As our black Mercedes people mover pulls away from our ship, the Oceania Riviera, docked in the Italian port of Livorno, the driver cranks up the music.
"Andrea Bocelli is a terrible singer," a woman in the back of the Merc says of the choice of tunes. This is surprising, as we are travelling into Tuscany on a Bocelli-themed shore excursion. "I know opera and he's not an opera singer."
While I'm puzzled as to why someone who feels that way would be on this itinerary, I do know that the debate surrounding the merits of Bocelli's vocal prowess has raged as long as the handsome blind Italian tenor has been world-famous. And that's nearly 30 years. There are those who worship his crossover style. There are those who loathe it. With 90 million records sold, it seems the former, of which I am a card-carrying member, outnumber the latter – he's the classical world's biggest seller ever. And in the corner of Tuscany to which we are travelling, Bocelli's status is absolute. He's a god.
That's immediately evident as we hit Lajatico, in the hills between Pisa and Volterra where Bocelli grew up on the family farm. There are billboards of him everywhere. Sure, this is because Lajatico is also the place where he has built an amphitheatre and regularly performs concerts in support of his many generous philanthropic pursuits. These posters advertise that fact. Still, it seems like some of them are quite old. And no one is in a hurry to take them down.
But this is truly Bocelli central. It's where, at a young age, his talent became apparent to his beloved mother, Edi, and before that, where generations of Bocellis farmed or sold farming machinery for a living, making small amounts of wine on the side.
Things have changed. With Andrea's fame came the realisation that the Bocelli name was perhaps worth more on the label of a bottle than on the side of a workshop. Bocelli Family Wines was born and today the winery produces around 10 varietals, which are exported to the world, including Australia. This is boutique production, and even if you can find the wines at home, there's nothing like tasting in situ, especially when the location is one of bucolic splendour.
The Bocelli cellar door restaurant, Officine Bocelli, is, somewhat weirdly described as a "food court" in its marketing literature but it's not that at all. Inhabiting the family's old machinery sales garage, just outside Lajatico's medieval village, it's a charming cafe-restaurant-bar-cellar door on the bottom floor, with a small museum devoted to Andrea on the top. When we arrive for lunch, at a large communal table in the centre of everything, Andrea's mother, Edi Bocelli, is eating a meal by herself – with a glass of white wine, of course. What a thrill.
The museum is interesting – it has pieces as diverse as Braille machines and Versace costumes. But our lunch is plain cooking with slow service and the wines aren't exactly free-flowing. (Hint: for a more enjoyable repast, accept the frugality of the tasting offering and purchase a bottle of your favourite to drink with your meal.)
After the meal, we drive past the substantial original family farm house where young Andrea's talent was unearthed. One of our party gets out and feverishly takes photos through the gate, paparazzi-style. There's also a visit to Teatro del Silenzio, the outdoor amphitheatre the maestro built on a slope affording, glorious, far-reaching views of the countryside.
Finally leaving Bocelli country to head back to the ship, our driver cranks up Andrea's mega-hit Time to Say Goodbye. I have no idea (nor care) what the Bocelli hater in the back of the car thinks, and I happily sing along. It's been a magical, musical, maestro kind of day.
Julietta Jameson travelled as a guest of Oceania Cruises.
The Oceania Cruises trips which offer the Bocelli-themed excursion include Ancient Adventures, travelling from Venice to Barcelona onboard the Riviera, May 26 to June 7, 2020, from $5220 a person, twin share. See oceaniacruises.com