Discover Jewish Tuscany – finding heritage hidden in the timeless hills

Victoria Prever finds intriguing Jewish history amid the rolling hills of this lush corner of Italy


A glowing orange sun is sinking into a mist-shaded valley made up of miles of lush, tree-coated hillsides. Some are topped by tiny farmhouses or churches, while a row of tall poplar trees rises ramrod straight in the foreground.

It’s as if Jewish entrepreneur Michael Moritz, Welsh-born owner of hotel Borgo Pignano, had scoured the region for a hill with the iconic Tuscan view for us to enjoy. Nursing sundowners and high-class nibbles on the hotel’s terrace, all boxes are ticked for the perfect Tuscan holiday.

But beyond the scenery, the hotel was a base for me, my husband and our two teenagers — Barney, 15 and Kitty, 13 — to dive into the Jewish history of Tuscany, this beautiful corner of Italy. Although obviously, I had not sold the trip to my children on that basis.

For them, this half-term mini-break was an opportunity to indulge in pasta, pizza and gelato, and  lounge about in rural countryside (albeit with requisite high-speed wi-fi) in five-star luxury.

Much of the hotel and surrounding gardens have been fashioned from what was formerly a medieval village — or borgo — once home to 150 locals.

Painstakingly restored over a 25-year period under Moritz’s ownership, the restaurants, bar and various communal rooms (including a library, television room and billiards room) are housed in the largest of the characterful stone buildings, an 18th-century villa, where there are also some guest rooms.

Dotted around the estate are a number of other suites and villas; those close to the main building were converted from the original staff quarters and others, further down the hillside, are more recently built villas.

Our two-storey suite in an old stable building was just a short stroll across the gravel drive, although the newer villas are far enough from the main building to require a golf buggy to ferry guests back and forth.

The décor remains traditional with plenty of tapestries, comfy sofas and dark wood, although the vibe is relaxed and friendly. Each night the bar staff set up shop on the terrace to serve cocktails to guests who converge at sunset — you can also enjoy the view from a swimming pool, which was carved out of the rocky hillside, during the warmer months.

During the day, it’s a great location to discover some of the area’s Jewish history.

Less than an hour from Pisa, which still has an active Jewish community, the hotel is a similar distance to two of Tuscany’s biggest medieval Jewish centres, Siena and Florence, along roads that curve around the mountainsides. A little further is Livorno, the largest Jewish city in the Italian peninsula between the 17th and 19th centuries, and now home to a Jewish museum.

Closer is San Gimignano; famed for its skyline of 14 towers, they’re the only ones remaining from an incredible 72 tower houses built by rival families, each keen to outdo the other. The one-upmanship was only halted by the council forbidding any construction taller than the 54m high Palazzo Communale.

In Siena, we sought out the synagogue, hidden behind an unsurprisingly unobtrusive street façade — a simple stone archway and heavy wooden doors with the date of its inception carved on a panel.

Inside, soaring ceilings and marble columns with neoclassical styling were impressively elegant, while the tiled floors and heavy dark wood pews gave it a slightly churchy feel, although Hebrew-lettered panels around the walls made it clear we were in shul.

It first opened its doors in 1786 with around 500 members towards the end of the 18th century. However, that number started to dip after an attack on the synagogue in the early 19th century, ten years after the French Revolution.

When French troops came to Italy, the Jews were falsely accused of aiding the French and around 18 members of the synagogue were killed. The Sienese authorities did nothing to help them, which led to many members of the community leaving Siena.

But there were still around 240 Jews in the city in 1938 — a statistic recorded in documentation given to the fascists demanding lists of the Jews living there. A total of 15 were deported in November 1943, a number lower than it might otherwise have been, after the Bishop of Siena warned the community of the impending deportation, allowing many to escape.

Today, the synagogue has 50 members and still hosts monthly services, now led by an Israeli chazan since the rabbi stopped coming from Rome.

The site, close to the main square, Piazza del Campo, is within the area that was once the city’s ghetto, established by Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1571, a year after the creation of the ghetto in Florence, and in place until 1859.

Despite only being allowed to work as moneylenders, the community was relatively affluent, something reflected in the materials used to build the synagogue — three types of genuine marble. Its Venetian counterpart, we were told by the very informative lady at the synagogue’s reception desk, had been built with fake marble.

After the culture overload, the teens were appeased with some of the town’s famous fruit and nut-stuffed bread, Pan co’Santi, a speciality to look out for in October and November, and a return to the luxury of the hotel, where my daughter and I climbed into one of the hotel’s golf buggies for a tour of some of the 750-acre estate.

Our guide shared that over the years, Pignano had been a fortress, while a church was also built on the site by the Bishop of Volterra in the 1200s, as it was a stop for Crusaders en route to Jerusalem. There’s a chance to discover more about the hotel’s emphasis on sustainability too, including its use of the original cisterns to collect every last drop of rainwater.

Later, during a pasta-making class under the watchful eye of the hotel’s slightly stern head chef, Stefano Cavallini, we learnt that most of the flour used for bread and pasta is milled on site, after being grown in the estate’s fields, which employ nine farmers.

They also grow most of the fruit and vegetables served in their restaurant — which has been awarded a green Michelin star. (Cavallini himself was the first Italian chef to be awarded a Michelin star when at the helm of the kitchen at London’s Halkin Hotel in Belgravia).

Sitting down to taste our three different creations — home-made ricotta and spinach ravioli in a buttery sage sauce, tagliatelle, and pappardelle in a fresh tomato sauce — was one of our most memorable meals.

You needn’t cook your own though. Guests can book into one of two restaurants in the hotel; Villa Pignano, the formal dining room with its Green Michelin star, and the more relaxed Fireplace, where all guests sat around one huge table family-style.

In the summer there is also the Al Fresco offering up child-friendly pizza and pasta. Staff helped us navigate the meat-heavy menu to find vegetarian and fish options, as well as warning us which desserts included gelatine.

As a car is essential to get around, we preferred to eat at Borgo Pignano in the evenings, but we did make an exception one evening, to check out kosher restaurant Cantina Giuliano, about an hour’s drive away.

Owners Eli and Lara Gaulthier are a Franco-Italian couple, who have been making kosher wine on the site since 2014, converting it into a cookery school and restaurant as their operation grew, along with vineyard tours.

The small dining room seats about 20 guests and serves milk and meat menus on alternate days, running three kitchens — milky, meaty and parev — supervised by the Rabbi of Livorno, from which they also provide kosher catering.

Dishes on the meaty menu that night included a thick bean soup, lamb and potatoes, pasta puttanesca and, for my daughter’s simple tastes, chicken nuggets. The food was simple and the wine delicious. They also make their own cheese, olive oil and jams.

Our fellow diners, a group of Americans, were making the most of the area’s limited kosher opportunities, having also visited two other kosher restaurants and a kosher winery in Florence.

Florence is also home to a new synagogue, and its own Jewish museum, although there’s little evidence remaining of the medieval ghetto in Tuscany’s capital.

There’s more to discover in Pisa, if you look beyond its famously leaning tower. Pisa’s own synagogue has been used by the Jewish community since the late 16th century, and its 17th-century Jewish cemetery is also still in use.

While Tuscany’s scenery might be what tempts you to book, it’s the stories behind those rolling hills that make this slice of Italy so unforgettable.

​Getting There

​Flights to Pisa from Stansted and Manchester cost from £42 return with Ryanair

Rooms at Borgo Pignano cost from around £300 per night B&B, based on two adults staying in the villa.

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