THE LORD OF THE MANOR
Lured by images of countryside, chianti and carbohydrates, MARK HEDLEY travels to Tuscany for a ‘veramente’ Italian escape
PHOTOGRAPHS by Mark Hedley, shooting on a Canon 5D Mark III
ASSETS O ITALIAN MASTER: A sweeping lawn surrounds Villa di Bagnolo, leading to a large swimming pool with an infinity edge. There are more than 50 hectares to explore, but you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to sit back and let the best of the estate come to you – usually inside a wine glass.
ON SOME HOLIDAYS, you want to avoid the stereotypes: explore unknown worlds, and discover esoteric traditions. But on others, it’s essentially the opposite: you’ve seen the postcards, you’ve heard the stories – and now you want to live them for real. My first trip to rural Tuscany was just that: I wanted to gorge on obscene piles of pasta; quaff down barrels of chianti; and soak up the incredible scenery I’d seen so many times in glossy magazines just like this one. And that’s well the Villa di Bagnolo comes in – a large slice of Tuscany as traditional as it comes in the hills just south of Florence. Our initial sight of the property is a pair of imposing wrought iron gates. They open electrically, giving way to our first view of the grand villa – as yellow as the lemon trees that flank its driveway, it sits at the top of a hill. It has two turrets at either end of the roof – we later learn that a terrace adjoins these, providing one of many impressive spots to enjoy a sundowner accompanied by 360-degree views of the surrounding estate. And I don’t use the word estate lightly. The villa overlooks 54 hectares of private land including 14 vineyards and more than 5,000 olive trees. As a guest here these are all yours to explore. Indeed, if you’re there at the right time you can even help with the harvests. If that sounds a little too much like hard work (you’re right), then you can sit back and enjoy the fine results of other people’s labour. We didn’t take much encouragement to sign up for the vineyard and olive grove tour. The vines are set in dusty soil on undulating hills, dowsed in that iconic Tuscan mist every morning. Each one is bordered by tall pink rose plants. This isn’t to make the vineyards pretty for tourists (although, it doesn’t exactly hurt) but apparently the roses are the winemaking equivalent of a mine canary – they are the first to get hit by any disease or insects, providing a useful warning beacon. Some even say they can taste the roses in the wine, but only after about five or six glasses, I suspect. The tour finishes in the villa’s cellars. The original property, which has existed in one form or another since 1100AD, was all but destroyed in air raids during the second ➤
I wanted to gorge on obscene piles of pasta, quaff chianti and soak up the amazing scenery 101
A SUPER TUSCAN: [clockwise from this image] the view from the roof terrace on top of the villa; the swimming pool and sun loungers; the original cellars which now serve as atmospheric tasting rooms.
➤ world war. (There’s a large memorial to the fallen just a few minutes down the road.) But the cellars remained in tact. With their vaulted ceilings, and cool, quiet calm, they provide the perfect environment for a session tasting the estate’s many products. A crisp, dry, almost salty white made from trebbiano and malvasia grapes was a perfect palate cleanser. They make a charming chardonnay here, too, but we were more interested in tucking into a trilogy of reds. The first was a vibrant chianti – the estate’s most approachable wine in both style and cost, at just €7 a bottle. A bolder, more oaky riserva was next up (still just €10 a bottle). And the finale was the top-flight Super Tuscan Terre del Cotto (still just €13 on site). The name echoes the estate’s heritage as a maker of terra cotta. But the only burnt ochre you’ll catch here these days is in the winery’s rich, viscous sweet wine – a delicious end to our tasting, which was accompanied by all manner of local treats, from pecorino to prosciutto.
Although wine and oil are the estate’s bread and butter (as it were), they also grow figs, pomegranates, walnuts, potatoes and an impressive array of herbs. Around the house, there is plenty to do besides eating and drinking: there’s an outdoor swimming pool, a table-tennis table, and two tennis courts – one that doubles up as a five-a-side football pitch. You may think that sounds like a bit much, but the villa can sleep up to 14, so it makes a great house for a large party – or, indeed, a large house for a great party.
Head outside for a barbecue under the stars, or learn how to make your own pasta
Inside, there’s plenty of polished wood and elaborate marquetry. Alongside a large dining room and equally accommodating living room, an elegant 19th-century pianoforte takes pride of place. A sign on it says, in broken English: “Do not play unless you know the music”. Unfortunately we assumed that “the music” was not ‘Chopsticks’, so we left it well alone. A ten-foot stained glass window sends light pink and baby-blue hues into the airy stairway and atrium. Upstairs are seven bedrooms – one side of the house is flanked by a veranda providing balconies for those rooms; the other includes the master suite with its own dressing room, plus a giant wet room. Dinner is a big part of life at the villa – and there are a number of options available. If you wish, the whole stay can be self-catered, but that would be a crying shame. Instead, leave at least one or two of your meals in the hands of your hosts. You can pick between a range of three-course menus made for you on site. Or, head outside for a barbecue under the stars and enjoy one of the many al fresco dining areas – including a large terrace overlooking the olive groves, which has often been used for wedding breakfasts and family celebrations. The final option is to invite renowned chef Lisa Banchieri for the evening. Banchieri is such an accomplished teacher that she even comes to London a couple of times a year to host evenings here. We learnt how to make fresh pasta – the Banchieri way. The trick is to include white wine instead of water, making the dough more elastic. Well, any excuse to open another bottle… Although it feels remote, the villa is just 20 minutes from Florence, making it perfect for a day trip or two. Aside from the art, the city is enjoying something of a foodie renaissance. From street food joints to a steak restaurant that could take on the original Hawksmoor and win, it’s well placed for some long lunches to recover from the all the culture. Back at the house, the owner herself – Barbara – will often be around to welcome you. Along with her brother, she is the face of the wine estate. She will also be your Italian mother while you are there – one of the nicest, most approachable hosts you could have the pleasure of meeting. Given that you’re staying in her ancestral home, I was at first concerned that there might a tinge of resentment, but instead she’s just proud and excited to share a house that clearly means a lot to her. And, after you’ve stayed there, it will mean a lot to you, too. ■ Tuscany Now & More offers Villa di Bagnolo from £3,439 per week or £246pp based on 14 people sharing. See tuscanynowandmore.com