Stay in splendor at an Italian castle

This country is like the prettiest, most popular girl in high school. She wasn’t necessarily the nicest person, but she didn’t have to be. Everyone wanted to be in her orbit, regardless.

The Castle Montegufoni estate has gardens dating to the 17th century.

By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY

The Castle Montegufoni estate has gardens dating to the 17th century.


Indeed, Italy doesn’t have to dangle incentives to attract suitors. It’s a perennial winner in dream-destination surveys. It ranks in the top five countries for tourist arrivals. And, as any travel magazine editor can tell you, slap an idyllic Italian scene on the cover, and sales soar.

So when I planned a week-long trip to Italy in May with two long-time pals, I decided to go for broke — without going broke.

The destination: Tuscany. The digs: a castle.

PHOTOS: Italy’s castles and Chianti at a discount

Despite its economic woes, Italy isn’t throwing a fire sale. But a more favorable exchange rate (the euro is worth $1.25 vs. $1.43 a year ago) means prices are less gasp-inducing than they’ve been in recent times. And with some strategic planning and timing, you can find deals. Take our three-bedroom, 1½-bath apartment in Montegufoni Castle, about 20 miles southwest of Florence. The six-night tab, including booking and cleaning fees, was less than $1,000, or about $160 a night.

The lodging, booked through, reflected a seasonal discount (rates are higher June-September), plus an added price reduction. Such “specials” were unheard of in the past, says owner Suzanne Pidduck, “particularly in Italy, because people are willing to spend whatever it takes to get there. But the U.S. market has become an important part of the business, and Americans were saying, ‘We need more of a deal to entice us,’ and so the business has changed as a result. If owners are worried, they drop the price.”

Shannon Graber of Houston, on a 16-day Italian jaunt with her husband and four children, has opted for a huge three-bedroom, two-bath apartment in the castle. “There’s a ton of space. You can cook. You can wash your clothes,” she says of its advantages over a conventional hotel.

Rustic sometimes works

In what was once the castle’s ground-floor ballroom, Natalie Pepa of Chicago, pulls up a chair to a table that seats 40 or so, and checks her e-mail. The self-described budget traveler is paying less than $800 for a week’s stay for two in a one-bedroom unit with “a bathroom the size of my apartment,” she says.
“We’re spending about what we would (traveling) at home,” Pepa continues. “But you have to be open to adventure. Sometimes it’ll be lovely. Sometimes it’ll be hell. That’s serendipity.”

Happily, our experience is the former. Given the reasonable rate (and instructions to bring soap and a pot scrubber, among other necessities), we’ve anticipated the castle will be more funky than fabulous. But not only are basic items provided, we’re delighted to find that the website photos actually undersold the place.

True, the furnishings are more faded-glory than cutting-edge elegant. Floors creak. Water temperature can be temperamental. But with its Venetian-plaster walls, monolithic doors, manicured gardens and stone passageways worn slick with age, Montegufoni boasts the requisite fairytale trappings you’d expect from a castle. Plus, it’s got an elaborate 17th-century grotto-style fountain, ornate frescoes in some rooms and a nice-sized swimming pool.

Its footprint has changed little since 1650 when seven separate buildings were joined via a series of courtyards and stairways, says Guido Posarelli, whose father, Sergio, bought the property in 1972.

From the 12th century until the 1800s, Montegufoni belonged to a single, ruling Florentine family. In 1910, a British baronet acquired it as a Tuscan getaway. In World War II, the castle housed 600 or so nearby residents during Allied bombing, and for a time, was a safe repository for 261 artworks from the Uffizi Gallery, including paintings by Botticelli and Raphael.

But as any castle owner can attest, maintaining a 700-year-old fortress is a lot to keep up. So in 1978, Posarelli got into the vacation rental trade. The family now represents villas throughout Italy.

By bus or back roads

Shortly after arriving, my friends and I browse nearby shops for pasta, prosciutto, parmesan and other local staples to prepare in our small but well-equipped kitchen. Some nights, we try out local eateries. Just up the road at Il Focolare, the recipe for pasta with porcini mushrooms hasn’t been altered in 50-odd years. Down the hill in the tiny hamlet of Baccaiano, Osteria de Molino serves a well-prepared lemon scaloppini for about $11. A bottle of respectable local Chianti goes for about the same. The on-site restaurant serves a three-course prix fixe menu, plus dessert, for about $34.

A bus stop outside the castle on the route to Florence ($8 round trip) makes for stress-free travel into the city’s auto-free historic center. But we’ve rented a car (about $60 a day pre-booked and pre-paid through Auto Europe, a rental broker), which gives us the freedom to roam — and get lost — on Tuscany’s tangle of back roads.

Besides Florence, A-list spots such as Siena, San Gimignano and Volterra are within 40 miles or less. But as we cruise the narrow, winding roads, past stone farmhouses and custard-colored villas, past rolling vineyards punctuated by stone towers rising from hilltop castles, less-bustling towns in the Chianti region, such as Radda, Panzano and Greve, beckon.

One day we venture to the town of Montevarchi whose major tourist draw is the Prada Outlet. Outside, tour buses populate the parking lot. Inside, Asian tourists are snapping up $800 bags by the armful. (At least someone’s economy appears to be going gangbusters.) We browse for something more in tune with the don’t-break-the-bank nature of this trip, but can’t see anything cheaper than a pair of $50 socks. We exit empty handed.

Seeking local treasure of a different sort, we roll into Radda in Chianti, a lovely medieval hilltop town in the heart of a region renowned for its olive oil, as well as its wine. At nearby Pornanino farm, Matteo and Francesca Robutti work alongside her father, Franco Lombardi, producing excellent olive oil using a cold-press method that hasn’t varied much in 2,500 years.

Over plates of pasta at their kitchen table, the Robuttis preach the gospel of 100% Italian olive oil. “Olive oil is not just a condiment,” Francesca insists. “When someone says, ‘The olive oil is very good this year,’ I’m proud,” says Matteo, a former IT worker from Milan.

After lunch we walk out past several handsomely restored stone houses set near the olive groves. Life is good.

Matteo Robutti surveys the scene and smiles. “Under the Tuscan Sun is more than just a movie,” he says.

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