Flying Longhorns Take the Road Less Traveled in Italy

At Villa Zuccari, a boutique hotel located on land owned by the Zuccari family since the 15th century, in the town of Montefalco, smack in the center of Italy, is a rose garden. And in between the hedges of bright flowers and herbs is an almost-Olympic sized infinity pool. It’s a bit plain—nothing like the dramatic-view infinity pools that grace the pages of glossy travel magazines—but it has one famous fan.  On a small wooden table in the lobby of the hotel is a signed headshot sitting among a couple of family portraits. In the framed photo is David Hasselhoff, his head resting in his hands. Scribbled in black Sharpie is this exaltation: “BEST POOL EVER! THANKS ZUCCARI!—THE HOFF”

Hyperbole by the Hoff notwithstanding, this unforgettable place was one of many highlights for 18 Flying Longhorns during a weeklong trip to Italy, which began in Florence and ended in Rome.

Take, for example, a scene from the midpoint of their trip. During some downtime in Tuscany, the group, hosted by Texas Exes Chapters Administrator Megan Yeager, went off-script for a Vespa ride near Italy’s Western coast to Volterra, which history predates the 7th century B.C.

Calling themselves “The Vesperados,” the group traversed the Tuscan backcountry on a beautiful Sunday afternoon set on reaching Volterra, a 90-minute scooter ride away. “I was booking it,” Yeager says. “I got up to 80 kilometers-per-hour at one point.” Upon arriving in the city square, they shared a quick meal together before fully taking in their surroundings. Walking through the plazas of the ancient city once devastated by the Black Plague were modern-day warriors. They had ridden right into the middle of a cosplay convention. 

“Instead of a check-list of things to see, we find unique off-the-beaten-path places and allow time for the sorts of unexpected cultural encounters that make travel special.”

“It still looked very medieval,” Yeager says, the city filled with Etruscan and Roman buildings, the streets still lined with cobblestones. Only now, its denizens were mainly dressed as bright neon manga and anime characters, and were playing tabletop games with ferocity.

This type of improvisation on the part of the Flying Longhorns in jumping on Vespas (many of them had never been on a scooter or motorcycle) and zipping around unfamiliar turns in search of the walled city of Volterra is the modus operandi of Sofia Travel Co., the family-owned, boutique travel provider for the trip, led by husband-and-wife duo Adam and Blake Sparks.

“We love traveling, but shy away from tourism,” Adam says. “Instead of a check-list of things to see, we find unique off-the-beaten-path places and allow time for the sorts of unexpected cultural encounters that make travel special.”

Sofia was started in 1984 by Adam’s parents, Elizabeth, a Greek native looking for excuses to return to Europe, and David, a professor of Hellenic Studies. This trip was the first solo trip led by the second generation of the family, and it went off without a hitch.

In Certaldo, the group delighted in a Tuscan cooking class led by Giuseppina Pizzolato, whose name may ring familiar, as she has led classes at Central Market supermarkets around Texas. They made fresh pasta in the wine cellar of a former convent. The pasta made by beginners “wasn’t the best,” Yeager says, but the experience helped the group bond.

“Everyone knows Italians are crazy about family,” Yeager says. “We realized we too can be a big Italian family.”

In San Donato, they toured a vineyard and farmhouse, and got to reward themselves with some of the tastiest red wines the region has to offer after a climb to the top of a Medieval tower in nearby San Gimignano.

In Rome, they got the greatest hits version of Italy: the Coliseum, Sacred Way, the Roman Forum, and the Trevi Fountain. Yeager says she didn’t expect to love the Eternal City as much as she did, noting that, despite its size and popularity, Sofia Travel Co. perfectly planned the tour to avoid immense crowds and efficiently see the city. On the final full day of the trip, travelers had the option to travel to Vatican City to visit the world-famous museum, St. Peter’s Basilica, and, of course, the Sistine Chapel. The next morning, day 12, the group flew back to the U.S.

The main virtue Adam Sparks says the travel company hoped to impart to the travelers was a sense of clarity in one of the most beautiful regions in the world, a notion he says is often lost among the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.

“[It’s] the simple pleasures—a perfect shot of espresso, an evening spent sitting in a piazza with friends—that we all too often rush past in the States,” he says. “The Italians have been refining good living for centuries. When you see it firsthand, you want to take part of it home with you.”

 

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