How to rent a Tuscan villa, or something like it
An idyllic view of a villa in the hills of Val d'Orcia, near San Quirico d'Orcia. (David Tomlinson/LPI)
For some, it seems the impossible dream. A distant playground for rich snobs, (successful) travel writers, Merchant & Ivory film settings, and your lucky Uncle Todd who once had a Florentine girlfriend.
It is a villa in Tuscany.
But, really, you can have one for a week or so - and settling into the rolling hills of rural Tuscan life for a bit may change how you travel for some time to come. Here is how to start the dream:
Book in advance
Obvious, but it has to be said. Villas get booked out in advance, particularly in Tuscany in summer. Many agents have dozens of mouth-watering options on websites. Start your search at Cuendet, Invitation to Tuscany or Traditional Tuscany.
Think spring and autumn, not July or August
In summer peak season, availability is trickier and prices predictably higher. Still, you can find nice villas, often with pools, that sleep six from $3,050 per week - or about $70 per person per night. But that same villa is often half price from mid-April to mid-May or October to mid-December.
Book by the week, not by the day
You will look silly trying to get one for two days. Prices are set by the week.
If not Tuscany, Umbria
Slower-going than Tuscany, Umbria has fewer visitors and many villa rental choices too, and its hill towns make great back-up daytrip fodder, like at St Francis of Assisi's birthplace with mile-long walks to sanctuaries between olive trees, or the cliff-side Orvieto and its wondrous 13th-century Romanesque cathedral (and some great Italian wines).
If not Umbria, Le Marche
Jessica Spiegel of www.Italylogue.com says, "Umbria's becoming increasingly popular as people spill over from Tuscany - if you're really trying to get away from that, keep going east to Le Marche." It is a great area, with mountains and hill towns like the lively little Urbino, a World Heritage site. (There is the Adriatic coastline too, though much of it is lined with unflattering high-rise hotels.)
If not a villa, agroturismo
Snatching a rural base on a working farm is a nice back-up to a villa - some are simple, rustic affairs, other more luxurious. Also, information centres can help track down these last minute. One farm that comes with high recommendations is Urbino's Locanda della Valle Nuov, in Le Marche: a working organic farm with six rooms, home-grown truffles and horse rides. Count us in.