Travel writer Tricia Welsh falls under the spell of the Italian countryside as a destination wedding guest.
Travelling by train through the undulating Italian countryside and arriving in our Tuscan villa recently to attend a family wedding was akin to setting off on a second honeymoon. For as settings go, the romantic location of Villa Fontelunga overlooking the Val di Chiana vineyards near the ancient hill town of Cortona is as idyllic and quintessentially Italian as you could find.
About an hour and a half from Florence, near the town of Arezzo, it is undeniably on the Tuscan tourist trail. The surrounding countryside is home to ‘must-visit’ medieval villages such as Arezzo, Pienza, Siena and Montepulciano that roll off the tongue like a rich Barolo wine for which the region is famous.
Ticking all the right boxes for romance, Villa Fontelunga is where Sydney couple Victoria Kershaw, a Pilates teacher, and cinematographer Alex Dufficy, decided to get married.
“We were so pleased we chose Italy,” Victoria says, admitting they were originally thinking of France until they discovered that getting married there required 90 days of residency to qualify. “We didn’t want any fuss, it was more about being able to go to a beautiful place where close family from both sides of the world could spend a few days with us,” she explains.
Family friend and experienced Sydney travel agent, Michael Shean (Shean and Partners) suggested Villa Fontelunga – a chic, family-run hotel in Tuscany that comprises a nine-bedroom country house hotel with two private villas nearby. The main villa is a classic century-old padronale or master’s house painted in rosy terracotta with mellow hand-made tiles and pale blue shutters.
The Kershaw-Dufficy party of 22 guests arriving from England, Ireland and Australia booked the entire accommodation. My room on the top floor combined rustic charm with modern Italian comfort. A cool terracotta-tiled floor, weathered cream armoire and a cream and lilac bedspread were offset by billowing silk organza curtains in a heavenly purple. Modern ghost chairs were designed by Philippe Starck. Throwing open the shutters in the early morning, I had a Tuscan postcard view over olive trees and cypress pines to clusters of weathered buildings with red tiled roofs all softened by a swirling golden mist rising from the valley beyond – like a painting from the Uffizi Gallery in nearby Florence.
Set on 2.5 hectares of undulating land that was once an olive farm, the property has a swimming pool, tennis court and crunchy gravelled terraces with secret gardens hidden behind lavender hedges and an olive grove punctuated with cypress pines. Philip Robinson (architect and former production designer for English TV and films such as Howard’s End and Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Paolo Kastelec (a former London banker and a broker at Lloyd’s of London) took ownership of the main property 15 years ago, adding the more intimate Villa Gallo and Villa Galletto built in local stone a few years later.
The villa is open to guests from March until the end of October. Spring and autumn are ideal for special occasion parties such as weddings, but the group is required to book the whole villa for at least three days. “We limit the number of events each season so we can also function as a regular small hotel,” says Paolo.
Paolo enjoys catering for parties of up to 30 people and will arrange everything including the flowers and music. “We love being very hands-on,” he says. For a wedding, they strongly recommend the services of an experienced event planner to negotiate, in Italian, the complicated legal requirements and other local services.
They recommended Rosie McGrath Panchini from The Big Event – a wedding planner based in Cortona, who organised the official marriage ceremony in the lovely medieval Town Hall in Cortona with an interpreter, photographer and music. Victoria found Rosie’s local knowledge of hairdressers and other services invaluable.
The bride, who wore draped silk chiffon from Lisa Ho, had strong ideas about keeping everything simple with no fuss and her thoughts of rustic simplicity were perfectly interpreted by Paolo and Philip. She was thrilled with the swags of lemons and olive sprigs down the middle of the bridal table and the napkins tied with raffia and green ribbons. Her bouquet of yellow roses, grey sage, rosemary and olive leaves tied with raffia continued the country theme.
“Local photographers Angelo Governi and Michela Del Forno took an enormous number of superb shots and sent us the most beautiful bound wedding album of atmospheric black and white shots we’d ever seen – plus a disc with hundreds of lovely shots in colour,” says Victoria. “We were blown away when the album arrived.”
Philip and Paolo together with Paolo’s mother, Ines (who visits frequently from her home in Rome), do all the catering for small weddings at the villa. Ines, now 84, is famous for her delicious lasagna – a recipe that came from a celebrated restaurant in Venice owned by Paolo’s grandmother, Julia. “This is where my mum got the passion for cooking and somehow where I got it as well,” Paolo says. The cake – a delicious lemon torta nuziale, or nuptial cake, decorated with Chantilly cream and sprigs of red currants and green leaves was made by Elena, the Fontelunga housekeeper of many years and, according to Paolo, “a fantastic cook.”
On the day, guests in hire cars drove in convoy a half hour or so through the countryside to Cortona following a hotel staff member, but somehow, the bride and her parents, who left a little later, got lost. Mother of the bride, Di Kershaw recalls: “Poor Victoria got out of the car in her wedding dress and high heels to ask directions several times struggling to make herself understood.” Pragmatic travel agent Michael Shean insisted later: “Never hire a car in this part of the world without a GPS. There are many hills and odd corners and villages all begin to look the same.”
Cortona Town Hall, once a medieval palace, proved an ideal location for the ceremony as it had the atmosphere of a church with carved stone decoration, high ceilings and pew-like seating. The dignified marriage celebrant conducted the ceremony in Italian, which another woman translated into English, while a local organist played wonderful classical music.
Afterwards, the Comune presented the couple with red roses and Champagne was brought in for a toast. Many photographs were taken on the impressive stone stairs and on a dear little Juliet balcony above the main piazza. It seemed the whole town gathered around to have a look.
Back at the villa, while musicians played under a canopy in the garden, antipasti were passed around as guests mingled outside on the terrace. The long dining table had been set up under a draped marquee, small gifts from Australia marking each guest’s place. Here the lasagna and main course of veal with oven roasted potatoes and tomatoes were served, followed by several toasts and the wedding cake served as dessert – one appropriately made in house-made limoncello. A honeymoon in Corsica proved to be the perfect romantic ending.
Photography by Angelo Governi and Michela Del Forno.
How to get there
Cathay Pacific has 74 flights a week from Australia to Hong Kong with daily onward connections to Rome in summer, phone 13 17 47.
Arezzo is about one hour by train from Rome, phone International Rail 1300 387 245.
Where to stay
Fontelunga Hotel & Villas, is near the little village of Arezzo and is part of the Mr & Mrs Smith collection, contact 1300 89 66 27 or visit their website. Guests booking through Mr & Mrs Smith enjoy added extras on check-in including a bottle of Fontelunga’s own olive oil. The villa makes the ideal base from which to explore the picturesque region dotted with medieval hilltop villages and crisscrossed with flourishing vineyards.