Sharon Reid

Tuscany self-catering holiday review

Sharon Reid
Tuscany self-catering holiday review
 Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Sogna at Agriturismo Legi is a perfect base for exploring the Tuscan countryside

Anyone who watched the hit BBC2 show Second Chance Summer: Tuscany will no doubt have admired the beautiful countryside, but having just returned from a week’s stay in the rural heart of the Chianti region, I can report that nothing prepares you for the breathtaking scenery that reaches as far as the eye can see.

Getting there

Our party consisted of me and my friend who was celebrating her 60th birthday, plus my teenage daughter who is a keen photographer, and her best friend. After dropping our car off at the ‘Meet and Greet’ at East Midlands airport (highly recommended, as very convenient) we had a pleasant flight of just two hours and 20 minutes via Jet2 to Pisa. On arrival we admired a large billboard, with the following advice: “All cares abandon, ye who enter here. Divine Tuscany.” This, I thought, was a good start!

 Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Car hire

Public transport in rural Tuscany is rare, and so we hired a car through Rhino Car Hire. A free airport shuttle service delivered us to the Inter Rent office and within minutes we had the keys to a very roomy and comfortable Fiat 500 four-door vehicle, which had a full tank of diesel that lasted us for the entire week and so proved to be a very economical way of exploring the area. We were impressed by the well-maintained autoroute in Tuscany, but still managed to get lost several times, and so a good map was purchased and Google maps employed on a few occasions. We decided that getting lost was actually quite a pleasurable experience, as we saw more of the wonderful countryside than we originally planned!

Sogna at Agriturismo Legi

Our holiday home

We stayed on a four-villa complex at Agriturismo LEGI, nestled between the little towns of Pietraviva and Ambra. Our accommodation is on the books of To Tuscany, a company that specialises in providing very high standard holiday homes. The ground floor villa we stayed in was named Sogna, after a winning racehorse that had been bred on the stud farm where the villa is based.

Our villa had two bedrooms and bathrooms, and a well-equipped kitchen diner, which was spotlessly clean. Terracotta floors and high wooden beams gave the villa a homely, traditional feel, but all mod cons were included such as gas hobs, oven, fridge, freezer and microwave etc. My daughter was delighted to find that there was also free WIFI!

Outside was a picturesque terrace, which opened onto a pool deck furnished with loungers, tables and chairs and where you could enjoy stunning views across pristine paddocks where thoroughbred mares and foals kept us entertained as they cantered around in the morning sunshine.

The gardens of this upmarket villa were impeccable, with soft green grass underfoot, lemon trees in pots, and lavender and rosemary growing in abundance amongst the other flowers and shrubs. For those who enjoy cooking al-fresco there is also a large barbeque area complete with pizza oven.

Our villa had shared access to one of two private swimming pools, and a wellness centre, which consisted of a heated Jacuzzi, sauna and a Turkish steam room that was open from 10am to 7pm every day. This was a blissful place to unwind and relax after a day of exploring the countryside, as even when sitting in the Jacuzzi you could enjoy looking at tranquil views over the rolling Tuscan countryside.

 Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Warm welcome

The owner of the farm greeted us on arrival and gave us our pre-ordered welcome pack of milk, coffee, jam, bread, pasta etc. She also presented us with a dish of home-cooked biscotti plus a bottle of sweet Italian dessert wine, to dip the biscuits in between each bite.

Check in is quite late – between 6pm and 7pm – which is worth bearing this in mind if you have an early flight so that you can make plans to explore or enjoy lunch before arriving.

Wellness centre at Sogna at Agriturismo Legi

Out and about

My friend and I were very excited at the prospect of going horse riding through this amazing countryside. Although it is not possible to ride the horses that are stabled at Agriturisomo Legi, we travelled just 3km down the road to the Berardenga Horse Riding Centre, which is run by Donatella and Sadio, a very friendly and welcoming husband and wife team who spoke impeccable English. Importantly, they also clearly cared very much for their horses, who all happily live out their retirements at the farm once their working life is over.

I booked a riding lesson for my daughter and her friend, who are beginners and my friend and I went out on a hack with Donatella on two of her well-trained horses. It was the first time I had ridden in some years, but I loved the whole experience. Our ride crossed a little creek and went up and downhill, through forests and past fields of wildflowers until we reached the medieval Montalto Castle, which is now a private residence with wonderful views of the surrounding hills.

Later in the week we went on a half-day group hack over some quite tricky terrain to the tiny medieval town of Montebenechi, with far-reaching views over the rolling hills that really did take my breath away. There was an opportunity to explore the village on foot, and we loved its fairytale charm and the little restaurants and bars where you could enjoy a refreshing drink or some traditional Tuscan food.

One morning we were all invited to join Donatella and Sadio on a picnic in a remote, stunningly beautiful part of the countryside with views over lush green woodland, rolling hills and ancient Cypress trees, which we would never have found with out their help. Sadio, who is vegetarian, gave us the most delicious pasta I have ever tasted, followed by fruits and cheese and of course a reviving glass of Chianti! We then drove to the Tenuta di Arceno vineyard to taste a selection of their premier Chianti Classico wines, which truly capture the warmth of a Tuscan summer in a bottle.

 Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Stunning Siena

Another unforgettable day included a visit to the historic city of Siena, which is listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO and said to rival Florence for its Renaissance palazzi , cathedral and many art treasures.

To get to Siena we drove our car for 20 minutes to the outskirts and on the advice of a very helpful local, travelled by bus to the pedestrianised central piazza – a famous medieval square and home of the Palio horse races. The cathedral in Siena is considered to be one of the most beautiful in central Italy and the artefacts and artwork are spectacular. We enjoyed lunch at one of the many restaurants looking out on to the piazza and afterwards strolled lazily past shops and boutiques whilst eating cool and delicious gelato. We also looked inside the Torre del Mangia – but decided not to climb the 400 steps to the top!

 Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Natural spa

For something completely different, we spent a day at the San Giovanni spa in Rapalano Terme, which was about a 20-minute drive from our villa. This exclusive spa, complete with restaurant and the opportunity for a host of beauty treatments, had an entrance fee of 14 euros each for the day, but it was worth every penny, as we bathed in the natural waters with temperatures of 39C and although there was a distinctive smell of sulphur (think bad eggs!) the waters are said to have healing properties for many skin, joint and respiratory conditions. Spa mud underfoot certainly made my feet feel a lot softer, and eased my daughter’s sunburn. Afterwards we ate lunch and sunbathed on the loungers, which looked directly out onto mile after mile of unspoiled Tuscan landscape. It was a wonderful, relaxing day. Importantly, the town of Rapalano Terme was also home to a large Coop so we were also able to stock up on supplies of food and drink!

On our final day we drove to Lake Trasimeno, and after a lakeside walk we enjoyed strolling around the little town of Castiglione del Lago, which is set high on the hillside and is well worth a visit for its castle, church, shops and restaurants.

 Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

Pic: Maddie Lainchbury

In summary...

I have travelled to many places on holiday, but can say without doubt that Tuscany is the most beautiful place that I have ever visited. Normally when you go on vacation you drive somewhere and stop occasionally because you spot a lovely view to photograph, but in Tuscany literally every vista is a place of outstanding beauty. The landscape of forests, green fields, rolling hills and acres of vineyards and olive groves, all framed by tall Cypress trees and panoramic skies, is quite simply a feast for the all senses.

This is a holiday for anyone who wants to get away from the stress and hurly burly of everyday life. The area we stayed in was rural, quiet, and peaceful, and there was no nightlife to speak of during the week, but we didn’t care, as after a full day of exploring and having a full lunch (lots of pasta and pizza was consumed!), it was simply wonderful to relax in the spa, enjoy supper and sit and watch the sun go down with a cold glass of Tuscan wine.

During our stay we had the good fortune to meet Sean Caulfield, who founded To Tuscany almost 20 years ago. I asked him to sum up what Tuscany meant to him, and he didn’t hesitate when he said: “It’s the freedom. You feel a fantastic sense of freedom here in Tuscany and it’s amazing how quickly that gets to you. The people are lovely, and you can enjoy fresh, local foods cooked simply and of course, great wines! It’s a wonderful place to be.” There is not much more that I can add to that, except that I cannot wait to return!

 

Andrea McHugh stayed at Sogna at Agriturismo Legi near Siena as a guest of To Tuscany (0121 286 7782; www.to-tuscany.com). The two-bedroom, two-bathroom villa, sleeping four, has access to a shared pool and wellness centre. It is set on a stud farm, with views of the racehorses grazing in the fields.

Horse riding can be organised at nearby stables Centro Ippico Della Berardenga (+39 0577 355071; www.chiantiriding.it).

Rhinocarhire.com (0845 508 9845) offers a week’s car hire out of Pisa airport from £87, see www.rhinocarhire.com/Car-Hire/Italy-Car-Hire.aspx