TUSCANY WITH “JUST YOU”

Early this month, July 2019, I travelled to Tuscany for the first time. We were a small group of solo travellers experiencing a tour with Just You.  Just You is a company from the UK that has been in Canada about four years. Their tours are for solo travellers, and what this means is that every person on the tour pays the same amount (no single supplement), and everyone gets their own room. Breakfast is included in the tour and every morning we had a table reserved for our group. It was a good time to catch up with everyone. While some dinners were included in this tour, for the rest of the meals we almost always ate together.

Day 1 Pre-tour – Montecatini Terme

I flew with Air Canada to Frankfurt where I caught a connecting flight to Florence. Frankfurt is a large airport, with a lot of walking, going up elevators, and having the longest moving sidewalk I have ever seen. There was no line up at passport control and catching the connection to Florence went very smoothly. We arrived in Frankfurt early in the morning to the aroma of freshly baked pretzels throughout the airport. The flight to Florence was a little over an hour.

The airport in Florence was easy to navigate and we arrived at the luggage carousel with no difficulty. After we picked up our luggage, the tour guide was waiting for us holding up a Just You sign, then escorted us to the car for our transfer to the hotel.  While at the airport, I met up with one of my fellow travellers.

We checked into the Grand Hotel Tamerici & Principe and were lucky to have the room available right away. My room was large with a king bed (two twins put together), a sofa bed, a desk area with a TV. The bathroom was a good size with a bathtub, shower and bidet. There were two sets of windows with shutters and drapes. Balconies were available in some rooms.

We were the first of our group to arrive, so I unpacked and went looking for a place to have lunch. Lunch was available at the hotel, but there were a few cafes and restaurants across the street and I settled in at one of them. I had no problem ordering my meal in English. After lunch I went out to explore the town of Montecatini Terme, which was our home base for the week. The walk was only about five to ten minutes before reaching the centre of town. I wandered around for a bit, then headed back to the hotel to await my fellow travellers at the pool. They trickled in throughout the day, with most of them heading to the pool. 

That evening the Just You tour guide gave us suggestions for dinner. We went separate ways for a while, then all met at the same restaurant for dinner. Aperol Spritz was a popular drink choice, which continued throughout the week. Very refreshing, with a bright orange colour.

Day Two – Montecatini Terme

We had the day to ourselves and I opted for the spa in the hotel, where I was joined by one of my fellow travellers. We did the water therapies first – steam room, sauna, emotional shower, ozone whirlpool, followed by half an hour in the salt room. We both booked a spa treatment as well. That evening we went to a cocktail reception to meet our fellow travels and review the upcoming itinerary.

Day Three – Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, one of Italy’s most recognizable sights, is located within the Field of Miracles. A local guide joined us, in addition to the Just You guide. The tower is the campanile or the bell tower, one of four structures in the Piazza dei Miracoli. It took 176 years to build and began to lean shortly after construction. This piazza contains the cathedral, or Duomo; the baptistery; the campanile, or Leaning Tower of Pisa; and the Campo Santo, or cemetery. After exploring the Field of Miracles, we had free time to visit the town and have some lunch.

Day Four - Siena

 Siena is listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO. It is a lovely medieval city and twice a year it is the setting for the Palio horse race (July 2nd and August 16th). The town square, Il Campo, is transformed into a racetrack. Il Campo is one of Italy’s grandest squares. We toured the Duomo di Siena, the cathedral which is striped with black and white marble both inside and out. There are works of art by Michelangelo, Bernini and Donatello. It is like visiting a museum. We had time to ourselves to shop, have lunch, or tour the many historical buildings.

Day Five – Montecarlo di Lucca

Today we had a cooking lesson at Fattoria Il Poggio. It is a beautiful farm in the hillside village of Montecarlo di Lucca. We learned how to make ragu, we tried our hand at making pasta, and sampled several different toppings on crostini (bruschetta, mushroom). We were scheduled to have lunch on the patio, but there was a thunderstorm for about an hour, so went to the wine cellar for a fabulous lunch, starting with two kinds of crostini, selection of salami, followed by a spring vegetable pasta, then three local meats. There were four wines to sample while having our lunch. The meal ended with almond biscuits cantuccini and coffee. There was a gift shop for wine, olive oil, olives, cookbook. Every course of the meal was delicious.

Day Six – San Gimignano and Volterra

San Gimignano has a very distinctive skyline with 14 towers remaining from what is thought to be 72 towers originally. The town is recognized as a UNESCO world hesitate site and is encircled by 13th century walls. The majority of our group went on a two-hour hike of the Tuscan hillside. Because of the high temperatures, I opted to go with the tour director to town, where we climbed the tower, giving us a wonderful view of the town and surrounding hills. I will remember San Gimignano as having my favourite pizza while in Tuscany.

We headed to Volterra for the afternoon, a walled mountaintop town. One of the sites we visited was the ancient remains of a Roman theatre dating back to the first century. We wandered through the historical centre, where you get a feeling of stepping back in time. You can sample Tuscan favourites, such as ribollita soup, visit handicraft shops, and shop for souvenirs from Tuscany, especially alabaster hand-made objects, for which Volterra is famous worldwide. We were given a demonstration from a craftsman making hand-carved alabaster.

Day Seven – Florence

We were met in Florence by a local guide for a walking tour. Florence , Italy’s “art city” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We explored the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge dating back to 1345 which is now lined with jewellery shop; and the most famous landmark in Florence – the Duomo. In the Mercato Nuevo, the bronze fountain of Il Porcellino resides. It is said to bring luck to those who drop money into the pig’s jaws if the coin falls into the water below (and not onto the grate). If you rub its snout, it will ensure a return visit to Florence. After the guided tour, we had time on our own. A great place to shop for leather goods.

Day Eight – Lucca

Lucca is known for the well-preserved walls encircling its historic city centre and its cobblestone streets. Broad, tree-lined pathways along the tops of these ramparts are popular for strolling and cycling and has become a pedestrian promenade, one of Lucca's main attractions. Some of the group walked the perimeter of the wall, while others went directly into town. The area around the walls is well taken care of, with green grass and trees everywhere along the walls. You can go for a bike ride around the entire perimeter, or a stroll as you enjoy a gelato or simply relax from sightseeing on one of the many shaded benches that line the main walkway.

Lucca was one of my favourite stops. If you want to have a place to chill out and people watch, while enjoying good food and coffee, this is the town to do it. It was our last stop before leaving the next day, so shopping was on our agenda. 

That evening we had a farewell dinner in Montecatini Alto.  We walked from the hotel to the funicular and had dinner in a restaurant overlooking the town of Montecatini Terme. A lovely location with excellent food to end the tour.

Day Nine – Going Home

We left at various times for the airport or the train station, so we said our good-byes throughout the day. Our Just You tour guide, Jonathan, was on hand to ensure we all made our transfers.

Tuscany is a wonderful place to visit if you like beautiful scenery, fabulous food and wine, history, architecture and art. And with Just You, you will never have to wait until friends or family are available at the same time you are, and you will always have travel companions.

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