Travel Tips

From West to East: A Unique European Adventure

Locations in this article:  Buffalo, NY Florence, Italy Rome, Italy

romanian guest houseWhen my family and I decided to go to Italy and Romania, we wanted to make the experience different. We had been to both regions enough times that it would be easy to travel to the same places and relive the same experiences.

But this time our goal was to uncover those unique experiences that offer a lifetime of bragging rights.

With the hectic grind of working life, time away is short and time to plan it is even shorter.

We opted to sign on with a “bespoke” travel agent. Bespoke—custom or tailor-made—caters to travelers who have already been there and done that.

We signed on with a UK-based online agency, Black Tomato, and let them know we were interested in sustainable farming, design, regional art, and of course, good food and wine.

After some back-and-forth, they provided a detailed itinerary including private villas, guesthouses and restaurant recommendations—a welcome relief considering how much research and negotiating it would have taken us to do on our own.

fresh mozzarella saladIn Florence, we wanted culinary experiences to be the main focus.

After trekking around narrow streets looking for “mamma mia” trattorias, we settled on La Casalinga. A one-room restaurant with harsh lighting and kitsch décor, this became the most talked-about meal of the trip: Handmade spinach and ricotta ravioli drizzled with sage butter; thick, sweet Italian sausages topped thin and crunchy pizzas; and some of the best ribolitta (a typical Tuscan vegetable and bread soup) in Florence. +39 055 21 8624

To eat like a true Florentine, a stop at Mercato Centrale, the largest indoor market in Europe, is an absolute must. The top floor sells local produce, dried fruits and nuts, and at the ground level you can pick up sacks of buffalo mozzarella, fresh prosciutto, handmade torellaci (oversized Tuscan tortellini), and sausages. The Mercato also has two restaurants inside. Both authentic and affordable, we easily found ourselves dining on a hearty Italian meal of caprese salad, a hot bowl of pappa al pomodoro, crostini misti and a plate of gnocchi di spinaci (fantastic) for about €10 per person.

A car rental was arranged so that we could explore more of Tuscany outside of Florence. (Remember, Europeans drive stick shift!) After following instructions provided by the agency, and navigating out of busy Florence, we made our way through the luscious back roads of Tuscany.

Learn more about Florence with our Off the Brochure (SM) Travel Guide to Florence, Italy.

borgo san pietro villaIf we had any doubts about enlisting the help of a travel company, they were lifted when we reached the villa that Black Tomato had discovered. This gem of a villa, Borgo Santo Pietro, opened just this past winter. Located about two hours outside of Florence, and another 30 minutes from the coast, this 13th-century villa is set on 13 acres of gardens. Borgo Santo Pietro has been developed into a private retreat and combines high-end modern conveniences with classic Italian style. Rooms are all individually designed and feature antique furnishings. Personal aesthetics are everywhere, no detail ignored; it’s drop-dead gorgeous!

Room rates aren’t cheap, starting at €335, but that’s still less sticker shock than luxury properties in the middle of Florence. And, in this case, you get what you pay for.

One of the highlights of this stay was our first meal: a nine-course tasting menu that started at dusk and ended at 1 a.m. The vegetables and herbs were picked from the villa’s own sustainable gardens, and the menu, prepared by Chef Thomas (a transplant from Denmark) reflected traditional Tuscan cuisine with a modern twist.

There is a range of spa treatments that are housed in a separate building off the villa. It’s a new venture and still has some distance to go. It’s ambitious, with a 10-page menu describing every fantasy spa treatment, but booking was tricky with only one masseuse on duty.

hiking signageFor hikers, owners Jeanette and Klaus, who live on site, provide brand-new hiking boots, poles, and a backpack with water, snacks and an emergency kit. The surrounding land is about as rustic and charming as the storybooks: We waded through unmarked trails, using the mountain in front as compass; took off our shoes and waded through the cold and slippery river, thankful for the poles; climbed upon the other shore and spent a long, peaceful moment spotting deer and wild boars as the air filled with lavender. Upon return, a glass of prosecco was waiting.

So, what to expect after Tuscany? Our destination was more natural, more authentic, less familiar, less romanticized, but just as memorable: Transylvania.

Forget about the Dracula-inspired clichés—Transylvania is its own organic for travelers who love food and nature.

We flew from West to East, out of Rome and into Bucharest, via Tarom Airlines. The train ride from Bucharest to southern Transylvania revealed a rural, natural and organic landscape.

In Transylvania, it’s like traveling back in time in a different way than in Tuscany. You’re not dining in a museum; you’re eating shepherd-style, where Daccian herdsmen transmigrated 25 centuries ago, before the arrival of the Romans.

When seeking out a one-of-a-kind experience, the idea of spending a few days with a Transylvanian count seemed to fit the bill. Count Kalnoky’s estate, which has been in his family since the early 1800s, is open to the public at affordable rates. One- to two-night stays start at €49, with prices dropping the longer you stay. Meals are €15 to €18 per person, including wine.

old new Romania roadCount Kalnoky arranges for guests to be picked up from the train station in Brasov and be delivered to his guesthouse. On our hour-long ride, we noticed how few other cars navigating the forest roads—rather, we passed horse-driven carriages and farmers working their land. After crossing old bridge that looks like it can’t hold a car, we entered the isolated village of Miklosvar.

Located at the end of the village, Count Kalnoky’s compound of guest houses feels undeniably authentic—this is new-world luxury mixed with old-world styles. Much of the estate has been restored, with a Victorian living room, stables and barns, as well as restored antique furniture and decor. Rooms are outfitted with goose down duvets and pillows, antique curtains and spreads. At sunset, the sound of bells may bring you to the window … it’s a herd of cows coming back to the village.

Count Tibor Kalnoky inside hunting lodgeThough Count Kalnoky is decidedly very un-Draculesque (pictured at right), the idea of dining in his cellar did have a certain creepiness to it. But after a somewhat dark and dank descent under the house, we were greeted with a lovely formal table within in an elegant cellar.

All of the food is local – from the chickens to the tomatoes, and the pure flavors are reflected in each dish. Cooking is done in a summer kitchen and served by local village women.

The activities on and around Count Kalnoky’s property are spectacular. Guests can choose from two adventures each day, including a visit to Prince Charles’ newly acquired property in Viscri, a neighboring Saxon village, or trekking through the forest to spot wildlife.

romanian goat cheeseOne of the most memorable day trips arranged by the Count was a horse-and-cart ride up a mountain to visit a local sheep herder. The only way to reach his site is on horse, as there are no paved roads anywhere outside of the main village roads.

Upon arrival, the sheep herder smiled as he looked up from a vat of steaming, white, fresh, goat cheese. It looked suspicious (he was still using a metal spoon to scrape out residue when we arrived) but tasted amazing. Sweet, hot, and comforting.

A taste memory for life and another inimitable experience that we could carry with us long after our journey ended.

Text and Photos by Iris Friedman and Chloe Popescu for

Get more great ideas for foodie adventures in our Culinary Travel section.

Find out more about great Italian cities with our Off the Brochure Travel Guides: