I wrote a post a couple of years ago called “Twelve of a Kind”. One of my close friends, Christy, decided to celebrate her 40th by taking friends from all stages of her life on a trip together to Puerto Rico. I debated going because I wasn’t sure how that would work out - I only knew Christy and one other person going, and I was a little worried about how that whole big group female dynamic might go. But in the end, I love that girl and wanted to celebrate with her! I then proceeded to connect with a group of the most amazing women - Christy’s tribe, and had one of the best long weekends ever. I adore the women I met on that island! As I thought through the impact that that trip had had (doesn’t that sound weird? had had? but I think it’s right…) on me, I decided that in a couple of years when I turned 50, I was going to do something similar and bring my “tribe” together. I knew it would be tough, but nearly a year in advance, I sent out an email to the amazing women in my life asking them to share my birthday with me in a Tuscan villa for a week. I knew it was a big ask - we all have so many responsibilities at this stage of life - kids, husbands, careers, etc - and I was so happy when I had so many positive responses and the planning began. I have a way with finding amazing Air BnBs or VRBOs when I travel, and this time was no exception; I found an extraordinary villa about 20 minutes outside of Florence. I could have read travel books and gotten advice from people I know that know Italy well, but I find I have the most success when I just follow my intuition. The house I found was 400 years old, on a hill, surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen….and big enough to sleep 16 in comfort! As I pressed the “book” button, I felt a combination of joy, terror, and excitement…we were doing this thing.
At the end of the day, after people balanced their budgets, checked with their spouses (deals were made), and cleared their work calendars….I had 13 women ready to join me on this epic adventure. The trip was still months away, so we put it on the back burner as life took over and we became buried in work travel, deadlines, soccer tournaments, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, and all of the day to day stuff we do that make us badasses. Sometimes when I think of everything we do to keep our lives afloat, it’s overwhelming. Somehow knowing an Italian adventure was waiting in the future was enough to keep the energy high and keep the focus on finding joy in all of the day to day routine. Everyone knows how much I love to travel…THIS is why and how I can maintain an extremely full life and stay sane….the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (Arco beleno in Italiano!) I bought some Italian CDs to listen to in the car (never did of course - always too many conference calls!), a travel book I never actually read, some Italian electric converters on Amazon, and then went back to work. This year was one of the more difficult work years for me - juggling a new job with a lot of responsibilities, and I know I wasn’t alone in this. The women who had agreed to accompany me on this journey had their own issues - job losses, job changes, income fluctuations, kid issues, ex husband issues, major appliance breakdowns, boyfriend breakups, health issues - you know, LIFE. Yet, they were all in. That’s what I love about my people. We all needed the gold at the end of the Arco Beleno even if we didn’t realize it in the moment.
I hadn’t given much thought to the DETAILS of the trip (frankly no time), and about then, one of my amazing friends offered to find a “concierge” (who even knew there was such a thing?) that would hammer out the agenda/schedule/events/transportation (with our input of course). THIS was the biggest gift I (WE) could have ever received. I honestly think the 13 of us might still be sitting around the villa deciding what to do and living on a diet of bread and olive oil had she not coordinated this for us. Jenny did a lot of the heavy lifting with the concierge - coordinating the “must haves” and we made some final decisions, etc. I think I seriously thought we could just rent a couple of vans (with a couple of us driving) and wander around. This is what I do when I travel alone - it is now painfully obvious this would have been a disaster! The thought of trying to split up a bill at dinner is insane, let alone me trying to navigate the Italian countryside in a minivan with road signs in a language I don’t speak! Alas, the concierge hooked us up! She planned an adventure none of us will ever forget. (Jennifer Schwartz www.pom613.com for anyone looking for an Italian concierge - HIGHLY recommend)
As the trip grew closer, the Badass Women of Italy text string was created (much to the dismay of the non texting type people in the group) and people started to get to know one another. So many GIFs, jokes, and banter about the countdown! Things were popping up in people’s lives left and right - as if the universe was testing us - and the toughest part of it all was when PJ had a pretty serious health scare and wound up unable to travel with us. I think we all felt a giant let down over this - PJ brings a lot of energy to the group and is deeply loved by all who know her. At the end of the day we had to accept that it just wasn’t meant to be and she needed to focus on returning to health. While I was sad at not having her by my side, I was mostly sad that she had to miss out on this phenomenal experience. There were many times during the trip that I channelled “What would PJ do?”…and then I bought whatever it was I was questioning. :) PJ is great at convincing you that “YOU ARE WORTH IT”. And damn it - we were all worth it! (Bring on the leather goods, the wine, the jewelry, etc….because - WWPJD?) So she was with us whether she realized it or not.
A few people were traveling from other airports (Christy and Kristin would be meeting Lorraine for the first time in Florence and spending a few hours together before we all arrived - they were besties in 7.2 minutes and proceeded to take Florence by storm). The rest of us arrived at the Atlanta airport en masse, checked our overpacked bags and headed through security to the Delta lounge. Because it was Lisa’s birthday…..the sweet Delta man let me bring in ALL the friends…just one of many “Lisa’s birthday” luxuries.
While having a glass of wine and giggling at the unicorn neck pillow, candy necklace and crown bestowed upon me by Jenny , we get a call that Robin inadvertently grabbed her expired passport and would be unable to accompany us until the next day. PJ, Robin, and I had begged, borrowed, and used miles to upgrade to first class seats….so I schlepped my unicorn neck pillowed self to the Delta One seat alone. I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard she had found the new passport at home and would arrive safely to Florence the next day. I know this wasn’t easy for her though - having never travelled to Europe before - but she badassed her way across the sea, through CDG/Paris airport (nightmare always), and arrived in one piece to the palace the next day.
Meanwhile, the flight was smooth, the connection was made, and we arrive to a rainy day in Florence. Most of the luggage arrived - except for two - (came next day luckily), and we met our drivers, Tomasso and Marco and had a lovely cappuccino in the airport lobby.
Tomasso took one group to the villa, and Marco took a few of us into Florence to pick up the three early arrivers/shopaholics. We were a little jealous that they had a jumpstart on the amazing shopping and sightseeing, but we were happy to hug each other gleefully and be on our way to the countryside. As we covered the ground between the city center and our home away from home for a week, we took in the sights and smells of one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. The rolling hills, the tall proud cypress trees standing in a row, the olive groves, the vineyards, the tuscan villas dotting the hills- even in the rain, spectacular! We passed through small villages to San Casciano and Villa Pisignano.
The gate opened to a long driveway lined with cypress trees and a lovely yard surrounded with olive trees. A sundial graced the side of the house and the large wooden doors and windows beckoned us to come inside and get warm and comfortable. We laughed as they lugged our luggage inside the foyer on the basement level and were grateful there was an elevator (modern addition to the 400 year old villa). We were then given a tour of the house by the caretaker, and introduced to our chef and assistant (Alessio and Julia) for the week. A beautiful charcuterie tray and a bottle of wine were awaiting in front of a large fire in the stone fireplace. 20 foot (at least) ceilings, beautiful stone floors, ornate light fixtures and cozy linen covered furniture awaited our travel weary bodies. We went from room to room, taking in the luxurious setting, amazed at the SIZE and GRANDEUR of the place. The views from every room were incredible - even in the rain. Tuscany is a place that makes you take a deep breath, look around, and wonder if you are in a dream or if you have been plucked out of your regular life and placed in an oil painting!
We gathered in the living room, the wine start flowing, the cheese was salty and lovely and the bread and salami accompanied it all in the very best way. The laughter and sharing was just beginning, and at some point I looked around the room and felt such a sense of joy at what I knew would happen that week. Not just the adventure and experiences, but the relationships that were forming between these women that had never met each other before. I was fortunate to have people there from all phases of my life - and while all different, there is a commonality of authenticity, love, and grace amongst them. We have all led different lives, but as is always the case with humans, we had more in common than separated us. Let the sharing and friendships begin.
Each day in the upcoming week had an adventure planned - but I think the first day was one of my favorites. Tomasso and Marco arrived promptly at 9 to pick us up. We, as you would expect from 13 women, were ready right on time 30 minutes late. We load up in the two vans while observing the landscape with complete glee, and head off for the Chianti Region and Castello Di Ama. Their website (when translated to English) says “to live in the experience of authentic emotions, come to Castello di Ama”. This proved to be just the case; whirlwind of emotions here. Located in a tiny medieval hamlet perched on a hilltop, Castello di Ama was part of the revival of Chianti Classico. In the book I bought about this place, there is a beautiful letter written from the owners of the property to their children and it eloquently describes their love of the land, the unbalanced temperament of a life of wine making, the effect of the sun and rain on life and the land, the beauty of the seen and unseen, the intertwining of art and wine and landscape that resides in this magical place. You feel the heart and soul of the parental love for their children, you feel the depth of the lessons they want them to learn and the strength of the history that grounds them to this place. The letter ends brilliantly, with a passage that speaks to my heart as I look to the week ahead -
Use the immensity against our time. Thieves of aura. Be forever young and innocent, but with a few thousand years of history to refer back to. Don’t let yourself be fooled, don’t let them pull your leg. Be a dream machine and mimic the permanent infinite. Be forever amazed.
Forever amazed. As the day unfolded and we discovered the hidden treasures of Castello di Ama, I felt amazed. The book talks about the “Sense of Place”. When you think about a place..it is more than the physical location. The “place” is a combination of light and thought and feeling and awareness of the sights and sounds and smells - all of the senses combined create the “place”. This place was rolling Tuscan hills, tall cypress trees, grape vines both old and new arranged in straight lines on square plots of land, the gray clouds, the sputtering raindrops, the smell of land and moisture and stone. The 18th century stone buildings stand in the midst of this natural beauty - evidence of man recognizing a beautiful “place” and wanting to be there forever. The surprise factor here comes when the magnificent art installations pop up throughout the property. I could write pages and pages describing them - I will highlight just a few. There was a yard full of miniature “walls” representing the walls around our world - mini replicas of the Berlin Wall, the Korean wall, the border of Mexico, many others…the artist wanting to show us the futility of walls, perhaps man’s desire to always find a way to clamber over them; the miniature nature that allows for this. Another a wall of mirrors with “windows to the countryside” cut out - showing a beautiful reflection of the natural beauty of the land and the person viewing it. We entered a small room that captivated all of us. Imagine a medieval stone home - the walls painted an off white and all over the room tiny hand written poems and tiny simple figure drawings of little people or places to illustrate the simple yet powerful lines of prose. They were funny and serious and thoughtful lines reflecting the poet’s inner thoughts and feelings with a delightful sense of humor. The juxtaposition of the modern art in the most unlikely places on this property - a bright red light on the floor of a tiny chapel for example, colorful painted stones dotting the walkway throughout, a brightly lit glass sculpture of body parts by Shen Zhen tucked between the wine barrels in the wine cellar was simply…magnificent. Wine and art just belong together - they are so similar in the subjective nature of their beauty and depth.
The trip was off to a beautiful start. After a carsick inducing ride back over the hills in the mini van (worth it)….we returned to the villa where Robin AND the lost luggage were waiting for us. Alessio and Julia served us a delightful “light” dinner - a light dinner in Italy consists of only an appetizer, salad, pasta, and dessert…..my pants were already tight after our first full day. We settled into bed fairly early after an evening of laughter and sharing of stories. After a night of not much sleep (I never adjust to time well)…Amy and I found ourselves in the kitchen where there wasn’t much coffee left. We decided to run into the little village to see the countryside and hopefully find some much needed caffeine. The sun was just peeping out from behind the clouds when we left, and by the time we returned, the sky was a magnificent blue and the sun was shining above the Tuscan hills. The road to San Casciano from our villa was narrow and windy and lined with olive trees and vineyards as far as the eye could see. The classic villas - made of rustic stone and/or painted a gold or red color looked like a scene from a movie. The crisp air and smell of earth and rain surrounded us. Amy and I laughed and pinched ourselves at the wonder that surrounded us. As we entered the villa, the roads were very narrow and morning traffic was flowing; we found ourselves flattened against the buildings occasionally to avoid being run over at high speed. We laughed that it would be an amazing way to die, but the transport of the body home would be complicated and put a damper on the trip for everyone else, so we proceeded with caution. We found a woman on the street that spoke a bit of English and she directed us to a little bar/cafe…no coffee here either so the owner gave us vague directions toward a supermarket. We found it, grabbed two bags of coffee and headed back at a leisurely running pace to “home”. We had drivers appearing in about 30 minutes to take us into a day in Siena. As we began our drive, that glorious sun and blue sky disappeared, rain began to fall, and then hail followed! We didn’t care - Tomasso and Marco were well prepared with umbrellas and our guide picked us up at the designated spot and we ducked into a beautiful hotel for cover and an espresso.
As Elena, our beautiful tour guide, began to describe the history of Siena, I looked around the room at these beautiful women accompanying me on this journey. I breathed deeply as I sipped my cappuccino and thanked the universe for this gift. I am deeply aware of how amazingly good my life is - I am grateful on so many levels for this moment.
We snapped some group photos and headed back out into the streets of Siena; the rain had paused and we began our meander through the narrow windy stone streets of Siena; the red clay roofs and ironwork everywhere we looked. Our first stop was a “clubhouse’ of sorts - the Tuscan Turtle district clubhouse to be exact. The Palio di Siena is a horse race held twice a year on a small race course in the city center - the Piazza del Campo. Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in colors representative of their respective “district” race around this small square and there is a powerful competitive spirit akin to the US sports frenzy around football. Everyone has their “team” if you will - and you are born into this “team”. The clubhouses aren’t typically open to the public, but our concierge had opened some doors for us. There were banners and costumes inside this lovely modern art museum of sorts that was a complete surprise. As we opened the glass doors of the stone building, we certainly didn’t expect the modern interior. She shared the history and stories with us and we headed off to a small local restaurant for a lovely lunch. Today, being March 12, was Ashley’s actual birthday, and we celebrated with song and yet another perfect meal. Who knew beets with tuna sauce could be amazing? (seriously!) We had some wonderful Italian white wine and the laughter came up yet another notch. Everyone talks about how amazing the food and wine are in Italy, and I think we all think of pasta and bread and olive oil (all of which ARE amazing), but the vegetables and the sauces and the wine are beyond delicious. You can TASTE and SMELL the freshness and the actual EARTH in every meal. One of the restaurant owners asked us if we wanted to see their private wine cellar…..of course we said yes. We left the restaurant walked a few hundred yards and went into another building and down some stairs into a bar area with small room obviously designed for a small party of live music, and then deeper down into the earth to their cellar where there were many bottles of wine housed in the cool dank dimly lit series of small cave-like rooms. He told us the oldest bottle they had was from 1968 (!) My year of birth! How appropriate. Of course (WWPJD)…I bought it. It wasn’t as expensive as one might expect, and I looked forward to sharing it with my girls that night at the birthday party surprise extravaganza.
We wandered around Siena a bit more and then, like magic, Tomasso and Marco appeared to shuttle us back to the Villa. We were, of course, two hours later than our schedule dictated (there’s a constant theme here), and we walked in to a couple of new faces - surprise birthday extravaganza was beginning! Fabio approached me and told me he was there to give me a massage. (I’m a massage junkie and my girls know this). I went upstairs and had a lovely massage that seemed to last five minutes (I think he was probably late getting home since we were so damn late…) and then I came downstairs relaxed and ready to party. The DJ (yes, DJ) was setting up and the girls had made a “thankful tree” for me which brought me to tears. At Thanksgiving with my family we always make a thankful tree - listing things we are grateful for on colorful leaves that become a tree when combined. This tree was filled with sweet memories, inside jokes, and words of love from my sweet friends. My heart was full, and soon, so was my wine glass. We let the 1968 bottle “breathe” while we settled into the kitchen with Alessandro and Alessio - our resident chefs/cooking instructors. We prepared an amazing meal including learning to make homemade pasta (ravioli) that was beyond delicious. About this time the DJ got started and we began to dance around the room while making the pasta. The purple and red lights started illuminating the living room, the pasta was being created on the marble table in the breakfast room, and the laughter was commencing. Did I mention the wine? Abundant. I loved watching Lorraine’s dance moves and high kicks (don’t tell Colin…he would never believe it! :) ) These crazy women also unveiled the “flat Lisa” faces - 13 of them - which various people including the chefs periodically put in front of their faces as they danced around the room. Halle gave a sweet toast while wearing a turquoise wig during a delicious dinner, we laughed some more, and, well….wine. At some point we shared the 1968 bottle (split between 13!) and it was earthy and Italian and smelled like a bandaid (just like I like it!). We danced the night away and had a pineapple dessert that was quite the surprise! The chefs and Julia and the DJ joined us on the dance floor, 22 bottles of wine were consumed, and at some point we all stumbled upstairs to bed in the wee hours of the morning.
Truffle hunting was on the agenda for the next morning with a 9:30 pickup. When I rolled over at 9, I texted the concierge to let her know we needed to move things back a bit as we had had a REALLY AMAZING time the night before. She made the necessary arrangements with drivers, truffle hunters, and the restaurant where we had a private lunch booked later that day. The rain was pouring down, and I was grateful I wasn’t schlepping through the mud with a moderate hangover. The extra sleep helped a bit and we all rallied and headed off to San Miniato for a truffle adventure. The fresh air helped, the sun popped out, and we met GIO, our truffle hunting dog. Salvatore and Massimo (father/son duo - Salvatore speaking no English) took us on the hunt which consisted of a short walk in the woods and GIO going crazy whenever a truffle was near. I’m pretty sure the whole thing was a bit staged, but we got a good feel for the process and the thrill of finding a truffle and breathing in its earthy aroma. The sun was shining on us, we snapped some photos, played with GIO a bit, and headed off into the tiny village for a truffle lunch at a restaurant that was opening just for our group. We weren’t exactly ourselves that day (still recovering from the night before), but the restaurant was beautiful - another strikingly modern inside of an ancient stone outside. The views from the restaurant were extraordinary - the rolling hills and orange trees and olive trees and vineyards dotting the landscape were breathtaking. I can only speak for myself that I didn’t have much appetite that day - and the smell of truffle on everything was making me a big queasy (especially the truffle covered beef carpaccio - just too much for my wine soaked soul at that moment). There was a lot of pushing my food around on the plate and wishing I wanted to eat it!
We poked around the small village - popping into leather shops and small studios, purchased a few gifts, and then split up into our two vans - one going back to the villa (I chose this one) and one headed to the famed outlet malls nearby for some high end shopping. We knew yet another meal was coming from our amazing chefs, so of course, I needed to take a nap first. Eat. Drink. Laugh. Sleep. Repeat. It was early to bed for us that night after oohing and aahing over the purchases from the outlets.
The next morning started with a small jog down the road - the clouds were fluffy and gray but soon parted to the gorgeous sun shining down on us. One of my favorite things to do when visiting a new place is to RUN - you get a lovely close up perspective that might otherwise be missed. We were off for an epic adventure that day - heading to a beautiful stone home on a hill - a private gold jewelry artisan and his family for a gold jewelry show. Orlando Orlandini - beautiful custom gold jewelry - a private show for the princesses. When we saw a photo of Princess Diana wearing their jewelry, I was a little worried they were out of our league, but we somehow convinced ourselves it was within our means. (WWPJD) The main floor of the stone building served as their showroom and upstairs was their home. They gave us a tour of the property - a 14th century monastery in the hills of Chianti, and we met the family - the father (the original artisan), his wife (an amazing hostess), his daughter (who gives the tours) and his granddaughter (who translated for him as he speaks very little English). The experience was wonderful - of course it included a table full of food and champagne - complete decadence. The view from the top of the hill was spectacular and we snapped another group photo with the Orlandini family - they made us feel part of it!
Back on the bus - heading to San Gimignano - for a day at Fattoria di Fugnano - Laura’s Winery. The sun was out, the clouds were fluffy and we could see the towers of San Gimignano in the distance. A donkey was chewing on grass next to the stone shed on the property, our spirits were high and we began the walking tour of the property with Laura. She shocked her family of lawyers by taking over the property at age 23 (it had been her grandfather’s land) and learning about the land, the grapes, the wine, and now it is a beautiful boutique vineyard with a gorgeous lunch and wine tasting. When we sat down at the long wooden table and the first bottle was uncorked all I could think about was that this would be an incredible experience for Zach! At first opportunity I asked Laura if she needed an extra pair of chef hands for the summer (to cook, pick grapes, whatever) and she was entirely open to the idea ——- I am in the process of making this happen as I type!! The idea of him spending his summer with an experience like this makes my heart smile. We tasted several delicious varietals of wine - some unique to this region (Vernaccia for example…a lovely crisp white wine unlike any other I’ve tried). We of course purchased many bottles around the table to be shipped in April. (WWPJD)
One of the things about this trip that was so wonderful was the incessant laughter. 13 women. Italy. Wine. I’ve never laughed so much in my life. My people are FUNNY and clever and smart…so grateful for them all.
After the lovely lunch, wine tasting, and getting to know Laura and her incredible passion for her winemaking, we ventured into the city of San Gimignano. San Gimignano is known as the Town of Fine Towers. Its medieval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its towers, dates to the 12th century. At one point there were 72 tower houses - built by patrician families who controlled the town to symbolize their wealth and power. Pointy skylines such as this were the norm in Tuscany in the middle ages. Feuding noble families (Game of Thrones comes to mind) would battle from their respective towers. When the Florentines took over in the 14th century, they usually made the local nobles cut off the top of their towers. 14 of these towers remain today - and the walled city is quaint and beautiful and contains a series of masterpieces of 14th and 15th century Italian art in their original architectural settings. The hilltop town is remarkably preserved - a walled city rich in history.
I wish I could say I embraced all of this at the time; several of us that work for my current company were on a conference call absorbing the fact that one of the leaders of our company was departing - leaving us feeling a bit unmoored. When I look at it from home base now, and think about the ancient small city, I giggle at the insignificance of such things in the big picture of life. This is one thing I know to be true - travel gives you perspective. It gives you the ability to combine place and time and history and beauty and think about all that has come before you and all that will come after you. The little things that shake up our day to day world are just tiny grains of sand on the big beach of life.
We enjoyed some gelato on our way out, some purchased art and jewelry in the small shops, and we made our way to the other side of the walled city to rejoin Tomasso and Marco in the vans for the hour or so journey back home. I recall many times this week just sitting in the van (birthday girl status gave my carsick self the front seat most often..thank you girls!) and I would breathe deeply and think about how grateful I am. I am so grateful to have all of these amazing people in my life, so grateful to be able to experience things like this. When I was a child growing up in a small town in Kansas, I never dreamed my world would grow so large - both in the amount of the world I would be able to experience, but in the breadth of the PEOPLE I would meet and love along the way. So grateful.
Back to the villa for a “light” chef meal - just four courses - and then off to bed. Our days were so full that our evenings were often short. The house was so huge and the walls so thick that we could be laughing hysterically in one room, huddled on someone’s bed like teenagers going over the day’s events, and no one else could hear in the next room. Eventually, we all crawled in our own beds with our respective sleep aids and called it a night.
We awaken the next morning to a light fog covering the Tuscan hills. Kristin and I walked down and up the steep hills and tried to solve all the problems of the world. We sat on a small bench overlooking the olive groves and the vineyards and breathed in the cool fresh air, wanting to capture every second of this beauty. We had a rough day ahead - yoga, massages, and hair do’s followed by a trip into Florence in the afternoon. We foraged through the kitchen - coffee, yogurt, granola, fruit, croissants, etc. for a “light” breakfast (the chef was arriving shortly to prepare “brunch”) and then did an hour of yoga with Keisha. Keisha moved to Italy several years ago after falling in love with an Italian man, had two babies and owns a yoga studio in Florence. Wow - living the dream; makes everything seem possible. She was beautiful and lovely and led us through a gentle flow. By this time, Alessio had begun to put the brunch spread out for us….wow so much beautiful delicious food! Everything here tastes so fresh; the eggs are more yellow, the fruit more vibrant in color and flavor, the olive oil so smooth and luxurious…. We rotated between food, massages (three at a time in the “library” ), and showers with professional hair dressers blow drying/curling our hair afterwards. The massages, as described by Elizabeth, were more like a “lover’s caress”…not the usual deep tissue type massage we type A women are used to. It was gentle and relaxing, and I must say after all of the pampering, I felt very relaxed and peaceful…who wouldn’t? Being princess for a week is exhausting - this helped to reinvigorate all of us..lol. The decadence of this week is overwhelming - I can hardly believe how fortunate I am to be able to experience it all.
We somehow managed to get all of this done in time for our 3 pm pickup by Tomasso and Marco for a trip into Florence for some shopping and an unplanned (hopefully simple!) dinner. (we had cancelled the reservation - we just couldn’t handle another long meal!) The rain was falling and it was chilly, but Florence and its beautiful shops and streets and art beckoned!
Il Duomo di Firenze, made up of several stunning buildings, sits in the middle of Cathedral square (Piazza del Duomo) - some of the structures built as early as 1059. While we didn’t book tickets to go inside, we absorbed its beauty from the outside as we looked for some shelter from the rain. We scattered into mini groups; no way could 10 of us travel in a pack while shopping. We ducked into various shops and Christy, Kristin and I decided it was time for a mid-day “snack” and sampled the local pizza with, of course, a bottle of Prosecco. The fresh tomato sauce and rich mozzarella cheese were the perfect treat. We giggled and snapped photos and stared out the window at the romantic rainy streets of Florence. Eventually our bellies were full and we ventured out umbrellas in hand to see what we could see. BRRRR it was windy and rainy and we didn’t want to shop at Gucci and Ferragamo and all of the designer shops surrounding us; we wanted to go off the beaten path and to the lesser known areas of Florence. We paid a golf cart driver (covered in plastic for the rain) to drive us around so we could look without getting wet; the sun was setting and it was gray and we had him drop us off on the far side of the Arno river so we could walk back across Ponte Vecchio. While touristy, the light was perfect, the rain had slowed to a sprinkle, and we giggled our way across the bridge taking photos and perusing the small shops. We found ourselves on the backside of Il Duomo (the little streets and shops nearby were adorable!) and realized it was about time to meet up with the rest of the group. We had a text string going and found the cozy spot where some of them had wound up and we made our way down the stairs into a cozy private room. We shared wine and food and stories and compared purchases….There’s a theme here……
Our drivers picked us up on the narrow street and back to the villa. We had a fashion show - amazing purchases by Lorraine and Jenny and Amy - clearly the BEST shoppers. Then on to the sleep aids, and visions of Tuscany danced through our heads. The next day would be our last - bittersweet on the one hand, yet we all missed our people at home, so also welcome in some ways.
We were off to an early start - with a full day ahead. We boarded the vans (fewer of us now, as two people had left early for previous commitments at home…sad they had to miss these days which were wonderful) and headed to Lucca for a bike riding tour of the town followed by a late lunch at the sea! The skies were cloudy with a bit of sun peeking through and in the distance we saw a beautiful FULL RAINBOW for a few minutes… an omen of a great day ahead!
We arrive to Lucca and, of course, we immediately EAT ; we spotted a cute little coffee shop - Momus Cafe- and popped in for some sweet treats and cappuccino. Lucca is known for its “wall” that encircles its cobblestone streets and city center. The plan was a bike ride on the “wall” which sounds a bit like a tightrope act, but the wall is, in fact, wide enough for a wide treelined path on top. We had a leisurely ride around the wall and a wonderful tour guide filled us in on the history of Lucca. The wall of Lucca dates from the second century BC to the sixteenth century AD - In Roman times, the first wall was built, and then replaced by the second circuit between the 11th and 12th centuries. There are many gates or “bastions” along the 4 km long wall - each unique and beautiful. The guide took us along the wall for awhile and then down through the city center to see the cobblestones, architecture, and shops. I scored the red leather boots I had been seeking (have been wearing them daily since!), we bought gifts and then met back at the van for our ride to the mediterranean sea from there. If I had it to do over again, I would spend more time in Lucca; the village is absolutely charming, rich in history and beauty. I want to know more!
The landscape started to change a bit as we neared the sea; palm trees popping up next to the cypress and the land flattening out a bit. We pulled up to Gilda’s restaurant, got our group photo shot (love this one!) and headed into the beautiful restaurant. It was chilly, but the sun was popping out, and through the glass wall of windows at the back, the mediterranean waves crashed upon the gray beach. The area outside, in the summertime, is lined with outdoor tables with tent like structures covering them (I know this from the photo sent to me by the concierge), but with this chilly weather we opted for a table inside with a lovely view of the water from a distance. It seemed to be a “business men who lunch” type of place and our group quickly ramped up the energy of the room. Lobster pasta, ceviche, scallops, all sorts of wonderful Frutti di Mare accompanied by the most delicious white wine I’ve ever had. We somehow had mastered drinking all day, drinking all night, balanced out by bellies full of pasta. We finished the delightful meal with some grappa (wow!) and an elderly gentleman from the next table, Julio, joined us briefly in a toast to the princesses. Julio briefly fell in love with the beautiful Juli and then sent us a bottle of champagne to share….a lovely end to a perfect meal. We then ventured into the sand, did some more dancing and laughing and dipped our feet into the chilly water. We took this opportunity to face time home and proceeded to request that the men in our lives dance along with us by phone…..they were good sports and obliged and we laughed until we fell over on the sand. Our drivers were waiting out front, but Elizabeth and Jenny helped themselves to leftover wine at an outdoor table (waste not want not after all…) and we boarded the van back to the villa. We lapsed into a food and wine induced coma as we took in the scenery on our final drive “home” to our lovely villa.
We somberly started the packing - how in the HELL was I going to fit all the crap I OVERPACKED and my many purchases into my bag? By the time I had stuffed every last corner of every single bag (including my purse and a disposable bag from Christy - thank you!), I was ready for dinner. The last meal….the last night Alessio would perform his culinary magic on us. We were not one bit hungry. Not at all. I couldn’t even drink wine…my body had finally said ENOUGH. I felt guilty pushing the food around on my plate…and when the final course of the squid stuffed with mortadella sausage appeared..whoa. It was surprisingly delicious, but I could literally just eat one bite (sorry Alessio..he had been preparing this meal for hours). Somehow, though, when the dessert - the most delicious tiramisu I have ever eaten, we all had a plateful and then Christy marched into the kitchen to get the rest of it for a second round!
A few of us stayed up late on the porch and then when we got too cold, around the fire in the great room. Imagine a room with 20 foot ceilings, a fireplace big enough to stand in, and comfy linen slipcovered sofas for lounging. We laughed until we cried and then headed to bed. We were departing the villa at 9:30 for the airport (Lorraine at 4 am!)….I think she just stayed awake all night.
I awoke around 7 (planning a short last run/walk with Robin and Amy) and opened the windows in my room. The sun was breaking through, the birds were singing, and I felt completely at peace. What a week! I knew it would continue to unfold in my mind as I headed home and I wanted to capture every last detail in my brain and my senses. The run/walk was a little wet - fog and rain mixed together but exquisitely beautiful. After some coffee and fruit we loaded up the vans and were off. I would miss Tomasso and Marco and their smiles and infinite patience for this group of crazies. ( the things they heard on those long van rides probably make them wonder about the sanity of American women….)
The airport experience was easy, some more last minute gift shopping was done, and we were off to Paris and then Atlanta. We had more movies and wine and food on the trip, savoring every last minute of decadence (Robin and I were in first class so our experience was slightly different…..) and then arrived home.
One of the most wonderful things about travel is coming home. We savor every experience while away but then arriving home is a wonderful type of joy also. No bed feels as good as my own, it’s so fun to distribute the gifts and even the chore of unpacking is fun when you pull out your sand covered boots and realize just YESTERDAY you were dipping your toes in the Mediterranean. We all laughed about how hard re-entry to reality might be, and I think it has been. It has also been gloriously wonderful as we counterbalance the decadence with healthy eating, exercise, and the warm hugs and smell of our children and partners. I have never been more grateful to have extraordinary (SERIOUSLY) women in my life. These people are badasses in their own right, and collectively a FORCE like no other. I’m quite confident we could run the country if asked to…..(we might have to slow down the wine consumption….).
This little summary of our trip is just that - a LITTLE summary; the trip was so much MORE than I can put into words, and I’m confident that each woman would write a slightly different story. (that would be wonderful - the trip perspective from EACH person on the trip - I challenge you ladies to put pen to paper, and by the time we have 13 perspectives, we probably have a NOVEL in the making) LESS interesting novels have been published, I’m sure!
When I wrote the piece about Christy’s bday party in Puerto Rico, I wrote a short blurb on each of the women in the group. I’m going to attempt to do the same here, although it will be hard because I KNOW all of these people so well - I am confident I won’t be able to capture the depth of their badassery. I’m going to attempt to write a small bit about how I see their individual beauty.
Lorraine - you have been my friend the LONGEST of this group. We have shared years and years of experiences together. You are one of the smartest women I know; funny and real and compassionate. You are harder on yourself than anyone could be. You are beautiful beyond words (even though you don’t see it!) and your smile lights up a room. The high kicks as part of your dance routine are spectacular! Let your soft, vulnerable side out - trust the universe and think happy thoughts. You set goals and intentions and then you GO THE FUCK AFTER THEM. I love this about you. You are an example of wonder for your children (they may not see it now, but certainly will someday!) You have a wonderful future ahead with Colin - full of love and adventure! I am looking forward to our next adventure already.
Juli - our story also goes so far back - to window bathing suits and one day cruises and margaritas and late night studying. You have grown into an amazing woman- smart and witty and so beautiful! You have the most spectacular eyes I have ever seen, and we ALL wish we could have your figure! You wear everything beautifully, you embrace life and all of its magic, and I’m so happy we have stayed friends for so long. I proudly call you the only friend who has been to all the weddings. :) And helped me through the endings. :) Follow your heart, my friend, it always knows where you should go.
Christy - ah Christy. I love you so much; I love how you love your husband (who doesn’t love your husband?), your children, and your friends. Thank YOU for inspiring ME with your birthday trip. This one would have never happened without that one. Thank you for freely and wonderfully sharing your tribe with me - I love them like my own. I hope you feel the same after this journey. I think of our workdays in the convertible, of sharing a glass of wine on the beach in Virginia Beach, the women’s march, LeGoo, fishing in key west while strategizing, the facials at Lake Oconee, drinking ALL the drinks, and NOW….the opportunity to work together again!! I’m so excited for that. You are just lovely my friend - you have made my world a better place.
Kristin - the only person I know who completely GETS IT when we talk about our upbringings. You have climbed mountains to get to where you are. You are an incredible wife (I mean…the work you had to do to get to Italy!), mom to your adorable boys, and so focused and driven in all you do each day. Remember to take care of you my sweet friend - ain’t nobody happy if mama ain’t happy. You are caretaker to the world; an amazing friend and one of the funniest damn people on earth. Thank you for sharing your soul and your clothes with me. You are a gorgeous work of art!
Gail - the newest of my friends. You are such a badass and amazing soul! Those twin cutie pies are so lucky to call you mama - you set an example for them that is brilliant and wonderful and WTF does Cinderella DO???? I love your passion for art and food and wine - and I knew we would be friends when I saw the REAL you come out and heard you talk about your life adventures and your wonderfully brilliant family. It means so much to me that you came to Italy (during a difficult time with your family no less) and shared my birthday. I love the REALNESS of you Gail and you make me laugh every day. I love the FOG and the FOL. I look forward to many more years of friendship.
Jenny - my LGF to the end!! You, my friend, are so many things all rolled up into one! You are so brilliantly smart and creative with a tender heart that isn’t seen by many. The combination of those two things is not often found, and if you can harness the power of bringing them together, you might actually rule the world. :) I love your take charge way - the concierge was BRILLIANT IDEA (one of many of your brilliant ideas…your head is so full of brilliant ideas!), and your zest for living life to the fullest is energizing. YOU can do anything you set your mind to - you are an amazing mom (the authenticity with which you parent is a magnificent example to all of us - encouraging your kids to “feel the feels” and be real), have wonderful taste (that blue cape was worth every penny - not to mention the rest of the get up; I hope you feel BEAUTIFUL when you wear it, because you are - inside and out!), Let your heart shine….and all the love you want and deserve will follow.
Amy - my friend that I got to fall in love with again this week! You have been part of my life since 1997 when we joined a drug company together. You lived in the city; I lived in the burbs; I had small kids; you were single….we’ve seen each other go through so many phases of life; I literally now live one block from where you lived and you live in the burbs! (not AS burby…lol) I am grateful for your wonderful shopping sense (or I might be naked most days since I obviously need you to dress me), your self deprecating humor, and your ability to make everyone around you feel special. You are beautiful beyond words and your daughters are so so lucky to have you as a role model. I’ve been in awe of your decorating sense since the 90’s - your home always gorgeous and unique in a way that seems effortless to you! My only regret is you don’t work for Alexion….there’s still time though! I enjoyed every minute of being with you this week and I am COMMITTED to spending more time with you in Atlanta because you truly are one of my favorite people in the world - thank you to Tuscany for reminding me about my Amy!
Liz -Sweet, adorable Liz! I knew I would love you when Zach told me I would. I’m still hoping for some type of union between your Emily and Zach in the future so we can just be the sisters that we actually are. Actually - if they married, what WOULD that make us? mother in laws once removed? Anyway, I digress. YOU are this wonderful unexpected person; seemingly demure, yet shockingly funny!! You are so beautiful inside and out - a deep thinker that loves clothing and skin care products at the same time. Your smile this week made me happy on so many occasions; I could see you just living in each moment, taking it in, and feeling the same level of gratitude that I was feeling. It’s wonderful when you see your own feelings reflected in your friends’ feelings! You are able to live in the moment, eat the food and drink the wine, and laugh in a delightful way. I am grateful our children brought us together, and I look forward to spending more time together at home. I loved reenacting Italy last night at A Mano with our significant others….you are a simply wonderful human being.
Halle - first, you rock a blue bobbed wig like nobody’s business. You always have a wonderful story to tell, you give a beautiful toast, and have more energy than anyone I’ve ever met!! I love your spirit and zest for life, your passion for your family and friends, and your amazing hugs. We have been through many highs and lows in life together, and you give the best advice in the world in a level headed, clear thinking kinda way. I’m so grateful you came on this trip - I know you have so much going on in life; I know it was not easy- I look forward to sharing so many Italy stories on our runs in the future!
(and ps….thank you for all the Seanie hand me downs for Wilson! xoxoxo)
Ashley - my oh so tough but oh so sweet friend. You have a heart of gold, and have weathered many storms with me in this life. I am grateful to my ex husband for bringing you (and others) into my life, and I’m so happy I got to keep you! I adore you and Scott and Carly - individually and as a family. Your love, passion, and dedication to them is beautiful! You are a wonderful friend - someone who has seen me at my best and my worst and put up with me on both occasions. You make me laugh like crazy, your dry wit and your dance moves alike! You took over that dj stand like the badass that you are and OMG I loved the flat Lisa’s you made for the trip. I literally laugh out loud when I see them in the photos. You tell it like it is - ain’t no sugar coating with you, sister….and I appreciate that so much. THANK you for coming on this trip smack dab in the midst of a very busy life. I want to see you MORE in the ATL. We are neighbors, after all, and we’ve spent more time in Italy together than in Atlanta.
Robin - scooby nate! Damn our history is so long I’m not sure I can sum you up in one little blurb. First, you’ve come a long way from Mississippi baby, and yet there is still so much Mississippi in you - this is what makes you PERFECT. Seriously, I heard from everyone on the trip how much they “loved Robin”..and who doesn’t? You are a beautiful, funny, dynamic, southern babe that lights up a room when you enter it. You are so good at LIFE because you are real to the core. You are an amazing mom and wife - balancing all of that with a DRIVE TO SUCCEED at work that is unsurpassed by anyone I know. Success will follow you everywhere you go, Scoob, because people just LOVE you. I love you and am grateful for our 20 plus years of friendship, storytelling, adventures, laughter, tears, joy, pain, marriage, divorce, kids, travel, food, wine, highs and lows. Shine on, sister.
Elizabeth - kid sister, sass, Kentucky lovin bestie. I love to tell people that when I met you you were an atheist liberal and now you are a born again Christian republican….(probably an exaggeration of sorts on either end..but you know how I love to LIE/EXAGGERATE like that) but the beauty is, I love you on either end of the spectrum. You have been there for the birth of my babies, as my marriages fell apart, and through my various highs and lows - all the while with a shoulder to lean on and words of wisdom to share. You have committed in public to one of my friends as her domestic partner for insurance benefits (heehee) - admirable. (we ARE Alexion, after all) You are one of the sweetest, kindest souls I know; you see the good in people always, and you are funny as shit on top of it. We have too many stories to tell (nor should we in a public forum) in this short paragraph, but know that I have loved having you by my side every step of the way. You are so beautiful - inside and out - and I KNOW there is a big beautiful LOVE in your future. In the meantime, you are deeply loved by me and all of your wonderful friends!
PJ - This writing wouldn’t be complete without including you, even though you had to miss this trip - saddest thing ever and the worst timing on the planet for you to be struggling with some health issues. Tears come to my eyes when I think about you not being part of this journey, but the reality is you were next to me every step of the way (WWPJD) JUST as you have been in life. We’ve stirred low country boils (wait - that was Kevin), bought lift serum when we didn’t need it, travelled together, spent more nights together than I did with my husband at the time, moved furniture in and out of so many places, changed jobs, traded in men for others, birthed babies, spent time in the hospital together for each of us and our children, redecorated houses, baked cookies, drank wine - a lot of wine, walked and ran and yoga’d, solved the world’s problems (GO!), talked each other off ledges, simultaneously drove purple Tauruses, cried, and mostly laughed. It’s the laughter I think of most when I think of you sass. Laughing until we cry. Your energy is so all encompassing - you walk into a room and it’s palpable - in a very good way! Your heart is huge - you love in such a big way - be it your immediate family, your extended family, your friends, or the janitor at your kids’ school. EVERYONE knows PJ - and I’m sorry, but we are going to have to do this trip AGAIN so you can be a part of it for real. I know you will be healthy and your energetic self in no time - take care of YOU sister, and let all the people who love you take care of you too. These women didn’t get to know sassqueetcha which is the saddest part of it all. Thank you, PJ, for being one of my very best friends in the world for over two decades. You have embodied the words love and friendship, and I am so very grateful for you.
We are all home now - back to real life - I look at the pictures daily and am grateful beyond belief. Whatever I imagined this trip might be…it was more. THANK YOU to each of you for making 50 amazing for me.
In the words of David Bowie - “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.”. Thank you my people for helping me get to where I should have always been and I am grateful to be on your journeys to your uniquely wonderful selves too. Ciao Bella!