Wine tasting and foodie treats galore in Tuscany's rolling countryside make the ideal summer get-away
Why go? The rolling hills, vineyards and family-friendly vibe of Tuscany already provide a pretty perfect holiday, whether you’re a deux or with kids in tow. Set on a hillside in the Chianti region and surrounded by great fragrant sweeps of wild rosemary and lavender, the two-bedroom villa La Vigna at Montebuoni is a cross between rustic Etruscan – stone and terracotta tiling, wooden shutters to block out the heat, sweet embroidered bedlinen – and high-end luxury: private outdoor Jacuzzi, fully equipped BBQ area under a vine-covered canopy, and use of a full-sized swimming pool amongst the trees. Tempting as it is to spend the week guzzling Chianti Classico in the Jacuzzi while gazing out over the hills, it’s the perfect location for exploring all the gorgeous towns that make up the Chianti region. If you’re a non-driver, rope one in pronto – this is one holiday that definitely calls for a hired Fiat. Nerves of steel and a top speed of 20mph are both must-haves for negotiating the winding hillside roads and sheer drops between villages, but when you hit the gelateria in picture-perfect Radda just in time for a double scoop of cioccolato at sunset, it is so very worth it.
A statue of the black rooster, below – found on the labels of authentic Chianti Classico wine bottles
When? April-May and October-November offer mild temperatures if you’re keen to sightsee, while June and July start to sizzle. August is too hot to do anything except flop.
You really must…Eat and drink everything in sight. There really isn’t a wrong meal to be had here (see specifics below) and the area is chock full of vineyards – many newsagents give out maps offering free wine tastings, or it’s easy to stop off when you spot a vineyard sign at the side of the road.
A local enoteca (wineshop), below
We visited Casanova di Ama, a small family-run winery that uses special centuries-old techniques to produce everything from red Chianti Classico to Montepulciano, the region’s famous dessert wine, and olive oil. Owner Daniela whipped us up a full meal – from homemade gnocchi to home-baked bread and her hand-made biscotti – to accompany the wines she gave us. The local olive oil, some of the best in the world, is generally cold-pressed.
The vineyards of Chianti, below
Roads are pretty well sign-posted and we were able to access the Waze app in most of the countryside, so we threw any idea of a schedule out of the window and spent lazy days exploring the region by car, stopping off to sample a gelato here and a caprese there.
The cobbled streets of Montefioralle, below
The sheer range of villages to explore is amazing – from tiny cobbled Montefioralle, which has only one bar and one winery, to the famous town of San Gimignano – known as the ‘medieval Manhattan’ because of its distinctive skyline dotted with tall towered buildings, originally built to dry the fabrics that were produced there. Marvel at the frescoes in the Church of Sant’Agostino and pick up some saffron, which the town is famous for.
The skyline of San Gimignano, below
A day trip to Siena is around a 1-hour drive and it’s breathtaking, with a medieval walled city at its centre (we were shown an ancient vault in the basement of a vintage clothes shop), frescoes, churches and fountains at every turn. The great cultural jackpot of Florence is also within driving distance – but with two small children, we decided on a hand-rolled pizza instead (heathens!)
Siena Cathedral, below
Driving tips: it’s simplest to stick to driving in the countryside rather than attempting to drive into any of the major cities, which are a maze of confusing regulations and ‘residents’ only’ areas. On our day trip to Siena, we found a parking space on the outskirts of the town and walked in. Another fact no-one seems to tell you: hire cars come with a cardboard clock, which must be set at your arrival time and displayed on your dashboard, or you’ll still be lumbered with a ticket even if you’ve managed to correctly identify a space.
Dine at: pretty much anywhere. Aside from Chianti Classico (the recipe for which is strictly controlled and has recently changed, wine geeks) and luscious Montepulciano dessert wine, the area also produces Pecorino cheese (a hard sheeps’ milk variety) and a signature dish of pappardelle cinghiale – wild boar pasta. It’s heaven in general for meat lovers – the local Tuscan ham is coated in salt before drying, as opposed to the sweet-tasting ham of Parma. We made a pilgrimage to Cecchini’s, a butchers and cafe in the village of Panzano. The man himself is now a famous foodie and TV star, and his shop offers every meaty delight from salamis, pate and sausages to all kinds of ham.
The pyschedelic cow outside Cecchini’s, below
The town of Castellina has the best gelateria in the region, Antica Gelateria Delizia, offering artisan ice creams, sorbets and semi-freddos and a changing seasonal selection of flavours. Castellina is also packed with good restaurants. We loved Tre Porte, a chic pizzeria with a stone-walled courtyard, where we gorged on thin crispy crusts with speck and gorgonzola topping, and cod-stuffed ravioli.
Gelatos galore, below
Shopping Alert: the added bonus of this holiday? Instead of spending all week pushing your athleisure waistband to its limit, you can work off that pasta with some hardcore designer bargain-hunting. The area is home to one of Europe’s best outlets, The Mall, where every major Italian luxury brand (bongiuorno, Valentino, Marni and Gucci) has a store. The industry’s heaviest hitter, Prada, is based in the area – clothes and accessory production take place here and the company is one of the region’s biggest employers. Everyone from little old ladies to cool young kids can be seen casually sporting Prada shoes, thanks to their auntie/mum/dad’s job in the factory, and Miuccia’s husband, Patrizio Bertelli, is regarded locally as a business demi-God. So no wonder they’ve got their very own separate outlet, Space, a short drive from the Mall. Crazed with visions of cut-price Miu Miu blouses and Valentino Rock Studs, I left my family in a risotto coma and spent a day with Luca Grazi, a local driver with vast knowledge of the area’s shopping opportunities – and local wine. Cue jolly grape chat galore as we sped through the hills. (Montevarchi Taxis +39 331 734 0000)
Inside Prada’s Space outlet, below
We hit Space as the doors opened at 10.30am (it’s open 10.30am-7.30pm Monday to Friday and opens at 9.30am on Saturday) to be in with a fighting chance at the daily-replenished stock. You’re given a ticket at the door, which you show assistants when you find anything you want to buy – they send it to the till for you, so you can browse unencumbered. No bargain-basement vibe here – it’s set out like a glossy department store, with mannequins wearing catwalk looks everywhere and merchandise divided into areas and categories. There was plenty of fairly recent stock – I spotted a rail of the frilled 1960s-inspired AW15 Miu Miu collection, and the frayed jacquard Prada collection of SS15. As a rule of thumb, all the stock seems to be mostly 50% off original RRP – but watch out for the ‘Special Price’ rails. These are older stock that have been reduced to truly bargainous prices, like the liquid silver block heels I found for approximately £70. The leather goods section is a present-givers’ dream – wallets, purses, keyrings and ipad cases in every style and colour, alongside major investment bags.
Bags and small leather goods at Space, below
Then it was on to The Mall (open Monday to Saturday from 10am to 7pm), a shiny-looking sprawl of shops including Bottega Veneta, Moschino, Moncler, Salvatore Ferragamo, Sergio Rossi and Emporio Armani. The 50% off RRP rule seems to apply here too. Top tips:
- Valentino – Rock Studs and investment lace catwalk looks. Drool.
- Marni – comprehensive selection of the label’s artsy printed tops and dresses, sports-chic sandals and quirky jewellery
- Salvatore Ferragamo – full range of the label’s so-now classic ladylike pumps
- Dolce & Gabbana – a separate shop a few minutes’ drive from The Mall. A veritable warehouse of everything Dolce in every colour and print – a whole area for sundresses, a whole area for skirts, a whole area for jackets…
Bring home: a second suitcase full of your new designer purchases, and bottles of local wine and cold-pressed olive oil.
The swimming pool at Montebuoni, below
To Tuscany (0121-286 7782; www.to-tuscany.com) offers a large range of different villas across the region. La Vigna at Montebuoni, a two-bedroom villa near Lecchi in Chianti with Jacuzzi and access to a shared pool, costs from £655 to £1,147 per week. The nearest airport to Tuscany is Florence (around an hours’ drive). Airlines offering direct flights include BA, Alitalia and Iberia. Pisa is around 2.5 hours’ drive – fly with Easyjet or Ryanair.
Car hire through HolidayExtras.co.uk (www.holidayextras.co.uk; 0800 1313 777) which offers car hire at thousands of destinations, as well as UK airport travel extras. Price example: £132 for a Lancia Ypsilon or similar for one week’s car hire in Tuscany.