Tuscany and Istria may be separated by the Adriatic but they are united by a shared heritage and passion for the finest cuisine. Savour these two regions with a taste for the best during this nine-day gourmet tour. In Tuscany, prepare your very own herb pie using ancient Etruscan recipes and tickle your palate with pecorino cheese washed down with Montepulciano wine. Toast your arrival in Istria with a ‘biska’ brandy and try the region’s best-kept secret, a succulent wine-based soup. Amber-coloured Malvasija wine, scented truffles and goat cheese medallions are just some of the many other delicacies this peninsula produces.
Arezzo: Contemplate the frescoes of the Legend of the True Cross by Piero della Francesca in the Basilica of St Francis
Pula: Stand in the ancient arena where gladiators fought to the death in front of thousands of baying spectators
Motovun: Sip a ‘biska’ brandy while admiring the stunning views over the Mirna valley from this elevated village
For more information, please contact your tour designer, Vera Drobnić
Cortona: The historic hillside town is a maze of narrow cobbled alleys that open on to picturesque plazas
Assisi: St Francis’s home town is a treasure trove of religious monuments such as the basilica and the Temple of Minerva
Orca valley: Visit the heartland of pecorino cheese in Pienza and of vino nobile de Montepulciano wine
Motovun: This romantic hilltop hamlet in Istria is famed for the widespread use of truffles in local cuisine
Brijuni Islands: A rocky archipelago that has been seducing statesmen and celebrities since Roman times.
RELAIS IL FALCONIERE
Located about 3km outside the historic town of Cortona and surrounded by 12 hectares of beautifully landscaped gardens, vineyards and olive groves, the small and friendly luxury hotel Relais Il Falconiere is the ideal setting for a culinary experience in the beautiful Tuscan countryside. From this charming base, explore picturesque Tuscan towns and landscapes such as Montepulciano, Pienza, the Orcia valley and the nearby Umbrian town of Assisi. This 17th century Tuscan villa has been exquisitely restored with 22 individually furnished rooms featuring antique furniture, frescoed walls and bespoke fabrics, all helping to create a homely and opulent environment. Owners Silvia and Riccardo Baracchi personally take care of guests. There is a wellness centre with outdoor and indoor swimming pools and a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Pick-up from Venice Airport and transfer to Relais Il Falconiere just outside of Cortona. In the afternoon, you can relax in the Thesan Spa with a sauna, steam bath, hydro-massage pool and chromo emotional shower at your disposal. In the evening, a welcome cocktail will be offered by Silvia Baracchi, chef-owner of the Il Falconiere, followed by a delicious gourmet dinner served in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant.
Enjoy a guided sightseeing tour of Cortona in the morning. If possible, stop at the weekly market to buy the ingredients for today’s cooking lesson. Return to the Relais for your cookery class. An example of the sort of menu prepared features recipes from ancient Etruscan cuisine, which might include wild herb pie with parmesan fondue, gnudi pasta with ricotta cheese, local lamb in a crust of Tuscan bread, sautéed greens and berry cake with mascarpone cheese mousse.
Visit ancient Assisi (alternatively, you can visit Arezzo if preferred) just a short drive away from Cortona and explore this small town with a big reputation for religious architecture. See the vast Basilica of St Francis, which is so large that it is divided into upper and lower churches, and decorated with frescoes by renowned artists such as Giotto. The town that gave the world St Francis also boasts the Piazza del Comune, where you will find the elegant Palazzo dei Priori and the remarkably well-preserved Roman Temple of Minerva, and the nearby Basilica of St Clare and Cathedral of San Rufino. Lunch is in a typical Umbrian restaurant with tastings of the finest Umbrian wines.
Travel to the enchanting landscapes of the Orcia valley and visit Pienza, which is famous for its pecorino cheese, and Montepulciano with its outstanding wineries producing vino nobile di Montepulciano. In the afternoon, visit the Baracchis’ very own vineyard for an in-depth explanation of winemaking and a tasting some of their excellent wines.
Depart for Mestre where your Croatian bus and guide will take you for the continuation of this gourmet adventure. Transfer to Hotel Kastel in Motovun. This village in central Istria sits atop an elevation that dominates the valley of the River Mirna. It developed on the site of a prehistoric hill fort and legend has it that the mythical Jason and the Argonauts sailed along the Mirna. Upon arrival, enjoy a tasty dinner in a local restaurant.
Roll up your sleeves for a morning in the Laguna vineyards to help with the harvest (if in season) at one of the leading Istrian wineries (depending on grape maturity) which will be followed by a visit, guided by an expert, to the Agrolaguna wine cellar. Learn more about wine production and visit the biggest barrique hall in Croatia. Cap this segment off with wine tasting, lunch and olive oil tasting. Continue to the Livade valley situated below Motovun. This is the where Istrian black and white truffles grow, the so-called 'Bermuda triangle’ between Pazin, Buje and Buzet, especially in the valley of the River Mirna and in the Motovun Forest. They grow underground and specially trained dogs are used to find them. Spend some time at a truffle hunting demonstration with your host and then enjoy truffle specialities during the dinner. Transfer to the hotel in the evening.
Discover the picturesque village of Groznjan or Grisignana in Italian, which is widely spoken by the locals. Nestling on an elevation over the Mirna valley, it is renowned as an artists’ colony. Groznjan boasts a rich heritage of churches, castles, palaces and other historic buildings, whose past glory has been recovered through restoration. Lunch will be in the small town of Zminj, where kind hosts will welcome you with Istrian supa (a soup made from red wine and toasted bread, sugar, a little olive oil and a dash of pepper) – all to the sounds of the Triestina harmonica. Those in the know hardly drink the wine, preferring to sip it from the toast. This festive beverage is usually accompanied by Istrian sausages and bread. Late in the afternoon, transfer to the hotel. In the evening, head to the famous Tomaz winery for a tasting of four wines accompanied by finger food. The winery is particularly renowned for its malvazija variety. After the tasting and a presentation on wine production, return to Motovun for dinner in a restaurant.
Escape to the unspoiled and beautiful Brijuni Islands, a rocky archipelago of 14 isles to which the great and wealthy have retreated since time immemorial. Hop aboard a mini-train and explore Veliki Brijun, the largest of the islands, and visit the ruins of a Byzantine fort and the remains of a basilica built by the medieval Knights Templar. After World War II, Veliki Brijun became the personal playground of Yugoslavian dictator Tito, who kept four villas here for relaxing and entertaining dozens of heads of state and celebrities, ranging from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to Hollywood legends Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. All would bring a gift or two for Tito, whether a 1953 Cadillac Eldorado gifted by US President Dwight Eisenhower or a pair of Indian elephants from Indira Gandhi. All the animals were kept in a zoo, and a mini-safari allows you to see their descendants, while Tito’s main villa is now a museum, which is also visited. In the afternoon, there will be a demonstration of traditional Istrian cuisine in a typical konoba, the local equivalent of a cosy taverna.
Spend the morning exploring at your own leisure the coastal city of Pula, where the ancient Roman arena still dominates the skyline. It is just one of a number of remarkably well-preserved classical relics such as the Temple of Augustus and the Arch of the Sergii. Continue to Stancija Kumparicka farm, which is renowned for its goat cheeses. Master cheese maker Ales Winkler is an uncompromising perfectionist who has found pastures with the most aromatic grasses, goats that provide the best milk and a method of processing milk and nurturing cheese that produces superior results. One of his signature products is the cheese medallion. Relatively young cheese is formed into a cylindrical form and sliced into medallions before being quickly fried on both sides. Sample cheese outdoors as goats and black pigs roam the yard. Learn how the best young and mature goat cheeses are produced and solve the enigma of whether three-year old goat cheese is edible, before wrapping up this exciting culinary adventure in Istria. Depart for Venice Airport.