Like to mix your town and country? Combine a visit to Renaissance Florence with a stay in the Tuscan countryside. Shara visits Belmond Villa San Michele, with its façade designed by Michelangelo, and Belmond Castello di Casole, a fairytale castle set among vineyards and olive groves…
A self-confessed urbanite, I live for the hustle of a city but can only endure the bright lights for so long. When the work is done, I retreat to my home in the leafy suburbs of North London and won’t surface again until my batteries are fully recharged. The same can be said for my holidays. From China to Thailand, I can only withstand the frenetic pace of a city’s capital for a few days before I need to find a hammock on a secluded beach. Whilst Florence couldn’t be further from Bangkok – it is a city nonetheless. One of the most popular in Italy attracting tens of millions of visitors every year thanks to its many masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture.
Luckily for me Belmond’s ‘Tuscan Renaissance’ package, combines a stay at its hilltop retreat, Belmond Castello di Casole, with the Belmond Villa San Michele in Florence, allowing me to experience the very best of town and country…
Belmond Castello di Casole
Set along a cypress-lined avenue, with gorgeous hill views, and absolutely nothing else around, it’s no wonder that I found myself relaxing within minutes of arriving. The castle dates back to the 10th century and the private estate has – wait for it – 4,200 acres of land. It includes more than 25 acres of organic vineyards you can find Cabernet, Sangiovese, Merlot and Petit Verdot varieties. The history of the estate has been carefully preserved, which is why you’ll spy plenty of wooded beams, ceramic tiles and terracotta.
Food-wise, you can’t go wrong with the local Italian produce with a contemporary twist served at La Tosca restaurant – think homemade pasta and the estate’s own brand extra virgin olive oil (it’s worth purchasing a bottle or two.) Even breakfast was a highlight, thanks to epic lobster omelettes. Don’t miss stone-baked ‘pizzas on the piazza’ – the toppings aren’t your average pepperoni – and make time to spend an afternoon cooking with the Head Chef.
If you’re looking for an elevated dinner experience, book the Enchanted Table – suspended from an oak tree and complete with twinkling lights and candelabra – and enjoy sharing dishes of local farmhouse cheeses, hams, wines and homemade gelato. Other options are CIP’s by Cipriani and Bar Visconti, with marble detailing and fresco-painted walls, where you can taste the hotel’s own label ‘C’ and ‘XII’ wine blends.
Spend lazy days by the infinity pool with a fresh juice, or head to the spa in the basement of the hotel. Basement is an understatement: think ancient stone alcoves in a vaulted wine cellar, with treatments inspired by nature. Orange-infused oil, honey and rosemary are used in blissful facials and massages.
A highlight of staying at a Belmond are its tailor-made experiences. Travellers can take an outdoor yoga session, bike ride (or e-bike ride) through Tuscan rolling hills or enjoy al fresco yoga outdoors in an amphitheatre. You could also do a First Light in the Tuscan Wonderland tour – a jeep tour that takes you deep into the forest. There’s also truffle hunting, led by a hunter and his Lagotto Romagnolo dogs. Whatever you unearth is taken back to the hotel kitchen and used to make black truffle tarts.
Because the property lies on what used to be a Tuscan village, there is room to spread out. A school, limonaia, wine cellar and priest’s house have been transformed into 39 sumptuous bedrooms, which have Carrara marble flooring, antique mirrors and roll top baths. Truly, a sumptuous place to spend the night – or to move in, if I could.
It doesn’t end at gorgeous hotels. As I travelled between its two properties, Belmond curated some unbelievable experiences for our party. We stopped at this studio in Florence, owned by brothers Roberto and Rudolf, and took an art class. Utterly removed from my everyday life and comfort zone, it was beyond relaxing and enjoyable. We also loved the Torrigiani Gardens hosted by Vieri Torrigiani – our concierge at Villa San Michele secured our appointment at what is the second largest private property in Italy.
Villa San Michele
Less than a two-hour drive from Castello di Casole is the Belmond San Michele, set in the hills of Florence. Just strolling around here is a joy – lemon trees and roses grow freely, and fragrantly, in the gardens, which were formerly looked after by Franciscan monks and date back to the the 15th-century. There’s even 400-year-old wisteria, the only one in Florence to bloom twice a year, and you can tour the gardens with a gardener if you wish.
You can head into Florence for a hit of culture with ease, it’s just 10km away and the hotel provides a complimentary shuttle, but once you enter this haven, you may not want to leave.
Food is experiential without being remotely gimmicky. The wine cellar can be dined in, and one evening we opted for a Leonardo Di Vinci-inspired feast, in celebration of his 500th anniversary. Paying homage to the Renaissance man’s fascination with food, we have a feast under the pergola in the gardens, eating delicacies that are made with herbs, spices and techniques inspired by da Vinci’s preferences. You can take a sunset picnic into the gardens, and there’s also a cooking school – perfecting Tuscan risotto is just an afternoon away.
Rooms are charming and elegantly appointed, the outdoor pool is heated and beautiful and small touches abound here, elevating the trip hugely – coconut sorbet served by the pool is just one example. Be sure to have an Aperol at sunset to enjoy the view, and think of me – I’m longing to be back.
In a nutshell…
Discover the contrasting treasures of Tuscany on this four-night break. Feast on world-class art in the busting city of Florence and retreat to a fairytale castle in the hills. It doesn’t get more magical than this. Each hotel can be booked individually or as a 4-night Tuscan experience.
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