FLORENCE, Italy — The view from the veranda of this superbly restored 12th-Century villa in Tuscany is just like one of those lyrical Italian paintings prized by art galleries.
Fields form a checkerboard of olive groves, grapevines, fruit trees and wheat, laced with patches of vivid red poppies that seem to glow in the soft Tuscan light.
The candle-like shapes of the cypress trees, the visual signatures of this region, surround many of the ancient farmhouses in the distance. The structures look little changed since they were built in the Middle Ages.
I'm staying at Le Colombe, one of these country houses. Run by a charming couple, it is only 20 kilometers from Florence, and has been modernized to provide every comfort.
Every serious traveler has dreamed about leasing a villa in Tuscany, one of the loveliest areas of Europe. There are, however, three obstacles to stop you from fulfilling this fantasy.
Minimum rental is usually three to six months, far too long for most people. The cost is substantial, $300-$400 U.S. a day is not unusual for a better villa, and to that one must add the wages of at least one person for the day-to-day cooking, cleaning and maintenance tasks.
The third problem is language. Unless visitors have a reasonable knowledge of Italian, life in a villa can be isolated at best. There is no one to introduce you to locals, and shopping as well as sightseeing without any help or guidance is far from easy.
These problems have logically dampened most people's enthusiasm for staying in one of those lovely Tuscan villas. But for three lucky couples at a time, the problems won't be a deterrent. They will have their dream fulfilled and can enjoy a villa stay in Tuscany with an insider's view, thanks to their gracious hosts, Francesco Forlano and his lovely Mexican-born wife, Carmen.
I met Forlano last year when he was manager of the Villa San Michele, a luxury hotel par excellence at Fiesole on the hillside overlooking the famous Italian art center of Florence.
Before that he had worked at the Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel in Munich and managed the Hotel San Domenico in Taormina, Sicily. There he met and married Carmen.
When moving to the San Michele in Florence they fell in love with the incredible beauty of this area, deciding to begin a new chapter in their lives. Both would give up their careers to buy and restore a 12th-Century villa at Mercatale in the Val di Pesa. There they would grow fruit, olives, herbs and Chianti grapes.
But both are vivacious, multilingual people of the world who enjoy the mental stimulation that contact with international visitors provides.
So they set aside three double rooms with facilities of the highest standard, good enough to suit the fussiest of international guests. Then, in an aura of serenity, comfort and luxury that only the best of the Tuscan villas could provide, up to three couples could make their base here and see the area in what would be a house-guest atmosphere.
"I felt that this would be an exciting thing to do," said Carmen. "Here in one of the most beautiful parts of Europe, while we settle down to a country life, there will be enough time to show our house guests some of this enchanting area.
"Within a day's drive are some of Italy's greatest treasures. Florence is half an hour away, Siena an hour, and as soon as we found this old villa we knew it was just right for the idea."
Buying the villa, the Forlanos set about transforming the property into a haven of perfection. With exquisite taste and a knowledge of interior decorating and architecture, they set to work. Drawing on his hotel experience, Francesco knew exactly what his potential guests would appreciate.
During the renovations, workmen dug up a Roman stone panel with a carving of two doves, the inspiration for the villa's name, Le Colombe.
The house consists of two parts, the tower that dates to the 12th Century, and the annex, added in the 17th Century. Although both have been completely restored and modernized internally, the building blends into the timelessness of the area.
Windows look out over a panorama that will never be forgotten. Bedrooms, furnished in Tuscan style, have wonderfully comfortable beds and ceilings of the local bare-beam-and-tile construction that has been unchanged in this area for a thousand years. En-suite bathrooms feature large baths or big showers (a rarity in this part of Italy).
Breakfast, served by Carmen on the open terrace, is a feast for eye and palate, with bread, scones and sweet rolls freshly baked by her each morning.
But the real treat is the charm of the Forlanos, who made us feel that we were part of their family from the hour we arrived. A stay here opens the whole of Tuscany for their guests in a way that few tourists would otherwise find possible.