Take twelve people. Most of them strangers to one another. Entice them with the promise of winning wines, primo pastas and the other tantalizing tastes of Tuscany.
What do you get?
The Big Chill: Italian-style
When I turned 50, instead of shrinking from the F-word, my 50th year would be nothing short of F-F-Fabulous. I pitched a dazzling dozen of dynamic wine drinkers a villa vacation – and it proved to be an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Google tuscan villas and you hit about 1.5 million matches – everything from luxury villa retreats to castle apartments. My group of seasoned travelers included hostel hoppers, cottage couples and travelling teens – old friends and new. Most had never been to Italy.
I gathered their preferences and narrowed it down to three properties: one about 20 minutes of Cortona, the stunning hill town made famous by Frances Mayer’s Under the Tuscan Sun, the second near Siena and the other in Chianti – the heart of Tuscan wine country. The group voted and committed with cash.
I will admit to moments of trepidation. What if it was a scam? What if the pictures were of another villa surrounded by landfill? Or maybe there was no villa at all? How could I be sure?
Even worse, what if the villa was perfect and everyone didn’t get along?
We planned to meet in a parking lot outside Cortona. One thing you realize quickly – even when you speak Italian, getting directions is not easy. It’s more of a state of mind – like getting a recipe from my mother – a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Invest in a GPS. In this case. no one had to pave paradise , you were surrounded by it.
Andrea, son of the villa owner, and most gracious host – met us and accompanied us to the villa. We never would have found it ourselves. The address was something like turn right after the bus stop at marker 232 and continue along the third dirt path until you are absolutely sure an axe murderer will pop out of the bushes and there’s no one to ask for help just chestnut trees and the odd family of wild boar.
But when we turned the final corner, it was obvious, the pictures on the web site didn’t come close.
Our villa turned out to be a 13th century treasure. Six bedrooms, each with its own separate bathroom over three floors, a huge dining room table where we ate every night and a living room with overstuffed couches in front of the fireplace, with enough space to dance up a storm.
The main kitchen was big enough that the wannabe Italian cooks never had to compete for space. Then there was the pool, the view and the price. $2500 for the week or about $500 per couple.
My wonderful band of strangers bonded on the first night over the freshest salami, ripest tomatoes, most fragrant cheeses washed down by local wine. We brought our own music and danced until 3am. Nice start to wash away any worries.
But renting a villa with a group of people forces you to make all kinds of decisions.
Take a wine tour or a cooking class, a bike trip or feign jet lag and relax, visit places with names that you’ve probably read on wine bottles. Montepulciano, Montalcino, Chianti, Orvieto.
We took the slow option and hung around the pool most of the first day.
Blame Marcella – mother of our host Andrea. She arrived with her cheerful assistant Valentina to cook us a five-course dinner. And we didn’t want to miss a second. I was the only one who could speak passable Italian, but where there is a will there is a way. Johanne and Lynn watched as the kitchen was transformed into a haven of heavenly smells. Marcella and Valentina whipped up three kinds of appetizers, spinach pie, two kinds of homemade pasta – yes made right then and there – one with fresh mushrooms, the other with fresh tomatoes and a chicken roasted with something delectable, all topped off with a fruit flan of some sort. Did I mention it cost 30 euros a person WITH wine?
There are moments in life when it feels like you are being rewarded for any good deed you have ever done in your life. That’s exactly how I felt. Graced with my daughter and her best friend who is like a daughter to me, my best friends who have been through the best and worst of times, and new friends who have become such an important part of my landscape – we all sat together around a table as families do. How could I be so lucky?
I knew I had nothing to worry about when Johanne one of my oldest and wisest friends said after the first night – there will be tears when we say goodbye.
The rest of the week just kept getting better. Picture the Big Chill – Italian style. The kitchen became the hub. A few of us, standing around the centre island, one whipping up a salad, another a plate of antipasto – with the freshest ingredients bought that afternoon, another trying out a favourite pasta recipe as familiar to them as breathing.
We walked, we talked, we wine toured and talked more. We solved the problems of the world. Any problem we had a world away.
And on the very last day – we had lunch outside the villa Under the Tuscan Sun – we drank too much – danced on tables and threw rose petals at the wind. But most important we got to experience that something special with people and a place that you will never forget.
If you are going:
- 6 months before departure date – confirm with potential housemates. You will find everyone wants to go, but when it comes time to commit, the group shrinks.
- Get the group to rate their priorities: price, ensuite bathroom, close to town or in the country
- Look for a recommendation. We worked with rentvillas.com and our most gracious host Andrea who has a number of villas available firstname.lastname@example.org