"Mum, what's this? Is it a prickle from a porcupine?" asked six-year-old Gabriel, as he picked up a long black-and-white spine from between the pine cones on the sun-dappled forest path.
"Can't be," I replied, "porcupines don't live in Italy, silly – they're from, uh, South America ... aren't they?"
"Mum, here's another – and another! Are you sure they're not porcupines?"
And so it was I found myself standing on a hillside, an hour's drive south-west of Florence, Googling my phone like a lunatic to prove to my children the non-existence of exotic fauna in this wildly picturesque landscape.
Of course, it turns out that the istrice – or crested porcupine – has been a celebrated native for millions of years; so celebrated, I soon discover, that Tuscany's famous horse race, the Palio di Siena, was last summer won by the contrade – or local team – named after the spiny beast.
But the thing is that – despite my ignorance of thorny rodents and their habitats – I thought I knew this part of the world well. After all, I once lived not far away, and studied Italian and History of Art in Florence and Siena, where, aged 17, I stepped out of the pensione into a dream set filled with the wondrous art and architecture of the Renaissance – my own 20th-century version of A Room with a View. Over the years, I've made frequent returns to Italy, from Venice to the Cinque Terre, Sicily to Sardinia, Rome to the Alps ... Still, porcupines – who knew?
This time, we'd decided to explore deeper into Tuscany, away from the piazzas and pizza parlours of the tourist trail. We found the beautifully restored Villa Montagnola – one of several stone-built houses on the Tenuta Sant'Ilario, an unspoilt estate dating back to the 12th century, made up of 62 rambling hectares of woods and orchards at the end of a long drive. Here, north of San Gimignano, the land isn't as dramatic as the manicured, vine-friendly slopes of Chianti, but the hills are covered in turn by vibrant sunflowers and corn, or ancient grey-green groves of olive trees.
We spent the first day just watching a vast field of sunflowers turning their heads to follow the sun; when at dusk, an owl swooped low over the pool looking for its dinner, we knew it was time to pour the first of several glasses of cold white vernaccia.
The next day, in the cool of the late afternoon, we explored a little further down the hill below our garden to find our very own secret valley. Here, without another house in sight, the views were magical. And here it was, as they crunched over corn stubble and through shrubby woods of pine and oak, that the children made their prickly discovery (though we never saw the shy istrice themselves, the quills made for a triumphant Show & Tell back at school). This is Heaven, or at least Arcadia, we thought, as we gazed out at another blood-orange sunset.
Beyond the estate we discovered another blessing of life off the beaten track. The sleepy local towns, devoid of tourist attractions of any sort, are charming – our nearest, Montaione, was perfect for a relaxed mid-morning coffee, or an evening stroll through quiet squares, stopping off for home-made ice-cream at a tiny bar (no jostling for a table and an overpriced drink here, as in Florence or Siena).
Later in the week, we decided we ought to visit at least one of the main sights, so drove an hour south to Siena. But sightseeing with two children proved too much, and we soon took refuge in the Duomo – where the Piccolomini library, with frescoes by Pinturicchio, was the same unfaded gem I remembered from my student days. Still, after a slice of pizza, we were all glad to be heading back to our dreamy Tuscan estate for another peaceful evening under another starry sky with another ice-cool bottle of vernaccia. Ah, Tuscany – all this, and porcupines too.
Seven nights' accommodation, flights and car hire at Villa Montagnola from £445 per adult, based on six sharing Call Simply Travel on 0871 231 4041 or see simplytravel.co.uk
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