The planets were aligned when San Francisco residents Chris and Nicole Spence met via online dating in 2004. But the sun and the moon never rose brighter over the verdant Tuscan countryside than when the two said their vows at 500-year-old Villa Buonvisi, a private estate in quaint Lucca, Italy.
“We wanted a small, intimate wedding where we would be surrounded by our closest family and friends,” says Nicole, a sales executive for a high-profile website. “We felt that having a wedding at a villa would be a sure way to achieve that ambiance.”
Since Italy had been the first foreign country she and Chris, a climate change expert, had visited together, the two decided this was where they wanted to marry and honeymoon.
The Key to Finding the Perfect Place:To help them find their dream wedding location and arrange the week-long house party, Nicole turned to Kit Burns, president of Pennsylvania-based Doorways, Ltd. With a staff of seven, the well-traveled Burns has been providing custom-tailored villa vacations for couples, families and groups celebrating weddings, anniversaries, family reunions and other special occasions for 14 years.
On a regular basis, Kit and Doorways staff explore villas, castles, cottages and apartments throughout Spain, Italy, France and Costa Rica. With the knowledge they gather and the relationships they nurture, they provide skillful matchmaking for villa vacations.
Working with Doorways, Nicole and Chris selected Villa Buonvisi, just outside Lucca, Italy, for their April celebration. The 300-acre Renaissance estate was built in the late 16th century by Bernardino Buonvisi, the affluent head of a Lucchese family of merchants and silk traders. For the past 20 years, Italian natives Joseph and Gianna Dini have lovingly enhanced it while raising two sons and harvesting the surrounding acres of vineyards and olive groves.
A Week of FestivitiesArriving several days before their wedding, Chris and Nicole welcomed some 40 of their closest family and friends, who travelled to Villa Buonvisi from Los Angeles, New York, London and New Zealand. “For some of our guests, this was the first time they’d been to Europe,” Nicole remembers. “It was wonderful to be the impetus for them to travel and experience something completely new while sharing this amazing time with us.”
Adding to the excitement, this was the first time Chris and Nicole’s families had come together. “It was marvelous to meet each other in such a fabulous location,” says the bride.
During a week of revels—made all the more congenial with libations fermented on site—old friends, new acquaintances and family members from different backgrounds got to know one another over morning cappuccino, red wine afternoons and evening cocktails. There were trips to Bagni di Pisa for beauty treatments, opera before dinner, local excursions, and a pizza-making night led by master pizzaiolo Lucullus.
Some guests took bike rides on Lucca’s city walls and car-free streets. All savored the idyllic pleasures of a rural villa—lounging by the pool, exploring the estate and leisurely sipping pre-dinner cocktails. On numerous nights, the Dini’s 20-something son, Nicola, played DJ for evening dancing.
The Wedding at the VillaThe wooded property provided a stunning backdrop for Chris and Nicole’s seven-day wedding party. Perfectly cast as a destination location for any special event, the villa welcomes guests via a long road flanked by open fields. As they enter through an impressive wrought-iron gate and stroll down a brick walkway, they’re treated to their first sight of the honey-hued manor and the lovely lawn fronting it.
The Ceremony: Chris and Nicole got married outdoors on a luminous spring afternoon in the garden, where lemon trees and blooming roses cast their perfume on the breeze. With guests seated on the lawn, Nicole walked down a red carpet to meet her groom under a gazebo lit by the Tuscan sun. After exchanging vows, the newlyweds led everyone into the house for cocktails and the reception.
The Social Hour: The villa’s lower level Drawing Room, outfitted with rich gold and burgundy furnishings and a massive fireplace—ablaze for the occasion—was the center of the post-ceremony merrymaking. Here, guests sipped champagne and local wines, nibbling on brie al forno con mandorle (baked brie with almonds) and spiedini di pomodori e mozzarella (tomato and mozzarella on skewers). Other tasty antipasti were served buffet-style in the adjoining 22-seat Dining Room.
The Wedding Feast: For the wedding dinner, Chris and Nicole’s nearest and dearest relished an Italian feast created by Giuseppe Scarpellini, the villa’s masterful resident chef. His superb spread included calamari fritti e patate (fried calamari and potatoes) and scaloppini di maiale in salsa all’arancia (pork filet with orange sauce).
This was an encore performance for the talented culinary artist; a day earlier, wedding guests had savored a rehearsal dinner in the villa’s third-level Great Room, where mammoth cedar beams and mounted wild game contribute to a masculine atmosphere. Toasting and roasting, the company dined on Chef Giuseppe’s gastronomic centerpiece—an entire roasted pig—complemented by mixed crostini, tomato soup, salad, French fries and pannacotta with wild berry sauce.
- Help match you with the right location for your event
- Arrange for food and beverages, transportation, music and entertainment for any occasion
- Recommend and arrange dining, hiking and cycling excursions, wine tours, cooking classes and visits to nearby destinations
Visiting Lucca and Neighboring TownsA sojourn at Villa Buonvisi provides opportunities for exploring romantic Tuscany.
Lucca—a Tuscan jewel penetrated by few cars and fewer tourists. Highlights include:
- Twin squares Piazza Napoleone and Giglio
- Byzantine Palazzo Ducale
- 12th-century church San Giovanni, where operatic performances honor native son Giacomo Puccini
- The Botanic Gardens, an oasis of green inside city walls
- An antiques market held on the third weekend of each month near Cathedral San Martino
- Sunday morning flea market near the beach in Forte dei Marmi
- Bagni di Pisa, offering thermal waters for therapeutic treatments
- Surrounding villas, including Villa Marlia, Villa Mansi, Villa Reale and Villa Torrigiani
Pisa—From Lucca’s rail station, catch a train to one of the best-known, most mysterious Tuscan cities, a half hour away. Join thousands of tourists photographing themselves trying to hold up the town’s celebrated leaning tower. Venture beyond the tourist path at the museums near Campo dei Miracoli.
Florence—An hour from Lucca, Tuscany’s precocious capital still enchants with the magnificent Arno, Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s Tower and stunning art. Every year, hordes of cultural pilgrims descend to inhale the rarified air of this intellectual, measured cradle of Western civilization and birthplace of the Renaissance.
Cinqueterre—From Lerici, catch a boat across Gulf of the Poets to Portovenere and up the spectacular coast. Hikers can hop off at Riomaggiore, the southernmost of five fishing villages, and walk north from village to village. Non-walkers can stay on the boat to Portofino. The first section, Via d’Amore, requires no more than sneakers; hiking boots are recommended for the last section. Stop to swim, shop or lunch by the sea. Return by boat to Lerici.
Carrara—Drive up the coast to see the village of Pietresanta and the quarries where Michelangelo got his pure white marble. Fish lovers can continue to Tellaro, south of Lerici, for lunch at Locanda Miranda.
Lodgings Fit for Royalty
At each evening’s end, everyone had what was perhaps the best treat of all: a night in sumptuous, historic lodgings overlooking the lush Tuscan countryside.
The manor house boasts 11 spacious, artfully refurbished bedrooms. While each has been modernized, the 16th- and 17th-century elegance has been preserved thanks to period-authentic antiques and paintings, frescoed walls, original brick flooring and 18-foot-high timbered ceilings. Many of the sleeping rooms have canopy beds and all take in sweeping pastoral views of vineyards, olive groves and cherry trees.
If your guest list runneth over, two neighboring villas, each with its own grounds and pool, are available for rent. Several hotels within walking distance can accommodate additional overflow.
The Dini Dimension
As your hosts, the Dinis adds a rich human dimension to stays at Villa Buonvisi—an element missing from many travels. Here, instead of only the occasional interaction with waiters and clerks, you experience a real connection with a local family.
At cocktail hour, chic Gianna Dini is likely to offer you a chiodino
of Campari spiked with her late husband’s own vintage. During your stay, you may be proudly shepherded around the estate’s wine cellar and olive oil-making facilities. Regaling you with regional lore, a family member might pour samples of sulfate-free, allegedly hangover-proof wines and offer tastes of cheeses and oils (pressed from organically grown olives), all made on the premises.
Gianna isn’t shy about dispensing friendly suggestions for making the most of your time in the region, from therapeutic beauty treatments in Lucca’s natural spa and shopping designer boutiques to visiting the Tower of Pisa or hiking Cinqueterre (five ancient coastal villages linked by footpaths).
Reflecting on the experience, Nicole says, “In a word, it was magical. Visiting the Buonvisi estate is like turning a page of the past. It exudes Old World charm and a blend of elegance and comfort.”
Would she recommend a villa wedding to other brides? “Yes!” she affirms, “particularly those who want an intimate destination wedding that feels truly authentic and warm.”
For brides planning this style of event, Nicole advises, “Decide early on not to stress about details. In choosing Italy as our backdrop, we knew our location would be great and that the rest of the minutiae didn’t really matter.” After honeymooning in Rome and on the Italian Riviera, she concludes, “When you choose to have a wedding far away, you have to relinquish a certain amount of control, which, quite honestly, was very liberating.”