I am visiting an 18th-century hamlet that was transformed into a luxury destination in the heart of Tuscany. Before me is a sweeping view of a flourishing green valley with Siena in the distance. Around me are buildings once used by the land owner, farm manager and farm hands as their residences and farm buildings. They look the same as they did centuries ago; their deep tangerine colour pulsates in the late afternoon sunlight.
This is Montestigliano; this is time travel; this is magic.
Originally a small hilltop farming community about an hour south of Florence, today it is a destination for world-weary travellers looking for an authentic Italian holiday wrapped in the beauty of Tuscany and the attentiveness of the Donati family.
I am travelling with a group of friends. After taking in our surroundings, we are shown to our accommodations in Casa Luisa. The changes the family made to accommodate guests honour tradition and Italian architecture. The apartment has a kitchen, large dining and living rooms, and separate bedrooms for each of us. I immediately feel at home.
This apartment is an example of a traditional Tuscan “Casa Colonica” with traditional characteristics including an open-arched balcony and an external covered staircase leading to a furnished loggia.
In the late 1700s, the De Vecchi family from Siena built the first part of what is today the central property. The Aldobrandini family extended the estate with further farm buildings. The Vanni family of Florence bought the estate at the beginning of the 20th century, adding the main villa.
The estate was purchased by Luigi Donati della Massa Trabaria. Montestigliano became, for him, the farm he had always wanted and a special place where he enjoyed many happy years at the end of his life.
The property was passed to Giancarlo Donati, his eldest son, who is the present owner. As Giancarlo, together with his children, began to manage the estate, they focused the farm on wheat, sunflowers and maize production. In 1985, the family saw another opportunity and began transforming the farm buildings into tourist accommodations.
Early the first morning, I can hardly wait for the sun to rise so I can explore.
Close to Casa Luisa, I find roses clinging to orange brick walls, a donkey more than happy to be scratched behind his ears and one of two swimming pools on the property. I walk along the roadway to a little church, where services were held every Sunday for generations. I wander into an olive grove and find a secret garden. It is quiet except for my own footfalls, birdsong and the braying donkey.
I can feel myself unwinding with each step; past each area more beautiful than the last. I sit in one of the chairs facing the valley and just drink in the scenery for which Tuscany is so famous.
After breakfast, I am joined by my friends and we head out for a walk in the forest. The estate has 1,000 hectares making it the perfect setting for a morning hike. Our guide is Caterina Frey, who often guides scenic walks and hikes for guests.
Born in Switzerland, Caterina has been living in Italy for more than 30 years. A Nordic walking instructor, and a certified nature and trekking guide, she leads us into the woods and along roads cut generations ago by former owners and tenants. She points out significant historic landmarks and native plants, including a grand alley of spruce trees. The owner of “Walkintuscany,” she says she also organizes treks for guests to Renaissance-era abbey and castle ruins, which include a picnic lunch and a full day of exploring.
One afternoon we decide to go to nearby Siena.
Like other Tuscan hill towns, Siena was first settled by the Etruscans, a tribe of advanced people who brought irrigation to reclaim the land for farming between 900 and 400 BC. A Roman town called Saena Julia was later founded on the site.
In the heart of the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is Piazza del Campo. Established in the 13th century, it is regarded as one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares.
After stopping at a few gift shops, I head toward the Campo to witness its grandeur for myself. The square is large and lined with restaurants, shops and the famous Fonte Gaia, Fountain of the World, which was built in 1419. The Campo was and remains the focal point of public life in the city.
I meander along narrow streets past art galleries, restaurants and small shops until I come to the grand Siena Cathedral designed and completed between 1215 and 1263. The exterior and interior are constructed of white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes, with the addition of red marble on the façade. Black and white are the colours of Siena and symbolize the black and white horses of the legendary city’s founders Senius and Aschius.
Several nights during the week, a festive meal is served for guests who want to join in the fun. Long tables are set up in the courtyard for themed parties — BBQ evening, pizza evening, and a typical Tuscan dinner. During each meal music is played and wine is poured.
The Donati family also offers an olive-oil tasting and wine tasting that include the history of the area and how the products were developed in Tuscany.
All too soon, my time at Montestigliano comes to an end, but my memories of this charming Tuscan hamlet will last a lifetime. I had an authentic Italian experience with my friends and would love to return.
IF YOU GO:
Apartments and villas can accommodate three to 14 people making each separate building perfect for families, weddings and reunions.
For more information: http://montestigliano.com