B&B and beyond: Doors open on to an Italian dream
Il Fienile Boccagnano, Tuscany: A medieval barn is the sumptuous setting for a stylish hideaway in the Arezzo hills, says Christina Patterson
Christina Patterson is a writer, broadcaster and columnist. She writes about politics, society, culture, travel, books and the arts. She has interviewed writers and artists ranging from Martin Amis to Eddie Izzard and Werner Herzog, and did the first interview after he left office with Gordon Brown. A former director of the Poetry Society, and literary programmer at the Southbank Centre, she has written for the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, Time, the Spectator and the New Statesman. She’s a regular commentator on radio and TV news programmes, a regular reviewer on the Sky News press preview, and a regular guest on The Review Show. She has campaigned to improve standards in nursing in a series of articles in the Independent, by speaking at conferences, and in programmes she has made for Radio 4 and The One Show. Christina is the only woman on the shortlist for the Orwell Prize 2013. She has now left The Independent, but can be contacted via her website, www.christinapatterson.co.uk .
Sunday 30 September 2012
There are an awful lot of medieval barns in Tuscany, but there aren't many like this. Il Fienile Boccagnano was bought as a dream home by a British-based couple who work in fashion, and it shows. Everything about it is gorgeous: the setting, in beautifully verdant landscaped gardens on a Tuscan hillside; the old stone of its carefully restored exterior; its 20m pool, which looks more like something you'd see in the gardens of the Alhambra; and the carefully chosen furniture inside. It's the kind of place you might expect to see in the pages of a lifestyle magazine, and it recently was: in Bravacasa, an Italian equivalent of Ideal Home.
A 10-minute drive from the main motorway between Florence and Rome, and a five-minute drive from the nearest town, Montevarchi, it's well placed for visits to Florence, Arezzo and Siena, and for exploring the countryside of nearby Chianti.
There's just one room available for B&B, with its own shower room and front door. Painted in soft pinks and greys, it's comfortable and cosy. It has a very big bed, dressed with pretty cushions and vintage linen, a walnut wardrobe and a quirky selection of pictures, artefacts and hats. Thick velvet drapes and white muslin shade the glass doors that open on to a vegetable patch.
The shower has one of those massive heads that make the water feel like a fresh blast of rain. A mural in it (a copy of a painting by the Tuscan artist Brenti) of nude women bathing adds to the visual feast.
What the bedroom isn't is particularly spacious. The very beautiful room next to it, with a double-height ceiling and the same Moorish tiled floors you see in the bedroom and shower, is the owners' private living room and kitchen. We were served breakfast in it one day, but if you were planning an evening in, you might have to choose between a bed and a chair.
Breakfast is served, if the weather allows, on the outside dining terrace, fringed by herbs and lavender, near the beautiful stone-edged pool. It's simple but tasty: fresh bread and croissants with home-made jams, yoghurt, orange juice and fruit. Some guests might find themselves hoping for something – cheese? eggs? prosciutto? – a bit more substantial, but this is Italy, and Italians, like the French (and our French host), aren't big on breakfast. Most just grab a coffee and perhaps a brioche at a bar.
We didn't meet Gabriela Ligenza, the Polish-born milliner who bought and converted Il Fienile Boccagnano with her French husband, Jean-Jacques Lassabe. The couple split their time between here and London, and it's no great surprise to hear that Gabriela trained as an interior designer and architect before moving on to the hats that she now sells to royals and film stars. But we did meet Jean-Jacques, who works with fabric and shoes. Running their home as a B&B is a new project for them and one that he, at least, does with great charm. But it's very clearly a home and not a hotel.
If you want to go to Florence or Siena, it's much less stressful to leave the car at Montevarchi and get a train. Both cities have the kind of congestions charges that mean a small mistake can lead to a hefty fine. Arezzo, which is a 20-minute drive away, is easy to reach and easy to park in. It's very pretty and feels less like a tourist hot spot and more like a proper town. On the way, you should stop at Il Borro, a tiny medieval village full of artisan workshops that have been beautifully restored. You can also visit the sculpture museum at Montevarchi (00 39 055 910 8230; arezzo.intoscana.it) or, if visiting in spring, the rose garden at Cavriglia, which has 7,000 varieties of rose (00 39 366 206 3941; rosetofineschi.it; open May-June only).
The Pit stop
We had very good, very thin pizzas at the local pizzeria, Pitena (00 39 055 966 016; ristorantepitena.it; closed Monday), but the best meal of our holiday was at Papposileno (00 39 347 475 8003; papposileno.com; closed Sunday) in Cavriglia. Set in the vaults of an old monastery, it serves both Tuscan and international cuisine, made with fresh, local ingredients and served with a choice of more than 400 wines. My black rice and pecorino risotto, followed by a Tuscan veal stew, was delicious. A meal for two with wine will cost about €70 (£56).
Il Fienile Boccagnano, Via Borro al Quercio 35C, San Giovanni Valdarno, Tuscany, Italy (00 39 334 581 6065; bookings via welcomebeyond.com). Double from €120 (£96), including breakfast; minimum stay two nights.
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