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La Dolce Vita Under the Tuscan Sun

View of endless hills seen from the front of Villa Imperiale.
View of endless hills seen from the front of Villa Imperiale.

It all started with food. My luxurious dream trip to the Tuscan city of Florence became a reality when my story about global dining faux pas, “Mea Culpa! What NOT to do When Dining Overseas,” won LaCure’s Tell a Great Story contest.

I was sent on the road to Florence, which incidentally is the Holy Grail for food lovers, to stay at the historical and luxurious Villa Imperiale for three nights as part of my prize. With Florence being the “it” place in the art, fashion and gastronomy scenes, I knew that this will be a jam-packed trip, so I decided to bring with me the most organized person I know, who also taught me how to power-sightsee: my globe-trotting mother.

So off we flew to Florence: I took the afternoon flight from Vancouver, she took a red-eye from Montreal, and after a layover in Amsterdam, we found ourselves walking on Florence’s cobbled streets, the very same streets traversed by Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and Raphael – and I’m not talking about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Thus the start of our living the good life – la dolce vita – under the Tuscan sun.

Villa Imperiale: Florence’s Imperial Treasure

Villa Imperiale facade
The façade of Villa Imperiale.

We were transported to our Tuscan villa by LaCure Villas’ limousine service and along the way, the chauffeur pointed at the huge estates owned by notable people like the Ferragamo clan and some European football players I don’t know. It was an uphill drive with a view that was top of the line and exactly what I had imagined when thinking of Tuscany – endless rolling hills dotted with grape and olive trees.

The villa door with a million dollar view.

Then a picture perfect villa perched high in the hills came to view, overlooking what could be a Quattrocento painting with peaks and valleys. I heard my mother gasp at the majestic and commanding villa and its breathtaking views. The estate sits 100 meters above sea level, hence the magnificent view of the city and the famous rolling hills.

Upon entering Villa Imperiale, my mom had to remind me to keep my mouth closed as we scrutinized this medieval villa oozing with charm, rustic style and history that dates back to the 14th century, with the amenities of a brand-new five-star hotel.  To top it all off, the villa played host to famous astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei between 1634 and 1642, who came with his students to gaze at the stars. I had to remind myself that I was actually staring at our home away from home – a villa that stands by a castle complex where there was once a ninth-century fortified castle. I had to pinch myself for a reality check.

 

Get Your Grapes and Your Game On

wine and olives at the villa
Jennifer Ellson and her mother enjoy the good things that Tuscan vineyards and olive groves have to offer.

With the villa’s luxurious feel, we often found ourselves simply wanting to enjoy its amenities and 360 degree views during the day, sipping Tuscan wines that were made available for us by the upscale private concierge provided by LaCure Villas. Daniel, our personal concierge, did not only brief us about Tuscan wines, but he also dished out this valuable fashion advice that we took to heart: in case of doubt it is always better to overdress than the opposite.

“Remember that for Italians style is not by some specific attire. The first thing Italians will look at are your shoes and then the quality of the fabrics, rather than what they represent,” said the wise man Daniel. Sage advice, because you see, in a country where police uniforms are designed by Armani, and in a city that gave birth to the likes of Salvatore Ferragamo, Guccio Gucci, Roberto Cavalli, and Emilio Pucci, it isn’t surprising that Florentines take dressing very seriously.

And you get these fashion tips included with your stay at the villa! That’s what I call service extraordinaire!

Bon Appetito

breakfast at the villa
Dining alfresco at Villa Imperiale.

Some people like to read or write poetry, but in Tuscany, you’re likely to sip and eat it. Tuscany’s abundant fields of fresh vegetables, olive trees and vineyards are impressive enough for their quintessential charm, but these vineyards and olive groves also produce some of the best wine and olive oil known to mankind.

There is the aura of romance and mystery in tasting a dish that one can’t even pronounce the name of, like cantucci, the almond-flavoured Tuscan biscuits taken with coffee and a glass of vin santo after a meal. Say cantucci one more time … do you feel romantic? Now say vin santo and you suddenly feel this air of mystery!

While staying at Villa Imperiale, an unforgettable experience is to cook using fresh ingredients harvested from the estate’s garden, as well as the aromatic extra virgin olive oil pressed onsite. We indulged in what makes Tuscany famous: its wines and olives, among the comforts of our own villa! We generally made bruschettas for breakfast, salads and spaghetti pomodoro for dinner, and dined alfresco on the terrace, with spectacular views across the neighboring valleys. We always finished our meals with a scoop or two of pistachio or nocciola (hazelnut) gelato bought from one of the many artisan gelaterias at almost every corner of Florence.

Around the Villa

piazzale michelangelo - david replica
Piazzale Michelangelo is only a few minutes walk from the villa.

From this vantage point you can see the highlights of Florence: the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the orange dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore – better known simply as Duomo – that dominates the skyline. The Duomo is considered the geographical, cultural

Entrance to the Duomo.
Entrance to the Duomo.

and historical centre of the city, and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From here you can also see Ponte Vecchio, the golden bridge built in 1345 and was Florence’s first bridge across the Arno River. Ponte Vecchio is noted for having numerous shops selling gold, art and jewels, and is famous for the many padlocks affixed to the railings – by locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river, the lovers are said to be eternally bonded.

Also within walking distance from the villa is the San Miniato di Almonte Basilica, located just kitty-corner from Piazzale Michelangelo. Sitting atop one of the highest points in the city, the church has changed little since it was first built around 1207 – but I can’t confirm that as I wasn’t around that time. The basilica’s crypt is the oldest part of the church and the high altar supposedly contains the bones of St. Minias himself – but again I can’t confirm as I wasn’t able to attend the burial. San Miniato has been described as one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany and one of the most beautiful churches in Italy. I agree.

The basilica also has a magnificent panoramic view of Florence, which becomes mystical and positively ethereal at pre-dawn. The view at sunset is also on a breathtaking scale – a sure delight for photo enthusiasts.

Side Trips

Sidetrip to Rome
Once in Italy, you can use your villa as a base to take side trips, like this one to Rome.

Florence has an extensive transport system and its central train station, Santa Maria Novella, is an international hub with connections to other Italian and European cities. In our case, we decided to extend our Italian adventure for a couple of days to go to Pisa, which involves a one-hour train ride, because we heard that there’s a certain tower there that is leaning on one side.  We also went on a 1.5-hour journey to Rome where we ate like a gladiator and visited the smallest country in the world: Vatican City, but that’s another story.

I still can’t believe that I got to experience all these with my mom, thanks to LaCure Villas. I had to pinch myself for another reality check.

—By Jennifer Ellson, winner of LaCure’s Tell a Great Story writing contest. Jennifer is a business journalist and communications specialist moonlighting as a food and travel writer.

Mom and I at the villa grounds

 

 

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6 comments

    1. Me too Sean I have had some grand adventures in Tuscany over the years too. Driving around the curved roads in my tiny rented Fiat. I still am constantly finding new and exciting things to try out down there. I hope one day to rent a Ferrari. Ferrari has great cars for saleIt really is just the perfect car for a getaway like that

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