After about our third rented villa in Italy, we were truly done. “Too many other places to see”, we said. But we still did two more rentals as the temptation of great food, great wine and great shopping with lovely people was just too compelling.
Then, three years ago, we came to Asia and enjoyed that wonderfully easy access from Singapore to all places hot and exotic on endless beaches with cultures even older than Europe. So, it took a big occasion to bring us back; our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Somehow, it seemed fitting that we gathered new and old friends to celebrate in the country where we were engaged, where we had our honeymoon and, where we had rented 5 prior villas with over 25 different people.
Once again we used ‘Salogi ‘of Milan to help find just the right place. We culled it down to three and then our mistress of good taste (sounds like S&M meets Julia Child ) Lisa Jedan helped make the final selection; ‘La Maccinaia’ in San Vincente near Sienna. The pictures sold it; especially the fabulous kitchen and gorgeous bathrooms. The location; a short drive from the Prada Factory Outlet didn’t hurt either. For those who haven’t done it, and think this is just an extravagance, believe me that a 5 star villa when divided up between five or more couples, costs per couple per week what a 5 star Italian resort costs for a night.
La Dolce Vita!
This time, citing the global financial crisis, I was able to negotiate a 25% discount on the weekly rate and took advantage of low season starting October 3rd. Get your air tickets on points, stay out of the Prada outlet and you are living ‘La Dolce Vita’.
The trip from Shanghai to London was uneventful if long. Arriving in Florence early the next morning you are struck by two things: how cute that this tiny airport hasn’t changed and how could they not change this crappy little airport? We moved into the ‘Continentale’ Hotel, one of four luxe Ferragamo properties that flank the Ponte Vecchio on the Arno River. They have now added a home store called ‘Details’ where you can buy all sorts of stylish things (but no shoes). I wanted a giant white coffee cup and saucer for our white kitchen island at home. Big enough to hold a dozen oranges. It took a week to convince Ellen I could cart it back, then on our return we found someone else must have liked huge dishes. Alas, there was only one set and anyway carry on would have been a challenge. Although it would have been fun to pull it out and ask for coffee on British Airways.
We met up with Trevor and Lisa who had been in town for a few days taking Italian lessons. Trev selected our first restaurant, ‘Trattoria Quatro Leoni’, famous for its ‘Bistecca Fiorentina’; the giant Tuscan steak from Chiana cattle that has always seemed no better than average to me. Not this one. A two kilo hunk of rare, tender beef preceded by pasta and their amazing Bruschetta Pomodoro. Nowhere are tomatoes sweeter and basil more fragrant than Italy. I could have stopped at the appetizer but, we plowed through and walked it off down quiet streets fragrant with the aroma of...horse manure. Yup, horse and carriage rides are the late night mode of transportation. Shanghai in summer smells better than that. Well, not really.
Still jet lagged, I was up early in search of coffee and newspapers. ‘Café Rivoire’ in Piazza della Signoria is up early too. It has lovely ‘cafe crema’ that is thick, smooth and with a tiny basket of pastries; the price of a small house in Riverdale. In Italy, there is a different price for sitting with coffee versus standing with coffee; there is another for tourists doing either. And they say the French are bad.
Early morning in Florence is a special time with all the deliveries being made; great piles of bread, wonderful looking vegetables and endless crates of wine. The Florentine shop girls from Prada, Gucci etc. are making their way to work; all slick and sleek in their comp’d designer duds. On Ellen’s appearance, we went to the market at San Lorenzo. This indoor/outdoor public market is huge with hundreds of stalls selling leather, shoes, t-shirts and all things Catholic as it is in sight of the ‘Duomo’: the main cathedral of Florence. Famous as the fourth largest cathedral in the world, it started construction in 1290 and is equally famous for Brunelleschi’s dome. Added in 1420, the dome used entirely new construction methods of herringbone brick to make the structure self supporting. All cathedrals after this one, used his method including St. Peter’s in Rome. This was our 8th or 9th visit to Florence and we have not yet climbed the 463 steps to the cupola for the best view in town. I get less ambitious to do it each time and this trip I had to deal with Ellen having a greasy tripe sandwich in the market. As I tried to photograph a big slab of dripping intestines coming out of an oily boiling pot, I could barely stand let alone climb up on a stool to down an emergency café crema. No stair climb this time, I was dizzy enough.
Firenze with Trevor & Lisa
Several more lazy days under blue skies with heart stopping dinners followed. Speaking of cardiac meals, Trev and Lisa found a place in the ‘Luxe Guide’ called ‘Da Sostanza’, famous since 1869 for simple dishes like pasta al a burro. That’s pasta done in...butter. That’s it, just butter. More interesting was the pollo, chicken pan fried in...butter. Simple as this sounds, they pack them in and it’s a ‘Luxe Guide’ fave so it’s high on the tourist agenda.
Our last afternoon was spent on the roof terrace of ‘Continentale’ where you have a 360 degree view of Florence and the Ponte Vecchio on the Arno River is right below you. Lots of Prosecco and sun put Ellen to bed early and the rest of us crossed the street to find something to eat at ‘Fusion’, another one of the Ferragamo properties. Not quite dressed for slick we were not entirely surprised to be gently bumped from the patio. Not that we could complain, we didn’t have a reservation and the other guests (the Ferragamo family) actually made one, in their own place. We had to wait and check them out; two adults, BMW wagon, a few kids and the guy was wearing pretty bad shoes. Must be poor cousins.
Badia a Coltibuono
We left Florence and T&L the next morning for our 2 day cooking school at ‘Badia a Coltibuono’, an hours drive south outside of Gaiole. This estate was once a Benedictine abbey, the ‘Cultis Boni’ (Good Culture), and was founded in the 11th century. The first letters complimenting the estate’s wine were written in 1476. They must have gotten even better at it as Napoleon Bonaparte confiscated the land in 1810. The Guintini family took it back thirty years later and the family has owned the property ever since.
The owner's wife, Lorenza de’Medici, founded the cooking school over 25 years ago. Now, her children have taken over. Guido runs the school, daughter Emanuela the estate, Paolo the restaurant and Roberto the vineyards and olive groves. Guido, our chef, was an excellent host speaking near perfect English from a long history of cooking around the world.
We (14 people from four continents) made everything from scratch: Foccaccia, Tagliatelle a la Funghi, Veal Tenderloin rolled in garlic and rosemary baked inside a bacon wrapped baguette, fresh picked beans with tomato and fennel, chocolate mousse with olive oil to make it extra creamy. We slaved at the cutting boards from 10:00am until after 1:00pm when Guido and his assistant finished the dishes off and served us in a private dining room with four of their estate wines. The food (our food after all) was fantastic and we then retired to a high ceiling sitting room for coffee and grappa. A great food experience in a lovely, serene place surrounded by beautiful gardens. Later in the afternoon, we went to a wine tasting and found that under the church are the cellars that now hold all the estate’s reserve wines, some still very drinkable ones dating from 1937. Very pretty old place, really nice people.
Saturday morning we packed up and drove north to Greve. We knew they had a big Saturday market in the piazza and a fabulous old butcher shop, the ‘Maccellaria Falorni’, who have been in business in the piazza since 1729. A quick stop in the open market at the cheese wagon to buy 2.2 kilo’s of Parmiggiano Reggiano and we were off to the villa about an hours drive south.
We found ‘La Maccinaia’ about three miles in from a secondary road that connects Sienna and Gaiole. We were a bit spooked as the road is terrible and partly washed out. Then, around a corner and above us on the left we see it; a big square tower and perfectly landscaped grounds with iron gates leading to a long gravel drive up to the main house. We are met by Guadalupe, our English speaking Columbian property manager and her caretaker husband Franco. After a quick tour of the villa, we settle in and wait for everyone to arrive. The house was an old ruin when bought by the Belgium Foreign Minister Karel Van Gucht about 7 years ago for 750,000 Euros. He has put millions into it, adding a pool and a guesthouse, as well as, a vineyard and a small olive grove. The landscaping is perfect and the house is surrounded by rosemary bushes that smell amazing. There is a very big open air fireplace built into the wall of the guest house facing the pool.
Most of our villa mates arrived late in the afternoon Saturday. Trevor and Lisa from London, Judy and Ian from Toronto, Graham and Indira from Shanghai and Birgit from Frankfurt, who could only stay the weekend. We are invited to Karel’s ‘Vendemmia’; his grape harvest dinner as he has picked his grapes the last two days. We were told of the invitation by the villa company and envisioned a rustic gathering in the fields. Not so. Karel invited some friends from Belgium and New York as well as his two kids and friends of theirs. His youngest son, Jean-Claude, is the youngest Senator in the European parliament: all of 20 years old. Karel didn’t plan a rustic dinner. He flew a chef in from Brussells who had cooked for the Clintons and Thatchers. Nice meal on the terrace of the guest house, interesting people and a very good opening night that ended in front of the open fire some time after 4:30am.
Karel is a character. Totally opinionated (“that Angela Merkel is a bitch!”) and only interested in what he is talking about. He has a not so lovely habit of walking away when he is bored with the conversation; often in mid sentence as we found out. We thought this very funny and took turns to see who could bore him the quickest. Easy to do as long as you didn’t talk about him. His kids and friends were great and had all the personality he so oddly lacked.
Sunday was a rest day as we awaited the arrival of Jane and Colin who had to overnight in Paris. Bright blue skies started from Saturday and lasted all the rest of the week. Thus began 7 days of amazing dinners, touring the old towns, shopping at the Prada Outlet in Montevarchi and ‘The Mall’ in Leccia. All good, but, we China people had to admit that saving 50€ at the ‘Mall’ on a pair of 300€ Tod’s has not nearly as much meaning when you can buy fake ones in Shanghai for 10€. Still, we held our end up and there was and increasing amount of Tod’s, Loro Piano cashmere sweaters and Zegna jackets around the dining table every night.
Dinners were memorable. I began on Sunday with ‘Tagliatelle Ragu Bolognais’ accompanied by Ellen’s ‘Schiaccata’ flatbread. Another night was Trevor’s ‘Risotto a la Porcini Funghi’ and pan fried risotto balls the next day for lunch. Colin was hampered by not finding the pork roast he wanted in Sienna, so, we improvised with leftover ‘Bistecca Fiorentina’ and pan fried veg pulled together with Tuscan bread salad.
After so many great meals at home, there was one memorable one out at a local spot. Our caretaker recommended ‘La Bottega del 30’ outside of Castelnuovo Berardenga. She made the rez and we wound up more than an hour late having got lost on the dark, unlit side roads. To our surprise, the owner was waiting patiently and had prepared an outdoor table for 12 in a small inner courtyard in front of a roaring fire. Unknown to us, this was another well known cooking school and our host was the chef. She took us through every dish and all the gorgeous wines on the list. The highlight was a large, single ravioli, stuffed with meat and a small raw egg, lightly boiled and served with shaved white truffle on top. Magic.
As ever, rental cars in Italy were a pleasure and a pain. I had suggested Avis to all as Ian had got a good deal there. I very much wanted to drive an Alpha Romeo 159 and they had them. Picking up the car in Florence on Saturday morning, Avis changed their mind. No Alpha’s. The substitute was some awful Ford and I would have none of it. As I got louder, I was joined by an elderly English man who, judging from the awful scar appearing from under his fedora, had just had rather invasive surgery of the brain. He was angry that Avis would not give him a car. I was angry because they would, just the wrong one. It seems he didn’t have a drivers license and insisted his passport was more than enough. Hard to mount a winning argument there, so Avis turned back to me. In an attempt to at least shut one of us up, I was upgraded to an Audi and left having salvaged as good a car as possible. My elderly friend was still ranting and appeared to have no intention of leaving or even having any particular place to go.
As the week wore on, Jane’s misnamed Smart car lost its reverse and Trevor’s Ford wouldn’t start. Graham had to return his Alpha as it would shake itself to death at highway speeds. And highway speeds it was, except it was on washboard gravel, in the dark, over hill and dale racing each other home. All manner of critters were caught in the headlights; deer, porcupines, fox, peacocks, and once, a wild boar. No forest creatures were harmed despite our best attempts.
Driving like a maniac is an acceptable practice in Italy. The Superstrada speed limit is 90 but 130 is a safe minimum as it is less dangerous to accompany missiles than to obstruct them. A little Fiat belching smoke at 120 plus is best avoided front or rear. They don’t drive as badly as the Chinese, just about four times as fast.
There is a danger of running afoul of one of Italy’s 8 police forces. Yes, there are 8. Two of note that come into play are the ‘Carabinieri’ and the ‘Guardia di Finanzia’. The former are the much maligned national cops usually seen on the roadside holding a white lollipop within which is a red circle. They wear a uniform that looks like they escaped from band camp and have cornered the market for white belts. There are always two: lollipop man and machine gun man. I know, I got stopped. Lollipoped as I was speeding home from Sienna, they seemed reluctant to bust a turismo until they found Avis had neglected to put the insurance certificate in the pocket on the windscreen. After a tense moment with the 18 year old fingering the machine gun, a phone call to Florence cleared that up.
The other force to be reckoned with, the ‘Guardia’, can be seen lurking in upscale piazza’s and shopping streets. They come from the other band camp, this time in light grey outfits with yellow striping (yup, white belts) and their job is to enforce unenforceable laws like the one where you have to keep your receipt 100 meters from the store where you bought something. This is but one of thousands of silly and pointless Italian laws that remain on the books and keep the government the countries largest employer. The tourists, mindful of authority, usually comply as they have their VAT forms to send in. Italians generally respond with a gesturi like scraping your fingers under your chin and away from you signifying “what do I care” or touching all finger tips together like the petal of a flower and shaking your hand back and forth which means; “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?”. There is yet another police force, the ‘Vigili’ or ‘Polizia Muncipale’ who are the lowest caste of the 8. They direct traffic badly and settle domestic disputes by doing nothing about them.
And so it went. Everyone judged this villa our best ever. The shopping was restrained but steady and the food was, as usual, magnificent. After a wonderful week we had a staggered departure as everyone made for flights out of Rome or Florence or Pisa to head home.
Ellen and I lingered on in the crisp fall air and fading sun to stay one night at ‘Relais la Suvera’, the gorgeous 12th century former summer home of Pope Julius 2nd who commissioned Michelangleo to paint the Sistine ceiling. I proposed to Ellen in the garden 16 years ago and I couldn’t leave Italy without standing on that spot one more time. I’m not sure ‘Suvera’ really remembered us, but , they did give us a beautiful, big coffee table book that chronicles the history of the property as an anniversary gift.
Now, without an inch or an ounce to spare in the luggage, the last decision to be made was, “what can I possibly leave behind to fit that in?”.
Next Fall, Provence.
Update 2013: What is there to say ? It was our best villa trip ever: best friends, best food, best weather, best shopping, best, best, best. Now that all our friends are popping out babies we haven't done it again. But, next year is Ellen's 50th birthday and she wants a villa in or around St. Tropez with the same group and some additions from Asia to celebrate. Watch this space.