The winter of 2017 started out cold, with a foot of snow on the ground. During that time, I had a great chat with a dear friend of mine, Evan Chapman, about “that trip” we always wanted to take to warm and sunny Tuscany. We vowed to make it happen someday. A few months later there was another phone call. Evan had some very difficult news to share. His fight with cancer was one he would eventually lose. With a new focus on his remaining time, he made the choice to live every day with gusto. He sold just about everything and decided to take the next year to do some extensive travel, meet with friends and family along the way, and savor every moment.
We made the decision to spend a week in Tuscany in July. Evan, along with his childhood friend Neil Leonard, would be traveling together in Greece and other parts of Italy ahead of our stay. Evan found us a villa online and plans were made. A villa. In Tuscany. I was going to spend a week in a villa in Tuscany! To say I was excited was an understatement.
The location Evan chose was in Marsiliana, a small agritourism village outside of Grosseto in the southwest part of Tuscany. When one conjures up images of Tuscany, I, like many, think of rolling hills draped with vineyards, golden farmland, and tall Cypress trees next to rustic stucco dwellings. All of that is true of Marsiliana, with one lovely addition. It is near the coast, and within a half hour’s drive you can be swimming in the azure blue Mediterranean or strolling through an idyllic fishing town.
After spending my first day of the trip in Florence, trying to acclimate to the time change and the high heat, it was time to get on my way to meet my friend. Train tickets in hand at the depot in Florence, I searched for my platform and was soon swooshing through the Italian countryside with endless fields of sunflowers and little villages passing by.
I arrived in Orbetello, in the province of Grosseto, sweating from head to toe. The train I was on had no A/C and no windows that rolled down and it was HOT. My only thought was that when the train reached my destination that there would be a place to buy some cold water. When I disembarked, I saw in the distance a small café. There I ordered a cold draft Peroni and let me tell you, no beer has ever tasted better!
Evan and Neil arrived from their trip exploring Naples. With hugs all around and Evan’s Alpha Romeo rental stuffed to the gills with our luggage, we were off to find our Tuscan retreat. We had English navigation, written directions and both Neil and I watched and read the signs. We eventually found the right roads and winding driveway to our villa.
We were all anxious to get settled, relax, enjoy some wine and get in the beautiful saltwater pool. It was perfect, and bobbing around in that silky cool water, overlooking the countryside, reality finally hit me. I was really there and able to experience this beautiful place with my sweet friend. My only hope was that time would go by slowly so we could all savor each day.
Evan spent time researching the area and the attractions around us. Not only was the coast not far, wineries by the dozens surrounded us, and a well-known thermal spa was less than 40 minutes away. Photos of it made my jaw drop. “We have to go there,” I said. Evan and Neil agreed.
The first destination we chose to explore was Porto Santo Stephano on the peninsula of Monte Argentario. The car curved and dipped along a winding road and finally dropped us into the picturesque port town. We spent the afternoon taking it all in – the fishing boats, shops and the pastel-colored homes snuggled up against the hillside, people smiling and laughing as they strolled through town. We were all hungry, but dinner wouldn’t be served for another hour. So, we found a café, enjoyed some wine and then set off to find a waterfront restaurant.
Dinner couldn’t have been more enjoyable. The owner took us to see the fresh catches of the day and explained in broken English the flavor profile of each fish. We enjoyed our meal and casually made our way back to the car, stopping to take photos as the sun set. I resisted making a scene and pouting, because I never wanted to leave. I knew there were many more days of discoveries ahead, but a piece of my heart stayed there.
The next day we ventured to the thermal hot springs located in Saturnia. According to Wikipedia, Saturnia takes its name from the Roman god Saturn. Legend has it that he grew tired of the constant wars and sent a thunderbolt to earth that created this spring of warm sulfurous water which would pacify mankind. Legend or not, this magical place is a destination to experience. Far to one side, the waters diminish, leaving mineral-rich mud. Young and old alike would slather the mud on themselves from head to toe and let it dry on their skin. Once dry, they would plunge into the waters or sit under one of the many waterfalls to wash it off. You know the saying, when in Rome… well, when in Saturnia works too. I didn’t want to be left out of this experience and followed suit. Little did I know that across the ponds Evan and Neil were watching me and laughing. Thankfully no photos were taken! I have to say that this was another experience where I felt like I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. To sit in that heavenly water under the warm Italian sun, was just amazing and my skin never felt better after.
Our next excursion was to a winery. We could have literally turned in any direction from the villa and landed at a winery in less than ten minutes. But we wanted to check out the countryside in a new direction. Driving along the rolling hills, grapevines and farmland on either side, we noticed something unusual ahead right in the middle of an old vineyard. We saw a sign and a small road leading to a beautiful ruin. We discovered that it had been the Monastery of San Brusio, built between the years of 1,000 and 1,200 A.D. Every side of the decaying structure had such beauty and we all grabbed our cameras to get photos.
Back in the car we headed towards our destination, the Mantellassi winery. This family owned winery started in 1960 with just under 10 acres of Sangiovese and Alicante grapes. Today, their vineyards span over 210 acres. The winery and vineyards were lovely and their award-winning wines were delicious.
We ventured back to the village in Marsilliana to shop at their weekly famers market. We found a bounty of fresh produce, meats and seafood and all the ingredients to make a lovely meal in the villa’s gourmet kitchen. Later, as we relaxed, swam and took breaks to sit and enjoy the surrounding view, Evan came out to find me on one of the many outside seating areas and put a cocktail in front of me, saying “it’s time for an Aperol Spritz!” This is said to be the most commonly enjoyed aperitif cocktail in Italy. The drink is made by combining Prosecco, a sweet sparkling wine, Aperol, made from bitter and sweet oranges, and a splash of seltzer. Another new experience! It was delicious and refreshing. The perfect light drink to sit and enjoy with my friend.
On our last day together, we set our sights and GPS for the beaches of Capalbio. There the beach areas are sectioned off and each area has its own café and beach chair and umbrella rental. We found our spot right on the shore and took in the view. The waters were brilliant blue, the lounge chairs were ever so comfy. After a swim and a day soaking up more sun, we headed out to find a nice spot for dinner nearby. Once again GPS came through and we found Ristorante Tullio, an open-air restaurant that sits high enough on a hillside that you can see the ocean in the distance. I could write several paragraphs on the incredible meal we had there. Suffice it to say, the food was amazing!
All good things come to an end eventually. Leaving this wonderful place was hard, but it was so nice to discover this corner of Italy, not overrun by tourists and to do it in such a relaxing way. With my suitcase packed and bursting with mementos from the trip and my heart full of love and memories, I reluctantly said good-bye to a place that I was lucky enough to enjoy because of a dream that Evan and I shared and made come true. I did not say good-bye to Evan, instead I said “Ci rivediamo” — until we meet again.
Evan Chapman spent many more months traveling the world and connecting with those who meant the most to him. He passed away on January 9, 2018. He was a good friend and I will miss him the rest of my days.