Charlotte Moss' Italian Sojourn

Nothing beats days touring Tuscan and Roman gardens than afternoons devoted to shopping and evenings dining on heavenly Italian food, along with a hearty Brunello...

It should come as no surprise to seasoned Italophiles that booking a garden tour of Tuscany and Rome is no easy task. “This is Italy” became a familiar refrain while I was planning my recent trip, as the gardens I wanted to visit are private and/or require numerous letters, e-mails, and phone calls far in advance, so getting the right date and the right time is a challenge, but well worth the effort. And nothing beats days touring gardens than afternoons devoted to shopping and evenings dining on heavenly Italian food, along with a hearty Brunello. Salute!

In Siena we stayed for four days at the Castel Monastero, a monastery converted to a hotel and spa that, in a few words, is peaceful, impeccable, nurturing, delicious, and beautiful. Our nightly ritual: watching the sun set behind the monastero, creating a glowing and dramatic silhouette. The walkway to our little villa was lined with lavender, rosemary, and olive trees, and spa visits, reading, and dining defined our lazy days.

A couple of hours away, in the Val D’Orcia, sits La Foce, once the home of the author Iris Origo, who wrote the wonderful autobiography Images and Shadows. Fortuitous timing and the requisite advance phone calls allowed me to join one of the two tours given per week (Wednesdays only, at 3 and 4 p.m.). Origo created this verdant oasis in the middle of Tuscany with the help of the noted landscape designer Cecil Pinsent, who cut his teeth on I Tatti and the Villa Medici in Fiesole for Sybil Cutting, Origo’s mother. It was an unbearably hot Tuscan afternoon on my visit, but the heat didn’t deter us from soaking up every detail of the gardens and the incredible views from this hilltop complex.

Villa Gamberaia represents everything I love about Italian gardens: vistas and walks punctuated with statuary, seductive water features, and the shade of monumental pines. Located just outside Florence, the gardens are terraced on different levels, which gives the illusion of more space, and the brilliant siting allows for spectacular views of the countryside. After our visit we enjoyed a poolside lunch at the Four Seasons hotel’s outdoor restaurant Al Fresco, where we cooled ourselves under a beautiful canopy of trees in the hotel’s vast garden. The refreshing, light lunch armed us for our afternoon expedition to I Tatti, which is overseen by Harvard University. The garden continues the scholarly heritage established by its original owner, the legendary art historian Bernard Berenson. I can’t think of a more inspiring and stimulating environment for pursuing Renaissance studies, or just wandering in the garden.

As a designer it is difficult to restrain yourself from shopping and visiting workrooms, even when you’re on vacation. While I would much rather focus on gardens, villas, and museums, I did take the time to visit the shop Pampaloni on the Via Porta Rossa, which makes silver vessels based on the 17th-century drawings of the Roman engraver and artist Giovanni Maggi, a “joyful and witty man” whose talent is immediately evident in these stunning pieces. His “Bichierografia” collection is dedicated to Cardinal del Monte, the collector of and catalyst for these silver amusements. Extravagant, yes, but so entertaining. I also made an appointment to visit Antico Sentificio, the master weaver in Florence. Silk brocatelles, damasks, and rustic Italian fabrics are woven on 18th- and 19th-century wooden looms in workrooms adjacent to the showroom. All fabrics are made to order—and customers can expect to wait three months. Not bad!

So much to see, so much to eat: There are no menus at Cibrèo. Instead, a charming woman pulls a chair to your table and tells you what the kitchen is serving that night. We made our choices, selected our wine, and resumed our conversation quickly. No agonizing over menus—what a relief! While seduced by the informality of Cibrèo, I had been warned that the waiters at Cantinetta Antinori could be aloof. Never fear, nothing a smile can’t fix. On the evening we dined there I feigned a “blond moment” and flirtatiously asked the waiter a few questions, then ate a Bolognese sauce like I have never tasted anywhere. A bit more flirting revealed the secret to its success: a little foie gras to smooth out the flavor. I had yet another amazing meal on my first visit to Buca dell’Orafo, a tiny, informal downstairs place near the Ponte Vecchio. It’s so small, in fact, that our waiter had to go outside to fetch our wine. A family-run local institution, it also caters to tourists “who know.” I did not hear anything but Italian being spoken that night.

For my brief side tour to the capital I stayed on the coast, just 40 minutes from Rome, at La Posta Vecchia, once the home of J. Paul Getty and to this day outfitted with his own furniture, tapestries, and antiques. Not surprisingly, the experience was like being a guest in a private villa—relaxing, inviting, and quiet. While walking the property, I did not see another soul, and dining on the terrace overlooking the water was trumped only by a dramatic sunrise beyond the Odescalchi castle the following morning.

A tour of the gardens at the American Academy was my special treat. High on a hill, the Villa Aurelia makes you feel like you are in the country instead of in the middle of a traffic-jammed city. The Academy and the gardens are a verdant oasis. I was particularly struck by a potted allée of variegated holly standards under-planted with variegated ivy—an idea I will steal and adapt in my own gardens at home!

Searching for new fragrances is always high on my list, so I hustled over to visit Laura Tonatto, on Piazza di Pietra. Tonatto’s fragrances, with heady names like Amir, Magnifico, Plaisir, and Oropuro, are traditional and modern at the same time, saturated with exotic notes ready to transport you—perhaps to your next vacation spot, if in mind only.