A family holiday in Tuscany

This article appears on page 22 of the February 2012 issue.
The village of San Quirico as seen from Casa Libra. Photo by Jay Hungate

by JoAnne Hungate; Tucson, AZ After a search for a large and interesting villa in Tuscany that would accommodate at least 10 persons for a family holiday, we decided on Casa Libra. We would spend two weeks (July 1-15, 2011) in this restored stone farmhouse set in the area just north of Pescia. The convenience of the train service from Pescia to Lucca, Pisa and Florence was one of the selling points. Prices for the villa vary according to season, ranging from £800 to £2,250 ($1,230-$3,465) per week, or £200-£400 nightly, including utilities, gardener, pool maintenance and a welcome basket."

Castle villages

Pescia and the small villages around it are in the province of Pistoia, situated between the provinces of Lucca and Florence — all in Tuscany. At an elevation of about 1,600 feet, the area’s temperatures were, thankfully, a bit cooler in July than those at sea level. There are 10 charming little castle villages up and around the farmhouse along a twisty, narrow road, all with lovely old stone buildings. The villages are elevated above the road, so parking for nonresidents requires a hike up stone walkways. These are not “tourist” villages but are pretty much open to stroll around in, without the crowds of more well-known towns. A few have small restaurants or a general store and all have churches. As expected, there were grapevines, olive trees and green forests all around this area. It was lovely to have our “own” hill towns and castles to explore so close to our accommodations.

Getting there

At final count, our group included my husband, Bob; myself; our daughter, Lynn; her husband, Chip; their sons Luke (16) and Joey (13); our youngest son, Jay; his wife, Chrissy, and their daughters Olivia (10) and Fiona (who would celebrate her ninth birthday in Italy).

View of Casa Libra. Photo by Jay Hungate

We had never traveled to Europe during the summer (high season), so we were shocked at the costs of the airline fares, which were $1,600-plus to $1,900-plus per person in economy (from Tucson to Rome and from Pittsburgh or Boston to Pisa). No one had serious problems with layovers or connections, but some of our experiences at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport were not great. The terminal for flights to and from Europe was very overcrowded; gate announcements were wrong, and, for one family, the holding time on the bus to the plane prior to departure was over an hour. Bob and I arrived in Rome in the early evening. I had made reservations (€130, or $168, including breakfast) at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport. It is a busy, bright hotel, good for people coming and going. Our room and bath were modern and clean, and the bed was very comfortable. The buffet breakfast was large and good. We ate two other meals there, one on arrival and one the night before we flew home, and they were acceptable, but we noticed when we came back that they were a bit more expensive than meals we’d had in Tuscany and Umbria. The morning after our arrival, Bob took the hotel shuttle back to the airport to pick up our rental car at Europcar, which we booked through Kemwel (Portland, ME; 800/678-0678). Our diesel station wagon cost $1,597 for 19 days. Then we headed north into Tuscany. We had never visited the Maremma area in southern Tuscany, so we explored this area along the coast, marveling at all the fields of sunflowers. That night we stayed at Albergo il Girifalco (Via Massetana Nord 25), booked through www.booking.com for €88, including buffet breakfast. Located just outside the town of Massa Marittima, the hotel has a pool, lovely views and plenty of parking. Our room was plain but adequate. The next morning we took the scenic, narrow road to the hilltop town of Volterra. Volterra is very old, its charming piazza dating from the 13th century. The area is famous for its alabaster, and we saw some awesome carvings on display in the shops. Continuing north, we arrived at the farmhouse at about 4 p.m. Lynn and her family soon arrived from Pisa in their rental car.

Villa living

Veronica, the young woman who managed the property for the owner, arrived and took us through the house and guest cottage, showing us how to operate the dishwasher, the washing machine, etc. The six of us had five bedrooms to choose from. Bob and I chose the large bedroom on the ground level to avoid all the granite stairs. We had a large bathroom off the main foyer to use.

Castelvecchio, one of ten 13th-century villages near our farmhouse. Photo by Chip Desmone

Lynn and Chip chose the large bedroom on the third level (top floor) with a bath and spacious dressing area, and Joey took one of the twin beds on the second floor, realizing he’d have to move when his Uncle Jay and his family arrived later the next week. The other twin-bedded room stood vacant, awaiting our two granddaughters. Luke chose the loft bedroom in the guest cottage. The house has four bathrooms — one with a tub, the others with showers and three with bidets — plus a living area including games, TV, etc., on the lower level. No one ever turned on a TV, though there were two sets, one with English channels and one, Italian. Bob and I purchased an arrival dinner when we booked the villa; it included lasagna, insalata verde (green salad), tirimisù and beverages (wine, juice and milk). We had enough leftovers for another evening meal. We spent most of our waking hours outdoors, enjoying our breakfasts and dinners at the table on the terrace outside the kitchen shaded by lots of wisteria. We would always gather in the afternoon at the large saltwater pool to cool off from the summer heat or test our swimming skills (almost all of us are swimmers). Sightseeing destinations usually were selected the night before over dinner, and we ate most lunches at the chosen destinations. The large kitchen with a five-burner gas range was well used by several of us. Having a dishwasher was a very helpful feature. We used the fresh basil, parsley, rosemary and sage from the garden (which we kept watered).

Outdoor exploration

The first adventure for the six of us was a visit to the outdoor Saturday market in Pescia, where there were tables of various items, including clothing, belts and watches as well as lots of fresh produce, cheeses and hams. Bob was finally able to drag us away for a stop at Esselunga, the local supermarket, where we did our part to help the Italian economy as we bought more food items and wine from their wide selection. We were pleased that using our credit cards there presented no problem. (It was euros, only, at the outdoor market.) We had a delicious late lunch at Ristorante San Jacopo (Via Crispi 15) in Pistoia, near Pescia, before walking around the town. We visited the Duomo and its remarkable St. James Altar, which is made almost entirely of silver. Started in 1287 and finished 200 years later, the altar was worked on by Filippo Brunelleschi and others. On Monday, Lynn and family took an early train to Florence, and Bob and I joined them in time for lunch at Ristorante Paoli (12R Via dei Tavolini). It was not far from the crowds, but the lovely atmosphere and great food and service made it seem secluded. It was extremely crowded in Florence — many students and many tourists — and it was very hot. Lynn had hoped that going to Florence on a Monday, when several things were closed, would mean it would be less crowded, but it didn’t seem to matter. We got into a rhythm of visiting the tourist attractions on our list, visiting the nearby hill towns off our narrow, twisty road, spending late afternoons swimming at our pool and then sharing dinner responsibilities. Lynn and family spent a full day walking along the Cinque Terre, not too far away, taking the autostrada to La Spezia, where they parked and caught the train. They came back with glowing reports and gorgeous pictures of the coast.

The more, the merrier

On the second Friday, Jay and his family were picked up by Bob at the Pisa airport. After being given a tour of the farmhouse, they joined the rest of us as we headed up to Castelvecchio, one of the old stone castle villages above us, for a pizza dinner. Saturday morning, we introduced them to the market in Pescia, then to the Saturday market in Lucca, where we stayed for lunch.

Inside the mouth of “ Le Grande Pescecane ” (The Great Shark) at Pinocchio Park. Photo by Jay Hungate

With two cars and enough room for 10 passengers, we headed for Siena on Sunday. The famous Palio in the Piazza del Campo, considered one of the most famous squares in the world, had taken place on July 1, but a parade and noisy promotions were going on for the second Palio, scheduled for August. Before lunch, six of us climbed the Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo while two sat in the sun on the piazza doing pen-and-ink sketches and the other two sat in the shade with a cup of tea and a cappuccino. We had to wait until the afternoon to visit the famous Duomo, which dominates the Piazza del Duomo. It was definitely worth the wait! Unfortunately, one day is not long enough to see all of Siena’s splendors, but at least we saw a few. On Monday, Jay and Chrissy took the train to Florence. They are both artists, so Florence was a real draw. They were disappointed to find so many people and the extreme heat, but they saw as much as they could before boarding the train back to Pescia.

Moving on

The next day, Lynn and family headed for Pisa to turn in their car before taking the train to Rome for four nights in a small apartment. That day was also Fiona’s ninth birthday, so we celebrated by going to Collodi and its Pinocchio Park. This park is a bit worn and really most suitable for very young children, but it was not a total loss. We spent a day (our 55th wedding anniversary) relaxing at the farmhouse, just enjoying being there before we all had to pack. The next morning, Bob took Jay and family to Pescia to catch the train to Pisa, where they spent the night at Hotel Bologna (Via Giuseppe Mazzini, 57), a lovely restored palace with shuttle service to the airport. Bob and I still had a few days in Italy, so we headed out for Montepulciano for lunch (€40) at Antico Caffe Poliziano, offering a grand panoramic view from its terrace. From there we drove into Umbria to Castello di Casigliano Country Inn. We had booked a small but lovely apartment (€45 per person) there named La Noce through www.booking.com. It had a small balcony, a tiny but convenient kitchen and a bedroom and bath up a circular staircase. We ate almost all our meals (breakfast was included) at the on-site Laconda il Re Beve, which had excellent food and fabulous views overlooking the Umbrian hillsides covered with fields of sunflowers. If we ever visit again, we’d sign up for full board (€75 per person) or, at least, half board (€60). This old castle was very popular for events, and the restaurant was well filled with Italians for lunch and dinner. Its location is not far off the autostrada that takes you from Perugia to the A1, the main autostrada to Rome, making it a convenient stop. After visiting a few old hilltop villages on our way back to Rome, Bob dropped me and our luggage off at the Hilton Garden Inn before returning our car. The next morning we were up early to take the shuttle to the airport. We took home many wonderful memories with us.