Writers, artists, and pilgrims have for centuries been inspired by the villages and hilltops of Tuscany. And no wonder. During our visit, I was constantly in awe of the historic towns with their turrets and towers atop the hills. Certaldo Alta and San Gimignano, two of the region’s most notable hilltop towns, exemplified the Tuscany of medieval times and the beauty of modern-day Tuscany. On our first full day in the region on our way to lunch at Casa Egle, a luxury villa near Montespertoli, we got a glimpse of each town accompanied by our gracious host and owner of the villa, Egle Nossan.
A short walk through history
- San Gimignano
Egle enthusiastically recommended that we see the historic center of San Gimignano, a key stop on the Via Francigena (the ancient road and pilgrimage route to and from Rome), even for just a short while to walk in the footsteps of history. It’s a very popular town for visitors who marvel at its famous towers, remnants of medieval times. As we made our way to the highest point of the town, along every street and in every piazza of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, there were enticing scenes and a bustle of activity.
The towers of San Gimignano form a striking skyline. Walking the narrow streets, you gaze up at these imposing sights as you would skyscrapers in a large city. The first towers were built by clans in the Middle Ages to watch for rival forces. Then throughout the centuries, additional towers were added to demonstrate power and wealth. At its peak, San Gimignano had 72 towers. Two of the remaining 14 towers can be seen partially in the photo above
San Gimignano is famous for its hand-painted ceramics, and we saw several shops, especially along the main street Via San Giovanni which is also lined with restaurants, and galleries. We passed many places that beckoned me to get a closer look. With more time, I would have visited each one, turned down every alley, and leisurely people-watched in the piazzas of San Gimignano. But I was grateful just to see this beautiful town and soak up its medieval ambiance.
Above is a closer look at Torre Becci as we were about to go through the archway beneath it.
There’s an element of pleasant surprise when you pass through the arch as it opens onto beautiful Piazza della Cisterna. To the right, you see the ancient well (built in 1273) surrounded by homes, former palaces, and Towers
Still climbing upward on Via San Giovanni along the left side of the square, we entered Piazza del Duomo, named for the basilica located there, Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta (Collegiate Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary).
Finally reaching Rocca di Montestaffoli, the castle built by the Florentines in 1353 for protection against potential attacks by rival Siena, we took in the panoramic views of the area from the highest point in San Gimignano.
The tree-shaded courtyard where people come to relax is a nice place to have lunch and enjoy the views. Located there is a “Sole e Acqua” (“Water and Sunshine”), a sculpture by Danish artist Nic Jonk. It’s one of several contemporary art works that have been installed around the town.
As we rounded a bend in the road on our way to Certaldo Alta, my first view of the town was a stunning sight.
The statue (below left) in the lower, newer part of Certaldo pays homage to the writer and poet Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) who lived and died in Certaldo. His greatest works were The Decameron and On Famous Women, and he is often credited with Petrarch as being a founder of Renaissance humanism.
The ancient treasures of Certaldo are in its upper historic center, Certaldo Alta. To begin our stroll there, we opted to take the funicular railway to reach Via Giovanni Boccaccio in just a couple of minutes. It is also reachable on foot (about a 10 minute walk), but there’s something fun about riding funiculars.
Once at the top, I felt like I had gone back in time to the early Renaissance as much of the upper town is well preserved. In the distance in the photo above, you can see the towers of San Gimignano through a slight morning haze.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to have lunch at the cozy spot pictured below?
I enjoyed walking along the vicolos (alleys) and narrow streets with ivy-covered buildings while catching glimpses of the countryside and hills beyond. Notice the circular covers on the wall in the photo on the left below? Since buildings in medieval times didn’t have foundations, supports were put through walls to reinforce them.
The Palazzo Pretorio, originally a castle complete with a chapel and dungeons, is at the top of Via Boccaccio. Unfortunately, it was not open for visitors when we arrived, but we peeked over the gate to get a look at the archway to the courtyard to see the murals.
Standing on the terrace of the palazzo, Egle and I enjoyed a nice view of neighboring buildings with Certaldo’s signature red bricks and adorned with flower pots and classic Tuscan shutters.
- The good life at Casa Egle
After our brief explorations of the two towns, Egle brought us back to Casa Egle for lunch and a visit. Although the structure of Casa Egle was originally built around 1100 A.D. and would have centuries of its own stories to tell, the villa and the surrounding property most quickly brings to mind a blissful image of the Tuscan good life which we enjoyed while having lunch under the Tuscan sun with the owners, Egle and Claudia.
On this typically mild and sunny day in May with the vast vineyard and hill views, Casa Egle seemed to capture the essence of tranquility. In its serene location in the Tuscan hills and with plenty of privacy, the villa seemed a great place to enjoy a family gathering or getaway with friends. The villa also provides a location from which to easily explore the sights and attractions of the region.
The exterior is very welcoming with trees and flowers everywhere. The roses were in bloom during our visit and the sight and smell was intoxicating. The saltwater pool and its private cabana looked so inviting that I’m sure at least one pool party would be part of any getaway with family and friends.
Before lunch, we toured the interior of the stylishly-restored and beautifully-maintained villa which was ready accept its first guests for the summer.
As Egle showed us around, I began to envy the guests who would be arriving soon. Blended with modern features were touches of traditional Tuscan terra cotta tiles and wooden beamed ceilings. The following photos show only a few of the rooms.
Mr. TWS and I loved the warm character of each individually-decorated room with tasteful colors and fixtures, including the master suite, two additional double bedrooms, a bedroom with two single beds, and four full bright and pleasant baths with quality amenities.
Although it’s not a secret that I’m not one for doing a lot of cooking or baking, the bright airy kitchen at Casa Egle made me almost want to don an apron and get cooking. Fortunately, lunch was beautifully prepared by Claudia and Egle instead.
On such a lovely day, we had lunch on the patio where we savored a delicious pasta with walnut sauce for which I still have cravings and fond memories. We also had homemade unsalted bread, a traditional Florentine recipe that legend says originated when Pisa withheld salt shipments to Florence during the frequent wars between the two rivals. While relaxing in the quiet setting with our hosts, we also got our first, but not last, taste of a silky and smooth Italian dessert wine, Vin Santo. Tradition dictates that biscotti is dipped in the wine.
From the fruit of their fig trees, Egle and Claudia make their own jams, and with unripe green walnuts , they make Nocino, a dark brown sweet liqueur. The season to pick the walnuts is during May and June, and the following fermentation takes several months. Nocino is often used for dessert ingredients and toppings. Egle and Claudia also sell their extra virgin olive oil under their “Poggio Rosemary” brand.
Foodie tip: We passed many acacia trees with white buds floating in the air (in California, ours are yellow) as we drove along country roads to the villa. Did you know that acacia flowers can be eaten? Egle told us about a basic recipe for acacia flower fritters which includes mixing flour, beer, and salt, and then cooking the flowers with the mixture in hot oil, but there are many variations of the recipe.
Bicycles for exploring the area are stored in the “Green House”, the small shed beyond the well that Egle was showing me in the photo above. Besides biking, there are a number of recreational and cultural activities such as winery visits, cooking classes, hot-air ballooning, golfing, excursions to Florence (20 miles) and Siena (30 miles), and visits to Certaldo, San Gimigano and other Tuscan towns. Egle and Claudia are clearly committed to providing their villa guests with customized experiences from peaceful retreats to active vacations. Among many other reasons I’d like to come back to Tuscany would be to go cycling through villages and countryside. I should have made a wish for that at the wishing well before we left.
In just our short time with Egle and Claudia, their warmth brought us to quickly feel welcome and relaxed in their company. Many thanks to them for their lovely hospitality and letting us share in the good life on their Tuscan hilltop.
Take a look at the EsteVillas website for details and booking information for Casa Egle and other properties in their collection.
Catherine Sweeney Traveling with Sweeney
Villas in the Certaldo and San Gimignano area :