It was one of those out-of-body experiences, the kind where you see yourself in this moment so significant, so transcendent, that you nearly lose your footing. Fortunately, I was seated--at an enormous table blanketed by dozens of wine glasses teeming with cabernet.
Plates of steak Florentine were being drizzled with fragrant olive oil, breadbaskets and stewed vegetables passed back and forth, more cabernet was poured. It was Sally’s birthday, and there was also an engagement to toast. Never mind the fact that we’d never met these people.
We were guests at Villa Poggio Bartoli in the Tuscan village of Vicchio di Mugello, and what other choice was there than for the owners to invite us to sit down with their friends and family for a celebratory meal.
“This is typical Tuscany,” a handsome, scruffy Italian man said to me in a thick accent as he refilled my glass. “How did we get here?” I whispered to Julie, my dearest friend and travel companion.
There are many places travelers can stay that offer an authentic Italian experience, but few make visitors feel like they’ve stepped back in time to the days of the Renaissance.
We arrived in Florence earlier that morning and spent the better part of an hour driving up the winding hillside to reach the town of Vicchio di Mugello, the birthplace of famous artists Giotto and Beato Angelico. We had booked a room at Villa Poggio Bartoli, a rustic 15th century villa originally used as a country home and hunting lodge by the noble Medici Family during the Renaissance.
No sooner had we stepped out of the car than were we greeted by the aforementioned handsome, scruffy Italian man. His name was Antonio Lippi, and with the help of his family friend Sally, he had bought the villa in 2011.
“Are you hungry?” Antonio asked as he picked up our bags and began walking inside. Julie and I exchanged knowing glances—it hadn’t occurred to us that one could come to Tuscany and have ambitions outside of eating. “You must join us for lunch.” Before we could answer, Antonio was pulling out our chairs and introducing us to our new tablemates. What followed was an outstanding five-course meal complemented by wine from Antonio’s vineyard. Not only does he own Poggio Bartoli, but Antonio is also a certified sommelier and CEO of the Tenuta dei Sette Cieli vineyard in Bolgheri.
Three hours later, lunch was over. A lovely young woman approached us, introducing herself as Viviana, the manager. She was to show us to our room. As she opened the door with a large, brass key, revealing a charming, spacious room adorned with antique furniture and breathtaking views of the rolling hills, she looked at us quite seriously and instructed, “And now you nap.” I was in love with this place already.
When we awoke for dinner, Antonio was waiting in the dining room, ready to tell us his story. Not only was buying the villa an enormous career change—Antonio had worked for many years in parquet wood flooring—but it was a dream come true, he said. “The desire to change my life was always there—in fact I had something in common with this wonderful old villa: we both needed a new life. It was love at first sight for me, an entrepreneur who wanted to return to the old rhythms of the countryside.”
As Antonio told us about all the renovations he had already made to the villa (restoring the 10 guest suites, the parlor and interiors namely, and adding a luxurious pool), and those he had planned for the future (a restaurant open to the public, a spa, and horse stables), a young man carrying an eagle walked past. “Don’t be alarmed,” Antonio soothed. “We have more than 60 birds at the villa, and that is Alessio Galli. He’s just 27, but he’s one of Italy’s foremost falcon experts, and the only Italian who can artificially inseminate the birds.” But, of course.
The villa has a falconry program, where guests can go truffle hunting with the falcons, or participate in flight demonstrations. “To fly a falcon from the same villa and over the same land as Lorenzo the Magnificent did is true emotion,” Antonio says about Lorenzo de' Medici –the ruler of Florence of during the Italian Renaissance.
Antonio tells us about other ways he’s made the villa a reflection of his life in Tuscany, like horse and carriage rides. “I have been around horses since I was six years old, I had a brief career as an officer in the cavalry, and for the last 18 years I have also had a passion for carriage driving—I own about 15 carriages [that I use for rides from the villa].”
Later the next day, Antonio took Julie and I for a ride through the hills of Tuscany, all the while whistling and singing and pointing out important landmarks, like the house of Giotto. “This is everything I’ve ever pictured when I’ve imagined Tuscany,” Julie said.
When we returned to the villa, Antonio showed us his organic vegetable garden, tended to by animal-powered plows. “There is no price you can pay when cooking zucchini straight from the garden,” he explained. “Tuscan cuisine is a combination of a few simple things: extra-virgin olive oil, homemade pasta, good meat, fresh, top quality, and that’s all you need to know.”
After a few meals at Poggio Bartoli, I knew this much to be true. So I couldn’t have been more thrilled to find out that guests can take cooking classes with the villa’s chef, Jonathan, who has been working in Italian kitchens since he was 14. We met Jonathan the next morning in the open kitchen. He had made a tower of flour and cracked two eggs inside. As he used his hands to combine the two, he told us about how he could customize classes to the guest’s liking, whether they wanted to learn to make Tuscan soups and chowders, pizzas, or, as we were doing, fresh pasta from scratch.
As Julie and I attempted to run our fresh dough through the pasta machine, Jonathan shouted at us. “Rapido! Rapido!” By the end, we were naturals and ready for Antonio to take us wine tastings in Chainti or Bolgheri, another service the villa provides.
“I’ve travelled a lot for work and stayed in nice, large hotels, but I missed the feeling at the end of the day of coming down for dinner in an informal, quiet way. This is what I want at Villa Poggio Bartoli. A beautiful country residence where history and eco-luxury combine to make your stay simple, but unique,” Antonio explained.
Rooms rates from $200 to $370 per night, including buffet breakfast and free WiFi. Additional activities at a fee.