I have just returned from the most glorious family reunion in Tuscany
at the Villa Casa dei Frati. Having family on both coasts of the US, it was a stroke of genius and good fortune to find this Villa for our family reunion. Traveling together was the matriarch of our family, three adult siblings and spouses and a long time family friend.
On first approach, finding the villa was a bit challenging and the long steep driveway took a couple of times to get accustomed to, but those were the only two challenges of this home. And what a beautiful home it was. After traversing a narrow road about a quarter of mile up the mountain passing cows and pheasant hunters along the way, the villa appears before you.
Our group had three cars and there was plenty of space to park. We walked into the courtyard of the 14th Century Villa and at once were transported to a simpler, more lovely time. The villa from the main courtyard overlooks the Mugello valley where small vineyards dot the landscape. You can see for at least 50 miles from the Villa.
Both houses are impeccably decorated but not formal or overdone at all. The owner obviously had comfort in mind in her decor selections. The kitchen, complete with bread oven and dining room of the main house are immediately off the courtyard. Up one flight is the living room where if you must watch TV, you can – there is Satellite. It is off this level that you get to the swimming pool. I’ll get back to the pool later. There is also a powder room on this floor.
Up to the top floor are two bedrooms. The bedroom I stayed had two twin beds, which we made into a king and overlooked the pool. A huge bathroom with Jacuzzi tub was down the hall. The other bedroom on this floor had a king bed, ensuite bath and overlooked the courtyard. But the best part of this room was the view overlooking the Valley. The trek up the mountain to the Villa is completely worth it once you see the view from this bedroom.
The guest house is where my mom, our friend and my brother and his wife stayed. On the courtyard level of this house there is an outside dining area and two bedrooms, one with two twins and one with a queen bed. All the beds had scrumptious Frette sheets too which are absolutely heavenly. In fact, we brought a couple sets at the Frette store in Florence. Expensive, but they will last forever.
Up one flight of stairs are a beautiful sitting room and dining room. I spent on rainy day here overlooking the valley and even as the rain poured down, it was so green and quiet and just beautiful. Off the back of this house is the swimming pool. There are plenty of chaise loungers and a beautiful canopy to escape from the sun. And even in September, it was quite hot in the afternoon. And the view from the pool – WOW. There are beautiful hedges surrounding the pool for privacy, but they are kept low as to not obstruct the view.
This Villa was the perfect location for our family to use as a home base. My brother had studied in Florence 25 years ago and spent most days going into the city and visiting his old haunts. My other brother is a type A traveler and was out every morning at dawn sightseeing. Our friend who was with us had friends in Rome and spent a few days there. Mom was content to just by the pool as walking is quite difficult for her. As for me, my spouse isn’t big into sight seeing so we did a little vegging by the pool and some day trips. I am the chef of the family so I prepared most of our meals.
TIP: The Coop in Borgo San Lorezo is great! The produce and baked goods in the supermarkets are incredible. Just a mile or so from the Villa was a small organic market which I purchased our desserts and cheeses. They must have 50 or so Pecorinos and the Tiramisu was so light and creamy, even as a chef, I could not have made it that good.
Every afternoon, one brother brought back wine from the winery he visited that day and I made crostinis for happy hour. The eight of us together as a family is what my mom wanted for this trip and Casa dei Frati was just perfect for that. The Coop has Toscana Spread which was chicken liver based and the local tomatoes were so incredible, that simply chopped and seasoned with a bit of olive oil, S&P and some garlic was just perfect with fresh toasted bread for afternoon nibbling.
Once you get used to the twisting roads and the motorcycles, driving can be a lot of fun. One day, we went up into the mountains and came across the tiny town of Skia where had the best meal of the trip in a little cafe on the main square. I had the lasagna and my husband had the gnocchi and for 10 Euros, it was absolute best meal we ever experienced.
When we left it was around 1:30pm and the entire town was closed. It was almost eerie walking around, middle of the week, middle of the afternoon and the only souls to be found were the men at a another cafe smoking cigars drinking espressos. I personally can’t imagine taking three hours off in the middle of the day for lunch and a nap, but when you see how genuinely peaceful and happy the Italians are, it makes you wonder.
We spent a few days going into Florence and I found the best shopping at the Straw Market off the Piazza de Republica. I can’t stress enough that Florence must be experienced on foot. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is a city where everywhere you look is beautiful architecture and art. Plus the scooters everywhere make driving hellish. TIP: Take the train from Dicamano, which is about 3 miles from the Villa into Florence. Trains run every half hour or so and takes you right into downtown.
One restaurant we did go to in Florence which you must go to and I can’t believe I don’t remember the name, but it is right next to Trattoria Z (A?-Z? at the Mercato di San Lorenzo (Mercato Centrale). Our waiter was from Hungary and made the best recommendations. Outstanding dinner. This piazza is off the beaten path so most of the diners were natives. There is an underground parking lot here so if you did decide to drive into Florence, this would be a great place to park and explore the surrounding areas. TIP: At the Galleria dell’Accademia is the statue of David and on Tuesday nights after 7pm, admission is FREE. People line up at 6, but the Gallery is open until 10, so if you go around 8, you’ll have no wait.
The market off the Duomo was great for chotchke shopping and gifts to bring home. One regret is that I didn’t buy anything from the ceramica vendor in that market. I drove all over Tuscany looking for a deal as I was hoping to buy a complete dinner set, and oddly enough, the shop in the marketplace was the best deal.
One thing that Tuscany, or I guess all of Italy is known for are the open air markets. Saturday was market day in Dicamano. The vendors are only there in the mornings and this is where Tuscans do their shopping. Clothes, housewares, everything can be found there. Imagine the stores your local mega-mall and that is basically what is there, just on a smaller, more quaint scale.
The location of the Villa is so perfect to explore Tuscany and actually, all of Italy really. One brother is a true wine aficionado and he spent most days going south to the Chianti region. My other brother spent his time in Florence, and for me, it was the countryside that was most appealing. We did a day trip to Pisa and that is only day I wish I had done something else. Yes – it has a tower, it leans badly. And that is it. On the way to Pisa, however, is Lucca which is incredible. A completely medieval town with stunning churches everywhere. A town that must be experienced on foot.
When you travel further south to Siena, the landscape changes from lush green pastures to a rich, red earthen color. This is where the crayola color, Burnt Siena comes from and actually, the crayon doesn’t do it justice. Also south of the villa is San Gimignano, known for it’s numerous towers, hence the nickname, the Medieval Manhattan. Found great shops in this town. One thing you must take in account as you plan your day trips in Tuscany. What looks like a couple of inches on a map or 50 kilometers/30 miles IS NOT 30 MINUTES. Unless you’re on the Autostrada, but when you get off that and onto regular roads, figure 30 miles an hour TOPS.
But the most memorable trip away from Tuscany we took was to Venice. We took the train from Florence on the most rainy and dismal of days, but as you’ll discover, driving in Italy takes twice as long to get anywhere as you think it is going to. We arrived in Venice and the clouds opened and the rain was coming down in sheets. The line for the Vaporetti (public transportation) tickets was not covered and we got completely drowned. But then we got on the Vaporetti and began traveling down the Grand Canal and right in front of us was 1,500 years of architecture, of history. And I must emphasize that no matter how much you read about Venice or how many pictures you see, it’s not until you are there do you really get the magic of Venice. It is like no other place on Earth. I could write a book about how incredible it is here, but suffice it to say, we only had a day and that small window of time was undoubtedly the most memorable of the two weeks I had in Italy.
I read in one of the tour books as I was getting for this trip, “Don’t do in a day in Italy what you think you can or should do or see, but really see what you do.” Or something to effect and that is really true. The pace in Italy is very different that America. Forget the fact that most of buildings there were built before we were even a country, but simple driving in Italy is a pleasure to be savored. We have super highways and live life at warp speed. In Tuscany, a side trip into the mountains became an all day journey with winding roads, incredibly beautiful topography and off the beaten path places that aren’t famous or have anything to offer than there mere existence. But in experiencing Skia, the people, the cafe, the streets, you experience the true simple pleasures of life. Good food, good people in a good place or Venice in the pouring rain. Just being there changes you.
One side note that I must add to this is to tell you about the trip home. I took the afternoon flight out of Florence and missed the connection at De Gaulle so Air France put me up for the night. Missing a flight and being stranded at an airport hotel is not fun, BUT what happened was incredible. A couple of the other stranded passengers were also fellow Bostonians and rather than lament our fate, we took a tour of Paris by night. When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade and that is exactly what we did. And the reason I tell you that just breaking up the trip back to the states into two days of traveling instead of one, really cut down on the jet lag and adjusting to the time. Plus, like my trip to Venice, even though it was only for an evening, seeing Paris at night was incredible.
Finally, thank you to the staff of Wimco
for all their help in planning this trip. It was a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget and to whomever reads this, I can’t encourage you enough to go to Italy
, to Tuscany,
to Casa dei Frati. It is memorable beautiful and a place that one day, I hope and pray to return to.