I’ve just wrapped up a blog series on my Tuscan Thanksgiving. In case you missed something, here are 8 great ideas for your upcoming visit to Tuscany.
1. Take a cooking class — whether a rustic one in a family home, or a fancier one at a Michelin-star restaurant. If you’re a foodie (or think you might be a foodie), a cooking class is a wonderful way to dig a little deeper into the culinary culture. I’ll never get tired of watching an Italian chef transform a mound of flour and a few eggs into a fresh plate of pasta. One of the best souvenirs from any trip is a recipe you’ll use again and again.
2. Stay at an agriturismo. The Italian government subsidizes these family farms to also provide accommodations, meals, and tourist experiences. The best are a perfect mix of authentic agricultural lifestyles, modern amenities, and culturally enlightening activities. My favorite is Agriturismo Cretaiole, just outside of Pienza, but there are many excellent choices throughout Italy. (And speaking of cooking classes, Isabella at Cretaiole teaches guests how to make handmade pici pasta every Thursday night.)
3. Visit the craftspeople of Montepulciano (or any town). If “artisanal” is cool, then Tuscany is Miles Davis. Italy has a knack for carrying on its traditional, exacting methods for simply doing things the right way. In Montepulciano, you can stroll down the main drag, dropping in on a winemaker, a coppersmith, and a steakhouse — each one focusing on doing just one thing, and doing it just right. In Volterra, step into an alabaster workshop, where the shiny dome of the busy carver glistens through the cloud of white powder he’s chipping away from an emerging masterpiece. In Florence, hardworking leatherworkers invite you into their workshop to see their well-worn tools.
4. Go on a truffle hunt. Dog lovers and food lovers are equally charmed by this experience: Scampering through a wooded valley, following an excited pup who’s hot on the trail of precious tubers embedded just below the topsoil.
5. Visit off-season. For cooler weather and fewer crowds, consider a wintertime Tuscan retreat. It’s not exactly tropical — so you’ll need to pack layers — and the days are short. But you’ll enjoy scenery that’s arguably just as stunning as in the sun-parched summer months, with a fraction of the crowds that trample Italy in peak season. Spending part of the holiday season in Tuscany is a treat; our Italian-American-hybrid Thanksgiving dinner came with turkey…and sweet potato gnocchi. The holiday lights — while subdued compared to stateside displays — are tasteful and festive. And Black Friday shopping in Tuscan hill towns sure beats the doorbusters-and-strip-malls mayhem back home.
6. Connect with the Tuscans. Remember: Museums and scenic drives are worthwhile, but the real local people you meet are the characters who populate your fondest travel memories. Agriturismos are designed to accomplish exactly this. But challenge yourself to make those experiences happen wherever you go. In Italy, it’s easy to do. Share your bag of snacks with fellow passengers on the train. Ask the winemaker what makes her wines different from all the others. Stop someone to ask directions, even if you know where you’re going.
7. Soak in a thermal bath. For all its claims to fame, Tuscany isn’t known for its thermal waters. But, thanks to the unique geology that shaped its rolling hills, it has some exceptional spa towns. My favorite, Bagno Vignoni, has a main square that doubles as a medieval thermal bath, bubbling up at 125 degrees. Everyone from Catherine of Siena to Lorenzo the Magnificent have soaked in these medicinal waters. Today, nearby hotels offer a more refined soaking experience, with jets, massages, and little red bathing caps.
8. Go for a drive to nowhere, just to enjoy the views. At any time of year, driving the twisty, cypress-lined lanes of the Tuscan countryside is like spinning a postcard rack. Tuscany is huge, but here’s an insider tip: For the highest concentration of scenery, head for the mercifully compact Val d’Orcia (“val DOR-chah”) region — the valley of the Orcia River. The 40-minute drive from Montepulciano to Pienza to Montalcino is stunning and sumptuous. Along this spine — or just a 10-minute detour off of it — are most of the “Tuscan All-Stars” that fill gauzy calendars and coffee-table books. There’s a reason why we titled our chapter on this area in the Rick Steves Florence & Tuscany guidebook (now available in its new 2016 edition) “The Heart of Tuscany.”