The deep-throated cooing of pigeons in the rafters roused me from a delicious sleep. I stretched and yawned before climbing out of bed to watch the sunrise. As the sky blushed deep orange, lights winked on across the valley, marking tiny hilltop towns that are invisible during daylight hours. I glanced at the clock and groaned. 5:30 a.m. Too early for me to be up. I crawled back into bed and drifted off for another hour – until the donkey started braying. Rather than fight it, I reset my internal clock and headed out to take photos of this working farm in the heart of Tuscany, Italy.
Montestigliano was established at the end of the 18th century by the aristocratic De Vecchi family from Siena. They built the first part of what is today the central property. It changed hands twice more through the centuries, with each owner expanding the property until it included several palazzos for the owners, a small chapel, a granary, and houses for the farm manager and workers. Its fourth owner, Luigi Donati, acquired it in 1953, but by then the once prosperous property was in a run-down state.
The years following WWII had been difficult for Italy’s hilltop estates. Prior to the war, workers lived on site and shared in the profits of the farm. The local priest would arrive every Sunday to conduct services. Everyone lived together as a community on the hilltop. After the war, the industrial revolution lured workers to better jobs in the city. Many farms, including Montestigliano, were abandoned and left to crumble.
To bring the farm back to profitability, the Donatis ceased wine production and livestock breeding, focusing instead on crops such as wheat, sunflowers, rapeseed, maize, and olive oil. Then, in 1985, a tourist agent in London convinced the family that many people would love to stay at a working holiday farm in Tuscany. Luisa Donati, granddaughter of Luigi, had just completed a degree in hospitality, so the family applied for and received the first permit for Agrotourism ever issued in Tuscany.
The Brits arrived first and by the 1990’s the Americans had discovered Montestigliano. Over the next 30 years, the Donatis converted all of Montestigliano’s old palazzos into guest houses. One of these, Casa Luisa, was my home away from home during my stay.
When I wasn’t sunning by the pool or relaxing in the lounge chairs scattered around the grounds, I explored every nook and cranny of the estate. Uphill trails led through stately rows of ancient Cypress trees, while a grassy downhill path wandered through the farm’s gnarled olive trees.
One afternoon, I joined a tasting of extra-virgin olive oil. Two of the varieties were from the farm’s private label production, while the third was a store-bought brand. Following instructions, I examined the color, sniffed it, then rolled a sip of each around on my tongue. I fancy myself an olive oil connoisseur, but I failed miserably. After making our choices, the tin foil was peeled off the bottles. Everyone else had chosen one of the two Donati products. I was the only participant who chose the store-bought brand.
When I wasn’t teasing my palette with olive oil, I was gorging on scrumptious meals served in the courtyard of the main palazzo. Montestigliano’s humongous fresh salads, decadent pastas drenched in rich sauces, platters of grilled vegetables, fresh Pecorino and Grana Padano cheeses, eggplant parmigana, and pesto gnocchi made me salivate.
My favorite meal was pizza night, when the whole family pitched in to create gourmet pizzas in the farm’s ancient wood-fired oven. The first one out was a traditional four-cheese pie. That was followed by one topped with roasted veggies. A third featured fresh arugula, oil-drenched cherry tomatoes, and tissue thin slices of Carpaccio.
We ate our fill and then ate some more, until we couldn’t eat another bite, but the pizzas just kept coming. We begged them to stop but they had one more surprise in store. Desert pizzas appeared, the first heaped with fresh fruit and another slathered with Nutella and topped with candied oranges. I managed to find room for another couple slices and then waddled off to my room, groaning with pleasure.
Fortunately, Montestigliano’s location in central Tuscany, is ideal for visiting the famous hilltop villages of Siena, Volterra, and San Gimignano. One afternoon, I burned off some of the excess calories I’d consumed by trekking up and down the steep cobblestone lanes of Siena. Another day I joined Caterina Frey, a certified nature and trekking guide, for a delightful hike through the surrounding countryside. Caterina combines her passions for nature, art, and culture by educating participants about the area’s flora and fauna, geology, and history as she walks.
The Donatis are also happy to arrange bicycling tours, wine tasting tours, cooking courses, golf outings, and wellness activities at a nearby spa. Occasionally, the estate is booked for weddings. The bride and groom walk through the grove of olive trees to a clearing, where they take their vows in front of an ancient well. The Donatis handle every detail of the ceremony, right down to photos, cake, decorations, and catering. With 11 properties to choose from, Montestigliano can accommodate couples, families and groups numbering up to 120.
For me, however, the true appeal of Montestigliano holiday farm in Tuscany was its serenity. I would have been happy if I’d never moved from the sling-back chairs on the terrace below my bedroom window. And it didn’t hurt that the family’s cat was happy to crawl onto my lap and let me pet it for hours on end. My stay was all too short and I can’t wait to return.
Author’s note: I was a guest of Montestigliano Holiday Farm during my stay in Tuscany, Italy. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Read what guests have to say about Montestigliano Farm Holidays at TripAdvisor