The heart of Italy

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After a lifetime driving around Lazio, bumbling about at a much more relaxed pace in Tuscany for a few days comes as a pleasant relief to PADDY AGNEW

IF YOU HAVE lived as long in Italy, and in Lazio in particular, as your correspondent, then to spend a few days bumbling about southern Tuscany comes as a pure and total delight. It is not just the landscapes, the rolling hills and the cypress-lined tracks, it is the sense both of limitless cultural patrimony and modern-day good governance.

For if there is one thing about southern Tuscany that recommends itself, it is the extent to which the territory has been manicured and preserved. It is the world’s greatest cliche, but it is true: many parts of this region look now exactly as they did when Piero della Francesca painted them in as background to his Renaissance masterpieces. Modern man and his many artefacts are simply not in the picture. After a lifetime driving around Lazio, where illegal building and roadside advertising billboards abound, southern Chianti comes as a pleasant relief.

Every time you drive around another corner you find yourself looking at a rural scene that conjures up memories of a Renaissance maestro’s work, or perhaps more prosaically of the setting for The English Patient or Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. Tuscany is that sort of place.

Our base for a couple of days wandering was Locanda Toscanini, a beautifully restored, upmarket bed and breakfast in the little village of Piazze, just on the border between Tuscany and Umbria. This is, in fact, very close to Rome (and even closer for those of us who live in northern Lazio). You turn off the infamous Autostrada del Sole at a place called Fabbro and head in the direction of San Casciano.

The name Locanda Toscanini would suggest there might be a tale worth telling, and indeed there is. It was during the 1931-32 season with the New York Philharmonic that the great conductor Arturo Toscanini developed a problem with his right arm that threatened to curtail his conducting career. American doctors could do nothing to resolve the problem and consequently the maestro was forced to abandon the season at the Phil.

In the meantime, however, Toscanini had heard of a homeopathic doctor back home who had earned himself a reputation for miracle cures. This was Alberto Rinaldi – like Toscanini an ardent anti-fascist and opponent of Il Duce Mussolini who was based in Piazze. In January 1932, Toscanini hitched up in Piazze to become a patient of Rinaldi, staying in the handsome mansion, which is today’s Locanda Toscanini.

The rest of the story is pure thriller. Rinaldi managed to cure Toscanini, restoring him to such good health that he fell in love with the girl next door, Gelsa Salvadori. Not surprisingly, the maestro was delighted with the place, returning regularly, even conducting the town band on occasion.

Alas, the story does not end happily ever after. In September 1935, Dr Rinaldi was beaten to death in the grounds of his Piazze home. The circumstances of his death remain mysterious but there are good reasons for believing the man who was sentenced for his killing, Leopoldo Moretti, might have been a fascist agent. (Curiously, Moretti was let out of prison early during the second World War, but somehow had funds enough to move himself and his family to Brazil, where he opened up a Fiat dealership.)

Locanda Toscanini has been lovingly restored by my friend and colleague, Courtney Walsh, and her architect husband, Michele Annesi. Not only is it full of memorabilia and atmosphere related to Toscanini but it is also very much an all-mod-cons sort of place, with state-of-the-art bathrooms, TVs and web connections.

It is a perfect base for the energetic traveller who intends to see as much of southern Chianti as possible. By the standards of this much-visited area, it is reasonably priced (double rooms begin at €115 per night). Furthermore, by the time you read this it will have opened a gourmet restaurant, the Ex-Frantoio.

On the nights we were there we ate at Da Nilo, in the nearby medieval town of Cetona, and at Le Nane in Piazze itself. The Tuscan cuisine is strong on roast pig, rabbit, wild boar and funghi porcini, but you can also opt for a variety of much lighter pasta dishes that feature more prosaic tomatoes, garlic and cheese. In both these places, there was no menu (always a good sign, since it indicates a limited but very fresh range) so you have to listen attentively. By Irish standards, the price range and quality are good – one meal cost €45 and the other €60, and that was including sweets and a bottle of the local plonk, a very decent Ravazzi Chianti.

Le Nane, too, offers the pleasure of eating alfresco, out on a terrace that offers yet another Tuscan view. For the Irish traveller desperate to sit out in the sun, Locanda Toscanini has the drawback of being a town house with no open spaces. If you are looking forward to a swim at the end of the hot Tuscan day, however, Courtney has organised for the use of Giuseppe Rinaldi’s (yes, that same Rinaldi family) private pool, just a walk up the road. By the way, Giuseppe just happens to have various properties available for tourist rentals.

I opted for a swim in Giuseppe’s pool. It turned out to be a very good idea because it meant that we got to meet Giuseppe’s mother, Signora Anna, who lives just across the road from the Locanda in an absolutely splendid 17th-century villa. Before we went for a splash, Signora Rinaldi showed us around a house that just casually has Guardi paintings on the wall, a 1,000-year-old fireplace in the grate and Roman and Etruscan vases in the hydrangea-lined garden.

If there is one poster image that is often used to conjure up Tuscany, it is that of the zigzagging, cypress-lined track leading up to a wonderful casale. At La Foce, in the Val D’Orcia, just a few kilometres up the road from Piazze, we found the original road. On the advice of a friend, we had gone to look at Villa la Foce, a 15th-century villa that was once a wayside tavern but later became the family home of Antonio and Iris Origo, and is now much visited because of its splendid gardens. This, too, is a place that the enterprising tourist can rent.

Here too hangs an interesting tale, told by Iris Origo herself in a remarkable war diary, War in the Val D’Orcia, recounting how she turned the family home into a refuge for homeless orphans, victims of the war all around.

As you look across the hills from Villa la Foce, you see the cypress-lined track that leads up to a very exclusive farmhouse-cum-hotel, La Bandita, run by former Sony music executive John Voightman. Complete with a gourmet chef, an infinity pool that just has to be a happy hallucination, and more staggering views, this place looks a dream.

It is not for those on a limited budget, however, since a suite goes from €280-€425 at high season. Or, if you feel like having the lads over for a week, you can hire the entire works for €14,000 a week. One word of warning: if your car is as delicate as ours, be prepared for a very rough dirt track.

We had gone in the direction of La Foce and La Bandita on the advice of Lee Marshall, another long-time colleague and a travel writer. We were moseying about in another medieval town called Città della Pieve when Lee cycled up, on his way to the post office. When we first met Lee and his wife Anne Hanley, they were living in Rome but, with their daughter off at university in the UK, they have moved, says Anne, out of the rat race. They now live in a splendidly restored casale just outside Città della Pieve, a truly handsome town right on the border between Tuscany and Umbria and also close to northern Lazio.

Anne is a garden designer, and if you would like a peek at her handiwork, drop in to the Hotel Vannucci in Città della Pieve, a superb Umbrian-style hotel complete with pool, fitness centre and restaurant, where the rooms start at €95. While in the town we dropped in on the handsome Logge del Perugino hotel, a beautifully renovated 16th-century villa with double rooms from €90. For anyone looking for a suitable site for the Italian wedding, both these places could be starters.

Lee and Anne also pointed out that, if you want to eat well but cheaply (for as little as €10 per head) in this town, try La Serenella restaurant.

If there is one recurring natural attraction in this area, it is the spa. Foreigners and Italians alike have been “taking the waters” here for a long time. At the Terme di Chianciano, for example, there is a sign advertising a loyalty bonus for those who have been regular clients for 30-50 years. The same spa offers a daily concert beginning at 9.30am sharp, a thé dansant (tea dance) in the afternoon if you dare to sit around the spa bar without your pearls.

The bar itself is worth a mention, since it must be the longest in Italy. Once upon a time, there was a daily turnover of 15,000 people. Today we are talking 2,000 per day, says the barman. You see, there was a time when the Italian state worker had a statutory right to a two-week, heavily subsidised sojourn at a spa.

Up the road at San Casciano dei Bagni, there is a rather more modern, more upmarket version of the thermal spa at a place called Fonteverde. Built around a splendid Medici villa and comprising no less than seven pools, this place offers a bewildering range of treatments in a day spa package that starts at €120.

Mind you, think twice before you stop here for a drink. We had two splendid cocktails out on the terrace overlooking many of the pools for the even more splendid price of €26. Earlier, we had looked around the town of San Casciano, yet another little jewel. While pottering about, we stopped for lunch at the Bar Centrale, which offers an equally spectacular view at a more reasonable price, while the attached Ristorante Daniela looks like it might be worth a stopover.

One final thought for the more active among you in the spring or autumn months – namely the Sentiero della Bonifica. This is a 62km bike path that follows the progress of the (now largely dry) Canale Maestro della Chiana, which runs from Chiusi to Arezzo, passing right through the heart of the Val di Chiana. Cycle (€10 per day bike rental) or walk along this path and you are well and truly in the heart of Tuscany, far from the madding crowd.

Where to stay and go in Tuscany

Where to stay

Locanda Toscanini. Piazze, southern Tuscany, 00-39-578-244273, www. locandatoscanini.com. Double room, bed and breakfast: prices from €115 per night.

La Bandita. Pienze, Val D’Orcia. 00-39-333-4046704, www.la-bandita.com. Very upmarket BB. Suites from €280.

Hotel Vannucci. Città della Pieve, 00-39-578-298063, www.hotel-vannucci.com. Handsome Umbrian hotel with pool and restaurant. Rooms from €95.

Logge del Perugino. Città della Pieve, 00-39-578-298927, www.loggedelperugino.it. Could be very suitable for a wedding. Doubles from €90.

Fonteverde Spa Hotel. San Casciano dei Bagni, 00-39-578-57241, www.fonteverdespa.com. A five-star hotel that offers a huge range of thermal treatments. Midweek BB from €280 for a double room.

Where to go

Giuseppe Rinaldi’s swimming pool and property rentals. Piazze, grinaldig@hotmail.com.

Il Sentiero della Bonifica bike ride. Arezzo tourist office, 00-39-575-377678, www.apt.arezzo.it

Villa la Foce. Val D’Orcia, 00-39-578-69101, www.lafoce. com. This 15th-century villa can be rented for 19 people. Rates on request.

Terme di Chianciano spa. 00-39-578-68111, www.termedichianciano.it.

Anne Hanley Garden Design. 00-39-347-3607431, www.laverzura.com

Go there

Aer Lingus (www.aerlingus.com) flies to Rome from Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) flies to Pisa from Dublin. Jet2.com flies to Pisa from Belfast

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