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Under the Tuscan sun

Writer Pauline Clayton soaks up the views from her Tuscan villa.


Under the Tuscan sun

The view across the Tuscan valley is like a painting – fields of sunflowers, hillsides terraced with olive groves and grape vines, wild red poppies and rows of stately conifers. PAULINE CLAYTON revels in the peace and beauty of Tuscany.

I’m at La Maesta, a typical Tuscan country villa just outside Castiglion Fiorentino in rural Italy.

Nothing is missing, as the undulating hills of the Chiana valley are dotted with medieval fortress towns still protected by ancient stone walls.

Cortona, Arezzo, Montepulciano, Castiglione del Lago and the surprise gem, Lucignano, feature Etruscan settlements from more than 2000 years ago.

While they share a medieval history, Lucignano proudly boasts the Orange Flag of the Italian Touring Club and is included in a short list of the most beautiful villages in Italy.

At the recently re-opened town museum there is a reliquary in the shape of a tree (1350-1471). To say this is rare is an understatement. mIt is priceless.

Known as The Tree of Gold, just under 3m high, in gold-plated copper, silver and enamel, this is considered one of the great masterpieces of Italian goldsmithing.

A short drive through fields from Lucignano is Montepulciano which, as well as its indisputable beauty, has superb vineyards and is considered one of the finest winemaking regions in the world.

Over decades, the locals have made use of the excavated ancient Etruscan fortress, creating cool and dry caverns to store large wine barrels.

These are also museums displaying items from its historic past including medieval iron chandeliers.

Fresh crusty bread dipped in oil pressed from local olives along with meats and cheeses are served at perpetual wine tastings in the many venues in this truly, rural Italian medieval and Renaissance hill-town.

Slightly off the major tourist track (not once in the seasonal month of June, did we stand in a queue), the Chiana valley towns are easily accessible – but keep in mind they are all built on the crest of a hill.

To see why, and enjoy the 360-degree view, is a worthwhile climb.

No climbing necessary at the famous Lake Trasimeno in the heart of Umbria which, according to locals, once almost filled the Chiana valley, until dammed by war time president Benito Mussolini.

The first civilization to inhabit this area was the Etruscans. Three of the main Etruscan cities – Perugia, Chiusi, and Cortona – are within 20km of the lake.

Perugia, an easy drive from La Maesta, is home to settlements dating back to the ninth century BC.

This capital of the Umbria region is one of the best places to explore and be astounded by the engineering, precision and beauty of houses and streets built by hand.

Among the collection of artifacts in the National Archaeological Museum of Umbria, are intricate bronze metalworks dating to sixth century BC.

It was just too easy staying at La Maesta, a third- generation family villa and small farm holding, to visit any and all of these towns – and even easier to slip into Italian family life.

This is just one family that embraced agritourism, established by the Italian government in 1985 to assist small farmers.

La Maesta opened to guests in 1986.

Gradually, outbuildings constructed by host Rosalinda’s grandfather were converted into accommodation villas with all mod cons while retaining the high ceilings and other unique Tuscan features. There is also an un-farm like swimming pool.

Home-made pasta, garden-grown herbs and vegetables, fresh golden-yolk eggs, and even the capers, are harvested from this garden.

Meals cooked and presented by the family, accompanied by oil processed from their olives, was feast enough, and the local cafés and restaurants also used seasonal local produce.

The beauty of exploring the small towns in this valley is that while they are medieval and cater for visitors, they are still home to families so there is a supermarket and pharmacy,  café, bar and restaurants, alongside shops geared for tourists selling fine cashmere and silk scarves, and of course, gold jewellery.

Before heading off each morning to explore a medieval town, the gardens of La Maesta made for a restful early morning explore.

With acres of lavender, roses, herbs, vegetables, the famous wild red poppies, pine, conifer and cypress trees, the air at La Maesta is gently perfumed.

Surrounded by olive groves, the evenings are silent; the sunsets and night sky spectacular.

It’s not surprising that artists are regular visitors to this valley. They come when the sunflower crops are in full golden bloom.

At LaMaesta, I was for a time, a local, part of a three-generation Tuscan-born family, and that’s memorable for any traveller.



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