The Trip Report to Tuscany:
Villas in Chianti, Lucca and Montalcino
by Suzanne G.
As vacation destinations go, Italy’s Tuscany region is up there with the very best. I never tire of this beautiful region, its friendly people, its great food and wine, its music and culture, its fascinating history. Experience the place just once, and you are clamoring to go back for more.
On the road to Tuscany
I boarded an Alitalia jumbo jet at Boston’s Logan airport bound for Rome by way of a connection through Milan. The flight was smooth and upon my arrival I enjoyed a 40-minute taxi ride to the Hotel Condotti just one street from the Spanish Steps.
The Condotti is a splendid small hotel with a cozy lobby and clean, comfortable accommodations. A number of rooms open up onto balconies that overlook adjacent rooftops and back streets of Rome. For a weary traveler, it is a welcome place to decompress after a lengthy trip, and if your appetite is up, it is within striking distance of some really memorable trattorias and cafes.
In a recent edition of Bon Appétit magazine I had read about a pizzeria called Dar Poeta on Vicolo del Bologna in the Trastevere district of Rome. Trastevere is a picturesque medieval borough located on the west bank of the Tiber. Dar Poeta happens to be a local favorite, and I can understand why. We ordered the four-cheese, salmon and arugala pizza and followed it with tiramisu, arguably the best tiramisu of our trip!
The next day we toured the Coliseum before going to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, after which it was time for lunch at La Locanda del Borgo five minutes from the Vatican. We ordered salmon penne and linguine carbonara, along with a glass of, Brunello di Montalcino. Pleasently stuffed, we sauntered back out into Rome, arriving at Forum in minutes before proceeding on to Piazza Navona—a lively place surrounded by open-air cafés—and finally back to the Condotti. We made the most of the evening without having to venture more than a block or two from the hotel. First we took in a cocktail at Shaks, a trendy little café two doors down, and then we walked over to Ristorante 34 adjacent to the Condotti, a busy restaurant in the classic Roman style with fabulous food and a terrific dose of local atmosphere. The garlic mushroom polenta is beyond description.
To Lucca and Chianti
We got up early the next day, grabbed a cab to the train station and enjoyed clean, comfortable Eurostar service to Florence. What a way to travel! The rail system in Italy is touted highly, and with good reason. The trip from Rome to Florence took about an hour and a half. Once there, we jumped into a brand-new Alfa Romeo rental and headed for Lucca.
The key to driving in Italy is taking what I like to call the “scenic” route from point A to point B. To appreciate the scale of this country’s sights and sounds you need to be on intimate secondary roads. The drive from Florence into Lucca can take as little as an hour, but we managed to nudge two hours plus and in the process we caught a glimpse of Pisa’s leaning tower along the way.
In Lucca we checked into the three-bedroom apartment Il Mezzanino, our base for the next four nights. It is located in the medieval part of town in a lavishly restored period building. After a brief stop at an outdoor antique market, we had lunch at a cute pizzeria called Fuori di Piazza in Piazza Napoleone where we devoured a great mushroom pizza al fresco overlooking the piazza on a Sunday afternoon, a scene just filled with life.
We began the next day with a delightful breakfast in Lucca and then set off for the Chianti region to visit a few villas. Among my favorites were Casina di Mello, La Corte di Campalli, and Le Porciglia.
Luxurious villa Casina di Mello has a large pool and pool house surrounded by lemon trees, an outdoor dining area with a barbeque and lush gardens. Villa La Corte di Campalli was built in 1029 and features six bedrooms decorated with antiques, a small chapel, a wine cellar and an olive press. Four-bedroom villa Le Porciglia is colorful, stylish and spacious.
We managed to carve out time for a delicious lunch at Ristorante Carloni on via Giacomo Puccini in Gaiole, an unpretentious local restaurant. I dined on brochette, a tomato and mozzarella salad, Tuscan bean and lentil soup, and porcini mushroom ravioli, followed by a profiterole and cantucci con vin santo—simply amazing! It may have been my favorite meal of the trip.
We made it back to Lucca rather late after a wonderful stretch of villa visits. Not too late for dinner, however, which put the finishing touch on our day. We enjoyed a light meal of beef carpaccio and roasted vegetables at Trattoria da Leo, a Lucca hang-out featuring a warm, inviting atmosphere and lively crowds.
The next day we visited more villas and apartments in the Lucca area. I was impressed particularly by Compignano West and Al Valentino. Compignano West is a sweet English country-style house with views down a valley filled with olive trees out to distant mountains and a more distant sea. Al Valentino is a deluxe residence just outside the town of Massarosa.
A Bit of Reality
Whoa. The villas of Tuscany are incredible but I’m getting ahead of myself. I happened to be visiting Tuscany at a historic time and it all became more than clear to me as I walked towards the car at one point and heard the sound of church bells echoing through a valley of olive groves from the village below. Lots of church bells. It was then that we knew that a new Pope had been chosen. It was stirring, especially so for me, standing on hallowed ground only miles from the Vatican itself.
I dined at Leo’s one more time and the next day we were off to Montalcino—my favorite town in Tuscany, a quintessential hilltop village with wonderful shops and art stores lining narrow streets winding up gentle hills. Among the villas in this area is villa Fontanelle, 15 minutes from Montalcino. It radiates color and comfort, with gorgeous views and incredible art.
For lunch, we ate at l’Antica Cantina del Brunello in Montalcino. We had a little of everything: cheeses, meats, crostini with porcini mushrooms, salad and bread—all accompanied by a glass of Brunello. Oh, to spend more time in this adorable little village.
We had dinner at Buca di San Antonio in Lucca that night. Talk about atmosphere! Copper pans hanging from the ceiling, dried herbs, good-looking waiters, complimentary appetizers and Prosecco… I had a salmon dish with a white wine herb sauce and cooked vegetables. My colleague had a stuffed courgette.
We awoke to a beautiful day and visited more villas in Lucca. I was really impressed with Tuscan villa rentals Damiano and La Sorgente. Damiano is a terrific residence near San Martino in Freddana, a cheerful place with colorful décor. The same owner runs La Sorgente, with two wings of bedrooms and incredible views from every window.
For lunch, we went to a little local restaurant called Ristorante Castello in Camaiore. I ordered their “famous” tortelli meat-filled ravioli, purported to be the best in Lucca.
The next night we moved on to villa Borgo Bernardini, and what a place! We enjoyed a leisurely cocktail hour on the patio in this restored hamlet, and after being wined and dined by villa staff we took the five-minute walk to La Cecca for a very rich spinach gnocchi and a courgette. And as for dessert—of course, tiramisu.
A day in Florence
The end of our trip brought us back to Florence, perhaps the most celebrated city in Tuscany, where we checked into the Palazzo Magnani Feroni. Local visits included the hotel Villa San Michele—where we dined out poolside on smoked salmon, tomato mozzarella salad and grilled sea bass, accompanied by a delightful Castello Banfi San Angelo Pinot Grigio Toscana. Several desserts followed including a cappuccino concoction with homemade cinnamon ice cream, then tiramisu and a pistachio pastry with a mango sauce.
As the day waned we thought about dinner, yet again. This time—Trattoria Dante, right across the street from Palazzo Magnani, a source of wonderful local atmosphere, affordable food, really good pizza, a mushroom penne to die for, crostini, and, yes, tiramisu.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t report on one very special restaurant in Florence that remains on my list of top choices. It is called Trattoria 13 Gobbi on Via del Porcellana in Firenze (Tel 055-284015 or 055-213204). It is about 10-15 minutes on foot from the Ponte Vecchio in a very non-touristy section of Florence. Simply wonderful! However, reservations are a must.
Our time in Tuscany came to an end far too quickly, whetting our appetite for a return trip.
Interested in more Italian adventures? Explore the villages of Tuscany here!