I was well into my second or third glass of delicious Chianti when the full realization of what lay before me struck.
There I was with my family, secure in "my" 40-hectare hilltop estate, with a sweeping view of the city that was the birthplace of architecture and art that has influenced the world for centuries.
This is Florence, one of the most famous and exotic cities on Earth. You remember, it produced that little artistic movement known as the Renaissance? Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo, were just a few of the legions inspired by the land that lay before me.
Far away from the tourist hordes, surrounded by silvery olive groves and towering Cyprus trees, I was living the estate life of a nobleman. And I was loving it. History permeates the very air here. No less a personage than Napoleon Bonaparte once stayed and marched across my new 14th-Century digs.
I had travelled to Tuscany before, in the year 2000, and found booking hotel accommodations time consuming, expensive and almost always disappointing. I was tired of the big cities. I wanted the real Tuscany. And this time I would be with my wife and two children. Secluded, quiet, ease: thats what was on my mind. The Tuscany of peace, and dreams. Was it really there?
Months of research led me to a company called FlorenceVillas.com that allows travellers as close as possible to the true Tuscany. More than 200 properties are available, from the secluded grandeur of 14th-Century castles and stately villas, to farmhouses and small apartments. Every accommodation is different and intermingling with locals is just about guaranteed. Even on-site gourmet-cooking classes and weddings can be arranged.
If rented with a small group of say, eight people, a villa can be quite affordable, often costing each person as little as $80 Cdn. a day.
Our adventure started at Casa Rossa, a 600-year-old delicately restored villa overlooking the Arno Valley. We took the 15-minute train ride into congested Florence. But to be honest, relaxing by the pool, barbecuing and sampling the estates wines and olive oils was probably most enjoyable. At days end, standing on "my" patio, I could hear the chimes of church-bells wafting through the warm rosemary scented air. Solitude.
Seduced by the south
I hate driving anyway, and if one more moped passed me on the sidewalk I was going to freak. I was not yet sold on my Tuscan dream. So far, it was just too busy.
But heading south through Chianti country and past Sienna, my idyllic Tuscany started to emerge. Suddenly, joyously, we were alone, surrounded by low, cream-coloured hills, dotted with the craggy remnants of stone farmhouses and emerald cypress trees. The warm October air was redolent with the earthy fragrance of freshly tilled soil.
Passing San Quirico dOrcia, we arrived at Podere Orcia, a working farm, with well-appointed accommodations in a 13th Century farmhouse. Atmosphere is everything and this place had it in layers. Antiques, marble staircases, Renaissance art, a cozy stone courtyard lined with grapevines. Sweeping views of isolated towns sitting atop long eroded limestone ridges.
The tiny hill town of Pienza was wonderful. It is the idyllic Tuscan town: a maze of narrow, cobbled streets and passageways highlighted by a bevy of quaint shops and superb Renaissance architecture.
Pienza is an excellent place to buy two of Italys top red wines, the magnificent Brunello di Montalcino and the noble Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Youll find more regional specialties here than in other towns.
The other major culinary reason for visiting Pienza is to sample the king of all sheep cheeses, Pienzas own tangy peccorino. Montepulciano and Montalcino are also worthwhile daytrips for wine and cheese.
Tuscany is lined with small termes, or thermal baths. The world-famous Montecatini Terme is always swollen with tourists, but smaller spas like Terme di Chianciano, Terme di Saturnia and Bagni San Filippo are worth a visit. I particularly enjoyed Bagni San Filippo, with its hot, sulfurous-alkaline pools, bordered by a dense cypress and pine forest.
North to Lucca, then home
Lucca is a little-known, gracious medieval enclave close to the Pisa Airport. We stayed at Villa Arsina Lucca, an 18th Century mansion with antique furniture and many frescoes. The hilltop view was transfixing, the hosts gracious and the breakfast delicious. A single room can be rented at this villa, or the entire mansion.
After more than two weeks of living in exquisite villas and working farms, sadly, it was time to say good-bye. Tuscany grows on you; as you begin to catch the subtleties, you fall hard for the place. From the innocence of church bells wafting through the mountain air to the expanse of oatmeal-coloured hills, rolling into the azure horizon, I had found my dream. Bella Italia.
If you go
The following websites offer a variety of alternatives for an authentic Tuscan experience: