Taking a group to Europe has been a dream of mine for quite some time.  I love the charm of Europe- the old buildings, the accents, the food, the history, the art, the beautiful people, the---everything.  This does not mean that I don’t love the U.S.A.  I am patriotic and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.  (Okay, well, maybe I could live in France if you forced me.) Being a nation of one primary language and monetary system, having clean water run out of every tap in any place, and having such an amazing infrastructure makes it easy to travel here.  If you want to go to California, New York, Ne Orleans, you hop on a plane or drive in your car.  It is simple.  But to travel to a place where the language, food, money, and mode of transportation are so different prohibits many from going.  Or maybe they do go but they see only the main sites or cities, like Florence, Rome, Venice, ba-boom, Home.

I wanted to share some of my favorite places and particularly the food with others.  I decided to take the plunge and design a trip with my travel agent in Chicago, which I then handed over to a local agency to make the reservations.

I asked my friend and trainer, (I do work out.  Really. ) Jennifer Wright, to come with me and teach yoga or lead some type of exercise twice a day.  We had done a yoga retreat where I was the chef and it worked out well, so perhaps she would like to do a culinary retreat where she was the exercise instructor.  She said yes and then it was time for me to detail it.  I chose Florence because I knew of a wonderful place I wanted to stay, the Hotel Villa la Massa situated right on the Arno River, and had been to Florence four times. Florence is actually quite small and easy to get around.  It is a city of approximately 300,000 people—not much larger than Fort Wayne.  Full of art, shopping, and amazing food, it is a dream.

I was very lucky in that we had the most wonderful guests sign up!  Really, I could not have hand picked a better group.  Everyone got along, everyone was up for all the adventures, all were hungry and no one had food issues, and most loved yoga. What could be more perfect?  It was a diverse group as well.  Two of them brought their mother, two came from out of town, a few were friends, but many of the guests I had never met.  Several were clients of Jennifer’s.  Three were men.

I left Roanoke and flew to Florence three days early to visit as many of the places as I could before the guests arrived.  It sure was a good thing, as a few important details had not been relayed correctly and needed to be straightened out.  It also gave me a chance to get to know the concierge and manager and to let them see me before the flurry of 17 other people came on the scene.  I sat down with the chef at the Villa la Massa and planned out the dinners we were eating there.  I went to the San Michele and schmoozed the manager and he finally agreed to let us dine al fresco the night of our farewell dinner.  (He had been no, no, no on that by email for the 9 months of planning.  I knew I had a very important job to do when I got there.  He had to let us eat outside and enjoy the incomparable views of the city at night or I would not be worth my weight in Australian sea salt, darn it.)

The guests arrived at various times on Friday.  One group of friends had spent several days in Positono, God’s kiss on the earth, before they arrived.   Another mother-daughter duo had begun in Rome.  Lucky them! Some added on another city after our trip was over.  Bill, another couple, and I were planning on going to Lake Como after Florence. The first night, we had a scrumptious dinner at the Villa la Massa.  Everything was amazing. The rooms at the Villa la Massa are so different from the big hotels in the U.S. Each time I have stayed there, the hotel has improved in some way.  It recently merged with the Villa d’Este on Lake Como, and the level of beauty was as close to perfection as I have ever seen. (I could not bear to wipe my face on those Italian linen towels, although Bill had no problem.)

Here are most of the cool things we did:  saw the David, had a private walking tour with an adorable Italian guide named Christina, went to an evening cooking school with a lively teacher and prepared incredible food, went to Cinque Terre for the day (super cool) where we had an energetic, young guide who could not have been better, went to another cooking school in the countryside that was really fun and in an idyllic setting, shopped, had lots of free time, and had a final cocktail party and dinner at the gorgeous Villa San Michele.  I also had a trip planned to the outlet mall, but only one guest and I ended up going.  The others decided to go into town and spend the day doing all the things they had not had time to do.  That outlet mall is something else!  It is worth a half day, at least, and an entire day if you are a size 8 or under.  All of this was combined with a daily delicious, huge breakfast buffet where we could sit beside the Arno River and yoga twice a day with Jennifer, outside as well.  

I feel so blessed to have been able to lead this trip.  La Dolce Vita has grown in so many ways.  Who could have predicted that a gratefully recovering alcoholic would one day be a Le Cordon Bleu, Paris trained chef and have this sweet little business in Roanoke?  Dreams really do come true!

Check out more pictures from our trip...