A European mini-break can be oh-so tempting until the panic sets in. You have just 48 hours to see the best sights, eat at the best restaurants, drink the best cocktails and take the best Insta-worthy shots. Sounds stressful, huh? Susie thought so too, until she visited Tuscany and discovered she’d been doing mini breaks all wrong…
I’ve never really seen the point of a mini break. They’ve always felt just a little bit well, mini. As someone who lives on a constant anxiety merry-go-round, I’ve never found that weekends away do much to repair my frazzled synapses. The race to the airport at 6pm, the panic about unanswered emails and handover notes – and the pathological need to see and do everything. I always limp off the plane at Heathrow feeling in worse shape than when I left and when the alarm buzzes on Monday morning, I wonder if it was all worth it. That was until I spent 48 in Tuscany.
Tuscany was the first weekend trip where I’ve actually just slowed down, mainly because things move at a different pace in rural Italy. I don’t know if that’s down to the sleepy villages, the 2,000 hours of sunshine each year, or because it’s home to some of the world’s best food and vineyards. But what I do know is that there’s no way you’ll still be stressed at the end of it.
We arrive at Pisa airport and take a one-hour transfer to the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa. Perched on a hilltop, the hotel sits between two mountain ranges: the Apuan Alps and the Tuscan Emiliano Apennine. The pool offers the best views of both, and the River Serchio Valley below. It’s the perfect hangout for an afternoon Aperol Spritz. Inside, the hotel is roomy, cool and intensely calming. The lobby on the ground floor is bigger than my entire flat: I have a massive urge to rollerskate around it. Finally, I take a breath.
A few hours later, I’ve forgotten London even exists. The spa offers a cornucopia of treatments. Try the herbal pindas massage, which uses warm oils infused with Tuscan herbs. It’s an amazing balm for tired muscles. Or opt for an ’emotional shower’ in the wellness centre. For me, this usually means sobbing in the bathroom after another bad day. But here it means using lights, aromatherapy and an icy-cold waterfall to reset your senses and achieve mental and physical balance.
Afterwards I’m ready to hit the hotel restaurant. The menu is all about quality, provenance and local flavours. It’s not just pasta either – although when in Italy…
The day kicks off at the local market in Barga, a medieval town just five-minutes drive from the hotel. Alessandro, the hotel’s chef, leads the way, helping us source ingredients for our Tuscan wine and cooking class. Along the way we meet Agustino and Enrico, who at 10.30am hand us a glass of red wine (good morning, Tuscany!) and pieces of the handmade cheeses their shop has produced for more than 100 years. It’s as far away as you can get from the bleary-eyed, after-work sleepwalk around the aisles of Tesco Metro.
Back at the hotel, we create our three-course meal. This is mindfulness cooking at its best. It’s about using methodical and slowed-down preparation to reconnect with our food, turning the simplest ingredients into feel-good dishes that nourish the soul.
The highlight was whipping up gnocchi from scratch. I found grating the potato, mixing in egg, flour and water, rolling the dough and chopping it into bite-sized chunks strangely hypnotic. The result was gnocchi like I’ve never tasted before – maybe because we’d made it ourselves, or maybe because we ate it on the restaurant’s veranda in the afternoon sunshine. Either way, I’m feeling super relaxed.
There’s still time for an afternoon nap to digest and recharge. Tomorrow we head to the neighbouring vineyard to learn more about the wine on the hotel’s menu.
It’s 10am and we’re standing ankle deep in a vat of red grapes, using our feet to stomp and crush them, so we release their juices and begin fermentation. The owners use this centuries-old approach because it’s gentler than machines, which means they can avoid introducing bitterness into the wine. They also instill a biodynamic philosophy to production, a special alchemy of working with nature and other plants and insects to keep the vines strong and healthy without the use of chemicals. As I’m finding out with so many things in Tuscany, the focus is on quality not quantity, and keeping it local. The teams focuses on selling wine within the valley, so it can be enjoyed in the landscape it came from. Such an alien concept at home.
All the picking, squelching and stomping definitely gave me a new appreciation of where wine comes from – something I’ve never thought too much about when gulping it down after a long day. The antioxidants are apparently pretty good at tackling skin damaged by free radicals, too – wine therapy is now a thing, with more and more spas offering grape extracts for massages, wraps and facials. I look with optimism at my feet. Maybe the effect takes a while to kick in?
I end my time in Tuscany feeling the most chilled I have in a long time. My brain is quiet. I have a new-found appreciation for eating and drinking mindfully – and now understand that when done well a mini-break can actually be restful. Instead of parachuting into a European city on my next weekend away, I’ll be heading back to the (Tuscan) hills.
For more information, visit the Renaissance Tuscany website
By guest contributor Susie Sell