Under the Tuscan Sundial

  • Jack Smith

In Tuscany, the most ordinary landscapes are strewn with the detritus of history. Rutted roads and trails dating to the Roman Empire cut through the countryside, leading past Renaissance manors, medieval cathedrals, and centuries-old wineries. The region’s timelessness, however, has an inconvenient corollary: Things do not move very fast in this part of Italy.

"You have to be patient," says Andrea Prevosti, general manager of Castel Monastero in the region’s Ombrone Valley. "You cannot rush things in Tuscany."

If Prevosti did not know this before coming to Castel Monastero—a boutique resort and spa built on the thousand-year-old remains of a medieval monastery—the northern Italy native has since learned it. "Tuscans are artisans; they like to do things the traditional way, by hand," he says. "And they take their time doing it."

Take, for instance, the local baker, who makes bread the old-fashioned Tuscan way, without salt. Bread prepared this way goes stale after one day, but no other bread, while fresh, brings out the distinct flavor of Tuscan olive oil. First, however, you have to convince the baker to make it. "He will not get up in time to bake his bread for us to serve at breakfast," says Prevosti. "That would disturb his quality of life."

Laundry, too, is a slow proposition, requiring an overnight stay at the hotel. "The local laundresses don’t like to rush any more than the baker does," says Prevosti. Come to think of it, he adds, the man who delivers the newspaper is slow as well, so Americans have to wait until past noon for their copies of the International Herald Tribune.

Still, Prevosti does not fault the local work ethic. "Tuscans just aren’t caught up in the chase for the euro the way other people are; they are happy with what they have," he says. "If they have money, they don’t show it off. More important to them are things like friendship and family. In Tuscany, people address you as tu, the familiar form of ‘you.’ In Rome, that would be rude."

This Tuscan spirit—the personal, the quaint, the romantic—is precisely what draws people to the region. And it is exactly what Castel Monastero aims to give them.

Opened last July, Castel Monastero consists of 75 guest rooms, a villa, a spa, and restaurants that occupy 13 original structures dating to the 11th century. The walled monastery also contains a small church, whose scale and location invariably evoke the gushing comment, "What a perfect place for a wedding!" A well stands in the center of the resort’s medieval courtyard, where, it seems, any moment now a troop of mounted knights might come trotting through the gate and into the piazza, perhaps to pick up their laundry.

To be sure, authenticity has its limits, thus the plasma TV and iPod docking station in each room, and the hotel’s Gordon Ramsay–branded restaurants. Fortunately, the waitstaff at the restaurants do not dwell on any incongruity, educating guests about the local olive oils and vin santo—a dessert wine made from grapes that are dried, hung from rafters, and then pressed for fermentation—rather than about the British celebrity chef’s latest TV exploits. Nobody leaves the main restaurant without having a glass of vin santo served with almond or hazelnut biscotti.

This amalgam of modernity and rusticity is not unique to Castel Monastero. Throughout Tuscany, abbeys, castles, forts, and farmhouses that until recently were considered ruins are being restored and reborn as five-star pleasure domes.

Outside the village of Casole d’Elsa, Timbers Resorts of Aspen, Colo., is re-creating a 12th-century castle as a 41-suite hotel and spa. The boutique property, which is scheduled to open to the public in early 2011, is the centerpiece of Castello di Casole, a 4,200-acre resort community and game preserve.

At the foot of Tuscany’s Pratomagno Mountains, Il Borro—a 1,700-acre village-style resort with country manors, farmhouses, vineyards, and a spa—opened after more than 10 years of restoration by the Ferragamo family, of Italy’s famed fashion house.

In Tuscany’s Maremma region, set between the coast and foothills planted with vineyards and olive groves, French culinary eminence Alain Ducasse transformed the former hunting lodge of Leopold II, the 19th-century Duke of Tuscany, into L’Andana, a sumptuous resort and spa whose restaurant has earned a Michelin star.

Even the 16th-century Villa La Massa, which has been a hotel since 1948, was refurbished and expanded in 2009 to transform one of three villas into a private complex of suites on the estate’s 20-acre park on the Arno River.

Each of these hotels offers—in the warmth of its welcome no less than in its history and architecture—a taste of the essential Tuscan experience. Anywhere else in the world, discriminating travelers may ask for little more than lavish surroundings, breathtaking scenery, cultural and recreational diversions, fine cuisine, and state-of-the-art amenities. In Tuscany, however, we expect all that and something more personal, more intimate. We arrive, senses tingling, poised to recognize that moment that will bring us back time and time again.

in a scene from the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, an elderly Tuscan homeowner rebuffs a couple of soigné house hunters by doubling his asking price. The couple goes off in a huff. "Come on," says the man. "Let’s go to Provence."

Indeed, Provence may be the closest thing to Tuscany in the minds of Americans, though, predictably, many Tuscany aficionados recoil from such comparisons. "Anyone who knows Tuscany," says Nicola Bulgari, vice chairman of the Bulgari luxury empire and owner of a home in the Val d’Orcia district of Montalcino, "would never consider Provence."

Italian fashion mogul Salvatore Ferragamo concedes that similarities exist between Tuscany and the south of France. "Both regions are known for their quality of life," he says via phone, while taking a break from overseeing Il Borro. "But the French have always been very clever marketers. In Tuscany we are more spontaneous, more authentic. One way to judge the difference in lifestyle is in our food. The food in Provence is good, but it is more elaborate, with complicated sauces. The food of Tuscany is very simple; it is based on the quality of the ingredients."

It is easy, of course, to get caught up in the fantasy that swirls about Tuscany. The name evokes tranquility and romance, with its 9,000 square miles of olive groves, vineyards, and cypress trees, and narrow cobblestoned roads that wind through sepia-hued villages populated for centuries by artisans and eccentric villagers. Other parts of Italy may be as scenic, but Tuscany was home to Dante, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, the cradle of the Renaissance.

In modern times, the people who have preserved the region’s charm are not writers or artists or moviemakers, but rather a less romantic sector of the local populace: bureaucrats and politicians. "Tuscany has remained unspoiled due to a very rigid political planning system," says Ferragamo. "It is very difficult for anyone to get permission to build anything."

It was not always this way. In the time of the de’Medicis, the wealthy did as they wished, and, their penchant for poisoning each other notwithstanding, nobody could fault their taste. From the 14th century to the 18th century, the de’Medicis and their ilk scattered the Tuscan countryside with hundreds of villas, palaces, and opulent manor houses. "The wealthy always came to Tuscany for pleasure," says Ferragamo. "When they weren’t hunting, breeding horses, or making wine or olive oil, they simply enjoyed the scenery. But the tourism market was very small; it was the aristocracy and the very wealthy."

These fortunate few led a life that was dependent on a feudal system known as mezzadria, in which landowners allowed sharecroppers to work their property as long as they provided the owner with a satisfactory amount of crops. If the landlord was not pleased at any time with a worker’s production, he could fire the sharecropper and his entire family. The workers were allowed to build homes on the farms but could occupy them only as long as they labored for the landowners, who, with free labor at their disposal, had little or no incentive to improve the estates themselves.

Life changed for workers and landowners alike in the early 1960s, when Italy abolished its sharecropper system, setting off a mass exodus from the farms into the cities. Without the manpower to maintain them, the farms and estates were neglected and fell into disrepair. Some went on the block for a song: In 1968, the 222-acre Fontodi estate, one of the most highly regarded producers of Chianti Classico, sold for $20,000. Many properties just lay fallow, though, until 1985, when the Italian government passed legislation to encourage tourism as a function of agriculture. "Agritourism was the first big step toward putting Tuscany on the tourism map," says Ferragamo. "Government subsidies made it possible for farmers and entrepreneurs to restore old farmhouses and hotels, and Tuscany soon became the most popular destination for the agritourists. The farmers were amazed to learn that vacationers or weekend travelers from the city would actually pay to come out and help work around a farm."

Nothing, however, could have prepared the locals for what is happening now. "Everywhere in Tuscany," says Ferragamo, "you see farmhouses and villas restored beyond anything their original owners ever dreamed of."

 

Mike Cuthbertson wheels his SUV up to a ramshackle farmhouse in a meadow ringed by hilltop castles and the bell towers of distant churches. Cuthbertson, a real estate sales representative for Castello di Casole’s parent company, Timbers Resorts, says that the two-story dwelling was built centuries ago to shelter livestock and fodder on the ground floor and workers and their families on the upper floor. With the passage of time, however, it has fallen into ruin: Its stone walls lie in rubble, and the roof is open to the sky.

Castello di Casole plans to remake the dwelling into an 8,000-square-foot, $10 million architectural masterpiece that will offer such luxuries as a Carrara marble kitchen sink, a bathroom lined with Bisazza tiles, an outdoor oven, plasma TVs, an infinity pool, and a private cook and housekeeper. The villa is one of 14 residences being rebuilt at Castello di Casole. "The restorations will have the same floor plans, foot-thick walls, and oversize fireplaces as the original farmhouses," says Cuthbertson. "Generally speaking, the local officials will allow you to rebuild a structure if you restore the original look and the interior volume and architecture that the building once contained."

Tuscan building officials are nothing if not thorough. They determine the appropriate exterior for a restored structure by scrutinizing the remaining walls and neighboring buildings, rejecting any features that could adulterate the original appearance. For instance, stucco walls are prohibited on the restored farmhouses because stucco was too costly for the 17th-century workers who built them. Thus, the walls of this 8,000-square-foot villa at Castello di Casole will remain unfinished stone, as they were four centuries ago.

To arrive at the interior volume and architecture of a restored home, the authorities examine what is left of the floor plan, along with any remaining historical records. They even go so far as to determine interior color schemes, which, says Cuthbertson, can be maddening. "They won’t say, ‘Use this color paint on the walls.’ You have to paint the walls first, and then somebody from the arts commission will come out and say, ‘No, that’s not quite right. Do it over again with another color.’ "

In addition to restoring 14 farmhouses, Castello di Casole is building 15 new villas, which fall under a separate set of regulations. Tuscan officials require that the new structures incorporate some element—perhaps a streamlined, modern-looking wing—that distinguishes them from the historic buildings. "The advantage of the newer villas is that we’re allowed to build them with floor-to-ceiling glass walls," says Cuthbertson, "and we have a freer hand with decor, materials, and floor plans."

Still, he says, the most desirable villas are those that are re-created from ruins. "When you see the interior vaults, arches, and hearths, you get a sense of history you just don’t find in the newer villas."

Cuthbertson notes that the farmhouse before him is for an individual buyer, but the majority of the resort’s villas (several of which have been completed) are being offered as fractional-ownership units. Fractional ownership—in which buyers acquire shares of a villa in exchange for a set amount of usage time per year—would seem to detract from the romantic notion of owning a Tuscan farmhouse. "My wife and I shuddered when we first heard ‘fractional ownership,’ " says Fred Landman, former CEO of PanAmSat, a pioneer in commercial satellite communications. But after touring a nearly completed villa on his first trip to Castello di Casole, he and his wife, Seen Lippert, a professional chef, were sold on the concept. "I don’t care how much money you have," he says, "running more than one household is a hassle."

Landman and his wife already had two homes, one a Georgian mansion in Greenwich, Conn., and the other a pied-à-terre overlooking Central Park in Manhattan. In 2006, they decided against buying another home and instead acquired the first of what would be four shares—for a total of 20 weeks per year—at Castello di Casole. "It’s like having someone manage your home full time," says Landman. "When we arrive, the fridge is stocked, the beds are made, and our bike gear is set out."

But is this the authentic Tuscan experience? "There are farms nearby where we can buy fresh asparagus in the spring," says Landman. "Other farms grow peaches, onions, lettuce, and potatoes. We have hare the size of dogs and wild boar running around our casale, and when I turned 60 the staff took me on a truffle hunt for my birthday. There’s a small restaurant not far from here that knows me by name, and they serve world-class seafood. Every weekend there’s a festival in one of the local villages.

"Where else could I duplicate this way of life?"

 

Winemaker Silvia Anichini’s favorite local restaurant is the Osteria del Caffe Casolani, a small, informal eatery set along a narrow cobblestoned street that runs through the town of Casole d’Elsa. Anichini is director of Castello di Casole’s Vintners Club, in which property owners have first choice of the Sangiovese, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes that are grown on the resort’s 88 acres of vineyards. This afternoon, however, she is rhapsodizing to her guests about the Osteria’s testaroli. "It is the finest in the world," she says.

So directed, her guests place their orders and sit back to watch the street scene. "You have heard of the palio, no?" asks Anichini, referring to the annual festival that sets a half-score horsemen galloping bareback around the Piazza del Campo in Siena, located a half-hour away by car. "Casole d’Elsa has its own palio."

In Casole d’Elsa, the event consists of children riding donkeys through the narrow streets of the village. The town’s stone houses are still hung with red-and-white banners from the event the week before, adding additional notes of color to window boxes heavy with red geraniums.

The main street in Casole d’Elsa is on a slope, and from the lower end of the hill an aproned storekeeper is pushing a large barrel up the incline. He has almost drawn level with Anichini and her guests at the restaurant when a friend calls to him, prompting the storekeeper to let go of the barrel and walk over to chat, not thinking that the barrel would soon obey the law of gravity and start rolling back down the hill, as it almost immediately does. Fortunately, before the barrel begins careening out of control, another villager steps into its path and rolls it over to its owner. He thanks the man profusely before continuing on his way up the hill, waving cheerfully to us as he passes.

A few minutes later, the testaroli arrives. It is a simple dish, a kind of ravioli made without eggs. However, as the winemaker has promised, it is the finest her guests have ever had.

Castello di Casole
When completed in early 2011, this resort will include a 41-suite hotel, a spa, and several restored farmhouses and newly built villas, which are available for fractional ownership. The property is set amid a game reserve abundant with hare, pheasant, deer, fox, wild boar, and other wildlife, and its woods and meadows are laced with some 150 miles of private trails for hiking and biking. Besides the wines sourced from its vineyards, Castello di Casole produces a private-label extra-virgin olive oil from the property’s 30 acres of olive groves. “The owners like to help harvest the grapes and olives,” says general manager Bart Spoorenberg. “They soon discover it’s not as romantic as it looks.” +39.0577.967509, www.castellodicasole.com

Castel Monastero
The newest member of the Eleganzia Hotels and Spas collection, Castel Monastero is set in a restored monastery about 15 miles outside of Siena. Food is a focus at the resort, with fine dining and rustic fare designed by Gordon Ramsay and realized by chef Alessandro Delfanti. Signature dishes include sour-green-apple-and-horseradish risotto flavored with broth of red mullet. The resort hosts cooking lessons and wine tastings in its 1,000-year-old cellar. Perhaps paradoxically, the property’s spa offers a variety of treatments designed to help guests achieve their desired body weight. +39.0577.570001, www.castelmonastero.com

L’Andana
L’Andana’s neoclassic villa, farmhouse, and chapel sit on more than 1,200 acres of pristine Tuscan countryside. The buildings house 33 guest rooms and suites, as well as a 6,000-square-foot spa with an indoor pool. Outdoors, a pool and hot tub overlook gardens, with a tennis court and small golf course nearby. As to be expected in a resort created by Alain Ducasse, a highlight of any stay is the cuisine, in this case traditional Tuscan fare by chef Christophe Martin. Romantic and posh, L’Andana is ideal for couples but less so for children. +39.0564.9448000, www.andana.it

Villa La Massa
This gorgeous resort comprises three villas with 37 guest rooms and suites, each different from the last and filled with antique furniture. Guests can harvest their own vegetables from La Massa’s on-site chef’s garden and enjoy alfresco dining while overlooking the Arno River. Recreational facilities include an outdoor heated swimming pool, a fitness room, and biking and jogging trails. Equestrian trails and an 18-hole golf course are nearby. Guided tours to Chianti-area wineries are available on request. +39.055.626.11, www.villalamassa.com

Il Borro
Centered on its own medieval hamlet in the wilds of the Arezzo region, this restored estate, owned by Italy’s Ferragamo family, provides numerous routes to the Tuscan experience. The borgo (village) features a lavishly updated 10-?bedroom villa—with an indoor pool and formal Italian gardens—that is available with a full staff, including a chef, waiters, and housekeepers. The resort also offers 12 apartments for rent in the village, each with rustic wood-beamed ceilings and terra-cotta tile floors. Another 16 apartments are housed in farm buildings scattered around the property. In the hamlet, a classic osteria serves traditional dishes to complete the Tuscan idyll. +39.055.977.053, www.ilborro.com

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