A few years ago, my close friend, Catherine, called one bright and sunny morning. It was at a time when our restaurant Giulio’s on Broadbeach had been sold, and I was in desperate need of a holiday. We had often spoken about taking a trip to Tuscany. We were dreaming as many tend to do, of spending splendid days meandering under the Tuscan sun.
In her well-spoken and friendly voice she asked, “Can you get away Robbie? Let’s go to Tuscany!” It took less than two minutes for me to make a decision. A trip away with Cath would be divine. We are so like-minded, and have similar tastes in most things, from food to fashion, and all things in between pertaining to fun times, meeting interesting people, and exploring new and exciting places.
Our villa was absolutely delightful, richly furnished in warm Tuscan tones and loaded with charm, authentic and stunning. We were in seventh heaven!
A young man called Stefano called in to check on us on behalf of the owners, making sure we were familiar with the workings of the property. He was delightful, and within days we were introduced to his father Salvatore, a friendly Tuscan who managed the very famous Villa Branca in Mercatale Val di Pesa in Chianti.
We were promptly invited to visit Villa Branca, a wine and olive oil producing estate, located high in the hills above the valley of the Pesa River, with spectacular 180 degree views. It was a beautiful afternoon spent in Salvatore’s company, tasting the Villa Branca Chianti Classico wines, and a range of Villa Branca liqueurs, the famous Fernet Branca, and Menta Branca digestives. Their late harvest Vin Santo was a winner, dipping delicious biscotti into our glasses, and soaking up the alcoholic taste sensation became a definite highlight.
The estate boasts a number of farmhouses, beautifully restored and available for guests from all parts of the world who come to explore the hills of Chianti in Tuscany.
On this day, an unexpected encounter took us by surprise! The owner of the estate is Contessa Gloria Branca and her family. Her late husband the Count passed away quite a number of years ago. It is well known by many elderly locals, that in her youth, Contessa Gloria was considered a natural beauty beyond compare. Her crowning glory, a head of lustrous blond hair, and exquisite Italian facial features combining with the figure of Marilyn Munroe were her most noteworthy attributes. She became a patron to many charities and also to the Florentine Arts Society.
The name Branca in Italy is synonymous with elegance, wealth, class, and style. As Catherine and I slowly wandered along a pathway towards the villa, a well dressed elderly woman walked towards us, elegantly clothed in a tailored suit, and Prada handbag on her arm. We stopped to chat and discovered it was Contessa Gloria herself!
In excellent English she asked us a number of questions, wanting to know where we came from, were we enjoying our stay in Italy; was this our first visit; would we come and visit Villa Branca another day? She was delightful, and on a number of occasions in the following year we returned with friends to stay at the estate.
Finally I was invited to represent Villa Branca in Australia, and for a number of years between 2003 until 2008, I happily promoted the estate, combining the accommodation with daily tours of Chianti including the enchanting cities of Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Lucca and all the little hilltowns in between.
My very first group were due at the prestigious estate in May 2003 and I was advised by Salvatore, that I was being given an apartment at Villa Branca free of charge for my 3 month stay. I was delighted! It was a two bed-roomed apartment on the first level in one of the farmhouses, and he explained, “a nice woman, a teacher at the local school, called Anna, about your age, lives in the apartment below.” Within minutes of my arrival, suitcase and bags in hand, Anna was there to welcome me. From that moment, I knew we would be friends.
Anna is the epitome of simplicity; she lives her rural life alone, in the company of her beloved companion, Amelia, her rusty coloured, awkward looking dog, with soulful eyes, bushy coat, and a loving nature. They make a great pair, Anna with her head of henna coloured hair, her smiling eyes, colourful almost eastern style of dress, soft skin, and girlish voice.
Compared to many people I have known, there is no pretence with Anna,. She prefers the tranquil country life here in Tuscany, is vegetarian and tends her garden, leans heavily to the left politically, is a great believer in Women’s Rights, is a terrible cook, and finds housework dreary, much preferring to spend her time reading what ever book she can lay her hands on, and is probably one of the best and most passionate teachers in the Italian education system today. Her life revolves around her classes at the local school in San Casciano; she revels in the success of her students, and seeks to help those families who are less fortunate in the community.
Perhaps Anna’s only child, her 28 year old daughter Gaia, is her greatest source of happiness and deep satisfaction. Everyday Gaia calls her mother, even if it’s only a brief few words, it’s the communication that’s important to them both. Following 5 years of study at Florence University, Gaia successfully completed her degree in Architecture and has secured a position with a Florentine Group of Architects. She works long hours, but is thrilled to be associated with a company of great reputation providing her with a promising future. Many students remain highly educated yet find it difficult these days to secure a satisfactory position.
Her friendship is real, genuine and generous with no expectations, yet she is delighted to receive a little gift in appreciation of her continual acts of kindness. The delight shows in her eyes as they light up in unexpected surprise… “E` questo per ME” (Is this for ME?”)
This was the beginning of many wonderful years of friendship, years spent with my numerous guests exploring the villages, tasting the best of Tuscan food and wines, wandering through the art galleries,..immersing ourselves in Italian language and culture..simply divine!
To be continued…..