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March 2018

Lucca – The Famed Walled City

By | 2018-03-07T22:40:46+00:00 March 7th, 2018|Feature, General, hidden gems|

Lucca

The Famed Walled City

Lucca is one of the most beautiful cities in Tuscany and is famous for many things including the retention of its Renaissance era walls.  The walls around the old city were kept intact even as the city became modern and expanded.  The walls are historic as they served to preserve and protect the city and its inhabitants.  Even though the walls have lost their strategic military importance, today they serve as a beautiful promenade–it’s a beautiful walk or bike ride for you to enjoy with all the greenery and trees.

Lucca has delicious foods and many unique artisan shops.  For food, you can enjoy a delicious meal in Lucca and some of the must try foods include:  Farro Soup, made with borlotti beans and seasonal vegetables, Tordelli Lucchese which is pasta stuffed with beef, or Necci, a delicious crepe stuffed with ricotta.  All are typical Lucchese dishes for you to enjoy.  For dessert, try the Buccellato, a ring shaped cake stuffed with raisins and aniseed which is traditionally eaten on Sundays.  It’s delicious with your morning coffee or a glass of red wine.  Remember, you’re still in Tuscany and Tuscany is famous for its red wines.

Lucca also has many artisan shops.  Purchases of interest can include jewelry, art and ceramics.  For fashion, head to via Fillungo, which is the main shopping street in Lucca and enjoy window shopping.

In addition to the delicious food, artisan shops and beautiful, famed walls, there are many other must see sights in Lucca.  Lucca’s San Martino Cathedral is surrounded by medieval buildings in the Piazza San Martino.  With an intricately decorated marble façade, its style is more Roman on the exterior and Gothic on the interior.  There’s also the San Michele church in the large square.  The square is a great place to sit and enjoy an afternoon.  There are many cafes to choose from.  If sitting is not how you want to pass the afternoon, you can climb to the top of the Guinigi Tower, a 14th century tower with spectacular views of Lucca.  There are 130 steps to climb and you will be greatly rewarded with the spectacular views!

Lucca is not only famous for its walls.  It was also the birthplace of the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini.  His home is now a museum filled with memorabilia, including his piano and musical scores.

These are just a few reasons A Toast to Travel’s Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience includes a visit to Lucca–one of the most beautiful and unique cities in Tuscany!  Join us for an unforgettable experience where you will live like a local.

February 2018

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

By | 2018-02-19T19:39:01+00:00 February 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!

January 2018

10 Must See Sights in Florence

By | 2018-01-31T19:12:10+00:00 January 14th, 2018|Feature, food, General, hidden gems, Wine|

Ponte Vecchio
Uffizi Gallery
Florence Duomo
Boboli Gardens

10 Must See Sights in Florence

1- The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

This massive Gothic cathedral simply known as the Duomo, serves the role of not only being Florence’s religious center but is also one of the most recognizable entities in the city. If the viewer is not already enticed from a far by the building’s stunning architecture, once inside the guest will be drawn into a narrative packed with history and culture.

2-Uffizi Gallery

Located along the banks of the Arno River in the Historic Centre of Florence lies Europe’s first modern museum. This is one of Florence’s most popular attractions so a long wait can be expected, but if you have the time endure the wait you would be rewarded with the best collection of Italian paintings in the world. When you join A Toast to Travel’s Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience, we work with locals who help minimize our wait with advance reservations.  Whether you are observing the work of Giorgio Vasari or admiring the life-sized paintings of Botticelli, the Uffizi Gallery is sure to possess a masterpiece that catches your eye.

3- Galleria dell’Accademia

While this museum holds many works of art that deserve your undivided attention such as St. Matthew or Cassone Adimari, the main reason why this location is one of the most desirable areas to visit by guests can be summed up with one word: David. Michelangelo’s most famous work is housed here in the Galleria and will continue to attract visitors from all over the world for years to come.

4- Ponte Vecchio

Once a location run by butchers and bakers, a flood washed away the old bridge and, in its place, rose the Ponte Vecchio, one of the oldest bridges in all of Italy. If you are looking for a historically significant area, look no further than the bridge that has survived it all from natural disasters to attacks during World War II. The bridge is known to be the heart of the city’s gold and jewel trade, so expect to find some fancy trinkets as you venture through the markets.  During the city walk on the Highlights of Florence and Tuscany Experience, you’ll have a chance to personally experience all the energy of the Ponte Vecchio.

5- Boboli Gardens (Giardino di Boboli)

If you are looking for a change of pace from the up-beat tempo of Florence’s city center, try taking a casual stroll through the Boboli Gardens. This beautifully landscaped area provides a quiet setting where you can take in all of what Florence has to offer without being bothered by all the noise and commotion of city activities. While perusing through the garden try finding some of the statues that have been strategically placed on the path and take advantage of the picturesque views provided by the Boboli family’s garden.

6- Piazzale Michelangelo

Perched high above the city in the Oltrano district lies the Piazzale Michelangelo, arguably the best viewpoint in all of the city. This view comes with a cost, as many of its visitors recall the towering staircase that needs to be climbed in order to reach the square, however, if you are into panoramic views that are sure to garner tons of likes on your Instagram, then it is well worth the workout.   During A Toast to Travel’s Highlights of Florence and Tuscany, the brave can join us on the adventure to Piazzale Michelangelo!

7 – Baptistry (Battistero)

Most known for its massive doors whose work was once praised by the great Michelangelo, Baptistry also has the distinction of being the oldest building in all of Florence, dating back to the 5th century. Interesting enough, this octagonal masterpiece was thought to be a temple dedicated to the Roman God of war, Mars, but it is yet to be proven.

8- Campanile di Giotto

Known also as Giotto’s Bell Tower, the 277-foot tower serves as another vista to capture those scenic views of the city you have been yearning for. The tower actually had three architects influence its construction, so it is very intriguing to see how those powerful minds clashed to create this visual work of art.

9- Palazzo Pitti

What were once residential homes for citizens during the Renaissance, is now the location of some of Florence’s most intricate museums after the area was bought by the Medici family in 1549. The Palazzo Pitti is the largest museum complex in Florence, spanning about 32,000 square meters and previous guests suggest blocking out several hours of your day so that you may see all of what it has to offer.

10- Piazza della Signoria

This free, outdoor museum area is regarded as the perfect place for the weary traveler to rest as well as viewing some marvelous sculptures, such as the gigantic statue of David replica. This area is great to catch your breath while also not feeling as though you are wasting precious exploration time while you complete your experience in Italy!

October 2017

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

By | 2017-10-04T10:20:40+00:00 October 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!

July 2017

The Italian Lifestyle—what makes it so special?

By | 2017-07-19T22:02:35+00:00 July 20th, 2017|Feature, General|

Duomo Firenze- A Toast to Travel.

Many of us have had the fortune of travelling and even living in various parts of the world and yet, for those of us who have visited or lived in Italy, it will always hold a special place in our hearts.  What is it about Italy that has us obsessing over living like a local?

I lived in Italy for many years as a student, intern, professional and an adventurer.  Most weekends, I would travel to various cities and get to know the locals.  I travelled all over Italy while living there and one important lesson stood out:  Italians really know how to live.

It’s not just that the pace can be more relaxing or that you are surrounded by some of the most beautiful architecture in the world (although that really helps), it’s that Italians really enjoy every moment that many of us take for granted.  Take a simple cup coffee—there are so many ways to enjoy it.  Sit outside at a street café, enjoy it at the bar, catch up with friends or even your local barista—any way you drink it, it’s social time for you to enjoy not only your coffee but also your friends, the weather,  a moment to relax and people watch.  The same is true for a glass of wine or prosecco during an aperitivo.  It’s not just about the delicious wine or prosecco.  The aperitivo is time for socializing and catching up with friends; it’s about taking a moment and creating a transition between the work day and your dinner and evening.  It’s much more than just a drink—it’s a ritual.

Furthermore, Italy is all about quality not quantity.  If you people watch (and who doesn’t in Italy!), you will see everyone dressed nicely or at least trying to.  One of the things you will notice is the quality of everyone’s clothing and shoes.  Even if finances don’t permit two closets full of clothes, the Italian will always prefer quality or quantity.  Beautifully tailored jackets, a silk scarf, a nicely tailor skirt or pair of pants are essentials.  Also notice the leather goods—from the shoes to the belts, leather in Italy is beautiful!  Mostly, Italians will always have a nice pair of shoes, belt, watch or a purse.  Italians take pride in their look—not too overdone but definitely full of good taste.

In Italy, it’s the intangibles that really matter.  A strong cup of coffee spent catching up with friends, people watching, feeling good about yourself, feeling connected to others, spending time outdoors, enjoying a delicious aperitivo to transition from day to evening, ending your evening with dinner and wine with a group of friends or family, all are part of the Italian way of life and each, make us so obsessed with living like a local and La Dolce Vita!

June 2017

Visiting an Italian Food Market

By | 2017-06-22T12:01:47+00:00 June 21st, 2017|Feature, food, General, hidden gems, Italy Shopping|

Italian Market
Italian food market

Visiting an Italian Food Market

To really live like a local, you need to shop like a local.  Generally, Italians do not stockpile.  They are generally not visiting a Costco and buying large quantities of food in bulk to store for lengthy periods of time.  Fresh is the name of the game and there’s no better place to find fresh food than at a local Italian food market or “mercato.”

The markets are full of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, nuts, cheeses, salumi, bread and more!  It’s an embarrassment of riches and a way of life at the same time.  The prices are reasonable, goods are seasonal and it’s the perfect time and place to sample the local cuisine.  As you walk through the beautiful market and take in all the scents, sights and people, notice how relaxing the experience can be.  It’s what living like a local is all about.  For an authentic Tuscan experience, visiting a local market is essential.  You can soak up the culture and rub shoulders with the locals.  Watch the many different colorful personalities selling their goods—the local farmers, cheese-makers and artisans come to sell their goods every day.  While at the local market, you usually can enjoy other culinary delights like fresh pasta, desserts and even, sample some wine .

I personally use the farmers market not only to buy fresh produce and cheeses but also to socialize with friends and acquaintances.  It can be an adventure, a time for socializing and practicing or keeping up your Italian language skills.  You can also get the latest on all your questions from the locals—ranging from recipes and the best produce to buy right now to politics and elections around Italy and more. Everyone has an opinion!  Italian food markets are weekly, bi-weekly or even daily.  It depends on where you are located.  Most Italians frequent the food markets regularly as a means of buying their fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses, breads and even desserts.  Much of the shopping is done before lunch so that the food purchased at the market can be incorporated into the lunch menu and is supremely fresh.

For me, visiting a local Italian food market is much more than just buying fresh tomatoes, burrata and basil even though I usually make a caprese salad right after my visit!  It’s an essential part of Italian life, shopping with the locals, seeing old friends and making new ones, maybe stopping for a coffee after and generally catching up on life.  It’s a feeling of connectedness that is hard to find in a US grocery store with lists in our hands and little time for enjoying the moment.  I always leave the market with a fresh perspective and a smile on my face.  I look forward to experiencing a local food market each time I am in Italy.  It reminds me of what’s important in life.

We invite you to join us on our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Experience so you can experience Italian food markets, an essential part of local life!

March 2017

So Much Wine, So Little Time… Part 1

By | 2017-03-06T15:31:58+00:00 March 6th, 2017|General, hidden gems, Wine|

Hi Everyone,

For those that follow me, you already know that I LOVE Italian wine, specifically Tuscan reds.  So, it is with great pleasure that I speak to this delicious topic.  I drink red wine year round, and that is typically all I drink with the exception of the occasional glass or bottle of sparkling.  Natalie on the other hand tends to stick with sparkling when it is warm and switches to red when it turns cooler.

What is with all those letters on a bottle of wine?

If you drink Italian wine, I am sure that at some point you have noticed a seal with letters.  Such as DOC or DOCG.  These are formalized grading standards for Italian wine.  In a nutshell, you have IGT, DOC and DOCG.  IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica ) is the lowest formal standards and has loose standards with regards to the grape varieties that are allowed from the area that the wine comes from.  DOC (Denominazione Origine Controllata )  is the next step up.  And at the highest level is DOCG (Denominazione Origine Controllata e Garantita).  DOCG is meant to represent the most legendary wines in Italy.

There are way too many types of Tuscan wine to discuss each one, so I will touch on a few of my favorites.  Now, to decide on a few favorites – This is a very difficult decision.  I love the king of Italian red, the Brunello di Montalcino but I equally love Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a of course a good Chianti.  I could probably list about 4 more very easily, but I will stick to these for this series.

Brunello di Montalcino-

Brunello is a medieval village in the province of Siena, and the winemaking region is to the Northeast.  Brunello tends to be more expensive than most other Italian reds.  This is primarily due to the smaller production area.  The Brunello di Montalcino area is roughly 3,000 acres while Chianti has about 40,000 acres.  Brunello di Montalcino is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, which is also the dominant grape in Chianti.  The difference in these grapes is that due to the higher and dryer climate, the grapes ripen at a more consistent rate.  This wine also must be aged for 5 years after harvest.  Because this is a heavy red, it is an amazing wine to pair with the king of steaks, the Bistecca alla Fiorentina.

We visit amazing wineries on our Tuscan Wine and Culture Experience as well as our Cooking Under the Tuscan Sun Cooking Experience