My new book on Tuscany and Umbria is out! I replaced the great photo of the Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul -- to the right of this post -- with one taken from the Torre di Bellosguardo, up the hill from the Porta Romana in Florence (both photos were taken by the wonderful photographer Peggy Harrison). Peggy is particularly fond of taking photos in the early morning hours in many locations because she says the light then is unique. I think you'll agree -- the shades of blue in her photo are not those normally associated with Florence, and I guess you have to get up pretty early to see them! In addition to the colors, what I also really like about this photo is that it reminds me of a passage in a lovely book by Marina Belozerskaya, The Arts of Tuscany: From the Etruscans to Ferragama (Abrams, 2008): the "links between man and nature, city and countryside, natural and man-made creations have always remained intimate in Tuscany, and endlessly generative. The countryside is what Tuscans see just beyond their city walls, traverse as they go to the next town, or look forward to visiting on the weekend." When you are at Bellosguardo -- looking out at the panorama from the garden or from the second-floor veranda -- you see clearly that the city of Florence is encircled by green hills. There is a marked boundary between city and country. If this were a North American city, there would likely be no end in sight of the surrounding sprawl.
The photos here in this posting were also taken by Peggy, also at Bellosguardo ("beautiful view"), which I daydream about almost daily. You can read more about this very special hotel in my book (and its website is http://www.torrebellosguardo.com/), but an important note about it is that the view of Florence from up here is astonishing, taking in every single Florentine monument, and it is without doubt the very best view of the city anywhere -- you will read often that the best view is from piazzale Michelangelo, but trust me, the piazzale isn't even a contender.
I share a number of other favorite places to stay in Tuscany and Umbria in my book, as well as my favorite hotel specialty groups (notably Abitare la Storia, http://www.abitarelastoria.it/) and the accommodation resources I regularly consult. One resource that has just been published -- but didn't make it into my book -- is For the Love of Italy: Rural Pleasures and Hotel Estates by Marella Caracciolo (with photographs by Oberto Gili, Clarkson Potter, 2010). Caracciolo was Italian editor at House and Garden for a dozen years and writes regularly for W and World of Interiors, and she and her husband, the artist Sandro Chia, renovated the wine estate Castello Romitorio (www.castelloromitorio.com/en/index.html), which overlooks the Val d'Orcia in southeastern Tuscany and is very near Montalcino (it's also featured in the book). The Castello produces some noteworthy wines (all red with the exception of one white, a blend of 20% Chardonnay and 80% Vermentino) including its Brunello di Montalcino Riserva 2004 (the year of an exceptional harvest), which is only the third Riserva from the estate (the previous Riserva releases were in 1999 and 1997, a Wine Spectator Top 50 Wines of the year). Sandro Chia acquired the Castello in 1984 -- in a nice association with my previous paragraphs, it was owned previously by Baron Giorgio Franchetti, who owned Torre di Bellosguardo until the years following World War II -- and the Castello's original structure dates from the 1300s and was constructed as a fortress to defend the city of Montalcino. Not only is the Castello Romitorio of interest to those who love the fruit of the vine (the tasting room is open Monday through Friday by reservation only: (39) 0577.847.212) but there are two villas on the grounds of the estate that are available for rent: Poggio di Sopra in Montalcino and Podere Biancanelle, set on a hill in the Maremma only 20 kilometers from the Tyrrhenian Sea coast.
For the Love of Italy is not, as Carraciola notes in her introduction, an objective book. The featured accommodations reflect her "subjective choices for the prettiest rural Italian farms at which travelers can stay," and they're places that photographer Gili likes too ("most editors who have worked with Oberto know that it is quite pointless to ask him to photograph places that don't attract him. He won't."). The author-photographer team looked for agriturismi that are run well and where visitors can learn about rural Italian life, places that are "not too large, not too famous, extremely hospitable, and..photogenic." And wow, are these places great: I think you will, like me, want to stay at so many of these. I am familiar with a number of these (notably La Foce, Don Alfonoso, Regaleali, La Montecchia) but happily many are new, and there are listings for northern Italy southern Italy and Sicily; a separate chapter just on Tuscany; and another that features Umbria, the Marche, Lazio, and Abruzzo. I really like that signature products -- such as olive oil, wine, pasta, nuts, truffles, meats, fruits, honey, grappa, etc. -- produced on each estate are mentioned.
The last 16 pages of the book are dedicated to useful websites for planning a trip in rural Italy and an insider's guide, which is "the fruit of an intense collaboration and word-of-mouth research among journalists, writers, farmers, and friends, both Italian and foreign, who know Italy well and have traveled extensively throughout the country. Despite the rising success of rural hospitality, it is difficult to find a reliable guide to it. This list will not fill the gap." It is, however, incredibly useful, and in addition to the contact information for the places featured in the book there are 63 recommendations for Tuscany and ten for Umbria, making this worthy of perusal even if you never set foot in any other part of Italy. The book is really a celebration of the countryside of Italy and the farm-to-table movement, and though often the price of staying at an agriturismo property is less expensive than staying at an urban hotel, "this is not why people choose to travel this way" says Caracciolo. "What they are looking for is an experience. Living on a family-run farm, eating and drinking the produce of the land, makes people feel anchored to the territory and to the culture of the place. They are tuning into something authentic."
For the Love of Italy is an expensive ($60), fully illustrated book, which you can obviously check out of your local library; but it's also a book that may be used as a great resource for Italian country design and decor ideas, and for regular visitors to Italy it's one I would add to the essenziale shelf.