Podere Conti is an agriturismo, but it is very different from the usual agriturismo places, which tend to be welcoming, but a bit basic. And the owner, originally from Wellington, left Dubai after having five kids and deciding her husband's country would be a better place to raise them. Suffice to say I was curious to see how a marriage of rustic Italy (the Lunigiana is known the be the poorest area in Tuscany) and the Middle East would go together.
The answer is very well, and the result is a balm for the soul.
I had been looking forward to visiting Podere Conti for quite some time, and in particular, its quietness, fresh air high up in Northern Tuscany, the sunshine, and the Italian welcome. I miss Italy when I don’t get to go there often, so June was my time again to relax in the gentle hills of Lunigiana.
After driving through the fabulously leafy, green countryside (probably the greenest green you’ll find in the Toscana), you arrive at a mountain range some miles out of Pontremoli. Your sturdy car motors up the hill for a while before you start driving by the 300 olive trees they planted when they started the project. Then two dogs roll up to greet you, along with the smallest of the brood (Elio) and his mother, Cornelia Conti. If that sounds too bucolic, it’s just true. And it stays like that; she is on hand to help with everything.
The rooms are giant, with big bathrooms and super showers, too. They certainly had their guests and their comfort in mind when building. This is no chain effort; everything is special, from the oriental headrests to Kilims all over the floors, and the style mixture seems totally fitting, in the middle of the most traditional landscape. Those sweet, lushly green rolling hills, the golden sunsets you can’t get enough of, the staff whose smile light up your day and are only too happy to bring you a nice Prosecco to your divan on the restaurant terrace.
Should you feel like touring Parma, Lucca, Pisa or Viareggio, all are 90 minutes away. The famous seaside town Lerici, where Byron used to visit, is closer. Pontremoli, at the bottom of the hill, gives you all the flavour of a real Tuscan town, complete with market on a Saturday, and a delicious restaurant in Ocho Bianco. It’s the kind of restaurant where you can’t get a caprese because the mozzarella is bought every day fresh, and they didn’t buy it that day. What bliss to settle for Parma ham instead. No pain at all!
And if you are getting annoyed reading all of this in the rain, be comforted. It also rained on our last two days there. But with the mists rising in the valley, we were so enjoying the now-almost-mystical landscape, we just had another Prosecco, and life was good! To see the eagles up high and hear the birdsong everywhere was just magic. This isn’t the Tuscany we know; Lunigiana is much wilder, much more adventurous. To go mountain biking here is not for the faint hearted, but you’ll feel great returning to your hearty supper on the terrace overlooking the rolling hill you just mastered.
Podere Conti is a pure tonic. Go before the crowds arrive in July, or after they’ve gone in September. Just make sure you follow Ms Conti's lead - if only for a long weekend.