There was an air of wistfulness as we looked up into the rugged hills above the tiny hamlet of Buggiano in western Tuscany, trying to guess which building would become our home for the week ahead. From the pictures in the glossy brochure, we knew that our villa was a distinctive colour – a kind of deep pinkish burnished copper. Well, at least it would have been distinctive if it was situated in north London, but here in Tuscany the vibrant walls of the houses are often a stunning palette of dramatic hues.
The long and winding road leading to our villa followed a precarious path of twists and turns. At one point, we passed a tiny shrine by the roadside and hoped that it was in honour of some saint, rather than someone whose car had nose-dived, Grace Kelly-style.
Then, when the road could go no higher, we arrived at the electronic gates of our villa, Borgo di Campione. This former rustic farmhouse certainly has the wow factor. Renovated with all mod cons, it’s all cool terracotta floors, beamed ceilings and dark-wood furniture. We were greeted by our villa host, Suzy, who had stocked our fridge with tomatoes plucked from her garden and delicious home-made pesto, as well as all the essentials – bread, milk, pasta – plus a selection of gelati from the local gelateria and a bottle of Chianti to kick the holiday off in authentic Tuscan style.
The fully-equipped kitchen was dominated by a huge table, seating 12. Next door was the living area, with a television and sofa, plus another adjoining dining room with more seating and access to an outdoor stone oven, should you be inclined to turn your hand to baking your own stone-baked pizzas. Also on the ground floor was the first of five double bedrooms, with an en suite wet room.
Upstairs, the bedrooms were colour-coded: misty blue, fragrant lavender and two interconnecting rooms in a sunshine yellow, all with en suite bath or shower, air con, plasma televisions and pretty shuttered windows that could be flung open to provide a breathtaking vista – then promptly shut, as the air con won’t work with open windows and, as we soon learnt, to keep those pesky mosquitoes out.
The villa is set on a hectare of land, with a shady pergola which overlooks the surrounding hills, dotted with medieval spires, and full of lush vegetation and fruits so plentiful – juicy red tomatoes ripening on the vine, plump pears and figs, and boughs bowing with lemons – that Grace, 13, and Joe, four, were already plotting their own mini harvest festival.
The remainder of our party arrived the following day: my friend, Barbara, with her mother, Margaret, and two daughters, Kate, 13, and Ruth, 10. We spent a leisurely day, eating and lounging by the pool. The owner of the villa, Guiliano, popped in to say hello. Thankfully, he spoke excellent English (even if he did think curly-locks Joe was a girl). The real comedy began when we tried to converse with our chef, Velma, who came to cook for us later that evening.
There’s something glamorously decadent about having your own personal chef. OK, so we’d had a sneaky look in the fridge and saw that what had been billed on the menu as “Ravioli burro e salvia del giardino (Ravioli with butter and Borgo di Campioni sage) was actually from the local Co-op. Nonetheless, Velma was a hive of activity, running from kitchen to pergola, busily doing all her preparations.
It was at this moment we realised our shameful lack of the lingo, and the comedy increased as we all did that old trick of just talking louder, with ever more flamboyant gestures in an elaborate game of charades. There was some debate about whether we should dine inside or out: we liked the romance of dining under the stars, while Velma (more practical and obviously used to the hazards) thought we were mad, since as soon as any sign of food appeared, the wasps did too. As Velma gabbled away, we thought she was suggesting we move the table away from the wasps, so we all traipsed out onto the lawn, carrying the table (being followed by the wasps), until Velma came running towards us, crazily waving her tea towel. She was gesticulating towards Guiliano’s villa next door and saying “Aperitifs!”, and we thought, very nice, he’s invited us for pre-dinner drinks, so off we traipsed again. But no, she was trying to point out that the limoncello bottle she was brandishing was from Guiliano, and would we please come and start dinner.
Meanwhile, all the shenanigans were having an effect on Joe, who got tangled up in the table manoeuvres, which made his sister giggle. He then bit her, threw a tantrum and was banished to his room for a ten-minute cool-off. Once he’d calmed down, we finally admitted defeat by the marauding wasps and moved to the kitchen to enjoy our feast of antipasto, pasta, veal escalopes, and strawberries and gelato. Our evening ended with fully satiated appetites, sleepy children, and adults sipping limoncello under the twinkling Tuscan stars – the perfect finale to a slightly hysterical evening.
Soon, we had acclimatised to our new schedule, with late breakfasts, taking turns to prepare lunches that lasted a couple of hours, before heading poolside by late afternoon when the sun was less strong. The children would have quite happily spent every day chillaxing at the pool, bobbing about on the huge inflatable whale and oversized rubber rings. The only downside was the low roof of the changing facilities which each of the girls in turn banged their head on. Another day, there was much squealing and excitement when they saw a dead mouse in the pool, which meant it was off bounds until the pool man came and removed it. Being fair-skinned, we would also have liked more shade to go round than the two parasols provided.
Suzy, our villa host, was very attentive, buying train tickets, bringing ice cream and wine every time she visited. Guiliano also popped by to give us another bottle of limoncello. It was great to have someone who could help with any queries, but we felt a little bit like children with absentee parents when Guiliano or Suzy phoned us.
Our villa life was very conducive to relaxation, but we also felt duty bound to explore the area. Buggiano is located within easy reach of the cultural cities of Florence and Pisa – Florence being especially easy to get to by train. One morning, we got up early and drove into Lucca, an ancient walled city and the birthplace of the great composer Puccini. We wandered through picturesque squares before finding a playground where Joe dirtied his clothes by endlessly sliding down a dusty hill on his bottom, and bonding with a local boy – language clearly being no barrier when you both speak Transformers. Another day, we ventured to the chichi resort of Forte dei Marmi, with its designer shops and private beaches with parades of stripey loungers.
The beauty of holidaying with a mix of generations meant that we could pick and choose who fancied a day at the beach, who fancied a spot of culture, or who wanted to do the Co-op run, while the rest pootled about in the villa. Mealtimes were the daily gathering, but apart from that everyone was free to do their own thing.
On one of our drives down the hill, we saw handwritten notices for a special mass and celebration, so we decided to go along. We bumped into our housemaid, Jenny, who introduced us to everyone. Again, we wished we spoke the lingo, but everyone smiled and nodded in a most welcoming fashion. Afterwards, there were platters of giant pizzas, washed down with vino and soft drinks, as all generations mingled in a party spirit. It reminded me of a scene from The Godfather, with lots of hugging and kissing and passing around of chubby Italian babies.
As the idle days flew by, there was a tinge of sadness as our holiday came to an end, and Joe still asks when we can go back, even though his abiding memory was being stung by a wasp.
On our last day, we took a short detour to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, where it’s a rite of passage to do that funny photo thing where it looks like you’re holding up the leaning tower. We spent our last few euros on tacky snow globes, Ciao Bella T-shirts for the girls and a cute Fiat 126 T-shirt for Joe.
It was early evening by the time we took off from Pisa Airport and, with snatches of pink clouds floating in a hazy blue sky, we came home with a little touch of Tuscany forever in our hearts.
A week’s accommodation at Borgo di Campione, including a host, costs from €6,345 in low season rising to €8,078 in high season. For details, visit www.akvillas.com
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