The thing I missed the most during the long covid lockdown here in Italy was the great outdoors. Vast expanses of sky, fluffy clouds, birdsong, fresh air… All I really wanted was to get back out to the countryside and sit there, or go for a hike, and enjoy these simple things. And that’s indeed what I did as soon as it was allowed. As businesses are opening up further, I’ve remained particularly conservative about exposing myself to other people, but I really want to get back to doing fun things like the weekend getaways in Tuscany and beyond that my husband and I usually do every few weeks.
The first time we ate out in a restaurant after lockdown was at a wine resort in Maremma, and this got me to thinking about how well positioned our area is for outdoor, and particularly wine tourism or agrotourism, with plenty of space for guests to remain socially distanced. Be it just for a dinner or for a longer stay, here are some ideas for post-lockdown, outdoor travel for your Summer 2020 in Tuscany.
Outdoor dining in the Tuscan Countryside
My first evening out was, as I mentioned, at a winery near Gavorrano in Maremma, not far from where we have a little home base. Conti di San Bonifacio is a wine resort with seven fabulously decorated rooms that I’d love to stay in! A popular place for destination weddings, their outdoor dining setup is absolutely stunning. Most weekends, they offer set menus at promotional prices; tempted by a €15 euro BBQ (wine included!) we went with my mother in law and my husband’s aunt’s family. We were seated outdoors under a portico at two separate, large tables to ensure that our two “nuclei” did not mix. Staff was always gloved and masked. There were perhaps fifty people at dinner but the space there is so huge. Arrive early, get a cocktail and take in the fabulous sunset over their vines. Wine-wise, get the Merlot. For future special menus, I suggest following them on Instagram.
Speaking of Instagram, my friend Lisa’s IG (@this.tuscan.life) tipped me off to Podere il Casale, a farm and cheesemaker in the Val d’Orcia. I’d actually heard about them a few years back when I stayed at Follonico, a boutique B&B nearby, but we didn’t have time to visit then. At this farm, you can wander around and check out the animals for as long as you want, so we made a day trip out of it. Following Lisa’s lead, I brought my niece and nephew and the highlight for them (and for me) was two peacocks who really do prance about gracefully and who frequently put up their plumage for us (I think we kinda irked the one…). Food’s fantastic, don’t miss the cheese and meat platter. For their weekly menu schedule, see this post on Instagram. From here it’s a 20-minute drive to the famous Vitaleta Chapel, that symbol of Tuscany that is ideal for a photo op before the tour groups come back.
In the Valdarno area, a short drive from the Montevarchi exit of the A1 highway, the rambling garden of il Canto del Maggio has always been a dining paradise, with farm-fresh produce served to naturally distanced diners seated at mismatched wrought-iron tables and chairs. In terms of outdoor dining, this for us is a perennial favourite. The restaurant is part of a restored borgo that features six no-frills apartments; staying at one of these gives you access to the medicinal garden and picturesque swimming pool.
Another favourite place for lunch, aperitivo or dinner outdoors is located in the countryside just outside of the town of Bolgheri: Bolgheri Green is a project of farm producer Podere Arduino. Hipster comes naturally to vegan chef and triathlete Farbrizio Bartoli, who makes amazing things in his outdoor kitchen, using slightly exotic flavour combinations that are uncommon in Tuscany. Guests lounge on Moroccan style carpets or poufs, or sit at tables spaced generously on the lawn, each with a little covering from the sun. Make it a day-trip by visiting the nearby beach and booking a wine-tasting at one of the world-famous wineries on the same street at this casual shack.
Closer to Florence is a restaurant I really love, Ristorante Al 588. Young chef Andrea Perini’s experiments with olive oil, diverse flavours and boutique vegetables from his garden are always spot-on, while Giulia runs a tight ship that I know I can trust. Weeknight dinners and weekend lunches are served to tables set around the pool to increase space between guests. On Sundays, weather permitting, they host “Lunch and music in the hills,” an event with special musical guests as well as market services (including manicures!); reserve your picnic lunch, grab a beanbag chair or blanket and pick your spot anywhere on the property for dining in complete privacy. Rooms are also available (see “Borgo I Vicelli”) as well as swimming pool day passes.
Wineries to visit, eat or stay
Visiting a winery is an ideal option for non-crowded travel opportunities and it also helps support the local wine industry, which suffered greatly due to the lack of restaurant sales this spring. In most cases, winery tours don’t have more than a dozen people on them, and often we’ve found ourselves with just one other couple doing a tour and tasting. People who visit wineries on an individual basis also tend to be, in our experience, quite interesting to talk to – starting from the fact that you’ll share at least one passion, that for wine!
Conversation struck up easily with one of the two other couples on our recent visit to Salcheto, an winery in the Montepulciano area that is truly organic from the ground up. I took advantage of a special offer on the first weekend they opened up after lockdown, when tours and wine were half price, coming home with 18 bottles! My mother in law came along with us and she has less experience visiting wineries so was asking me what to expect – if you’re in that category, see my article “Why you should take a wine tour”.
Salcheto’s well organized to conduct tours while respecting Covid distancing regulations. The tour begins outdoors on the large terrace that is their open-air tasting room as well as the roof of the cellar. In the cellar, on two levels, there are coloured dots on the floor indicating where to stand apart from each other and it is enough fun to stand on them that you don’t even bother standing with your significant other! The cellar is modern and super technological, designed to operate off the grid using only sunlight that is cleverly channelled down metal tubes from above, naturally cool thanks to a wall of plants, and low-impact in everything down to water recycling. Time spent indoors is quite limited, and we’re swiftly funneled out the lower level and into the vineyards before returning up to the terrace for a tasting. My favourite wine here is the Salco, made from their oldest vines and released late on to the market (the 2015 is now selling but the 2013 was also available so we took home lots of that). Suites decorated with furniture from previously-loved wood and wine-barrel hot-tubs are available, as well as light dining at the enoteca.
The Maremma area is less well known for wine, but combining a visit to the Tuscan coast with a few sips of refreshing whites that taste of sea breeze may be a good idea. I’ve listed a few Maremma wineries to visit on the blog. If you’re interested in the architecture of wineries, Petra, near Suverto, is totally characteristic of architect Mario Botta, while Rocca di Frasinello’s cellar by Renzo Piano combines functionality with harmonic beauty. There’s a project by the Region of Tuscany you could check out for inspiration: Toscana Wine Architecture.
If you prefer grand castles, Chianti Classico has tons of those. Head over to the property of Barone Ricasoli, where Bettino Ricasoli invented the original recipe for Chianti Classico in 1872, and where he found the solution to make vines resist invasions of phylloxera, an insect that had threatened to wipe out the entire European continent’s wine production. They offer a wide range of wine tours that you can book online, from the most accessible visit to the castle, with its fascinating museum, and simple wine-tasting to e-bike tours, sunset dining and more. Read about my tour of this winery here.
For something close to Florence, Villa Medicea di Lilliano is an historical villa, the 17th century country retreat of the Medici, in the hands of the Malenchini family for four generations. 70 hectares of vineyards and olive groves, yet with the city of Florence a mere 15-minute drive away and the top of the Duomo even visible from the balconies of the estate! Here you’ll get a tour of the traditional historic cellars and taste wine in an ambience fit for, well, Medici rulers! On select July evenings, attend the estate’s “Cinema del Vino” events – get a glass of wine, a tagliere of snacks, and watch Italian classics from the comfort of your own picnic blanket (bring your own). Elegant modern yet classy apartments have been made from buildings near the villa, which can be rented short or longer term; to ensure a fully disinfected environment carried out with vaporizing technology, staff will accompany guests only to the door of the apartment so that it remains yours and perfectly safe.
A little further afield and not technically in Tuscany, one winery near Todi (Umbria) has the perfect place to “drink in the vines” in an isolated setting. Roccafiore’s Wine Chalet is a little, self-contained wooden house at the edge of a vineyard and the woods, where the sound of birds are the most noise you’ll hear. Of course, the winery offers tastings (they’re famous for their Grechetto), and has a full wine resort with an intimate spa, swimming pool and all the good stuff. I’m seriously thinking a stay in that Wine Chalet is in order. It’s really my dream home!
Summer 2020 winery events
While initially it looked like tourism would be 100% cancelled in Summer 2020, the wind is quickly changing. Even if there are more Italian travelers than foreigners, many wineries are organizing events that appeal both to residents and visitors. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for the coolest of them.
In the Chianti hills, winery Torre a Cona has partnered with the famous, traditionally Tuscan Trattoria da Burde to hold a “Secret Picnic” on the grounds. Spend the day out from 11am to 4pm on the property and you’ll get a winery visit, tasting, and picnic basket, and they’ll transport you to your secret picnic location once you get there. Running every Sunday, this event can be booked online.
In the Chianti Classico, Querceto di Castellina’s picture-perfect vineyard dinners are something to look forward to each year. This year the owners were afraid they might not be able to hold them, but have just announced 2020 dates for June 27, July 18, August 15 and September 5 due to popular demand. Diners will be spaced at 1 meter, and 2 meters for those who are not of the same family nucleus. If you can’t make it to the events, visit them anyway and request their “wine and cheese bar” with cheeses by Andrea Magi, who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at an event in Florence and was blown away by the fact that he makes literally hundreds of different types of cheeses; your hosts will explain the cheeses to you along with a tasting of their wines. Querceto also offers comfortable apartments in the Tuscan style, with modern touches.
Of the winery events I’ve seen announced this year, some of the most interesting are the intimate themed tastings by Swedish-owned winery Terreno in the Chianti Classico. Friday evenings in June (from July 12 to July 3) they’re holding dinner events; two that fascinate me are Scandinavian wines (paired with Scando-Tuscan food) hosted by journalist Asa Johansson and owner Sofia Ruhne, and “Chianti Classico da vigne in quota”, presenting six female winemakers, six vineyards above 500m, and six wines and landscapes from the famous area. (For info see their Instagram post).
What to expect if you’re traveling in Italy post-Covid
During the long lockdown, businesses and travelers have had a chance to re-think the way travel will look in the future. Many have expressed the hope that we won’t go back to things exactly as they were, particularly in areas that have suffered from overtourism like the Cinque Terre or Florence itself (see my article on hypertourism in Florence in The Florentine from a few years ago). Things are currently much less crowded than they used to be, and tourists are mostly Italians, with a few intrepid Europeans already making their way down by car. As the summer progresses, we might expect more of the latter, but probably there won’t be any mass tourism (busses, cruise ships) nor travelers from non-EU countries. Italians are, at least until August, most likely to be weekend trippers, so if you’re traveling mid-week in Summer 2020, it probably will be quite uncrowded.
Italy has put in strict rules about entering into closed spaces, as well as distancing outdoors, that you should be aware of. Here’s what to expect (information current as of June 10, 2020, and subject to change):
- Masks. It is currently obligatory for all adults to wear masks in public. Outdoors, masks are necessary if you cannot maintain appropriate distance, but it’s common courtesy to have it ready to pull up on to your face if you cross someone on the street. Indoors, masks must be worn when you’re near other people. In a restaurant, you must wear the mask until you are seated. There is some discussion about lifting the mask-wearing rule. Personally I am in favour of masks and it’s no skin off my nose to wear one. I’ve got some very cute cotton ones!
- Signs, temperature and gel. Anywhere you enter, there will be signs indicating coronavirus rules and suggestions (like wash your hands a lot), hand gel to use as you enter, and in most cases they will take your temperature or make you declare that you don’t have a temperature or any symptoms.
- Distancing. Businesses are required to set up seating to ensure sufficient distancing between tables. Some may ask you if you’re sitting with people from your family nucleus or if any in your group are from a different nucleus that you’re distancing from. You are required to keep a distance of a minimum of 1 meter from other people, though in Tuscany the recommended distance is 1.8 meters (6 feet). On public beaches, beach umbrellas must be placed at least 4 meters away from each other, and only individual sports are permitted (not soccer or volleyball). On private beaches, a minimum of 6 square meters per “ombrellone” is required.
- Tracing. Restaurants ask you to fill out a form with your contact information in order to inform you in the future if an infected person was present at the same time as you. The official Italian app “Immuni” is available to download from the app store and requires the latest operating system update. This non-invasive tracing app will notify you if you’ve been near an infected person who voluntarily notifies the system of their infection. At the moment, the app is not very widely adopted though I hope it will be soon!
For an excellent and exhaustive list on this topic, see also my friend Amy’s What to expect if you’re traveling to Italy this summer.
So what do you think? Are you up for a safe day trip in the Tuscan countryside, or longer bucolic getaway?
PS: If I’ve missed any winery or agrotourism events or simply places you love to visit and think are ideal to visit right now, please add them in the comments!