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Updated: 21:28 GMT, 31 January 2011
Perched majestically amid Tuscany’s rolling hills and fertile land in the heart of Chianti is the Castello Del Nero. Once home to the noble Del Nero and Torrigiani families, who lived here until the 1700s, it has been carefully converted into a five-star hotel and spa, and sits in a sea of lavender fields, olive groves and ripe vineyards heaving with the region’s famous black grapes.
Built in the 12th Century on the outskirts of the picture-postcard town of Tavarnelle, the castle is just a 25-minute drive from Florence, making it an ideal base from which to explore the world-famous city and its near neighbour Siena.
My other home’s a castle: Katie settles in at Castello Del Nero
For those in search of relaxation, fine wine, exquisite food and breathtaking views, the castello, with its private collection of frescoes and enviable location, ticks all the boxes.
I flew out for a long weekend with my mother, who is recovering from breast cancer, and the purpose of our trip was to relax. We were told that the spa would be perfect for rest and recuperation. Even I would have to switch off for once – the castle walls are so thick you can’t get wi-fi or even a mobile phone signal!
We arrived late on a Saturday night and, after a cup of pudding-thick hot chocolate, we were both ready for a good night’s sleep.
When my mother opened the pastel-green painted shutters to let the morning in, I was lost for words. The late September sunshine bathed nearby Tavarnelle in a warm glow and lit up the fields, which go on for miles. This really was a room with a view.
On the way up to the castle, I had noticed that the gravel drive was lined with grand cypress trees and I saw a small, frescoed chapel next to a charming rose garden. The walls of our suite were also painted with frescoes which, I later discovered, have been restored under the guidance of the Italian Fine Arts Commission which monitored the five-year refurbishment of the castello, a Grade I listed building. Even the terracotta tiles in the entrance hall are original and were removed, cleaned and replaced one by one by the 250-strong workforce that carried out the renovation.
Green pastures: The castle sits on the edge of the picturesque Tuscan town of Tavarnelle
As I took a tour of the hotel, I noted that almost every wall of the castello was adorned with a fresco. Alain Mertens – interior designer to Sting and Madonna – oversaw the interiors, which are chic yet simple. The bathrooms are made from marble and each has a small red plastic Philippe Starck stool. Bed linen is crisp Egyptian cotton coupled with a cashmere blanket.
Red, orange and gold scatter cushions add a splash of colour to the whitewashed walls and all the soft furnishings are made by local tradesmen. The castello ensures that it uses only locally sourced food and products, down to the lead-crystal wine glasses laid out for dinner.
The hotel has 50 rooms, of which 18 are suites – the deluxe on the ground floor being one of the most impressive. With its stunning collection of murals, it is like walking into a mini Uffizi. If you are lucky enough to stay in this suite, you can bathe in a freestanding tub beneath your very own private art collection.
It was still just warm enough to make use of the large pool below the breakfast terrace before we enjoyed a delicious cooked breakfast and a basket of freshly baked croissants.
Then we visited the hotel’s well-stocked cellar and adjoining private dining room before taking a short walk to the castello’s vineyards to meet Stefano Panti, who is in charge of the 990-acre estate. Kitted out in bright yellow wellington boots, jeans, a tweed jacket and a snakeskin belt (well, we are in Italy!), Stefano was the best-dressed farmer I have ever encountered. As he guided us through deep mud to the vines, he explained that although the Sangiovese grapes were full and bursting with flavoursome sweet juice, 2010 was not going to be a vintage year.
The castello produces its own wine and arranges tasting sessions and tours of the region for wine-loving guests – and I was promised a glass of Pieve del Nero 2004 over dinner. Stefano said it is one of the best wines the hotel has ever produced. ‘Today is our first day of picking the grapes,’ he explained. ‘We think we will have an OK year but not as good as 2004. There has been too much rain.’
As if on cue, the heavens opened andwe made our way past the estate’s two lakes and back to the castellovia a shaded walkway of 200 mature cypress trees that cut across theestate. The trees were planted so that the Marquise Torrigiani couldwalk in shade during the hot summer months.
The wet weather gave us the perfectexcuse to visit the Espa spa, the newest part of the hotel which wasbuilt in 2005. Nestled within impressive manicured gardens, thefacilities include an outdoor hydrotherapy pool, a laconium heattreatment room with panoramic views of the Tuscan hills, aromatic steamrooms and an ice fountain… which is not for the faint-hearted.
Feeling blue: The Castello’s pool is ideal for a little sunshine-and-cocktail relaxation
After an hour alternating between hot and cold, I decided it was time to experience the Castello Del Nero relaxation ritual, the spa’s signature treatment using locally produced olive oil. I drifted off as Eva, my therapist, lit my room blue and scented it with fresh Tuscan lavender, which grows abundantly here. I felt soothed, relaxed and pampered.
After an hour reading in the relaxation room, I realised we had missed lunch, and by supper time we were ravenous. Before eating, though, we visited the hotel’s bar for an aperitif.
One of the castello’s charms is that you can find yourself enjoying a glass of wine tucked away next to a traditional butler sink or a pulley device once used by the servants. The bar was at one time the castle’s kitchen and many of the original features, including impressive oversized stone fireplaces, are still there.
I had spent the afternoon reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love and decided I too should dedicate much of the weekend to eating. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and when in Tuscany – indulge!
The ‘menu degustazione’ – a tasting menu available for €100 (about £86) – offered a great opportunity to sample all the local dishes. A leek and potato soup flavoured with parmesan was followed by an exquisite dish of ravioli accompanied by sheep’s-milk ricotta and tomato confit.
The main course, a John Dory fish fillet, was perfectly cooked and simply accompanied by fresh lemon and the hotel’s estate-produced olive oil, which is woody and delicious.
I just about had enough space for the best tiramisu I have ever tasted and a final glass of Pieve del Nero, which was every bit as good as Stefano promised it would be.
Well fed and refreshed from our day at the spa, we were ready to see some sites the next day. The hotel offers a free twice-daily shuttle to Florence – but be warned: Monday (the day we went) is not the time to visit its art galleries and museums; most of them are closed.
And so, as the rain started again, we had to settle for a visit to the somewhat garish-looking Duomo. The centrally located Gothic cathedral is Florence’s centrepiece and impossible to miss, with its pink, green and white marbled exterior and trademark red dome. The altar inside the vast church was being renovated and the crucifix was eerily draped in white cloths, as if it had been bandaged.
We lit candles and, blaming my vertigo, decided not to pay €8 (£7) to climb the 463 steps to the top. Should you feel active, the adjoining bell tower offers great views and a less strenuous climb.
Antique flourishes: You can really feel the hotel’s longstanding history in its beautiful suites
On our way out of the Duomo we admired the bronze doors of the Baptistery, which Michelangelo likened to the gates of paradise, before stopping for a cheap and cheerful lunch at Le Botteghe di Donatello in the Piazza del Duomo. It was recommended to me by Lady Victoria Hervey – another recent visitor to the castello –who discovered this gem of a restaurant on her trip to Florence. I enjoyed a Fiorentina pizza drizzled with chilli olive oil and a small glass of Chianti.
From here we meandered to the Church of San Lorenzo and the sprawling San Lorenzo market, where leather handbags and expensive furs were the order of the day. Then we headed across to the Ponte Vecchio – the famous bridge that straddles the river Arno – in search of ice cream and to browse the pretty shopfronts, all sparkling and glowing warmly with gold trinkets and gems.
It felt like Christmas, and the hustle and bustle of the bridge provided a wonderful few minutes of people-watching.
By now the rain had stopped and, keen to squeeze in a spot of retail therapy, we made our way to the Via dei Calzaiuoli, where I discovered the designer Patrizia Pepe – and bought a not-too-expensive but stunning navy-blue jersey dress.
Before we left, we visited the Palazzo Vecchio, the heart of Florence and home to the Uffizi gallery. We stopped for an espresso at the ludicrously overpriced Letizia Cafeteria in the Piazza della Signoria, where pigeons dive for discarded gelato cones. It has a stunning view of the statue of David (well, a replica at least) that stands outside City Hall.
Back at the castello, I decided we had to visit Siena before leaving for home. For €160 (£138), the hotel arranged a car with an English-speaking chauffeur to drive us there and back.
I fell in love immediately with Siena, whose square – Il Campo – is said by many to be the best in Italy. As I enjoyed a cappuccino at the Caffe Fonte Gaia next to the City Hall with its 330ft tower that dominates the city’s skyline, I had to agree.
The dusty red square was once a field outside the former city walls and is still used for the city’s famous Palio de Siena horse races, which date from medieval times and take place every July and August.
Half a day is just enough to take in the main sights, but our trip to the town’s own Duomo, with its mosaic floors and statues by Michelangelo and Bernini, was hurried and I wished we had had another day in sunny Siena. The striped bell tower with its frescoes is a work of art in itself and I will always remember the white-sculpted facade of the cathedral glittering in the sunlight. A visit to the tucked-away Baptistry is included in the €10 (£8.50) ticket price (which also covers entry to the Duomo museum) and it is well worth seeing.
Quality time: Katie and mother Adele enjoy the sights of Florence
Frescoes adorn the ceilings and hand-held mirrors provided on the pews mean you can while away the time admiring the magic above you.
We just had time for a peek at the Church of San Domenico, which stands at the entrance to Siena, and a brisk walk along the Via Banchi di Sopra, the main shopping street, to stock up on olive oil, cured hams –and one final gelato – before it was time to leave.
As we boarded our Meridiana flight home, I promised it wouldn’t be long before I returned to the Castello Del Nero for another weekend of indulgence and pampering.
Sometimes it’s just what a girl needs!
Three nights at the Castello Del Nero costs from €1,056 (£911) for a double room including breakfast, use of gym and tennis courts, and free shuttle bus to Florence. Transfers to Florence airport can be arranged from €250 (£215). For more details call 00 39 055 806470 or visit Media (www.meridiana.it) flies daily from Gatwick to Florence from £65 one way.
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