It’s good to suffer hardships: they make rewards feel more deserved. If someone had uttered those words to me, as I sat in the hospital waiting room in Florence, I would have told them to rot in hell, in all the languages at my command. So, in one language.
Mrs Smith and I were on a run of bad luck. While running for a train, that morning, in oh-so-glamorous central Hackney, Mrs Smith had leapt down the stairs, knee-first. The cracking noise as she landed had made the station master turn pale. Only adrenalin carried Mrs Smith, limping, on to our flight, and by the time we’d landed, her leg had expanded to resemble a joint of prosciutto. She couldn’t walk. Of our two-day holiday, we spent most of the first day in L’Ospedale di Firenze, getting X-rays. In other news, I’d lost my wallet and my driving licence, but that didn’t matter that much, since there were no hire cars left anyway.
Like I said, it’s good to suffer hardships. Well, it’s good, as long as your reward is getting to spend time at Follonico: a beautifully restored 200-year-old farmhouse hidden away in a Tuscan valley with panoramic views of astonishing countryside. Hobbling out of our taxi, we were greeted by the warm welcome of Follonico’s lovely owners – Suzanne and Fabio.
They considerately offered us the ground-floor Alba Chiara suite – a delightful double room and bathroom separated by an adjoining gallery or loggia with stone floors and exposed beams. The suite is decorated sparely and elegantly, in keeping with all the rooms in the house. A vintage dress and hat hang beside an antique day-bed, there’s an ancient wooden chest for our belongings, and walls and surfaces are adorned with photos of the stars of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a film we’d watched for the first time – and loved – just a few days before.
With Mrs Smith’s leg iced and propped up on two plump cushions, we relaxed into a stupendous night’s sleep. The bedlinen is apparently hand-woven by a family one village over, and the mattress and pillows were made not of feathers, nor foam, but of an unknown material that we were too busy peacefully sleeping on to bother accurately identifying. (Later, we’re told the mattress is a ‘spring-independent’ one, though we’re none the wiser.)
Pushing open our French windows in the morning, we saw Follonico in full daylight for the first time. In every direction were vineyards and olive groves dotted with bushy cypresses. The picturesque hilltop villages of Montefollonico and Montepulciano perched alluringly on the horizon.
Follonico, as Suzanne was careful to point out, is a home, not a hotel. There are just six guest rooms, and all visitors eat a simple breakfast together in the family dining room with Suzanne, Fabio and their three adorable children. There was wildlife everywhere. That morning, the family cat had brought in a tiny baby bunny rabbit. Several guests had brought their dogs with them, and the polite breakfast conversation was matched with the strange gurglings of the frogs in the pond just outside. It is also apparently not uncommon to see deer, wild boar and porcupines roaming freely.
After breakfast, as we contemplated our immobility, basking in the deck chairs on the terrace outside our room, we were approached by two thoughtful visitors from NYC who took pity on Mrs Smith and offered to take us on a day of adventure in their hire car.
We drove through hills so green and skies so blue that it brought to mind – for any person who has spent too long in front of their laptop – the Windows XP screen saver. When we stopped in Pienza, a sweet eighth-century town, groups of Italian teenagers took time out from snogging sessions to gawp at Mrs Smith’s ‘ham leg’. In Bagno Vignoni – a tiny spa town – the highlight of our exceptional lunch was a dish of warm figs, covered in thinly sliced lardo (that’s ham fat, in Italian) and drizzled in honey.
Getting lost a few times along the way was, as Suzanne correctly pointed out, a joy in itself. We ended the afternoon in the enchanting company of Katya, an expat Londoner who had settled in Tuscany to make wine: the prestigious Brunello di Montalcino. As she took us around her organic farm, San Polino, her passion and charm were enough to convince us each to buy several bottles of the 2006 vintage.
That evening, on Fabio’s recommendation, we ate at another Montefollonico establishment – Ristorante 13 Gobbi. In the middle of the restaurant was an immense, open-topped wheel of pecorino cheese with a glass dome suspended above it. Should you order the tagliatelle with pecorino (and you’d be foolish not to), the waiter brings out a serving of steaming home-made pasta and tosses it directly in the round of cheese before serving it to you. At the end of the night, the glass cloche is gently lowered. It was so simple yet so ingenious; much the same appeal at Follonico. There is flair and imagination everywhere, but nothing is overdone. It was perfect. Indeed, if you have any hardships that need rewarding – a paper cut, say, or a slightly delayed bus – then I wholeheartedly recommend you spend a curative stay in the care of Suzanne and Fabio.
Reviewed by Joe Dunthorne, writer