By David CogswellOne of the main features of the Tauck Culturious tour product is that it is designed to be active and immersive. The affluent baby boomer target market likes to get involved, not to be passive sightseers. Culturious is designed for people who want to be physically and mentally active, engaged and want to penetrate the culture of a destination. They donít want to stand aside, they want to dive in. On the trip to Tuscany and Cinque Terre, I saw how it played out in the field. The tour was indeed full of novel experiences and impressions, and a far cry from the traditional motorcoach tour, as it is generally imagined to be.
The tour group is limited to 20 passengers, so there is really no need to use the standard 50-seat motorcoach. I have nothing against the large motorcoaches myself. They are smooth, plush and luxurious and I have passed many pleasant hours on them. But it is nice to be able to ride around in smaller vehicles, especially on the smaller roads of Europe.
The Culturious Tuscany trip did use a large motorcoach one night, to take the group to a farewell dinner a few miles outside of the town of Lucca, where we were lodged at the heart of the old city. From the airport I rode in a private car. Around Florence we walked. Other forms of locomotion on the trip were ship, bicycle and 4X4 vehicle. Most of the time we walked. There was very little highway travel on the trip because the itinerary was drawn within a very small radius, from Florence to the west coast of Italy about 70 miles away and back.
The active mode of the trip was established almost instantly. In a previous column I described how we hit the ground walking, with a walking tour of Florence scheduled an hour or so after I arrived from the airport. As the activities of the trip continued to roll out it became clear that they were thoughtfully selected to present a varied palette of experiences that were constantly surprising in their novelty and definitely filled the bill of being active and immersive.
Besides the walking tour of Florence guided by an art history expert, we also attended a lecture by an art history professor from the University of Syracuse in Florence. It was a chance to experience a sample of university life, the life of the mind, and it significantly deepened the experience and appreciation of what we were seeing in Florence. From that point the activities seemed to divert increasingly from standard expectations.
After the lecture, we went to the Uffizi Gallery, one of the handful of most notable art museums in the world. We had a tour that familiarized us with the layout of the museum and its relation to the art history it portrays. We started with Byzantine art, then progressed into the 1300s with the painter Giotto and an emergence from the ethereal religious themes to more realism, more humanism. Then into the late 1400s and the Renaissance with Botticelli, the emergence of portraits, then Leonardo and Michelangelo.
After a survey of the public part of the museum, we got a private tour of the Vasari Corridor, an area that can only be entered by private appointment. Itís a long hallway with many works of art evolving through the centuries, including a section of battle scenes and a long section of 1,600 artistsí self portraits.
On our second morning, our third day in Florence, we loaded into a small coach and drove to the outskirts of Florence to Fiesole, a village that dates back to the Etruscans before the establishment of Rome. We walked through the village, which was a picturesque destination in itself, and then out into the country through hills and forests, by sandstone quarries and finally to a precipice that is believed to be where Leonardo Da Vinci tried out his flying machine.
Our guide, Birgit Ensslin, informed us of the background of all kinds of things we were seeing, naming plant species, describing the geography of Italy, the anecdotal history of Leonardoís flight experiments, the way the sandstone was taken from the quarry and how it was used. We saw olives growing freely and tall Cyprus trees standing serenely. We enjoyed the physical activity of the hike, the fresh air and the expansive views of the misty landscape from the hilltop overlooking Florence.
When we returned to Florence Birgit took us to a food market where we observed the local life from the perspective of how people eat and what foods they buy, including meats and fish, fruits, vegetables and spices. I nearly collided head on with a man carrying two huge plucked turkeys. The market was a head-spinning experience providing us with a kind of insight few experience even in our own home towns.
Our tour director Florence Hory gave us a small introductory lesson in Italian, which was fascinating and even useful, as it gave us the power of asking for our food in restaurants in the local language. And to utter even a few words in that great dancing tongue, the language of Dante, is a great pleasure.
After three days and nights in Florence, we hit the road for our first highway travel as we headed for our ultimate destination, Cinque Terre. Our group of 18 split into three minibuses and headed northwest out of Florence toward Carrara, where we were in for a rare treat: a trip to the marble quarries where most of the worldís marble comes from. It was where Michelangelo went himself to pick out the giant stone that he was to carve into David.
When you see the amount of marble that is used in building all over the world, you may wonder where it comes from and how long it will be before it is all used up. At Carrara we got a perspective on that question. We piled into three 4X4 Rovers and headed up the mountainside toward the quarries. They are of a scope that is hard to conceive of. They are literally mountains of marble. From a distance the mountains look like they are covered with snow because the quarries have exposed the white of the marble. The guide in my Rover, Gabriele Ginturi, explained that the whole area is marble. The road beneath us was marble. A layer of topsoil had formed over the centuries from decayed plant matter, and thatís what the trees grew from. But under that it was all marble. It would take a very long time to use it all even though millions of tons are extracted every year.
Gabriele gave us a running commentary with enough information to fill an encyclopedia on marble as he whipped the Rover up narrow winding roads to the dizzying top of a mountain overlooking one of 188 quarries. It seemed that we were on top of the world as we looked out over the white mountainscape blanketed in fog. Heavy equipment chinked and clanked below us, echoing off the white, geometric walls of the quarries. -- David Cogswell