THE minute I arrive in Tuscany, I feel happy.
And within an hour I’ve eaten my first Italian meal.
Now, I’m not the kind of person who believes everything she reads but not only is this region in Central Italy as impressive as described in the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert but the food is just wonderful as she says.
This trip is going to be something special.
I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Gilbert who lived in Italy for four months to discover the country through its cuisine – all in the pursuit of happiness.
Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this – Gilbert
I fly into Pisa – the Gate to Tuscany – known for its remarkable landscape of rolling hills and gentle streams with fruit trees, olive groves and vineyards growing all over.
After a two-hour flight from Gatwick, I land just before midday.
The sun is shinning and I immediately go in search of the Leaning Tower just five minutes away. I take plenty of snaps before jumping on a bus to Lucca just 30 minutes away where I’m staying for four days.
Like Gilbert I decide not to refer to my guidebook but instead wander around the centre “lost but happy” to seek out the right restaurant for lunch. I settle for one near the site of the old Roman Amphitheatre and am soon tucking into a plateful of salamis, soft cheeses, black olives, artichokes, warm bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. And that’s just a starter.
I feel like I’m Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert in the film, where she wolfs down her food hungrily and messily.
I order a glass of sparkling Prosecco just to get into the way of life. The Italians think it’s quite reasonable to start drinking early in the day. It’s a true national treasure to be able to relax for hours enjoying food and wine without the stress of what other people might be thinking.
Neither is anybody rushing me along and you don’t need to be rich to experience this way of life. As Gilbert points out during her visit: “Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this.”
Straight after my huge appetiser comes the spaghetti with a meat ragu.
To the innocent visitor it’s easy to think that pasta and pizza is all there is to indulge in but in Tuscany the locals go crazy for Florentine Steak. The meat is seared on both sides for four minutes and seasoned only with salt and pepper. This is typically served with porcini mushrooms.
For those longing not only to eat but to learn how to cook authentic Italian cuisine there are numerous cooking schools in Tuscany that teach how to prepare antipasti, soups, risotto, gnocchi and of course traditional pizza and pasta dishes.
I found Gourmet on Tour, which offers a hands-on experience with professional chefs. The school is situated in Villa Lucia just 20mins from Lucca in the valley of Vorno. They throw in wine tasting and guided tours to nearby cities.
Many of the Italian villas in this area are impressive in size and bursting with extravagant decorations. Villa Lucia is no different with king-sized beds in large rooms with wooden beams and chandeliers.
But failing this, there are dozens of hotels and B&Bs in the centre of Lucca, which are cheap and right on top of the shops and bars.
In the evenings the young Italians head out to the popular nightspot called Betty Blue where they drink red wine, Limoncello, or grappa well into the early hours.
After lunch I feel I have already bust a button on my belt so I tell the waiter, who speaks good English, I’ll skip dessert. I admit though that I had had my eye on the tiramisu.
In the book, Gilbert explains that Italians are hard workers and this comes to mind after my lunch when I walk out into the streets and no one’s around. Where is everyone? There are no crowds of shoppers picking up bargains in the sales and the bakeries I pass have just a handful of customers.
I spend hours walking around the narrow city streets looking in at clothes and shoe shops. The only traffic seems to be created by women riding their bicycles picking up food for dinner.
During the spring and summer months, Lucca gets busy as it hosts a Film Festival in March for movie buffs and a music festival in July. The line-up for 2011 includes Elton John, Joe Cocker, BB King, rock band Arcade Fire, Seal and Simply Red.
Around every other corner I stroll past, there seems to be another square to explore. Near Piazza San Michele I find the only cafe – Buccellato Taddeucci- that sells the liquor Biadina. The recipe is a well-kept secret and sells for 14euros a bottle.
This is a sweet spirit that tastes of aniseed and is served with pine nuts at the bottom of the glass. I enjoyed it but thought twice about buying a bottle. I find that what tastes good on holiday often tastes no good when I’m back in Britain.
Against this backdrop of cafes and shops, the area is steeped in history with its city walls that can be walked around in under an hour. Plus there are some 100 churches in Lucca, which I’m not even attempting to visit. It all gives a regal feel to the city. And instead of visiting the churches, it’s popular to just climb the towers for the panoramic views. There are dozens to choose from and cost around 3.50euros to walk up.
I decide on Tower Guinigi – the tallest at just over 40metres – and climb the 211 steps. At the top everything below looks like something out of a fairytale with the red tiled roofs of the houses against the white painted walls.
My trip to Lucca ends much as started with a plate of antipasti and a glass of Prosecco. Like Gilbert, I don’t know if I could eat like this forever but a few days under the Tuscan sun is definitely a recipe for happiness.
Pisa, Vorno and Lucca are in Tuscany which is a region in central Italy best known for its rolling hills and gentle streams, olive groves and vineyards
Eat, Pray, Love was written by American author Elizabeth Gilbert and published in 2006
Florentine Steak is seared on both sides for four minutes and seasoned only with salt and pepper and typically served with porcini mushrooms.