast to Travel’s Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience, a visit to Pisa is included for all the aforementioned reasons. You’ll be taken on a guided tour with  the locals, so no must-see attractions will be overlooked. Join us for a visit to Pisa, one of the many stops on our unforgettable, all-inclusive Italian vacation package!

February 2018

A Toast to Travel Recommendations: Where to Eat in Florence, Italy

By |2018-02-19T19:39:01+00:00February 19th, 2018|Feature, Features, General, Wine, wine festival|

 A Toast to Travel Recommendations:

Where to Eat in Florence, Italy

Many different reviews of so many different restaurants have been written about one of the best cities in the world—Florence!  With so much to see in and do in this beautiful city during your Italy tours, it’s amazing one finds time to eat but eventually, we all do.  Travelling to and living in Florence for many years, we’ve seen restaurants come and go but there are some that we will never forget.  We always recommend living like a local and eating where the locals eat.  Unfortunately, Florence has many tourist traps where the food is subpar and the prices are high.  Here are a few of our restaurant recommendations where you can eat like a local and enjoy la dolce vita!

1.     Trattoria Parione

Centrally located but on a side, quiet street, here you’ll find great food and great service.  The restaurant is divided into two different rooms with the open kitchen in the middle.  As a matter of fact, when you walk in, you can greet the cooks!  The pasta is wonderfully fresh and the bistecca alla Fiorentina one of the best.  The wine selection is really good too—try a Brunello di Montalcino with your steak.

2.     Le Fonticine

Near the central market, this is by far one of my favorite restaurants in Florence.  You’re greeted by one of the great staff (many of whom have worked there for a very long time) as family.  Most of the time, you’re also greeted with a complimentary glass of Prosecco to begin your experience.   The pasta selection is all fresh and delicious—try the pasta with the wild boar sauce.  As for your entrée, Le Fonticine is one of the few remaining restaurants in Florence with the wood burning oven as it was grandfathered in when the law changed.  This oven further perfects the taste and texture of the bistecca alla Fiorentina.  When dining at Le Fonticine, you must order the bistecca or share with others you are dining with.  There are many fresh desserts to choose from or try some grappa.

3.     Enoteca Alessi

Near the center, Alessi is a hidden gem.  Although Alessi is a wine bar and retail shop, the food is so good and fresh that it definitely is on our list.  You can order a variety of fresh cold cuts, meats, and cheeses to go with your chosen wine or wine flight.  You can also order off menu.  I usually order a delicious fresh made salad with tuna, olives, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and more.  Equally delicious is the freshly made varieties of bruschetta to get you started.  All fresh and fantastic!

4.     4 Leoni

In old Florence on the other side of the river, 4 Leoni is very well known and I highly recommend reservations.  The ambiance is warm and the service is good.  The restaurant can become quite loud during peak times but all is worth it once you try the food!  They have an array of delicious pastas and starters (try the Bresaola or Artichokes), mains and desserts.  Desserts are a must here including chocolate, pear and apple desserts.  Or simply enjoy cantuccini di Prato to dip into your vin santo.

5.     Cipolla Rossa

In the historic center not far from the San Lorenzo market, you’ll find Cipolla Rossa.  The pasta is very good, fresh and made in house.  I highly recommend the gnocchi.  There’s plenty of space in the restaurant if you need it for your group.   I find the staff friendly and the house Chianti delicious. Buon Appetito!

October 2017

Truffles, Truffles and more Truffles—Let’s Hunt!

By |2017-10-04T10:20:40+00:00October 3rd, 2017|Feature, Features, food, General, hidden gems, Wine|

Truffle hunting in Tuscany
tagliatelle with truffle sauce
Toasting travel with Italian red wine

Truffles, Truffles and more Truffles—Let’s Hunt!

So, what are Truffles?  They are rare, edible mushrooms with an intense aroma and flavor.  They grow underground and can be difficult to find.  They only grow in certain parts of the world.  Certain experts in the past (and some still do) used pigs and hogs to find them—today, in Italy, dogs are used as they  don’t eat them as soon as they find them!  That was a big problem–the hogs would eat the truffles as soon as they found them before they could be stopped.  The dogs, on the other hand, can be trained not to eat them so they end up being a much better choice for the hunt.

October and November in Italy are great times to hunt and eat truffles.  There’s also the Fiera del Tartufo or truffle market which takes places during this time.  Prices vary per pound each year.  The rarest truffles are the most expensive food in the world.  Did you know that the record price paid for a single white truffle was $330,000.  It was unearthed near Pisa, Italy and weighed 3.3 pounds!

Imagine learning to make hand-made pasta only to drizzle your own creation with a special sauce created by you from the truffles you hunted in the morning!  During our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience, we hunt truffle with truffle hunting experts and their dog.  We walk the hills and with the help of the dogs, seek and find the most delectable truffles we can to use later in the kitchen during our hands-on cooking class.  Heading over to the kitchen, we learn to make Tagliatelle con Tartufo or Tagliatelle with Truffle sauce.  It’s only the start of the week with many authentic recipes to come so pace yourself, pack yourself!

Of course with any Tagliatelle con Tartufo wine is a good complement.  We usually enjoy a Chianti Riserva with this dish as it brings out the best of each.  In Tuscany, there’s always enough Chianti to go around and you certainly can spend your time focusing on wine tasting during The Ultimate Tuscan Wine Experience where we indulge in stunning wineries in Tuscany during tours, wine tastings and exclusive tasting and dinner menus.  It’s all part of living like a local with A Toast to Travel.

If you’ve always wanted to visit Italy or if you’ve already been and have always wanted to go back, now’s the time to pack your bags.  All you need to do is get there and we’ll handle the rest!

April 2017

March 2017

November 2016