Movies like Eat, Pray, Love, A Good Year and Letters from Juliet have stirred even the most dormant romantic and have surely made every foodie quiver with excitement. Getting lost in the Italian Tuscan countryside and happening across a picture postcard of some gastronomic setting, being welcomed by wizened relaxed locals, is something that anyone with an interest in travel and cuisine has daydreamed about.
The vintage red sports car
Long ago, when daydreaming of a roadtrip through Tuscany i knew I would need 2 things to complete the trip, a beautiful woman, and a classic Italian convertible car. I had one of these in the form of my girlfriend Siobhan, who is an passionate traveler and foodie. My search for the missing piece came in the form of www.sprintage.it. This car rental site delivers all forms of truly classic cars to whichever airport you are flying into or out of in Italy. With 7 days traveling, over an area the size of Munster, the car was integral part of the trip.
The flight arrived into Pisa, the heart of Tuscany, where we were met by our very helpful and pleasant contact from Sprintage. As we were walked to the car park i saw the perfect little red car and hoped we were going to walk past it, and we didn't. "Here we are, a 1970 Alfa Romeo convertible spider" announced the cheerful Nuri. It was exactly what i imagined as the perfect car for a Tuscan roadtrip. After getting used to driving on the wrong side as well as the lack of power steering in the carpark, we were off.
Borgo Santo Pietro
Our 1st stop was the 5 star Borgo Santo Pietra near Seina, a 90 minute drive from Pisa airport. However its rather remote location caused us to add 3 hours on to that journey, which was to become a feature of our roadtrip, but one that was not necessarily a bad thing. I believe that the only way to truly see somewhere is to get lost in it, and that is what we did.
A former hospice for travelling Monks, Borgo Santo Pietro is a boutique hotel with only 14 rooms including the larger garden villas located around the grounds. What was immediately obvious was that considerable investment had been made, not only to keep the character of the small house, but also to ensure a very modern infrastructure is hidden behind the restored facade. Flat screen plasma TV's concealed behind renaissance prints, high speed WiFi, iPads control the TV, the mood of the music and lighting in large, luxurious rooms recreating a wealthy aristocratic's summer Tuscan retreat.
The grounds contain a small but award winning treatment spa, grass tennis courts, an infinity pool that looks out over the rolling Tuscan countryside along immaculate gardens with coy filled ponds set among well kept pebble walkways. Everywhere there are little nooks with tables and chairs and there is even a secret 'treehouse' with a full bar and fireplace where you can relax during the day or after dinner and play a games of checkers or chess in front of a roaring fire.
Our 1st Tuscan dinner
We continued our tradition of being late and were treated to the Tuscan dining menu in the main restaurant at 9.30pm, without any fuss. The resident somelier Simona, explained in detail the various wines we were tasting with each of the 5 courses. Her soft passion for these wines could be explained by the fact that she grew up on a local vineyard and she was the 1st example of what i wanted to see, a Tuscan native with a passion for their special heritage. The Maitre 'd, Daniel also delighted in telling us all about the method of lunar farming carried out by the onsite gardeners whereby most of the fruit and vegetables on the menu are grown on the estate farm and are dictated by various stages of the moon in accordance with what is required by the kitchens.
The tasting menu consisted of a range of fabulous local delicacies and tastes including wild boar ravioli, Sea Urchins and my favourite, a 1 hour steamed egg on a split pea base.
The next morning as we were leaving i noticed the resident artist slowly sculpting a ceramic hand. With complimentary art classes, horse or scooter picnic trips through the countryside i really wished we had more time as it was the type of place that required a 3-4 day stay to fully appreciate everything on offer.
Our next stop was the hilltop Tuscan Castle, Castello Banfi. Driving up the cypress lined avenue, overlooking the estates 7,000 acre vineyard was what the Tuscan dream was made of. The Banfi Castle estate was born out of an old Tuscan village. The reception area had been the local post office and its small contingent of 15 modern rooms are varied in size, shape and location within the grounds. This felt like the real Tuscany, with just the right amount of modern comfort married to the old Tuscan heritage with mosaic tile floors and large wooden framed beds and large open windows looking out over the vast vineyards.
The hotel occupies an entire hilltop and seemed vast for such a small number of rooms. Then it dawned on me that the accommodation was almost secondary to the vast wine operation that Banfi is known for all over the world. There is a museum and a vast wine shop / cellar with resident wine experts on hand to guide and educate you in the subtleties of the various wines produced on the Banfi estate.
This was the only place on our roadtrip where we were spending more than 1 night, so given our late arrival (again) we dined at the hotel restaurant. This time we opted for the a la carte menu rather than the Tuscan tasting menu. Of course all of the tasting dishes were also present on the a la carte. We shared various dishes of scallops, quail, wild boar with homemade pasta, herb crusted John Dory and settled on a trolley of Italian cheeses and a warm chocolate pudding for desert. It was all complemented with a bottle of the Riserva Banfi Chianti, which was of course an excellent companion and really gave us a sense of the marriage of wine and food that Tuscany is all about.
Tuscan Cooking Class
The following day we were treated to what has to be one of the trips highlights. A Tuscan cooking course with the hotels head chef. For this we were driven, by the chef himself, a short distance to the cookery school located in a seperate Tuscan villa on the estate. We were joined by an American couple from Kansas, and yes, i felt like stealing the words from Wizard of Oz on several occasions. The class was not my idea of fun to start with. My girlfriend Siobhan is an avid cook and was genuinely excited. I was resigned to being the chopper of veg and the guzzler of wine for the duration, but the genuine passion of the chef describing his food was intoxicating and i found myself getting carried away with the experience, the wine helped im sure. Between the 4 of us we made from scratch a 5 course meal of ricotta cheese and tomato compote, a bolognase that cooked gently for 3 hours as well as the warm chocolate pudding. There were several bottles of proseco and wine on hand to keep the afternoon flowing with banter and craic.
Castello Banfi gave us the feeling of having truly experienced the real Tuscany. This was firmly driven home on our final night there. We had driven 6km into a small town, met locals in the bar, eaten with locals in the only restaurant in the town and were even driven back to the hotel that night by locals when the battery died in the Alfa Romeo.
Tuscan Wellness Retreat
I had imagined that Terme Di Saturnia was to be the highlight of my Tuscan tour. The warm natural volcanic springs that surged from the earth there, had carved a natural set of rock pools that i had seen in photos long before. To sit for the day and have the therapeutic waters wash massage all your stress away was a key part of the Tuscan dream. Driving the windy and green hilltop roads i glimpsed the steam rising from the natural hot turquoise waterfall from miles away. It was stunning to see.
Just 200 meters from these amazing springs is the sprawling and modern Terme Di Saturnia Spa and Golf Hotel. Its impressive entrance complete with its own waterfall makes you realise that this is an altogether different offering to the previous two locations. The hotel was by far the largest of the 4 that we were staying in on our trip. It had 90 rooms and boasted a Michelin Star restaurant. Built on the biggest of the natural volcanic springs, its grounds comprise of an 18 hole award winning eco-golf course.
The modern glass and granite exterior made you feel that this hotel was less about the old world Tuscan experience and more about the comfort of a modern hotel with a unique twist. The unique twist hit you as soon as you enter the white marble lobby. Flat screen TVs showed beautiful people swimming in turquoise waters with natural bubbles venting from below. Even though it was about 9pm i noticed that a number of the residents were wearing bathrobes. It was then that i realised that this hotel was really based on wellness and felt almost like a retreat.
At dinner in the Michelin star restaurat I did the wise thing and suggested that the chef design a tasting menu for us. Who better to showcase this extensive menu? As it turned out the majority of his choices were seafood. We started with a very impressive crusted shrimp and went on to sample lobster risotto, pan fried sea bass and clam pasta. The food, and particularly the choice of Champagne and wine were as you would expect, outstanding. It was perhaps a little unfair to the kitchen that i felt so completely stuffed that the 2 deserts that finished off the experience went mostly untouched by me but were very much the highlight for my girlfriend.
It was at the restaurant that we got the first view of the spa pool. To the untrained eye it looked liked nothing more than a vast swimming pool. But when you left the glass confines of the restaurant you realsied it was something else. The sulfur and volcanic minerals that filled the natural pool were not meant to be aromatic and the smell is pungent.
The following morning at breakfast i felt overdressed. We were the only people not wearing the hotels dressing gown and slippers. Although there were some younger people spotted, the average age of the guests was distinctly older, about 65. These waters soothe everything associated with aging, from arthritis and circulation to various skin conditions. The benefits here are not imaginary. There are a team of doctors on site with a whopping 54 treatment rooms in the spa area. The benefits are scientifically proven and you are even encouraged to drink the warm volcanic water, although no more than 1 cup a day.
The waters are naturally body temperature, 37 degrees. With small clumps of Algae floating in the pristine waters you really do get a sense of healing and the vastness of the pool allows you to swim, float or dive in comfort.
After our visit to the public volcanic waterfall next to the hotel we were on the winding Tuscan road to Castel Monastero. It simply couldn't get any better we thought. Surely we had seen the best Tuscany had to offer at this point? Then we arrived at the Castel. Its entrance was more subdued than the other 3. But that was almost on purpose. As we entered the gates to this Tuscan village tuned Hotel we were greeted by a piazza complete with a functioning church and village feel. However this was no longer a village. This was a 74 room hotel that revitalised a dying Tuscan hilltop village. It was painstakingly renovated and turned into yet another unique experience.
Similar in ways to Castello Banfi, it was unashamedly historically Tuscan. The rooms were like mini homes, with private balconies overlooking the unspoiled Tuscan landscape. There were 11 different buildings that housed the 74 rooms throughout the 'village'. If you wanted to feel like you were living in Tuscany, this was it. The Hotel boasts the only Gordon Ramsey restaurant in Italy, and after a welcoming bottle of wine on our private terrace, listening to the sounds of the Tuscan valley we made our way across the Piazza to it.
The maitre 'd again suggested dishes from the small menu. Some of which felt distinctly Gordon and less Tuscan. Which was not such a bad thing at that point and i opted for woodland pigeon for my main course and Siobhan had a buttered chicken dish with a luxurious bread and butter pudding desert.
A major highlight of this Hotel is the spa. A modern building with rustic exterior, this spa had it all. A well thought out mini gym that looked down over the large infinity pools whilst inside there was the huge circular spa pool that felt like a 6 star Jacuzzi. Steam rooms and saunas were located to the edge of the what felt like an underground cavern. Then there was the 'dead pool'. This 20 meter pool is fashioned on the dead sea with its extraordinary salt content and i had never felt that floating feeling. Its healing properties are mental as well as physical and any slight skin irritation stung on entering, but the feeling was one of 'this is making it better'.
Our stay was again all too short and left Castel Monastero with regret. However i was made promise Siobhan that we would be back.... and we will be.