While most people are anticipating beach excursions, summer means one thing to me: It’s time to plan a fall trip. I look forward to the chill in the air and changing leaves. I crave heavier, comforting foods and red wine. I want soft scarves, cashmere sweaters and that clear, brilliant light that only fall can bring. One of the best places to find all of this and more is northern Tuscany.
If you haven’t explored this captivating Italian region this time of the year, it’s well worth the effort. September kicks off the grape harvest and plenty of festivals celebrate its seasonal abundance and traditions. The summer crowds clear out, providing a more relaxing pace and the perfect time to rent a hillside villa to serve as the base to discover regional foods, outdoor markets and restaurants.
Typically when I travel, I choose my destination and then I go on the hunt for the perfect home away from home. But for this trip, I had only one requirement: I wanted to live in a quintessential Italian villa. Otherwise, I was game for whatever serendipity handed me.
After a lot of online searching, I fell hard for a centuries-old property with a faded yellow exterior and heavy wooden shutters. It overlooked distant mountains and deep valleys that included the small town of Vicchio. Situated in the Mugello region of northern Tuscany, I imagined being surrounded by gorgeous agricultural land and vineyards. Yet, in under an hour by train, I could stand in front of the Duomo, Florence’s magnificent cathedral. As I typed a quick query to the villa’s owner, I’d already mentally moved in.
Since this trip was all about the setting, I had no preconceived ideas of what I wanted to see and do. We invited five couples to join us as we struck out to discover the countryside, whatever that might mean. For the next month, our trip unfolded in a leisurely and unexpected way. A patchwork of fields, trees and vines radiated from our villa, connected by tiny roads that curved around cypress-studded hills and wound up into the mountains. They were perfect for long bike rides and rambling drives that took us through the region’s many small towns. Hunters walking with their dogs waved as we passed each morning. Sometimes we’d see them gathered in a barn, seated at a long farm-style table, refueling after the morning’s hunt. Each day began with crowing roosters. Fog hung between the hills while we drank our morning coffee.
Full disclosure: One needs to appreciate chilly, rainy weather to travel through Mugello in late fall. But for every drizzle, there was a crisp, sunny counterpart. This mix of cheerful and moody ambiance provided an ever-changing backdrop that dictated how we spent our days.
We explored some of the hot spots in Tuscany—Florence, Siena, San Gimignano—when the sun was out and discovered many smaller new favorites such as Scarperia, a town known for its knife-making tradition, and Borgo San Lorenzo. When storms rolled in and the villa was cold, we closed the kitchen door and cooked, soaking up the warmth of our farmhouse stove while we made hearty pasta sauces and pear cobblers with fruit picked on the villa’s grounds.
Art, architecture and shopping loom large when I’m in Italy, but seasonal food continues to be the highlight. I order the same regional dishes over and over, moving on to my next food obsession once I leave an area. In fall, particularly in mountainous regions of Tuscany, you’ll find delicious chestnuts in many forms, including roasted by street vendors, chestnut flour cakes, and pastas. It’s a sure sign fall has arrived. Truffles and porcini mushrooms, also a coveted seasonal treasure, can be found on many menus too. If you’re a fan, a daily search for dishes that highlight their earthy goodness, or even a foraging outing, is worth your time.
The tiny restaurants we frequented all offered up their own interpretation of the same five or six dishes. Favorites like potato ravioli with Bolognese sauce and rustic rabbit fricassee are common in the Mugello region of northern Tuscany. Our fruit bowl overflowed with just-picked persimmons and apples and our deep stockpot was often in use, simmering mounds of cavolo nero (lacinato kale in the U.S.), the star ingredient in the thick and satisfying ribollita.
Ditching the busy itinerary isn’t for everyone, but the more I travel this way, the more I appreciate the pleasures of daily living. Fall in northern Tuscany is the perfect venue to take a moment and slow down, because sometimes the most memorable part of a trip is the simplest part: finding my rhythm in a far-away place until it becomes home.
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