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Vignola, Santo Stefano Estate, Montaione, Tuscany
A rainy October half term loomed, and rather than spend the week ferrrying our 5 year olds from one indoor activity to another, a friend and I decided to make for the hills - or more specifically, the Tuscan hills. We chose an appt at Podere Vignola on the 13th century Santo Stefano estate - a villa which has been coverted into 8 apartments, set in mature gardens, with a beautiful shared pool and a stunning hilltop location.
We flew to Pisa from Gatwick with BA (also flights from Stansted with Ryan Air)and hired a car on arrival. The whole process of getting from Pisa to Vignola was remarkably stress-free. The airport is small, we picked up our car without incident, and the road leading out of the airport is the one you need, and takes you almost all the way there. An experience so unlike my usual holiday transfer scenario - which usually involves getting hopelessly lost in various ring roads etc for a couple of sweaty hours before finally chancing upon the right road out of town.
About an hour from Pisa, Santo Stefano is sign posted off the road to Montaione, and you wind up a pretty steep hill (testing driving skills - ooops, yes, we do need first gear) before reaching the estate - which dates back to the 13th century - at the top. The estate itself is vast - over 1000 acres of rolling hills, cypress trees, olive groves, even a lake with resident beavers - and scattered around it there are a number of superb restored properties. Vignola has about the best view of them all. We arrived at sunset to be greeted by the supremely capable and very friendly estate manager, Sarah, and even the boys marvelled at the view. Vignola has a lovely covered open-air loggia perched on the edge of the hill which just cries out to be sat under, glass of Chianti in hand.
Rooms with viewsThe apartment suites sleep 2 to 5 people and have spacious bedrooms and a sitting room leading to a fully equipped kichen. They are well decorated in traditional Tuscan style and colours with good quality fitments.There is an area outsde each ground floor appt for al fresco dining or just relaxing (one larger suite on the first floor has a lovely private terrace for dining), although of course you can use the loggia for eating too. The appts have central heating for cooler months (ideal for the chilly October evenings, which wouldn't have been nearly so atmospheric had we been freezing inside our new home whilst gazing out at the misty moonlight reflected in the pool. We were very warm and cosy however, and even lit a fire one evening, which added to the fun of it all. If you stay in the summer none of this will be of any import, as you'll be grateful for the cool interiors, but it does make the property equally appealing off season.
There is a large pool house with kithen which is used if you rent the whole property (ideal for celebrations or large get-toethers, sleeps up to 20-29), but otherwise can be used for extra cooking space, equipment etc. There are plans to use this for supervised video screenings/pizza lessons for children during the summer months, which will be wonderful - the children amused while parents relax and enjoy the sunset. There's a tv in each appt too.
We woke to a glorious view across the pool, of mist in the valley, slowly curling around the cypress trees surrounding the villa oerched on the distant hilltop. The gardens are large and enclosed, so relatively safe for children, and certainly ideal for toddlers - plenty of grass. The pool is stunning - a large infinity pool set into a marble and terracotta terrace with good quality sun loungers with mattresses. Despite the cool morning, our boys were splashing about in a trice, whilst we lay back on the loungers and contemplated the view.
Out and about - culture, olives, tennis and riding....Hard though it was, we managed to drag ourselves away from the contemplation and headed off to explore our surroundings. The countryside all around is lovely - there are endless walks, geese, horses, pheasants all within a few minutes of Vignola. Once safely back down the hill there are so many activities within easy reach too - the boys enjoyed western-style horse riding, there was tennis + coaching too, and we visited Sassolo - a local winery+olive oil producer - which was as fascinating for the boys as it was for us.
Vignola is superbly located too, for exploring Tuscany.The closest town Montaione is charming and has all the facilities you'd need, plus a small playground and plenty of family-friendly restaurants. Some of the most famous hill top villages are within easy reach too (maximum 40 mins drive), such as Volterra, Certaldo, and San Gimiginano. Our boys surpised us, and realy enjoyed the trips too - the dungeons at the Palace in Certaldo were a big favourite, and really sparked their imaginations. Florence itself is but an hour away. Vignola is the perfect base for enjoying days which are a mix of relaxation in the sun, and trips out - interspersed with some delicious meals of course. There are plenty of restaurants within a 15 min drive of Vignola, and we ate out a lot. The kitchens are so well equipped however, that we could imagine that in the summer it would be great to be able to eat lunch out, then return to Vignola to relax, enjoy the sunset and eat al fresco.
Excellent on-site service and supportThe Vignola estate is managed by Sarah Phillips - who is both friendly, very knowledgeable and capable. She lives on site, quite close to Vignola, and its a real plus that someone of this calibre is on hand to make sure that your holiday runs smoothly. There is a freephone mobile to Sarah from the loggia at Vignola which is a great service. She advised us on local trips, arranged horse-riding, helped us to explore the estate, and dealt effortlessly and helpfully with a couple of minor medical problems we encountered. If you're travelling with children and babies and staying in a fairly rural area, this sort of support is invaluable.
Villas perfect for family/friend get-togethers or celebrationsWe took the opportunity to explore the rest of the estate and take a look at the other properties - all of which are stuning. There is actually a self contained 3 bedroomed villa with a lovely garden - La Scuola - just 3 mins walk from Vignola - which offers privacy and your own garden, plus all the facilities of the pool etc at Vignola. There is another villa converted into appts - Borgo La Casa - this has a large pool and garden, and interiors which are slightly more contemporary, and the appts mostly have outdoor cobbled patios. There are at least two large villas - Ceretello and Le Casine. Other houses are being refurbished all the time. Il Cerretello is the perfect base for a large party - sleeping up to 21, offering a great mix of common space and privacy - as many of the rooms are in fact self contained appts within the same house. There are two lounges, one of which is ideal as a childrens playroom/tv lounge. The pool and view are gorgeous, as are the gardens - there's even an olive grove. The other large house we saw was le Casine - decorated in a more contemporary style and sleeping 21-29. This is a lovely house - with 360 views, a large, truly stunning pool with open-air loggia and large lounge and kitchen. Almost all the rooms are en suite. Again, the perfect location for a holiday with family or friends, and also perfect for celebrations/weddings etc (Sarah can arrange everything you'd need for any celebration). It's a very stylish place.
Apart from the activities for children 3+ mentioned earlier, sarah can arrange nannies and babysitters (also cooks) according to demand. So it's easy to spend a few hours either relaxing or exploring whilst the children are happily occupied.
We had a great holiday - there was something new to explore every day, yet also plenty of time during each day just to kick back and relax and enjoy the beautful surroundings while the boys ran around the gardens, played tennis, swam in the pool, and spent many a happy hour trying to extract olive oil by squashing 5 olives collected from the gardens between two large stones in an attempt to recreate the olive oil press they'd seen on one of our trips. Educational and fun, what more could you ask for? Vignola is a property with somethign to offer during every season - in late October we had generally warm weather, but were also treated to most metereological conditions the area experiences annually - everything from warm sun to thick fog, and a spectacular storm - yes, driving skills tested once again. And you definitely DO need first gear.