Hollywood Doesn't Do Tuscany Justice

Posted October 22, 2007 11:01 a.m. EDT

In the weeks leading up to my trip to Tuscany, I was often reminded of the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” starring Diane Lane. Not wanting to be disappointed, I tried to keep my expectations of one of Italy’s most celebrated regions lower than the bar the movie had set. I imagined that the lush scenery, delectable meals and fabulous wine born of local grapes was just Hollywood magic designed to make moviegoers fall in love with an Italian fantasy.

I can now report that Tuscany is not as it appears in the movies – it’s even better.

My family stayed at the Il Frantoio villa just outside of a town called Lucca. The villa was part of a family-owned property of homes to rent, called the “Coselli Collection.” The building was an original olive press, complete with the original wood beam ceilings and surrounded by olive groves. Throwing the windows open each morning, I was reminded of another movie, “A Room with a View.” In the distance, blue mountains draped in puffy white clouds encircled the rolling hills. An enthusiastic rooster awoke us each morning to another beautiful day in Tuscany.

We had many mini-adventures that took us about an hour or less from our rented villa. The town of Lucca, which was just about a 15-minute drive, is an ancient, quaint town encircled by a stone wall. Within those walls is housed a combination of Old World charm and modern conveniences like retail stores and cafes.

We spent one afternoon having a private, guided tour of a local winery. What started as a hobby for a family in Brussels turned into a small business. The Montechiari Vineyard sells 35,000 bottles of wine a year. While the modern world zooms, the business of making wine hasn’t changed much in centuries. It is still aged in large wooden barrels designed to give it its rich taste. Once in the bottles, they are hand-turned on a regular basis to keep the sediment circulating. The tour ended with a tasting, complete with Tuscany’s signature cheese, bread and olives, overlooking another breath-taking landscape shrouded by magnificent mountains.

We also took in an ancient castle in the same town, hearing stories about how soldiers defended the fortress, lived in cramped quarters in a single stone room and poured hot oil on their enemies through a metal grate above the entrance if they should dare knock down their door. While the history lesson was fascinating, it was hard to imagine living in such rustic accommodations during a brutal winter.

On another day, we headed to the Cinque Terre, a group of five islands literally carved into the rocky mountainside. The colorful buildings – a rainbow of pastels dotting the mountainside – jutted out over the rocky coastline. You can go by boat to each little town, or take the stone path through the Cinque Terre National Park, which hugs the coastline and takes you through tranquil harbors, complete with an array of brightly colored fishing boats. The towns are literally postcard worthy – every single one. The walk itself, if you do the whole thing, is said to take five hours, but you can abbreviate it at any point by catching the boat with your prepaid ticket that allows you to ride to and from anywhere all day long.

We also spent a day in a little seaside town called Forte Dei Marmi. In-season, this is a bustling resort community with exclusive beach clubs that offer the best service to those who want to dig their toes in the sand, sit under an umbrella and be served drinks and food without ever having to leave their beach chairs. But since we were out of season, we spent time in the shopping district, which is home to high-end stores like Gucci, Prada, Escada and Dolce and Gabanna. If your wallet won’t support such a splurge – mine will not – it’s still fun to window shop. Although be forewarned, there is no self-service like we have in American stores. Retail workers in Italy expect customers to ask to see clothing items rather than simply pulling things off the shelves ourselves and searching for a dressing room. Another important note, stores in Italy generally close at 1 p.m. and reopen again at 4 p.m. for several hours. Shop owners take the time to go home, have lunch with their families and take a quick siesta. Must be nice. Oh, what we Americans could learn from Italians.

We also hit the must-dos in the Tuscany region: Pisa and Florence. Both towns were teeming with tourists, so if you don’t like crowds, don’t go. The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the surrounding buildings are an amazing sight, but one that takes no more than 15 minutes to absorb, unless you plan to purchase a timed entrance ticket to the top of the tower. The town itself has kiosks full of touristy goods that contain just about every keepsake imaginable adorned with a glittery image of the tower.

As for Florence, a day is not enough time. All of the tourist attractions – the Accademia where Michelangelo’s magnificent “David” lives and the Uffizi Gallery, which is said to be one of the most premiere collections in the world – have lines that stretch potentially for hours. Call ahead and get a reservation weeks in advance if you plan to go. But just walking through the winding historic streets of Florence, gazing at the river where homes literally seem to be dangling by a thread held up by ancient walls just feet from the water is enough to satisfy most any visitor.

Around every corner there is another piazza containing a church or a series of statues, all with their own stories. The shopping, not unlike Forte Dei Marmi, can be high-end, but it can also be medium-end. Street vendors sell leather goods, shawls and scarves that are very appropriate gifts and definitely good enough for anyone who has ever dared to buy knock-offs on a New York City street corner. The best part of Florence is people-watching. Stop and sit in a café and simply watch the Italian people with their glorious sense of style – both men and women – floating by.

No story about Tuscany would be complete without talking about the food. Let me go on record as saying I am not a foody, lest you think I’m being disingenuous. But honestly, you can walk into just about any little café and get an amazing dish of pasta with a variety of sauces, crusty homemade bread and a glass of local wine for just about any palate. My personal favorite is the cheese. Italians love their cheese and include it with just about every meal. If you are a mouse or a cheese lover, you will not go hungry in Italy.

The dream has ended. I’m awake now (barely), still a little jet-lagged. I’ve looked at my pictures. They don’t do Tuscany justice. It’s not a place that can be truly captured by anything but the human eye. If you get a chance to go, take it. It’s better than the movies.