Tuscany: more than food & wine – history

August 5, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (0)

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San Gimignano medieval towers

In late July, harvested wheatfields are deep gold. Medieval stone towns cling to hilltops presenting the challenge of climbing up in burning heat. But they are worth it, full of little trattorias offering Tuscan fare.  Pizzas and pastas. Piazzas and duomos. History…

We drove up from Rome on the A1, then crossed hilly Val d’Orcia from Chiusi via medieval Montepulciano and Montalcino (park and climb)  on an entrancing winding route to the remote Castiglion del Bosco, and then drove a less exciting “fast” route chosen by our GPS,  bypassing Siena on the autostrada towards Florence and then turning south east towards Casole d’Elsa and Castello di Casole.

Both hotels (Castiglion and Castello) are well placed for exploring cultural treasures. Castiglion: Montalcino 15 minutes, Siena 40 minutes, San Gimignano 1 hour 20 minutes. Castello: Siena 60 minutes, San Gimignano 40  minutes, Florence 1 hour 10 minutes. 

We enjoyed the proximity to Casole d’Elsa when staying at Castello di Casole for its narrow stone alleys, and choice of less expensive dining venues with typical Tuscan fare.  And then we made a visit to San Gimignano. Again you are forced to park low down and walk in crushing heat  (unless you have can afford to just take a limousine or taxi).

As you climb you get closer and closer to what must have seemed a miracle in the middle ages. The tall austere towers around the Duomo…


Sleeping with Tuscan dreams: Hotel Castello di Casole

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Amazing pool of a 4 bedroom villa

The castle is just one wing of Hotel Castello di Casole – there are more buildings in rough hewn grey stone around it with the austere charm of a medieval village. Originally in the castle days there was a small village up here to serve 200 tenant farmers. Now the buildings house a medieval family crypt, a chapel, a serious gym, a spa (to open in September), some villas and various accommodation types.

Our favourite was a suite in the annex Tinaia, where the grain used to be kept. Bedroom and lounge looked out over the steep drop to the rolling hills and valleys and the lounge had a SKYLIGHT bringing gorgeous light (no balcony or terrace). Same same but different with perfect wrought iron details and heavy beams.

The wing Limonaia facing the restaurant Tosca contains duplexes creating a smaller more cottagey feel, with the advantage of small gardens – not yet private, as the gardens at Castello di Casole are still being developed including an amphitheatre. Limonaia is where the lemons were kept.

Nine new suites open soon with panoramic terraces, promising to be “highly contemporary and super sexy”, in the words of sales manager Laura Fiore. Bringing the number of rooms & suites up to 41.

On top of that there are the 14 magnificent villas (wonderfully renovated Tuscan farmhouses) spread round the estate – these are under fractional private ownership (but can be rented through the hotel).

Interesting to compare Castello with our last destination Castiglion del Bosco, another former castle and hill village in Tuscany, like Castello di Casole also renovated to deliver top luxury, with magical views, recreated borgo village (as used to surround the castles), own chapel, own wine labels and vast estate offering animal and truffle hunting and harvesting activities. By contrast Castiglion del Bosco has its own golf course for club members (offering limited golf to hotel guests – 4 rounds a year at 220 euro per round), and also has a winery actually on the estate. Castiglion’s castle is a picturesque ruin, while Castello’s from the 10th Century offers this legend on its name plate: Built DCCCCLXXXXVII (AD 998), Transformed to Villa Borghese MDCCCXI (1811), Restored MMXII (2012).

During our July visit Castello seemed livelier than Cdb, a little more a place to see and be seen, dress up in the evenings – and if not floating around in the breezes and gazing at sunsets reflected in the infinity pool – well situated for dining locally in the nearby town. CdB felt more exclusive with restful hideaway feel, somehow more wrapped in nature and its 20 or so rooms more spread out. Make no mistake both resorts have luxurious top suites with tasteful hand made details but at Castello they have more original flounce and flourish, while at Castiglion they are lusciously demurely classy and well rooted in the artistry of Florentine artisans. At Castello di Casole perhaps due to high occupancy we were not shown any suite to equal our CdB suite Vigna Alta with its own vast terrace. There is a prime suite with big terrace overlooking the hotel courtyard but it counts as a villa under private fractional ownership.

The owners of the Castello di Casole estate are Timbers Resorts (USA) who specialize in fractional villa sales at boutique resorts in the USA, Caribbean and elsewhere, with a strong philosophy of authenticity rooted in the destination. Before completing renovations of the castle and launching Hotel Castello di Casole, the resort had already marketed villas spread far and wide around the estate on a deed of fractional ownership usually one tenth or one twelfth ownership. These are put in the pool for renting when not occupied but judging by the haunting Tuscan charm of the 4-bedroom villa we saw they will be in such demand that one would be plain lucky to get a week’s rental for 8 to 10 people for 4200 euro/villa/week. The villa had perfect rustic décor, and infinity pool hanging out over a clifftop with stunning views, surrounded by vineyards, and endless living rooms. All hotel facilities included in the rate.

Cdb has 9 villas, 3 in the borgo area with more on the way; while Castello di Casole has 14 restored villas, 14 more to restore or create in Tuscan style.

Perhaps a common phenomenon, in both cases the owner’s wives were major contributors to the design and décor. Castello di Casole’s design also involved an American interior designer J Banks of South Carolina.

For Castello di Casole a major challenge in the European market will be its US ownership even though it feels more Tuscan than the Tuscans. They guess that 50% of customers are from the US and the rest from Brazil, UK, Northern Europe and South Africa.

Castiglion del Bosco has the advantage of the illustrious Ferragamo name giving it high fashion and highly Italian status – though the Ferragamo owner in this case is actually the son who lives in the USA. It was prior to opening a private club.

PS flashback. Our Maps programme in the iPhone steered us to Casole d’Elsa apparently through lack of information on the new hotel address. We drove up hill and down dale in the area looking for signs, but saw none. We had approached from an unusual direction, as it is signposted for driving from Florence or Siena and we drove over fabulous Val d’Orcia from Castiglion del Bosco. Phonecalls to the hotel proved fruitless as the staff new to the area could not imagine where we were phoning from in Casole d’Elsa so kept sending us in wrong directions. The proper address given by someone at the hotel fed into our iPhone programme advised us we were 50 km from our destination…so who knows what went wrong there. Certainly not Telia.

It was the petrol station attendant who put us right in the good old style.


Brand new hotel, 10 centuries old: Castello di Casole

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Stone structures from the 10th century

The petrol attendant in Casole d’Elsa pointed across the valleys: “There it is”. Finally we could see it after two hours of searching with our GPS. The brand new hotel Castello di Casole stood like a fortress village on the highest hill of its vast estate, amidst a panorama of rolling Tuscan countryside.

We were met with five-star grace, our car parked for us, and our luggage delivered to our corner suite in the exquisitely renovated 10th century castle. Friendly staff sympathised over our GPS troubles (see note below) apparently rooted in the newness of the hotel, open only on July 1 after 5 years of restoration.

It was now early evening and the air held a gentle buzz of expectation in the lobbies and courtyard, with trendy long dresses, high heeled sandals and bare shoulders in a play of see and be seen. Both the trattoria and the fine dining restaurants had tables out among the potted lemon trees. Candles were lit along the rim of the water feature and a balmy breeze cooled after an awesomely hot day. In fact outside the piazza/courtyard it was quite windy which is why they had moved tables into shelter away from the usual panoramic terrace.

Castella di Casole is indeed a romantic spot perched up on the hill with views all round. The fine dining terraces overlook the sunset and infinity pool and across the valley to the quaint medieval town of Casole d’Elsa, easily reached to provide many more Tuscan dining options. We had two top class breakfasts with the buffet choices supplemented by a la carte items and foamy cappuccinos. In addition we dined at the trattoria which held a very high standard offering authentic Tuscan fare, pizzas and pasta – with the sophisticated edge of vegetarian options. My vege lasagna was memorable.

Everywhere Tuscan ambience has been taken to the ultimate with perfect imaginative details, antique or customized; decorative wrought iron bedsteads and light fittings with twirls and flourishes, heavy dark beams, pictures from antique markets. Our suite was delightful, and the attractive wrought iron created a medieval flavor as befits its position on the 2nd floor of a 10 th century castle, and yet had the artistic flourishes of its artists and designers. I particularly loved the bathroom with views of the cypress lined drive from one side and Tuscan hills on the other (though over the parking lot).

We were given a welcome bottle of Castello Wine in the room, which we drank in the bath tub (with its reflections in fancy mirrors over the double vanities, separate shower cabinet and toilet/bidet nook).

It was a very delicious wine we sipped with flavours of perhaps chocolate and berries (I am no wine expert).The estate – 4200 acres of it – has 30 acres of olive trees for own olive oil production and 80 acres of vines producing its own wine, created in a winery off the property. They use the same winemaker as Sting.

See next blog post for more about the hotel.

PS flashback. Our Maps programme in the iPhone steered us to Casole d’Elsa apparently through lack of information on the new hotel address. We drove up hill and down dale in the area looking for signs, but saw none. We had approached from an unusual direction, as it is signposted for driving from Florence or Siena and we drove over fabulous Val d’Orcia from Castiglion del Bosco. Phonecalls to the hotel proved fruitless as the staff new to the area could not imagine where we were phoning from in Casole d’Elsa so kept sending us in wrong directions. The proper address given by someone at the hotel fed into our iPhone programme advised us we were 50 km from our destination…so who knows what went wrong there. Certainly not Telia.

It was the petrol station attendant who put us right in the good old style.

View across to Castello di Casole from medieval Casole d'Elsa

Far in the distance is Castello di Casole, seen from a pleasant trattoria in Casole d’Elsa

 

Narrow roads and passage ways in Casole d’Elsa – and some washing

Castello di Caole:

Built DCCCCLXXXXVII – AD 998

Transformed to Villa Borghese MDCCCXI – 1811

Restored MMXII – 2012


Peace, comfort and Tuscan safaris: Castiglion del Bosco

August 3, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (0)

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Infinity pool in the balmy evening

Famous for its deep red Brunello di Montalcino (takes 5 years to mature), Castiglion del Bosco charges 70 euro for a tasting session at its own winery; and its own golf club charges 220 euro for 18 holes (golf cart extra), limiting the number of rounds to non members to only 4 per year. Yet  the resort is all so understated, so natural.

Celebrities come here to “earth” themselves. With nibbles of celery straight from the large veggie garden. With hiking and mountain biking. With forests full of wildife. Even wolves roam those woods – and among activities like cooking courses, harvesting, and truffle hunting you can even go on safari.

The villas – beautifully restored Tuscan farm houses with private pools – cost from 3500 euro per night for a 3-bedroom villa to 5000 euro per night for a 5 bedoom villa, three by the hotel and six perched on hills somewhere on the 4500 acre estate. Rack rate on the borgo rooms from 620 euro per night including breakfast.

A veritable fortune and years of restoration turned the medieval village with its church and ruined castle first into a highly exclusive club and then a hotel, owned by Massimo Ferragamo, actually resident in the USA. He is the youngest son in  the illustrious Italian family Ferragamo. A name that sparkles in Italy.

Simplicity is refinement but can include very expensive details. Everything is antique or custom made.  TVs and minibars in leather cases. Four poster beds fashioned in wrought iron by craftsmen in Florence, the Renaissance city. Pictures from antique shops. Rows and rows of them, beautifully placed.

Though never flashy, the size of some its suites is something one might boast about. Like our suite Vigna Alta in the borgo village “main street”, with massive lounge, massive bathroom with tub and shower including stone seat, dressing room, extra bathroom and the best of all a spacious terrace with sunbeds, dining table, sofa and views of Tuscan hills.

We also got the chance to see two borgo rooms with terrace (some do not have terraces). The room Fontaccia alta has stairs down to a suite  that opens out into a garden with a pizza oven. There is a little kitchen so the two can be rented together as a villa.

Of course the resort has a spa and a gym – and a kids  club (25 euro per hour)  – and families are made very welcome. The trattoria/Osteria is perfect for kids, very low key, with plenty of pizza and pasta naturally. We dined there deliriously – not just admiring the real taste of pizza with flours mixed according to the chef’s secret recipe, but the real taste of crisp freshly picked salad. 

Technology up to date, but some of its best features are its oldest – the church with its 12 century etchings, the belltower on the former priest’s house – now the bar and trattoria Osteria La Canonica where you can taste the full Brunello range. The magical ruined castle where you can watch even deeper red sunsets.

Other old treasures of Tuscany can be seen on excursions. Siena is about 40 minutes by car and Florence 1 hour 30 minutes. Montalcino is two hilltops away (and two valleys) – my memory is it  took us an hour on its unsurfaced road, but other reports say 15 minutes.  The hotel charges 50 euro per way for a trip to Montalcino so it can’t be too far. See the images in the gallery above and in the previous blog.


Deep into Tuscany

August 1, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (19)

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Chiusi

16 July

Heading for the ultimate in Tuscan luxury after a blissfully budget flight. We drove from Rome Fiumicino Airport in a jolly little Lancia  up the A1 to our first stop Chiusi. My iPhone “Maps” was much in use like a new toy and proved its worth by showing a bubble (i.e. our Lancia)  floating off our planned route from the A1 into the mountains. That discovery saved us lost time in the crushing heat and got us back on track.  It took us 2.5 hours from Rome to our first Tuscan hotel.

I’d booked a surprising gem of a four star hotel – so much nicer than I expected from the price. That’s what you call getting more than you pay for. Tomorrow we will be embraced by five star plus but today feels wonderful.

The former home of an Italian aristocrat – as all the Tuscan hotels seem to be, Il Patriarcha proudly hoists up a stone tower and radiates Tuscany with sizzling terracotta walls and green shutters. It’s been criticized for having a supermarket neighbour but our room was in a perfect position – one of the original classic rooms on a corner with views both side and back (the supermarket is a boring structure somewhat tucked away on the entrance side).

Behind the hotel on that hot day – that very very hot day of around 36 deg C – we sighed with pleasure to see the giant trees and real Tuscan views. Green rolling hills. A family was enjoying the pool. Nice sparkling pool.

We chose not to dine at the hotel. We decided to explore nearby Chiusi and dine there. I am already crazy about little authentic Tuscan towns with (hopefully) not too many tourists and this was one of them. The harmony and charm of old stone, narrow streets, churches and piazzas. Not to mention pizzas. I chose gnocchi and Pelle chose pizza with beer, which meant that of course I had to taste pizza too. This one was superb. How can wheat taste so full and nutty –  so nutritious…covered with simple ingredients like tomato and mozarella (buffalo).

Our room was Tuscan style with dark beams and a glitzy bedhead giving a romantic touch. Night was a dream. Breakfast had cake and sweet yoghurt, as Italians seem to feel they must deliver this morning sweetness. But it did have cappuchino and other edible  things.

And so on to our wonderful drive into the heart of Tuscany.

Green woods, silver olives, burnished wheatfields …. and of course more medieval stone towns. The secret of exploring Tuscany in the ferocious heat of July is white linen and comfortable sandals. Don’t try to take the car into the centres out of cowardice and fear of the raging sun. Park and walk. We somehow missed the treasures of Montepulciano by driving in and being unable to park.

But Montalcino found us parking at one of the signposted parking lots way down the slope, and walking…

Very lovely medieval town but lots of steps up. Dominated by the castle, we were drawn happily along  its narrow streets towards that structure and ate there.

Next stop will be Castiglion del Bosco, a byword in luxury.


Right in Florence: The Savoy

June 10, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (0)

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Savoy pavement nightcap

Ten out of Ten for location on Piazza della Repubblica a short walk from the main attractions of the Renaissance city.  A soothing Roccoforte hotel with classic Tuscan restaurant  opening out onto the square, where you can dine al fresco in summer, watching people flow by.  Not to forget the hotel’s pleasant service and a concierge who can book you restaurants and find you tickets for Michelangelos’  David or the Uffizi, thus avoiding impossible queues.

Food prices did not seem over the top compared with other delightfully placed restaurants – but the prices of individual items at breakfast could seem irksome. The continental buffet breakfast does not include your eggs but is adequate for Nordic peoples with delicious cured meats and hunks of Italian cheeses. Not to mention the pleasant feel of eating al fresco (under sunshades), encircled by the privacy of the Savoy’s rosemary bushes, or in the restaurant opening out onto the pavement through glass doors.

Here you watch Florence come alive with locals heading for work or tourists arriving or departing. Fortunately this Piazza is not the scene of frenetic over-activity. No special features just here bring busloads to stand in formation around the tour leader with flag upheld. Yet you are among fashion shops and just a short walk from the Duomo, Uffizi and Ponto Vecchia. Plus if you have been shopping and need a new suitcase you are in the world of classy items of leather luggage. And if you have misjudged the weather (like we did) and have been meditating upon an Italian leather coat, there are 15 outlets just from one leather coat factory in Florence – and many more. Actually high quality at relatively low prices.

Rooms at the Savoy feel tastefully and demurely luxurious – though small as five star rooms go. However, if you have views of the Piazza out front or the Duomo out back they feel much larger. Our Executive room (a mere 27 sqm) gained a sparkle and sense of space from the fifth floor view of the sky and the square.  Rooms are contemporary with a Tuscan feel emanating probably from the bedspreads which bring in a softer country touch. The small bathroom was richly adorned with marble and mosaics, with toilet and bidet squeezed in – and shower over the bath. Roccoforte amenities add luxury touch.

Big plus for us at the Savoy was that an ironing board was quickly delivered by friendly Francois the porter – in contrast with no do-it-yourself ironing opportunities being available at the Four Seasons where the cost for pressing was equivalent to buying a new dress at H&M or Zara (which are actually just a few steps from the Savoy along with designer outlets).

With such hot real estate on Repubblica one can understand that room size is not the main allure at the Savoy. Lead in size Classic feels small (25 sqm)  but as already noted Executive feels adequate (28 sqm), uplifted by higher position and better view. Deluxe definitely is more spacious at 32 sqm and studio at 38 sqm.  In addition to 88 rooms there are 14 suites.

Their equivalent of Presidential (Suite Repubblica) is 70 sqm and can be interconnected with a deluxe  room for more space. Highest suite with best view is Suite Brunelleschi (50sqm) including steam room (no balcony) – this is also the newest suite.

As to accommodating children, they have many connecting rooms, and deluxe rooms and suites take an extra bed for a child. Among child-friendly features hotel boasts special crockery designs for kids and special food including pizzas (one called Pinnochio). Gifts are adapted to various age groups, starting at a teddy on the pillow for the little ones; learning guide to Florence for older children in English and other main languages; DVDs for kids.

Note: the restaurant L’Incontro is under a 2 Michelin starred Chef Fulvio Pierangelini. Did not try it except for breakfast –  the concierge was on the ball for dining arrangements and booked us close by in a former cloister, where we had our favourite Aubergine Parmigiano for very affordable price.

Nice feature is the free gym on the top floor with a view of the Duomo.