ROSIA -- The natural tendency when one discovers treasure is to try to hoard it.
So Toby Rose was nervous. She had discovered there was a travel writer in the small crowd gathered in a sun-drenched studio to admire the work of student painters who had spent the last three weeks at Tenuta di Spannocchia trying to capture the immense beauty of the place.
``You're not going to share our little secret, are you?" asked Rose, 66, of San Francisco, who has been coming here with her husband, Ben, since 1998. ``We wouldn't want everyone to know."
She, and now we, had uncovered a jewel in the hills of Tuscany southwest of Siena. But I told her not to worry. Spannocchia is not for everyone.
Dominated by a 58-foot stone tower dating to the 12th century, the 1,100-acre tenuta -- or agricultural estate -- has many intriguing facets. It is a working organic farm that also produces its own wine, olive oil, and meat products. It is an educational center that hosts programs from around the world. And, as we discovered, it is an unforgettable place for a family vacation.
Spannocchia (pronounced spah-NOCK-eeyah) is anything but a luxury resort. When you leave the twisting, two-lane highway in the valley -- where Italian s have made high-speed tailgating an art form -- and climb the 2-mile dirt road to the estate's hilltop ``castello" (castle), you enter a place that operates at a natural, slower rhythm, and maintains its ties to the past.
``To understand Tuscany, you have to understand Spannocchia, and the role it played in the way of life in this area," said Randall Stratton, 61, a Hopkinton, Mass., native who is the estate's farm director and resident historian. For centuries under the feudal mezzadria system, sharecropper families lived on and worked the land and sent its bounty to the wealthy owners in Siena.
The Spannocchi family owned the sprawling property for 800 years before selling out to a lumber company in the late 19th century, which in turn sold the land to the Cinelli family in the 1920s. Their descendants, including Stratton's wife, Francesca, still run Spannocchia today.
The mezzadria system finally crumbled in the 1950s as young people left the countryside for the cities. Today, Spannocchia relies on a handful of full-time Italian farm workers and a seasonal internship program focused on sustainable agriculture that draws young people from all over to help tend the fields, animals, and vineyards.
Dotted across the estate are seven farmhouses that once sheltered whole families of workers and have been converted for vacationers. And what a rustic pleasure they are.
Ours, Casa Dami , named after the farm family that once lived there, was probably built in the 1500s. It has high ceilings, uneven but beautiful tiled floors, a small but serviceable kitchen, a large living/dining area, a writing desk in an alcove, three bedrooms, two full baths, and breathtaking views of the countryside out of almost every window.
But even that may not be for everyone.
Spannocchia is a green vacation destination. Guests are asked to compost organic waste and to recycle glass, metal, plastic, and paper products. Linen service and housekeeping are limited to once a week, barring any calamities, of course.
There is no television or Internet access in any of the farmhouses, which we thought might pose a problem for our seemingly hard-wired 11- and 9-year-olds on their first international adventure. But Dami faced the central castello courtyard, which was populated with various cats, dogs, guitar-strumming farm interns, and the student artists on a program from Oklahoma State University, so there was never a shortage of living, breathing diversions to ease the withdrawal from the digital world. Not to mention the inground pool.
Spannocchia is a working farm -- its sounds and smells are part of the atmosphere -- and there are no formal programs for guests to take part in the agricultural aspects of the place. But there also is nothing to keep you from exploring and interacting, particularly with the livestock. Erin Cinelli, 30, director of the nonprofit Spannocchia Foundation based in Portland, Maine, which coordinates educational programs here, took us on an impromptu tour one day to see 11 piglets birthed by one of the estate's enormous Cinta Senese sows.
The pigs forage for chestnuts in the surrounding forests and produce particularly flavorful prosciutto and other cuts that are cured and prepared here. Sheep, cows, horses, and a donkey named Floppy are also to be found in the fields of Spannocchia.
The days of our weeklong stay were filled with discovery and an unexpected sense of freedom. The children turned free-range without the usual limits of schedule and proximity. We ate different ; delicious cheeses for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We found the soft, steady breeze and rich, golden sunlight offered the perfect combination for drying laundry outdoors. We never tired of the view down the valley from our kitchen window.
My wife took a cooking class and made an elaborate lunch -- including ravioli from scratch -- under the direction of the Italian cooks who create the dinners offered to everyone staying at Spannocchia each Monday through Friday. I took two long hikes: the first to an ancient abandoned monastery called Santa Lucia in the shadow of a working mountainside marble quarry; the second to a somewhat restored 12th-century fortification called ``Castiglion che Dio sol sa" -- The Castle That Only God Knows. The front gate of the castle was locked, but I found a side gate open and went inside. Contemporary graffiti was scrawled on many walls, but I also found a largely intact, centuries-old brick oven that could have been a prototype for Bertucci's. Both hikes and the cooking class come highly recommended.
The evenings were as delightful as they were varied. Two nights we made simple meals at our farmhouse with pastas and vegetables bought at the local COOP grocery. Three nights we enjoyed the communal dinner served family style -- outdoors or in, depending on the weather -- at long, cloth-covered tables and made all the more enjoyable by the shared good company. Wednesday night dinners feature either special pizza or meals made almost entirely from estate meat and produce. The one constant is the Spannocchia wine, which is produced on-site and flows ceaselessly and without any apparent ill effect.
Other nights, we dined in tiny nearby towns where the restaurant was the only business to be found. At Ristorante Cateni on a hilltop in Orgia, we dined on osso bucco while gazing at the lights of Siena in the distance. Our children ran laughing through the narrow streets as swallows swooped above and around them in search of their evening meal of insects.
Spannocchia also serves as an excellent home base for exploring the rest of what Tuscany has to offer. We took a day trip into Siena, where we climbed the 503 steps to the top of the Mangia Tower, and took in the view of the surrounding countryside and the famous Piazza del Campo far below us. Nearby San Gimignano -- the Manhattan of the Middle Ages, with its skyline of ancient towers -- proved to be something of a tourist trap, which we fell into willingly. Between the Ripleyesque Museum of Torture and Execution and the endless series of euro-sucking leather and toy shops, there was something for everyone in our little group.
San Galgano, the home of the Italian ``sword in the stone," was memorable for the simple beauty of its surroundings and for the skeletal arms and hands on display that were allegedly torn from someone who long ago tried to make off with the sword. Equally unsettling was the crone in the chapel gift shop whose constant stream of muttered Italian seemed to warn us not to touch anything or our extremities would meet a similar fate.
But our best moments came at Spannocchia, and here are a few of mine:
I stood with my back against an ancient stone and brick wall outside our farmhouse as the sun set over the hills. With a glass of wine in my hand that had been produced from grapes grown on the slope below me, I could feel the stored heat of the day draining from the wall and into my skin. Birds flew silently over my head as the last light slipped from the sky behind the ridgeline to the west.
Leaving the Castle That Only God Knows, I was attracted by the sound of running water far below . I found a path and followed it down the hillside to the stream, which was actually an old mill trace from centuries before. Now all that remained was a waterfall dropping into a deep, cool pool and I was struck by how much history that water had flowed through before I appeared on the scene and how long it would flow after I was gone.
The Sunday night in our week was the last night for the farm interns, who were wrapping up a three-month stint in what appeared to us to be heaven on earth. That evening in the central courtyard, my wife and I joined a circle of celebratory dancers being led in traditional Italian folk songs by a local woman named Monica who taught us the steps through a combination of hand gestures and facial expressions. We followed her every move, accompanied by guitar and violin, as we joined hands and swung around faster and faster, a ring of laughing dancers under a bright Tuscan moon.
Spannocchia may not be for everyone, but it was perfect for us.
Contact Doug Warren at email@example.com