it’s the secret lake which gives this part of Tuscany something special. Until now I had thought Italian lakes consisted of only the splendid Como or Maggiore in the north. But Italy’s oldest lake and its most ethereal is on the border of Tuscany and Umbria.
Lake Trasimeno is just 20ft deep, glassy and picturesque and it is in the last moment of its geological life with no streams or rivers to feed it. It’s dependent on the rain.
The largest of its three islets, Isola Maggiore, is inhabited by just 17 people, including fishermen and women who make lace on rickety chairs sitting outside on the one long street. There are no cars or bikes, just the sound of seabirds and the wind in the golden oaks and buttery-yellow poplars that run down to the shore.
We had a long, languid Sunday lunch in the garden of a family trattoria, Ristorante L’Oso, full of warmth and laughter, before climbing up past the dusty olive groves to a fine 12th-century church on the island’s highest point. Here, it is said, St Francis performed miracles.
Somehow you can feel the magic that’s settled over the centuries. We were so mesmerised by the blood-red sun sinking into the water, we even missed our ferry back to the mainland. It was much later in an eerie darkness when we managed to catch another boat.
We based ourselves at the glorious Il Falconiere hotel in Cortona. It is not so much a hotel as a handful of classic 17th-century villas. The main villa, barns, country house and old chapel have been restored with frescoes and antiques, and it feels like a glorious private home. The 20 rooms vary in size and design; all different, all beautifully furnished in authentic style.
The Baracchi family have been making their own wines since 1860 and the adjoining winery produces four varieties, as well as olive oil. Sipping a glass of the hotel’s own top wine, Ardito, the afternoon drifted away in the peace, stillness and sense of timelessness one gets in Tuscany.
Luckily there were just the two of us by the pool after the five-course Michelin meal of the night before, which culminated with slabs of handmade chocolate sliced up like cake. With nobody around I could strut about like a supermodel and not care that I looked more like Pavarotti.
Throwing open the windows of our villa on the hillside the next morning, it was like looking out at a painting and we could see across to the hilltop town of Cortona beyond the vineyards. We went on a fascinating wine-tasting tour of the Poggio Antico estate on the outskirts of Montalcino, where you start to understand the extraordinary care, attention and time that goes into the making of a very good wine. I now have six precious bottles of Brunello stored away for special occasions.
It was Frances Mayes, author of Under The Tuscan Sun, who put Cortona on the international map with her account of how she restored an 18th-century villa, highlighting the simple but rich Tuscan way of life in much the same way that English writers such as John Mortimer did before.
Cortona is perched so high it seems to be in the clouds, full of shadows and slanting light. Its secrets are the old echoing monasteries, hidden gardens and disappearing alleyways. An immensely poetic place, it is fitting that one of the greatest pieces of art is housed here, Fra Angelico’s inspirational 15th-century Annunciation, visited by 30,000 people a year. In a town so full of things to see, it is the smaller sights that stand out, such as the elegant Romanesque church of San Niccolo and the medieval wooden beams propping up the houses in Via Janelli.
If you go in November, just as autumn starts to fade, there’s the olive harvesting and pressing. Il Falconiere makes its own superb olive oil and will take guests to the mills to roast bread and drench it with the first-pressed oil. They will also show you how to make the mouthwatering pecorino and creamy ricotta.
A trip to Il Falconiere and Cortona is the essence of la dolce vita. The days are blissful and at night there’s the excitement of the evening passeggiata, when the whole town parades through the squares, women sit on the benches stroking their dogs, families stroll together, everyone preparing for the first glass of Brunello di Montalcino and that special pasta.
GETTING THERE: EasyJet (0905 821 0905) www.easyjet.com offers return flights from Gatwick to Pisa from £46.98.
Europcar (0871 384 1089) www.europcar.co.uk offers car hire from Pisa for one week from £196.
Il Falconiere (from the UK: 00 3905 7561 2679) www.ilfalconiere.it offers doubles from £59pp (two sharing), half-board, with a minimum stay of three nights.
Italian Tourist Board: 020 7408 1254