The typical international traveller journeying through Italy might rent a car in Rome, head north out of Lazio, and drive leisurely through the fabulously scenic region of Tuscany.
This traveller, however, is doing no such thing. “Trust me, you do not want to drive in Italy,” my (American) friend had advised, who confessed that she and her husband almost split up because of a hazardfilled road trip there.
My family and I had been bopping around Europe, hitting all the must-see spots such as Rome, Florence and Venice. Then we heard about a new destination in the heart of Tuscany, a tenuta, or estate, named Toscana Resort Castelfalfi, that would prove a respite from the tourist-choked streets everyone reluctantly becomes accustomed to during a European vacation. Castelfalfi offers an 800-year-old castle, olive groves, vineyards, and luxury “farmhouses” set in 1,100 hectares over pristine rolling green hills. No crowds. No overbooked restaurants. No waiting in line to look at dusty statues.
All we had to was get there. Trains ran to Pisa, but there was still no way to the resort without renting a car. Neither my husband nor I cared to drive. So we did the next best thing: we found Antonio on Craigslist, a move that even our most adventurous Italian friends found staggering. (“You did what?” exclaimed our Rome-based travel agent.)
But we figured Craigslist was as good a place as any. We arrange to meet Antonio for five minutes at a little square off Campo de Fiori to ensure that both parties are real, and, ideally, not murderous. We shake hands on a price (€400), and make plans to set off the next day. He shows up. All goes well.
From Rome to Castelfalfi takes less than four hours, across small industrial centres and stretches of highway … and then we see the sweep of hills dotted with brick buildings, grassy golf fairways, and a castle perched at one end.
Castelfalfi was founded by the Etruscans, and was at various points in history owned by various nobles – including the Della Gherardesca family of Pisa in the 1300s. There were the inevitable skirmishes (like the one between Florentines and the people of Siena in the mid-1500s). In more recent history, a tobacco factory anchored the town and provided employment to its citizens. But when that business pulled down the shutters in the 1970s, many townspeople abandoned their home in search of better prospects. Then, about a decade ago – when there were just a handful of people left living on the land – the German travel conglomerate TUI Group acquired the entire spread. Its objective: resurrecting it as not just another vacation property, but as a real town again, where locals live and farm, make wine, sell salami and press olives into oil.
“It’s not just a resort,” says Stefan Neuhaus, Castelfalfi’s CEO. “It’s a real place where things happen, where life flows daily, offering the possibility of living in a typical Tuscan way of life.”
Many of the original buildings have been preserved and converted into villas, or casales, with gracious stone-floored terraces. The original tobacco drying barn, which is right by the entrance to the resort and serves as a check-in of sorts, is now a sophisticated boutique hotel called La Tabaccia – 31 rooms done in Tuscan-inspired style with wood-beamed ceilings and olive parquet floors. Under construction is a second hotel on the estate, Il Castelfalfi, which opens next year;offering 120 rooms and a spa, it will go a long way towards housing the golfers who travel in to use the 27-hole golf course – the largest in Tuscany.
Toscana Resort Castelfalfi is a place where you could pitch up for a two-week stay and not really feel the need to go anywhere else, despite it being in one of the most culture-rich parts of the world. This becomes abundantly clear as we’re driven around the vast property (again, by our trusted Antonio – once here, you need a car). Because La Tabaccia is fully booked, we’re staying in one of the converted farmhouses, a spacious two-bedroomed home with an open-plan chef’s kitchen. There are other people staying around the tenuta, of course, but it’s easy enough to not be aware of them.
The farmhouse we’re in has been converted into four units, a pool shared between them, set in grounds that overlook olive groves and orchards. As it’s intended to, the place feels like home – or at least, a second home, the sort of place where you show up with groceries, some chilled Chardonnay, an armful of pool toys and a fully stocked Kindle, and not leave again, unless it’s to nip down to the village, part of the resort, to buy cured meats and goat cheese from the grocer. Shop owners from the wider Tuscan region have opened outposts of their stores here. There’s also a gelateria, a staple of any Italian via. A short walk down the cobbled streets brings you to the castle, now used for rather spectacularly scenic private events (wedding planners, take note). A formal restaurant, La Rocca di Castelfalfi, is helmed by executive chef Michele Rinaldi, who was only 27 when he got his first Michelin star. Guests gather on the terrace for a sunset aperitivo, and then dine on calf sweetbread; risotto with lime, avocado and shrimp carpaccio; suckling pig. Part of the castle is set aside as a cooking school, a worthwhile use of time here. After the five-star Il Castelfalfi is up and running next spring, there will be a few more bars and another restaurant to choose from.
It’s not just golfers who will love coming here; animal activists will be aghast at this, but Castelfalfi is also a regulated hunting reserve, where groups gather to hunt pheasants, red partridge, quail, even wild boar. This is, after all, original terrain: much of Toscana Resort Castelfalfi’s appeal is predicated on allowing visitors to experience what it might have been like to live in another time.
We certainly get a sense of that, especially on the 10-minute drive back to our villa after dinner, when it’s pitch black and the car crunches over the narrow, gravelly pathways up the hillside. Everything looks the same. There are no visible signs. We feel so remote and isolated that we could well be back in the 15th century.
Thank heavens for Antonio.
The best of Tuscany lies a stone’s throw from Castelfalfi
As much as Castelfalfi feels like it’s a world apart, it’s realistically just an hour or so away from some of the most well trodden destinations in Italy. So day-trips out and about are easy to orchestrate, although access to a car is a must.
In less than an hour, you can be in Florence. Book in advance if you want to go to the Uffizi Gallery or the Galleria dell’Accademia, and be prepared to wait as the line weaves down the Piazza del Duomo to gaze at Brunelleschi’s cupola.
On another day, head to Siena, also about an hour away, and considered the most typical of Tuscan cities; enjoy an espresso off the Piazza del Campo, a staggeringly grand medieval square. Climb 400 steps to get to the top of the Torre del Mangia, and linger a while for the views.
Still not enough history for you? San Gimignano is gorgeously rustic and fascinating for its architecture: there used to be 72 tower-houses built by prominent families centuries ago to show their swagger. Only 14 remain within this walled city, and the resulting skyline is remarkable. Pick up some saffron from the few remaining producers, and the local wine, Vernaccia.