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Red clay, rolling hills and risotto: Maine tennis team takes game to Tuscany

Posted May 13, 2017, at 1:09 a.m.

The run-up to spring weather has been a bit disappointing in Maine this year, with many days of rainy, cool conditions and a slower-than-usual greening of the countryside. But for eight Hancock County women, spring was in full flower and waiting to welcome them during the last full week of April, when they traveled to the verdant Tuscany region of northern Italy.

For some in the group, the adventure required careful financial management. Some had never been out of the country before and were intimidated by the prospect of international travel. Some left behind aging family members, work obligations and other responsibilities.

But the trip, a year in the planning, was by all accounts a resounding success.

“It was like nirvana,” said Anne Dentino, 56, of Sedgwick, an experienced, enthusiastic traveler who helped customize and coordinate the expedition along with a friend, Christina Skal De Marco, who formerly lived in Blue Hill and who now co-owns a travel business in Tuscany. Especially for those who were traveling for the first time, she said, the experience was “eye-opening, a chance to see what’s out in the world.”

The women, all in midlife and members of a competitive team at the Ellsworth Tennis Center, packed a lot into their week. Headquartered at Podere Il Frantoio, an expansive farmhouse villa about 12 miles outside the city of Florence, they toured historic hill towns, sipped their way through the Chianti wine region, pedalled around the walled city of Lucca, tried new foods, learned to make fresh pasta, sampled local cheeses and olive oils, and explored the cobbled back alleys, boutique shops, stunning churches and spectacular museums and galleries of Florence.

Oh, and there was tennis, too.

The group spent three full mornings at a country club in Florence, learning new skills from the club pros and enjoying plenty of court time together and with other club members.

“Tennis was the centerpiece of this trip,” Dentino said. “We filled in around it with tours and other activities.”

The per-person cost for the week was about $3,200, which included a bargain round-trip airfare from Boston of about $475, accommodations, most meals, guided tours, museum admissions and all that tennis.

Karen Robidoux, 54 of Ellsworth, had never been out of the country before and struggled some to pay for the trip with her tennis buddies.

“I worked three jobs all last summer to afford this trip,” she said. It was no small thing. “When you’re single and have a house payment, it’s a lot of money,” she said.

But, she added, the experience was entirely worth it, including the great tennis conditions and an extra trip she took with some of the group to visit Rome for a day and a half.

“I grew up Catholic,” she said. “Going to the Vatican, going into St. Peter’s [Basilica] was so overwhelming.”

Though she is no longer a practicing Catholic, she was deeply moved. Perhaps most important, Robidoux found herself reconnecting with poignant memories of her son Joey, who died in a car accident five years ago at the age of 23.

“He loved the outdoors, and [this group] spent a lot of time outside,” she said. “Everything was so clean and fresh and it smelled so good. He would have loved it.”

Will she travel again, now that she’s got a passport? “I’d like to go to Spain and see Barcelona,” she said, “or maybe to France for the Roland-Garros tournament.”

For Sandy Johnson, 59 of Southwest Harbor, the trip marked a life milestone.

“It was kind of a personal statement, taking a tennis vacation to celebrate turning 60,” she said. “The tennis was fantastic.”

The Match Ball Firenze Country Club featured red clay courts, which are both “faster” — more responsive — and easier on aging muscles and joints than Maine’s ubiquitous asphalt or synthetic grey clay outdoor courts.

Other high points?

“The food was, without exception, spectacular,” Johnson said. Both at their villa, where a private chef came in most evenings to cook for the group — creamy mushroom risotto, roast pork with a prune stuffing — and in the restaurants they visited, the meals were inventive and excellent.

“We had a cooking class one night at the villa,” she said. “We made a huge plate of fresh pasta and a sauce from local plum tomatoes. Everything was so fresh. We stepped outside to pick basil and sage from the garden.”

Good wine was everywhere, she added.

Johnson traveled extensively in the past but has been more of a homebody in recent years. She was initially a little skeptical of the “package” nature of this trip. “I’ve never been one to really do group tours,” she said, “but this one was so small and so personalized, and going with this group of people I know, it was just great.”

Johnson is already planning her next adventure — a tennis vacation in Spain.

Andrea Maloney, 51 of Ellsworth, said the best part of the trip was, well, “just everything.”

“I have never been overseas before,” she said, “so that was exciting in itself.”

She enjoyed the red clay courts and the small differences in her Italian instructors’ approach to the game. She drank in the sights of Florence — “The art and architecture are so fantastic and so different from anything we have over here” — but it was that lush Tuscan countryside that really grabbed her.

“Those rolling hills, the vineyards and the olives groves and everything was so green,” she said. Temperatures were in the 60s, and the group experienced both cloudy and sunny days. “It was cool for the Italians but it was definitely spring for us.”

The trip came at a time of transition in Maloney’s life. An architectural drafter by training, she’s been a stay-at-home mom for more than 20 years. With her two daughters now grown and launched into their adult lives, she’s now contending with aging parents who need her support.

“This gave me an opportunity to re-energize, to come back and start thinking about what I want to to now, for me,” she said. One thing she’s sure of — she’s got the travel bug and is already planning a fall trip to Scotland with her husband.

For travel buff Anne Dentino, helping to plan and organize the trip was a labor of love.

“The idea of going to Italy in April was pretty romantic,” she confided. The group got together several times over the winter to keep the energy high, indulging in Italian dinners and watching Italy-themed films such as “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Room with a View,” and “Enchanted April.”

For people who have not traveled much, understanding how to shop for airfare, get a passport, plan an itinerary and pack a travel wardrobe can be discouraging, Dentino said, compounded in some cases by a language barrier, cultural differences and concerns about personal safety. As an experienced traveler and a believer in the far-reaching benefits of travel, Dentino says all these issues can be resolved and should not discourage people from traveling.

“A lot of people are scared of traveling, but I’m so into it,” Dentino said. “I wanted to be there with my tennis pals, to help them at the airport, to experience it all with them.”

In the end, she said, tennis in Tuscany was such a success, just about everyone in the group is ready to start planning the next trip.

 

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