Travel diary: An authentic Italian weekend

When a group of strangers met at a traditional Tuscan villa, it was the Italian way of living that brought them together

"And five, six, seven, eight."

It's almost midnight, and the familiar melody of ABBA is pumping through the speakers above us. We're hidden away in a cellar beneath the Tuscan hills, and Brendan Courtney is teaching us his signature dance moves.

Naturally, we're all taking this impromptu dance-off very seriously and hanging on to his every instruction. As I look around the dancefloor at my new friends, I pinch myself for the tenth time that day.

How on earth did I find myself at Villa Moretti?

Thursday

While I'm no stranger to travel, this would be my first time to venture outside Ireland since February 2020, and it was with a group of strangers. So, during the lead up to the big weekend, I found it hard to tell the difference between nerves and excitement. But, of course, the jitters quickly faded once I met my wonderful travel companions. Our group consisted of Brendan Courtney and his partner Adam, Cassie Stokes, Donal Skehan, Michelle Mcgrath, Fiona from Sustainable PR and myself. 

On Thursday evening, we arrived in Florence, buzzing with anticipation and ready to Live Italian with Birra Moretti.

I think that I can speak for the whole group when I say that there was absolutely no doubt in our minds that we were about to experience something amazing together. We had been invited to spend the weekend in a beautiful Tuscan Villa and learn more about Italian culture while getting to know each other.

Before heading to the villa, our first stop was a night at the 25 Hours Hotel, located in Florence's Santa Maria Novella district. The hotel is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy and boasts an extravagant interior from the moment you walk through the front door. 

I found myself in a bright, heaven-inspired room with a huge bed - a welcome sight after a long day's travel. Next to a magnificent marble sink, the words ' life is good' dawned the back of my bathroom door. This affirmation would go on to live in my mind all weekend. 

By the time 8pm rolled around, we were more than ready for our first meal together. Despite the vast open planned design and high glass ceiling, the hotel's restaurant still somehow felt cosy and intimate. We gathered at the long family-style table and introduced ourselves to the rest of the group, who had now joined us from other parts of Europe. 

During aperitvo, we raised our glasses of Moretti and cheered 'Sláinte'. Lora, from Bulgaria, giggled, 

"In Ireland, you say Sláinte? In our country, that means baby elephant!"

That was it. The ice was broken.

For the rest of the evening, the sound of laughter and chatter swept over the table. When dinner came to a close, I said a sleepy Buona notte and wandered back to my room.  

While I'm no stranger to travel, this would be my first time to venture outside Ireland since February 2020, and it was with a group of strangers. So, during the lead up to the big weekend, I found it hard to tell the difference between nerves and excitement. But, of course, the jitters quickly faded once I met my wonderful travel companions. Our group consisted of Brendan Courtney and his partner Adam, Cassie Stokes, Donal Skehan, Michelle Mcgrath, Fiona from Sustainable PR and myself. 

On Thursday evening, we arrived in Florence, buzzing with anticipation and ready to Live Italian with Birra Moretti.

I think that I can speak for the whole group when I say that there was absolutely no doubt in our minds that we were about to experience something amazing together. We had been invited to spend the weekend in a beautiful Tuscan Villa and learn more about Italian culture while getting to know each other.

Before heading to the villa, our first stop was a night at the 25 Hours Hotel, located in Florence's Santa Maria Novella district. The hotel is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy and boasts an extravagant interior from the moment you walk through the front door. 

I found myself in a bright, heaven-inspired room with a huge bed - a welcome sight after a long day's travel. Next to a magnificent marble sink, the words ' life is good' dawned the back of my bathroom door. This affirmation would go on to live in my mind all weekend. 

By the time 8pm rolled around, we were more than ready for our first meal together. Despite the vast open planned design and high glass ceiling, the hotel's restaurant still somehow felt cosy and intimate. We gathered at the long family-style table and introduced ourselves to the rest of the group, who had now joined us from other parts of Europe. 

During aperitvo, we raised our glasses of Moretti and cheered 'Sláinte'. Lora, from Bulgaria, giggled, 

"In Ireland, you say Sláinte? In our country, that means baby elephant!"

That was it. The ice was broken.

For the rest of the evening, the sound of laughter and chatter swept over the table. When dinner came to a close, I said a sleepy Buona notte and wandered back to my room.  

Friday

The following day, we were whisked away for our first adventure - an Ape tour of Florence. As we drove through the city on the way to pick up our Italian style tuk-tuks, our guide, Juliano, shared a glimpse of the city's history with us. He talked about how it was once the proud capital of Italy and how it has expanded in size over the years. 

Once we reached the pickup point of our ape tour, we piled in and zipped off in the direction of the hills. As we bumped and bounced our way higher into the countryside, we squealed with delight. And fear. 

"This is so much fun", Cassie screamed as we held on for dear life. It struck me, right then, that no one on this trip was pretending that it wasn't a big deal to be there. And I loved that. 

As the city edged further away, we passed through narrow streets and blossoming olive groves until finally, we reached the top. Here, a panoramic view of Florence and the beautiful San Miniato al Monte basilica were waiting. This viewpoint is spectacular and deserves a spot at the top of every traveller's Italian bucket list. 

After a brief stroll around the basilica, we drove to the nearby La Loggia restaurant and enjoyed a quick aperitivo on the terrace. Then, the announcement came that it was time to head to Villa Moretti for lunch. To which Brendan replied, 

"This wasn't lunch? God, I love Italy!"
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Welcome to Villa Moretti

When we reached the villa, the rain which had been teasing us all morning finally gave way and allowed us to step out into the fresh air. Our collective jaws hit the ground as we gazed up at the stunning 12th-century building. Located in Colle Val D'Elsa, the villa was everything we could have hoped for and more. From its spectacular setting within the Tuscan hillside to its swimming pool and tennis court.

Yes, I thought, I can get used to this.

Once we were checked in and had a quick peek around the grounds, we regrouped downstairs for lunch and an official welcome.

During his welcome speech, Dino, the marketing manager of Moretti, encouraged us to make ourselves at home.

"At Moretti, we call everyone family", he explained with open arms.

I'm not sure if he expected us to take him quite so literally. But nevertheless, we wasted no time making the villa our home.

Around two o'clock, the pasta-making lesson began in the greenhouse. Two local nonnas had come to the villa to pass on some of their culinary wisdom.

"What you make today, you will eat tonight", one nonna explained while we watched her effortlessly produce a batch of fresh Tortelli Maremmani.

"For pasta, you must use fresh eggs", the other nonna declared.

Over the next hour, we rolled, folded and wheeled our Tortelli until we each had eight ricotta-filled pillows in front of us.

While my batch wasn't quite perfect, they still managed to get the Donal Skehan seal of approval,

"These are very beautiful. I love the technique you've gone for here. There's a nice seal and no air pockets. Yeah, fantastic overall, it's a ten from me."

I suspect he was just being nice, but I'll take it.

Later, when we sat down to dinner, not only was our Tortelli on the menu, but the glasshouse had been transformed into an Italian style food market. Large wooden stalls ran along one side of the room and were expertly filled with cheese and relish, freshly baked bread and cured meats, plus a whole booth full of dessert. We felt like kings and queens at a grand Italian banquet and couldn't wait to tuck in.

As we sat around our table, cooing over every mouthwatering bite, our group exchanged stories from home and reminisced about mutual friends. We laughed as we relived some of the day's events and relaxed as the sun began to set in the background.

When we reached the villa, the rain which had been teasing us all morning finally gave way and allowed us to step out into the fresh air. Our collective jaws hit the ground as we gazed up at the stunning 12th-century building. Located in Colle Val D'Elsa, the villa was everything we could have hoped for and more. From its spectacular setting within the Tuscan hillside to its swimming pool and tennis court.

Yes, I thought, I can get used to this.

Once we were checked in and had a quick peek around the grounds, we regrouped downstairs for lunch and an official welcome.

During his welcome speech, Dino, the marketing manager of Moretti, encouraged us to make ourselves at home.

"At Moretti, we call everyone family", he explained with open arms.

I'm not sure if he expected us to take him quite so literally. But nevertheless, we wasted no time making the villa our home.

Around two o'clock, the pasta-making lesson began in the greenhouse. Two local nonnas had come to the villa to pass on some of their culinary wisdom.

"What you make today, you will eat tonight", one nonna explained while we watched her effortlessly produce a batch of fresh Tortelli Maremmani.

"For pasta, you must use fresh eggs", the other nonna declared.

Over the next hour, we rolled, folded and wheeled our Tortelli until we each had eight ricotta-filled pillows in front of us.

While my batch wasn't quite perfect, they still managed to get the Donal Skehan seal of approval,

"These are very beautiful. I love the technique you've gone for here. There's a nice seal and no air pockets. Yeah, fantastic overall, it's a ten from me."

I suspect he was just being nice, but I'll take it.

Later, when we sat down to dinner, not only was our Tortelli on the menu, but the glasshouse had been transformed into an Italian style food market. Large wooden stalls ran along one side of the room and were expertly filled with cheese and relish, freshly baked bread and cured meats, plus a whole booth full of dessert. We felt like kings and queens at a grand Italian banquet and couldn't wait to tuck in.

As we sat around our table, cooing over every mouthwatering bite, our group exchanged stories from home and reminisced about mutual friends. We laughed as we relived some of the day's events and relaxed as the sun began to set in the background.

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Friday

The next morning, I woke up in my Tuscan bed and smiled as I thought about the previous evening. Although we didn't all speak the same language, everyone certainly understood the concept of a dance-off! By the end of the night, we had all learned Brendan's iconic routine by heart.

After a relaxed breakfast in the sun, we made our way to the medieval village of San Gimignano. This beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site wraps itself around your senses from the second you step through its enormous gates.

The scent of leather and lavender escape the tiny stores where they are being sold. Merchants call out to passers-by, enticing them with their crackling-coated porchetta and freshly baked goods. The village is busy, but there is a sense of calm, and with every step, you feel that you are someplace special.

After a couple of hours of exploring, photographing just about every inch of the village and enjoying a gorgeous lunch at La Mandragola restaurant, it was on to a gelato masterclass.

Hosted in the world-renowned Gelateria Dondoli by the master himself, Sergio Dondoli took us through his perfected process.

Sergio explained passionately that authentic gelato is made using mostly organic ingredients and is pumped with far less air than store-bought ice cream. And if I learnt one key thing during our time with Sergio, it is that you never, ever refer to gelato as ice cream.

The next morning, I woke up in my Tuscan bed and smiled as I thought about the previous evening. Although we didn't all speak the same language, everyone certainly understood the concept of a dance-off! By the end of the night, we had all learned Brendan's iconic routine by heart.

After a relaxed breakfast in the sun, we made our way to the medieval village of San Gimignano. This beautiful UNESCO World Heritage site wraps itself around your senses from the second you step through its enormous gates.

The scent of leather and lavender escape the tiny stores where they are being sold. Merchants call out to passers-by, enticing them with their crackling-coated porchetta and freshly baked goods. The village is busy, but there is a sense of calm, and with every step, you feel that you are someplace special.

After a couple of hours of exploring, photographing just about every inch of the village and enjoying a gorgeous lunch at La Mandragola restaurant, it was on to a gelato masterclass.

Hosted in the world-renowned Gelateria Dondoli by the master himself, Sergio Dondoli took us through his perfected process.

Sergio explained passionately that authentic gelato is made using mostly organic ingredients and is pumped with far less air than store-bought ice cream. And if I learnt one key thing during our time with Sergio, it is that you never, ever refer to gelato as ice cream.