It's been nearly 20 years since we rented our first villa in Europe. At the time we thought it might be a more affordable way to enjoy Italy (and subsequently France) in 5 Star accommodations at 2 Star prices. And, bring your best friends along to eat, drink and tour along with you. Seven rentals later, I know we were right.
Renting a villa is a fabulous shared experience. The process of recruiting friends willing and able to commit six months in advance has been, I admit, occasionally a bit challenging. But, we have had few dropouts over the years and I believe everyone who came along loved the experience. The process starts in January for a September rental. We usually chose that month as the hordes of tourists have gone home, the days are warm and the nights cool. The grape harvest is coming in and reservations at great restaurants are much easier to come by. A $5,000 per week a five bedroom villa is only $1,000 a couple, $500 per person for 7 days in someones lovely restored home. Most good hotels charge that a night.
Where to begin?
You need a leader, a budget divided by bedrooms and a core, committed group. There are hundreds of villas to look at, reviews to scour, maps to ponder, emails to send out and, in some cases given the recent economy, negotiations to be done. Once you decide on a broad area (say, Tuscany: East or West, in a city or out in the country), you then drill down to anchor towns (Lucca in the West, the three Chianti towns more East, Umbria towns in the South), factor in the number of bedrooms and add in your specific groups needs (pool, killer kitchen, bathroom for each bedroom, wi-fi, etc.). Our house rule began with 'no kids' but that is likely to change. We also insisted every couple rent a car as the villas can be more than a bit remote without one. A couple without their own car can become a pain by the end of a week. We found that out. Using rental providers like 'La Cure' and 'Salogi' you short list villas to your group by late January and submit a couple of choices. Then, once confirmed you make a 30% deposit with balance due in July. There will always be a damage deposit to share on arrival, sometimes a charge for the telephone. Pools are standard, maid service is included, having a cook is extra. Bills for wine, food, etc. are signed and go into a pot to be divided up on the last day. Rentals commence Saturday afternoon and end at noon the following Saturday. Despite our group being accomplished cooks we have always had a closing ceremonies dinner at the best restaurant we can find. Here are the villas we have stayed in.
'La Capanna' - 1997
Our first villa rental was 'La Capanna' outside the village of Fabbrica about halfway between Florence and Lucca. It was rustic compared to later choices but we have some great memories and its proximity to must see towns like Volterra, San Gimignano and Montecatini Terme was awesome. We did find it was too far from Florence and in those early trips everybody wanted to be in Florence at least a few times over the week. The pool was great, the tennis court was terrible and lost balls in the bush required use of the long sticks provided due to the Vipers, small, black poisonous snakes who resided there. We learned this from Leopoldo, the stylish lawyer owner, who also advised that gates must be kept closed and carpet salesmen must be kept away as they are all robbers casing the joint. Even out here in the middle of nowhere. A very nice first rental experience but far from our best villa. At today's cost it rents for €2,800 a week in September.
'La Pozza di Volpaia' - 1998
This will alway be a favorite. Situated in the tiny village of Volpaia just a mile or two from the charming town of Radda en Chianti and on the SS 22, the gorgeous back road into Florence, Volpaia is a wine village. The winery owner rents this and two other villas. There is a small cafe and grocery store in the square about 100 yards up the hill with one or two new restaurants on the road in. The main house is old but recently redone as a few years ago the fireplace was being repaired and it fell into the wine cellars below. There is a pool house with another bedroom and bathroom. The pool has stunning views of the vineyards and valley below with a short stroll through an olive grove to a tennis court surrounded by lemon trees. Down the hill is another great winery, 'Badia de Coltibuono', with a fabulous restaurant, classy old hotel geared to a world renowned cooking school. All this in a 12th century monastery. This trip was our first attempt to find the Prada Factory Outlet and we failed. Later we learned it is in Montevarchi, an industrial town about 20 KM's south. At today's prices a rental costs €2,990 to €5,990 a week depending on season.
'La Madonnina'- 1999
Our first disappointment. We were mistakenly impressed by the photos and taken in by the low price. While it looked stylish it was just dirty and difficult to get to. The entrance road required a steep negotiation of a rocky trail that forced you between the corner of a large house and a big tree. Two guests this year rented BMW's and Audi's that could fit but with not more than two inches to spare. The house, to our surprise, was part of a farm complex complete with barking dogs at all hours and sputtering, early morning tractors with a rooster chorus. The pool umbrellas had a degree of 'Walking Dead' rot I've never seen before or since and two of the bedrooms were in the basement and were, in a word, swampy. Still, this was the Lucca side of Tuscany and Lucca, a great town for eating, shopping and walking, is just 20 KM's away. Then, there is the coast a couple of miles further on with the simply gorgeous village of Forte di Marmi. Farther north past Pisa and Spezia are the 5 waterside villages that form Cinque Terre and past that the ultra swish Portofino. This is the one villa I didn't take the lead on. It is also the one villa I would never go back to. But Lucca and the Ligurian coast are spectacular and as bad as this place was, we got to see wonderful things. At todays prices a rental costs €1,980 to €4,500. Who cares. Don't go.
'Villa Montoro' - 2003
Given our above villa experience you might think we soured on the villa idea but, in truth; we were busy with other things for a few years. When our group, with 6 new members, wanted to do it again we jumped on it. This time we were very particular about the villa and chose Villa Montoro in the hills above Greve in Chianti. Greve is a wonderful old town with a triangular central square unchanged for a century that hosts one of the best Saturday markets in Tuscany. It also has the most amazing butcher shop, the Macelleria Falorni, one of the oldest in Italy. Montoro is a grand old house that sports multiple terraces and a great formal dining room with a family tree woodcut wall hanging that goes back centuries. The kitchen sports a marble topped table perfect for rolling pasta and the pool and grounds are just about perfect. Right on the SS 22 it's only 30 KM's from Florence, 42 KM's from Sienna and the villages of Panzano and Verrazzano are close by. The second weekend in September is the Chianti Festival where you buy a glass for €10 and the wine, food and fresh pressed olive oil is free all weekend. Lovely villa, great town with good access to everything you want to see, taste and smell. At todays prices a rental costs from €3,430 to €5,950 a week depending on the season. Yes, it's expensive by comparison but it is worth the difference.
'La Sassaia ' - 2006
To this point, every villa rental had been in the Fall. For some reason we decided to give the Spring a try. We had wanted to go back to Pozza di Volpaia but after we booked they called and told us about the fireplace falling into the wine cellar while under repair. Although by Western standards there was more than enough time to repair the damage the rules and regs in Italy would take 10 times as long. Nearly a year as it turned out. Our new choice was La Sassaia. Farther south than we had ever been, near the village of Sovicille and a full 60 KM's south of Florence. But, closer to Cortona and Montepulciano; places that, to this point, we hadn't spent enough time in. This villa was truly a home. The pictures on the wall, the albums, the coffee table books told a great and warm history of this family. One of our guests was a sommelier and arranged a vineyard visit farther South to Montalcino for a tasting of amazing Brunello de Montalcino. Much great wine purchased and consumed. We had far and away the best closing dinner of all our trips in Sienna and our chefs, as usual, prepared some stunning meals. But, we all agreed the Spring was not our favorite time. To see the vineyards bare and not grown in was a little sad and the pool wasn't open for the season yet. I think it's a nicer place than we all gave it credit for, but; surely better in the Fall. At €6,290 a week now it has become bloody expensive and going in less than the best season is not recommended.
'La Maccinaia ' - 2009
After a break we were on again. While there were rumblings about trying Provence, when booking time came we all wanted to do Italy again. This time we found a truly amazing villa. La Maccinaia is way up on a hill south of the main Chianti towns and 34 KM's West of Sienna. The property was bought for €750,000 and millions put into restoring it by the owner, an odd character named Karl who is a big deal in the European Union. The house and grounds are immaculate. The bedrooms are perfect and the kitchen, while hardly the best functioning one we've had, is a model of sexy European style. There is a guest house that sleeps another six and the place can sleep as many as 18 with use of bunk beds for kids. The rules in Tuscany require the exterior to be maintained as it always looked but the interior can be gutted and updated to near perfection. Karl is getting into the wine business and has planted his first field a few years ago. The villa agent advised us that we were invited to his 'Vendimia', the traditional harvest of the grapes. We anticipated a rustic experience in the vineyards with the locals but Karl had other plans. He invited us as he needed the kitchen and the guest house for his kids and pals from New York who, with the help of a few locals, picked his small field of grapes that day. Dinner was prepared by the chef for the EU who had cooked for Thatcher and Bush. It was an awesome first night that went nearly until dawn in front of a roaring outdoor fire. Karl and entourage departed the next day. This was a week of outstanding cooking; on our part too as we had attended the Badia di Coltibuono cooking school the week before. Every night was a food fest with different couples taking the lead. We did arrange one mid week dinner at La Bottega del 30 where we were more than an hour late after getting lost. They still welcomed us and we were seated in a ruined part of the old building with no roof but with a roaring fireplace. Then, the woman owner (a fantastic cooking school chef herself) dazzled us with one of the most amazing dinners any of us have ever had. Our own closing dinner at a little spot in the nearby village of San Vincente was hardly memorable after what we ourselves had prepared and our dinner at Bottega. La Maccinaia is a superb villa and worthy of its high cost today of €6,080 to €10,520 a week depending on the season (keeping in mind it can easily sleep 12-14 in bedrooms and more in the bunks).
'Boulbon' - 2010
Finally, France. We had talked about a villa in France for a very long time. This year, we did it. We chose Boulbon because we chose Avignon as our centre point just 15 Km's away and their easy TGV access to Paris. Not everyone agreed with the choice in the end. Boulbon is a big place on a grand property but it's not old. More like a California ranch house, it is a 5 bedroom, single story house with bedrooms at both ends and kitchen, dining and living in the middle. I liked it but others felt it was too removed from places like St. Remy or, antique heaven of Isle Sur La Sorgues. It isn't far at all but the land area south of Avignon where we are is not the prettiest in France and the drive is flat and featureless a good part of the time. We did find a gem of a village called Eygalieres not far away where they have a cute market and an interesting Saturday morning tradition of serving fresh oysters on the terrace of the local bistro. For the farmers it appeared as they were a pretty rugged looking group. The town has a few other very cool looking restaurants and by my definition, it's a very livable little place. Our group took side trips to Carpentras and then the lovely Relais and Chateaux 'Crillon le Brave' while stocking up on Chateauneuf de Pape and Gigondas wines along the way. There is a stunning abbey; Abbaye de Frigolet just a few KM's away in a giant park. As usual, many great dinners including a memorable candlelit one in front of a roaring fire when the power went out. All in all, a nice villa in a quiet part of Provence but a long way from St. Tropez in all possible ways. In its favor, the place is not too expensive for France given that every property is more money than Italy. At €3,675 to €5,530 a week, depending on season, it is good value for 8 people.