Even the most jaded globetrotters swoon about Tuscany. Located about 200 miles northwest of Rome, it is not a city but a region in central Italy associated with agriculture, wine, scenery and a rich, artistic, cultural heritage.
It is also a way of life, much different from the big cities and costal towns. But it is more than that, which I quickly found out.
We were attracted by the region’s rave reviews, and especially by a friend’s recommendation of Hotel Castello di Casole, which Travel & Leisure rates as the best resort in Europe. I was curious to find out what the top-ranked resort in Europe would be like, and whether it could begin to compare with our ineffable, magical experience on the Amalfi Coast at Monastero Santa Rosa.
We hopped a high-speed train from Naples to Siena, a quick two-and-a-half-hour trip, and then were driven to the hotel. The 25 mile drive from Siena to Castello di Casole was characterized by narrow roads, few houses visible from the road, crops being harvested and a slower vibe. As the sun set, the sight of the hotel looming at the top of a hill as we crested a winding road framed by large cypress trees evoked an audible “Wow.”
Tuscan food is hearty and emphasizes its plentiful wild game. The owner treated us to recipes that had been in his family for generations.
Castello di Casole, opened in 2012, includes a 41 room hotel and 28 farm houses lovingly restored or converted to what we would call modern day luxury patio homes or more elegantly stated, “villas.” It seems insulting to characterize it as a hotel when, in fact it was formerly a 10th century castle, lovingly restored and faithful to its Tuscan traditions, which sits on a 4,200 acre estate, one of the largest parcels of private land in Italy.
Colorado real estate developer Timbers Resorts acquired the estate in 2005 and began the process of painstakingly restoring the hotel and developing the property which opened seven years later.
After a welcoming glass of Prosecco, we were shown to our spacious corner suite with sweeping views of the hillside and vineyards, where another bottle of Prosecco, a gift from the manager, awaited us. The suite was exquisitely furnished in modern day Tuscan: Exposed wood beams, high ceilings, Tuscan tiled floors, an all marble bathroom and warm rich luxurious fabrics.
As we settled in, we learned that Castello is more than a hotel; it is a second home community like the five star ones found in Park City, Aspen, Santa Fe or Jackson Hole, but with a difference. Tuscany has strict land use laws to preserve what is special about the region. Tuscany law allows the construction or restoration of buildings on parcels where improvements have existed, but precludes development on undeveloped land, so the developer was limited to recreating the hotel plus 28 villas on sites where improvements have previously existed.
Tuscany is a bit of a time warp. It is what the travel magazines say it is and more.
The remainder of the 4,200 acres must be either left in their virgin state or used for agriculture in accordance with strict regulations.
The 28 villas are presold before they are built, and purchasers can buy an entire villa or a fractional interest. A one-twelfth fractional ownership of one of the three-bedroom farmhouses starts at about $300,000. The hotel and the development are focused primarily on the U.S. market, although, according to the developer, there are owners of fractional interests from more than 100 countries. It is obvious that the owner’s intent is to make the hotel experience so enjoyable that guests will want their own time share to return to regularly.
And enjoyable it is: An all-Tuscan staff, fluent in English and unfailingly pleasant and helpful; a knock your socks off spa; a state of the art workout facility (yoga and Pilates are offered in a 100-year-old chapel; a stunning infinity pool; a gourmet Tuscan restaurant, a pizzeria, and an inviting bar that also serves casual food; and miles of paths across its hills and through its game filled forests.
Castello di Casole gives you every reason to never leave the property, but that would be a mistake.
Leave you must
To really understand the draw of Tuscany, you must make short drives to the small towns and villages that abound and take you back a hundred or more years in time, and walk around, sample the food and wine, and enjoy the warm and welcoming locals. The nearest town to us was a mere 15 minute drive away. We spent a day exploring a few of these small towns, and wish we had more days for exploring.
A big part of Tuscany is the food. Our last night, we drove to nearby ancient village of Mensano with no more than a few hundred people, and dined at its small and deservedly famous restaurant, Osteria del Borgo. Tuscan food is hearty and emphasizes its plentiful wild game. The owner treated us to recipes that had been in his family for generations—pasta with truffles, pasta with basil picked from his garden, wild boar ragu, and, for dessert, chocolate salami (refers to the shape not the ingredients).
Tuscany is a bit of a time warp. It is what the travel magazines say it is and more — rural, pastoral, friendly and of course, a feast for the senses. It is guided by a desire to preserve it as it is.
Tuscany is also more than a place. It is a resonance or a vibe. The views are different every day — the light doesn’t reflect off the hills today as it did yesterday or will tomorrow. There is a connection to the land, to the earth — the fresh vegetables, the wild game and, of course, the wine.
Time seems to slow down and allows the earth to nurture you through its bounty: The tastes, the smells, the views, and the people. As one of my friends commented, “It is indeed a vibe or resonance and that resonance stays with you a long time.”