Picture a stay in an elegant 16th-century Tuscan villa in the luxurious style of Renaissance nobility, but with all of today’s modern conveniences. Imagine a setting overlooking vineyards with views of majestic mountains. Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? To that picture, add convenient access to the fascinating medieval city of Lucca and many top sites in the region and you have Villa Buonvisi, where Mr. TWS and I spent the second part of our Tuscany visit.
Driving along the road lined with vineyards and woods, I caught my first sight of the villa. There on a slight slope, Villa Buonvisi was perched, grandly overlooking the vineyard. We arrived at noon on a perfect sunny Saturday in May — the roses were in bloom and the only sound was the cheerful chirping of the birds.
Red carpet welcome and hospitality
Walking on the red carpet to the entrance of the villa, I suddenly had the feeling that I should have been more elegantly attired – that perhaps Gucci would be more appropriate than Banana Republic. (I could picture walking up the red carpet from a horse-drawn carriage with a gorgeous Renaissance-style gown swirling around me, too.) My concern was diminished immediately by the warm greeting of our hostess, Gianna Dini, the owner of Villa Buonvisi. Gianna is very fashionable and chic, but her gracious hospitality made me feel completely at ease. She exudes a stylish flair which accompanied by her genuine warmth and sense of humor make her a joy to be around.
A tour of Villa Buonvisi
As we explored the grounds and rooms of the villa, Mr. TWS thought that he had stepped onto the opulent estate from Stanley Kubrick’s movie Barry Lyndon. He said he could picture the mid-18th century gentry and nobility moving around inside while the film’s theme song by Handel played. My first impressions of Villa Buonvisi were more associated with the music of the great composer of La Boheme, Turandot, and Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini, who was born in Lucca in 1858.
The villa, one of the largest in the area, was originally built in the 16th century by the wealthy Buonvisi family who had made their fortune in the silk trade, an industry in which Lucca had been famous. Gianna and her late husband Joseph bought the villa in 1992 and made extensive renovations to bring it to its current splendor with modern conveniences yet retaining elegant ambiance and historic features. It was a daunting task. The villa was in severe disrepair and there were certain restoration requirements because Villa Buonvisi is a registered historic landmark. But Gianna was determined and with her innate sense of design and style, she took on the challenge and accomplished her goal.
Much consideration went into the restoration with authenticity always in mind from the custom-made drapery to the period murals to the large exposed beams. Gianna took great care in choosing and customizing the interior decor, antique furnishings, and works of art to retain the villa’s singular period character. Gianna and Joseph lived in the villa with their two sons until opening it as a holiday rental in 2008.
High ceilings and large windows create open and bright spaces in the villa, such as those in the ground floor living room shown below.
With 11 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, and ample living and dining areas, it’s perfect for weddings (ceremonies can be held on the property), family reunions, business retreats, and other group events. To accommodate additional guests in the party or to be rented separately are two apartments (where Mr. TWS and I stayed) in the renovated farmhouse adjacent to the villa.
On our first night at Buonvisi, Gianna invited us for dinner at the villa with her son Nicola, a certified pizza chef and wine connoisseur. We began with aperitivos in the wine cellar seated at a table surrounded by their impressive wine collection. Gianna and Nicola talked about their family history and stories of the villa’s interesting past which includes a secret passage in the wine cellar discovered during the renovations.
In the kitchen and formal dining room on the ground floor, our lively conversation about food, politics, festivals, and life in Lucca continued as Nicola prepared and served us a wonderful Tuscan meal.
Originally, the second floor bedrooms and salon were for nobility while the third floor housed the servants’ quarters. Now all of the rooms throughout the villa are luxuriously designed and appointed with fine furnishings.
A few of the tastefully and colorfully decorated bedrooms, each one unique, are shown in the photos.
There are many exquisite displays of art and antiques throughout the villa. The religious art in the servants’ quarters (such as the fresco below on the wall of the servant’s secret stairwell leading to the “noble floor”) was a reminder to the maids of their faith in an effort to dissuade any less-than-honorable activities with the guests. Of course, we don’t know if it actually worked.
On the third floor, there is a large playroom for kids with a pool table and other games. The room is also used for presentations and screenings.
Sunshine and blue skies really added to the already amazing setting as we toured outdoors.
The estate’s 300 acres include olive groves, vineyards, gardens, a gated pool, tennis courts, and outdoor entertaining areas with a BBQ and pizza oven. I would like to take a walk sometime through the imposing stone gateway at the rear of the villa through the olive trees and up the hill behind.
The Vera apartments
We were very comfortable in our private apartment, Vera 3, spacious and lovely with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a dining/living area. There is a small private pool and patio for the Vera units.
City, countryside, and coastal experiences
With all that the villa has to offer, it can provide for a complete countryside holiday, but its location makes it convenient for touring other city and coastal areas of northern Tuscany.
Scenes of charming Lucca
We appreciated that Lucca’s city center was so accessible from Villa Buonvisi, just three miles away. With the guidance and recommendations of Gianna and Nicola, we saw highlights of this ancient city founded by the Etruscans and quickly fell in love with the town. The historic center is mostly pedestrian and bike traffic which really added to its appeal. Lucca was very much abuzz with locals and visitors as we walked around on this Sunday afternoon. In the summer months, it comes even more alive with festivals, such as the Lucca Summer Festival which brings big name headliners and the Lucca Comics and Games Festival. Gianna is an excellent ambassador for Lucca — proud, knowledgeable, and eager to show others her city.
The oval-shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was the site of the ancient Roman amphitheater. As we entered through one of the four arched entrances, it was a lovely surprise with many cafes and restaurants.
Of the many churches that can be found in Lucca, on our walk we passed three that are the most notable in the city. Duomo di San Martino (above right) was built between the 12th and 13th centuries in Romanesque style with an intricately decorated marble facade. Puccini was a choirboy and played the organ here in his youth. Construction on the Basilica di San Frediano (top left above) was begun in the 12th century and in the 13th century was decorated with byzantine-style mosaic tiles mostly made with gold leaf that glows in the sunlight. San Michele in Foro (bottom left above) was built between the 12th and 14th centuries with a beautiful marble Romanesque facade and is topped with a statue of St. Michael, the Archangel.
We got glimpses of Tower Guinigi at various points during the day, but didn’t have a chance to climb its 130 steps to the top where oak trees were planted by the Guinigi family to represent birth and renewal. Now one of the few remaining towers in the city, it’s interesting to note that when it was built in the 14th century, there were many of these structures on the Lucca skyline as a tower’s height was a reflection of a family’s prestige.
And of course, there is Puccini! Although we didn’t visit the family home which is now a museum with his musical scores and other memorabilia, we marked the moment by having a beverage at a cafe on Piazza Citadella near the bronze statue of Lucca’s native son.
Many locals do their shopping for food, wine, household goods and furnishings, clothing, and accessories in the city center. There are high-end designer shops and boutiques along the popular Via Fillungo, but many do their shopping at small and unique establishments that are individually or family-owned. We did a bit of window shopping and stopped in at Ottica Vogue to chat with Gianna’s lovely friend Andalusa and browse the glamorous eyeglasses. Of course, there are some stores that cater to tourists, but helping the city keep its character, they are not as prevalent as in other places.
Our timing was right to catch the antiques market which takes place the third weekend of each month. As we quickly browsed, we saw textiles, lamps, paintings, glassware, books, and many other collectibles.
There are many restaurants, cafes, and bars of all kinds in the piazzas and along the side streets for dining al fresco, people watching, and enjoying the company of friends.
At Osteria Miranda on Via dei Carrozzieri, a popular place with locals that comes highly recommended by Gianna. Our waiter (who is also a chef and owner of the restaurant) was friendly, the food was delicious, and the ambiance was very cozy and welcoming. Before dinner, we had aperitivos at a cleverly-themed cocktail bar, Franklin ’33, a nod to the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933 during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Music of the 1920s and 1930s and photos of celebrities of those days create a fun speakeasy atmosphere.
One of the most impressive features of Lucca are the still-intact ancient walls built in the 16th and 17th centuries with a 30-foot wide biking and pedestrian path on top. Mr. TWS and I rented bikes for an hour to ride all the way around twice. It was so much fun and quite beautiful with trees lining the path in many places. There were couples, families, and people of all ages biking, walking, stopping to talk, and looking at the sights. From vantage points around the path, there are great views of Lucca’s buildings, squares, parks, towers, and the countryside.
Day trips from Villa Buonvisi
In addition to having Lucca so close by, the villa’s location is ideal for sightseeing famous attractions, such as the cities of Pisa (8 miles) and Florence (45 miles). It’s also convenient for exploring other areas of Tuscany, some of which may surprise you as they did me. I never thought of Tuscany having beaches, yet it has a long coastline, the Versilian Riviera, on the Ligurian Sea with very popular beach resorts of Forte dei Marmi and the vibrant seaside city of Viareggio. I was especially taken with the rich art culture of Pietrasanta and the amazing marble quarries of the Apuan Alps where Michelangelo procured his white marble.
Quiet nights and sparks of light
On our final night on the Buonvisi estate, we were in our apartment when Nicola came to our door to tell us that the outside lights of the estate were going to be turned off to best see the fireflies that were swarming. My childhood memories include distinct recollections of chasing fireflies in our backyard in the Chicago area during the summers, but that was nothing compared to the thousands we saw this evening. Apparently, it is very common to see these swarms in Tuscany in early summer. We didn’t get any photos, so you’ll have to use your imagination to picture the vineyard completely aglow with tiny lights; trust me, it was a stunning sight.
I found a poem by Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) who was at a spa in Bagni di Lucca (about 20 miles from Villa Buonvisi), when he wrote this in the late 19th century:
… The fireflies, pulsing forth their rapid gleams, Are the only light that breaks the night…
And so it was this evening, as we lingered outside breathing in the fragrances of the Tuscan air, mesmerized by the flickering lights.
Walking along the lane in front of the villa with the stars above us was quite magical, actually – which is how I remember our stay at Villa Buonvisi — magical, elegant, and filled with wonderful activities and surprises.
Our thanks to Villa Buonvisi and EsteVillas for helping us to create our Lucca memories.