July 2004by Anne-Marie Caye and Glenn Ormiston
We spent the next three days visiting villas in three areas: Southern Tuscany, the Chianti region and the area around the town of Lucca, basing ourselves in this charming walled city. Although the land around Lucca is mountainous, the town is predominately flat, and the locals commute on foot or by bicycle. Walking through the streets one hears the constant "ring, ring" of bicycle bells announcing, "Excuse me, I'm coming past you."
People are up and about early in the town and streets are quiet after dark. We got another early start our first morning in Lucca and drove south into the hills on winding roads to the villa La Marchietta. Visible just as we rounded a bend on a quiet country road, the terracotta-colored villa seemed like a dream emerging from the surrounding hillsides. When we stopped the car we could hear the tinkling of bells from the goats grazing in the fields around the villa. The front doors open onto a small, cozy library and beyond is a beautifully appointed living area with comfortable furniture and fabulous fabrics. French doors open onto a terrace that looks out over a spread of vineyards and olive groves. The house is close to a village and yet feels as if it is in a world of its own in the Italian countryside.
That evening we returned to Lucca to have dinner at the Ristorante Puccini, a local spot a friend had recommended. The composer Puccini was a native of Lucca, and the house where he was born now has a small museum dedicated to his works.
At the restaurant, we started with a glass of wine and an appetizer of prosciutto and then ordered the Food Fantasia, the fixed three-course meal. Because Lucca is closer to the coast, one finds a lot more seafood on the menus. Our first course was a seafood mouse, followed by a plate of raw shrimp. The third course was sea bass baked whole in foil surrounded by artichokes and tomatoes and drizzled with olive oil. The chef passed our table and acknowledged his approval of our choice by returning with a bottle of extra, extra virgin olive oil.
We had a chance to explore Southern Tuscany the next day and, unlike the mountains around Lucca or the rolling hills of Chianti, much of Southern Tuscany is very rugged and remote. Ancient towns like Montepulciano and Pitigliano seem to grow directly out of the rocky hilltops. Vino Nobile, the robust, rustic, robust wine of the region, is produced from grapes grown on the steep slopes surrounding Montepulciano.
We traveled through the rolling hills of Chianti the following day, visiting villas and absorbing the scenery in this gentle slice of Italy. We found the Chianti region so unspoiled, with the wine a little more subtle, the oil a little lighter and the people a bit softer than in the other areas we'd traveled.
We stopped in a village for lunch at small café where the menu was handwritten and no one spoke English. With our carafe of wine we had risotto with baby artichokes drizzled with olive oil and topped with fresh Parmesan cheese. The waiter served us a small tray of local cheeses including chunks of pecorino and blue cheese for dessert.
We ended our trip with one final day in the artistic capital of Italy, the vast city of Florence. After a week in the quiet countryside, the stimulation of the cosmopolitan city was at first a bit overwhelming, but after a tour of this Renaissance city and after a visit to a couple of villas and hotels, we ended our Italian holiday with a memorable lunch at the Villa San Michele. Surrounded by gardens and woodlands on the Fiesole hills, the charming and picturesque 15th century monastery is an oasis of peace just minutes from the center of Florence. We were treated to a relaxing al fresco lunch of Parma ham with melon, fresh salad and grilled chicken with rosemary on the Loggia overlooking the city. Looking down at the streets of Florence and the rolling hills of Tuscany beyond, we reminisced about our mornings in the Italian sunshine and dreamed of the day we would return.
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