The Tuscan countryside overwhelms all my senses to the point that it feels almost indescribable by words. You simply have to be standing there with me…
My sight is the first sense that drinks in the rolling deep green hills that spread out in front of me from my vantage point on the hilltop of Villa Otium. The expanse of grape vines and olive trees are freshly washed with a heavy rain from less than an hour ago. Even now, part of the sight is the low heavy clouds that are dark with rain and receding into the distant mountains that the sun is now sinking below. It warms my face and shines in my eyes while simultaneously the damp cool breeze flows over my face. Then the sense of smell is softly awakened by the nearby tree in the midst of spring bloom with clusters of small white blossoms that hang heavy like drooping grapes. The smell is slightly familiar in my memory, yet I cannot place what kind of tree it is. And of course you cannot be in Tuscany without enjoying a gracefully large glass of vino rosso (red wine) in your hands. The owners of Villa Otium had informed me that this house-wine was from down the street and as local of a Tuscan wine that I could be having. In this glass of smooth fruity tannins, the sense of taste complimented the entire experience that I was taking in with the other senses. To complete the scene, I take in the sounds which are delicately simple in the sporadic chirping of sparrows and the sweet hushed silence of the countryside. All in all, I cannot decide if it all looks like a painting and feels like dream, or the other way around.
The Villa Otium (pronounced Ot-sium and meaning leisure) was a fortunate find and what I consider to be a hidden-gem of a destination in the renowned Tuscany region of Italy. Located just outside the small town of Volterra, the villa’s two stone buildings sit in the saddle of two hills, affording it a view of west and east where rolling green hills are laid out in a breathtaking view. To the south majestically towers a larger hill that plateaus along the top and is crowned with the village’s romantic medieval castle and church. The lawn is a perfect combination of tall trees growing in clusters, providing shade and beauty, and shrubs of roses and spring flowers that enjoy the sun and fresh air. Overall, there is a feeling of openness throughout the villa property and with the spectacular vistas in every direction.
This beautiful Italian Bed and Breakfast became my resting place for the next full week, to which I actually extended my stay for another night, it was so wonderful. While there I came to feel like I was not just traveling Italy…I was experiencing Italy. True Italy, that is, with its rich ancient culture that is embodied in the deep Italian people who live life simply, yet so fully.
My room was in the second floor of the main building that at one end houses the restaurant. Each room is named after places that characterize the area and the name of mine is Badia, which is the church on the top of the hill of Volterra that can be viewed from my window. I was extremely pleased with the queen size bed, dark solid wood wardrobe, spacious bathroom, and high ceiling that beautifully sloped from the outer wall of the room to the far side. It was the traditional ceiling I came to recognize and know in this part of the country, with long beams of light brown-red brick crisscrossed with similar shaped beams of solid wood. Towards the inner wall, it was further supported by a much larger wood beam that went the direction of the bricks. I had previously come from a five-star villa in Florence, where the construction of window frames and portions of the tile flooring were not complete, showing exposed cracked material that they attempted to hide with large heavy curtains and cheap rugs. This compared to what I found all throughout Villa Otium, made me appreciate the smooth red-brick tile flooring and heavy wood shutters that easily opened with the ornate latch to a screened window framed in wood and brick. In the restaurant, large windows line the walls and with each meal I enjoyed the spectacular view of rolling green hills and vineyards. Even when the spring season rains occurred during my stay, I enjoyed from these rooms, watching the progression of the storm clouds rolling in and over the villa property.
Along with the sites and accommodations, my experience was so authentic and rich because of what I learned from the people. The owners, Julio and Maurizia, are originally from Bergamo further North in Italy, and have been running the Villa Otium for seven years now. While breakfast is included in the cost of accommodations, they also can cook lunches and dinners, which I took full advantage while there. From the gnocchi to the beef, pasta to salads, they always claimed when I complimented the food, that it is done simple. By using fresh ingredients and herbs and high quality meat, the food is true to tastes of and traditions of the local area, while being absolutely delicious! Or as I came to say as one of the easier words in learning Italian, it was all “delizioso”. The breakfast each morning was a wonderful spread of meats and cheeses, fruit juices, yogurt and fruit, bread and a freshly baked cake of apple or cocoa. The couple also spoke some English and had an understanding of Spanish and other European languages. They were extremely helpful in providing me with a current schedule of the buses that conveniently stop right at the entrance to the property and run often, so I was able to enjoy visits to Pisa and into Volterra even though I did not rent a car. What I especially loved was learning about what the different seasons entail for their lives there. For example, during this current spring season that I was there for, they worked on cleaning the swimming pool in preparation for summer and the high season for visitors. Then come fall, they have family and friends join them from Bergamo to pick olives from their olive trees that slope down the hillside of the property. This takes place usually in late October and is also when many of the local families in the area make their own batches of wine. From their olive groves, they also produce and sell body products made from the olive oil. Small travel-size samplers of the shower-gel and body lotion are provided in the rooms and I became addicted, especially to the shower-gel.
The first full day I was there I took a walk from the villa to the fields further below in the unfolding landscape. At some point, the dirt road I was randomly following simply disappeared into tall grasses and flowers and mud. Since it had rained heavily the day before, the ground was a thick muddy mess. I can’t remember the last time I was so dirty and since I was wearing my Chacos (my favorite brand of hiking sandals), I was really aware of how messy I was getting. But I didn’t mind compared to the sense of adventure I kept feeling to see what was just beyond the next hill-top and further across the fields. Although I have to admit, I was thinking about what insects could be hitching a ride on my body from all this traipsing around, especially if it was spiders.
I meant to go walking for maybe an hour, but it turned into three gloriously warm hours with blue sky, a nice breeze, and the green grass and flowers of the valley floor. At one point, I even came across the lonely old ruins of an old home. It was most likely a farm long ago and older than the history of the Unites of America. It was no surprise that when I arrived back at the villa, I plopped myself down at the small table in the lawn that was right at the overlook point and enjoyed an entire Italian pizza with a couple of glasses of vino rosso.
There were so many other wonderful experiences that I enjoyed during my time at the Villa Otium. From visiting castles and vineyards to learning the ancient history of Volterra to dinners in the home of new friends, I felt that I was at home there and am already looking forward to going back. Maybe I’ll go back in October to enjoy picking olives…Or who knows, that special place and its people may draw me back even sooner. Make sure to stay tuned and follow along to read about the other great experiences I gained at Villa Otium and the town of Volterra.