By Adam Jacot de Boinod
It’s true that other regions in Italy are lusher, have taller mountains, more fertile valleys and a more temperate climate. But in Tuscany and Umbria the serenity and joy of their rolling landscapes, their winding lanes and their cypresses pointing in silhouette to the heavens are harder to challenge.
I stayed at Castello di Spaltenna (www.spaltenna.it/en/home). Opened in 1970 and under new management in 1985, it’s an independent boutique hotel beside the Romanesque Parish Church of Santa Maria, a 1040 monastery currently awaiting restoration. The small monastic windows look out over the chiostro (courtyard). It’s perfect for weddings and is enjoyed by all ages: particularly, it seemed, by ramblers. The 37 rooms have tasteful shots of colour beneath their authentic farmhouse beams. It has its own ceramic shop and its vineyard produces its own rosé. Look out for the miniature red robot called Ambrogio that mows the lawn with great industry.
Half an hour’s drive away was Siena as I walked back up from its dipping ‘campo’, the famous piazza where the two annual ‘palio’ are staged, surrounded by dramatic steep cobbled streets and harmonious ‘Siena’ brown buildings. And nice and close by was my car (as it’s best to park right by the San Domenico football stadium).
While in Siena I recommend eating at Baggoga (www.ristorantebagoga.it), named after a famous local jockey and restaurateur and managed by his son Francesco Fagnani. “Chefs are French, I am a cook,” was the boast from the kitchens. Baggoga carries the symbol of Vetrina Toscana, a government-backed scheme to promote the more authentic aspects of the region’s locally sourced food and wine of which Francesco offered up a white Anna 2013 and a red Brunello di Montalcino 2012.
It was quite an adventure to get to my next location: Tenuta di Murlo (www.murlo.com) a castellated estate presiding over the villa San Savino where I was next to stay, a villa with a converted chapel that adds to its contemplative air. It has all the mod cons to suit eight guests and two of the bedrooms have bedheads by the textile designer Manuel Canovas. Downhill I discovered Il Caldero (www.ilcaldaro.it) a brand new restaurant in a square farmhouse with a blooming garden. The fireplace and the thunder outside instantly took me to winter and the snug potential of the interior. An absolute must is the‘gnocchi di patate con fagiolina del Trasimeno e croccantini di pane al rosmarino’.
Onto Assisi, a refreshingly spacious town with not too many selfie sticks for June allowing the nuns on pilgrimage to immerse themselves fully in their thought and their prayers. I ate at, and strongly recommend, the fresh local food of Il Frantoio (www.ristoranteilfrantoioassisi.it), a short walk from the main tourist trail with a spectacular view onto the fields beyond.
Back across to Tuscany to stay at Castel Monastero Resort and Spa (www.castelmonastero.com/en/home), whose inner courtyard is a great place to have breakfast and resembles both a piazza and an enclosure: a perfect setting for an open-air play. Down below and inside one side, Stelios Sakalis is the Greek chef at the Contrada, a paradise restaurant for gourmets. He certainly puts humour and passion into his creative menu that is served with real theatricality. On the other side, there’s a wine cellar in ‘La Cantina’ a vault that was once the nuns’ refectory.
This boutique hotel is set amongst woodlands and vineyards and is perfectly positioned for art lovers, being a half hour drive to Siena and an hour to Florence. It’s also ideal for an indulgent weekend for gourmets and spa seekers, with 55% of the guests returning for more. Bought and renovated twelve years ago it has 74 rooms and no apartments. They were all standardised in design but priced by size. There are meditation classes offered near the dreamy pathways that took me down to the four swimming pools (three of which were outdoors) and which are beside the luxurious and stylish spa where every programme is based on the deep ‘marma’ massage, working the acupuncture points and energetic meridians with Ayurvedic and Reiki treatments.
With my hotel having a break on Sunday evening I visited a nearby restaurant called Podere Lecci e Brocchi (www.vinolecciebrocchi.it), a family concern offering wonderful and honest local fare. They make their own olive oil and Chianti Classico wine, but its overriding appeal for me were the patchwork of fields opposite, in clear yellow, brown and green, like an Ivon Hitchens oil painting and almost a Howard Hodgkin.
Next I drove on to San Gimignano, with its medieval towers. The shops were promoting the artist Aldo Ezio Conelli, whose pleasing naïve renditions of Tuscany tempted me beyond my budget as did the fabulous ice creams at Dondoli in Piazza della Cisterna. I had a light lunch at the Locanda di Sant’ Augustino (www.locandasantagostino.it) in its eponymous large, empty piazza, a quiet breathing space where the buildings have layers of faded plaster to reflect the wear and tear of time. Genziana, the characterful owner, paid careful attention to create a lovely dish of spaghetti with pea sauce and truffle oil. It’s marvellous how Italian cuisine knows how to make something so delicious out of such simple ingredients.
Later I was led by my satnav along some lovely back roads virtually the whole way back to Pisa airport. And, as a British tourist, I was transported in every sense and by every sense!
Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the first BBC television series QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. He wrote The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064; classic-collection.co.uk) offers 3 nights at Castello Del Nero Hotel & Spa and 3 nights at Castello di Spaltenna, Tuscany from £1849 per person. Price based on 2 adults sharing on a bed & breakfast basis and includes return flights from London Gatwick to Pisa and car hire for the duration of the holiday. Departs 20 September.
Adam had further support from www.heathrowexpress.com, www.gatwickexpress.com and www.holidayextras.co.uk (who offer airport lounges at all major UK airports and many international destinations. visit HolidayExtras.com or call 0800 1313 777)