Italy has always been a dream destination for many travellers, myself included and when I was presented with the opportunity to travel to Italy recently, it was absolutely something I could not pass up. Flying from California to Florence was easy with a layover in Munich. A surprisingly short 13 hour journey was well worth it to experience the countryside and charm of Italy – and in particular, Tuscany.
I chose to stay at the Castello di Montalto in their gorgeously decorated La Voliera suite, a former pheasant hatchery. The castle is right in the heart of the Tuscan Chianti vineyards near Florence and is perfectly located right in the centre of Italy itself, between Siena and Arezzo, about three hours by car from Rome and only 90 minutes by car from Florence. This prime location means it’s an ideal spot for those who want to stay in a luxurious accomodation in the Italian countryside, but with the option to explore further afield and experience the cities and villages of Italy on day trips.
Arriving at the castle is more than just a memorable moment. I was excited to see the tower and higher buildings, peeking out from over lush, green trees, set amid the rolling vineyard laden hills of the Chianti region in Tuscany. If ever there was a true wine region, it’s here, and I very much anticipated unpacking my bags and diving right into a delicious red wine, produced nearby. I eventually sampled several but the one that stuck in my mind was Il Secondo from the Pacina winery, dated 2015.
I was particularly intrigued by the history of the castle. The Castello di Montalto has a rich and colorful history, especially as much of it dates from pre-1000 AD, making some parts of it over one thousand years old. Of course, much of it has been restored to its former glory, and some of the restorations took place in the 16th and 19th centuries, giving the castle its medieval and period charm that it retains today.
The Castello di Montalto has an impressive tower which is believed to have been erected as early as the 6th century with the rest of the castle following around 1000 AD. The original construction of the tower is believed to have been done by the Longobards, a Germanic people who had control of the area around this time. Walking around the castle grounds, you can almost feel the history seeping from the stones that it was built from. The well in the courtyard as you enter the castle grounds adds to the medieval ambience, and you can just imagine people going about their days in ancient medieval times, drawing water for the animals as well as to serve in the halls of the castle itself.
The greater parts of the castle were built by descendants of Winigis, the first Salic count of the region of Siena. This period of construction was overseen by not just the son of Winigis, Berard but also the Franks who inhabited the region at the time. The land Berardenga takes its name from Berard, and Berardeschi (his descendants) are mentioned numerous times in documents relating to the region including the nearby chapel that was founded by Winigis himself. At one point, documents show that at least forty people lived on the lands of the castle, believed to be descendants of Berard. I found it thrilling to read and learn about the history and the people who created this amazing place, I found that it just brought the whole castle to life in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.
During medieval times the Castello di Montalto was of serious strategic importance, especially during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries when battles raged across the region. One such battle, the Battle of Montalto in which the whole of the castle was nearly destroyed and over 1200 prisoners were taken by Florence in their defeat of Siena. It marked a turning point in their centuries long war over control of important trading routes in the area.
During my time at the Castello di Montalto I enjoyed strolling through the courtyard and through the vineyards of the surrounding region, especially in the mornings. I found this was a great way to start the day and really take in where I was. Olive groves are plentiful and you can sample delicious local wines produced right in the area as I did on my first night. As Florence is nearby, I found that getting to the city was easy, but I did rent a car on my arrival (I highly recommend doing so to give you more freedom to explore the Tuscan countryside as well as the ability to get to other cities like Pisa or Rome for day trips if you so choose). Florence was really something else, especially given its history as not just the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, but also as the place that a new currency was developed which helped to navigate Europe from the Dark Ages. Museums are plentiful here but I found that visiting Siena, near the Castello di Montalto had my favourite museum – the Museo Civico de Siena, which was overflowing with local Sienese art as well as frescos from the 19th century featuring the story of Italy’s first king. One of the highlights of the museum though was the belltower, Torre del Mangia. A short climb up to the top gives the visitor commanding views of the countryside as well as much of Siena and Campo as well.
One of the stand out moments from Siena though was standing in the middle of the Piazza del Campo. It had always been a dream of mine to explore the old town squares of Italian cities, and Siena certainly didn’t disappoint. I’d read that the Piazza del Campo is known as one of Europe’s most beautiful squares, and you can tell it is. With impressive architecture and surrounded by beautiful terracotta colored roofs, the Piazza del Campo is everything a medieval town square should be. It’s easy to see how almost anyone would enjoy Siena. I stopped in a nearby cafe for an affogato and pizza, and then returned to the castle where I took part in a cooking class, after which we enjoyed the meal we’d prepared – an absolutely incredible experience creating delectable food. Now that I know how to make it, it’s a skill I’ll definitely be showing off time and again back home.
The Castello di Montalto is a great place to just relax and chill out. I spent a couple of days just enjoying the grounds and everything there was on offer. A game or four of Bocce Ball with other guests as well as a couple of dips in the pool were just what I needed to unwind from the last several months at work. I took one of the painting classes on offer at the castle as well, and I’m now the proud owner of my very own painted Tuscan landscape – something every home should have. Not only that, but it’s a great, very personal souvenir of my time in Italy that now hangs framed in my living room at home.
One evening during my stay the castle hosted a beautiful concert of chamber music which really set the mood in the medieval hall. Other guests and I all agreed that it transported us back to the early days of the castle, when descendants of Berard lived in its walls and drew water from its well. The hustle and bustle of daily medieval life rang out in our heads as the music played on, echoing through the hall, and taking us back to years long past. One of the highlights for sure and I highly recommend attending if the show is on during your stay as well.
Being a lover of Italian culture and cuisine, I tried my hand at learning a bit of Italian, especially since by this point I’d already planned on coming back to Italy – and to the Montalto in Toscana – again. The classes were easy to follow and enjoyable and I retained almost everything I’d learned thanks to the fun lessons and easy to follow teaching.
I’d only ever ridden a horse twice in my life and I saw the Montalto offered horseback riding, which I decided to try. I have to say, I’m a total convert for horseback riding, especially in beautiful locales such as the hills of Tuscany. Riding up country lanes, passing through small quaint villages where bread still cools on windowsills and local merchants sit on stools outside their shops in the shade, a respite from the hot air inside, it was all made much more magical exploring by horseback.
In all, I have to say that I’ll definitely be back to Castello di Montalto. With so many things to see and do, as well as the ancient history brought back to life through this unique example of agriturismo in the Tuscan hills, there’s no way I’ll stay anywhere but the Montalto again. I was made to feel like royalty during my whole stay, and I have to admit that each night, watching the sun set over the terraced hills of the Tuscan countryside, I felt like royalty too.