Life in a Castle: The View from Fiesole

Well, I may not be living in an actual castle, but aside from the size, who can tell the difference?

In fact, Villa le Balze is actually quite small, if you want to compare it to genuine castles or American mansions. Of course, by Italian standards, it’s rather gigantic. (Normal) Italians, you see, live in tiny apartments or smallish homes, at least in the cities. The villas of Fiesole, (pronounced “Fee-EH-sol-eh”), a northeastern town in the suburbs of the city of Florence, I am told, are populated mostly by rich Italians—the ones who can afford the view. The winding, twisty, TINY road that leads the way up the cliffs to the small town is molto piccolissimo—so small that even the tiny European cars have to do three-point turns at the twists to turn around.

Villa le Balze actually means, “villa [on] the cliffs,” and the entire place has the most amazing view of Florence! Because the house is built up on the hills surrounding la città, the city, it is essentially composed of windows, terraces and breath-taking views. Long and skinny (indeed, it seems everything is skinny here: the doors, the staircases, the people), the grey stone building stretches out along the main “cliff” with gardens on either end. Down along the hill, along paths that twist back and forth across the way, there are olive trees planted from which, I’m told, the villa makes olive oil. Even in winter, with the plants covered and the flower-beds waiting empty, the simple, sweeping designs are bellissimo, almost as lovely as the view. Ivy grows along the stone walls and paths and, during rainy days like today, the bright green moss makes the stone and gravel paths slick and slippery without the all-too heavy rain boots I left behind.

During our free time on Sunday, I explored down among the paths of the olive trees, making my way from one end of the villa beyond the “Philosopher’s Terrace” to the opposite end where I found a much-overgrown and treacherously leaf-covered path leading to a gazebo. The gazebo, made of stone and covered with creeping strands of ivy, extends far beyond the rest of the villa’s confines and has, of course, yet another incredible view of Florence. The best part, however, were the two cats across the road from the gazebo sitting in the shadow of the lone tree blocking this incredible view. One black and one grayish-orange, the two simply sat there, blinking, and stared right back at me as I took pictures.

In addition to the gardens, the villa itself has all the makings of a (tiny) castle. The floors are marble and wood, there are fireplaces everywhere, and my room, although I share it with two other girls, is enormous. All of the furnishings are very ‘old-style,’ made of leather and wood (you’ll have to forgive my lack of knowledge about interior design, all I know is that they could probably be used on the set of a movie set in medieval times and not look out of place—very cool); the library has floor-to-ceiling (almost) bookshelves on every wall; all of the windows have interior shutters that are locked with a very-secure and medieval-looking bar at night; and there is a “scullery” area separate from the kitchen, in which we have “scullery duty” (i.e., setting the table, etc). There are two wonderful housekeepers who clean both the villa itself and our individual rooms daily, and there are two chefs who prepare pranzo (lunch) and cena (dinner) almost every day. And don’t forget it has its own gardens and is surrounded by cliffs. Yep, definitely a castle. Or at least castle-inspired.

That’s not to say the villa doesn’t have its drawbacks. By no means I am trying to infer it is paradisiacal; after all, as far as modern conveniences go, it’s lacking: the wireless is spotty and slow, for instance, and laundry tokens cost €3 a piece! The bus ride to Florence can be nausea-inducing, what with all the turns in the road, insane Italian driving rules, and notorious gypsy pickpockets. Also, there’s the weekly scullery duty, and there are rules for nearly everything that must be followed (even the chess table set up in the main hallway has a rule book…).

Still. For me at least, it’s a small price to pay.

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