Last year, I won a writing competition where the prize was a week-long stay at Villa Cigano, in the heart of the Chianti region. I can’t think of a lovelier place to spend a week in the summer. Perched high up above the small town of Vagliagli, the villa looked out over the rolling Tuscan hillside. The crest of the ridges fell away from us, until at dusk, the faraway hills merged into the inky blue sky.
Villa Cigano was a barn in a previous life, and its renovation didn’t hide its history. There was a discernible hayloft, exposed beams, terracotta floors and a slate tile ceiling in the main bedroom. A loggia stretched along the length of the house with a table for outside dining, and a pool sunk into the bottom of the garden. Like I said, a lovely place to stay in the summer.
We stayed at Villa Cigano in the final week of October. A week which crept into November. The clocks turned back, and officially announced the onslaught of winter. During the daytime, the skies in Tuscany were clear blue. But the cloudless nights shrouded the hills in a chill which the late-October sun was too weak to properly burn off.
So, in the evenings we lit a fire, and hunkered next to it in jumpers and coats with blankets over our knees. We drunk Chianti Classico, and laughed at the absurdity of it all. In the mornings, we took turns to fight our way out from under layer upon layer of satin-trim acrylic blankets, and pad, bare-footed on the cold terracotta stones to make a cup of tea in the kitchen.
Each day, we decided to embark upon an expedition which got us out of the villa. Even though the October sun wasn’t strong enough to heat up a big, brick barn, it was strong enough to heat up two people pottering round Tuscany, and coax the coats off our backs.
We visited the castle in Staggia, and ate ragu at the one trattoria in town. We walked 10km to the beautiful town of Castellina in Chianti for an ice cream at the gelateria there, and then pottered back. We ambled round Siena and bathed on the warm tiles in the Piazza del Campo. We wandered round the Duomo cathedral, marvelling at every intricate inch of floor, wall and ceiling, and we sipped coffee while rolling Yahtzee dice in sunny Italian cafes.
My favourite day in Chianti started out with a trip to the Sculpture Park. Though it was also my favourite because it finished in La Taverna di Vagliagli, but (as has been the way quite a lot recently), I failed to take any photographs so will have to explain the brilliance of the meal in words. Firstly, the wine – a delicious €12 bottle of house red, amongst a in impressive choice of local Chianti Classicos. It was rich with berries and smooth and not too tannic, and so very drinkable. Enough to make you want to weep when you think of equivalent wine lists in London.
The Taverna was a simple design – stone walls and terracotta floors – without being too twee or self-conscious in its Italian rusticness. There were a smattering of couples and families, but one of the two adjoining dining rooms was heaving with big groups of people in their 20’s and 30’s, drinking and eating and laughing, fuelling the festal atmosphere.
The most memorable dish (it was 17 days ago and I’m still thinking of it) was ‘rabbit tuna’. It’s is called ‘rabbit tuna’ because – after simmering for 45 minutes – the rabbit is pulled from the bone and stored in oil, like tuna, to keep it nice and moist and prevent it from drying out. The cold rabbit was then served with a drizzle of bright olive oil, sweet-pickled slivers of red onion and a sprig of sage. The porterhouse beef steak was cooked on an open fire. Char-blackened outside and juicy-pink meat, generous seasoning and crisp-skinned boiled potatoes. Two antipasti, two primi, two secondi (including steak), a bottle of wine, and impeccable service for £65.
But, as I said a few paragraphs back, the day started at the Chianti Sculpture Park. Earlier that morning, we’d set off on the 6km walk from the villa, winding past rows of vineyards and olive pickers brushing the fruit into nets. We forked off down a dust track road. Every car which passed kicked up grey-white powder which settled on the hedgerows, making it look like the set of a seventies ghost film.
The Chianti Sculpture Park was a 1km-long stroll through an empty oak wood. Not a soul. The advantage of visiting in late-October, I suppose. The park opened in 2004, when 26 artists from round the world were invited to walk through the forest and pick a spot which inspired an instillation. Perhaps the angle of a tree or a gap in the forest canopy.
The first artwork was the amphitheatre, which was built on a natural slope. The minimalist wings are made from four slabs of Carrara marble and black Zimbabwean granite. Two-dimensional carvings perch on the stone bench seats: Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy – so when people come to the Tuesday night summer concerts, they sit amongst the life-sized figures.
We moved onto ‘Energy’ by Greek artist Costas Varotsos whose 8-metre high construction was made from 800 sheets of glass. The 16-ton sculpture took inspiration from Varotsos’ native Cyprus tree, but it looked so majestic and beautiful in the Tuscan forest.
Next was my favourite, ‘Suspended Stone’, which placed a boulder so snugly between two pillars it seemed to levitate. The skeletal ship –’The Keel’ – made from volcanic lava has already started to blend more and more deeply into the forest as lichen and moss cover the rock, while ‘The Labyrinth’ is designed to stand out, and coax visitors into the glass maze which is based on a design dating back to 700BC, found carved into Val Camonica rock.
We left, and headed back down the dust track. Just as the art installations in the park had melded into the nature, so the nature started to meld into art – each dust-covered, white leaf or twig looking like it was carved from alabaster. We walked back to Vagliagli to La Taverna, where we toasted the cold villa which had forced us to pound the beautiful paths round Chinati to stay warm.
The Chianti Sculpture Park is open daily from 10am until sunset. If you’re visiting from November to March it is advisable to call first, just to check that the park is open. The entrance fee is €7.50, and I really advise paying extra for the audio-guide.
To stay at Villa Cigano, visit the Tuscany Now site.
For anyone trying to drive into Siena, it will save you a lot of time and hassle to park at the railway station. There are lots of spaces in a multi story car park, it’s not too expensive, and there’s an easy escalator right up into the city centre from the Porta Camolia shopping centre.