Bestselling author Frances Mayes continues to romance readers with the simple pleasures of Italy in her latest title, The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. In this exclusive interview with Fodor’s, Mayes shares her top Tuscany travel recommendations. From must-visit restaurants and charming hotels to local markets and trip-worthy festivals, this insider’s guide to Frances Mayes’ Tuscany will help travelers discover the most magical places in the region.
Fodor’s: For travelers who want to experience a slice of the life you describe in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook while on a vacation in Tuscany, which towns should they visit, and where should they stay?
Frances Mayes: So many choices! I’m still amazed at the variety of Tuscany. It’s the size of Massachusetts and yet there’s the mountain scenery around Mt. Amiata, the terraced and sublime landscapes of Montalcino, Cortona, Montepulciano, the flat streets of San Sepulcro and Florence, then the rolling Maremma and the Tuscan Riviera. Such a blessed landscape. And it’s difficult to find a bad meal in Tuscany, so everywhere you travel you’ll probably eat like a king.
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My best advice is to visit Florence and Siena for a few days, then rent a car—preferably one of the adorable new Fiat Cinque Centos—and strike out on smaller roads. That’s where you discover the life I write about. You come upon Etruscan tombs, find a bar where they make the best almond biscotti, see a memorable Signorelli painting in a tiny church, walk through a town sleeping in summer heat and hear a violin, smell simmering ragù wafting from an open window where plates are clattering.
I like staying in small and characteristic inns, places that reflect the character of where you are. That’s easy in Tuscany. I especially recommend looking into the agriturismo option. Those are farm accommodations (often beautiful and luxurious, sometimes plain but comfortable), where you get to know a family and maybe even ride a donkey or make pecorino cheese. You can have extraordinary experiences there. Search "agriturismo Tuscany" and you’ll find a dream place. Here are some good bases for exploring different parts of Tuscany: Florence, Siena, Pienza, San Vicenzo, Cortona, Greve, Lucca.
Fodor’s: What would you recommend eating at Tuscan restaurants?
Mayes: Pasta in its infinite manifestations. Thick strands of pici with wild boar sauce is revered. Arrabbiata, angry pasta, appears on every menu. The tomato sauce is spiked with hot peppers. Tuscans love pasta with anchovies and olive oil. You’ll always find a savory duck sauce and one of funghi porcini on the menu. I’m very partial to vegetable sformati, which are like quiche without crust. My favorite is the red radicchio. The thick Tuscan steaks alla fiorentina are considered a birthright. They’re usually grilled for two or more people and are served al sangue, bloody, unless you say otherwise. Rabbit and guinea hen are very popular. On Sunday night, families go out for pizza. They’d be shocked at all the ingredients Americans like; theirs are simple. I always order the margherita—just cheese and tomato sauce—with sausage. Tuscans have a happy palate—they like everything. Be adventurous!
Fodor’s: In the introduction to The Tuscan Sun Cookbook, you mention an "enormous weekly market" that you like to shop at. Could you talk more about what makes that market special, and where readers can find it?
Mayes: Our Thursday morning market is in Camucia, at the foot of Cortona. It’s a huge and thriving market that spreads over many blocks. Such markets are still a normal part of life in Tuscany—you go there to shop and to visit with friends, have coffee, and stroll around. Traditionally, the men congregate somewhere while the women gather food.
When you’re traveling, ask someone what day the local market occurs. Innkeepers will know the market days in surrounding towns, too, so you can visit one and sample cheeses, admire the six kinds of artichokes, and buy an armful of sunflowers or a pair of sandals. Do have a panino (rustic sandwich) of the local porchetta, pork roasted with herbs in a wood oven.
Fodor’s: Are there any festivals in Tuscany that you would recommend planning a trip around?
Mayes: The bizarre and colorful horse race, Il Palio, in Siena happens twice a summer: 2 July and 16 August. They’ve been racing around the piazza since 1710. Mardi Gras in Viareggio is stellar, though I prefer the one in the small market town of Foiano. Celebrations are everywhere! When driving about, look for signs that say sagra. Those are festivals celebrating what’s in season or what’s most loved in the area—cherries, chestnuts, geese, polenta, snails, boar. Besides dancing and raffles, there will surely be a full dinner (for a very low price) prepared by local women. In Cortona, we have the Sagra della Bistecca on 15 August, followed shortly by another for the adored funghi porcini. Often the festivals commemorate a marriage that took place between rival families 300 years ago, one of many constant reminders that time is different in Italy.
Fodor’s: What are your favorite wineries to visit in Tuscany?
Mayes: Baracchi, Fonterutoli, Avignonesi, Sette Ponti, Donna Cinelli Colombini. Those are places where I happen to know the owners. Wine tasting most often happens in an enoteca. Unlike California, visiting in vineyards usually involves making an appointment. There’s no hype, no t-shirt marketing. Most of the vineyards are not open all the time, though if you call, they’re happy to oblige. We once drove up to a famous Brunello maker’s and an ancient woman leaned out the window and called out, "The wine’s all gone until next year." It is definitely worth it to ship home excellent wine; it is not worth the cost to send home inexpensive wine.
Fodor’s: For a weekend in Florence, where would you recommend that travelers stay and eat?
Mayes: First read your trusted guidebook and get acquainted with the layout of the city. If it’s not your first visit, you might want to stay at one of the sybaritic hotels outside the center, such as the Grand Hotel Villa Cora or the Villa La Massa. Only slightly away from the center is the gorgeous, deluxe Four Seasons, which incorporates historic buildings and a peaceful garden. In the center, there are many choices. Look into the inexpensive residenza category. They’re like B&Bs but there’s no one around, except when you arrive and are given a key. They give you a voucher for coffee and pastry at a nearby bar. I’ve stayed in three and all were really nice: La Signoria di Firenze, La Dimora degli Angeli, and Residenza della Signoria. We’ve stayed dozens of times at Hotel Beacci Tornabuoni, on the street of the same name, for its old world atmosphere, roof garden, charming breakfast, and the friendliness of Angelo, the manager. It’s moderately priced and the room I always request has a frescoed ceiling and two baths. I also like the Helvetia & Bristol for its unbeatable location and its gentility.
Florence’s dining scene is changing rapidly. New places and wine bars are popping up all over. We frequently stop for drinks at Gallery Hotel Art before moving on to dinner at Alle Murate or Ora d’Aria or Fior d’Acqua or Cibreo. Florence buzzes with dozens of excellent trattorie. I must have eaten fifty times at Trattoria Cammillo (57R Borgo Sant Jacopo, 055/212427). At lunch, I suggest something simple at Il Santo Bevitore or at Olio & Convivium. It’s fun to grab a bite inside the Mercato Centrale near the outdoor market of San Lorenzo. Stop at Nerbone where the vegetable vendors and butchers pause for a boiled beef sandwich, or a plate of tripe.
In the morning, I prefer Gilli on the Piazza della Repubblica or Caffé Rivoire on Piazza della Signoria for freshly squeezed juice, sustaining pastries, and cappuccino to fuel you for a day of seeing the wonders of Florence.
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Frances Mayes is the author of six books about Tuscany. The now-classic Under the Tuscan Sun was a New York Times bestseller for more than two and a half years and became a Touchstone movie starring Diane Lane. It was followed by Bella Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany, and two illustrated books, In Tuscany and Bringing Tuscany Home. She is also the author of the novel, Swan, A Year in the World, six books of poetry, and The Discovery of Poetry. Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages. She also recently published The Tuscan Sun Cookbook.
Photo credits: John Gillooly; Random House