What happens in Florence, Italy when summer draws her last warm breath, and the cool mornings of winter call for an extra blanket? If you ask me, it's when Tuscany becomes Paradiso... Heaven!
The full crescendo that is summer in Italy seems to gain momentum each week beginning in April.
Finally the mass of bodies and humidity hit the unbearable point, about mid-August. Rumor has it that the crowds subside a bit in September and October. They do, but so subtly I hardly notice.
And then it all ends. Seemingly in one weekend, it's over. Like a curtain being dropped with a thud at the end of a performance, the tourists are gone. And it's quiet.
Once they have gone, Florence, like all the towns of Tuscany, is again returned to those that love her best and have been patiently waiting.
In the winter, throngs of tourists no longer swarm the piazzas, museums and restaurants. Gone are the packed bars at apertivo time, reservations are rarely required at restaurants, and only the locals are shopping at the outdoor markets. Famous churches, museums and galleries are accessible on any day, at any time.
There is a gentle calm that settles through the winding streets and seemingly snuggles in about November. Rainy days mute the colors of the landscape, and trattorias offer warmth in steaming bowls of pastas and hearty soups. Some days the clouds lie right down on the ground, creating a mysterious shroud around beloved landmarks. These are the days I live for in Tuscany!
While the vegetation may be dormant in the winter, the locals seem to come to life. More animated and relaxed, everyone seems a bit friendlier, softer. The lilt of Italian again fills the bars, and barristas are willing to spend a little more time for someone (like me) who is struggling to find the right change, or the right verb!
The cities and small towns are as I imagined them to be a century ago. Shops close in the afternoons and families of three generations walk the street on their passaggiata. The earth has yielded the grapes that will produce wines for the year. The olives have been pressed for their pungent, green oil. And so the soil, and those that work it, take a break. It's winter in Tuscany.... you can almost hear the collective sigh.
I recently had lunch with a good friend, and owner of Villa Ferraia, Vittorio Cambria. His ancient villa, beautifully reconstructed with every luxury, is located about 20 minutes outside of Siena. It always takes my breath away when I first arrive! http://www.tuscanywithus.com/files/BrochureWintering.pdf
Vittorio offers a program designed just for the guests that arrive in the winter months. He creates a personalized program for his guests around the ancient Roman concept of "otium".
Referring to a time in life when the search for pleasure, serenity and aesthetic beauty becomes a state of mind, otium is a concept embraced at the villa. We discussed that such a concept would appeal, and be understood, by someone of the baby boomer age. We continue to be the generation that carves out new experiences, unafraid to go against the grain.
Whether guests come to Villa Ferraia to work in the organic garden, horseback ride, paint, spend nights at the astronomical observatory or sightsee along the back roads of Tuscany, they come wanting a richer experience than the average tourist.
As I left Villa Ferraia, I continued to think about otium. Italy seems to understand the beauty in addressing each of the five senses. Slowing down enough to savor a meal or a work of art is understood here, just as it has been for centuries. I thought about how winter allows those in Italy an opportunity to recharge and renew.
Next week I will purchase my "Friends of the Uffizi" card. For 60 Euro, beginning January 1, one can have unlimited access to not only the Uffizi, but Accademia Gallery, The Medici Chapels, Pitti Palace, Boboli and Bardini Gardens, and a host of other museums for a calendar year. All through the winter, I leisurely visit the locations that the summer crowds claim. I linger in the Botticelli room at the Uffizi, or spend an afternoon with David.
I am sharing with you, one of the best kept secrets I know. Tuscany in winter. It costs less, and provides infinitely more than a summer trip. Sure, it might rain for a day or two while you are here, but you won't stand in lines. And after you have seen the tourist highlights, other truly unique and authentic adventures await at quiet, uncrowded retreats such as Villa Ferraia.