Take a tour of the historic castles and wine estates of Tuscany's Chianti country and you could find yourself on the trail of otherworldly beings as well
Spirits are not the first thing that come to mind when you talk about Chianti. Wine, yes. After all, this is the home of the Black Rooster, which sits proudly on every bottle of Chianti Classico. Grappa? Well, maybe. Certainly we’re not talking firewater here. The distilled by-product of wine-making in the area south of Florence is smooth and warming and crystal-clear, and won’t send you running for the nearest jug of cold water.
No, I’m talking about a different kind of spirit – the kind that belongs to another world and will have the local priest dashing to the phone, cassock flapping and crucifix jangling as he calls up the exorcist. I’d never thought much about ghosts before my trip to the Italian region of Chianti. And what thoughts I did have were sceptical. But things have changed. I spent the best part of a week looking round some of the region’s great estates and grandiose houses, and everywhere I went there seemed to be evidence of supernatural activity. It had nothing to do with wine-tasting either.
If anywhere in the world lends itself to mysterious images of long-dead nobles and holy men hanging around in the hope of a quick haunting, then it’s Chianti. The wooded landscapes and fortified hill towns whisk you back 500 years almost effortlessly. And as for the castles and monasteries – well, heavy on atmosphere is an understatement.
An abbey turned stately home was where I got the first hint that we were not alone. Badia a Coltibuono, near Gaiole, has been producing wine since Benedictine monks founded the abbey in the 11th century. Napoleon Bonaparte liked the product so much he confiscated the 2,000-acre estate in 1810 and it was later bought by a Florentine banker whose descendants have kept it in the family to this day.
The house is magnificent and the gardens even better. But what marks out Badia a Coltibuono is the cookery school founded more than 20 years ago by Lorenza de’ Medici, matriarch of the family that owns the estate. Lorenza has hung up her ladle, but the cookery classes are more popular than ever – especially since the Stucchi Prinetti family opened up their private bedrooms to establish residential courses.
I rolled up my sleeves and kneaded my pumpkin gnocchi with almost as much gusto as I later consumed both that and a very lovely loin of pork accompanied by some delicious wine. But I also gobbled up tales of the old house from Guido Stucchi Prinetti, who runs the hospitality side of the business. He talked about ghostly monks processing to mass through the cloisters, flickering candles held in their hands; I don’t think he was a believer, but his sister, Emanuela, swears she has seen the restless Benedictines.
The next stop was even better. This was Castello di Brolio, just down the road. The Ricasoli family have a special place in winemaking history because Baron Bettino Ricasoli codified the exact grape mix for Chianti Classico wines more than a hundred years ago. Bettino also found time to become united Italy’s second prime minister, succeeding Count Cavour - but what made him an object of interest to me was his continuing presence.
Francesco Ricasoli, the 32nd baron, stood on the imposing battlements with their views towards Siena and told how Bettino can still be seen, riding a white horse at pace across his 1,200-acre estate when the moon is full. No-one seems to know what keeps the old baron from sleeping easily but apparently he wanders around inside the castle as well, retaining a particular fondness for the library.
The baron kindly offered me the chance to sleep in the library and keep watch for the great innovator, but I wasn’t quite ready for a close encounter with the spirit world, so I accepted Francesco’s offer of another glass of Castello di Brolio wine instead.
Another day, another medieval castle linked to one of Italian history’s great names and, yes, another ghost story. Castello di Verrazzano, overlooking Greve, has been standing for more than a thousand years and was the birthplace of Giovanni da Verrazzano, who left his vines and manicured lawns to chart the east coast of America in the 1520s, before being turned into supper by natives in the Bahamas.
I doubt his ghost made it back across the Atlantic to lurk in the labyrinthine cellars, but I heard how tourists and estate workers have had photographs taken amid the casks of wine only to see wisps of vapour on the developed product. Some reported brief but intense cold while pictures were being taken.
I mulled over the chilling tale as I stood looking across to Castello Vicchiomaggio on its hilltop half a mile away. Leonardo da Vinci spent seven years there around the turn of the 15th century, working on frescos in the castle and painting portraits of his patrons.
This was also the period during which he painted the Mona Lisa. The mysterious owner of that famous smile is now accepted as being a daughter of the Gherardini family from the Vignamaggio estate at Lamole, on the eastern side of the Greve valley. That was where I was based - at the Villa Vignamaggio - and, naturally, I was keen to know whether my outsized bedroom had been La Gioconda’s. The estate manager couldn’t say, though he thought there was a “good chance”.
Vignamaggio was the setting for my own supernatural encounter. I was sound asleep, post hefty dinner, when footfalls at the end of my bed woke me. More intrigued than freaked out, I waited for some minutes before falling asleep again, only to be woken by the same sound, and this time I was able to follow the faint sound across the floorboards. Now I know ghosts are supposed to be noiseless, but this one certainly wasn’t. They seemed like the steps of a young woman to me and, frankly, no one was going to tell me any different. If I had experienced a visitation, it was going to be from no less a former person than the Mona Lisa.
My last stop, next morning, was Casa Sola near Barberino Val d’Elsa, more an old farmhouse than a manor house. I told my tale to Matteo Gambaro, who runs the estate for his family. ‘I don’t suppose you have any ghosts here,’ I said. ‘No,’ he replied in perfect English, ‘but we do have lots of spirits’.
I think he was a bit baffled by my lack of enthusiasm for his joke.