Tuscan Villa Hotels
Published: June 2009
By Christopher Petkanas
It’s the ultimate Italian fantasy: staying amid vineyards and olive groves at a centuries-old estate with all the services of a top hotel. T+L visits properties that are setting new standards.
For years travelers asked no more of Tuscany than its light and landscape, its Renaissance legacy, its food and wine. If the hotels were a bit low on amenities, if the person who rolled out the pasta in the kitchen turned out to be the same person who made your bed, there was plenty of charm and buona volantà—goodwill—to go around. A trip to the region was its own reward.
Tuscany became one of those rare, iconic, inexhaustible destinations people return to again and again—and again. Thirty years have passed since it and Provence became fashionable rivals. But while the south of France can sometimes be guilty of forgetting what drew people to it in the first place, Tuscany never sold its soul or succumbed to its own popularity. Icon, yes; diva, no.
Today, a new generation of hotels has arrived in the region, just in time to keep the experience fresh. One of them is part of the recent borgo phenomenon—the transformation of ancient rural hamlets into one-of-a-kind, all-in-one properties that include restaurants, shops, and vineyards. Two others are stand-alone villas with rich histories and important architecture. All offer sublime creature comforts and aspire to a level of crackerjack service that is off the charts. They’re so sophisticated they would not be out of place on the poshest stretch of the Amalfi Coast. As Tuscany grows up, it’s time to go back.
Il Borgo, Poggio alle Mura
Castello Banfi is one of the largest wine estates in Tuscany and, since the opening of its new hotel, Il Borgo, probably the most stylish. Federico Forquet gets credit for the style; the Italian-American Mariani family for the wine. Its most famous Brunellos are the single-vineyard reserve Poggio all’Oro and the unfiltered cru Poggio alle Mura. Forquet began his career as an assistant to Balenciaga, launching his own couture house in Rome in 1962, when he was dubbed “the Italian Dior.” In those days any Italian princess worth her Buccellati salt cellars dressed at Forquet. Ten years later he dropped out of the fashion world, moving on to design gardens and, drawing on his Neapolitan background, decorate houses of sighing Viscontian splendor for clients like Marella Agnelli and Oscar de la Renta—people known to be among the toughest domestic taskmasters of our time. Having attained the status of Elder Statesman (Elder Tasteman?), Forquet accepts only those jobs he finds alluring enough to take him away from his home an hour from Banfi, in Cetona.
Sometimes the jobs involve the interiors of gold-plated hotels: the Caruso, in Ravello; the Villa San Michele, in Fiesole; and now Il Borgo. The 14-room hilltop property was coaxed out of a hamlet built in the 1700’s to lodge farmworkers and household staff serving the eighth-century castle just above it. The population peaked at about 300 in the decade leading up to World War I and remained stable until 1950, when land reform introduced by the Italian government dismantled the old sharecropping system. Il Borgo’s reception occupies the bottega and mail pickup and dropoff that closed shortly before the Marianis acquired Banfi in 1984. By that year the number of inhabitants had shrunk to fewer than 20. Today, the old schoolroom is room No. 37. Not that you get any feeling for what used to go on in these spaces. Still, knowing adds texture.
The hotel’s perched location pays off in extravagant views and a sense of privileged isolation. Folded into the castle are a reading room that is the last word in fringed and upholstered comfort, a museum with the largest private collection of ancient Roman glassware in the world (plus works in glass by Dalí, Cocteau, and Picasso), and a spectacular courtyard where jazz concerts are held in the summer.
With lessons learned as the creators of Jumby Bay, the private-island resort off Antigua, the Marianis are selling an everything-money-can-buy version of Italian village life that, of course, never existed. Italian villages do not typically have swimming pools of such magnificent restraint and purity they might have been designed by architect John Pawson, or cloisters curtained in wisteria and planted with box-edged rose gardens. But if you’re the kind of person for whom vacation rhymes with discretion, Il Borgo could be a problem. People are forever popping out of their front doors and greeting their neighbors across the way. In other words, there’s not a lot of anonymity, though the grounds are so expansive you can always escape to a leafy out-of-the-way corner.
One of five stepped outbuildings marching up to the castle walls houses La Taverna, an earthbound trattoria whose signature dish, pinci, a thick spaghetti, is tossed with classic Tuscan ragù (the small amount of tomato is what makes it Tuscan). Next door is a massive, handsome enoteca that also sells stemware and other wine accessories, Banfi olive oil, colorful ceramics by regional potters, artisanal soaps, and even a category of jewelry, “wine jewelry,” I’m not sure I’m aware of. Anyway hooking a tiny bunch of bronze grapes around a stemmed glass of Poggio all’Oro seems rather cruel. A condiment that is rightly not called balsamic vinegar, as we are not in Emilia-Romagna, but rather salsa etrusca, is made in a dedicated chamber following a modified version of the traditional sistema soleras used to make authentic balsamico. With all these visitor-friendly features, Banfi is one of the few estates in the area to encourage walk-ins, though an appointment is necessary to visit the winery. It’s five minutes by car or a 20-minute power walk through the vineyards.
As for Forquet, a lot of people don’t get his thing for rattan furniture and checked fabrics. They want to know what the big deal is. Well, the big deal is the way he casually mixes these modest elements with rich ones, like ballooning Austrian shades and orchids in silver cachepots polished until you can see yourself in them. Fantasy—walls painted with a vine-wrapped trellis, a faux-bois mantelpiece “carved” with grapes—is another ingredient in Forquet’s best work.
The real triumph of Il Borgo is that, despite some of its trappings, it’s neither pretentious nor excessively formal. A few things are inexplicable, like the Pringles served with drinks in the reading room. And it might want to rethink floating flower heads in the toilet bowls. But every hotel is allowed one or two false notes. Doubles from $540.
Villa Mangiacane, San Casciano in Val di Pesa
This hotel is for people who have been to Florence before and want to get to know the Chianti wine district outside it without sacrificing easy access to the city. Seven and a half miles separate Villa Mangiacane and the Tuscan capital, a distance the hotel invites guests to cover in a free shuttle. You can shoot down to Florence in the late afternoon for some quick retail therapy and be back at Mangiacane in time for Negronis on the loggia, a sprawling, glamorous space with large-scale frescoes of hunting scenes and waist-high olive-oil jars from nearby Impruneta—but also lacquered Japanese stools, carved Balinese tables, and ottomans covered in zebra skin. The architecture may be vernacular, and that tower in the distance is definitely the Duomo, but the villa speaks the international language of resort design with proud fluency. For better or worse, a very deliberate effort has been made to keep things global.
Itself a rolling 600-acre wine estate (grappa and olive oil are also produced here), Mangiacane was built in the 15th century by Giorgio Vasari for Cardinal Francesco Maria Machiavelli, uncle of the hotheaded political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote his notorious screed on power, The Prince, at the estate. Vasari’s friendship with Michelangelo has encouraged the belief that they collaborated on the villa, but this is probably no more than wishful thinking on the part of Mangiacane’s current owner, Zimbabwe-born Glynn Cohen, founder of the largest transportation company in sub-Saharan Africa. Still, the property’s pedigree is such that the original plans are archived in the Uffizi Gallery. Not too shabby. Besides the Machiavellis, it had belonged to only one other family before Cohen purchased it in 2000. This limited unwanted changes and wear and tear, but the building was badly damaged in World War II and deserted soon after.
Cohen’s restoration netted eight guest rooms in the villa and 19 more in a converted farmhouse a couple of hundred yards away. Naturally, the farmhouse rooms—some of which have a slightly racy, louche appeal—go for a lot less. But after staying in one, I can’t pretend I didn’t feel like I was missing the party—what, after all, was I here for if not the grandeur and romance of the villa?And yet I find it impossible to regret not having shelled out the additional $400—more than half the price of my annex room—it would have cost for entry-level digs in the villa. If you notice, this is a circular argument, one as old as travel itself. Creating memories can be expensive.
You can time your stay at Mangiacane to participate in the grape and olive harvests, though I doubt the hotel gets many takers. Service is choppy, unless you think half an hour is a reasonable amount of time to mix a Negroni. Mangiacane has the veneer but not the superstructure of a luxury hotel, where everything is seamless and possible. Which is why I was surprised that the food is as good as it is. The bistecca fiorentina is from the famed Antica Macelleria Cecchini, in neighboring Panzano. Osso bucco is deconstructed into a sauce for potato gnocchi. Chef Massimo Bocus coaxes the logic out of putting chocolate ice cream, bread, fleur de sel, and a slick of olive oil on the same plate. And isn’t it wonderful in this day and age when your waitress is local and speaks terrible English? Doubles from $516.
Castello del Nero, Tavarnelle Val di Pesa
From Italy to Osaka, modern and fancy is the default look for five-star properties. But Castello del Nero—a 12th-century repository of trompe-l’oeil paintwork, coffered ceilings, and handblown leaded-glass windows—is subtle, thoughtful, abstemious. Most people are too busy timing room service to notice the halls in a hotel, but here they tell the whole story: monastic but friendly, with glassy Venetian-stucco walls, pierced-tole lanterns, beautiful ironwork, and not a lot else. The man who rejected jazzing up Del Nero is Alain Mertens, a low-profile Belgian decorator with high-profile clients like Sting and, of all people, Madonna. The search for a real, proper, full-service luxury hotel in Tuscany ends here.
Del Nero sets the bar in the region with more than quiet good looks and crisp professionalism (even if it can organize a formal custom tasting of the top 20 Vernaces, say, in less time than it takes to strike a match). Spas in hotels this size (there are 50 rooms) are often small, undercapitalized afterthoughts. But the Espa facility here is as comprehensive and as fastidiously designed as anything in Milan. Whether or not sea salt, rosemary, and olive oil makes a better massage lubricant than salad dressing is another story. And if you have to exercise, it may as well be in a medieval castle with barrel-vaulted ceilings held up by wide-waisted pillars of alternating brick and stone. I’ve never worked out in a gym with so much atmosphere, or history.
The one place Del Nero goes a little off message is the dining room. This has nothing to do with the crested china, which is lovely, or the panzanella quenelles, which are formed tableside by the maître d’hôtel with an easy flourish. The red flag is the appetizer that comes before the pre-appetizer, a martini glass of celery mousse speckled with black sesame seeds. The way you know the hotel gets a lot of Americans is that when you order the fiorentina, the waiter asks how you’d like it. In a real Tuscan restaurant you’re never, ever asked, and the steak arrives wobbling rare. At Del Nero the right way is your way. If diet Coke is your breakfast drink nobody makes you feel small about asking for it. It sounds corny, but the customer really is king. Doubles from $800.
Christopher Petkanas is a frequent contributor to T: The New York Times Style Magazine.
Locanda del Glicine A medieval house converted into a bed-and-breakfast in a tiny Maremma village. Rooms are modest, but the cavernous wine cellar and brick-walled restaurant more than compensate. 6–10 Piazza Garibaldi, Campagnatico; 39-056/499-6490; locandadelglicine.com; doubles from $162.
Villa Bordoni Food and design get equal billing at this hillside house in Chianti. Upstairs, antiques personalize the 11 rooms; downstairs, the restaurant’s chef offers up excellent, farm-fresh meals and on-site cooking classes. 31/32 Via San Cresci, Greve in Chianti; 39-055/884-0004; villabordoni.com; doubles from $283.
Villa Il Poggiale A Renaissance house with 24 guest rooms and the ambience of an informal country house. Guests carry their own front-door keys and serve themselves drinks at cocktail hour in the drawing room. 69 Via Empolese, San Casciano in Val di Pesa; 39-055/828-311; villailpoggiale.it; doubles from $202.
Villa Le Luci All seven rooms of the Belle Époque villa look out onto the coast and the Mediterranean beyond. Neo-Baroque flourishes cheer up otherwise austere décor. 47 Via Umberto I, Castagneto Carducci; 39-056/576-3601; villaleluci.it; doubles from $215.
Villa Poggiano Close to the wine-producing village of Montepulciano, this 18th-century house is fresh from an eight-year restoration of its antiques-filled rooms. Outside, there’s a 1930’s swimming pool with Neoclassical fountains. 7 Via di Poggiano, Montepulciano; 39-0578/758-292; villapoggiano.com; doubles from $282.