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This past August, my three sisters, mother, niece and I traveled to Tuscany, the central region of Italy famous for its rolling hills, vineyards and olive orchards. The week-long trip took us from Siena to Florence, San Gimiagno and Rome.

First stop: Village of Barberino

After a tiring transatlantic flight from Providence to Rome, our party of six was eager to drive to its rented villa, a country estate in the small rural town of Barberino in Tuscany.

Navigating the Rome airport was difficult, the lines in the rental car agency longer than expected. After nearly two hours, we finally made our way to the parking garage to load the vehicle. My sister had made the travel arrangements, and because we were a party of six, she had requested a passenger van. And that is exactly what we got — a van that accommodated six passengers. Somehow they failed to understand we would also need room for our luggage. Looking inside the van, we quickly realized that if we wanted to get to the villa with our suitcases, four of us would have to squeeze into the back seat, a space that could barely accommodate three adults.

Four of us shoehorned into the back seat (to compound matters, the seats were hard and inflexible, putting pressure on all the wrong spots), my sister and mother sat in the front, the bags were crammed into the third seat. We all hoped for a quick ride to the villa. Looking at the map, we figured it would take two hours. We miscalculated. Under normal conditions, the ride should have taken four hours. But because we hit stop-dead traffic after leaving Rome, the trip took over five.

Three hours into it, my left leg went numb. I tried hard to mask my resentment that none of my relatives, or I, were a svelte size four. That is when a truth came crashing home to me — European car interiors are clearly not designed for American hips.

Tip No. 1: When renting a car for a large party, make sure the vehicle has enough space for luggage. Rental agencies do not always factor that in. Also, check to see if the car takes diesel fuel. Ours did, but it was not marked, and so after we put regular gas in the tank, the car kept breaking down. Eventually, we had it replaced, which was time-consuming and stressful.

Second stop: Siena, city of Medieval beauty

Feeling the jet lag, we spent our second day at the villa. On day three, we traveled to the ancient town of Siena, famous for maintaining its original Medieval appearance. We parked the van, infinitely more comfortable without luggage, in one of the outlying lots and walked to the center of town. The first place we headed to was the world famous duomo, or cathedral, a magnificent marble structure erected in the 12th century. It being Sunday and half of our party being Roman Catholics, we inquired about Mass. We were in time for the 11 a.m. service.

I tried not to gawk, but the stunning black and white marble columns, exquisite sculptures and fine oil paintings made it impossible not to. The service was held in Italian, of course, but with my familiarity with the Catholic liturgy, I was able to follow along with the printed missile. I admit to being utterly lost during the homily, however, but that only gave me time to take in all the architectural and artistic beauty of the cathedral’s interior, including a pair of statues by Michelangelo and a marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano, considered the finest of its kind in the world.

After Mass, we walked to the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s famous town square, which is really in the shape of a half-circle. Surrounding the red brick common area are dozens of restaurants and shops tucked into the bottom floor of ancient stone and brick buildings. The expansive Plazzo Publico, the old town hall, and the Tower of Mangia make up one side of the half-circle.

Siena is best known for its Palio, a biannual horse race that has taken place in Siena for more than 700 years. One participant from each of the city’s 17 neighborhoods competes for a prize. The course? One turn around the Piazza del Campo. The Palio is scheduled for the following day, but we have purposely avoided it because of the crowds. Hundreds of thousands of people descend on this small city just to witness the Palio, which lasts less than 60 seconds!

Tip No. 2: If you travel in a party, delegate responsibilities. One sister was the designated driver; the other, the navigator; and I, the translator. The three of us managed to drive all around Tuscany without getting lost, largely because of our three-pronged approach. Also, a pocket dictionary is essential if you do not speak the language — infinitely more useful than phrase books.

Third stop: Florence, art capital of Italy

Having only one day to tour a world-class city like Florence is like being handed a tea saucer at a smorgasbord and told to dig in — no matter how many small samples you take, it can never satisfy. Florence is considered the art capital of Italy, and so we relied on my other sister, the history teacher, to lead us on a whirlwind tour of this stunning city.

After our daily cappuccinos, we went to the Galleria dell’ Academia where Michelangelo’s must-see statue David is housed. My sister has been an ardent admirer of the David since high school; we have all heard her rave about its peerless beauty many times. So I did not know how to react when I finally saw the piece. I have been moved to tears by works of art before — seeing the Elgin marbles in London, for instance, took my breath away quite unexpectedly, and a Monet painting I saw as a college student in Pittsburgh brought tears to my eyes — so I am generally not impassive about art. Certainly the David is a work of beauty; the sheer size alone makes it stunning. But David frankly did not do much for me. Call me an uncultured hick, but all Michelangelo’s faces look tortured, in some exquisite pain.

While in Florence, we also toured the Medici chapel, where Michelangelo’s famed statues Dawn and Dusk are housed. Until seeing the Medici chapel, my reference point for stratospheric wealth has always been the Newport mansions, the gilded summer cottages of humble folks like the Vanderbilts and the Asters. But the chapel, together with all the solid gold and bejeweled trinkets, makes the mansions look like cardboard shanties. The Medicis — now there is some serious money.

On our way back to the parking garage, we passed the Santa Maria de Fiore, the gargantuan marble cathedral that dominates the downtown area. The architectural detail and sheer enormity of the duomo is breathtaking.

Tip No. 3: Be prepared to haggle with shop owners that line the streets of cities like Florence, and try to pay in cash. I was able to chip nine euros (about $12) off the price of my Perseus statute because I paid cash. My sister successfully haggled with a leather vendor. It did not work with a T-shirt vendor, but two out of three is not bad.

Fourth stop: San Gimignano, ancient walled city

My mother indelicately calls San Gimignano a “glorified flea market.” It is really a small 13th century city located high on a hill in central Tuscany that has morphed into a tourist hotspot. We only had two hours to shop, so we decided to split up. There are shops up and down both sides of the street with leather goods, alabaster products, artwork and handmade pottery for sale. The prices were reasonable and the setting, very charming. The gelato, or Italian ice cream, was not bad, either.

Tip No. 4: Be sensitive to group dynamics. After being together for the majority of the trip, it was nice to have a few hours to yourself where you could go at your own pace and pursue your own interests. Also, you did not have to share your gelato.

Fifth stop: Rome

In the planning stages of our trip to Italy, we had penciled in two trips to Rome, one midweek, and the other, the day before flying home. But the ride from the airport to the villa revealed our folly. The midweek trip to Rome was canceled, and in the end, we had only one afternoon to see the city. We had moved from the villa to a hotel at the airport, and we also returned the rental car. So my mother splurged and hired a taxi to drive us to two main sights, the Pantheon and the Coliseum.

At a normal speed, the ride should have taken about 30 minutes, but we made it in under 15 because our taxi driver, Sara, quite evidently saw no need to conform to normal speeds. The Bullet Train has nothing on Sara. We stopped at the Coliseum just long enough to snap a few photos and then were whisked off to the Pantheon. Dating from the first century, the Pantheon, originally a Roman temple, is the best-preserved building of its kind in the world, and despite its crumbling exterior it is still a showstopper. Looking around its great domed hall and up through the perfect oculus, I got choked up. Either that or I was still reeling from Sara’s driving.

This was my first trip to Italy, and though friends and relatives had spoken highly of the place, nothing prepared me for how thoroughly I would fall in love with this country.

The people are polite, charming and very patient with my awful Italian (did I mention how gorgeous the men are?). The food is fresh and delicious and never overpriced. The wine lives up to its reputation. The scenery is both breathtaking and serene. Around every corner is a view and vista lovelier than the last.

Bertrand Russell said, “Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.”

That is just how Tuscany leaves you feeling — happy. And wondering how soon you can get back.

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