There has to be a bucket list written by the gods somewhere, listing the world’s ultimate holiday destinations. If such an ethereal summation of Earth’s most breathtaking places does exist, then surely Italy’s midriff would feature highly. Tuscany, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, gave way to Chianti, Montepulciano, Morellino di Scansano and many more. Sensing that my status as a functioning alcoholic might come into question, I suggest we move on. Tuscany would indeed be our first destination in central Italy.
Having little experience with luxury villa holidays, I tend to stay ski-centric, so enlisted the help of the Abercrombie & Kent team. You’d be hard pressed to find a more prestigious luxury holiday company than Abercrombie & Kent, founded fifty years ago by Geoffrey Kent and his parents in East Africa. I’m told that the first trip was a safari that consisted of a refrigerated truck and a silver ice bucket. Well, what is a safari without a chilled G&T to keep the mosquitoes at bay? This set the gold standard for safari travel, staying true to the brand principals of authenticity, inspiration and organisational excellence. We were to visit two properties during our week away – spoilt, I know. Having secured a flight at stupid o’clock from Manchester airport, my long-suffering girlfriend, Tabitha, my oldest chum, Dr Paul Farrow, and his fiancée, Lucy Stott, boarded our flight to Rome. In order to board the flight, of course, you need to whittle your Tom Ford aftershave down to a dribble and remove several key organs to weigh in. We shan’t discuss our flights, other than to say, you’re better off asking the team at Abercrombie & Kent to arrange yours. This can be via any airline or private charter. Of course, they will always get the best price, not to mention airport transfers and luggage collection.
Arriving in Rome, I stepped onto the tarmac into a rich bath of light and warmth. Even though it was mid-September, Italy is still a damn sight more hospitable than Blighty at that time of year.
As our first villa was a two-hour drive from the airport, we decided that hiring a car was the best way to go. Despite having a doctorate in neuroscience, Paul doesn’t possess a driving license. Lucy does, but didn’t like the idea of a left-hand drive. Tabitha has been equally wary of a left-hand drive, ever since I convinced her to drive the new Camaro earlier this year. So, I was clearly going to play dad.
Not exactly a chore, though, as driving through Italy bears no resemblance to the M4. We passed castles, followed by vineyards, followed by a medieval town. It was quite special. Having not had great experiences with Europcar and Hertz, there was bound to be a local outfit that could offer a more personal service. Also one that could offer something a bit sportier than a Reno Clio or Pope Mobile (says three Hail Marys as penance).
The team at Prime Rent operate Europe wide from their offices in Milan and Monaco, and offer virtually everything, including the Ferrari 458 Spider, the Maserati GranCabrio, the Range Rover Sport, and the BMW X5. Unaware of the terrain, we opted for an X5 diesel, which was waiting for us at the arrival lounge. Paperwork signed and the car assessed, we jumped in and stowed our luggage for the short drive. We were no more than twenty minutes down the autostrade when Tabitha and Lucy fell fast asleep – such was the quality of my driving and the X5. A short while later, we found ourselves in Cetona, a small sleepy town about two kilometres drive from our destination. As vineyards and olive groves blended into one, we pulled onto the private track and up to our villa. The sweeping driveway rounded the beautifully kept lawn and we all clambered to the right side of the X5 to stare like backpackers in need of a good meal.
The property was beautiful: a three-bedroom villa, designed by the daughter of the owners (an architect of some repute, we’re told). The property is part of a larger estate that sleeps fourteen in total and includes a wine cellar, tennis court, play room, two pools, relaxation room, BBQ and high-speed wireless internet. I firmly expected to be off grid for the week, so having internet access was both a curse and blessing. If, of course, you are hoping to prize your friends and family away from the plethora of mobile devices available to society, you could always just unplug it.
The property had a rustic feel, despite its relatively recent build. The central room features a large wrought iron wagon wheel converted into a table as its centrepiece. Polished concrete floors made the property feel warm yet homely. The heart of any gathering is undoubtedly the kitchen, and this one made a great hub. The bedrooms were equally well-appointed with soft furnishings aplenty, a bath that looked out across the grounds, and a shower fit for a Scarface scene.
Having not eaten anything since departure, we were in need of sustenance. The owners had kindly stocked the fridge with prosciutto, pancetta, serrano ham, a selection of Italian cheeses, homemade tomato salad, olives, and crucially a few bottles of wine from their bustling vineyard that surrounded the tree-lined entrance to the estate. With glasses in hand and the table in the courtyard nicely laid, we set in for a few hours of relaxation.
Despite being told it was too cold to get into the pool, the heat was starting to get the better of me, so I convinced everyone that it was time for a dip. It was arguably bracing, but in the sort of way that makes you want to lay poolside and dry off for a few hours. Hardly a chore.
By 5pm I decided that we were running low on supplies. Okay, not supplies, specifically my holiday vice: sigaretta. Armed with the keys to the X5 and a wallet of euros, I was sure I would find what I needed in the local town of Centona. Having driven the large 4×4 around the towns 11th century streets trying to park, we eventually completed a lap and found a place looking over the piazza. It was a beautiful town, steadily reviving the stereotype of sleepy Italian doldrums. Old men sat on benches with crumpled hats and canes, and woman dressed in black pontificated about the ‘young people’. You could imbibe the atmosphere.
Paul and I, having been stunned by its natural beauty, decided that we shouldn’t stay too long. The women folk had specifically said “Don’t see anything without us”. I had ignored the obvious errors in syntax and multiple jokes to centre on the task of meeting the locals and educating them about the customs of Britain. It would appear, however, that I would be struck down immediately. We found a rickety cigarette machine from the 1980s, promptly inserted five euros, and then proceeded to gently rock it in the hope that it would deliver a nicotine fix. I would like to point out that smoking is bad for your health, but I was on shore leave and taking in my guilty pleasure with deep breaths. Accepting that the cigarettes were not coming out, we realised it was because the Italians are clearly morally superior. The machine was fitted with an ID card reader. Ten points to Italy for keeping the bambinos away from death sticks.
Across the piazza were two bars – one up a side street and one in clear view with the last of the afternoon sun blazing down on it. We opted to investigate the bar that looked like it was on the side of the angels rather than the shady looking den of inequity up the back alley, surrounded by itinerant Latin traders.
We wondered why there was raucous shouting coming from the bar. The local men were indulging in their national pastime: shouting at Italian football on TV. And yes, it was a small TV on top of a fridge. And yes, they were all on small wooden chairs drinking Peroni. The stereotypes were unabated here in Cetona. Paul informed me that some football team or another were playing. I explained that football was like watching twenty-two millionaires ruin a lawn and then fall over clutching something whilst wincing in pain. Rugby is the game to watch – and that’s all that will be said on the subject. And seeing as I have access to a periodical of repute in which to write my opinions, I shall see to it that I’m not challenged. (Puffs chest out, takes deep breath, folds arms, angles head upright and to the left.)
After realising that our Italian was shocking, we started the bitter process of asking the bar owner if he spoke any English, but sadly he didn’t. There was, however, a wine menu, so we ordered three bottles of well-priced red and a clutch of beers. Having paid the kind guy, I decided to go all in, now that the attention of the locals had waned and we were no longer entertainment fodder. Yes, I mimed smoking. I’m not proud of it. My Spanish and French is honestly a lot better, but unfortunately Italy is not a place I have visited often.
The barkeep clearly took pity on me and pointed across the street to the 80s cigarette machine. I countered this element of mime genius by pointing to my UK driving license. He nodded in agreement and began to take on a shifty nature. He looked towards the doors and then with a raised eyebrow asked “Marlboro?” ‘Si’, I replied. And out from under the counter came a pack of beloved Malboro. He passed them to me under a napkin. I handed him a five euro note and the Italian Job was done.
We drove back to the house toasting ourselves for conquering foreign language, both pretty pleased with ourselves. You might be thinking ‘was there not a shop in town we could have used?’ The short answer is no. The timetable for shop opening in rural Italy is comparable to that of Northern Rock. They don’t open and you have no faith that they ever will. You have a window of opportunity to access the amenities; miss it and be damned. I almost expected to see hundreds of starving locals stood clawing at the windows of the local deli. Such is the pace of life in rural Italy. Eventually it washes over you.
That night we dined on a selection of meats and pasta, accompanied by the wine from the owners’ vineyard. Heaven. Uncharacteristically, we all found slumber before midnight, despite being in our mid to late twenties.
The following morning, we picked fresh figs and pomegranates from the trees in the garden for breakfast and decided to do a little yoga on the lawn. This sparked a very real debate about the spiritual virtues of yoga and whether women were more naturally attuned to its benefits than men. Not being a tenured professor in such subjects, I stayed well clear. This didn’t stop everyone else diving in, though. As I sat there watching my friends debate, whilst sipping fresh orange juice and eating just-picked figs, I thought ‘why isn’t everyone doing this?’
Indeed, that’s what the real breakfast table debate should be about. The English are far too polite about taking holiday time, let alone demanding it. So much so that I know people who are forced to take their accrued holiday and spend it at home. There aren’t enough exclamation marks.
That day we sat by the pool, relaxed, talked, ate well and generally took time to appreciate the basics in life. The food was simple but rustic, the weather was fabled, and the wine, well, the wine was herculean. The property was fit for a king. Such was its expanse that we didn’t make it into the pool house or onto the courts once. The pool and the view over the vineyards of Tuscany were enough for any man.
The following morning we awoke early to see the sunrise over the hills. I convinced Tabitha that there was a perfect picture to be taken at dawn. Despite the sunrise being on Italian time and coming up almost twenty minutes later than I had researched, it was indeed beautiful. So, with that fond memory in the bank, we began the job of packing the X5, heading out of Tuscany and into the hills of Umbria.
Having opted to drive the back roads via Lake Trasimeno, I was very glad to have the BMW from PrimeRent. Without it, we would have been at the mercy of public conveyance. And whilst I’m not a transport snob, it would have eaten into our short week. The freedom to pull over at your own leisure, take in the Tuscan views and occasionally be told a restaurant isn’t open is achievable with PrimeRent.
We were to meet Thomas, an animated German, that afternoon at a local hotel lobby. He would shepherd us to our next villa in the hills. Thomas instantly won my respect when I realised he was driving a Defender. It also made me realise that our next destination might be more remote than the last. Not necessarily a bad thing. Having driven for 15 minutes down a remote track overlooking the hills, we found ourselves at a large set of automatic iron gates. Driving up a private path, the hilltop farmhouse came into view. It was quite the plot. We ascended the 1:4 hill in the BMW and eventually found ourselves on a film set. The views were grand and imposing. It was later that week we realised the hills could really carry a sound, so an aquaria language barrier was erected across 30km.
Thomas later told us that Villa Serena was actually used as a filming location once. The property was set in 117 acres and the balcony looked out toward a 12th century Umbrian fortress atop the next plateau. Romantic doesn’t come close to it. The chandeliers, beautiful baroque furniture and fixtures and fittings were picked with a clear style idea in mind. Someone had serious focus and attention to detail. The property sleeps eight and the ground floor consisted of three reception rooms that made for a captivating split-levelled entrance. Not forgetting a charming farmhouse kitchen, library, TV room, dining room and downstairs shower. The master bedroom was really something special, complete with its own entrance, dressing room and en-suite, with a Victorian bath boasting a view of the hills. Outside there was the terrace, a dining veranda and of course a huge pool area.
The scenic drive had turned out to be a few hours more than the direct route, so by arrival time the guys were in need of a good meal. The dish was to be bread, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, meat and cheese. Oh, and wine. Definitely wine. As we sat by the pool, music turned up (given that the nearest neighbours were 2km away), all our earthly worries seemed to drain away.
As the sun went down, the discussion returned to food. We decided that gnocchi was the order of the day, accompanied by fagioli beans, and served on the terrace dining table, with ample light provided by the house’s churchyard of candles. Had it been colder weather, I would have also relished the chance to light one of the house’s open fires. I imagine this property is as picturesque snow-laden as it is sun-drenched.
We sat, we ate, we drank, and we put the world to rights. Total mental relaxation. Early evening turned to night and we decided to move indoors for a game of Articulate. We were showing our age playing board games at night, but the reality is, it was far from a refined game. Or at least the way we played it. The night whiled away with laughter, a few heated debates and several bottles of great wine.
I am not a bath person. I was raised in the sort of house that had a bath only until the mid 90s, so I don’t appreciate sitting in lukewarm water. However, the villa boasts a Victorian roll top bath that was not to be missed. My night’s sleep – in a bed that I can only imagine is a few hundred years older than – was joyous.
As the sun rose over the mountains the next morning, we got up only to lounge by the pool until mid-afternoon. This was followed by a trip to Montone, a medieval town, a short 15-minute drive up the hill. Once again, our efforts to secure food at any time of the day were dashed, so we happily drove back to the villa to prepare a feast. I donned my apron to prepare my only dish of the trip: garlic sausage on the barbecue.
As we filled the table with food, lit candles and poured wine, I got a sense we were returning to the great and good of what a holiday should be: good food, great friends, and a breathtaking place to lay ones head.