In a medieval stone farmhouse, in the absurdly picturesque countryside of Tuscany, Federica Fenzi welcomes us upstairs for lunch.
The gregarious co-owner of Fattoria San Donato - a family-run winery and agriturismo perched in a tiny village between Siena and Florence - has prepared a table of tantalising dishes. There's eggplant and artichokes, onion marinated in Chianti vinegar and salami preserved in fennel seed - not to mention home-made bread, sun-dried tomatoes, prosciutto, chickpeas, gorgonzola, pecorino and ricotta. "It's all organic," says Federica. "And the ingredients are either from our estate or our neighbours."
When I say I'll try everything, she doesn't chide me for being greedy. Like a typical Italian mamma, she's delighted. "You're my guest. Eat a lot. And as you have a driver, drink a lot too." Carafes of silky red chianti and vernaccia - a smooth white wine that flourishes in this, the San Gimignano area of central Tuscany - await at our table. And when we're about to tuck in, Federica dashes over with some extra virgin olive oil. "We just bottled it yesterday," she says, hurrying back to the kitchen.
Our "light lunch" is delicious and the setting is one you would write home about. First mentioned in records in AD971, San Donato was on La Via Francigena - a holy route that threaded from England's Canterbury cathedral to Rome via France. Pilgrims would pray at the village's Romanesque church, which has been carefully restored and hosts Mass and weddings. Tangled in creepers, edged by pretty potted plants and pomegranate trees, other rustic stone buildings have been reborn as smart villas and holiday apartments. Guests sign up for activities like truffle hunting and cookery classes and sample the produce from the village's cellars and vegetable gardens. We're on a Tuscan day trip, part of an NCL Mediterranean Cruise, and our ship, the Norwegian Epic, has docked at the port of Livorno.
After dessert - cantucci almond cookies dipped in sweet Vin Santo wine ("tradition says 10 seconds") - Federica guides us to the cellars. The annual harvest took place a few weeks before and there's a heady aroma of crushed grapes. Before, we'd seen a trailer of them being hauled into a barn by two farmhands, and now we can see wine being fermented, bubbling in oak barrels. San Donato usually makes between 70,000 and 90,000 bottles a year (named after family members - Arrigo, Fede, Fiamma etc - they're on sale at the village's shop).
"It's a magical time," says Federica. "Every harvest is an adventure. It's a marriage between nature and man to turn the grape into a good wine. And even though nature does most of the work, you feel the good work you have done - as well as the mistakes - in the glass. It makes us tired, but happy." Her words, in exquisite, lightly-accented Italian English, flow as easily as our chianti at lunch, and her passion for wine-making is evident even through her face mask (Italy's current COVID-19 protocols mean you must wear one in indoor settings when you're not eating or drinking).
The farm, which has been in the Fenzi family since 1932, is run by Federica and husband, Umberto, with their three grown-up daughters and nonna Marisella. The pandemic has been "very difficult", but Federica says: "We've survived." And she tells me a story that goes a long way to explaining her enduring enthusiasm. About 20 years ago they found in the vineyards Etruscan relics dating back more than 2500 years. "Buried in them were containers and cups for wines," recalls Federica. "We were so excited and so proud to continue this ancient wine-making tradition."
A sea of vines, olives, pine trees and deciduous woods, coloured in various shades of green, the countryside around San Donato looks like it was crafted by a landscape painter. It's a spellbinding location for horseback rides, cycling and hiking. You can walk - in about an hour - to San Gimignano, perhaps the most beautiful of Tuscany's walled hilltop towns. We're transferred there (in 10 minutes) by coach, where we meet Agnese, the most fashionable tour guide I've seen in a while. She's sporting a leather jacket, boots and hand-bag, with a red skirt and black lace tights, and a floral-patterned band in her shoulder-length blonde hair.
And then there is the eye-catching skyline of San Gimignano: 14 stone towers, built in the Middle Ages, soar above the cobbled streets, earning the town the moniker the "Medieval Manhattan" (plus a UNESCO World Heritage listing). At its peak - when it was on La Via Francigena and prospered off the trade of saffron and Vernaccia wine - the town had 72 such skyscrapers, either bell towers, watch towers and tower-houses. "Feuding families built them to show off," says Agnese. "It was like a competition. They wanted to go as high as they could, proving they had the wealth to buy the stones. And it also gave them extra protection."
The lower levels typically contained merchants' shops, with the living quarters above, and the kitchen higher up. "If there was a fire, the smoke would go upwards, giving the family time to abandon the building." High-rise living gradually fell out of favour, with authorities periodically cracking down on height levels. San Gimignano's fortunes, and population, were devastated by the Black Death in the mid-14th century, with this once-powerful town slipping under the command of Florence. In the Renaissance, more towers were dismantled, with the stone recycled to construct grander, lower-rise Florentine-style palazzi. Today, businesses and tourist rentals occupy the town's remaining towers, while you'll glean stunning views by climbing 218 steps up Torre Grossa, at 54 metres, the highest tower still standing.
It looms beside a cathedral that has magnificent biblical frescoes, and by Piazza della Cisterna, where queues routinely snake from its octagonal well to Gelateria Dondoli, where an ex-gelato world champion conjures inventive ice cream. "If you order something here, please be brave!" says Agnese. "I know chocolate-chip is good but try something different: maybe blueberry and ricotta or blackberry and rosemary."
As pealing church bells radiate through the narrow lanes springing off the square, I'm struck by contrasting scents - cheeses, truffles, coffee and leather - wafting from shop doorways. Stuffed wild boars guard deli entrances, with window displays of wines, olive oils and antipasti. In a deconsecrated church near Porta San Giovanni - one of the medieval city gates - you can buy wild roe, boar and deer. Despite being notoriously expensive, saffron features on well-priced dessert menus. At Le Vecchie Mura, a restaurant on the 13th-century city walls, diners enjoy panna cotta with saffron, toffee and marinated apples with a dreamy panorama over the valley below. Taking in the view, as the sun toasts my neck, I think back to something Federica Fenzi said when I told her Australian visitors will soon (hopefully) be travelling to Italy again.
"I love them," she beamed. "They tend to come to Europe on longer trips, so they have more time. They're relaxed. They always smile." In a region as scenic and culture-rich as this, with food and drink and weather more often than not as good as this, how could you not smile?
FIVE OTHER TUSCAN DELIGHTS TO VISIT
Stroll or pedal along the 4.2km-long Renaissance city walls of Lucca, an alternative city break to the renowned Tuscan trio of Florence, Siena and Pisa. See discovertuscany.com
Local-boy-done-good, the legendary tenor Andrea Bocelli performs at open-air summer concerts at his family's farm and winery, which arranges tours, tastings and luxury stays throughout the year. See bocellifarmhouse.com
You'll be purring at the vintage Vespas at the museum set in the original Piaggio production plant in this industrial town by the River Arno. See https://www.museopiaggio.it/en
Once you get beyond the sprawling port, there's a photogenic historic quarter with fortresses, canals and piazzas lined with cafes and seafood eateries.
An exiled Napoleon famously escaped from this rugged, cove-indented island, a ferry ride from Piombino on the Tuscan mainland. Expect charming coastal towns, Etruscan and Roman ruins and plenty of Napoleonic history.
A shore excursion to San Gimignano and San Donato costs about $US220 on Norwegian's seven-night Mediterranean cruises departing in 2022 from Rome and Barcelona, from $US1014 ($1473) a person, twin share. See ncl.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Norwegian Cruise Line.