This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Dream of Italy.
If you have read Frances Mayes’ bestselling memoir or watched the movie Under the Tuscan Sun like me, you’ve probably dreamed of visiting the magical town of Cortona and wondered about that villa called Bramasole, which means “to yearn for the sun,” that plays center stage. [You can visit the real Bramasole in the Dream of Italy: Tuscan Sun Special episode on PBS.]
What surprises many movie fans is that the on-screen villa, although it is in Cortona, is not the actual Bramasole where the real-life story took place and where Frances and her husband Ed still live part-time.
Why Villa Laura Played “Bramasole”
“I found the house, now called Villa Laura, for the movie. My house was already restored and that house was abandoned and had a similar look,” Frances says.
“It was neglected for years by the owners, descendants of the famous Doria family of Genoa, as in Andrea Doria and Doria Pamphilj in Rome. One of them financed the expedition of Columbus. They are all over Italian history and I don’t know why one of them had this relatively modest place in Cortona,” the author explains.
“The long agricultural building was just that, a rundown hay and animal barn. No pool, of course, but there was a large cistern the size of a pool and I wonder if they swam there. The house was solid and just perfect I thought for the ‘restoration’ (that takes place in the movie),” Frances adds.
The good news is that you can now rent the “movie version” of Bramasole, Villa Laura, for your own vacation. I jumped at the chance to do just that with a group of long-time friends for a week to live out my own Under the Tuscan Sun adventure while secretly hoping Marcello would appear below the balcony professing his love. A gal can dream especially since Under the Tuscan Sun is about taking chances and exploring new things.
After arriving at the gate of the estate, I was on the edge of my seat as we slowly drove down the driveway lined with Italian pines and olive trees. As Villa Laura came into view, I let out an audible gasp of glee with anticipation. We were greeted by villa manager Sophie Thompson who showed us around before our group dispersed into the ten bedrooms (which sleep 20) housed in the main house, farmhouse and limonaia.
The movie Under the Tuscan Sun starring Diane Lane was released in 2003. In 2006, Fred and Nancy Cline, owners of Cline Family Cellars in California, bought the estate which was badly in need of repair. Nancy was the driving force behind the restoration which was completed in 2010.
One of the biggest discoveries during their restoration was finding frescoes from the 1600s on the ceiling of the limonaia. The Clines sold Villa Laura three years ago, but are now actively restoring the Villa Santa Croce just below Basilica di Santa Margherita that sits above Cortona.
The current owners, David and Patrina Rothrock, are also Americans who stayed at Villa Laura when they were married at the town hall in Cortona (a popular place for weddings) in 2014.
“From our first visit we felt like we were home at Villa Laura. Nancy and Fred Cline did an amazing renovation. We feel it’s a very special place and we feel so blessed to be able to share the experience of Villa Laura with so many people,” Trina says.
The property itself dates to 600 AD but the villa was mostly built in the 17th century. The main house is what was featured in the movie. The light-yellow home with green shutters and terracotta roof tiles immediately drew me in. As soon as I entered the door, I recognized the faucet from scenes in the movie. I wandered through the living room, expansive dining room, kitchen, and one bedroom on the main floor before heading upstairs and settling into one of the four large bedrooms on that level. The lower level of the house has a billiards room, movie room, wine cellar and chapel.
The farmhouse was originally where the farmworkers and animals lived, but now has a spacious main floor with expansive dining and seating areas and a large kitchen. Upstairs there are four bedrooms. The main house is more formal in décor, while the farmhouse is more countryside chic. The limonaia was originally the citrus conservancy and still has its domed 17th-century fresco ceiling. It’s perfect for a solo guest who likes to sleep in or a couple who enjoys retreating to a more private space during a group stay.
Before our first dinner, our group of 12 friends from Texas, Colorado, Utah and Pennsylvania gathered around the picturesque pool for a lively happy hour. As the sun set, I snuck back up to my room to catch an epic view of a stunning Tuscan sunset over the vast vineyards and rolling hills.
Food, Walks and Views
We took full advantage of some of the extras you can book with the villa including chef made dinners. Chef Francesco and his team Anna, Donatella and Isabella, fixed scrumptious meals for three nights during our stay including the first night. One bite of the pesto gnocchi and I knew we had made the right decision.
Throughout the week we enjoyed getting to know them too, including Chef Francesco’s quick wit during our cooking class and Anna and Donatella’s joyful dispositions. One of our highlights was a cooking class with Chef Francesco in the farmhouse kitchen. He shared his secrets to making perfect pasta and cantucci, which is Tuscan almond biscotti. For the homemade pasta lesson, he rolled out a dough made with semolina flour, drenched it with olive oil and covered with plastic to sit for ten minutes then cut into strips. Then he showed us his technique for rolling spaghetti. As we each rolled out our spaghetti, we all laughed at our “imperfect” pasta.
A take-home tip was to shake the pasta into bunches then create individual servings to look like little nests to put in the freezer to harden. For the cantucci, Chef Francesco said the trick is to both have all ingredients at room temperature before mixing and then to add almonds at the end.
My first morning at Villa Laura I was up early and went out to explore the expansive property that you cannot see from the road. I discovered several fountains, a serene pond, and a large garden from which we picked vegetables and herbs for the three nights we made dinner in the villa. I later learned from Sophie that ancient pathways from the villa leading to Lake Trasimeno were designed by the Medici family of Florence when they visited.
The rest of the week I took early morning walks up the road behind the villa. You may remember in the book and movie the old man with the flowers who visits a small shrine daily. That one is at the private Bramasole, but along the road that runs beside Villa Laura there are a couple of shrines as they are very common in Tuscany. That road also has wonderful vista views. It’s a 30-minute walk or five-minute drive up that road to the center of Cortona inside massive ancient Etruscan walls. That’s where you’ll find other movie scene locations like Piazza della Repubblica and Piazza Signorelli, where the fountain was only a Hollywood prop.
From Villa Laura we took day trips to explore some of the smaller towns in Tuscany including San Gimignano. Tour guide, professor in Renaissance art history and friend Laura Gensini came down from Florence and joined us for three days of adventures in Tuscany. Her company is The Florence Tours if you’re looking for an extremely knowledgeable and fun guide. We also booked Mickey, a delightful driver Sophie arranged for us.
One day, we did a tasting at Cantina Salcheto (www.10years.salcheto.it), an energy autonomous winery using a piping technology created by NASA to bring light into the aging room among other innovative and sustainable elements in the wine-making process. We then visited Montepulciano and Pienza and enjoyed a wonderful visit to the cheese farm Podere il Casale (www. podereilcasale.com), which has truly stunning views. The next day we headed to the Montalcino countryside for wine tasting at Poggio Rubino (www.poggio rubino.com), a winery known for their Brunello wines, but their sparkling rosé will really surprise you.
Next we visited Abbazia di Sant’Antimo and the town of Montalcino, and ended with a special wine tasting at NostraVita which I share more about in the next issue of Dream of Italy. The third day we headed to Val d’Orcia stopping in Bagno Vignoni to see the ancient baths and then to Monticchiello for a divine lunch at Ristorante Daria. Everything was scrumptious but the pumpkin soup was out of this world.
It was a busy three days of touring but with a couple of more relaxed R&R days at the beginning of our trip we struck the perfect balance for a Tuscany vacation. If you stay at Villa Laura, you will likely notice people stopping on that street to take a picture of the balcony. No stay is complete without taking your own pictures there too. We took ours just before sunset our last evening.
I may not have had the life changing experience like author Frances Mayes or actress Diane Lane in the movie, but I did enjoy la dolce vita, or the sweet life, staying in a spectacular villa truly “under the Tuscan sun.”
14,000€ per week
— Jennifer Broome
Jennifer Broome is a freelance travel and environmental journalist and television meteorologist. She’s traveled to more than 40 countries, including Italy multiple times. For more information, visit www.sweptawaytoday.com