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.
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.