Set for Tuscany

Times Staff Writer

EVERYONE who has been to Spannocchia has a story of how he or she got here. Here's mine: Eight years ago, a friend told me about a place in Tuscany where she and her mother had stayed. It was less than an hour from Florence, 20 minutes from Siena. There were forests, trails, a ruined monastery, a castle and a villa. An Etruscan archeological dig was nearby, and at night you could eat delicious Tuscan food in the villa with a bunch of cute, young archeologists. All you had to do was join a group called the Etruscan Foundation and you could rent one of several farmhouses on the property for reasonable rates.

For years, I tried to get to Spannocchia, but there were births and deaths and other places to visit. Finally, we rented a three-bedroom house for two weeks. And in mid-September my husband, Richard, our two children and I were on our way there, getting lost in a string of hillside towns that lie east and south of Siena. At last, the sign for Spannocchia appeared in our headlights. We turned onto a gravel road that wandered through the forest, and I suddenly realized that I had committed my family — including my brother, Jay, and his partner, Steven, who were meeting us here — to a place I had never seen before, based on a 10-minute conversation eight years ago and a few tiny photographs on a Web page.

Minutes passed with no sign of civilization. Clouds of milk-colored dust enveloped the car. Over the rattle of gravel on the undercarriage, I could hear the muscles tightening in my husband's jaw.

"It'll be great," I said.

"There's always Siena," he answered. "There are hotels in Siena."

At last, we saw the outline of a Tuscan castello on a hill, complete with villa and promised castle bell tower. Next came an enormous gate and a pale wall, then we pulled past the tractor shed and the swimming pool into the courtyard. My brother, Jay, was standing on the porch of the stone house just in front of us.

"How is it?" I called through the window.

"Fabulous," he said.

I got out of the car. The houses, villa and farm buildings surrounding the courtyard were a weathered fortress against a royal blue sky, broken only by green hills shouldering their way toward the horizon and a smattering of stars. There were red geraniums in stucco pots, yellow snowdrops under the pine trees, cats on every windowsill, and the world all around smelled of distant smoke and new wine.

Fabulous.

There is no easy way to explain Spannocchia. Dating back to the 12th century, it has been many things. At one time it was a medieval stronghold of feudal lords, and until after World War II, it was part of Tuscany's mezzadria, or sharecropping, system. It is named after the powerful Sienese family who owned it longest — the Spannocchi clan, from whose name comes pannochia, the Italian word for "corn." Delfino Cinelli, a Florentine count, bought the property from the Spannocchi family in 1925 when he abandoned the family hat-making business to write. His son, in turn, used it as a base for his Etruscan Foundation — an archeological enterprise that began in the late '50s, decades before the rest of Italy gave much thought to the ancient race.

Spannocchia is run by Francesca Cinelli and her husband, Randall Stratton. In the 12 years they have lived here, most of the dozen houses on the property have been restored and overhauled. But unlike some of the neighboring Tuscan estates, Spannocchia, which now has its own eponymous foundation, has not been converted into a hotel or a community of vacation apartments. Spannocchia is much more agri than turismo.

"Visitors will enjoy one of the most beautiful, tranquil spots on Earth," the website says, "but should understand that Spannocchia is truly rural and not a vacation resort; rather it is [a] historic working farm, a wildlife preserve and an educational center."

Best to think of it as a grand family experiment — an attempt to create a self-sustaining agricultural economy using ancient and modern techniques. It is a working organic farm, complete with vineyards, olive groves, a gray and black water recycling system and a Noah's Ark project devoted to preserving native strains of pig, sheep, cow and donkey. Tuscany distilled.

For years, Spannocchia has been home to an internship program, research programs and professional retreats. Classes are available at various times: painting, fiction writing, gardening, stonecutting, Italian cooking and language, and beekeeping. This year, there will be a new ceramics program. Students from American universities visit to study forestry and architecture; in the fall, a Portland, Ore., group learned gardening techniques by restoring the villa's English garden.

"Spannocchia," says former intern Nikki Conzo, "is not a place; it's a way of living."

For us, this was clear the moment we walked into Casa Dami, the house we had chosen because it is part of the castello. Some of the other houses are farther afield, two of them deep in the woods. Lovely, but with our children, Danny and Fiona, both under 6, we wanted direct access to the cats and baby pigs in pens behind the castello — and to other people, most of whom spoke English and Italian (which we do not) and who were happy to kick the soccer ball with Danny.

On the outside, Casa Dami was all terra-cotta roof and golden brown stucco, a Tuscan dream. Inside, it was the same dream, the red brick floors worn smooth and uneven by centuries of footsteps. An enormous open-hearth fireplace dominated the living room, all the way to the exposed beam ceilings. One bedroom, claimed instantly by my children, was just off the living room; the two others and a bath were up a short flight of stairs. All three were enormous, with views of the fattoria yard or the hills, and both bathrooms were bright and new.

The kitchen was small but fully equipped, with a marble sink and counter and enough pots and pans, bowls and utensils to cook a Tuscan feast. And indeed, the makings of one were in the refrigerator and on the kitchen table when we arrived, a Harvest Box we purchased in advance from Spannocchia's garden.

We also had a compost bucket and two trash cans, one divided into glass and paper sections — they are serious about recycling at Spannocchia — and guests are asked to participate.

There were pretty linens on tables, flowers in small vases, a lovely writing nook complete with desk and chair. The houses were not built for tourists but for the extended families who farmed the land and worked in the vineyards and the olive grove. The houses were homes.


Students of architecture Everyone has a story about how they came to Spannocchia, but Randall Stratton's may be the best.

In 1981, he was studying for a master's degree in architecture at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. A fellow student had seen a flier about a two-week program for architecture students in Tuscany. They could take measurements of a medieval castle near Spannocchia and propose uses for it in an effort to persuade the Italian government to restore it.

Randall and his friend were met at the Siena train station by Gino — Spannocchia's venerable farm manager at the time — who dumped them on the front porch, gave them indecipherable instructions in Italian and walked off. After a few minutes, Randall knocked on the door. It was opened by Francesca Cinelli.

For two weeks, Randall and the other architecture students sketched castiglion che Dio sol sa (the castle only God knows), which is deep in the forest about half an hour's walk from Spannocchia's castello. Although the Italian government put some money into its restoration, the project was never finished. The castle remains a picturesque hiking destination; we found it perfect for small children with plastic swords and bows and arrows.

A year after Randall knocked on that door, he and Francesca were married in Boston. As he finished his degree, he developed an ongoing architecture program between the University of Kansas and Spannocchia — the students helped restore some of the buildings that are now rental properties. For a while, the couple were bi-continental, spending six months at Spannocchia, six months in the U.S. When Gino had a stroke, they moved with their two children to Spannocchia to help run things for a time.

That was 12 years — and another daughter — ago, and what began as a project to preserve the property's architectural integrity has become much more. The animals are fed the grains grown on the estate's grounds; olive oil, wine and firewood are sold to visitors and folks in nearby towns. By the end of this year, they hope, Spannocchia will be self-supporting for the first time in almost a century.

Every Wednesday evening, Randall gives a tour of the castello. For two hours, guests and tourists learn some of the back story as they are led through the main buildings. There is a shed full of Etruscan artifacts; an old cold-olive oil press; and a meat room with haunches of cured ham, including prosciutto made from wild boar. There is a wine-making room, where simply breathing the air beside the vats is intoxicating. There is a chapel in the villa in which a priest once said Mass for the community of Spannocchia, which at one time numbered as many as 350 people.

At the end, you climb the tower. Standing on the top, you are surrounded by forest, rising and falling in swells like the sea. A small uninhabited village is visible in the distance, like structures put in a painting to add perspective and mystery. Randall knows that if they were to advertise more aggressively he could fill every room of every house. But that is not what Spannocchia is about.

"We prefer word of mouth," Francesca says, "because it is a hard place to explain if you haven't been here." Randall remembers one guest who kept wandering into the office, asking if there were anything to see in Tuscany. Randall gently pointed out that there were guidebooks devoted to the region and perhaps she might like to buy one.

For people looking for luxury, concierge and room service, Spannocchia is not the answer. It is in the middle of the forest. The floors are uneven, things sometimes go wrong (on our first day the water pump broke, and the phones are not completely reliable), the washing machine takes forever, and you must reacquaint yourself with clothespins.

A weekly newsletter informs guests of events and classes available at Spannocchia and neighboring towns, but it's not a Tuscan culture camp. Everyone at Spannocchia is happy to offer advice on places to see and eat, but they also are quite busy running a farm.

"People can participate as much as they want," Randall says. "We hope that they will learn perhaps to think about things differently, learn from the way things were done in the past, and that maybe that will change their lives a bit."

We are the sort of people who recycle sometimes, compost never, change only when absolutely forced to. We came to Spannocchia because it sounded lovely, affordable, and when traveling abroad with two small children, it is good to stay in a place that is sturdy and interesting, where you can tell the kids to run outside and not worry about them falling off a cliff or running into a street.

We came because it was close to Siena and Florence, and we spent many days exploring the region's wondrous hill and fortress towns — from Lucca to Cortona. Even the communities not mentioned in any guidebooks proved to be magical places full of piazzas and ruins, panini and gelato, all under that impossibly blue Tuscan sky, that filtered-clear-gold Tuscan light.

We went bathing in natural hot springs, visited Pinocchio Park, saw St. Galgano's sword buried deep in stone, visited more Medici fortresses than there were Medicis.

But what we loved most, what we miss most, is Spannocchia.

Danny remembers the pack of porcupines crossing the road at night like something out of the Ice Age, the wild boar and her babies he saw skittering out of the olive groves, the small "pond" full of algae and frogs that disappeared if you didn't approach quietly enough. Fiona remembers the cats and the sound of our laundry flapping in the wind (if there is a clothes dryer in Italy, we never saw it), the tower and the lizards, and all the interns who made a fuss over her. "When are we going back to Italy, Mamma?" she says occasionally, as if she had her datebook open.

Richard and I remember the peace, the seductiveness of a place where work was truly communal, where a morning might be spent creating the tool that would be needed to finish the job in the afternoon, where one day there were grapes and then there was wine, where there was no place to look that was not beautiful.

Soon, Fiona. We'll be going back very soon.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sylvan Spannocchia

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to Rome is available on Lufthansa, British, American, Delta, Continental, Aer Lingus, Air France and KLM airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $719 until May 29.

Spannocchia is two to three hours by car from Rome.

WHERE TO STAY:

Tenuta di Spannocchia, 53010 Frosinone, Siena, Italy; 011-39-0577-75211. To rent a house, you must first join the Spannocchia Foundation; family membership is $60. Information about the foundation is available at http://www.spannocchia.org . Rental information, including rental rates and descriptions of different accommodations, can be found at http://www.spannocchia.com . You can also contact the United States office of the foundation at P.O. Box 10531, Portland, ME 04104; (207) 730-1154.

WHERE TO EAT:

Dinner is served nightly except Saturdays at Spannocchia for $16-$20 a person (small children are half price).

TO LEARN MORE:

Italian Government Tourist Board, (310) 820-1898, http://www.italiantourism.com .

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