Natalie Marsh gets to know Italy’s most cultured region, cycling through rolling hills and dining like Renaissance royalty
If I could conjure up an image of a Tuscan setting in my mind, it wouldn’t be quite as idyllic as the view I’m taking in from the seat of my bike. We rise and dip along peaceful winding roads, the serenity of our ride only occasionally interrupted by a passing car.
Towering cypress trees line our track and, at every corner, we’re greeted with spectacular views of the verdant Tuscan hills, each more impressive than the last, as we pedal closer to our home for the next two nights, Belmond’s Castello di Casole.
Belmond Castello di Casole
Perched on top of a hill, Belmond Castello di Casole is an idyllic Tuscan retreat. Although only acquired by Belmond in 2018, the 39-room property is steeped in history dating back hundreds of years, part of it as the noteworthy Querceto estate. Due to its careful restoration over the centuries, the hotel’s heritage has not been lost. The building that once stored lemon trees is now the location of five stunning two-storey Limonaia suites. With a sizeable lounge area upstairs, the lower level houses the bathroom and bedroom, with the latter opening out onto a private garden.
The hotel’s former wine cellar is now the Essere Spa, where locally sourced ingredients are used in treatments
This grand castle became the hotel group’s ninth Italian property when it was acquired in 2018. Dating back to the 10th century, the estate sits majestically surrounded by 1,700 hectares of private land, including vineyards and olive groves, with the hotel producing its own olive oil and wine, which perfectly complements a sumptuous al fresco lunch or dinner.
The warm Italian climate gives us ample chance to enjoy the alluring grounds, which play host to a number of unique guest experiences arranged by the hotel. We get our first taste of them before dinner as we wander into woodland to find a setting that looks as though it has been torn from the pages of a magical fairytale. Under the canopy of the trees, a floating table hangs from the branches and is ornately decorated with candles and flowers. It’s a stunning backdrop to enjoy sundowners and hors d’oeuvres.
But the scenery here is best seen at the break of dawn, so we wake early for a ‘First Light’ 4×4 tour. Venturing through the narrow lanes and across fields feels akin to going on a safari.
Deer, rabbits and pheasants are the animals we’re most likely to see, says our knowledgeable driver and guide Paulo
Our eyes are peeled, binoculars in hand, eager to catch a glimpse of the wildlife. We all fall silent as we watch a deer poke its head out of the long grass. This is a female that has had babies, says Paulo, who could tell all of this from the subtle arch in the deer’s back, before it quickly bounded off into the distance.
Belmond Villa San Michele
Florence is just an hour away. Home to Michelangelo’s David, the city is known for its magnificent sculptures and some of the world’s most famous artwork. This was dauntingly in the front of my mind as I picked up a paintbrush at the start of an art class at the Iguarnieri Studio, located in the heart of the city. Channelling my inner da Vinci, I attempt to recreate one of the paintings on display here of cypress trees and a cottage, but I’m having limited success.
For those staying at Belmond Villa San Michele painting is just one option among a whole host of bespoke experiences the hotel offers. Our art instructor Roberto Guarnieri – one of two brothers who owns the studio – catches me trying to fix a tiny mistake. The colours start to run and they create a watery mess that’s slowly spreading in all directions. He reminds me that the rule of this masterclass: less is more. Perhaps my work won’t be on display at the Uffizi Gallery just yet.
If guests prefer to admire craftsmanship rather than create it, there are excursions to charming gardens dotted across the city
We were given access to one of the most exclusive; the Giardino Torrigiani. The largest private garden located within city walls in Europe, this stunning space spans close to 17 acres and is a peaceful oasis in the heart of Florence.
We meander around the grounds on a guided tour with the charismatic Vieri Torrigiani, whose family has owned this land for generations, and whose demeanour made the experience all that more enjoyable. There’s even a statue of Torrigiani’s ancestors in the gardens. The figures are sculpted with robes draped across them, symbolising that they are “dressed by knowledge”, Vieri says.
Nestled high up into a hillside, the 45-bedroom Belmond Villa San Michele literally has the city of Florence and the wider Arno Valley at its feet. The building was previously a monastery, and its ornate architecture and divine artwork adorn the walls of the main building. La Loggia restaurant has a long balcony for guests who wish to dine al fresco and soak up the views, while those who wish to kick back can head to the gorgeous pool at the highest point of the hotel.
The garden bar is the jewel in the crown, best at sunset to mark the perfect end to the day
The hotel’s location is particularly poignant as it is next to Monte Ceceri, the site of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘flying machine’ experiment. During my stay, the hotel marked the 500th anniversary of the Florentine artist’s death with a special dining experience.
Taking our seats at a long banquet table, it didn’t initially feel like a typical five-star dining experience when we were instructed to break and serve the loaves of bread with our hands. But we soon felt like Renaissance royalty after being served an exquisite eight-course menu with dishes including wood pigeon and risotto, while a band played traditional music. There was even a surprise appearance from an actor playing da Vinci!
Served in the hotel’s garden bar, this spot is where guests enjoy million-dollar views of Florence glistening down below in the evening’s haze. Its chilled-out ambience draws guests here as the sun begins to set. An Aperol spritz in hand, with the resident pianist adding to the mood, it’s Italian luxury at its finest. This is also general manager Emanuele Manfroi’s favourite part of the day.
“You feel the nature all around you,” he says. “It’s really a relaxing place.” I couldn’t agree more, and this will now be the image that comes to mind when I dream of Tuscany.
Rates start at €550.00 + 10% VAT. For more information, visit belmond.com