Photos and story by Stephanie Levin.
When Frances Mayes’ book, Under the Tuscan Sun, became an overnight success, traveling to Tuscany became De rigueur. But with an aversion to following crowds, I circumvented Italy in my travels. Then a year ago, I would wake up in sweat dreaming about Italy; I dabbled in Italian, and listened to opera. Eventually, I bought a ticket to Italy fully aware I was not going to have a Frances Mayes experience-no Italian lover whisking me off for a brief tryst, nor a perfect villa with a view of paradise. Yet, as Italy beckoned like a languid lover, I sensed the land, or perhaps the people would offer something I hadn’t yet experienced in my travels. My little slice of Tuscany did not disappoint.
The Italians are big-hearted, handing me the gift of generosity. They did this in so many small ways. They were patient when I mangled their beautiful language, offering me kindness; they stopped whatever they were doing to show me the way, punctuating the simplest direction with conductorial gestures, permitting me copious snippets of time, a commodity I so often lose track of.
Like Mayes I landed in Tuscany. Since I wasn’t in the market for a villa, a friend suggested staying at an agriturismo. Agriturismo is an Italian term for farm holiday or agricultural tourism, but it’s a concept that’s not really all that familiar outside of Italy. Though some farms may exchange room and board for work during la vandage or the grape harvest, most agriturismo farms integrate a true Tuscan lifestyle with the upmost comfort. People come to relax, not work. Think endless views of vineyards and olive trees, not goats or cows. The authentic travel experience allowed me to interact with the local culture on a deeper and more memorable level. There are numerous agriturismo farmhouses dotting the Tuscan landscape, each with their individual handprint, yet all with one goal–to enrich the traveler’s experience in a beautiful environment.
I chose Agriturismo Poggiacolle, an 18th century farmhouse ripe with olive trees and Sangiovese vineyards, tucked into its private domain, yet conveniently located 2.9 kilometers from the village of San Gimignano.
Poggiacolle has been in Stefano Bartali’s family for generations. Once a working farmhouse, the refurbished, stylish holiday farm offers 8 distinctly different rooms. The Wi-Fi worked better than the Wi-Fi in my San Francisco apartment, and the enormous communal kitchen was a bonus. Poggiacolle is a pleasing blend of the past and present graced with historic integrity. Guests enjoy comfortable rooms, private baths, a princely view of the verdant Tuscan landscape, a swimming pool, and a bountiful breakfast.
Because I travel solo, or as the Italians would say, sola, Poggiacolle was perfect for sharing conversation and exchanging travel ideas with others while stretched out by the pool basking in the warmth of the sun, or sipping a chilled glass of wine in the evening. Since this was my first trip to Tuscany, Stefano’s suggestions of nearby villages, via tree-lined country roads and ancient walled cities, were welcomed.
A car is the best way to travel around Tuscany, unless you are on a tourist bus, bicycle, or want to stay in one place. My first stop after settling in was the walled village of San Gimignano, treasured for its architectural homogeneity. Perched on a hill, the Medieval influenced architecture dates back to the 12th and 14th centuries. Towers, seen for miles, appear to define the village. Yet, they were constructed by wealthy Patricians families, who once dominated the town, as a show of wealth and power, nothing more. Of the 72 built, 14 still stand. While it is the towers that first draw the eye, San Gimignano is both artistically and architecturally stunning. It is home to several masterpieces of Italian art dating to the 14th and 15th centuries. But it’s also filled with boutiques, eateries and a maze of alleys lined with window boxes. The caveat is it’s on the tourist bus route and tends to be crowded.
While it was hard to break away from the swimming pool and shaded umbrella at Poggiacolle, I found myself headed toward the village of Volterra, a walled mountaintop town with 7th century BC structures from the Etruscan, Roman, and Medieval periods. It boasts a rich array of ruins, art works and architecture. I spent an afternoon in the Etruscan Museum, a palace built in the 18th Century (Via Don Minzoni 15), one of the earliest public museums in Europe. While I knew little of Etruscan art, the collection of alabaster and terra cotta urns with elaborate sculpture on the lids are treasures I wanted to see. Perhaps the most famous in the collection is Urna degli Sposi (1st century BC) of a married couple lounging comfortably, which according to experts, is a testament to the importance of family values as well as the integral role women played in the Etruscan society.
Volterra is the most affluent exporter of alabaster and the shops are lined with alabaster objects and artisans chiseling on outdoor tables. The more I wandered through the beautiful village, I had the sense I was trespassing through an artistic, archeological time warp. Volterra claims the oldest town hall in Tuscany (1208-1254) and much history has tramped through this now serene spot, some of it cruel. Machiavelli described the bloody invasion of the Florentines, whose presence is felt everywhere, from the many marble, enameled and stone plaques on the walls to the two lions perched atop the columns flanking the Palazzo. I realized how little I knew of Tuscany’s political and historical past, and pondered who had trod, fought, died and loved on the very ground I was standing. I envied the Italians with their thread of history and heritage, their richly designed villages where each morning the sun shone in all its radiance and each night the moon took stock of the landscape, sealing it in moonlight.
Many travel to Tuscany for her fine wines, which are plentiful and highly rated; others arrive to explore the sumptuous cuisine, but for me the charm of Tuscany lies in each distinct village, and with the people whose lack of pretentiousness coupled with their good nature and graciousness reside in these villages.
Not far from San Gimignano is the Medieval town of Certaldo, located in the Chianti hills. The upper portion– high on a hill-Certaldo Alto- sits perfectly preserved as it was in ancient times. There are two options to reach the top, a steep 10-minute walk or a two-minute funicular which catapults visitors to the walled village. I chose the funicular with a splendid view of the valley below.
Certaldo Alto is small, making it easy to amble through the tranquil streets into ceramic shops as crafts men and women design the colorful pottery of this region. Small courtyards with tiny cafes offered locally grown food from a modest menu. I loved the simplicity of choice.
After a delicious lunch in a small restaurant, I decided to visit the Palacio Pretoria, originally the castle of Conti Alberti, and ancient home of political power. Today, still decorated with coats of arms that commemorate Florentine governors who ruled, frescos, a chapel and several rooms with decorated doorways, it’s also a favorite wedding site. The structure is the result of many centuries of renovation and building and once represented the civil power or counterbalance to the Church’s power.
My last evening at Poggiacolle, I sat watching the sunset, a chilled glass of wine in hand. The silence infusing the hills and vineyards soothed, and my heart reigned with gratitude to be here. It dawned on me why people fall in love with Tuscany. It’s not only her tangible beauty, her food, wine and people; it’s the Tuscan lifestyle, the perfect elixir for stress.
Tuscany is a large region. If you stay in large cities, traveling by train is best. Cars are not allowed in walled cities. If you visit the countryside, as I did, the two closest cities to rent cars for the region are Florence and Siena. If you are taking a train from anywhere to this region, all go through Florence.
Train Travel and Train Passes:
Agriturismo Poggiacolle: http://www.poggiacolle.com/farmhouse-tuscany.html