Touring Villas in Tuscany
by Barbara B with Suzanne G
After a sparkling week in Positano and the Amalfi coast, I arrived in Rome on an Italy high, having feasted on Fruti de Mare and Brunello wines all week. The picture-perfect weather hovered in the low 70s (Fahrenheit) as I made my way eagerly to Piazza di Spagna—the Spanish Steps to many, of course, and fashion central to many more. Shortly after checking in at the Hotel Condotti literally five minutes away, I was out the door and on the hunt for that special pair of leather gloves.
The area where the Condotti is located is surrounded by some of the most famous fashion houses in Italy. Versace, Prada, and Dolce & Gabbana are just around the corner. In between are smaller vendors offering exquisite leather goods at prices more reasonable. I found exactly what I was looking for right around the block. From there, it was on to the main piazza for the Furla shop. Their leather handbags are gorgeous. Then, for the best selection of sunglasses anywhere, over to the Via Veneto. I picked up a great pair of Salvatore Ferragamo shades at half the price they would be here in the States—that is, if you could even find them here. Rome excites me the way London and Paris do. Especially when it’s warm and sunny and everyone is dining outside. Next stop, lunch!
I must be honest when I say that the food in Positano left me very spoiled. Never having had a really great meal in Rome except at the Hassler Hotel, I opted for the Hassler once again. The best porcini mushroom crêpes ever and a fabulous bottle of wine. You cannot go wrong there! And then I strolled back to my room at the Condotti—a double superior with a huge terrace overlooking a cobblestone pedestrian alley, privy to the sounds of the city—where I decided to turn in early.
After a wonderful week along the coast with my husband, I was ready for further shopping in Rome and could not wait until Suzanne arrived. Yes, I still had more to buy and I was looking forward to a fabulous pizza at Dar Poetta.
Once Suzanne touched down the next day, she took a cab from the airport straight to the Condotti where she was greeted by the manager Vladimir, a gem of a man who never fails to remember you once you’ve met and always greets you by name. He expedited the paperwork, set her up in a cute little room with a balcony, and before either of us knew it we were sitting downstairs over fresh cappuccinos orchestrating our next move.
Rome to Tuscany
Suzanne and I had a day in Rome to do whatever we wanted before our schedule of villa appointments began. We headed toward Piazza Navona, stopping along the way at the Pantheon—built in 27 BC by Agrippa as a temple to the gods, rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in the second century AD, and today Rome’s best preserved relic of antiquity. Then we came upon an accessories store where each of us bought a scarf. In Piazza Navona we encountered the predictable mélange of restaurants, local artists and tourists. Artists gather here to sell their work and of course we both found pieces we loved. Even though the Euro has escalated the cost of just about everything abroad, €30 for an original oil painting is still an excellent value.
Following our art purchases, we sat down to enjoy a lunch of bruschetta, mozzarella, basil and tomato salad, accompanied by a glass each of pinot grigio. Later, for dinner, we satisfied a mutual gastronomic longing and went to Dar Poetta in Trastevere for one of the best pizzas in Rome. Suzanne had been there before in April and she was not disappointed the second time around. We ordered smoked salmon with arugula and the vegetarian pizza. It was nothing short of superb!
Early the next morning we enjoyed a quick breakfast at the Condotti, checked out of the hotel and rode a cab to the Stazione Termini for our commute to Florence (Firenze, to be accurate and appropos) aboard the super-high-speed Eurostar Italia. What a way to go! Comfortable, clean and fast, it took us about an hour and 45 minutes and flew along without a hitch. We met business contacts at the station in Firenze and squeezed our luggage and ourselves into a decidedly undersize Fiat Panda. Not to worry, however…we upgraded the next day.
Upon disembarking the train in Firenze, Suzanne and I were both struck by the notion that Italians in general are the most stylish people on the face of the planet. As I made my way through the station, I could have been in the middle of a fashion show. To any Italian, of course, style is the norm, a way of life. They are so used to it they ooze nonchalance and unspoken confidence, which only fortifies the impression of chic. Clothing and accessories are fabulous—from snappy outfits and beautiful shoes right down to the scarves and sunglasses and belts and gloves that embellish them. Names like Armani and Gucci, or Versace and Prada, are but the tip of the iceberg here. Local labels that you and I have never heard of would turn as many heads back in the States. There is no doubt about it: Italy and style go hand in hand.
Touring Villas in Tuscany
It was Showtime for us—villas to visit, bucolic roads to travel, sights to see and charming little village trattorie, ristoranti and enoteche to go to for food and refreshment. Our itinerary included four days and four nights in the Tuscan countryside during which we would inspect two dozen or so villas and actually stay in three of them—a guest house at villa Impruneta in the town of the same name, then villa Isabella (formerly villa San Virginia) on the San Stefano estate near San Gimignano, and finally villa Aiola outside San Casciano Dei Bagni.
Driving through Tuscany and experiencing the region’s towns and hinterlands is fairly indescribable. Highways and autostrade are fabulous and local roads are well-maintained. The scenery is dramatic, virtually breathtaking. As we motored from villa to villa we encountered one calendar-worthy photo op after another. The rolling landscape and the vistas it creates are endlessly beautiful, and off the beaten track they are all yours.
Our locales included Impruneta and the village of Galluzzo, just outside Florence, then a number of places in and about Chianti such as San Gimignano, Colle Val D’Elsa, Montaonine, Montespertoli, Siena, Montalcino, San Casciano Dei Bagni and Cetona. San CascianoBefore returning to Rome we engineered a side trip to the Maremma coast and Monte Argentario. All that, without ever leaving Tuscany!
Our dining warrants some discussion, if only to whet your own appetites. Ecco qui! In Impruneta we had dinner at “Il Battibecco,” where Suzanne enjoyed a salad of local porcini mushrooms with fresh grated parmesan, and followed that with filet mignon and white truffle sauce; our wine, a Sicilian red. The next night near villa Isabella we went to “Casi Masi,” where we ordered an appetizer of pasta with ricotta and spinach followed by a salad smothered in mozzarella and truffles. Crème brûlée followed. In the village of Montaione we ended up at “Carpe Diem,” where I had a salad of smoked goose breast followed by spring lamb with roasted potatoes. Fabulous! When we stayed at Aiola, the caretaker Julia prepared us pasta with cherry tomatoes and beef filet over arugula, then a dessert plate of fresh pears and pecorino cheese.
Of course we were here to see villas we represent, and we did so, ardently. In no particular order, some of our favorites included the following: Six-bedroom Aiola, just mentioned, is just to the south of Siena and occupies a private estate of some 1,700 hectares. It radiates warmth and personality, with cozy rooms, family pictures on the walls, and soothing colors. Six-bedroom Mimmi is an interior designer’s dream—unique, adult and avant garde, with high ceilings and a Zenlike pool retreat. Villa Geggianello is probably the best five-bedroom property Wimco offers in Italy, given that every bedroom there is a virtual master suite. Six-bedroom villa Isabella is modern in the polished St. Barth vernacular, recently rebuilt from the ground up. Finally, two others that really caught our attention were villa Sassaia and Il Palazzetto.
We capped off our tour with a visit to the Maremma coast in southwestern Tuscany. There we stopped in at villa Il Podere, a wonderful five-bedroom house located only moments from the shore, then went to the magnificent new luxury hotel L’Andana, a restored country inn inspired by chef Alain Ducasse just outside the town of Castiglione della Pescaia. We drove to the coast as far as Monte Argentario, a beloved local retreat for harried city dwellers, before making our way to the railway station in Grossetto, where Suzanne and I boarded a train for Roma.
Once back at the Condotti for our last night, we ventured out to one of my favorite local spots, a little wine and antipasto bar called “Entonechia,” for a nice bottle of pinot grigio, a mushroom pizza, bruschetta, and a buffalo mozzarella salad. We talked about how warm and genuine and welcoming Italians are toward passionate visitors such as we, how much they appreciate the cultural bond they share with us despite the vagaries of international politics.
And then, of course, the next morning it was off to the airport. Armed with our purchases and a week of lovely memories, hardly were we heading home empty-handed.
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