In June 1999 we spent a blissful holiday in southern Tuscany. For a week, seven of us explored atmospheric hilltop towns like Cortona, Arezzo and Castiglion Fiorentino and navigated country lanes in search of the finest examples of local chianina steak, salami and pecorino cheese. We lounged in the sun, drank a shameful amount of red wine and congratulated ourselves on finding somewhere so unspoiled. The stunning base for our holiday was the Castello di Gargonza. It was also, we later decided, the perfect place to get married. We found the setting magical, from the moment we saw the castle's imposing torre poking up through the pine and cypress tree that surround the village.
Gargonza is a castle, but it's also a village. Built in the 14th century, this oval-shaped hamlet is completely encircled by a set of walls. The village is accessed through a small arched gate, and once inside you are greeted by a geranium-strewn piazzetta and an octagonal well. Past a small church is a scattering of stores and outbuildings, and a handful of small streets flanked with honey-coloured houses. Swallows swoop through the air and from the walls there are stunning views across the undulating Val di Chiana. Except for the odd telegraph pole, little has changed since medieval times.
Gargonza's owner is Count Roberto Guicciardini Corsi Salviati, whose deep affection for the village is infectious. Originally the property of the counts of Ubertini, Gargonza eventually found its way into the hands of Roberto's ancestors in the 18th century. After the Second World War, most of Gargonza's 300 residents left in search of a better life in the cities. In a bid to turn the village's fortunes around, the current count persuaded his parents to let him take over. After much thought, he reasoned that the only way he could breathe new life into Gargonza's dilapidated buildings was to turn the entire village into a hotel. The renovations began in earnest in the early 1970s - a pioneering move in Tuscany at the time - and soon the count and his wife welcomed their first guests. Thirty years later, Roberto, despite being nearly 83, is still involved in the day-to-day running of the village.
These days Gargonza has 22 apartments that are available to rent by the week and 10 hotel rooms, all dotted throughout the village. The buildings have been restored in keeping with their original layouts - a steep flight of stairs here, a rock jutting into a bedroom from the village's foundations there. Many of the rooms are christened after erstwhile residents - our room, Niccolina, with its apt view of the church, is named after the local seamstress. Despite the temporary nature of most of its inhabitants, Gargonza still feels very much like a village. For the four days we were there, Gargonza became our own little community. Doors were left open, people sat chatting on doorsteps and popped to neigbours for glasses of wine.
Organising the wedding itself had been relatively stress-free. This was, for the most part, thanks to the heroic efforts of one of Gargonza's receptionists, Serena, who acted as our unofficial wedding coordinator. I also incurred a life-long debt to a sympathetic Italian-speaking friend, who had to intervene when negotiations with our Florentine florist got too complicated. If you are Roman Catholic, you can also ask to marry at Gargonza's diminutive Romanesque Church of Susannah and Tiburzia, with its beamed ceiling and precious 15th-century fresco. I surely had one of the shortest walks of any bride down the tiny aisle to the altar - no more than 10 steps. We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful setting for our ceremony, which was celebrated by my new uncle-in-law, Father John.
The count has made plenty of concessions to the 21st century, although his aim has always been to attract the type of guests that come for history and atmosphere rather than luxury. Just outside the walls, a steep cobbled path leads to a swimming-pool surrounded by rosemary bushes and with great views across the surrounding countryside. Across the road from the pool is the Torre di Gargonza, a restaurant that serves traditional Tuscan fare using locally sourced ingredients. It has a large terrace with a pitched beamed roof and was the location for our candle-lit wedding meal, where we dined on a seemingly endless procession of antipasti, pasta and succulent Chianina beef in rosemary sauce. The only surprise of the evening was the cake - a gargantuan creation of millefoglie and cream scattered with wild berries - presented to the strains of Domenico Modugno's 1958 version of "Nel Blu di Pinto di Blu", better known as "Volare". Our Italian photographers later confided that they always have a bit of a chuckle when non-Italians are confronted with their cakes.
This being Italy, food played a big part in the festivities. The weekend of the wedding also coincided with the Sagrada di Porchetta, one of the highlights of nearby Monte San Savino's gastronomic calendar. The village is 9km from Gargonza and is its closest fully functioning neighbour, with a weekly market, shops and a pretty Roman amphitheatre within its walls. One of Monte San Savino's specialties is porchetta - whole pigs stuffed with herbs and roasted by the village butchers. Each has their own technique and blend of herbs, but local opinion seems to hold that Aldo, whose shop is just inside the walls, does the best.
Every second weekend in September, the decorations go up and the narrow streets are filled with trestle tables. Before the wedding, our guests ate succulent slices of porchetta sandwiched between thick slices of Tuscan bread to bridge the gap until dinner. Taking 50 of your friends and family to a restaurant that you have never been to before is perhaps foolhardy, but that is what we did the night after the festivities. We had arrived in Lucignano on a previous fact-finding mission (clutching our trusty copy of Slow Food, Osterie d'Italia) in search of a restaurant called La Rocca. Lucignano is yet another picturesque town whose streets coil up a low hill in concentric circles. It is reputedly the only elliptical village in Italy. La Rocca is named after a 14th-century tower that dominates the town's skyline. We found it, but as it was a Tuesday the doors were firmly shut. Not to be discouraged, (our book had never failed us before) we booked it anyway. We need not have worried. The owners had laid on an impromptu drinks party in the street, and everyone crowded around for prosecco before sitting down for another Tuscan dinner of epic proportions.
On the final day before our guests were due to leave, half of them, mindful that they had barely left Gargonza for the duration of their stay, made a mad dash to see the 15th-century frescoes by Piero della Francesca at the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo. For four days nobody had really wanted to leave. Four years previously we had said that the Castello di Gargonza would be perfect for a wedding and last September, we were fortunate enough to find that our theory had been right all along.
Meridiana (0845 355 5588; www.meridiana.it) flies from Gatwick to Florence from Û250 (pounds 180). Alternatively, fly to Pisa on either British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick or Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) from Stansted from around pounds 80 return.
Castello di Gargonza (00 39 0575 847 021; www.gargonza.it) Monte San Savino, Tuscany, has double rooms from Û85 (pounds 60) per night with breakfast. Minimum stay three days.
By Cassini (07903 879296; www.bycassini.com) plans weddings in Italy and the south of France, including help with documentation. The Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it) also has a limited amount of information about getting married in Italy.Reuse content