A slow food journey
Revival ... the Marais is one of Paris's oldest districts. Photo: Getty Images
Armed with €20, a foreign shopping list and not a skerrick of Italian, I head into Florence's Sant'Ambrogio market to try my luck at grocery shopping in sign language.
Our group scatters in pairs among the luscious fresh produce that was brought in crates from around Tuscany only this morning. There are olives just hours off the tree, basil you can smell 20 paces before you see it and tomatoes so plump and red you're tempted to eat them like an apple.
We feast on casserole, courgette flan and berry panna cotta while also enjoying the wines made on the estate.
Shopkeepers motion to try their delectable wares, keeping up the chat at Ferrari-like speed despite my obvious linguistic helplessness. The place is heaving with noisy locals, colour and the aroma of bread, cheese, herbs, nuts and every kind of edible meat you can imagine, and some you can't (offal, anyone?).
Glorious food ... the Sant'Ambrogio market, Florence. Photo: Alamy
Pointing and attempting to read the words on the list seems to have done the trick and before long we have our basilico (basil), scalogno (shallots), pomodori San Marzano (plum tomatoes) and cipolle rosse di Tropea (red onions).
Earlier that day, on the way to the market from our villa in the hills, our bus had picked up Libero Saraceni, the larger-than-life restaurateur who will run our lunchtime cooking class. After arriving in Florence, our group follows Libero to the markets, where he hands out the lists, the money and some shopping advice: "The smell of this food must give you a sensation."
And it does that in spades. We don't know yet that the day at Libero's Tre Pini restaurant 20 minutes out of town will be the most memorable of our gourmet extravaganza through two of the world's most food-obsessed nations, Italy and France. Though we will go to more beautiful places during the trip, somehow this room and these people and the cooking experience perfectly captures the thrill of being in Italy: pleasure in simple, flavoursome food, eating in the company of new friends and an irresistible host. It will be a day of flour-caked fingers while rolling, filling and folding pasta. We will sip local wines in a centuries-old kitchen while we try to copy Libero's septuagenarian mother-in-law as she demonstrates how to make uniform pieces of panzerotti pasta. There will be champagne and music from a duo who sing and strum guitar, and when we sit down to eat, there will even be a little daytime dancing between courses. Hardly anyone but Libero speaks English and though it's a venue set up largely for tour groups - which can feel cavernous and impersonal - this one is more of an intimate party than a lunch; one to remember, always.
Magical ... the 400-year-old Villa il Poggiale, just outside Florence.
The experience is one of the classic advantages of Trafalgar's new "At Leisure" and "Be My Guest" approaches to group touring. The day at Tre Pini, and many others on this trip through France and Italy, are all about getting under the skin of a place and visiting venues off the tourist trail that would be tricky to find unless you had extensive local knowledge.
The new itineraries - Flavours of Italy and Paris and Provence - are not about joining the hordes in iconic places. These trips are about experiences rather than sightseeing and suit food lovers in particular who've already ticked the big boxes of Paris, Florence and Rome, as the itineraries take you mostly to regional areas to enjoy more food and cooking experiences than you can poke a breadstick at.
While we are doing a combined shortened version of the two itineraries, the France itinerary is normally 11 days, the Italian one 10.
Daniel Hebet from le Jardin du Quay shows off his macaroons. Photo: Angie Kelly
In France, just outside the luscious Provincial village of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, we watch a macaroon-making demonstration in Michelin-starred Daniel Hebet's delightful bistro, Le Jardin du Quai.
After lunch in what French-food reviewers regard as one of the best restaurants in the region, we crowd around the workbench in the kitchen to watch one of Daniel's underlings whip up the delightfully pink mix from scratch and are privy to the secrets of making each biscuit exactly the same as the one before.
With everything from peeling paint shutters to crisp white tablecloths, flower boxes, rusty-looking wrought-iron garden chairs and statement sideboards piled high with latte-coloured crockery, it's as if a shabby-chic interiors stylist has done a whip around before our arrival.
The real stuff ... produce on sale in Florence. Photo: Jac Taylor
Next day in the Luberon we find ourselves in set-designer heaven again. At the sprawling Chateau Dorgonne organic vineyard, the house and gardens are so beautiful I half expect a photographer shooting a book entitled Perfect Lunch Spots of Provence to arrive at any moment.
We feast on traditional casserole, courgette flan and berry panna cotta - also enjoying the wines made on the estate - while seated at tables set up in the living room of head winemaker Bauduin Parmentier's gorgeous three-storey maison. With its crunchy gravel entrance, giant rustic wooden doors, autumn-coloured creepers, heart-stopping green countryside and November sunshine, it's a pinch-me moment. There are no other groups or other tourists, so we have the run of the place, and after exploring the home and grounds and winery, most of us start to imagine it as the perfect setting for significant birthdays or weddings and vow to come back one day to stay in the bedrooms for rent upstairs.
There will be more lingering over food and wine in the mediaeval papal city of Avignon, in the tiny riverside village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse - where we will dine at Hostellerie le Chateau on trout caught from the water below - and we'll wander the markets and patisseries of Aix-en-Provence.
Chef Libero Saraceni with fresh bread. Photo: Jac Taylor
In Tuscany, each day brings opportunities to talk to locals, learn and eat. We buy day-old olive oil straight from the producer - the Count Francesco Miari Fulcis no less - from his family's Villa di Modolo grove, which dates back to the 15th century; we tear just-baked warm bread into chunks while wandering the Florence produce markets with Libero; and in Rome we dine at the upmarket Cabiria restaurant in the Marriott Grand Hotel Flora on the Via Veneto, made famous in the movie La Dolce Vita.
Travel is by bus mostly but we fly from Nice to Rome, as well as experiencing the very fast TGV train from Paris to Provence. At just two hours and 40 minutes, it's a fraction of the eight hours it would take to drive that distance, meaning breakfast in Paris and lunch in Provence. There's no thinking required through any of it, with travel arrangements, baggage and requests great and small taken care of by our guides.
Though spending 10 days with 40 strangers might not be for everyone, the advantages of guided touring on a coach go beyond the fact that there is no heavy lifting or planning required on your part.
There is always someone close by to ask questions or get directions or make suggestions on how you could best use your free time. There's someone to help with the local language if you get stuck and someone who can help if things go wrong or to call if you get lost.
Large chunks of free time on this itinerary meant we were free to wander shops, visit museums, go sightseeing, choose our own spot for lunch or simply sit in squares over a vino just watching the passing parade.
The writer travelled courtesy of Trafalgar and Emirates.
Take the leisurely route
Things have come a long way since my first Trafalgar coach trip some 18 years ago, when packed bags in the lobby for a 6am start, long drives and moving on to a new hotel each day was standard operating procedure.
The new At Leisure concept has been developed in recognition of the fact that travelling can be tiring and no one likes feeling rushed — even if someone else is doing all the thinking for you.
It means no one is on the bus before 9am and two and three nights in some locations are included on specific At Leisure itineraries, such as the seven-day Best of Holland, the eight-day Scenic Ireland and the seven-day Canada's Rockies as well as the 13-day Italian Glory.
More free time and a limit on particularly long journeys between stops are also proving a welcome change among guests, who can now choose from 15 European itineraries that offer the At Leisure approach.
With the exception of the magical 400-year-old Villa il Poggiale — 17 kilometres outside Florence — our accommodation was centrally located and four-star all the way.
The Courtyard Marriott in Paris's upmarket Neuilly, the elegant Grand Hotel Roi Rene in Aix en Provence and the Kolbe Hotel Rome on Via di San Teodoro, were favourites.
Sunday for the au fait
Arriving in Paris late on Saturday night with a Monday-morning tour departure gave us the bonus of a whole day free in the French capital.
Sadly, however, you won't find much open on this traditional day of rest. After walking a short distance from our Neuilly hotel to the nearby Metro station, we were disappointed after a couple of line changes to arrive in the 9th Arrondissement shopping mecca and find the department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette — and everything else — closed.
Politics, unions and religious beliefs in this predominantly Catholic nation have combined to limit Sunday trading in Paris to a handful of Sundays in the pre-Christmas season. So on the day of our visit, only a few touristy shops and cafes were open on major thoroughfares such as the Champs-Elysee.
But happily, in the narrow avenues of the Marais district, we found a buzz going on — bikes and beeping cars, shoppers and buskers competing for space, jostling between trendy boutiques, restaurants and galleries.
On the Rue Vieille du Temple we lucked into an outdoor table at the famous Les Philosophes cafe, where the people-watching is as enjoyable as the typical French fare on offer. It even has friendly waiters.
A post-prandial stroll around the labyrinthine cobbled lanes takes in pretty pastry shops, bars, bookstores, chic fashion, artists at work and street performers aplenty.
One of the oldest districts of Paris, it was home to wealthy aristocratic types before the French Revolution and many of its historic buildings, churches, grand houses and public squares were restored in the 1960s after a period of ruin.
In the end, it's a day that rates as one of the best Europe-like-a-local experiences on the trip.
Emirates operates 70 flights a week from Australia to Dubai, with daily onward connections to Paris and Rome. 1300 303 777,emirates.com/au.
Trafalgar's At Leisure 11-day Paris and Provence guided holiday is priced from $3450 a person, twin share (land only — no airfare included). trafalgar.com/paris-and-provence-preview-2013.
Trafalgar's 10-day Flavours of Italy trip is priced from $2750 a person, twin share (land only — no airfare included).trafalgar.com/flavours-of-italy-2012.
1300 663 043, trafalgar.com.