Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa. If you look closely you'll see people standing on "the Japanese spot"

Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa. If you look closely you’ll see people standing on “the Japanese spot”

First published in The Journal, Newcastle, June 2010

THE great galleries of Florence, the drama of the Palio in Siena, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, perhaps the medieval madness of the hilltop town of San Gimingano. Tuscany, done.

Well, no. There is a whole other Tuscany that city break-ers don’t get to see – a slower moving place of country house hotels, spas and altogether less crowded towns. A place where food, in particular, is taken very seriously. The Italians want you to know about it.

Which is why I recently spent three days on and off a minibus in the Province of Pisa. Sometimes here at The Journal we do things so that you don’t have to.

We arrive, bleary-eyed, at Pisa airport after a very early flight. Our guide, Vicenzo, has a broken arm, inflicted, he says, by an unhappy customer. He introduces us to our driver, the reassuringly reliable looking Gianfranco.

First destination is Fattoria Varramista, country residence of the Piaggio family, inventors of that most Italian of objects, the Vespa scooter. A light lunch is on offer, which will be most welcome.

Cooked meats, garlic bread, bread soup – a bit like your mam or gran’s broth – and a tasting of estate-bottled wines and grappa follow.  Of the three reds on offer I choose the cheapest as my favourite, proving I know nothing about wine. I suspect you could run a Vespa on the grappa.

Then a tour of the estate. In the house’s massive drawing room a vintage scooter has pride of place. Apparently the family pop in for the odd weekend, but spend most of their time in London. If you had a house like this, why would you?

In the grounds, amid 400ha of vines, are three buildings housing apartments available to rent for up to a month. Each comes with its own pool and tennis court.

Now we’re off to San Miniato, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The town is a centre of the Slow Food movement and hosts a national celebration of the truffle in November. The world record truffle was found here in 1954. It weighed 2.52kg and was presented (sorry, can’t tell you why) to US President Eisenhower.

San Miniato cake magician Paolo Gazzarrini

San Miniato cake magician Paolo Gazzarrini

In San Miniato we meet Paolo Gazzarrini in his shop and laboratory. Think Heston Blumenthal but with cakes. He makes 300 different kinds a year and we must taste several of them, each with a different wine – prosecco with this, maybe a fruity red with that, this one must be dipped in the vin santo. Were he from the North East, he’d have a sticker announcing himself as Passionate about… cake.

Down the road is the butcher’s shop of Signor Falaschi. He is Passionate about… pigs. There are many cooked meats he would like us to try, each with a sip of chianti, and the process of making them is explained in great detail. In Italian. He seriously disapproves of factory farmed pigs so unhappy they have to be given anti-depressants. Happy, outdoor, pigs make better food.

At the town’s street theatre festival Signor Falaschi sponsored a puppet show for children, called I Tre Porcellini in Macellaria. Three Little Pigs in a Butcher’s Shop. Hope the bambini loved that.

We finally get to check in to our lodgings for the night although the entrance to Borgo di Colleoli is so discreet Vicenzo and Gianfranco struggle to find it from 20 metres away.

The place is magnificent. A castle houses suites, the many outbuildings are converted to apartments – mine is a huge former stable – and there are more houses out in the grounds.

Borgo di Colleoli

Borgo di Colleoli

In the resort’s main square a wedding party is in full flow but about to be interrupted for England’s opening World Cup match against USA. The resort’s charming director Irene Pezone tells us the groom, a former Premiership footballer*, has prevailed over his new bride to have the match shown on outdoor screens. Does he now wish he hadn’t bothered?

Day two dawns, sunny and already hot. Breakfast is skipped. The itinerary says there’ll be a light lunch. I think I’m getting the hang of this now.

Vicenzo has been replaced by Ilaria. I hope he hasn’t had another encounter with his unhappy customer.

Ilaria takes us to a copper mining museum near the village of Montecatini Val de Cecina and reveals herself to be a big fan of Billy Elliot. She spent three months at Durham University and has seen the film five times. The museum, unfortunately, is presented only in Italian although English guides are available. There’s also the chance to go down into the former mine itself.

The light lunch is delicious. Cooked meats, pasta, and a delicious dessert. A smear of soft cheese and a drizzle of something fruity. Is it perhaps, we ask the signora, ricotta. No, Philadelphia. What would they make of that back in San Miniato?

Onwards to Volterra, which is gorgeous. Elegant renaissance buildings jostle for attention with medieval tower houses and Roman remains. The cathedral, dating back to the 10th Century, is simple, yet beautiful.

The large, austere Piazza dei Priori is the heart of the town and it is here that Volterra’s growing numbers of teenage visitors gather at noon in the shadow of the bell tower. As the bell tolls they run out into the square. Volterra is the home of a family of vampires called i Volturi in Stephanie Meyer’s stratospherically successful Twilight saga and the teenagers are re-enacting a key scene. (If this means nothing to you, ask a teenage girl.)

The local tourist people are heavily marketing the connection, bringing in a new kind of visitor who probably wouldn’t have come for the Etruscans and a trip round the alabaster factory. But, whisper this, the film people didn’t shoot in Volterra, but in Montepulciano.

Ilaria takes us to dinner at Ristorante Del Duca, one of Volterra’s finest and it’s really very good. There are, inevitably, cold cuts to start, then the kitchen sends out wild boar, pork and lamb. All are magnificent.

Early next morning the view from the hotel terrace is stunning. The sun is up but the valley below is filled with mist. I walk from Hotel Villa Nencini uphill (almost everywhere on this trip is, in Ilaria’s words “just a little up”) to one of the ancient gateways and find a bar for un caffe. The town is just waking up.

Morning view from Hotel Villa Nencini

Morning view from Hotel Villa Nencini

Day three finds us on the road to Casciana Terme to view a spa resort (nice if you like that sort of thing) and to the village of Lari in the Pisan hills which was awarded an orange flag by the Italian Touring Club for its quality of life. (Do we have such an award, I wonder).

The Martelli family have a pasta factory here but they’re not ready for us yet so we go to see the castle. It’s “just a little up” and the views across the rolling Pisan hills are wonderful.

Back with the Martellis we see them knead durum wheat with water (it’s that simple) then force it through moulds to make spaghetti, spaghettini, maccheroni and penne. Their output in a year is the same as that of an industrial producer in three days. It is made with care and is therefore better, they tell us.

But enough about food. A light lunch is waiting for us further into the hills. Gianfranco pilots the minibus through ever-smaller hamlets along ever-narrowing roads to Fattoria Castelli.

At the bottom of the farm track Gianfranco parks the minibus in the shade and we walk the final 100 yards or so. We have learned that Gianfranco likes the shade. He parks in it. If he has to wait for us, he stands in it. And if the sun moves, and the shade moves, he moves the bus too. You’ll never get too hot if you stick with Gianfranco.

Fattoria Castelli is an agriturismo – small farmers are allowed to convert buildings into holiday accommodation so they can afford to carry on farming in traditional ways. We’re back to that seriousness about food.

The building has four apartments and a large, cool dining hall. And with the temperature at around 30C cool is good. Lunch is three big courses of local produce, finishing with cherries and cherry cake. Cherries are big hereabouts.

And we’re back on the bus and off to the one real tourist hotspot of the trip – Pisa itself.

Pisa is a university city as well as repository of one of the most remarkable collections of buildings on the planet. The university district may well host one of the most remarkable collections of grafitti anywhere on the planet. Even the stuff written in English is spelled correctly. I can’t repeat any of it, suffice to say that Berlusconi, the police and Catholic priests don’t come out of it well.

On the way to the Campo dei Miracoli we encounter Vicenzo leading another party and discover the true story behind that broken arm. He fell over one of the chain fences he’s always warning tourists about.

And then we’re among the seething mass of humanity in the Campo. And there are the monuments, including the Leaning Tower, just as they look in the photographs. And there are queues to get into the right spot to take that clichéd shot where you look like you’re holding the tower up. “We call it the Japanese spot,” says Ilaria.

Later we dine al fresco. The city is quiet with World Cup expectation. The proprietor divides his time between his customers and watching Italy draw disappointingly with Paraguay on a laptop. Oh well, at least it wasn’t his wedding night.

*Dean Holdsworth, since you ask. And England and the USA drew 1-1

  • This article was researched and written in June 2010 and first appeared in The Journal, Newcastle, The trip was organised by