Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa – Review

October is my favourite time of year to visit Italy. The weather is milder, the air cooler and this year I was going to Tuscany. I was a guest of Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa in Tavarnelle Val de Pesa. I’d been longing to be here for almost a year and counted down the days as a child would towards Christmas. Read on for my review of this heritage hotel and spa.

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History

12th century Florence, a private family chapel, a grand Italian garden and an estate spanning the horizon of the famed rolling hills of Tuscany. This is the setting of magnificent Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa. To walk through its doors is to become a part of its illustrious history. It’s the story of two Florentine aristocratic families who lived, breathed, loved and left their legacies behind: Del Nero and Torrigiani.

Wherever you may find yourself on this 750 acre, elegant estate you’ll be but a breath away from its rich past. Vaulted ceilings, original frescoes and raging fireplaces yearning to bestow the heritage of its ancestors. As it was for me, for you too, it will be futile to resist the draw of Castello Del Nero’s history. You will simply surrender to it.

The Hotel

This castle of noblemen, which has evolved into its new life as a luxurious hotel, is extraordinary. 50 rooms and suites span across the castle and farm buildings. The nobleman’s floor offers its most exclusive suite, named after Sir James Galway, with unparalleled views from a private terrace. The terrace dates back to the origins of the castle; a rare addition indicating that this has always been a safe haven.

The rooms and suites with original frescoes have been painstakingly restored under the guidance of the Italian Fine Arts Commission. Walls are painted with marble dust mixed paint making them soft as silk to the touch. Roll top baths sit on stone floors ready to be filled with the warm lather of lavender, sage and salt which fill the air with the scent of the surrounding hills.

It is little wonder then that Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa has an array of awards and accolades won over the last 11 years celebrating its heritage, cuisine and spa. Needless to say that this hotel is part of the prestigious collection curated under The Leading Hotels of the World.

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Accommodation

Each room or suite in the castle is unique making every stay a new experience for returning patrons. 12 suites have hand-carved four poster double beds, inspired by an original, found in a stable during renovation. Silky white monogrammed sheets and pillows contribute to the best sleep you could possibly imagine.

My suite consisted of a separate living and dining room, double bedroom and a bathroom twice as spacious as the bedroom. Neutral soft mint against white accents highlighted with flecks of gold made for a breathlessly serene space which I didn’t want to tear myself away from. Deep, soft towels and the ethereal feeling of simply being in a castle is one I can only describe as my most enchanting experience this year.

At the end of each evening a discreet turn-down service, the silence of the hills and the warm luxury of my suite effortlessly disconnected me from the outside world. I sunk in to my bed and a restful night of sleep on both nights of my visit.

Facilities

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Dining

Michelin-starred La Torre Restaurant, under the stewardship of  Executive Chef Giovanni Luca Di Pirro, serves a magnificent menu consisting of seasonal produce; some grown on the estate by the Chef himself. Breakfast is always served at La Torre with the unforgettable view of cypress trees and hills being gently caressed by a morning sun. I sat mesmerised by the view longer than I’d thought possible.

La Taverna poolside restaurant remains open from midday until 18.00 serving a relaxed menu of pizza and sandwiches as well as main dishes of fish and meat. My lasagna with beef ragout served here was wonderful with a distinctly Tuscan flavour recognisable by chunks of soft meat cooked in herbs. When you dine here don’t miss the Torta della Nonna which translates to grandmother’s cake. It’s served with custard cream and fior di panna ice cream; Italian home-cooking at its best.

Head to The Bar, after dinner for a night cap, which serves Champagne, cocktails and an array of wines from the castle’s own cellar which boasts over 1000 labels. The Bar is set in what was the original kitchen of the castle. The sinks, hearth and food lifts which serviced the noble floor remain perfectly preserved from its heyday.

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Spa

In keeping with Florentine tradition the castle offers an indulgent spa with ESPA treatments and plunge pool. The relaxed treatment rooms offer signature experiences of facial and body treatments as well as massages. A holistic approach to wellness offers hot stone massage and rejuvenating natural therapies. If you wish simply to experience the plunge pool or sauna you are required to wear swimwear.

Pool and tennis courts

The open-air pool sits in the garden beneath the hotel’s vast terrace. Set amongst the olive groves it’s 25 meters of gleaming warm water served by pool staff. Two tennis courts which are flood-lit for the evening are supplied with rackets and balls. Should you wish to book private lessons this is also possible and maybe arranged with the concierge.

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The Estate

Legend has it that Marquise Teresa Del Nero commissioned a path through cypress trees allowing her a shaded, private route to the woodland next to the castle. The path remains to this day should you choose to follow in the Marquise’s footsteps. It’s a beautiful, gentle walk and far less challenging than the other hiking routes around the estate.

On a final note, I must add, that the castle produces its own wine and extra virgin olive oil. They are used in the restaurant’s kitchen as well as the spa’s signature treatments. As of this year it has also harvested honey from its own hives. The unmistakable lavender notes in the honey is a fitting addition to its repertoire of fine food and wine.

Tuscany has remained one of the most captivating regions of Italy since time immemorial. Castello Del Nero only reinforces this allure. It sits nestled in a picture-perfect landscape only 25 kilometres from historic Florence, 35 kilometres from Siena and 20 kilometres from San Gimignano. The hotel has a free shuttle service on alternate days to Siena and Florence which can be pre-booked via the concierge service. Add to this mix informed staff, most of whom have remained with the hotel since the beginning, with unparalleled local knowledge and a passion for the castle’s heritage and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better experience in Tuscany. I travelled alone and not for a moment did I feel it. It felt as though I’d returned home albeit a rather more magnificent one than I could remember.

 

 

I was a guest of Castello Del Nero Hotel and Spa. Opinions expressed are my own. Enjoy a festive three night’s New Year’s Eve stay package from €740 per night. For more information visit: www.castellodelnero.com

 

 

A Taste of Puglia at Sauterelle at Royal Exchange

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There are two very exciting things happening at Suaterelle at Royal Exchange  next week. On the 15th of May Michelin starred chef Felice Sgarra, of Umami Restaurant in Andri, will team up with Sauterelle Executive Head Chef Stefano Leone to host an evening of flavours of Puglia.

The evening promises to be a wonderfully indulgent affair with three courses of the best Mediterranean flavours cooked by Chef Felice who in just two years secured the first Michelin star for Ristorante Umami. Chef Felice transformed this 19th century villa restaurant with simple Southern Italian cooking that captured the palettes of its patrons. The Japanese philosophy of umami inspires his delicious and regional cuisine served at Restaurant Umami. As such we can certainly expect an exceptional evening of fine dining at Sauterelle.

Dishes of Puglia

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For £45 per person, guests will enjoy bubbles on arrival followed by a three course dinner starting at 7pm. Italy’s Puglia region is celebrated for its natural recipes which are often passed down through generations. Chef Felice will create classic dishes starting with red lentils and wild chicory consomme, prawn tartare with pork guanciale, artisan pasta with sweet olives and asparagus and traditional burrata from Andria. They will be followed by octopus, black chickpea, orange, courgette flower and gin. Dessert is expected to be ricotta, almond, figs and bitter chocolate as well as petit fours.

Puglian Artisanal Products

In addition to this evening of elegant dining Sauterelle will also showcase artisanal produce from Puglia on the 14th May to deepen our understanding of this regional cuisine. Suppliers such as Sinisi, Dono Dorato and Azienda Agricola Di Tria will be in attendance. A mozzarella workshop will be held at 4pm for guests enjoy the process of mozzarella-making in Puglia.

Both events promise to deliver more than a mere dining experience. Food is always better appreciated when we have a deeper understanding of it. I have no doubt that we shall enjoy our Taste of Puglia.

Tickets can be purchased at: www.dandlondon.com

How I Discovered Tranquility in Verona at a 19th Century Villa

Italy’s major cities are cracking down on tourist-led misbehaviour. Milan, Rome, Florence, Venice and Verona have seen a wave of bans including and not limited to bottles, selfie sticks, picnics and food trucks. The bans stem from the general decay of urban centres as much as their visitor led debris.

Anyone who travels to Italy in the summer months will agree that its cities are overrun by tourists. I spent last summer in Florence and was astounded by the number of people in its main square – Piazza della Signoria. The waiting time for entrance to the Uffizi Gallery was SIX HOURS and yet I, like everyone else, queued up to enter. What drove me to stand in line for six hours ask the sane amongst you? It’s worth it. Totally and utterly worth it. Herein lies Italy’s double-edged sword.

So, late this summer when I visited Verona I was desperate to avoid tourist traps. Even in October the city was packed with hordes of visitors. It’s easy to see why. The simple formula of great weather, good food and rich history literally sit side by side. The 1st Century Roman amphitheatre dominates the city and all the al fresco dining and coffee drinking happens around it.

However, this time round I  approached Verona the Italian way. At the recommendation of a good friend (who happens to be Italian) I made the wise choice of staying at a villa away from the city centre. This meant that each evening when I was at the end of my tether being a tourist I could steal myself away to an authentic and far more satisfying Italian experience.

Al Giardinetto

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I stayed at the magnificent 19th century Italian villa, Al Giardinetto, in the quiet neighbourhood of Borgo Venezia. It was just 15 minutes from the city centre but far enough away from the crowds that I could still enjoy tranquility. The villa is owned by Rosanna Rossi who purchased it in 1985. Everything about its rustic charm appealed to the romantic in me. High ceilings, tiled floors and lace curtains that fluttered in the breeze as you flung open the deep green shutters was a far cry from what I encountered in the city.

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Entrance to the villa was through its pretty giardinetto (little garden) complete with olive trees and a swing. It was perfect for a quiet coffee with my host before I set off for the day.

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Inside, every detail was a nod to this home’s history. Watercolour pictures of flowers in the garden, the home and Verona adorned the stairway and the muted colours faded into the wall.

The Rooms

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My double room up stairs was as rustic as I expected it would be. Twee pillowcases, quilted sheets and more hand painted pictures complimented the terracotta tiles on the floor and the windows rose from the floor all the way up to the ceiling. It was warm and comforting and  I certainly had a  feeling of home.

The Food

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In keeping with the homely feeling of Al Giardinetto you can expect lots of home cooking from Rosanna. Starting with a home-baked chocolate cake dusted with icing sugar on arrival to a hearty Italian breakfast with coffee. It begs the question – why would you want to breakfast in the city.

Three Things You must Do in Verona

Visit the Amphitheatre

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A short taxi or bus ride from the villa brought me straight to the busy heart of the city. The Verona Arena (Arena di Verona) is enormous and on the outside appears to be crumbling. However, this 1st Century AD Roman amphitheatre is the world’s third-largest to have survived and is still used today. I have it on good authority that during the Opera season it hosts magnificent performances. 

Piazza delle Erbe

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By all means stroll around the city and through the market. It’s a pretty town with lots of places to eat, fountains and medieval buildings covered in ancient murals. However, I covered it all within half an hour. So I recommend not spending more than 30 minutes here. After I’d seen the market and amphitheatre there was little to keep my interest. Save the day and head out of Verona to Lake Garda.

Lake Garda

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From Verona Porta Nuova the train to Dezenzano del Garda arrived here in under 30 minutes. After my decision to stay at Al Giardinetto this was the second best decision I’d made. It would be a waste to visit Verona and not visit the largest lake in Italy. Its name evolves from Germanic word warda, translating to place of observation. It is certainly that. I arrived here in time for the sunset and dinner. As it was October I did not have any difficulty finding a place to eat. However, if you’re visiting in summer I imagine you would need a little more time to get a table.

It is undoubtedly popular with tourists and there is no way around this. However, the lake itself is magnificent. Clear, blue and surrounded by villages and mountains. Its vastness reduces the human impact in that I failed to notice anything or anyone else other than the lake. This is one not to be missed.

 

 

 

Al Giardinetto is located at Via Tiberghien 11, 37132 Verona.

For bookings visit www.bnbalgiardinettoverona.com

 

 

 

 

La Francesca – A Rose by the Sea

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet; (William Shakespear)

Italy has always had a special place in my heart. My first time there was to Milan. I did the regular tourist thing and visited the Duomo and queued up to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Since then I’ve visited Florence, Chianti, Bologna, Verona and have even been fortunate enough to roam the hills of Tuscany, pick my own olives and press my own olive oil.

I can say three things for certain about Italy – 1) You will eat the most incredible food. Not in fancy restaurants serving gourmet food cooked by top notch chefs. I’m talking run of the mill, regular food. You will eat the best pasta, the best ragu, the best ham, the best tomatoes, the best ice cream and you will sure as hell drink the best coffee. You see Italians, much like the French, don’t do bad food. They are more likely to spit it out than allow terrible food to violate their tastebuds. 2) It will be sunny. Even during winter months Italians enjoy clear blue skies which means there is eternal sunshine. If you happen to be there in the summer, well, it will be VERY hot. Hence why the entire month of August is a holiday and doing very little in August is scheduled in to everyone’s calendar. 3) People will be straight forward. If you ask for a pizza in a farm house they will kindly ask that you leave and look for a pizzeria. If you ask for an Americano Italians will think you are crazy and bring you an espresso to calm your nerves.

Now I’m no expert but I promise you these three things will be true pretty much anywhere you go. So with this in mind, I decided to visit a lesser trodden part of Italy at the end of this summer. A place where Italians themselves like to spend their holidays. I visited Resort La Francesca in Liguria which is set amidst one of the most astonishing coastlines in the world. This part of Italy is no longer the undiscovered heaven it once was but, honestly, it’s Italy. So, who cares?

La Francesca

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Resort La Francesca is approximately seven miles from the UNESCO heritage site of Cinque Terre. I flew to Genova airport and took a train along the dazzling coast all the way to the village of Levanto (population 5,500). From here the only way to the resort is by pre-booked taxis of La Francesca’s nominated drivers.

My taxi driver went up the mountains expertly manoeuvring the car along hair pin curves. Cliff after steep cliff appeared then reappeared all the way until we arrived at the resort some 20 minutes later. The first thing I noticed, as I climbed out of the car, is that the trees here are tall. The second thing was that the sky is a shade of blue which I’m convinced is reserved only for the sky above Italy.

La Francesca’s occupies a natural woodland of 15 hectares on a hillside. Evergreens dominate the forest. I look up and I’m grateful for their canopy providing me a little relief from the unforgiving sun. This is in October. The green and brown of the trees are broken in places with deliberately bright bougainvillae. I imagine they must be even more conspicuous at the height of summer.

Gloria

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La Francesca is independently owned. An extract from the sale and purchase agreement of the land signed in 1957 reads (translated from Italian): “... Site named la Francesca, rocky, uncultivated and loose soil completely neglected, with rare pine trees and twigs, since the woods were destroyed during the war…».

Gloria Bortolotti De Poli, a poet, journalist and writer purchased the land with the intention of creating a commercial rose garden. However, with no drinking water, electricity, telephone or a road to transport flowers the project became increasingly challenging. The nearest drinking water source was a few miles away in the hamlet of Scernio and Gloria regularly carried water for herself and her family in a cloth bag.

In 1958, at long last, a road to the land was built through the villages and Gloria breathed life into a new idea. Amidst apprehension from the local villagers and onlookers, she set about unwittingly creating one of Italy’s first eco tourist resorts. (It would take the tourism industry another 60 years before it caught up with the idea).
She began the construction of 34 small cottages set in to the slope without harming the unique bio diversity and profile of this strip of the wild Ligurian coast. In the summer of 1961 La Francesca resort was completed and Gloria’s ambitious project turned in to reality. To those who questioned her motive, as a poet and writer, building a holiday resort she replied: because I want to build a house in the middle of the woods for those who need to find themselves; the same love and sensitivity went into creating La Francesca as for a beautiful poem.
This remains true six decades later. True to its founder’s vision this is a perfect offering of wilderness and tranquility. The place is a haven for those who find strength in silence and solitude if they so wish. Today, La Francesca is managed and run by Gloria’s son Marco (pictured far left in the featured image) and continues to prosper in his hands.

Cottages by the Sea

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Thanks to its beginnings there is an obvious 1960s aura to La Francesca. It’s in the architecture, the furniture and decorCandy stripe awnings sit over every balcony. The buildings are painted in shades of terracotta and mustard with contrasting deep green windows framing everything you see out of them.

There are 55 cottages now and each offers undisturbed views over the cliff. Inside each cottage there is a bedroom, bathroom, living space and kitchen. After dinner as I sat in the balcony listening to the stillness. Music from a nearby cottage drifted over. There was a family sat in their balcony with one person strumming a guitar and others singing a familiar song. It’s that kind of place – a place where there are no distractions except for the quiet murmur of crickets.

The Ligurian Sea Sanctuary

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The next morning I walked down the slope from my cottage to the beach. Narrow steps lead down to three rocky coves and the sea shimmered like glass as far as I could see. There was layer upon layer of sea grass (posidonia oceanica) spread across the sea bed. Naturally this provides a safe place for fish to lay eggs and for dolphins and whales to pass. I was informed that this area of the ocean within the boundary of La Francesca (but not owned by it) is part of the Ligurian Sea Cetacean Sanctuary – A Marine Protected Area covering the Mediterranean seas of France, Italy, and Monaco.

Facilities

Mini Market

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The quaint mini market on the resort is an evident throwback to its early days and provides everything you’d need for a short break. There’s bread, cheese, wine and fruit amongst other things. Everything here is locally produced or sourced. So you’d be missing out on little by buying basics inside the resort.

Cafe

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There is also a cafe attached to the mini market. It’s adjacent to the tennis courts with outdoor seating amongst the trees – a great place to sip a cup of coffee while you watch a game.

Tennis Courts

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Two tennis courts sit on a slightly elevated level in the woods. They are surrounded by pine trees with the sea on one side glistening against your eye line. If you stop the game to stare at it you’d would be forgiven.

Pool

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There are two pools on the resort. The main pool sits where Gloria initially dug a lake for watering the roses. The second is lower down the hill towards the beach. Both were closed closed during my visit so I could only imagine dipping into the cool water in sweltering heat.

Restaurant

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The restaurant was also closed out of season and I was unable to sample any of the cuisine. However, it was not difficult to appreciate the enthralling  terrace commanding a picture perfect landscape of Liguria.

Two Things you Must do Around Resort La Francesca

Hiking

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The natural trails are made for relaxed walks and the scenery is astounding. This stretch of coast has allegedly remained unchanged since 1722. I walked through quaint medieval villages paved with cobblestone, train tunnels which are no longer in use but connect one village to another and olive groves with their tiny leaves shimmying in the sea breeze.

You could hike east or west of the resort and arrive at identical picturesque villages. The village of Levanto sits to the east. It is an old port with a maritime history. The train service from here will take you to Cinque Terre within five minutes.

Visit Bonassola

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Bonassola, so sweet, unforgettable, inexahustible. (Ernest Hemingway)

I hiked west of La Francesca and arrived at the nearby village of Bonassola through an old railway tunnel. It’s a sleepy seaside village wedged between mountains and the sea with a population of just 962 people. Mass tourism hasn’t arrived here yet mainly because there’s little to do. Also, most tourists come to visit nearby Cinque Terre. So what you get as a result is an immersion in to authentic Italy. You will hear lots of Italian, see old ladies hanging washing over balconies and there will be families and children running around freely.

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The black sand beach in Bonassola is a place used by local families for sunbathing, teenagers for cliff jumping and old people for sitting in the sun enjoying card games and dominoes. I saw no tourists here except me. So if you are visiting Cinque Terre and need a little respite I suggest a visit to Bonassola. If you don’t fancy hiking in the heat of high season there’s a boat service connecting the village from Cinque Terre and it goes all the way to Portofino. So, now you have every good reason to visit.

 

 

Resort La Francesca is located at Località La Francesca, 19011 Bonassola SP. You can find more information at lafrancescaresort.it