July 2, 2015
When I think of Tuscany, I picture the wonderful food and wine of the region with a backdrop of a golden afternoon sun on beautiful vistas of vineyards, olive groves and green hills. Anticipating our trip there, I hoped to have an experience that this picture epitomized and from our first welcome to the day we said goodbye, my expectations were met, beginning with our stay at La Novellina, a luxury Tuscany villa near Fiano, about 20 miles from Florence.
La Novellina: A simple Tuscan lifestyle
After a long day of travel from San Francisco to Florence, ivy-covered La Novellina villa was a welcoming sight.Luisa Castiglioni, who has owned the villa since 1980, greeted us at the door with a hearty welcome and introduced us to her son Nic and Monica, one of the “gifted women and men” that has shared her dream of preserving the authenticity and culture of the area and contributing to the land. Initially restoring the historic building and property as a place for her family to enjoy the simple Tuscan lifestyle, Luisa has been renting the villa for the past 25 years to others so they can experience the beauty and peacefulness of the setting while enjoying the wonderful food, wine, culture, and other highlights of Tuscany.
La Novellina’s historic location
Imagine the history that has unfolded in this serene setting of the Val di Pesa (Valley of the River Pesa) and rolling hills of Tuscany. As I took in the lovely scenery around me at La Novellina from my seat at breakfast our first morning in Tuscany, I tried to grasp the enormity of the past — the battles of the Romans with the Etruscans; the building of the Roman road, the main route connecting Rome to France and Spain and the centuries of travelers and pilgrimages; the fall of the Roman Empire; occupation by “barbarians” and the Dark Ages; and wars between Florence, Siena, and Pisa. The turbulence of many past times was a fascinating contrast and hard to imagine happening at the idyllic sights before me with the sounds of birds chirping on a fresh May morning.
Situated atop a hill with excellent vantage points of the area for many miles, La Novellina has a compelling history of its own. The renovated farmhouse includes a one-thousand-year-old restored tower which served as a vital watchtower for centuries with its panoramic views of the Via Francigena, the famous road from Florence to Rome in the Val di Pesa below.
Rivalries during the 13th and 14th centuries between Siena (loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor) and Florence (ally of the Pope) resulted in numerous clashes in the area and castles and villages were repeatedly destroyed. The Castle of Santa Maria Novella, located on another hill behind the villa, was one of those continuously damaged and rebuilt until 1500.
All the fighting and conquests! Although those times are gone, the history, culture and traditions of the area are still part of what makes La Novellina special and give the location a dramatic allure.
The nature of La Novellina
On the estate’s 69 acres, there are 1500 olive trees (for making their own extra virgin olive oil), vegetable and herb gardens, and 4000 bees for honey. Traditions are reflected in the use of natural ingredients in meal preparation and using their own produce and both maximizing sustainability and minimizing environmental impact. Nic is the inspiration behind and caretaker of La Novellina’s commitment to organic and sustainable methods and staying true to Tuscan traditions in use of the land. Under Nic’s hands-on management, they aspire to the best organic techniques in the products they grow and sustainable practices preserving water and the earth.
Creating an authentic experience
Luisa believes in creating an authentic experience for La Novellina guests that accentuates the traditions and distinct characteristics of the area. Surrounded by the beautiful Tuscany landscapes, guests can engage in activities such as cooking classes, visits to medieval villages, and wine tastings with local vintners to become more immersed in the culture. Or if they choose, guests can simply relax in style at the villa and appreciate the joys of life under the Tuscan sun.
Traditional style of a Tuscany luxury villa
The villa’s ambiance is that of relaxed luxury with traditional Tuscan decor, a comfortable country style with antique furnishings that complement the natural surroundings.
La Novellina can accommodate 9 people in 5 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms — ideal for family gatherings (such as reunions, weddings, or anniversaries) which account for a large percentage of their bookings. Comfort, warmth, and charm is found in each of the rooms.
We stayed in the master bedroom located in the old tower section of the villa with a large window that provided views (and sounds) of the olive groves and the Val di Pesa. In the morning, I was surprised to hear the sound of a real cuckoo for the first time in my life! The bathroom that adjoined the master bedroom was large, comfortable and nicely appointed with a large adjacent walk-in closet.
The other bedrooms (2 of them shown above) were similarly charmingly decorated. One of the two living areas (shown bottom right above), was once a kitchen and key gathering place where farmhouse residents could talk and stay warm by the fire. Before going to bed each night and also before breakfast each day, we enjoyed spending a little time there to relax and catch up with online tasks. A porch outside the room provides a wonderful place to relax and enjoy the Tuscan scenery.
As is often the case in Italy, the kitchen is the heart of the traditional home. I quickly took to the morning ritual of coming downstairs and enjoying Monica’s cheerful greeting and the aroma of fresh-baked pastries she prepared for us each day. Breakfast included other light Italian breakfast items and was served on the terrace or at the cozy table in the kitchen.
A welcome dinner is offered to guests on their first night and can be requested for additional evenings, which I would highly recommend. During our stay, Monica prepared and served many tasty dishes, including scrumptious risotto, cannelloni, bruschetta, salads, and her amazing pastries — all using where possible La Novellina produce or locally grown foods. The Torta della Nonna, the traditional “Grandmother’s Cake” (bottom left), served for dessert on our first night was so delicious that we were eager to have a leftover slice with breakfast the next morning.
To get a taste of a local restaurant one evening, we had a hearty and simple pasta dinner at C’era una Volta, a cozy trattoria in the little village of Lucardo, about a 5 minute drive from the villa. We enjoyed the meal, atmosphere, and dining with the locals and would recommend it as a dinner option when staying at the villa.
Although the spring weather was warm, we didn’t have time in our busy schedule for pool activities. But I can imagine what a treat it would be to sun and swim in the pool adjacent to the villa while enjoying magnificent views similar to those from the La Novellina terrace.
A special afternoon with Susanna
Susanna Civeli is a private concierge and personal chef who welcomes guests to La Novellina and can also arrange and lead tours and cooking classes. Accompanied by Susanna, we spent an afternoon in her hometown, Barberino Val d’Elsa, a small medieval village about five miles from the villa. Culture and heritage are very important to the residents of Barberino Val d’Elsa and Susanna pointed out the places that are meaningful to her and other residents. The ancient walls and gates were the most prominent features as we entered the town. It was clear that Susanna loves this village as we strolled Via Francesco da Barberino (the main street) and passed by her home, a house down the street where she previously lived, the nearby house of her father, and the places where she spends time with friends.
This medieval village is on the boundary between the provinces of Florence and Siena has seen much of the turbulent history of the region. Fortified for protection, it was an important defense for the Florentine Republic in its battles with Siena. In recent years, the village has been undergoing new growth and renewed interest in traditions with local artisans creating traditional Tuscan food, wine, and other products.
A very popular shop in the village is Bojola Country, a boutique of leather and specialty fabric goods made exclusively in Tuscany using natural raw materials. The talented and creative owner and designer is Fiamma Lazzeri, who we had the pleasure of meeting while visiting the shop.
At Pasolini dall’Onda Borghese, we enjoyed the hospitality of Massimo Castagnozzi, as we toured the wine cellar and olive mill, and sampled their Chianti Classico and Vin Santo.
The Pasolini family has been producing high quality wines for over 400 years. The wine cellars (which were once dungeons) that actually lie beneath the main street of the village include thousands of bottles of their vintages of Chianti, Chianti Classico, Vin Santo, a Tuscan Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, and two white wines based on Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. The cellar also houses an impressive number of very old bottles from the family’s private collection which are kept as reminders of historically good years and not intended for drinking. Pasolini dall’Onda also produces olive oil using centuries old production techniques with modern mill equipment. On our tour of the olive mill we saw the grindstones and other devices that were used in centuries past.
On the rooftop of Pasolini dall’Onda, we got a wonderful view of Chianti’s vineyards and farms. From there Massimo pointed out the dividing line that separates the very special Chianti Classico subregion from the rest of the Chianti district.
To end the afternoon, we joined locals on the patio at La Spinosa wine shop for a glass of their light and crisp Marugale white wine while we chatted with one of the owners, Gianfranco Ossola. La Spinosa strictly uses organic growing methods on its farm of 70 hectares of vineyards and olive trees and since 1994 has been certified as an organic grower by the CCPB (Consortium for the Control of Organically Grown Products of Bologna). In the shop they serve (and sell) their wines as well as local cheeses and other products and gifts.
Other nearby places of interest
You could spend a week or two at La Novellina, never leave the property, and have a gratifying Tuscan experience. However, its location offers access to almost any of the types of activities one would imagine in a trip to Tuscany. With Luisa’s and her staff’s help, we were able to experience a number of these.
We spent a wonderful day in the stunning Renaissance city of Florence which is only about 45 minutes away. We also enjoyed our visits to the Antinori wine estate in Bargino, the medieval towns of Certaldo and San Gimignano, a cheese-maker in San Casciano, and more places of interest which we’ll tell you about in future posts. So stay tuned for more about our excursions during our 4-night stay at La Novellina.
Arrivederci, La Novellina
Imagine … a friendly kiss. What better way to end our stay at La Novellina in warm and authentic Tuscany!
Grazie to La Novellina for making our authentic Tuscany experience possible