Rebecca Shahoud is seduced by Tuscan food, wine and landscape in the perfect private getaway: a vineyard and 18th century villa in the Chianti hills. For King Goya
Images: Tuscany Here and Now and Zey-Nyo Platt
Within minutes of leaving the centre of Florence, the choking streets give way to unoccupied roads that curl through the Tuscan hills. The herds of tourists are replaced by olive groves and vineyards and our taxi is infused by the smell of blossoms. The hot April sun softens the undulating landscape, set against the backdrop of hazy blue mountains.
Winding to the top of a hill, our car slows and crunches over a gravel pathway to huge iron gates, beyond which is another set of iron gates. Beyond these gates is Villa di Bagnolo. The majestic Naples yellow manor is the centrepiece of a 54-hectare estate amid twisting olive groves, vineyards, tennis courts and an outdoor swimming pool. I’m here with seven others but it sleeps up to 14.
The villa is less than half an hour’s drive from the heart of Florence, yet there’s a strong sense that we are miles from the nearest shop selling fridge magnets of David. There is just one road that leads into town and I suspect the local Carabinieri has very little crime fighting to do. We are in the peaceful, ancient town of Impruneta, famous for its historic production of terracotta – due to the soil which is iron-rich, waterproof and malleable. Just ten minutes down the road from the villa are terracotta producers Poggi Ugo, where a kiln has been in use since the 1300s. The family company runs tours, so you can watch them slap the clay into moulds and fire it up. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the huge terracotta ring, an emblem to the town’s history.
Since the 1970s the villa has been owned by the Beltrami family. Barbara Beltrami is a warm, unpretentious host. She’s on hand immediately, should your friend’s four-year-old child lock herself in the bathroom, or heaven forbid you should run out of wine. There’s a quick morning check to see if you need anything, but otherwise, you’re left to your own devices. But that doesn’t mean it’s entirely self-catering. Every morning, breakfast (including homemade cakes) is laid out and there is a cook on hand to prepare lunches and dinners; such as Florentine steak, sea bass, linguine and risotto.
You may not need to make use of the kitchen, but it comes complete with a huge Smeg cooker, a couple of fridges and freezers, Lavazza on tap and more espresso makers than you could ever use. There’s also a fresh herb garden round the front and enough lemons, which grow out of vast terracotta pots, to keep you going for about three years.
I’d seen pictures of the place, but that doesn’t give you a sense of the enormity of the property, nor does it give you a sense of the perfect silence only interrupted by the sweet chorus of songbirds, or the fresh air that fills the vast rooms. The architecture of the building – large, bright, high ceilinged rooms made for large groups to sit and chat, filled with original Italian furniture and lots of marble – cools the interior. Light pours in through the lemon stained glass windows in the breakfast room. There’s a 19th century pianoforte, which I’m not qualified to play, and a serious-looking games room that evokes images of hard drinking and poker. These days, the silver standing ashtrays are for decoration only and the gambling is replaced with Trivial Pursuit.
We step outside as swallows skim the surface of the pool for a drink on the wing. The birds aren’t the only creatures to be tempted by the cool water in the afternoon heat. I could wallow in here for hours with an Aperol Spritz (there’s a fully stocked spirits tray inside) but I’ve got exploring to do.
As darkness falls, none of the guests have failed to observe the villa’s suitability for the setting of an Agatha Christie novel. From under a moonlit gazebo in the garden, we are enticed by a spooky golden glow emitting from the villa’s turrets. We climb the winding staircase, through a door that rattles in the wind. The sense that we’re alone up here adds to the thrill. It is tonic for a healthy imagination. At night, we can see Florence shimmer and dance in the golden streetlights. It’s a mesmerising feast for the eyes, one which is best paired with a glass or two of Chianti.
Speaking of wine, no trip to this villa should be considered without a cellar tour and tasting session with Stefano Beltrami. The cellar was only discovered in the 1990s, when builders excavated the bottom of the house to provide plumbing for the swimming pool. .
Stefano is instantly likeable and reels off an encyclopaedic knowledge of the estate and its produce. The cool, dark space under the villa seats about 20. It’s filled with large orci (traditional terracotta vases designed for olive oil and wine); local, organic cured meat hanging from hooks, tins of olive oil, and huge tanks of wine.
The villa produces a highly drinkable sangiovese – perfect with anything from salad to fish to meat – and blends of it, and a deep chardonnay; as well as an almost creamy limoncello, a nocino (walnut liqueur) and a warming desert wine. The pulp is made into grappa and the olive oil deserves a special mention: the soil that produces the renowned terracotta also provides the foundation for trees that have fruit like no other on the planet. Dipping a chunk of bread into the oil, it’s light and fragrant at first, but then sends a healthy peppery kick to the back of my throat.
Florence is there if you need it, and public transport can quickly get you into the city. The town of Impruneta (a 20-minute walk) has a good selection of restaurants, such as La Loggetina (there’s a burrata pizza that screams to be eaten) and Ristoro Bella Vista. It’s a short walk down the road and if you’re too tired to walk back (wine) then someone that works in town will probably give you a lift to the villa. Both restaurants have al fresco dining and of course, great local wines.
Impruneta’s weekend markets are worth a visit – there’s a farmer’s market on Saturdays and they sell things to wear on Sundays. But what is remarkable about this villa is its location; its proximity to towns like Lucca, Siena, the walled medieval town of Monteriggioni, Greve in Chianti and a host of other Chianti villages. Within an hour by car you can be in another world, and still back to your own private manor for dinner.
When you have a scenery such as this, it would be a crying shame not to make use of the villa’s tennis courts, even if you haven’t played in yonks. To make the most of it, we enlist the help of local instructor Pedro. He has bags of experience in his field and has taught the game in Japan, Spain and Italy. He quickly ascertained our levels, put us at ease and within no time showed us some simple tricks to have us playing a professional game of tennis (almost). Next to the courts is a large, unused metal structure that piques the curiosity. It wasn’t, as I thought, something to do with arable farming but a dome for show-jumping horses. The jumping arena was where the tennis courts are now, and the remains of the stables can be seen from the balcony.
It would be inhumane to stay at the villa without a cooking lesson from Lisa Banchieri. Tuscan-born Lisa is a talented chef, but she brings so much more to the table than just food. Her passion for cuisine was instilled as a tiny child, as her grandmother taught her how to make pasta. It’s an Italian tradition to teach the next generation in the kitchen, but one which is sadly dying out, she tells us. She helps us to roll fluffy bits of gnocchi into suitable shapes. Her ravioli-making skills are in demand: she’s regularly flown around the world to cater for plush events. She sharpens her knives for an energetic performance, using the garden herbs and courgette flowers and hand-sized tomatoes from the farmer’s market; involving us all, especially our youngest member of the group, who has long been freed from one of the upstairs bathrooms.
There’s nothing wrong with hotels or resorts. Everything has its place. But this captivating villa deserves to be inhabited by a group of close friends or family. Go off to Livorno for the day before reconvening to chat and guzzle wine around lengthy tables. But you could find that despite your best intentions, you have no need to go very far. The good food, fine wine and undisturbed peace may well ensure that making the 25-minute journey to Florence won’t even cross your mind.
Tuscany Now & More (www.tuscanynowandmore.com, 020 7684 8888) offers Villa di Bagnolo from £5,595 for 7 days for 8 people (maximum capacity of 14 people) on a catered basis in May 2018. Includes a maid, a cook and access to tennis courts. Tuscany Now & More features a range of properties across the region and Italy and can provide private chefs, excursions and other services upon request.