ITALY, January 18, 2014 – The last day of a journey is special, often the most bittersweet. It is the day you experience the tears and fears that you may never, ever be able to return to a place that has captured your heart. It was the day I wondered whether this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime visit to the heavenly hills that are Tuscany.
It was the day I feared that this visit to the hamlet of Montestigliano, just south of the medieval town of Sienna, truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Montestigliano is the 2,475 acre estate of the Donati family, where brothers and sisters Luisa, Massimo, Damiano, Virgnia and Marta warmly welcome you to their home. On the two-hour journey from Rome, facilitated by Tuscany Experts, you see the landscape change from urban sprawl to rolling fields. Owner/host Michele offers a narrative for the journey, graciously answering questions. He describes the land, fields and the Cypress trees, some ancient, standing in rows like fingers pointing from the earth to the God that has created all the glory that surrounds you.
The word “Tuscany” evokes immediate, strong impressions in the minds even of people who have never been there. It is romanticized in film, book and poem. The images of a warm, summer sun often accompany real or imagined pictures of a hilly land dotted with small towns and villas. And each image is accurate. For me, it is the image of the moon, bright against the ink black sky and casting light across the silvery fields that is etched in my heart.
In the cool evening, the scent of rosemary is as strong as the aroma of earth and life escaping from the soil with the cooling night.
From our temporary haven at the Villa Pipistrelli, a restored farm house on the estate, the stillness of the moonlit hills in the Tuscan night is awe inspiring. The silence is profound. It carries with it the weight of the centuries, winding through the trees and over the hills and fields, a feeling that comes only at night, when it is still enough to hear the owls and the night birds.
As you sit next to the infinity pool or share a meal at the courtyard dining table, electric light does not disturb the peace of the surrounding night. The air is warmed by the heat of the noonday sun, released from the ancient bricks of the Villa Pipistrelli. The recently renovated farmhouse is just one of the accommodations to be found at Montestigliano.
Once the home of a tenant farmer, the building was constructed in the 15th century. It was part of a bustling hamlet whose residents were supported by the rich fields, pastures and groves. The home retains all of its original charm with exposed beam ceilings, lime washed walls, and terracotta floors that are cool under foot by day, radiating warmth at night. Fireplaces, an indoor dining room (we forwent that luxury in favor of dining under the stars by candlelight), a luxury bath and kitchen are only a few of the elegant touches that abound at Pipistrelli.
While individual rooms provide a space to call your own for reading or, if you must, working – it is the perfect setting for an author or a journalist – the sitting areas, both upstairs and down, are plentiful and filled with comfortable seating.
They’re perfect for private reflection, an intimate conversation, or a group cocktail reception.
Guests to Pipistrelli can choose to take care of their own food preparations or, an option that I highly recommend, have Anna come in and provide them sumptuous morning and evening meals. Before a day of exploring the hills or visiting the nearby towns and churches, breakfast is a morning extravaganza of thinly sliced fresh meats and cheeses, farmers’ yogurts, and granolas. Rich coffee served with the freshest of creams was presented for our pleasure.
Food is an important part of the Tuscan day.
People eat with robust enjoyment, not just because the food is well-prepared, but because it is deliciously fresh, coming mostly from within a few miles of where you sit, and it tells the story of Tuscany to anyone willing to stop and listen. The food of Tuscany is both a pleasure and the distilled history of the region. Food preparation is steeped in farm kitchen traditions that go back centuries. It’s a communal effort that brings people together from the first preparation, through the sharing of the meal, and on through the cleaning up and the last glasses of wine.
It is a joy to see the broad smiles of the women as they create fresh pasta, laughing and chatting as they work. You may not understand their Italian, but the pleasure they take in their cooking and friendship are a universal language. Lunches served at Montestigliano are taken outside. You eat looking out over the fields and olive groves. A farewell feast included freshly grilled polenta drizzled with olive oil, fresh from the field green and tomato salads, Anna’s home-made ricotta cheese with sun dried tomatoes, and crusty bread with the fruity, slightly peppery Montestigliano olive oil, pressed from the olives grown with great care by brother Massimo. Massimo, of the crystal blue eyes and earth stained hands, will walk with guests through the olive groves, explaining the trees and their heritage as if each tree were a family member.
I would not have been surprised had he introduced them by name.
As he picks up the olives that have been shaken from the tree, the pale green fruit against his hands is a study in culture and heritage. He explains in this ancient orchard that olives are still picked by hand by the people who live in the area, using an electric rake type of device to knock olives from the tree to the tarp below. This farmer and luxury inn host is obviously proud as he shows us the olives and explains the stories of the trees, then tells us about the drought that killed the grove stock and its subsequent re-growth.
Walking back through the groves to the granary we sit down for an oil tasting.
Similar to a wine or scotch tasting, we are presented with four different oils to sample, choosing the one we prefer. I learned much more than I imagined about olive oil and how to taste it: the slight burn at the back of the throat; the oil’s color; the essences of fruit, earth, sun, grass and pepper it should have.
The land on which the olive tree grows should be there, discernable in the fruit’s nectar. The olives that Massimo carefully tends are no longer dried in the old manner, however they still produce the most remarkable, heavenly, fruity oil that I have ever tasted. Drizzled over butter lettuce or spicy arugula with just a bit of fresh lemon and coarse sea salt, garnished with fresh tomato and a bit of freshly shaved parmesan, this oil is a taste of sunshine and warm earth. It has a taste and a heritage that commercially processed olive oils just cannot match.
Olives are not the only thing that Massimo farms. With a group of investors and businesspersons in the area, the “Bio Gas Merse” also farm energy using a mixture of discarded potatoes and straw. The mix is fermented to create, and subsequently capture, methane gas that can then be used to power vehicles or homes. In a country where petroleum products, including gas, are very expensive, green energy production is a necessity. Though the energy farm has been a significant expense to the investors, the investment in the family and in the community, the hope of keeping their part of Tuscany prosperous and environmentally friendly is given a very real commitment. Money it seems will take care of itself when your heart, and focus, are looking forward. The brilliant newness of the methane farm contrasts with the rolling hills and the castles one can see amongst them.
Throughout Montestigliano you can see items that have always been there. The heavy key left hanging from a lock never turned, the blackened bell on the chapel wall and that the priest would clang, calling the family and people to service. The Donati family chapel holds the ghosts and memories of decades of family within its wall. One can almost hear the children rustling in the pews, the cheers following the weddings of the family and hamlet residents, the services held to remember those that passed from this land, leaving behind for us all that we enjoy today.
Singing in Siena 2010 Montestigliano Chapel This beautiful rendition of “Shine on Me” was sung by a visiting choir and not only gives one a peek inside the chapel, but also expresses how special a space this is as voices are raised to heaven. Montestigliano, as befits a farm, has its own granary, once a place of industry where the fruits of the fields and olive groves were once stored. It is now repurposed as a place for a perfect wedding reception or corporate event.
The Donati family hosted a dinner for all the guests with red and white-checkered cloths covering a long table laden with a parade of regionally created foods. Guests are treated to cheeses from Fiammetta, fresh pasta with earthy mushrooms and freshly grated Reggiano cheese, thin slices of fresh pork with roasted potatoes, wines and olive oil, laughter and friendships quickly cemented over toasts of health and joy.
Dinner is finished with the traditional Limoncello and the not so traditional karaoke. What one quickly learns in Italy is that the men sing beautifully in rich tenor voices and they are very quick to burst into song – with or without a karaoke machine. Pipistrelli is just one of the many of the homes, most of which are named for a family, Casas Luisa, Adriana, Marta, Massimo, Damino, Virginia (one and two), and the apartments, Casa Ropoli Sopra and Sotto are now available to rent for any size group, from a small group to a large family reunion, wedding or corporate party. In addition to the luxurious Villa Pipistrelli is Villa Donati the principal home on the estate. Visit the estate web site for complete floor plans and slide shows of the estate and accomodations.
The names and the “standing in time” aura are ever present reminders that this home to tourists was once a thriving village of farmers and the families to which it belonged. The houses are typical of the 15th to 18th Century architecture and a truer experience will not be found. The Donati family hamlet of Montestigliano is that type of place that takes hold of who you are; a place that immediately feels like home. A place where you not only find your heart, but where you leave a piece of yourself in hopes that someday you can return and reclaim it.
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