A TUSCAN UTOPIA
Within minutes of leaving the centre of Florence, the choking streets give way to unoccupied roads that curl through the Tuscan hills. Our taxi is infused by the smell of blossoms.
Winding to the top of a hill, our car slows and crunches over a gravel pathway to huge iron gates, beyond which is another set of iron gates. Beyond these gates is Villa di Bagnolo. The majestic Naples yellow manor is the centrepiece of a 54-hectare estate complete with olive groves, vineyards, tennis courts and swimming pool.
The villa is less than half an hour’s drive from the heart of Florence, yet there’s a strong sense that we are miles from the nearest shop selling fridge magnets of David. Impruneta is famous for its historic production of terracotta. Most manufacturers here run tours, so you can watch them slap the clay into moulds and fire it up.
Since the 1970s the villa has been owned by the Beltrami family. Barbara is on hand should your four-year-old child lock herself in the bathroom, or heaven forbid you should run out of wine. There’s a morning check to see if you need anything, otherwise you’re left to your own devices. It’s not entirely self-catering: every morning, breakfast (including homemade cakes) is laid out and there is a cook on hand to prepare lunches and dinners; such as Florentine steak, sea bass, linguine and risotto.
I’d seen pictures of the place, but that doesn’t give you a sense of the property’s vastness, nor does it give you a sense of the perfect silence interrupted only by the sweet chorus of songbirds, or the fresh air that fills the rooms. There's a 19th century pianoforte, which I'm not qualified to play, and a serious-looking games room that evokes images of hard drinking and poker. These days, the silver standing ashtrays are for decoration only and the gambling is replaced with Trivial Pursuit.
We step outside as swallows skim the surface of the pool for a drink on the wing. The birds aren't the only creatures to be tempted by the cool water in the afternoon heat. I could wallow in here for hours with an Aperol Spritz (there's a fully-stocked spirit bar) but I've got exploring to do.
From under a moonlit gazebo in the garden, we are enticed by a spooky golden glow emitting from the villa’s turrets. We climb the winding staircase, through a door that rattles in the wind. The sense that we’re alone up here adds to the thrill: it is tonic for a healthy imagination. At night, we can see Florence shimmer and dance in the golden streetlights. It’s a mesmerising feast for the eyes, one which is best paired with a glass or two of Chianti.
Speaking of wine, a must-do is the cellar tour and tasting session.
The cool, dark space under the villa seats about 20. It’s filled with large orci (traditional terracotta vases designed for olive oil and wine); local, organic cured meat hanging from hooks, tins of olive oil, and huge tanks of wine.
The villa produces a highly drinkable sangiovese and blends of it, and a deep chardonnay; as well as a creamy limoncello, a nocino (walnut liqueur) and a warming desert wine. The olive oil deserves a special mention: the soil that produces the renowned terracotta also provides the foundation for trees that offer a world-renowned fruit. It’s light and fragrant at first, but then sends a peppery kick to the back of my throat.
The town of Impruneta (a 20-minute walk) has a good selection of restaurants, such as La Loggetina and Ristoro Bella Vista. It’s a short walk down the road and if you’re too tired to walk back (wine) then someone that works in town will probably give you a lift to the villa.
It would be inhumane to stay at the villa without a cooking lesson from Lisa Banchieri. Tuscan-born Lisa is a talented chef, but she brings so much more to the table than just food. Her ravioli-making skills are in demand: she's regularly flown around the world to cater for events. She sharpens her knives for an energetic performance involving all of us, especially our youngest member of the group, who has long been freed from one of the upstairs bathrooms.
This captivating villa is perfect private villa for friends and family to guzzle wine and chat in peace. The good food, fine wine and undisturbed peace may well ensure that making the 25-minute journey to Florence won't even cross your mind.
Tuscany Now & More (www.tuscanynowandmore.com, 020 7684 8888) offers Villa di Bagnolo from £5,595 for 7 days for 8 people (maximum capacity of 14 people) on a catered basis in May 2018. Includes a maid, a cook and access to tennis courts. Tuscany Now & More features a range of properties across the region and Italy and can provide private chefs, excursions and other services upon request.
Written by Rebecca Shahoud