More Italian you will never get

Date Posted: 24/07/2010

GTO of the Year ‘09, Jim Godsell decided to check out Tuscany with his prize money. So, what did he think?

I was absolutely delighted, although shocked, when it was announced that Jim Godsell was the 2009 Group Travel Organiser of the Year® at the Group Leisure Awards. The reality of winning the trophy, the beautiful certificate and then a very generous prize of £1,500 was very overwhelming.

The prize money was to be used as a familiarisation holiday for a future group visit; and after much research and heartsearching, we finally decided on beautiful Tuscany.

I am passionate about personal house party-type holidays. Finding the perfect hotel really tipped the balance, it had everything that we and our friends adore. Only 27 bedrooms, family-run and cared for, and set in a quiet mountain village away from the usual tourist traps. The son is the chef of a very highly-acclaimed restaurant too. The hotel offered the best of both worlds; all the sightseeing opportunities within easy reach, but tasting the real rural Tuscany on our return to a peaceful haven.

Decision made, Saga Holidays took over from there, and so, when we actually arrived at the Hotel Franceschi, it was picture perfect - a real delight.

After a late evening flight to Pisa, we were whisked off to the mountain village of Gavinana and escorted by a very attractive and charming Saga guide, Michaela; a cross between Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigda. Her opening greeting of, “You wanted Italian... more Italian you will never get,” definitely struck a chord.

As we wound our way up very steep and hairpin-laden roads, she continued to tell us many interesting facts about Gavinana and Hotel Franceschi; the only hotel in the village, right opposite the church. It is run by the third generation of the Franceschi family, with fourth and fifth in training. The two-year-old granddaughter even ferociously bangs the gong to beckon guests into dinner. I repeat, more Italian you will never get.

Senora Dilva Franceschi greeted everyone personally with a loud Buona Sera and a piping hot cup of tea and biscuits, which completely renewed our spirits after our 11.45pm arrival. We were well and truly ready for our comfortable beds, in a lovely traditional bedroom that was sparklingly clean and included fresh fruit, fresh flowers and complimentary bottled water.

Next morning, the sun was shining and the birds were singing as we tucked into a fabulous breakfast (continental and cooked). We had a welcome cocktail reception and then an introductory talk, followed by an orientation walk around the village. It was only then that we realised we were only two or three yards from the church and Town Square, with its huge statue of General Francesco Ferruccio. The square supported one cafe, one bar, the greengrocers, tobacconist, a butchers, the supermarket, post office (some mornings only) and the village fountain. For the walkers in the group, many walks were discussed with detailed itineraries and maps. Others explored the area by local bus and train which proved to be a very good and rewarding plan.

Day two took us down the mountain again to tourist-laden Florence. Our specialist tour guide brought the place to life for us, with an impressive and intimate knowledge of a truly magnificent city and its incredible history. One snippet was of particular interest: the story goes that Michelangelo, one wine-fuelled evening, was comparing his talents to other artists, and boasted that he could sculpture without looking. So with his back to the wall, he chiselled a ‘self image’, which is tucked away in a corner unnoticed by most tourists.

Another day we visited Siena, very much on a par with Florence, and I loved the historic background shared with us by our local guide, Christina. Guides are well vetted in Siena; students have to take a course of 800 hours before taking an extremely difficult exam. Then they have to train under an established guide.

The Patron Saint of Siena, Italy and the whole of Europe is St Catherine. This remarkable lady was an adviser to the Pope of the day, but at the age of just 33 she died in Rome. Because she was born and raised in Siena, they wanted to have her buried there in St Dominic’s Church, where she trained as a nun. Rome was reluctant to release the body, but after much wrangling, they let her birthplace have her head and one thumb. Both of these sacred relics are still on display in their glass domes and revered by the faithful.

We visited many other interesting places including the magnificent Lucca and Montecatini with its many grand spas; but the other outstanding place was the city of Vinci... wow! It was such a treat to see the home town of Leonardo da Vinci. The museum, although small, has over 1,000 working models, artefacts and so much incredible information about the foresight of this remarkable man, who had so many visions of the future (the sci-fi of the day). We saw working and some original models of his perceptive ideas, such as a wooden bicycle, a tank, a helicopter, a diving suit with breathing apparatus, flying machines, cranes, clocks, multi-barrelled machine guns, cameras, hoists/levers to name only a few. Many original and copies of his blueprints were to be seen... again I was gobsmacked.

Being a ‘foodie’ and a wine lover, our final tour was to a Tuscany tasting, followed by a visit to San Gimignano, which proved to be a real highlight. We arrived at Villa Tenut Torciano to be seated in the flower-decked garden, where tables with sparkling glasses and cutlery were laden with breads, salamis, cheeses, olive oils and vinegars of the region. Our host taught us the Tuscany way to taste his incredible selection of wines in relationship to the food platter; it was a very jovial and happy couple of hours with a final tasting of dipping the very hard biscotti biscuits into the honey-sweet vin Santo. By the way, one bottle of aged Balsamic would cost you £55 - yes £55.

We loved every moment of our trip to Tuscany and would love to do it all again with our friends and family. Our holiday gave us the opportunity to try all the local specialities such as black wild boar, wild boar pate, cheeses galore, truffles, truffle infused oils, smoked swordfish, gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce, deep fried polenta, pecorino cheese with heather honey, mushrooms of every description, grappa, Sambuca, the whole range of the Chianti wines, and pasta of every shape and size garnished with real foodie flavoured sauces - foodie heaven.

My idea of a perfect holiday is not just about seeing things but embracing the people, their culture, their traditions, their religion, their food, their wines/drinks, their way of life (and in Italy a daily ‘fix’ of gelato). That is why I always employ local guides; I like to look behind the magnificence of the incredible buildings and the grandeur of the landscape. And a bit of people-watching works wonders. This adventure in Tuscany more than covered all of these essentials.

Saga Holidays did us proud; its price includes many extras, including insurance, which is of particular importance for mature groups. A full selection of excursions are available, or they supply all the information you need on walks and local transport. There’s interesting evening entertainment on offer, as well as gala nights; and most importantly, a cup of tea and homemade cake on our return to the hotel after our various wanderings. We were well pleased with their helpful service.

By the way, our Sophia Loren lookalike Saga guide was in fact Romanian. She spoke at least seven languages - a credit to Saga and to her country, I wish there were more like her. Thanks Michaela, you really made our holiday special.

Jim was the winner of the Group Travel Organiser of the Year ® Award 2009, which was presented last September at the Group Leisure Awards ceremony. Jim is the group organiser for Jim Godsell & Friends in the Birmingham area and took home £1,500 to use on a familiarisation trip of his choice. This year’s winner will be announced at the 2010 dinner and ceremony, which takes place at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole, NEC on Wednesday 22nd September. For more information log onto:

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