A classical vision of Tuscany or Umbria will always include little groups of houses perched on hilltops. The larger ones are villages, or towns, but smaller collections of buildings, perched overlooking the vineyards or working fields of the area, are hamlets - known as "Borghi" (plural) or a "Borgo" singular.
Originally, the occupants of the borghi were share-croppers and their families, known as "mezzadri" who were employed to work in the fields gathering crops or harvesting the grapes & olives. The borghi were generally a collection of stone barns and farming sheds, often with a threshing ground or "aia" in the heart of the buildings, surrounded by allotments and sometimes a small chapel.
After the war the Italian countryside emptied as agricultural workers went to seek their fortunes elsewhere, from the growing Italian cities to other countries, like the US, the UK and even Australia. Farm buildings, entire 'borghi' and sometimes even entire villages, were left empty, falling into decline and disrepair.
By the 1960s and 1970s some of these properties were being bought by foreigners - my family moved to Tuscany in 1974 in search of a lifestyle more in touch with the land and natural rhythms. We couldn't afford to buy an entire borgo but some could - private investment has meant that some of these tiny settlements have been re-modelled into apartments and villas with shared facilities such as swimming pools. Montestigliano is a great example of this, a farming hamlet transformed by the original owners into individual homes for rent, with the additional pleasure that the family managed to also keep it running as a farming estate, so the fields and vineyards are still productive.
Strict local preservation laws forbid any changes to the 'footprint' of the borghi and any exterior walls and window areas must remain exactly where they were. Original materials have to be re-used with tight controls on 'new' period-style materials being allowed in certain circumstances. Interiors, however, are allowed to be altered to ensure that high-quality fixtures and fittings can be installed. What you get today, therefore, is an authentic reconstruction of the borgo with the living accommodations divided to give private self-contained apartments, cottages or villas within the original layout of a centuries old hamlet.
These hamlets are a wonderful way to see a part of Tuscan history, and to enjoy the same views that people have enjoyed for centuries. Look out towards Siena from Montestigliano and you'll see something remarkably similar to the landscape depicted in Lorenzetti's "Allegoria del Buon Governo" in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Sit on the terrace of Bifora and you'll see the same view as that shown in Simone Martini's fresco, also in the Palazzo Pubblico.
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