As I peered out the window of the small jet, a smile bubbled up from deep within me. Below, snow-capped mountains spread across the topography and spanned the divide between France and Italy. They were the Alps. I’d never seen them before, except in pictures.
Since I don’t have a companion and I’m not close to my family, I often spend holidays alone. In recent years, I’ve traveled during Christmas, so I can get out with people (even if they’re strangers) and have a little fun rather than feeling sorry for myself. But instead of Christmas this year, I decided to travel to Italy during one of the most American holidays we celebrate: Thanksgiving.
I had joined a travel group exclusively for women (Women’s Travel Club, now shuttered) that would tour Tuscany over a long Thanksgiving weekend. I was nervous about traveling alone, as at that point (which was in 2010) I hadn’t done much traveling internationally, and this was the first time I’d traveled alone outside of North America.
I expected to meet up with my tour group at JFK so at least I would have some people to lend support. However, after I arrived at JFK on my flight from LAX, I realized that no one from the tour company was there to round us up, and it was difficult to tell who might be part of our group, since we were boarding a HUGE Air France jet that was filled to capacity. Ultimately, I didn’t meet anyone from my group until I was going through security at Charles de Gaulle Airport before boarding the plane to Pisa.
My connection to the Pisa flight was tight, as the Air France flight had departed very late. Once I got to CDG, I had to go through Border Control and then find the shuttle to the terminal for my Pisa flight. My French is pretty rusty, but I was able to find the right shuttle by following signs. No gate had been assigned for my flight, so an airline representative told me to just get in line for security. I prayed I was going to the right place. Since so many of us boarding that flight had been on the tardy Air France flight, they held the Pisa flight for us. In retrospect, I’m glad it happened this way, as it helped me gain confidence in my ability to navigate unfamiliar waters while under duress. Once I got on the little jet and we took off, I took a very big sigh of relief. And then… I saw the Alps.
So, onward… to Italy.
Our tour guide, an ex-pat from San Francisco now living in Italy, met us at the Pisa airport. Our small group of 17 boarded a shuttle and we began our hour-long drive to the Grand Vittoria Hotel in Montecatini Terme. The little city of Montecatini Terme has long been famous for its spas and hot springs. Royalty and celebrity alike have traveled from across Europe to indulge in this city’s restorative offerings.
The Grand Vittoria, was a tired old-world hotel with beautiful crystal chandeliers and traditional furniture that had seen better days. I was expecting my room to be charming and in keeping with the grand façade and sweeping staircase in the lobby. But when I unlocked my door (with the key attached to the biggest key fob I’ve ever seen), my jaw must have dropped. It was a tiny closet of a room, clean, but shabby. I’m accustomed to staying in nice hotels, so I was disappointed.
When I opened the shuttered window, I discovered a pack of Italian cigarettes on the outside window ledge. I supposed the maid had left them there and imagined her sneaking a smoke as she cleaned the room. I told myself this was all part of the experience and that I should put my expectations aside and enjoy the room for what it was—quaint. Over the five nights I stayed there, the room grew on me. The bed was comfortable, and I must say I slept better there than I had at home.
That afternoon, we toured Montecatini on foot with our tour guide. The weather was chilly with intermittent rain. Since I’d been living in Los Angeles for a few years, I no longer had cold weather gear, so we stopped in a shop where I purchased gloves and several scarves at rock bottom prices.
The next day was Thanksgiving, which we spent in Florence (Firenze). There was light rain in the morning, but it cleared up shortly after we arrived, so we could tuck our umbrellas away and enjoy the day.
Our first stop was Il Duomo, one of the oldest churches in Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Construction of this Gothic cathedral was begun in 1296 and structurally completed in 1436. The cathedral complex is the religious heart of Florence. Until modern times, the dome of the cathedral was considered a structural marvel and was the largest in the world. It is still the largest brick dome in existence. Inside the vaulting space, patrons and visitors are able to light a candle and make a wish. I lit a candle, but I won’t tell you my wish. Maybe someday it will come true.
Later, we strolled through the narrow cobblestone streets to the Ponte Vecchio and ventured into an open air marketplace where they had great prices on leather goods (Florence is the place to buy leather). For good luck, I dropped a coin in the mouth of Il Porcellino fountain. The fountain is a bronze statue of a boar (porcellino means “piglet” in Italian). Then we went to lunch in a little pizza place, where I had some of the best pizza ever.After lunch, we met a local tour guide at the Accademia Gallery where Michelangelo’s Statue of David is on display. Just outside the museum, a vendor’s merchandise put us in the right mood for what we would see inside: the Statue of David’s most memorable parts displayed on a pair of boxer shorts. Only in Italy!
Once inside, our excellent guide took us up to the gargantuan statue in increments. We first examined this work from afar, then moved toward it and studied Michelangelo’s “The Prisoners” statues along the way. As we continued our approach, our guide explained different aspects of David. Finally, we stood at David’s feet. Our guide led us around the statue, so we could experience it from different angles. Each angle gave us a different perspective on the artist’s intentions in creating the work.
At the end of a great day, we returned to our hotel and freshened up for dinner… our Thanksgiving dinner. I was thankful to be in Italy. And yes, we had a turkey, Italian style.
The next morning, we had some free time and wandered around Montecatini Terme to sightsee on our own and shop. Then we had a delicious lunch with wine in Montecatini Alto, a hill town above Montecatini Terme. Although there’s a funicular railway you can take to the summit, we shared a couple of cabs to get there, as we needed to be back in time for our cooking class later that afternoon.
We met our cooking instructor, Chef Gianfranco, back at the hotel. Then we drove to a couple of traditional Italian markets where we purchased the ingredients for our dinner. Our last stop was at a small local restaurant where, under the tutelage of Chef Gianfranco, we prepared a traditional Tuscan meal. Wine and Prosecco flowed freely during the preparation and throughout dinner, which was served family-style. The down-to-earth yet satisfying Tuscan cuisine led to lively conversation and a heart-warming feeling of community.
The Tuscan diet incorporates simple, nourishing ingredients, and has its roots in “peasant cooking.” Legumes, bread, cheese, vegetables, mushrooms, fresh fruit and especially beans are used extensively in their diets. In fact, Tuscans are often referred to as “bean-eaters.” Cured meat and a traditional bread made without salt are also staples of the Tuscan diet. Their cooking tends to be on the salty side and is usually seasoned with sage, rosemary and basil. They don’t use heavy sauces or butter. Instead, locally produced olive oil is used in cooking, over salads, in soups and stews and drizzled over bread. There are olive groves everywhere in Tuscany that produce some of the best olive oil in Italy. This oil is not generally used in cooking, but rather is reserved for use as a condiment at the table. As opposed to other parts of Italy, pasta plays only a small part in the Tuscan diet.
Historically, Tuscans raised cows for meat, rather than milk, so there is no cheese made from cow’s milk here. But they do make a delicious cheese from sheep’s milk called Pecorino, another staple of their diet. I had never had it before tasting it in Montecatini, but have since found it in stores here in Los Angeles. It’s a little sharper than Parmesan and is delicious grated over steamed vegetables or pasta. Trader Joe’s sells a blend of grated Pecorino-Romano which I recommend.
The next morning we got an early start, as we had a full day on the road. First on our agenda was Lucca. On the way, we spied beautiful mountains in the distance that looked as though they were topped with snow. It wasn’t snow, but marble.
They were the mountains above the town of Carrara, famous for its white marble that has been quarried since the Roman Empire and used by sculptors such as Michelangelo. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go on the jeep tour at Fantiscritti Marble Quarries that takes visitors through the quarry cave for an up-close view of the cliffs and mines. As I peered out the bus window, I couldn’t help but wonder what these mountains looked like millennia ago. Were they higher? How much had humans desecrated them to gather that coveted marble?
We arrived in Lucca mid-morning and had a brief tour of the ramparts before we were set free to wander the narrow cobbled streets on our own. Lucca is the birthplace of composer Giacomo Puccini (La Bohème and Madama Butterfly). It was founded by the Etruscans, became a Roman colony in 180 BC and is still enclosed by the massive ramparts that protected the city during the Renaissance.
Many of the city’s residents take walks or bicycle along the green space atop of these ramparts. It’s a community space where people picnic, socialize and exercise and a place from which they can admire the view of the old city below and the landscape of surrounding hills. The town is a convenient hub from which to visit Pisa, Florence or Siena, as well as the Mediterranean.
The cobbled streets in the historical center are still laid out in the original grid that the Romans established, so it’s easy to find your way around. We wandered as a group for a while. Then I struck out on my own, so I could explore and shop. The streets are especially narrow and are lined with Renaissance-era buildings, Romanesque churches and remnants of its medieval past.
The little city has a warm, friendly feeling. I was struck by the strong sense of community here. The streets are very narrow, and vehicles are prohibited in most areas. People walk. Friends and family greet each other in the streets. High-end shops, such as Ferragamo and Gucci, draw elegantly-dressed customers. Outdoor cafes dot the narrow alleys.
I had noticed this sense of community in Montecatini, as well. Even though it rained every day I was in Italy, people were out on the streets socializing. This is something I never see in Los Angeles. We isolate ourselves in our cars and text instead of talk.
We stayed in lovely Lucca for only a couple of hours, as we had to move on to our next treat, lunch and wine tasting at Fattoria Il Poggio Winery, where my taste buds went to school. We tasted a flight of 6 of their red wines, along with a filling lunch of traditional pesto, homemade pasta and bread. We dipped the bread in the winery’s own olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I had never had the real balsamic vinegar before. It was amazing, so sweet! I also tasted Grappa for the first time. Grappa is Italy’s most popular liqueur. It’s incredibly strong and burns going down.
What passes for balsamic vinegar in the States is usually something that is not the real deal. I bought a bottle of it at the winery to bring home with me. After I used that up, I had a hard time finding anything to compare with it until a friend took me to a shop in Newport Beach called Olive Oil & Beyond. They have the traditional balsamic vinegar and variations, as well as extra virgin olive oil from around the world. This is where I always buy my balsamic vinegar, now. If you don’t live near enough to visit the shop, you can purchase from their online store at http://www.oliveoilandbeyond.com/.
After lunch, we stopped at an olive mill and our guide took us through the process of pressing the olives into oil. Then we returned to Montecatini and were free to explore the town again.
The next day, it was raining lightly as we boarded our tour bus for Cinque Terre. We stopped briefly in Porto Venere, a small village on the Ligurian coast that had once been the base of the Byzantine fleet in the northern Tyrrhenian Sea. By the time we got to Cinque Terre, it was pouring.
Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore are the villages that comprise the Cinque Terre National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cinque Terre are five fishing villages built on rugged cliffs along the Italian Riviera to the west of the city of La Spezia. Over the centuries, inhabitants have terraced the steep hillsides above the Mediterranean. These villages with their brightly painted houses are not accessible by vehicle but are connected by trains, boats and walking paths. Part of their charm is that they have not been commercialized, in spite of their worldwide attraction for tourism.
By the time we got to the third village it was so cold and rainy we needed to take shelter inside and warm up. We gathered in a very busy seafood restaurant where I tasted prawns for the first time. Until then, I thought prawns were just shrimp. Now I know there’s no comparison. I think prawns are sweeter than shrimp, perhaps more like lobster.
During lunch, we discussed our plan for the rest of the day and voted to skip the other two villages, as the weather was getting worse and we were chilled to the bone. I was disappointed, since this was the area I had most wanted to visit. I will have to return another time.
On the bus ride back to Montecatini, our guide served Limoncello to warm us up — another first for me! I’d never had this delicious drink before. It’s an Italian liqueur made from lemons. Produced in Southern Italy, it’s second only to Grappa in popularity among Italians.
The next day, a shuttle transferred us to the Pisa Airport for our flights to CDG and JFK. I was not able to fly back to LA until early the next morning, so I toughed it out in the terminal overnight. As I waited for time to pass at JFK, I watched a man with a waxing machine polish the large expanse of floor in that area of the terminal. Beyond him, a single Christmas tree stood lit up as though to mock me. It was a constant reminder that I would be spending Christmas alone.