I sip my morning cappuccino as the Tuscan sun kisses my bare arms and I have to pinch myself to prove that the view before me is real. To my left, a whisper of blue-grey smoke curls up from a cluster of terracotta-hued buildings. Straight ahead, I gaze upon a row of cypress trees lining the hilly horizon, standing tall over the verdant vineyards below. And to top it all, I’m sitting a few feet away from an Etruscan castle. It’s a Tuscany we’ve all read about and I’m delighted it’s not the stuff of fiction. So idyllic, it’s enough to make the hairs on my sunkissed arms stand on end.
I’m at Castello di Casole, a sprawling estate set in 4,200 acres of private grounds, just 45-minutes drive south of Florence. Once home to the noble Bargagli family, it was more recently owned, in the 1960s, by Italian film director Luchino Visconti and it’s no surprise – the views are like a scene from one of his classic movies. Nowadays, the once-run-down estate has been injected with life again after the completion of a painstaking restoration venture by American company Timbers Resorts. Offering a slice of the Tuscan idyll to the likes of you and I, they’ve sympathetically converted the original 10th-century castle into a five-star boutique hotel, and the surrounding casali, or farmhouses, into uber-glam villas to buy or to rent. The result is authentic Tuscan charm mixed in with a huge dollop of luxury and a side order of culinary activities.
This being Italy, it goes without saying that it’s food here that plays a central role. Just like the unchanged landscape, what you eat in Tuscany is timeless. While nouveau cuisine and molecular cooking have gone down a storm in other parts of this food-obsessed country, Tuscan cuisine has remained true to its roots. It’s hearty and heart-warming, simple yet confident. If food is your religion, then this is the place to come to worship. What’s more, with its working farms and vineyards, kitchen gardens and local markets, Castello di Casole, it seems, has been built on its stomach and is now attracting guests who want to fill theirs.
Take the hotel itself. It’s a sublime mix of traditional Tuscan charm meets the best of contemporary Italian design. The 41 suites are sensitively decorated, yet are wonderfully modern, providing that true, and often elusive, ultra-luxe feel. Walls are painted rich reds, sage greens and golds, carved furniture sits upon flagstone floors, and windows are framed by wooden shutters. Meanwhile bathrooms are vast with stand-alone baths, shower rooms, acres of marble and ultra-modern taps and fittings (and rightly so, as, let’s face it, guests at a luxury hotel do not want an authentically rustic bathroom).
There’s a choice of suites – 18 are found within the main castle walls, nine are in the nearby Casa del Prete (the original priest’s quarters), the five two-storey Limonaia suites, tucked behind the hotel, are carved out of a converted lemon barn, while the nine Oliveto suites, just above the main courtyard, have a private apartment feel about them with their own large terraces.
While each have their own distinct interior style, they also have one thing in common – the wow-factor. But its not from imaginative interior design or the antique chests and crisp linens (as lovely as they are), it’s achieved from the breathtaking views they all have of the countryside beyond. If you want the traditional Tuscan experience (albeit spruced up and served on a rustic platter) this is the place to come to. Look to your right and you’ll see an avenue of cypress trees, crunch across the piazza and your senses will be tickled by the scent of rosemary, lavender and thyme, water from the fountain tinkles on the breeze, and the starry infinity pool (straight out of Hollywood) merges with the endless rolling hills in the distance.
While there’s no doubt that Castello offers the highest spec of a five star (and more) experience, the ethos nonetheless is relaxed luxury. Out is the starched formality often found in premier hotels (no staff are allowed to wear ties, for instance), and in is a charmingly personalised service, just the right side of laid back.
Talking of relaxing, food, of course, plays a central role. At the elegant Ristorante Tosca, you dine under two huge custom-made Murano glass chandeliers. Here, the focus is on regional pastas and local meats, such as the signature ricotta and spinach ravioli in a black truffle and pecorino cheese fondue (are you salivating yet?). Herbs and vegetables are grown in the hotel’s gardens, while game, such as wild boar, venison and pheasant, olive oil and wine (the hotel has its own Sangiovese vintage) are all sourced from the land on the estate. It’s non-fussy, fine dining.
More laid-back still is the Pazzia Pizzeria. Exposed brick walls, the original pizza ovens, antique banquettes and a gelateria combine to make a charming traditional feel.
For those who want to get active, there are bikes available for you to get out and explore the network of paths and roads (watch out for Sting’s house which is not far from the hotel). Or perhaps the yoga will appeal? Lessons take place every morning in the converted chapel. Perfect to ease those muscles afterwards, is a pampering session in the cavernous Essere Spa, formerly a wine cellar. Lie back under the vaulted ceilings and its almost as if you’ve been transported back to the times of the Medici family. You’ll be sure to have a renaissance moment.
Planned for next year, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Visconti’s most famous film, The Leopard, the hotel is planning a series of film nights under the stars in the old amphitheatre near to the hotel.
Further afield, there are lots to do in the surrounding areas – with Florence and Siena short drives away. While these are worthwhile day trips for Tuscan novices, the hotel is concentrating on more local offerings. Wine packages will give the chance for guests to visit small vino producers in the area. The idea being that connoisseurs can get talk directly with the wine-maker and purchase premium wines which are not available in the UK. Oenophiles, keen to go one step further, can also be happily occupied participating in the actual wine-making process in Castello’s own 88 acres of vineyards.
For foodies, meanwhile, the hotel offers a unique field-to-fork package. On offer are wildlife tours with the game warden, mushroom foraging, truffle hunting and game hunting sessions, all culminating in bespoke cookery classes. Guests can also be taken on guided tours of the local villages and markets – such as Pienza, known for its cheeses and Greve in Chianti, for the chance to buy home-made produce. In essence, whatever takes your fancy, the hotel will try to oblige. It’s that type of place.
And for those who want to completely buy into the dream. Then perhaps buying one of your own casali is the way to go. Or even better you can buy part of one through fractional ownership. There are 17 already restored, with another 11 to be completed by 2016. Each one is completely different and totally secluded, with at least 20 to 50 acres distance from its neighbour. The décor of each reflects the hotel but has even more panache – there are stone feature walls, marble floors, wine cellars and fire pits on terraces. Wifi and Bose music systems sit under specially commissioned alabaster lights, while kitchens are kitted out with antiques and state-of-the art catering equipment. The average price of a villa is around £406,000 for a 12th share – meaning you normally get around five weeks to spend in your property each year. With Timbers taking care of maintenance, upkeep and legal hassles, and with owners being able to access the hotel and its amenities during their stay – this really is the Tuscany I’ve dreamt of. When can I move in?
Castello di Casole, 0039 0577 967 557; castellodicasole.com. Double room rate from 630 Euros a night Bed & Breakfast.