Vacation rentals in Italy (villas, farms, estates, agriturismo, apartments)
Review 73: TuscanHouse, La Fornacina
2bed/2bath house near Pienza, Tuscany South
September 22 - October 13, 2001, 3 weeks
This house is rather expensive for just two people, but this was our special treat - to see what it would be like to have a home in Italy.
The house is lovely and the grounds are lovely. This is the nicest place we have ever rented in Italy. The house is an old farm outbuilding (a furnace) that was turned into a house many years ago and was bought by an American couple about 15 years ago and beautifully renovated. There is a book in the house with a good history of the house and a list of restaurants, shops and things to do in the area.
The house is totally private - you cannot even see any other houses from it. There is a farmhouse and working field below the house, but we only once heard voices from there. There is also a working field near the parking area and we saw a tractor out there once. The house is on several acres of land, on the side of a hill. Across the valley is the village of Montisi. You can see it from the house.
The garden area around the house is beautiful. There is a lawn area, a courtyard kind of area with flowers and bushes. We sat out there reading a lot. At the end of September there were ripe figs on the trees. Earlier the plums were ripe. There is a grape arbor with a large table and chairs in the garden. We were eating fresh grapes the whole time we were there. There is a small pond, but it had dried up this year. You can walk up the hill where they are starting a small olive grove. This area has stone steps up through a nice grassy area to a place at the top of the property where you have a great view (and the only place where my cell phone worked).
The house is about 1500 square feet on both levels. The front of the house faces the hill (the upside of the property). You enter through a beautiful large garden area to a large glass doorway. This large door bring a lot of light into the house (it faces south). From the foyer, you go straight into the large, country kitchen, left to the laundry room and second bathroom or right down stairs to the bedrooms.
The kitchen is huge with good pots and pans, everything you need for cooking, good counter space. There is a full size fridge and a dishwasher. My only complaints about the kitchen is that the dishes are not very nice and there are lots of extra tea towels, tablecloths etc., but they are just jumbled together in one closet and I had a hard time figuring out what was what. There is a huge dining table in the center of the room. This is the best room in the house and we ended up making most of our own meals here - we hardly ate out at all during our time here. There is an "American" style coffee maker, a toaster and a microwave. The gas stove is excellent. We never used the oven.
The living room is off the kitchen on the same level. It has built in couches - built into the walls with lots of cushions, a wooden rocking chair, another wooden chair and a table and chairs that we used as a desk. There is also a shelf full of travel books. There is a large fireplace, but we had unusually warm weather and did not use it. The living room was comfortable for hanging out - but it doesn't get top marks for comfort. The built-in couches are too far apart from each other to make the room feel intimate and it was hard to get totally comfortable on them - but they were good enough. There was excellent light for reading in the living room (which is not always the case in Italy) and excellent light in the kitchen.
The laundry room has a washer, but no dryer (we have never seen a dryer in Italy). There is a large clothes line in the yard outside. The bathroom off the laundry room is fabulous - large marble shower, beautiful sink and counter.
The two bedrooms and the master bathroom are downstairs. The house is built into the side of the hill, so the downstairs is like a daylight basement. The downstairs area can also be entered from its own outside door (but there are stairs to it inside the house too). At the bottom of the stairs is a small library area - bookshelf and a chair. From there you go into another large room with a few nice dressers and the door to the outside. The second, twin, bedroom is off to the side of this room and does not have a wall separating it from this room, but has a long curtain that you pull across. Really this room is "wasted space" but it is hard to see what else you would do with it.
From this room you go through a door to the master suite. It can be completely closed off for privacy from the other part of the downstairs. You enter the master suite in a small dressing room - with a closet and a desk. To the left is the large, nearly all marble, bathroom. It has a marble tub. Steve used this and liked it - I used the large shower upstairs. To the right is the bedroom. There is a window in the middle room and one in the bedroom (and one in the bathroom) - so plenty of fresh air. The ceilings are lower down here - maybe 7 or 8 feet. Upstairs the ceilings are high.
The bed was very comfortable and there were nice sheets and extra blankets. The furniture in the whole house was beautiful - some lovely antique pieces. The huge armoire in the kitchen that is used for kitchen storage is lovely. The house was also filled with fresh lavender from the garden.
There are screens on all the windows and lots of hot water - we never once ran out. The house is very well lit - lights everywhere. We did have some problems with a fuse blowing continually in the main part of the house. Some nights it was fine, some nights it blew every time I flipped a switch. Make sure you keep a flashlight where you can find it in the dark. The fuse box is above the washing machine. They had an electrician out to fix it while we were there, but it blew once more during our last few days.
Also, in this part of the country they shut off all the electricity if a storm comes through. It will be shut off in the whole area. Gary says they warn you by flashing the electricity once, so your lights flash, then they wait a few minutes before it is turned off until the storm passes. We are usually without electricity at some point on every trip to Italy. On this trip, it was the day we left La Fornacina. I had big plans for doing things the morning we were leaving, but we got up to find no electricity or water (electric pump on the well), so we just left in a hurry.
The house has a phone, CD player and shortwave radio.
The house was cleaned each Saturday (a nice bonus - some places do not do the weekly cleaning if you stay for more than a week), sheets and towels changed and the garden was tended by Gary once a week (leaves swept up, etc.). They asked if we could wash and dry the towels during the week but this was not a problem because the house had lots of towels.
Problems or Bonuses
Complaints about the house: Now I am getting to very detailed complaints because we were there for three weeks (and I am very fussy) and I can see Gary and Zak rolling their eyes at this, but this is an expensive house and I think a few things could be improved.
There are lots of plates and bowls in the kitchen, but they are not good quality and many are cracked. You have to go through them all and find the good ones to use. How about a nice new set of dishes?
The house is filled with books, which is great because it gives you plenty to read while you are there, but they all have the name of the house written in them. This means these are the owner's books and they do not want you to take them with you. In most vacation rentals there is an unwritten policy of "take a book, leave a book". I find it strange that even the junky paperbacks are marked as belonging to the house. The least they could do is have one shelf with books you can take. I found that I didn't want to leave any of my books behind (and took them to Rome and left them in the apartment there).
There is a wonderful outdoor clothes line but it would be nice to also have a small clothes rack for small loads or when the weather is bad and you have to quickly move your clothes from outside to inside.
There is only one lounger in the garden. The house is for four people - there should be at least two loungers, maybe even four. With such a lovely garden, don't they want to encourage people to sit outside and enjoy it? I like to sit on the lounger and read in the afternoons. There are other chairs in the garden - but not as comfortable as the lounger.
There are too many chemical things in the house. Cans of paint under the sink, many boxes of detergent in the laundry room (which gave off such a scented smell that I had to bag them in plastic), many bottles of cleaning things in the kitchen and bathrooms. For health reasons, it is best if all this type of stuff is not in the general living area - keep the paint and things outside and put all the cleaning things in one closed closet in one place in the house.
I counted at least a dozen of those round air freshener things that you glue onto walls and furniture. I took most of them off and bagged them in plastic. We do not want to live in a house with the chemicals that are emitted from these things, but it also makes you wonder what they are trying to hide with these chemical scents. Probably the mustiness from the lower level. They would do better to throw out all these chemical "air fresheners" and just leave instructions on how to keep the downstairs fresh. When we arrived, the downstairs had a musty smell (and Helga had warned us about this in the note she left for us). We opened all the windows and doors down there and it was gone within a day. If you keep the bathroom window always open and keep the others open as much as possible, the mustiness does not build up. We really noticed it when we arrived, but it was not noticeable the rest of the time - but we had very dry weather for the last two weeks there - this may have something to do with it. But, be aware that mustiness is the price you pay for these wonderful old buildings. I have noticed it in many places - even beautiful villas.
Agency and Representatives (and price)
What can I say? This is my favorite agency in Italy. Zak and Gary are wonderful. It is hard to decide between the two of them which one is the funniest or the nicest. But then you don't have to decide - you get them both! The booking is done via email and sometimes phone with Zak. You pay your deposit and the balance and even the security deposit by US check sent to a US address. Once you have booked, they send you a fat package with a detailed map of the area, tourist info for the area, detailed written driving directions and their restaurant list.
Zak lives full time in Italy, but is originally from Finland and then the US, so is fluent in English and understands the ways of we Americans. Zak used to be an Architect, so he also understands houses. Zak runs the web site (which has good photos and good descriptions). Gary is from Australia and then the US. He runs a travel business in the US, so spends half his time in each place. Gary does most of the gardening at La Fornacina - and the garden is beautiful.
Zak and Gary both select the listings for TuscanHouse and they are both very choosey. They only take good quality places.
Things to do in this area
The house is in the countryside, 10 minutes by car from Pienza. It is close to two smaller villages - Montisi and Castelmuzio. These are both pretty villages, with restored historical centers and only a small modern section. Both villages have one restaurant (we tried the one in Castelmuzio and liked it, but didn't get to the one in Montisi), one caffe, one small food store. We really used Pienza as our main town. We went there for morning coffee, papers, groceries. There is a good alimentari in the historical center of Pienza, also a Fruit and Vegetable store and a "Dairy" that has good baked bread. If you don't feel like parking and going into the center of Pienza, there are two alimentaris on the main road - one on either side - where you can park in front.
We could get to the Autostrada in 15 minutes from the house. Go north to Trequanda, then to Sinalunga and the Siena-Bettolle-Perugia highway and then to the A1. This is the fastest route, even if you are heading south on the A1 - we timed it and it is 10 more minutes going to Pienza, then Montepulciano to the Chiusi entrance than going north and arriving at the Chiusi exit from the autostrada. It is also an easier drive.
There are several ways to get to Siena and you would think the fastest route is the main SS2 road, but it is not. It is best to go north from the house to Asciano, then to Siena that way. The SS2 can be very slow - you get stuck behind slow moving trucks.
From the house if you are heading out to the SS2, go to Montisi, then San Giovanni d'Asso, then Torrenieri - this is faster than heading south to the road to Pienza, then out to San Quirico.
From the house you can walk to Castelmuzio in about 15 minutes. Follow the driveway past the house along the edge of a farmer's field to an old church. Turn left here and follow the road to the main road that you drive to town. I think you can also do some hikes from here or nearby. We thought we would do more of this, but didn't. I have all the maps and will try to work out some good routes in this area for our hiking pages. You can get the detailed hiking maps at the magazine store in Pienza (just outside the walls of the town, on the main square).
This review is the opinion of a Slow Travel member and not of slowtrav.com.
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