Victoria Evans travels to Siena, refreshing a passion for the food, landscapes and people of Tuscany.
It’s a little known fact that I studied Italian at university. After slightly disastrous A-Level results, I took a punt through clearing to pick up a language I’d never learned and with no language lessons to speak of since GCSEs. I was a beginner but a year abroad in Italy seemed like as good a reason as any to choose an Italian degree. And a foreign language is useful, right? So, after two year’s hard slog through Inferno and Purgatory (if you know, you know), I made it to Tuscany, Siena in fact, in the autumn of my third year. Like any 21-year-old, I had ideas of how my year would be. I already loved the food, I was going to love the weather, I’d studied a bit of Renaissance art and literature, but I was absolutely not going to love the men who I’d heard were drawn to anything with a pulse. Now, 28 years later I found myself returning to the place of my first love affair, courtesy of an press trip organised by Tuscany Now and More, the Italian and Tuscan villa rental specialists.
The transfer from Pisa airport is enough to get you in the mood for a Tuscan adventure. Rolling hills – cypress trees atop them – olive groves, vineyards and blue skies flank the motorway and then the roads which wind their way through the countryside, finally leading us to Palazzo Cheto. Dating from 13th century, it is now owned by the Polito family and Ennio Polito greets us alongside Cristina, the in-house chef, and her husband Antonio, who looks after the house and gardens, and who makes a mean pizza as we would find out later.
The villa sleeps 19 and if you’re lucky your room will have the stunning view of Siena which is only 15 minutes drive away. All rooms are air conditioned and most have an en-suite bathroom or share one with one other. Other amenities include a large living room with pool table, a wonderful courtyard with seating suitable for parties or dining, a characterful kitchen with working fireplace and wood oven. A short walk from the front door, you’ll find a guest house complete with two more ensuite bedrooms living room, gym, sauna, table tennis and barbecue/pizza oven.
The outside area is where you’ll want to spend most of your time. As well as the bocci and tennis courts, there’s a five-a-side pitch and a glorious pool area surrounded by views to treasure forever. Poolside you’ll find enough sunbeams for everyone as well as an outdoor kitchen and pool house.
A stay at Palazzo Cheto also comes with a concierge service which you can call upon as often as you need. From organising a special dinner which Cristina can cook using the best locally-grown organic produce, to wine-tasting, yoga retreats and hot air ballooning, this is the base from which to do it. Breakfasts are provided and cleared away each day at an additional charge and based on my experience, it’s a cost definitely worth paying, even if you’re not a breakfast person like me.
If you prefer, a walk in the local woods provides opportunities for porcini hunting – only if you know what you’re doing – which Cristina can use in your meal later.
Ennio prides himself on the villa’s green status, and he’s part of a generation of local Tuscans genuinely concerned about looking after the planet for future generations. The pool is heated by solar power and he supports local producers using the old techniques, or traditional crops and farming, using organic methods which in turn benefits the land and the quality of the harvest. It’s something you can taste in the food and wine shared here. A trip to the Capersa Winery in Radda in Chianti was a stark reminder that climate change makes these vineyards ever more vulnerable.
As well as the Chianti wine tasting, we were fortunate to enjoy some of the local produce and activities available, all of which can be organised for your stay. We met local winemaker Giovanni who oversees production at the San Donatino vineyard. Salvatore Barresi talked to us about the spelt he grows nearby using ancient grains. Tina and Jessie guided us through yoga and sound bath healing and Federica walked us through the simply gobsmacking streets of Siena. But perhaps the memory taken from this trip was the balloon flight at sunrise. Overcoming vertigo and rising above the rolling Tuscan hills, shrouded in early mist and skirting the ancient walls of Siena as the sun starts to peek through, is surely a sight to behold. And memories made possible by the guys at Firenze Mongolfiere, who also provided a bubbly breakfast and who lit the fire of the Italian affair lay dormant for almost 30 years.
The Memory Makers
- Hot air balloon flight organised by Taols Luxury Travel.
- Giovanni Stella talked us through wine from San Donatino.
- Salvatore Barresi produces spelt at podereristoro.it.
- Yoga by Tina Fletcher and the sound bath by Jessie Kundalini.
- Wine Tasting in Radda in Chianti was in the Caparsa Winery.
- Wine served for lunch at the Villa was from the organic Montechiaro Winery terredellagrigia.com.
- Siena tour guide was Federica Fiscaletti.
- Traditional lunch in Siena was at Osteria il Vinaio di Bobbe e Davide.
- Cocktails provided by Bottiglieria Sale Fino @bottiglieriasalefino.
- Live music from students at the Siena JAZZ School.
The trip to Tuscany was organised by Tuscany Now and More.