We always think of traveling as a way to discover the world and to learn about different cultures. For me, travelling is also about returning to my roots and rediscovering who I am. Leading the Active Gourmet trip in Tuscany is a chance to see my homeland through the eyes of our guests and to learn new things about myself. After all, food and wine are just catalysts. In Italy it’s all about sharing. And talking. Very loudly!
You might think of coffee as just a hot beverage you drink from a paper cup in the car on the way to work. Here in Italy, coffee is not simply a drink, it’s a key aspect of the culture. It’s a social event and a tradition that Italians proudly preserve. If you find yourself looking for a pick-me-up in Italy, here are some helpful tips on what–and when–to order.
Nutella is the mass-produced version of something much more sophisticated: gianduia chocolate hazelnut spread from Piedmont, Italy. Yes, the land of Langhe and Roero vines is also pretty famous for its hazelnuts.
In the weeks before the race, I spent a lot of time basking in the glory of telling my friends that I’d be riding a 12-speed steel-frame bicycle on gravel roads in Tuscany. I did not, however, spend a lot of time actually visualizing myself riding a 12-speed steel-frame bicycle on gravel roads in Tuscany. Ten minutes into the race, I found myself flying down a loose-gravel hill in predawn darkness with only dim candles lining the curving road, and it became apparent why this famous bicycle race is called L’Eroica, or “The Heroic” in English.
Wait! Don’t put that winter active wear away just yet. If you’re planning a trip to the Dolomites during the summer, you might just need it. There is often this misconception about “sunny Italy” being, well, warm all the time. But it’s a long peninsula that experiences true seasons and isn’t always under the Tuscan sun.
All right, I realize I’m not about to unleash a revolutionary statement here, but the fact is, Tuscany has some amazing bike routes. Even if you haven’t been there, I bet you’ve seen postcards. The real thing looks just like that! No—even better! It didn’t take me much time in Tuscany to realize this part of the world is a cyclist’s haven.
Before heading out to lead Backroads trips in Italy, I had already gathered that Italians have an ongoing love affair with olive oil. However, I was almost completely ignorant of the pepper to this salt: balsamic vinegar. “Italian dressing” in my household was a mix of spices shaken with olive oil and white vinegar–no balsamic included–and I wouldn’t consider putting the bitter stuff on ice cream. Not even in my dreams would I suppose that some balsamic vinegars cost hundreds of dollars for just a few ounces. I had a lot to learn.
It was pure serendipity that allowed Collier Lumpkin and me to be here together, enjoying an enormous fish stew at Ristorante Belforte overlooking the tiny harbor of Vernazza in Italy’s Cinque Terre. Our lives had been running parallel paths for some time, but it wasn’t until a year before that our worlds finally collided on a Backroads trip in Puglia.
If you’re taking a Backroads trip through Tuscany or Umbria, your pick-up city will be Florence. Before you meet up with your fabulous Backroads leaders, we strongly suggest that you take a day (or 2 or 3!) to acquaint yourself with this timeless city.
“Tourism: Your everyday life is somebody else’s adventure.” Staša Kraljiĉ uses this quote from international free speech organization Loesje to rationalize her love for working in tourism, which she has done–to some extent–since she was in college. You could easily replace ‘tourism’ with ‘Staša’ in this quote, as this Backroads Leader is a fun-loving, globe-trotting polyglot who tirelessly lives life to the fullest.
During my time in Tuscany, I led the Backroads biking trip several times but I have never had the feeling I was repeating something. I just love being with people and getting to know their stories: that’s the main reason why I applied for this job in the first place and that’s also why every trip is so unique.
The first experience I had with the Italian fear of wind came after a gym workout with the host mom for whom I was au pairing. We both took showers, and she emerged with her hair dry. I knew we were tight for time, but I had a case of grease-head so I had done a thorough wash. I’m accustomed to walking outside while my hair air-dries, so I grabbed my stuff and met my mamma at the door. She looked at my wet hair with a horrified face. “Go blow-dry your hair, the wind will make you sick!” So I did.
One of the best parts of a Backroads trip is the connection with a place and its locals, and one of the best parts of being a Backroads leader is creating our own connections and facilitating them for our guests. At the beginning of my first season leading trips in Italy, I was unsure about my ability to provide this connection.
If you’re lucky enough to visit Italy, then you undoubtedly need to experience one of Italy’s great initiatives, agriturismos. If you’re lucky enough to travel to Italy with Backroads, we’ll take you there. For lunch! Agriturismos are farms with lodging for travelers.