Sometimes I envy friends who regularly retreat to their own cottage-country escapes – but lack of ownership has allowed me the freedom to rent a piece of someone else's dream. The bonus is pretending that myriad apartments and houses around the world are mine, albeit for only a week or two.
Ten years ago, my husband and I discovered what has become, for us, a perfect rural Italian retreat in Tuscany's tranquil Val d'Orcia region, designated by UNESCO World Heritage as the perfect reflection of a Renaissance landscape. Podere Casellaccia is our own Under the Tuscan Sun experience, without the agonies of construction and renovation.
Owners Giorgio and Ilaria Miani tackled the ruins of an abandoned casa colonica (a phrase so much more evocative than 'farmhouse') with a harmonious result of function and beauty: respectful of tradition, but with contemporary flair and an artful use of colour. The light-filled house can sleep 19 but is luxurious when shared by 10 or 12 convivial friends. Ilaria, a celebrated Rome-based designer, has brought her skills to the select portfolio of rentals the Mianis own. A holiday at any of their properties would be a pleasure.
From Casellaccia's 20-metre infinity pool, one can contemplate the Orcia River valley. Take a photo in any direction – you'll capture rolling hills, flocks of sheep (producing the pecorino cheese on your table), distant forests, picture-postcard cypress trees, distinctive clay hillocks, and an ancient fortress tower on the horizon.
This ideal landscape and the house within continue to draw us back: the casa's comfortable spaces, both inside and out; elegant bedrooms with en suite baths; flawless décor and impeccable housekeeping. For those looking for total relaxation, an excellent cook will spoil you. Or you can try your hand in the professionally outfitted kitchen, the outdoor wood-burning barbecue, or pizza oven. The salad is from the garden. Entertainment? The sunset.
Days can be languid or lively. For walkers, there's a splendid hike from nearby Montalcino down to the abbey at San Antimo. Even closer to home are strolls in the hills above the house, capped with an excellent cappuccino in the tiny village of Castiglioncello del Trinoro. The famous gardens of La Foce are five minutes away. Hike in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims on the Via Francigena, which once linked Rome with France. If you find the trail signs, you will be rewarded with woods, vineyards (think Brunello) and olive groves.
If you would like a reminder that enlightened city planning was once considered an art, less than 20 kilometres from the house is the Renaissance jewel of Pienza, a town transformed at the behest of Pope Pius II. Today it is so unchanged, Pius would likely still recognize the city centre that UNESCO calls "the first application of the Renaissance Humanist concept of urban design … the planned 'ideal town.' "
Who would not want to be "at home" in the Renaissance?
Weekly rental rates range from €8,000 ($11,650) in low season to €15,000 in high season. For information visit pilgrimsway.it (password: tower).