already identified two hill-top castles which just had to be Montegufoni. Neither was. I had a vision of us following curves into eternity, in the Dantean circle reserved for unrepentant motor tourists.
All of a sudden, there it was: the unmistakable profile of the tower of the Palazzo
Vecchio. Now I really was
hallucinating: what was Florence's landmark doing on a cypress-strewn hill 25km south-west of the city?
'The story was,' writes Osbert Sitwell in his autobiography, 'that an owner of the castle in the 13th century had publicly sworn that if a certain favour were granted by St Anthony, he would never live out of sight of the Palazzo
He obtained his desire, but since he was greatly devoted to his country estate, sought to avoid the payment of his oath by constructing at Monte-gufoni this counterfeit.'
A far grander but no more reliable car than our clapped-out Fiat broke down on this very curve one summer evening in 1909, after taking a wrong turn on the road from Florence to Siena.
Among the tourists forced to cool their heels were Sir George Sitwell and an Italian 'baron' who was also, Osbert tells us, a fairweather estate agent and vendor of fake medieval tapestries.
How strange that the breakdown should have occurred beneath the terraced ramparts of the castle of the Acciaiuoli, a Tuscan family which achieved brief prominence as the Dukes of Athens in the 13th century (it was in their demesne that Shakespeare set A Midsummer Night's Dream). And how fortuitous that this imposing property should just happen to be on the market.
Sir George was hooked. He wrote at once to his son Osbert, then 16: 'You will be interested to hear that I am buying in your name the
Castle of Acciaiuoli (pronounced Accheeyawly) between Florence and Siena. . .We shall be able to grow our own fruit, wine, oil - even champagne] The roof is in splendid order, and the drains can't be wrong, as there aren't any.
'I do hope, my dear Osbert, that you will prove worthy of what I am trying to do for you, and will not pursue that miserable career of extravagance and selfishness which has already once ruined the family.'
Osbert comments wryly: 'This letter puzzled me, for I was not conscious of having been extravagant.
'I had not bought a castle big enough for 300 people. I was not proposing to make my own champagne.'
Montegufoni passed out of the Sitwell family's hands in 1972 and it has since become a hotel. On the evening we arrived, the place seemed empty: the austere stone-flagged courtyard preserved its air of forlorn grandeur and in the corner stood the castle well which had yielded a woman's skeleton during restoration work, much to Sir George's delight.
Having made it up to the castle and looking for some sign of life, we wandered through a deserted hall.
There was a banqueting table beneath a vaguely rococo frescoed ceiling, difficult to make out in the twilight - except for the eyes of a vigilant owl. Out on the patio, the mingled scent of wisteria and black roses rising from the terraced garden below was overpowering.
We were saved by the restaurant. An unmarked door giving on to the gravel path concealed a cosy, family-run trattoria. The young and only waitress spoke broad Tuscan and nothing else.
Cosimo Posarelli, who owns and runs the hotel together with his father, says most visitors are not Sitwell groupies but families in search of a relaxing holiday in romantic surroundings. The castle is divided into 17 self-catering apartments, most of which retain original furnishings and wall or ceiling fres-coes. They range in size from La Galleria, incorporating the Sitwells' former living-room and occupying a whole wing, to the aptly-named Il Camino (the chimney).
Because each flat has a separate entrance, the castle tends to feel empty even in the high season. And if it does get crowded, there's always the garden.
The plants Osbert mentions in his autobiography are still here: ranunculus asiaticus, which flowers 'with a feathery lolling fullness that was altogether lacking in the north', verbena and plumbago, and of course the lemon trees, planted in rows in enormous, ancient terracotta pots bearing the Acciaiuoli crest of greyhound and lion rampant. The only addition since the Sitwell
occupancy is a good-sized swimming pool.
Below the double staircase which leads down to the first of the terraced lawns is a shell-covered grotto with 18th-century statuary. In a fresco above, the same owl I had noticed in the entrance hall gazed down from an allegorical scene. This is another Acciaiuoli trademark: the tawny owl, attribute of Athene, evidently reminded the family of its glory days in Athens. It finds an echo even in the name of the castle: Montegufoni means Big Owl Mountain.
The owl appears in other frescoes dotted around the castle, including a delightful Commedia dell'Arte scene painted in 1921 by Italian futurist Gino Severini.
In the best Renaissance tradition, Severini painted his patrons into the composition: Osbert is a mandolin-strumming harlequin stepping nonchalantly out of the frame, contemplating art and beauty through half-closed eyes. After a week at Monte-gufoni, you begin to see his point. Getting there:
VISITOR'S FACT FILE
Montegufoni is 25km south-west of Florence on the Castelfiorentino road. From Florence airport, follow the A1 motorway southbound as far as the Firenze Certosa turn-off; follow signs to Galluzzo and then Montespertoli. A hired car is recommended, as local bus services are infrequent.
Apartments: Montegufoni is open from March to October. Apartments are rented by the week, Saturday to Saturday. High Season (July-August) prices range from more than pounds 1,000 per week for the sumptuous La Galleria (sleeps eight) to pounds 300 per week for the humbler Il Camino (sleeps two). The low season is up to 20. per cent cheaper.
Bookings can be made directly with
Sergio Posarelli, Castello di Montegufoni, 50020 Montagnana Val di Pesa (FI),
Italy (010 39 571 671131, fax 010 39 571 671514).
Alternatively, Villas Argentario, a London-based company, can do the booking for you for a small surcharge (phone Brian Waldron on 081-994 2956 or fax on 081-747 8343).
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