Wending our way along white gravel tracks with no discernible road names and a failing sat-nav, I began to fear we would never find our destination: a beautiful family-sized villa nestled deep in the Tuscan countryside.
Fortunately for us, help was at hand (albeit communicating with very broken Italian and hand signals) from the staff at Podere Pretaccione, a charming 1,000-year-old estate that was once the home of itinerant priests and has today been transformed into eight spacious apartments.
With a guide to show us the way, we finally arrive at our hilltop destination – and the views are simply breath-taking. Hundreds of pencil-thin, Italian cypress trees and vineyards sweep across the horizon as far as the eye can see and the only sounds discernible are those of the abundant nature around us – crickets, locusts, bats, tiny lizards darting in and out across our path and little hares scampering across the fields.
In the evening, we’re fortunate enough to spot a wild boar foraging in the woodland. Numerous in these parts, the Tuscan wild boar has the dubious double honour of being a local emblem and the main ingredient for Tuscany’s national dish – pappardelle cinghiale.
Our home for the week, La Vecchia Stella, was a charming two-bedroom stone cottage, which boasts a fully-equipped kitchen, a comfortable lounge and outdoor area for al fresco dining. Our children, aged five and two, were especially keen on the nearby tennis courts and swimming pool – both of which were great for mingling with fellow guests at Podere Pretaccione.
The estate is located right in the heart of Chianti, which recently celebrated 300 years as a wine-making region, having been designated as such by Cosimo III de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in 1716. Today, the area is well-known for its classic red Chianti, made from Sangiovese grapes and there is no shortage of wineries dotted along main roads offering free samples.
A reliable, off-road car is a must in these rural parts, where public transport is scant, but fortunately there are numerous places of interest within an hour’s drive away.
We made regular trips to Siena, a picturesque city that was historically Florence’s greatest rival and which prospered through silver mining and banking. Not coincidentally, a Jewish community, whose main source of livelihood was moneylending, became well-established here in medieval times. There are still traces today of the city’s ancient ghetto and an ornate synagogue at Via delle Scotte, built in the late 18th century, is open to the public.
At the heart of Siena is the Piazza del Campo, a vast pedestrianised square constructed from light travertine stone and red brick, lined with restaurants and gelaterie, where the delicious ice creams are so fresh they literally melt in your mouth (if not also, all over your little one’s face and hands!). Twice a year, the piazza is turned into a racetrack for a thrilling horse race known locally as Il Palio.
We also spent time in Arezzo, a charming ancient city used as the setting for Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful and Montepulciano, an architectural gem with well-maintained medieval brick houses and palaces, as well as wonderful sweeping views of the Tuscan hills beyond.
Our final destination was Florence, the capital of Tuscany and the region’s largest city. Some 13 million tourists flock to this UNESCO World Heritage Site every year and the day of our arrival was no exception, with visitors heaving around the narrow streets. There’s something special about Florence – from the medieval Duomo with its iconic red dome, to the Uffizi Gallery filled with Renaissance masterpieces, Michelangelo’s statue of David and the serenity of the Ponte Vecchio. Everything oozes style in this fashion capital – the people and the buildings – and even the Great Synagogue of Florence, famous for its Moorish characteristics, where incidentally my husband proposed 11 years ago.
With the sun setting over Florence, now seemed a perfect time as any to sample the famous wine of this region, clink glasses and bid a final “buona notte” to our Italian adventure.
Francine was a guest of To Tuscany (0121-286 7782; www.to-tuscany.com). She stayed at La Vecchia Stalla at Pretaccione, a two-bedroom villa with shared pool near Lecchi in Chianti, which costs from £712 to £1,291 for a week in 2017. Available for Thursday arrivals.
Car hire from Florence Airport starts from £74 a week with HolidayExtras.com (www.holidayextras.com or call 0800 1313 777).
CityJet operates direct flights from London City to Florence (www.cityjet.com or call 0203 48 11 259)