VILLA MICHAELA, Tuscany, Italy

 Tuscan Serenade

By Lead Travel Writer Renee Fontaine

Serenata (It.): A captivating evening concert in the open air or under the window of an aficionada. 

A lovely serenade has seduced my heart. Unlike the variety sung by a handsome Italian beneath my window, the music is uniquely Tuscan. This heart-capturing song is a mélange of melodies, harmonies and rhythms that stirs the senses. The tantalizing sound of the Italian language – buongiorno, ciao bella and magnifico still whispers in my ears. The beauty of lush green mountains and ancient architecture is still clear in my vision like the longing gaze of a lover. The taste of the Italian wine lingers on my lips like an unforgotten kiss. The scent of roses and jasmine arouse my desire to return. The light breeze on my skin and sun on my face are still felt in my heart like a loving embrace. This love affair with Tuscany began with my journey to the quaint hamlet of Vorno at an enchanting chateau – Villa Michaela.

Introduzione (It.): The opening movement of a concerto that establishes the melody, harmony and rhythm.

My introduction to this serenade began one evening in May at the airport in Pisa, Italy. In Italian style, I rented a small Fiat and set out on the winding, country roads toward the medieval town of Lucca.  The energy of the lush, green landscape reverberated through the dark still night air. My host from Villa Michaela – David – had invited me to a Beethoven concert being performed that evening in Lucca.

David was waiting for me at Piazza Napoleone with a welcoming smile and a British accent. Having arrived too late for the concert, we were invited to attend the musicians’ after party. I was introduced to Maestro Andrea Colombini and some of David’s friends – Michael and Barbara who were also staying at Villa Michaela. Sitting under the stars in the open air bistro that evening, the melody and rhythm of this serenade began to unfold. The ancient architecture of Lucca, the laughter of my companions, and the fresh Tuscan air stirred my senses with a welcoming embrace.

The Acclerando – gradual increase in speed – of the evening was subtle as we made our way toward the town of Vorno while stopping at some favorite establishments along the way. Another glass of wine, more introductions, a birthday celebration and more laughter preceded our arrival.

Under the dark midnight sky, I arrived at Villa Michaela with my new found friends. Passing through the tall wrought iron gates and past the rose gardens and chapel, the sweet tune of this ancient chateau touched my soul with a peaceful, calming song. Entering the chateau, I marveled at the grand staircase, finely painted wall murals and antique furnishings that give an aurora that is purely Italian.  After settling into my suite on the top floor, I fell into a sound sleep as if having been lulled by a sweet lullaby.

Melodia (It.): A succession of alluring sounds so arranged to move the senses of the listeners.

The Calmoto – calmness, tranquility and repose – of the morning woke me with a lovely melody – birds chirping and the distant “ding, ding, dong” of church bells. The authentic beauty of my suite enhanced the serenity – the rustic wood beams of a gabled ceiling, an antique bureau, traditional Victorian furniture and deep soaking tub. Through the open windows, I gazed at the stunning view of lush green mountains and small towns in the valley below.

Meandering my way downstairs, I admired the luxurious character of the chateau. In traditional Italian flare, the spacious sitting rooms and suites on each floor give the guests a feeling of comfort and privacy. The twelve bedrooms in the main villa and five in the adjoining house make it ideal for large group gatherings and weddings. Arrangements can be made with neighboring properties to accommodate even larger groups. Yet, I could see that this charming estate is equally enchanting for couples and families.

The scent of cooking eggs and pastries led me to the spacious kitchen with its large marble-top island where I was warmly greeted by Chef Gavin and his lovely wife, Lucie. The setting of this traditional kitchen with large central table and antique bureaus made me feel like I had stepped into a scene from an old, Italian film. The space is designed to provide ample room for cooking classes which are held at the chateau via the Rhodes School of Cuisine.

The incalzando – growing warmth and fervor – of this morning ritual was felt throughout the days to come. Many memorable breakfasts and dinners were shared in the company of Lucie and Gavin, and their two adorable children – Zara and Oli – whose sweet voices provided a precious tone to this melody. David and Michael, who are long-time friends, provided daily humor with stories from the past adding the sweet sound of laughter to this beautiful serenade. New friendships were formed with other guests from around the world as we chatted and compared our travel adventures.

Every morning after breakfast, I  basked in the beauty of the Tuscan scenery. The 50 acres of olive groves, pine clad hills and gardens of Villa Michaela are a sanctuary with endless places to stroll and relax. The rose garden, lemon grove and swimming pool were some of my favorite spots. Some days, I would stop in the private chapel and play a tune or two on the grand piano.

Often, I would leave through the front gate to hike the road toward the mountain ridge. The sun warmed my face as I passed large olive groves. Italian men perched in the trees greeted me with “buongiorno” as they pruned the branches. Continuing on the winding road past an area shaded with towering pines, I came to the top of the ridge.  A light breeze cooled my skin. The view of the walled town of Lucca in the valley below was stunning. Ancient Roman aqueducts extend from the base of the mountain toward Lucca. The bordering ring of mountains and puffy white clouds above provided an eloquent backdrop.

Other days, I  passed through the back gate near the carriage house and past the tennis courts to hike the trail behind the chateau. Passing through the wooded forest, I arrived at a small stone cottage near the top of the ridge. Here, I met Leanne who lives with her boyfriend in this wilderness retreat as the caretakers of the olive grove and gardens. Welcoming me like a family member, she joined in my walks up the mountain path past waterfalls, brooks, flowering trees and tamed goats. The beautiful vistas, warmth of the sun on my skin, sound of the babbling brook and scent of the blooming Jasmine filled my senses with a melody which sang – Tuscany!

Harmony:  The art of combining captivating sounds into an appealing musical tone.

As the days passed, the melody of Villa Michaela co-mingled with those of the surrounding area creating a beautiful harmony. One evening David invited his friend Merete (an actress from Denmark) and me to a Puccini concert held at a local church in Lucca. We were greeted by Meastro Andrea Colombini  – Artistic Director. He explained that the concerts are a tribute to one of the world’s most talented composers – Giacomo Puccini. Puccini is well-known for such compositions as “Madam Butterfly”, “Tosca” and “Il Trittico”. Seated in the Basilica de san Giovanni, the beauty of ancient marble archways provided a stunning setting. The arias and duets sung by the professional soprano and tenor emanated a lovely vibrato – a musical effect consisting of regular, pulsating change of pitch – that passed through the space of this ancient church to the souls of each of the attendees.

Sitting at an open air café after the concert, Andrea spoke with enthusiasm. He explained that the Puccini festival in Lucca is held every evening of the year with never the same program performed twice.   His passionatamente for the concerts stems from his love of Puccini-2opera and his desire to have Puccini recognized and remembered in the composer’s home town of Lucca. The concerts captivated me. I returned frequently during my stay, sometimes with other guest from Villa Michaela, to bask in the splendor of these operatic arias and duets.

Lucca’s long and interesting past  intrigued me. First founded by the Etruscans, Lucca became a Roman Colony in 180 B.C.  As I walked the  old cobblestone streets and visited some of the ancient piazzas and churches, I envisioned the steps of those who had come before me to this stunning city. I learned that Lucca is well-known for music appreciation. In fact, a variety of concerts are held throughout the year with such up-coming performances by the Eagles, Stevie Wonder and the Back Street Boys.

Some evenings, I enjoyed dinner at Bimbotto or Ecoteca Vino e Convivio – located close by in Vorno. The owners of these quaint bistros welcomed me like a local and served such specialties as spinach soufflé, bean soup with polenta and four-cheese pizza. Other evenings, I enjoyed dinner at Villa Michaela. Seated around the marble-top kitchen island, the other guests and I would sip a fine Italian wine such as Brunello di Montalcino while we watched Gavin prepare one of his culinary creations. The easy flowing conversations, laughter, ambiance of the ancient chateau and fine cuisine combined to create a harmony that sang to my heart.

In the language of music, a rest is a character that indicates silence. Each night at Villa Michaela would conclude with a peaceful rest. The fresh mountain air combined with the pure silence of the countryside created the perfect ambiance for a peaceful sleep – a sleep so deep and so still that I slept without movement until dawn.

Rhythm: The pleasing partition of melodies and harmonies into a tempo.

The rhythm of my days at Villa Michaela where like a those of a serenade – some verses passing with largo – very slow and stately, and others with allegro – lively, animated in movement. The multitude of sites and attractions nearby were too numerous to contemplate.

For those who have an appreciation for architecture and nature, there are the nearby villas and gardens including – Villa Reale, Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani. For the spa enthusiast, there are the towns of San Giuliano and Montecatini Terme which boast natural thermal baths. For the wine lover, vineyards abound such as Scompiglio, located right in the town of Vorno.  I visited this local establishment often to sample their homemade wines, honey, olive oils and farm fresh cuisine at their on-sight restaurant.  Owner Lando and his assistant, Elena, were gracious and kind, offering me details about their organic farming practices.

In the spirit of the musical bridge –a section of a song which has a significantly different melody from the rest of the song – I set out on some adventures a bit farther away. As a lover of history and architecture, I chose a day trip to Florence – Firenze en Italiano! The train from Lucca carried me straight to the city center. Home to some of my favorite historical figures, such as Galileo Galilei, Dante Alighier, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci, this town has always intrigued me. Meandering my way through the narrow cobblestone streets, I stopped at the main attractions – the Battistero, Duomo, and Santa Maria Novella.Florence

Piu – little by little – I continued to Ponte Vechio. This ancient bridge passes over the Arno River and is well-known for the shops above. Many jewelry stores specializing in gold and silver line the walkway.  Alessandro, a shopkeeper, assisted me in purchasing a silver chain and a few charms – including a charm of my new love – Italy!

Continuing my journey, I reached the Boboli Gardens. Fountains, flowering gardens, and hedge mazes led me to a breathtaking view of the central city below. Red terracotta roofed buildings, steeples and the famous Duomo lied in the valley below. Lying on the grass near the top of the gardens, I envisioned the glorious past of this great city. I marveled at the thought that Galileo and da Vinci once wandered these streets.  Within this space some of the world’s most thought provoking innovations came to life.

Returning to the city center, I arrived at Piazza della Signoria. The statues – including a reproduction of David – the bustling atmosphere and quaint cafés provided the perfect spot for an afternoon break.  As I passed by the Piazza entrance, a street performer was mesmerizing a group with his comic tactics. The performer started following me with a camera making me a part of his performance. The crowd laughed and I smiled as I continued on my way. A café on the other side of the Piazza beckoned me to stop for an espresso – a relaxing conclusion to a perfect day.   

Another day, Lucie and her son, Oli, joined me on a day trip to Cinqa Terra – the five hamlets that border the west coast of the Italian Riviera. As we drove, Lucie pointed out Carrara which is famous for the white marble quarried there. We soon arrived at Portovenere – a lovely traditional seafaring village where our journey began. With Oli on my hip, we boarded a ferry. The boat bobbed up and down on crystal clear water as we approached the strikingly beautiful villages that cling to the rocky face of the cliffs.

We disembarked at the hamlet of Vernazza. The tower-like buildings and fairytale bay make for an exquisite setting. We climbed  steep steps leading to Ristorante Belforte located in an old fort on the cliff’s edge. While enjoying a lunch of fresh seafood, we admired the breathtaking sea view and hamlet below. Unexpectedly, a seagull swooped down to the terrace wall fascinating Oli. Afterward, we wandered the narrow cobblestone streets and relaxed by the bay while Oli waded in the water. The warm sun and sea breeze filled my senses with a peaceful embrace.

Returning each evening to Villa Michaela felt like the sweet words of a chorus – the element of a song that repeats both musically and lyrically conveying the main message or theme. The ritual of evening dinners, the exquisite setting of the estate, and peaceful rest at the end of an adventure-filled day accentuated the theme of this lovely serenade.

Coda:  A few pleasant chords at the completion of a work of art that recapitulate the concerto. 

The day before my departure, I had the good fortune to meet Vanessa – the owner of Villa Michaela – who had just arrived from England. While sharing dinner and wine at A Bimbotto, I had the opportunity to chat with this charming, intelligent woman whose heart and soul runs through Villa Michaela. As she spoke of happy memories spent at the chateau with guests, family and friends, I began to understand the reason for the pure, calming and loving energy that this property emanates.

When I prepared to leave the following morning, I felt as though I was leaving my home and  family.  In just a short visit, I felt this Tuscan Serenade capture my heart. My new found friends and I exchanged hugs and promised to stay in touch. As I put my suitcases into the back of the Fiat, Oli ran up and jumped into my arms. He hugged me tightly and asked me not to leave. I promised him I would return for a visit soon – which cannot be soon enough!

Category:  This property was chosen for the Events and Retreats category because of the size, features, privacy and setting which are perfect for large groups and weddings.  This property is also well suited for the categories of Wine Connoisseur, Family Friendly and Super Romantic Vacation Rentals. For reservations at Vila Michaela, please call UK : +441428683815 UK +447768645500 Italy: +390583971112 or email:  [email protected]

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