Castello di Vicarello, Cinigiano, Tuscany, early October 2013.
Venetia & Northern Italy a book written by English historian Cecil Headlam in 1908 begins “The Lombard Lakes are the Gates of Italy. But, for the purposes of this book, they must be regarded rather as fairy portals, through which we must pass quickly, without pausing too long upon the threshold of an enchanted land. There is, indeed, scarcely a yard of Italian soil, scarcely a year of Italian history, which does not call for comment from the historian or tempt the lover of art and nature to linger in admiration”. As I sat in the impossibly beautiful grounds of Castello di Vicarello with the ancient stone castle behind me, a glass of Brunello beside me and acres of stunning Tuscan countryside before me, it was easy to understand what Cecil Headlam meant: Italy is an enchanted land. And there is perhaps no more captivating place in which to linger and admire than Tuscany.
Set on a hilltop near Grosseto in southwest Tuscany and surrounded by olive groves and grape vines, Castello di Vicarello is remote, romantic and wonderfully tranquil: the perfect place for me to retreat after the frazzle of fashion month. Waking before sunrise on our first morning, I stumbled out of bed, slipped a sweater over my pyjamas* and made my way out to the Castello’s cobbled courtyard, breathing deeply in the chilly predawn air. Perched on a wrought-iron and wooden bench under an arbour of climbing roses (sadly asleep for the winter months….they must look and smell beautiful during spring and summer) I watched the sun slowly rise over the rolling forest-covered hills and reflected on how different my early morning starts were in New York and Paris. At Castello di Vicarello, only a few birds twittering or the distant gunshot from an eager, early-morning hunter breaks the peaceful silence…. No angry taxi horns, no rumble of the subway, no garbage trucks roaring along the street at 6am. Gazing at the tower of the Castello in the dim light, the ancient, well-worn flagstones in the courtyard illuminated by the golden glow of lanterns still alight from the evening before, it was not such a stretch to imagine how the Castello must have looked in the 12th century when it was built.
It is doubtful, however, that the original occupants of the castle would have guessed at the eclectic fusion of fine antiques, retro Italian furniture and exotic treasures from Indonesia which now fill the guest suites and communal areas of Castello di Vicarello. The owners of the Castello, Aurora and Carlo Baccheschi Berti, purchased the property in the late 1970’s as a complete ruin (Aurora tells me that cows were grazing happily in the building where the handsome kitchen now sits) and over a number of years restored the surrounding buildings, and finally the tower, as both a family home and small boutique hotel. Decorating the seven suites was a labour of love for Aurora and Carlo with much of the striking furniture and artwork sourced from Bali where the couple lived for almost 20 years. Our two-level suite, Sprone, contained an intricately carved Indonesian daybed, a large and rather curious wooden fish sculpture (we nicknamed him Bruce** and gave him an affectionate pat each time we passed by) and modern fireplace which contrasted with more traditional Tuscan features: charming stone walls and floor, exposed beams, and high rectangular windows which frame the dreamy view (though perhaps for the less vertically challenged than me….I had to stand on tippy toes to see out!).
Outside, the lush gardens, even in early autumn, were a joy to explore. An enormous bank of thick, fragrant rosemary carpets a slope just below the courtyard (during the long, hot days of the Tuscan summer the smell must be intoxicatingly beautiful); towering deep-green pencil pines rise majestically next to the Castello and provide a grand entrance to the estate; pomegranate trees, heavy with gorgeous ruby-red fruit, provide a splash of vibrant colour as well as sustenance for the breakfast table (much of the organic fruit and vegetables used by the Castello are grown on the estate. Aurora sources any shortfall from an organic farm in a nearby village); gnarly old olive trees, lavender and rosemary border one of the Castello’s two secluded pools (the other, a sleek infinity pool made of natural stone, overlooks the verdant landscape below); a short stroll away, the Castello’s six hectares of vineyards abound with fat bunches of ripe, juicy (I know because I snuck a couple!) deep purple grapes, which, with harvest imminent, would soon be pressed for the estate’s own organic wine.
Mr Headlam may have written his book over 100 years ago but his words still ring true: Italy, and indeed Tuscany demand that we linger and admire.
Eat + Drink + Explore:
This is Italy so expect to eat and drink extraordinarily well….and unbutton the snap on your jeans by the end of your stay!
Breakfasts at Castello di Vicarello are a relaxed affair served in either the courtyard or in a cosy dining room next to the Castello’s second kitchen. Despite the brisk morning temperatures during our stay, we chose to eat outside at a beautiful stone table which was laid with an assortment of breakfast goodies: a colourful bowl of fresh, organic fruit, little pots of thick yoghurt and muesli, a carafe of freshly pressed apricot juice, thin slices of toasted walnut bread with cold, creamy butter and homemade preserves, and wedges of crumbly, sweet Italian cake. Eggs, from the Castello’s own chickens, are prepared to order by the attentive waiter.
Lunch and dinner are also available at Castello di Vicarello should you not want to leave the estate (a very tempting proposition once you drive through the gates).
Our last visit to Tuscany was in 2010 (how time flies!) so we wanted to explore as much of the local-ish area as possible. We spent our days puttering*** between pretty hilltop towns stopping to explore, sip excellent espresso, and indulge in plates of delicious homemade pasta. We managed to visit Montalcino, Pienza (my favourite), Sant’Angelo in Colle, San Gimignano, Castellina in Chianti, Panzano in Chianti and Greve in Chianti.
Trattoria Latte di Luna, Pienza. We had a brilliant long lunch in the pretty plant-lined courtyard (after my rather comedic attempt to book a table on my mobile in non-existent Italian!). Over a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino we tucked into bruschetta rubbed with garlic and topped with flavourful tomatoes and peppery olive oil, plates of excellent homemade pinci with ragu, and oodles of freshly shaved truffle followed by a plate of crispy-skinned, moist porchetta to share. The owner was warm and welcoming (lots of jokes about us coming from the land of the kangaroo) and slipped us a delicious desert to share.
Trattoria Il Leccio, Sant’Angelo in Colle. Another wonderful lunch spent soaking up the early autumn sun in the square of this quaint village. Superb homemade pinci with ragu, and fresh porcini mushrooms. Either before or after lunch, make sure you pay a visit to the beautiful Romanesque Abbey of Sant’Antimo where, if you time it right, you can listen to Gregorian chants by the community of brothers who live at the Abbey.
Gelateria l’Antica Delizia, Castellina in Chianti. A triumphant return to one of our favourite gelato places in Tuscany! Another shop in the town sells the gelato should you go on a day that the gelateria is closed.
Cum Quibus Ristorante, San Gimignano. A nice place to eat when in this pretty (although very busy with tourists) town. The ribollita was filling and warm and the tiramisu was the best we sampled on this trip to Tuscany.
Antica Macelleria Cecchini, Panzano. The famous butcher, Dario Cecchini’s, shop in Panzano which we have visited on numerous occasions. Yes, it attracts a lot of tourists but this shouldn’t put you off (sometimes places are touristy for a reason – ie. they are that good!). The products for sale, and the generous samples to try, are excellent. And Panzano is a lovely little town. We ate at the Dario Doc restaurant which I wouldn’t do again: food was just okay as was the service. Save your money instead for salt, olive oil, salmui and herbed lardo from the butcher shop and make a picnic lunch with fresh Tuscan bread, ripe tomatoes and a bottle of chianti. They also make sweet gifts to take back home for friends and family.
Antica Macelleria Falorni, Greve in Chianti. One of our favourite places to visit on each trip to Tuscany! Superb charcuterie and I doubt anyone can resist taking a photograph with the magnificent cinghiale beasty at the front of the shop!
*I decided that pj’s were entirely acceptable as outside wear given the early hour and the fact that we were the only guests at the Castello!
**I do love Finding Nemo!
*** Although given the locals apparent belief that they are all Formula 1 drivers (with a love for slipstreaming and taking the racing line around corners rather than the one marked on the road) it was perhaps rather more a white-knuckled zip than relaxed putter!
We were hosted by Castello di Vicarello during our stay in Tuscany.
We were hosted by Castello di Vicarello during our stay in Tuscany.