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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Turning 30 in Tuscany a fun idea

Posted: 12/20/2008 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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When you turn 30, as I did this spring, you can't help but worry that fun has an expiration date -- best before 29 years, 364 days.

Thirty sounds old. It sounds like pension planning, mortgage payments and endless booze-free baby showers. The fear may be irrational, but it's real. My friend, Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque, wanted to avoid all the third-decade hysteria. Solution -- Tuscany.

"I thought my birthday might be scary, so I wanted to have so much fun I wouldn't think about it" she tells me. "I just wanted something decadent -- food, wine and good friends."

About a year before her birthday, Alex found a villa in Italy's wine-drenched Chianti region. She sent the pictures of the pool surrounded by olive groves and vineyards to the inboxes of friends from high school, university and various jobs on three continents. Two dozen friends booked plane tickets and set aside holiday time for the celebration. Alex's mom and dad even planned their own vacation around their youngest daughter's birthday, staying in more posh and secluded hotels close to the party estate.

We arrived in two waves. Ten of us came for a full week; the rest arrived mid-week for the big weekend party.

When we saw the villa, we all said the same thing: "It's so much better than the pictures." And seeing as the pictures were enough for us to throw down our credit cards, that's pretty high praise.

We stayed on an estate that dates back to the 13th century. Casavecchia, or "old house," is a 20-minute drive from Florence, near the village San Casciano in Val di Pesa. It used to be a family farm, but today the vineyards and olive groves are leased.

The owners live on site and rent out the main house plus "Il Giogo." My room was in the two-storey building where oxen used to push huge machines to press olives. Today, it features high ceilings with original beams, two full kitchens and airy bedrooms with stunning views. Each house has its own pool. It was warm for mid-October, so we would take a break from the strenuous activities of drinking wine and eating olives to lie by the pool or cool off in the chilly water.

In the days before the big party, we managed to pull ourselves away from the pool to do some sightseeing in Sienna and Florence. Our day trips just gave us a taste of cities in which you certainly could spend a lot more time. Still, we had time to shop and visit museums and amazing restaurants.

You need a car to get around in Tuscany. We rented several little Fiats that zoomed around the winding roads as if we were in a car commercial. (Luckily, one of Alex's best friends used to work for Mercedes, and had taken several performance driving courses. I always tried to get in her car).

One afternoon, our villa's owners arranged a wine tour for us at their cousin's vineyard. The Villa del Cigliano has been in the family since the 16th century, and our trip felt more like a friendly visit than a formal tour. The vineyard produces and exports four wines, and olive oil. After seeing the cellars and the sprawling mansion, we spent two hours sipping wine in the breathtaking garden. And if you're supposed to spit on wine tours, we broke the rules. Our hosts didn't seem to care -- they kept pulling out more bottles, bread and cheese until the sun set, and it was time to bring a few bottles home.

With cars and gas and trips to the grocery store, we could have spent our holiday squabbling over bills and who paid what. But that didn't happen, thanks to one of Alex's friends, who happens to be one of those super-organized people with a penchant for spreadsheets. He kept track of all group expenses -- if you spent money on anything for the group, you gave him the receipt, and at the end of week, he simply told you how much you owed, or was owed to you. And it turned out to be amazingly affordable.

My portion of the villa was less than C$400 for the whole week, and I spent about the same on other expenses. As for meals at the villa, people simply took turns cooking, or in my case, washing dishes and making toast.

No one had to cook the night of Alex's birthday. She had arranged to have a four-course meal catered by the villa's owners.

As we headed over to the main house in suits, heels and fancy dresses, we kept commenting that the whole thing was like a wedding, only better. No bridesmaids' dresses. No relatives you barely know. No cheesy DJ. And there were no speeches -- save one.

At the end of the meal, Alex's dad gave a toast. He spoke in French, and I didn't understand every word, but I got the gist. He said he and his wife had always been proud of their daughter's professional achievements, which are many. But that night, as he looked around the room, he said he was proud of what she had accomplished personally -- the slightly tipsy collection of guests, with varied backgrounds and professions, all there to welcome Alex into her third decade with yet another glass of wine.

If that's what being 30 means, I'll take it.

Lyndsay Duncombe is a reporter

for CBC News at Six.

I'm amazed by the number of people who are planning "destination birthdays." Here are a few tips from Alex to make sure your party goes smoothly.

Start planning early. And give people a hard deadline to commit.

Don't promise to pick everyone up at the airport. Alex did a few trips when a lot of people were coming in at the same time, but if you meet every plane or bus, you'll spend your whole birthday in the car.

Delegate someone to handle the money. It's a big job, so that person may deserve some kind of discount or gift.

Let people do their own thing. Remember it's your guests' holiday too, and some people may want to head off on their own adventures.

And if you go to Tuscany in October - bring mosquito repellant. Seriously. I got more bites there than in Winnipeg this summer.

Our villa: tuscancharm.com

The winery: villadelcigliano.it

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 20, 2008 E3

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