May 2018. It is mid afternoon when we pull into the farm hotel. A deep calm blankets the property and there is no sign of anyone apart from a French couple that pad across the courtyard toward the pool. The tractors have been shut down for the day and the farm workers have gone home, but the air is alive with insect and bird life, and thick with the jasmine and honeysuckle that race over the stone walls. In the family for generations; the Agnello estate was once a summer residence, and was converted into farm stay accommodation in the 1970’s, when opening old homes became a way of helping maintain them. I am instantly seduced by the bygone era charm and earthy simplicity.
Oh yes, there are rewards are out there for the traveller who decides to skip Venice in high season and take the slow train somewhere else. To leave the coastal towns in Puglia and Sicily and head inland, wind their way south of Tuscany and or north of Rome and wander through the rock towns, volcanic lakes and along pilgrims’ routes.
This post is not an exhaustive travel guide but the throwing out of ideas. Spots to stay, towns to visit, restaurants to stop by in a selection of places I’ve visited over the last couple of years. Lots of the accommodation I discovered while researching articles for the Dutch magazine De Smaak Van Italie, so here is a good place to read about them, unless you happen to speak Dutch. Many of the photographs are by photographer Sofie Delauw, and I’m adding places as I find them.
My friend Saghar told me about this intimate Masseria nestled into a working organic farm near the ceramics town of Grottaglie. In the middle of the baked plains that stretch between Martina Franca and Taranto, the Masseria has three apartments built into the stables of the old fortified farm buildings, set around a perfumed garden and filled with artisan ceramics, woven rugs and antique furniture. Close enough to the sea, a hop skip and a jump from all those ceramics workshops, and surrounded by a landscape punctuated by gorges and ravines.
When visiting Grottaglie the restaurant to eat at is Macchiava Bistrot.
There is a serious grain thing going on in Sicily. After decades of abandon, land is being taken up by Sicilians young and old, and ancient grain varieties like Russello and Timilìa are being revived with great results. These are healthy hard wheat grains that are good for us, and good for the earth. At the impeccably restored Fontes Episcopi grains grown on the property end up in the dining room, after having been transformed into naturally leavened loaves and baked in an olive and almond wood burning oven. My room here was gorgeous, but all I wanted to do was hang out in the kitchen.
Fontes Episcopi is a perfect base from which to see the amazing Greek Temples at Agrigento or throw yourself into the Mediterranean from an untamed beach. Given that there is also a pool (and that the food is incredible), you could also quite easily just stay put.
La Tana del Istrice Wine Hotel, Civitella d’Agliano
So you want to taste the wines and do the tasting dinner and have another glass of Sergio Mottura’s wonderful sticky Grechetto Passito ‘Muffo‘. Then sink into a four poster bed at the end of it all. The Mottura family, makers of arguably Lazio’s best wine, created their wine hotel by restoring the noble palace of tiny Civitella d’Agliano so that visitors could have the 360° wine experience, as well as getting to know the wonderful Tuscia, almost Umbria but more of a secret. I am biased, but this is a gem.
Il Baciarino is one of those places that you feel like you have been there a week when you arrived an hour ago. Super rustic but with all the cool things like a pool for the scorchers, and wood fired hot tubs for starry nights, the view from the decks is out into what feels like the Maremma wilderness. Andrea is perhaps the best seafood cook I know, and the super tranquil town of Vetulonia is close enough to the seaside, spa towns and Etruscan ruins to fill in time between reading and dozing under an olive tree.
The place I want to take my family back to that was described in the opening lines of this post. Wound up in the mythical Sicilian past of noble families and the famous mixed blood of the island, with a decidedly down to earth flavour. Friendly communal dinners are served under an elm tree where carafes of local wine are passed amongst big platters of ripe tomatoes and grilled sausages.
Butera 28 Apartments, Palermo
One for the literary buffs. The Palazzo Lanza Tomasi; in which the apartments are housed, was the last home of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of ‘The Leopard’. A tour through the stately rooms – which you get to do if you sign up for the fun and informative ‘cooking with the duchess‘ class – is a flash back to the world of Tancredi and company. Brilliant position, lots of character, and enough space to scatter the contents of your suitcase around the period furniture as you please.
The destination for everyone who has never slept in a Trullo. And who wants to dive into a crystal clear pool every morning. And bake bread in the outdoor oven. A little slice of paradise lovingly restored with character by owners Louisa and Francesco.
Close to the pretty town of Ceglie Messapica where the restaurant to eat at is Cibus, the infamous Puglia destination that refused a Michelin hat, and the biscuits to look out for are little parcels of almond crust and cherry filling.
Le Antiche Mura, Semproniano, Tuscany
A happy find for a few days lolling in the natural spas at Saturnia. Semproniano is a small town just north of Saturnia – where you can bathe in volcanic water in open rockpools or more pampered environment of the Terme di Saturnia – with all the charm of a little Tuscan town yet to be trampled upon by day trippers. The Antiche Mura has four beautiful rooms and even a library for the use of guests, and in the warmer months breakfast is served in the terracotta paved garden that backs on to the old walls of the town. Nearby hotel Locanda della Pieve is also charming, and has a great in house restaurant.
Masseria Potenti, Manduria, Puglia
So much has been written and shot, dreamed about and revisited about this incredible Masseria. A visual feast from the moment you walk through the huge gates and into the wide expanse of courtyard, and a tribute to the intense creativity of the owner Maria Grazie who has kept towns worth or artisans in work in creating this magic place. Fig trees, prickly pears, a citrus orchard, antique linens in every room, lovingly prepared meals.
Casale Volpe, Sant’ Angelo in Pantano, Le Marche
Of all the regions listed here, Le Marche is perhaps that which really is still genuinely off the beaten track. A veritable tapestry of rolling hills and medieval jewels (Urbino!, Gradara!) Le Marche lies wedged between Umbria, Emilia Romagna and the Adriatic sea. Casale Volpe is a beautifully restored stone farmhouse where owners Kelda and Mike will help organise bikes, local tours and of course meals for guests. Unless they just want to hang by the new pool and enjoy the gentle hum of country life and a good book.
Lubriano, our house with a view over the Valle dei Calanchi and Civita di Bagnoregio.
Last, but certainly not least, our little slice of Italian village life in Alto Lazio, near lake Bolsena, Orvieto and the hill towns of Umbria and Tuscany.