Florence and Tuscany

Trip Date:
May 18-28, 2025

Why are we going to Florence and Gargonza?

When, in 476, the last Roman Emperor retired to his villa and gave the keys to the Empire to the barbarians, European Civilization took a nap….. a vey long nap…. as in a thousand year nap. It seems certain now, that at some point it would have to rise again. The renaissance could have started in Northern Europe with Charlemagne in 800. But it didn’t. He tried to interest his court in the ancient glories. But, having never learned to read himself, he never got his kingdom to a critical turning point, and when he died, the long slumber continued. Over the next six hundred years there were lots of brilliant individuals here and there who studied the ancient world. But there never was enough accumulation of knowledge, wealth and power in one place to reach a tipping point. And so it still didn’t happen. Until at Florence, in the few decades before and after the turn of the fifteenth century, it happened. By 1500 Europe was awake and charged with energy. And from that place, at that point in time, to our own time, the scholars, artists, architects, scientists and musicians over our entire world can trace roots back to that grand awakening that leads directly to our modern world.

That’s a rather standard pitch for Florence. But please permit us to share a more personal motivation. For twenty-five years Georgia and I have been putting together these adventures. Our very first trip trip was to the magical little paradise called Gargonza, in Tuscany. It was one of those random and lucky experiences that changed our lives. The Count Roberto Guiciardini inherited the castle in 1968. His ancestor, Count Francesco Guiciardini, was the court historian to the Medici and worked for Lorenzo the Magnificent. Francesco’s writings are the most important primary source for the political history of Florence during the Renaissance. Our friend, Count Roberto, married the Countess Ginori, who still today lives in the Palazzo Ginori, on Via Ginori, two hundred yards from the Duomo, and next door to the first Medici palace. I had lunch there with the Countess two weeks ago. Roberto died a couple of years ago at 94.

Both Roberto and the Countess (Teresa) were previously married. And because of the strict Catholic rules of society of the time, their divorces and then marriage caused such a scandal that they removed themselves from society and moved to the country; to Gargonza, where Count Roberto began his life’s work; to bring back to life his Medieval village and castle. He put a small classified ad in the London Times inviting guests to stay with him in a medieval castle. In what was either a complaint against the rules of the day, or a brilliant marketing move, he included two words, “Lovers Welcome”. Gargonza thus became one of the very first hotels in Italy where a couple did not have to show proof of marriage in order to share a room. The guests came; they paid; and for the next 50 years, Count Roberto Guiciardini put all the money back into the restoration of the castello.

I’ve always been crazy for history, so I was a great audience for Roberto’s stories. We spent time together in the castle’s archives, where some receipt or government document would bring a memory and lead to a story that his grandfather had told him. I got an education in feudalism from a primary source. When Roberto inherited the castle (and 1500 acres of land) in 1968, he literally also inherited the few old people who still lived there. They were “his people” and he was responsible for their welfare. The last feudal laws in Italy were repealed only in 1972. At that time, the titles of Count and Countess lost any legal meaning, although I learned that they still carried great social value. Roberto and Teresa had several children from their previous marriages, but they had one child together. Neri Guiciardini was a teenager when we first came to Gargonza, He and his family manage the castle today and are great friends.

We had another stroke of luck as we prepared our visit to Florence. Marshall Turner and Michal Collins are members of a social club in San Francisco that many of you are familiar with. When they learned that we were going to Florence, they kindly offered introductions to a philanthropic organization that, twenty five years ago, they helped create. It’s called “The Friends of Florence”, This is a worldwide organization that raises funds for the restoration and preservation of the art and monuments of Florence. I had a wonderful meeting with the director, Simonetta Bandolini (Countess d’Adda). As I write this, she is sending us ideas for wonderful adventures that she could help facilitate. Literally everyone in Florence seems to know her and revere her. You can look forward to many exciting updates.

We are running out of room here, but I must also tell you that we have two wonderful artists who will join us, Justin Hess and Alicia Ponzio. Although their studio is now in San Francisco, for many years they were on the faculty of the Florence Academy of Art. As our artists in residence, they will complement the greatest line-up of musical talent that we’ve ever had on one of these trips.

What Will We Do During Our Days in Florence?

The simple answer to this question is that we aren’t sure yet. When we went to Florence in January, we had just learned that we had put together the great group of talent that would really justify this trip. (next page). Our goal was to find a great place to hold our festivities. The five-star accommodations at the Villa Medici are perfect. It has a great location and room to hold our evening concerts and banquets. The next step would be to find a great group of guides to show us around. But at this point, Marshall Turner and Michael Collins stepped in to offer introductions to a group of Florence’s most active historians and conservators of art and architecture. This has opened new vistas of possibilities. And so we will return again in March to work with this great group of people, “The Friends of Florence.”

One part of our plan is clear. There will be people joining us who have not yet stood in the shadow of Michelangelo’s David or viewed the tombs he sculpted for the Medici. They may never have stood underneath Brunelleschi’s great dome, the first great dome in Europe since Roman times. Or come face to face with Botticelli’s Venus. Or maybe it has been thirty years since they did so. We plan to have wonderful guides to help with a magnificent voyage of discovery or rediscovery.

But there are members of our group who have been to Florence many times and are quite familiar with these seminal masterworks of Western Civilization. Next month it will be our mission to take advantage of the opportunity that has been presented to us. And we have already established a way to say thank you. The Friend of Florence will provide a wonderful venue and the musicians of Castles and Concerts will present a concert, not only for the guests of Castles and Concerts, but also for the local community members who have given so much to help preserve the treasures of Florence.

But whether you are exploring well-known masterpieces or hidden treasures, everyone will surely enjoy sharing the insights gleaned from the years of personal and artistic experiences of our Artists in Residence, Alisia and Justin. You can count on several exciting updates in the coming year.

Our Home in Florence
Grand Hotel Villa Medici

We will stay in this five-star property, created in a former palace of the Belle Epoch. It is located at the edge of the ancient city-center. For us this seems to be an ideal location. Although everything is within walking distance, we will be grateful in high season to have a couple of blocks between us and the crowds in the city-center. Our Villa is one of only two that we know of (the other is the Four Seasons) that still has its original walled garden in the back of the palace. Most rooms have wonderful views and some have terraces and rooftop patios.

The Music, the Musicians and the Artists

We certainly know how we will spend our evenings. We’re bringing the “A” team for this adventure. Like Gregg Field (top left) holding an armful of his many Grammys, we have an abundance of musical talent. Starting with America’s busiest pianist, another Multi-Grammy winner, Shelly Berg. And Billy Valentine will sing for us, (proof that God loves us). Did you know that Dean Parks, one of America’s most often recorded guitarists (Steely Dan) is also a wonderful saxophonist? He’s bringing his horn as well as his guitar. Everybody’s favorite bass player, the phenomenal Terry Miller will join us. And we are so thrilled that we will again have the lush, soulful and gorgeous Monica Mancini with us. And these are just the headliners. We’ll have several other musicians, including some of our favorite Italian players that we’ve met over the years. We’ll have Micrologus, Italy’s premier early music players. And when we were in Gargonza 12 years ago, we were so impressed with the accordion virtuosity of Alessandro Pelucchini that Terry Miller brought him to the Bay Area for a series of performances. This will make for a grand reunion.

We‘ll also have two “Artists in Residence”, Justin Hess and Alicia Ponzio, two former faculty members of the Florence Academy of Art who now live and practice their art in San Francisco. They are uniquely qualified to open secret doors to special places and to lead us to a deeper understanding of the art, history and culture of Florence.

Below left: Alicia Ponzio was for several years the Academy’s director of artistic anatomy and sculpture. Below right: Justin Hess (Self Portrait) has exhibited in Italy, London, Monaco, Norway and the United States. His work can be found in private collections around the world.

A little background on our Castle Home in the Hills of Tuscany

The Castello di Gargonza rests on foundations put down by the Etruscans around 800 BCE It was probably taken by the Romans around 300 B.C. as they consolidated their hold on the Italian peninsula. The peace of Roman times meant that there was no need for fortified castles, and for several hundred years Gargonza was the center of a grand farm, cultivating grapes, grains and olives. There are still the remains of Roman roads on the property. There has always been, and remains today, abundant game in the surrounding forests.
We can only speculate about the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, but by around 1100 A.D. the great families of Florence and Sienna had commenced their centuries long struggle for the control of Tuscany. By 1200, new walls had been built at Gargonza. And by the 1300’s, when Dante took refuge here to write the Divine Comedy and avoid the lethal politics of Florence, the Castello had taken the appearance it has today. Although it looks the same from the outside the interiors have all the amenities that you’d expect in a fine hotel. Especially the bathrooms; all from the 21st century.

The Castello is now a forty-five-room village and conference center that is used every year by the National Geographic Society and Harvard University. We have taken the entire property for the duration of our stay.

Some of our travelers will remember the Castello. We spent a wonderful week here in 2009, rehearsing scenes and creating the sets for the opera in Monte Carlo. Left is a watercolor of the castle by Don Brandengurger from our 2009 visit.

Our Days in Tuscany

As we often do, we will divide into small groups for daily adventures. Evenings we’ll all be together for our banquets and concerts. Each group will have the opportunity to experience each of the daily activities. We will also ask you which other guests you would like to be with on the daily excursions. These pages should give you an idea of what we have planned
Brunello vineyards near Montalcino
Tuscan towns are some of the most picturesque places on earth. They also have the distinction of producing some of the finest wines, cheeses, olives and other culinary delights on the planet. Having been founded by the Etruscans, the people of these towns have been enjoying the pursuit of the good life for almost three thousand years. Montepulciano, Cortona, Montalcino and Pienza are all within 25 miles of Gargonza. Each day we will seek out the best views, the best food and the best wines. And because you will be traveling with your friends from Castles and Concerts, you know that the companionship will also be the best. And we may get to visit some of these towns in our little red sports cars. Does life get any better?

Italians have a recognized genius for cultivating the gifts of life, whether through the love of family, their engagement with their culture or their unabashed pursuit of the joys of the senses. Great food and wines take a central part in the life of a true Italian. We will allow ourselves to partake in this quest for joy at life’s table of pleasures.

Within two generations, the Italian wines that we get in America have gone (if you are old enough to remember) from the cheap jug wine sold in woven straw baskets to the glories of Brunello di Montalcino, Super Tuscans and Nobile di Montepulciano.

We have the great good fortune to have as our friend Klajdi Belaj. We met Kladji when he was quite young. He had just left Albania, where he played principle oboist in the state symphony. He speaks several languages. So of course, as an immigrant, he became a waiter. Through talent and diligence, his fortunes have greatly improved. Becoming a Sommelier, he is now higher profile. He visited us in Marin when he came to meet with George Lucas (or at least George’s people) Because, by that time, he had become the sommelier for George Lucas’ Villa in Tuscany. Sometime George rents out the Villa to his Hollywood chums. They have to provide their own wines, but hey! At half a million euros a week, at least it comes with a sommelier to help choose the wines. Klidji will be in charge of our wine tasting and will lead us on gastronomic adventures in Tuscany. We will take lunch in a different restaurant each day.

The Culinary Delights of Tuscany

In the last thirty years, Tuscany has been at the center of a revolution in the art and science of the cultivation and preparation of food. With its emphasis on fresh, locally grown ingredients, brilliant tastes & textures, and novel pairings of flavors with local wines, Tuscany is now one of the most important food centers in the world. We will explore the vineyards and farms around the hill-towns of Montepulciano and Pienza sampling the wines, cheeses, olives, olive oil, prosciutto and pastas as we take small groups to a different restaurant each day.

Driving Classic Sports Cars in Tuscany

The headline daytime activity is to drive a group of vintage convertibles through the Tuscan countryside. The last time we had the group in Italy, at Lake Como, one of our most memorable events was driving classic Italian Sports Cars. No nation on earth can match the exuberance of Italy’s embrace of the automobile as an art form. And the roads through Tuscany between Gargonza and Sienna have some of the most breathtaking drives on the planet.
Right now we are negotiating with the mayor’s office in Sienna to be able to drive 12 -15 sports cars into the central piazza in Sienna. We hope to be able to park them in the square fort a couple of hours while we take lunch and check out the town. This piazza of Sienna is one of the most iconic piazzas in Italy. Here, every August, they run the Palio, a world famous horse race. We don’t presume to race our cars around the square, but a nice parade once around the square might put a smile on the faces of the locals as well as the tourists.

Details and Costs

Something Different: We usually offer a ten-day schedule. This is often offered as a week in the main destination with an optional three-day pre-trip. This allows guests to get a little more time in the destination, but it also allows time to adjust one’s body clock for jetlag. With this trip, we have so much to offer in each of our two destinations that we are splitting it into two equal five-day segments. We will be in Florence for five nights (May 18 to 23) and then Gargonza for five nights (May 23 to 28). The two halves are priced identically. You can opt to come for either half or both halves. If you want to arrive a day or two early to get a jump on jetlag, we will be happy to book rooms for you at cost, but there will be no scheduled activities until the official start of the trip. We will be in high season, so it would be advisable to think about this early in your planning.

Arrival and Departure: You should plan to fly into and out of Florence. There are flights to Florence from all major hubs in Europe. The Grand Hotel Villa Medici is twenty-minutes from the small Florence airport. Our plan is to pick you up individually when you arrive. Gargonza is 90 minutes south of Florence, so we will provide several group transports to the Florence airport on May 28th Whatever time your flight is, we’ll get you there.

Dress: We will be casually elegant for our evenings in the Villa Medici. In Florence we will have a couple of nights to dress up nicely, especially when we mingle with Florence society. But remember that our group has a wide comfort zone for attire. Wear what’s appropriate for you. We’ll be more casual in Gargonza. Comfort (especially shoes) is important walking on on cobblestones in Tuscany.

Weather: May is the most beautiful time of the year. With the exception of the possibility of some spring showers, the weather should be perfect. Bring a light covering to block the sun in daytime and the cool in the evenings.

What’s included: All accommodations, concerts, tours and ground transportation. All meals, with the possible exception of one night on your own in Florence. House wines are included with dinners and we’ll have great parties every night. You will sign for your own cocktails.

Costs: The cost for each five-day segment is $5,950/person double occupancy. There are some suites available at an extra cost. There will be a place on the response card to let us know if you are interested in an upgrade. A single occupancy supplement is $1,500 for each five days.

A Note on Costs: In Europe, much more than in America, inflation is being built into the costs. Costs for next year are consistently higher than today’s price. If you arrive early, we will book your room at cost (about $900/night/room, depending on the exchange rate). And this is a good price for five-star accommodations. The base quoted price of 650 Euros adds 22% VAT plus other taxes and fees, and another 10% in the exchange rate.

Deposit: A deposit of $1,000 per person will hold your place. This deposit is fully refundable for any reason until this summer, when all the plans are solidified and we ask you to increase your deposit.

Insurance / Cancellations: If there is something that might prevent you from attending, we encourage you to take out trip insurance. Deposits are fully transferable to someone who takes your place. If you cancel for any reason we will refund all your money if the trip is full & we can fill your spot.

A Heads Up For Those Who Travel Regularly With Us

Gargonza has forty-five rooms. We last went to Gargonza in 2009. At that time there were so many folks that wanted to go that we spilled over into an eighteenth century convent next door and two hotels in Monte San Savino, two miles from Gargonza. We don’t intend to do that this time. We’ve got the best musicians we’ve ever had. Your deposits are completely refundable. So sign up early. Don’t get stuck on the waiting list.

All the best from Tom, Georgia, Matt, and all those who help make these trips possible.