The Scenic Route to Stigliano

The Scenic Route to Stigliano

Perhaps that’s why this year more than most, our thoughts are turning to where to go to grab a bit of late summer/early autumn sunshine. There are several contenders in the HPB portfolio, but Bondholder Jill Page makes a strong case for Stigliano in Tuscany, Italy – and, as she discovers, time and budget permitting there’s much to see and do along the way…

It had to happen – after seven years of Bond holidays the last three consecutive forays have been dominated by, let us say, unorthodox weather: snow in Majorca, rain in the Cotswolds and yet more rain in Austria. I sense nods of agreement – you too, huh? I would, however, also hasten to add that the aforementioned holidays have nevertheless been hugely enjoyable as always and, needless to say, returning each evening, damp and chilled, to the superb cosiness and comfort of one’s HPB property is never less than a delight. Yet the desire to bathe in the glow of late summer/early autumn sunshine holds a special attraction this year; amongst other destinations, one might be persuaded to consider the joys of Tuscany: the grandeur of Florence, medieval Siena, the fine towers of San Gimignano... indeed, a very attractive prospect.

The Bond-owned hamlet and palazzo of Stigliano stands atop high ground, proudly overlooking a wealth of Tuscan countryside. It is incredibly photogenic: converted farm-buildings of bygone times, gold-tinged in the sunlight, oozing character, with the benefit of having all the facilities enjoyed by Bondholders. Far be it from me to repeat the description in the brochure – simply take it on trust that every word is true!

You can, of course, get there by flying to Florence or Pisa, then, if you wish, hire a car – rather a necessity at Stigliano. However, if flying fails to float one’s boat (to mix metaphors), there is another way: in our case, we, as a couple, decided to turn a week’s break into almost two by driving to Tuscany, thus turning the whole journey into an Odyssey. At that time fuel costs, as a proportion of the big picture, were somewhat less astronomic than they are now but even today, with fewer cheap flights available it’s still worth doing the sums.

The planning stage was great fun and generated a number of alternatives to consider and decisions to be made. A Channel crossing, of course; ferry or Eurotunnel? Which route to take? How many overnight stops to make? Our choice was, once in France, to drive as far as Alsace: Strasbourg or Colmar. In the end we chose the latter as we thought, being smaller, finding our hotel would be easier. Indeed it was and we arrived with plenty of time to enjoy a saunter around the cobbled streets, amid candy-painted houses, feeling for all the world that we were on the set of some traditional pantomime (enter Hansel and Gretel, stage left!).

I must admit that my husband’s suggestion of two nights in Switzerland turned out to be a winner. A vignette (windscreen-sticker permit) has to be purchased in order to use the Swiss motorways – best obtained in advance to save time. Another thing to bear in mind when visiting Switzerland is the necessity to have Swiss francs, as euros are not taken. A friend had recommended Lugano, near the Italian border. What a gem! Boat trips round the lake, a funicular railway up the mountain, San Sebastian (classic photo opportunity!), and squeaky-clean squares brimming with open-air cafés. Such a lovely time we were having, still nowhere near our HPB destination!

Time to leave Lugano and join the Italian motorway. We knew that beyond Florence the journey would be fine but the first couple of hours were frustrating to say the least. Heavy traffic though the environs of Milan and Bologna, coupled with a flatter, less inspiring landscape, proved a tad wearisome. We discovered to boot that the motorway services in Italy provided at times something of a test for one’s sangfroid. Actually, we never sorted out the system for getting a cup of coffee: as far as we could see, one paid, received a ticket, then joined a kind of rugby scrum at a counter, waving said ticket and getting trampled by burly lorry-drivers who clearly knew how to get service. Hey ho, back to the lukewarm water-bottle in the car!

Such tribulations rendered all the sweeter our first sight of HPB Stigliano: its muted silhouette up on the hill. “It’s just like the pictures in the brochure!” was my instant reaction (10/10 for observation there). We parked in what seemed to be a mini-orchard – I’m sure I saw pomegranates growing on trees. Well, no doubt they do, but I’d never seen them before!

Our welcoming apartment was in the Shepherd’s House – fine accommodation, certainly up to Bond standard – but our favourite place to be was out on the terrace. The far-reaching views have to be some of the most awe-inspiring of the HPB portfolio; meals were taken out here, a little watercolour dabbling was attempted and we took great pleasure in watching a daily visitor in the form of a hummingbird moth, fascinated by the scarlet geraniums.

During the day as the Tuscan landscape unfolds, it presents itself as a canvas of muted greens, punctuated by terracotta rooftops and the statuesque, near-black cypresses, their tapered branches sinuously pointing skyward. Then the temperature cools and with it comes the invitation to embrace the sunset. Gold-tinged skies, fading into dusky pink, melting the landscape into a mist... one sips one’s Chianti and smiles, absorbing the stillness of it all.

Enough of the poetic wanderings – such is the effect of Stigliano! Back to the practicalities. The Manager’s Meeting, ever reliably informative, was delivered by Deputy “Penelope Cruz – lookalike” Chiara (my husband promptly pulled in stomach and smiled engagingly). Having given hints, tips and suggestions regarding activities, local trattoria and visits, she told us about Stigliano’s own pressing of olive oil. “You can buy it here,” she explained in her attractive Italian accent, “but if you cook with it,” – and here the dark eyes flashed – “I will kill you!” (No horse’s head in the bed, I’m relieved to say!)

But what of the sightseeing? Florence was a must, even in August. The city oozes art from every pore and, dissuaded by the queues outside the Uffizi Gallery, we were advised to visit the Pitti Palace instead. So many masterpieces, each room resembling a page from a giant stamp album, Raphael and Rubens rubbing shoulders, jostling for admiration. Another day was little short of a Bacchanalian orgy of wine-tasting, followed by a slap-up meal, all in a magnificent castle amidst the Chianti vineyards.

But let’s get down to the real nitty-gritty. Yes, art treasures abound, the food is fabulous – nevertheless the main reason for coming to Italy is... ice cream!! Gelati, per favore is all the Italian you really need to get the most out of an Italian holiday! I jest, of course, but in moments of extreme indulgence when only a scoop each of mango sorbet and pistachio ice cream will do, a five-minute drive along the dusty road to San Rocco will certainly deliver. One of those sprawly villages where the locals sit on their doorsteps in the evening, socialising and chewing over the events of the day. They return an easy buona sera, smiling at our coy attempt at Being Italian.

Back at Stigliano, after a week of sumptuous eating, drinking, trips out, a surfeit of gelati, lazy swimming and even lazier woodland strolls, inevitably the time came when we had to leave. This time we drove to Bologna and thence allowed the Motorail to take the strain. An experience to be recommended if you have an arm and a leg to spare – just an arm, actually, once the cost is balanced against hotel stops, fuel, tolls, not to mention wear and tear on both car and patience.

What a fantastic holiday: a “grand” European tour with Stigliano at its heart. Or, of course, you can head to the airport and take the shorter – and quicker – route. Either way the glorious impact of Stigliano will not disappoint. Hmmm... I can feel the glow of that Tuscan sunshine already... Ciao!

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