Poncho has come wandering into the kitchen again and the kids’ faces light up. “Poncho, Poncho,” says my daughter. “Can I give him a treat?” The panting golden-haired mongrel is circling the terracotta kitchen floor in anticipation. We find the dog’s treat jar above the hearth in this beautiful old, brick red, 15th-century farmhouse-cum-villa.
Poncho knew it was there. Franco, the Italian-only speaking caretaker follows, trying to shoo him out of the kitchen. “Tutto biene,” is his daily greeting. We find we communicate best through signs and smiles, while the kids enjoy checking in on Poncho at intervals throughout the day.
Sprawling across five levels, Il Monte villa has four bedrooms, an exercise room, mezzanine floor and reception rooms. The space literally swamps our family of four and it’s thoughtfully stocked with almost everything you can think of, from flour to olive oil — and even dog biscuits. With views overlooking Florence (only a 45-minute drive away), quaint old fireplaces, beamed ceilings and a garden of cypress trees, it lives up to the image of a secluded Tuscan retreat. On top of a hill reached by a windy road, it sits tucked between the two small villages of Case di San Romalo and Villagmagna, with the nearest supermarket at Bagno a Rapoli, a 20-minute drive away.
It also has a 10m swimming pool. “I like it but the swimming pool is too cold,” says my daughter. Yet by the afternoon, we’ve all taken the plunge.
There is literally nothing to do here, and as I’m pointing this out to my brother, whom we’ve just picked up from Pisa (a day trip in its own right), I’m reminded this is the point.
It’s time to get into the Italian summer groove and r-e-l-a-x. First stop, the local supermarket: from Napoli salami to sausage with fennel, or a selection of cheeses, such as pecorino, fontina, emental and Parmesan — they are all readily available and served with grissini bread sticks and flat bread, all absolutely delicious. My other half can’t believe grappa (super strong grape-based brandy) at €7 (£5.50) is so cheap, but the Chianti — this is Chianti country after all — is sold in carafes from €2 (£1.58).
“What would you like to do tomorrow, kids?”
“Stay here, jump into the pool. Eat pancakes and play cards. And play Scrabble,” says my son. Perfect.
How to do it: Tuscany Now feature Il Monte villa for six people, from £ 2,819 for a week in August.
Three to do in the Tuscan Hills
Pisa: There is more to see than the leaning tower of Pisa, but inevitably you will end up there along with thousands of others.
Wine: This is Chianti region — buy a carafe for around €2 (£1.58). The Greve in Chianti wine region is a 40-minute drive away.
The kids have donned stripey blue aprons and are watching as Alessandro the chef creates a perfect pizza.
“Do you know why it’s called Margherita?” asks Antonio to two blank faces. “There are two stories and this is the most popular. It’s named after Queen Margherita, the queen consort between 1878 and 1900. The baker was looking for something different to make when he made some dough. He flung on red tomatoes, green basil and white cheese to represent the Italian flag.”
The tomato sauce is made of “just fresh tomatoes” locally grown. They taste divine — unlike the ones back home. Apparently the Queen liked the pizza so much, they named it after her.
My children roll, punch, kneed and try to toss their dough, both elbow deep in flour. My son scoops up the tomato sauce carefully with a ladle, then splats it in the middle of the dough, causing us all to laugh. They add the mozzarella and fresh basil and the prized pizzas are then fed into the oven using large wooden paddles. Three minutes later: voilà. We dine on the patio overlooking the hills of Siena at this beautiful ‘castle’, comprising a mansion, chapel, schoolhouse and even small farmhouse villas as part of its 4,500 acres, dating back to the first century BC.
The possibilities seem endless: hiking, cycling, wine tasting and cheese making are all on offer, but then we’d miss seeing Siena, the small yet perfectly formed example of a beautiful Italian Gothic city.
Parking just behind the grand red brick Fortezza Medicea, we head for the city centre and the sloping square that is the Piazza del Campo. While the flying bridge walkways epitomise Siena, the Duomo here is one of the best completed examples you’ll see in Italy. After a short culture fix we’ve all worked up an appetite…
‘Pizza?’ I suggest.
How to do it: Interconnecting suites for a family of four, start from €970 (£720) per night, including breakfast.
Published in the Spring 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family