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The perfect rural gateaway: Country life

Sep 03, 2016 Sunday Times travel magazine
The perfect rural gateaway

Want to get under the skin of non-city Italy? Head for the hills -or the heel-and slow to local pace in your own place, here are your keys…

Italians find our fixation with Tuscany strange, when crowd-free Umbra next door is every bit as enchanting – at a fraction of the price. True, Italy’s ‘green heart’ lacks the big-hitters such as Florence and Siena, but who needs them when you’ve got Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi? Clustered close together, Umbria’s hill towns are a more intimate, accessible bet than their put-upon Tuscan neighbours, and a seductive incentive to abandon the villa sun lounger. Food is Umbria’s other star turn: Michelin restaurants pop up like porcini on the forest floor, while every small town – Norcia is a truffle-scented favourite – seems to boast a clutch of superb restaurants and Formica-tabled trattoria serving Umbria’s trademark cucina povera (peasant cooking). But Umbria’s real USP is its silence. This is an ancient, untrammelled land, covered in woods and olive groves, criss-crossed by trails you can hike and bike.

Villas in Umbria are among the ‘more’ on offer from Littered with antiques and art, San Gabriele is like a beautiful family home rather than a rental. Best of all? The garden: thick with lavender, olive trees and figs, it has a 12m pool with close-up views of Orvieto’s clifftop cathedral (from £2,114 per week; sleeps 6).

Villas and Tuscany go together like Campari and soda. You want a perfect view for your sunset snifter?

Tuscany’s traditional farmhouse conversions hug the ridges, gazing out across cypress-edged slopes and hilltop villages. You want a church or two, a cobbled village square, just in case the pool begins to pall? Say buongiorno to Florence, Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca – and a string of ludicrously lovely villages and towns in between – ideal for a lunchtime mooch, with gelato bribes for the kids. Throw in beaches- Tuscany has about 400 km of coastline, and the southern beaches of Maremma are as lovely as anywhere in Italy; hill-walking in the Alpi Apuane; a 30 degree C summer climate, and its little wonder the region has become a byword for villa bliss, calling to the Brits like nowhere else in Europe.

Pushing the boat out?
Browse the high-end villas (some fully staffed) on

Podere Santa Giulia is a restored ochre-stone farmhouse in huge, mature grounds, with generous lawns surrounding the pool and a vine-covered pergola for alfresco dining. The vast kitchen begs to be cooked in – handy, with the markets of Chiusi and Sarteano close by (from £ 4,703 per week; sleeps 10).

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