by Janet Bein, Young at Heart Diva
When I first heard about Toscana Mia, a Bay Area–based group offering luxurious, customized tours of gorgeous Tuscany, Italy (with enticing names like “Live Like A Tuscan” and “Under Your Tuscan/Amalfi/Rome Sun”) I jumped at the chance to meet with the group’s founder and tour leader, Serenella Leone, a Diva after my own (young at) heart.
Though the tours attract both sexes and all ages, Toscana Mia has become especially popular among women in their forties and fifties, and the company has recently begun designing programs for this particular travel niche, including “Tuscany Tours for Menopausal Women.” Could a pampering trip to Tuscany be a healthier alternative to hormone replacements? I wanted to find out for myself—and for all the other young at heart Divas out there who might also be struggling through this inevitable life transition.
After a flurry of email exchanges with Serenella, we arranged to meet for lunch one afternoon. It was easy to spot her with her short, newly styled Italian haircut.
We starting babbling right away, exchanging information like good friends who hadn’t seen each other in ages. It turns out that we both have kids in their late twenties. Our offspring are now independent enough that we don’t have to take care of them anymore. We can think about ourselves for a change!
Like me, Serenella Leoni made a career in the corporate world while raising her children. “I was successful,” she explains, “but there was still something missing. I kept searching. I wanted to contribute something unique.”
Her search led her to a certification program in dream coaching taught by Marsha Wieder, a life coach and author of Doing Less and Having More: Five Easy Steps for Achieving Your Dreams.
“I realized that I do my best work when it’s something that I feel passionate about.”
One Serenella’s greatest passions is her life-long love affair with Tuscany. Born in Viareggio, a beach resort on Tuscany’s Versillian Coast, Serenella moved to Northern California when she was just a baby.
In California, Serenella’s parents and grandparents continued to speak Italian at home, and Serenella grew up not only bilingual but bicultural, listening to Italian radio broadcasts, eating homemade Italian food, and hearing stories from her father and grandfather about Viareggio’s history, traditions, and folklore.
It’s no wonder that fresh out of college, at age twenty-one, Serenella headed back to Viareggio. Her beloved grandparents had returned several years earlier, and she immediately found herself in the warm embrace of close and distant relatives and family friends.
Serenella was commuting from Viareggio to Pisa for work and additional studies when she fell in love and married an Italian. They had two sons together, but the marriage fell apart in 1980. That same year, her father died. Serenella decided to return with her children to the San Francisco area to be close to her mother and sister, and began a career in the corporate world and later in management consulting.
But, Serenella says, “I always missed Italy, and I wanted to find a way to spend part of my year there.”
When she came up with the idea of creating upscale, customized tours to Tuscany, she shared her dream with family and friends back in Viareggio and nearby Lucca. They were only too thrilled to help make her dream a reality—and Toscana Mia was born.
The tours geared especially toward menopausal women started by chance. A group of female friends in their fifties asked Serenella to design a tour for them based loosely on the movie Under the Tuscan Sun. Serenella wove together a tour that took the women to northwestern Tuscany and then to Cortona and the Amalfi Coast (the location of the film’s boyfriend scene). Other women began asking Serenella for similar tours, including the staff from Menopause the Musical.
Providing stimulating tours for this demographic has given Serenella an opportunity to express another of her passions: “I want to help other women like us to find out what moves them, to help them connect to their passion in life.”
The tours have included a couple of breast cancer survivors. One woman was celebrating her first year anniversary after cancer surgery. “She was so alive and so ready to appreciate everything about life. It was a real gift to me to see the trip through her eyes!”
Serenella derives huge satisfaction from seeing the impact that her Toscana Mia tours have had on the lives of these women.
“One woman who traveled with me has started painting again after not touching a paintbrush for twenty years!” Serenella tells me, with pride in her voice. “Other women have started new careers. A couple of widows decided that the time had come for them to start getting out there again.”
Serenella shows me some photos from her most recent trip, where the group stayed at an historic nineteenth-century villa surrounded by flowers. I am reminded of one of my favorite movies, Enchanted April, which tells the story of three dispirited English women who pool their resources to rent a villa in Italy and how the experience transforms them.
With Toscana Mia, all the work is done for you. The villa is ready and waiting. Once you are there, you don’t need to keep packing and unpacking your bags. It’s your home away from home—except that you don’t have to do any housework or cooking. For twelve glorious days, Serenella will personally guide you through some of the most beautiful sites in all of Tuscany, including the medieval walled town of Lucca, the idyllic seaside villages of the renowned Cinque Terre, and several Tuscan hill towns in the Apuan Alps.
You will learn about olive pressing and wine making and even participate in a hands-on cooking class with an expert chef (Serenella assures me that the class is appropriate for all levels). Even women who generally microwave their dinners seem to enjoy the sensual pleasures of cooking when guided by a gentle teacher.
Some of the highlights of the last tour were:
• Staying in a beautiful Tuscan villa outside of Lucca.
• Watching the mist rise off the hills in the mornings.
• Watching stonecutters carve marble out of the mountain in Carrara.
• Learning to cook Italian delicacies with a gourmet chef.
• A surprise dinner, including a serenade by an opera baritone.
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In addition to being the Tuscany Diva, Serenella is also a Certified Dream Coach. As luxury tour guide or as life coach, Serenella thrives on helping people fulfill their dreams. Contact her for a jumpstart toward finding your life’s passion.
Find further inspiration for your Italian travels in Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.