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Toast to Tuscany
Explore medieval hill towns and family wineries from a country villa

The conversations grew increasingly animated. Seated at the long dining table on the villa’s covered terrace, surrounded by three vacationing Italian families, we attempted to keep up with the happenings. The families knew little English; we knew little Italian. Kindly, the Italians used recognizable Italian and English phrases to keep us in the loop. Laughter reigned. Topics ranged from the day’s explorations of nearby hill towns to the finer points of Italian dining. Empty carafes of the local white and red wine lined the table. Nana Giullia, our fabulous cook, had just served the final course, heaping bowls of fruit, following the antipasti, salad, pasta, pork, and dolce. After all her work, she decided it was high time to join her partying clients. She received a huge cheer as she exited the kitchen with a tray of glasses and a bottle of grappa for the final toast of the evening. Saluto! Ciao! A toast to the joys and tastes of Tuscany!

Villa Terrace
Dinner at the villa, Il Grande Prato

Villa farm house
Il Grande Prato farm house

A Country Villa Il Grande Prato

The fantastic family meals were just one of the many highlights of our stay at Il Grande Prato, a beautiful, perfectly situated villa in the Tuscan hills near San Gimignano. The villa occupies three acres within the large working farm complex of Castello di Oliveto. The owners, Vito and Giullia, purchased the run down farm buildings and surrounding land seven years ago and have recently completed their "labor of love" restoration, outfitting their villa for vacationing guests. The large centuries-old farmhouse has been tastefully redone as a home/office/albergo with seven guest rooms. My wife and I had rented one of the two apartments in an adjoining retrofitted farm building. A private patio served as the perfect place to enjoy our own meals or snacks. It was but a short walk to the pool and to the country road that followed the ridgeline past vineyards, fields of sunflowers, cypress trees, and herds of goats and sheep. The villa displayed tasteful country touches, including plentiful flower boxes, sculptures, patios, a horse paddock, and the family’s friendly dogs and cats.

Villa pool
Il Grande Prato pool

Tuscany country scene
Country farm near Il Grande Prato

The villa is one of hundreds that offer guestrooms or apartments in the Tuscan countryside, ranging between Florence to the north and Siena to the south. Florence, Pisa, and Siena are only an hour’s drive from Il Grande Prato. The smaller, medieval hill towns of Certaldo, San Gimignano, and Volterra are even closer. The famous wine region of Chianti is 90 minutes away along isolated gravel roads passing small farms and vineyards. Since we had visited Florence and Pisa on previous visits, we decided to alternate days enjoying the villa’s pool and countryside with days exploring Siena, Chianti, and the smaller hill towns.

Energetic Siena

Siena is the quintessential Italian hill town, with the most vibrant atmosphere of any medieval town that we’ve experienced. The entire central complex is dedicated to pedestrians. The red-bricked lanes cascade in all directions from the fan-shaped main piazza, Il Campo. The must-see sites are Il Campo itself, where the city hall tower and a ring of "I want to sit here all day" cafes highlight the sloping piazza; the Duomo, Sienna’s black and white stoned, beautifully detailed Gothic cathedral; and the Church of San Domenico on a neighboring hill. A major highlight is the Duomo’s collection of ornate statues and its baptistery sculptures by Donatello and Ghiberti.

Siena's Duomo
Siena's Duomo

We enjoyed getting lost in the maze of streets that branched into the surrounding neighborhoods. Siena exhibits its pride and energy each and every day of the year. The residents take their neighborhood allegiances seriously, following a 700-year-old tradition of competition. The annual Il Pailo games are culminated by a daring horse race that ends in Il Campo piazza. We encountered numerous flag-bearing groups touting their neighborhood for the upcoming events. Children were everywhere in the streets, playing and shouting merrily. We were thrilled to view a traditional Italian wedding promenade as a crowd cheered for the groom and bride, trailed by her 20-foot veil. After a day of exploring and feeling Siena’s pulse, we enjoyed the perfect cap to the day with dinner in a relaxing trattoria.

Siena hill
Siena view up the hill to the Duomo

Wedding
Newlyweds in Il Campo piazza

Towering San Gimignano

Smaller and quainter than Siena, San Gimignano sits high on a hilltop, beckoning to visitors with its array of towers. Fourteen towers of an original 72 still stand, giving San Gimignano the reputation for being one of Tuscany’s best-preserved medieval towns. The towers were constructed in the 1200s by feuding noble families for purposes of warfare and in competition for the most imposing structures.

Towers
Tower view
.

San Gimignano
Vista of San Gimignano from the countryside
[Courtesy: San Gimignano Tourist Board]

We entered the walled city by Porta San Giovanni and enjoyed the line of centuries-old buildings and shops along the main thoroughfare leading to Piazza della Cisterna, aptly named for its 13th century well. Walking under a large arch at the far corner of the square, we came upon Piazza Duomo, with the town’s most impressive towers, including Podesta’s Palace Towers and the Clock Tower, measuring 51 meters. The Duomo (Collegiata) here was worth our visit, as it contains a unique set of original frescoes dating from the 12th and 13th century. Uphill from the Duomo, we explored fortress Rocca di Montestaffoli with incredible views of the town below and the surrounding countryside. After completing explorations along Via San Matteo and Via Romite, we looped back to Piazza della Cisterna for lunch at one of the outdoor cafes. Later that afternoon we sampled wine at several shops, then chose an excellent bottle of Chianti.

Charming Chianti

Tuscany vineyards
Tuscany vineyards

Another day we ventured on gravel roads across multiple forested ridgelines to reach the charming vineyards of Tuscany's Chianti region. Along the way we happened upon the impressive castle, Passingaro, and the tiny medieval village of Montefiorino. We couldn’t resist a stroll down its narrow, single cobbled lane. After reaching Chianti’s central town, Greve, we found the narrow country road leading to Castello di Uzzano. The friendly proprietor gave us a tour through the cellars and poured us samples of his fine red wines, easily convincing us that we couldn’t leave without bottles of his ’96 Chianti vintage and the family’s virgin olive oil. A major highlight was a self-guided picnic tour through the varied gardens bordering the family’s vineyards and estate home, now transformed into a luxury hotel.

Tuscany grapes
Tuscany wine grapes

Tuscany Calls

As our week in Tuscany continued, we grew intoxicated with the relaxed pace: the golden, sunny days, the historic hill towns, and the tasty and friendly dinners served on Il Grande Prato’s terrace in the warm evenings. We knew that we had discovered the perfect combination for appreciating Italy’s most celebrated region. Even if we couldn’t buy our own Tuscany home as featured in the recent bestseller, Under the Tuscan Sun, we knew we would again visit Il Grande Prato and other guest villas under the Tuscan sun.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to Italy's Tuscany region.

        Les Furnanz
        Photos: Rita Furnanz

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