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July 30, 2015, Italy

Terrific Tuscany

Italian passion and exquisite culinary finds get Grace Ma hooked

Grace Ma

TO SAY that driving in Tuscany requires a strong heart and steady presence of mind is an understatement.

We had brushed off incredulous, brow-raising looks from friends (including Italians) when we shared our two families’ plans to explore Tuscany by car, then found ourselves saying penitent prayers as we moved out from Rome to our farmhouse accommodation in Montaione, a town that was a 3½-hour drive north of the capital.

Supply issues and not-so-forward planning had forced us to take a nine-seater Ford Tourneo that very morning from a dodgy local car rental that lived up to every negative online review.

But other than a few jerky stalls at traffic junctions, almost becoming a permanent colonnade feature, repeated mutterings of “keep right, step clutch to change gear” by the husband, plus bewildering roads that split three ways when the navigation system tells you to bear left, it was basically a piece of cake.

Fattoria Barbialla Nuova (www.barbialla.it) in Montaione took us forever to locate.

“Look for a green sign with a white cow,” said the website’s directions, but in reality, it was so faded we almost missed it.

When we finally arrived five hours later, all was forgiven.

The 1,200-acre organic farm was run by a passionate couple, Ilaria and Francesco, who were brimming with warm smiles and helpful tips.

Our cottage had a large lawn and sweeping views of a valley.

Throughout our five-day stay, there was a perpetual symphony of frogs at our doorstep and the occasional wild animal that scampered across our path.

From here, we could drive out to explore the wonders of Lucca, Pisa, San Gimignano, Siena and Florence, coming home each evening to the cosiness of a farmstay.

Whistle in the wind

The four children aged eight to 11 years were thrilled to have the space to play soccer and I was content to eat strawberries with my feet dipped in the cool pool beside the outdoor pergola.

Our favourite dining place while at Fattoria Barbialla Nuova was Osteria San Vivaldo.

The owner, Andrea, whistled merrily wherever he went, served customers with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile, and hung our children’s drawings on his restaurant walls.

We were so bewitched that we said yes to his appetiser recommendation of liver sauce with toasted bread, even though none of us liked liver.

The combination was surprisingly so delicious that the leftovers became next day’s breakfast. Both times we were there, the children unanimously ordered and gobbled up the lasagne and mushroom soup before the adults could ask for some.

Our average bill was €130 (S$195), a steal as it included a one-litre carafe of excellent house wine and a 1.2kg Fiorentina, a delicious T-bone steak made from Chianina beef that was grilled to typical Tuscan perfection.

Happy people

In Florence, we signed up for a tour of the city’s historical centre with ArtViva (www.italy.artviva.com).

Our fantastic guide Kane dished out Florentine chronicles with such expressive humour that the children’s curiosity was piqued and they were entertained throughout the three-hour walk. Their only demand was for gelato, which had become a constant refrain throughout the trip anyway.

But it was the unplanned places that captured our hearts. Cinque Terre (comprising five towns, hence its name) was a breathtaking rugged part of the Italian Riviera, albeit a last-minute insertion into an already ambitious itinerary.

We headed for the largest town, Riomaggiore, and were fortuitous enough to snag a free parking lot on the outskirts.

Instead of taking the main pedestrian street to the village centre, we went downhill via narrow lanes, staircases and ledges separating the houses perched on the slopes, peering into a window or two and imagining the lives of the inhabitants whose laundry flapped above our heads.

As we approached the marina, the sheer beauty of the place hit us: crystal clear waters glistening in the sun, imposing cliffs with colourful homes built precariously on its sides, and happy people soaking up pure seaside essence.

Poetic pause

Then there was Certaldo Alto. It is usually not on the tourist radar, and apparently not on our car’s Global Positioning System (GPS) either.

The GPS brought us to Certaldo, the newer settlement that was eerily quiet that morning, and we only found the red brick-walled medieval town accidentally by following the “centro storico” (historical centre) signs.

It was definitely worth the endless circling round. The birthplace of 14th century poet and writer Giovanni Boccaccio had none of the maddening summer crowds and we could stroll leisurely to take in its architectural richness.

Wine, walks and wanderings

Leaving Tuscany without tasting its fine wines would be unthinkable and we discovered some of the best in the province of Siena.

Avignonesi (www.avignonesi.it) in Montepulciano carries a dessert wine that tastes every drop as divine as the reviews make it out to be. Tastings are €10 per person with a choice of three wines. Book at least two weeks ahead for its vineyard tours and lunches.

At Montalcino, we walked into Taverna dei Barbi, and a spirited young man Sandro skipped out to welcome us into his family-run restaurant.

In between flavourful traditional Tuscan dishes, some recreated from 18th century recipes, we had a fun conversation in broken Italian and English with Sandro and his mother, who was the chef.

We learned that Fattoria dei Barbi, the winery behind the restaurant, is one of Montalcino’s pioneer Brunello wine estates, and we tried their 2010 Brunello, touted as one of the best vintages from the area in recent years, at just €28.

So take a drive through Tuscany if you can — the wine, walks and wanderings will add up to great memories for a lifetime.

IN BRIEF

Getting there

We flew to Rome via Emirates with a stopover in Dubai. From Rome, we rented a mini van to drive to Tuscany, which is about three hours away.

Traveller’s tips

- Book your car at least three months in advance, especially if you prefer an automatic one. Rent from international car companies such as Hertz, Europcar and Avis; they are more reliable and less likely to make unauthorised deductions on your card.

- Get instructions from your accommodation on the best way to reach them and use their tips together with a GPS, which does not always give the most efficient routes.

- Check out the public parking areas for each town before setting off. You will be fined if you drive into a Limited Traffic Zone (ZTL) zone, no excuses accepted.

- Arm yourself with lots of repellent in the summer months especially at farmhouse accommodations.

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