A Real Es­tate

A re­vi­talised vil­lage-turned-re­sort of­fers a taste of me­dieval sim­plic­ity in the midst of Tus­cany’s cul­tural pomp. kavita daswani re­ports

Prestige (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

the typ­i­cal in­ter­na­tional trav­eller jour­ney­ing through Italy might rent a car in Rome, head north out of Lazio and drive leisurely through the fab­u­lously scenic re­gion of Tus­cany.

This trav­eller, how­ever, is do­ing no such thing. “Trust me, you do not want to drive in Italy,” my (Amer­i­can) friend had ad­vised, who con­fessed that she and her hus­band al­most split up be­cause of a haz­ard-filled road trip there.

So we do the next best thing: we hire a driver — whom we hap­pened to find, of all places, on Craigslist.

My fam­ily and I had been bop­ping around Europe, hit­ting all the must-see spots, such as Rome, Florence and Venice. Then we heard about a new des­ti­na­tion in the heart of Tus­cany, a tenuta, or es­tate, named Toscana Re­sort Castelfalfi, that would prove a respite from the tourist- choked streets ev­ery­one reluc­tantly be­comes ac­cus­tomed to dur­ing a Euro­pean va­ca­tion. Castelfalfi of­fers an 800-year old cas­tle, olive groves, vine­yards and lux­ury “farm­houses” set in 1,100 hectares over pris­tine rolling green hills. No crowds. No over­booked restau­rants. No wait­ing in line to look at dusty stat­ues.

All we had to was get there. Trains ran to Pisa, but there was still no way to the re­sort with­out rent­ing a car. Nei­ther my hus­band nor I cared to drive. So we did the next best thing: We found An­to­nio on Craigslist, a move that even our most ad­ven­tur­ous Ital­ian friends found stag­ger­ing. (“You did what?” ex­claimed our Rome-based travel agent.)

But we fig­ured Craigslist was as good a place as any.

We ar­range to meet An­to­nio for five min­utes at a lit­tle square off Campo de Fiori to en­sure that both par­ties are real and ide­ally, not mur­der­ous. We shake hands on a price (€400) and make plans to set off the next day. He shows up. All goes well.

From Rome to Castelfalfi takes less than four hours, across small in­dus­trial cen­tres and stretches of high­way...and then we see the sweep of hills dot­ted with brick build­ings, grassy golf fair­ways and a cas­tle perched at one end.

Castelfalfi was founded by the Etr­uscans and was at var­i­ous points in his­tory owned by var­i­ous no­bles — in­clud­ing the Della Gher­ardesca fam­ily of Pisa in the 1300s. There were the in­evitable skir­mishes (like the one be­tween Floren­tines and the peo­ple of Siena in the mid1500s.) In more re­cent his­tory, a to­bacco fac­tory an­chored the town and pro­vided em­ploy­ment to its cit­i­zens. But when that business pulled down the shut­ters in the 1970s, many towns­peo­ple aban­doned their home in search of bet­ter prospects. Then, about a decade ago — when there were just a hand­ful of peo­ple left liv­ing on the land — the Ger­man travel con­glom­er­ate TUI Group ac­quired the en­tire spread. Their ob­jec­tive: Res­ur­rect­ing it as not just an­other

va­ca­tion prop­erty, but as a real town again, where lo­cals live and farm, make wine, sell salami and press olives into oil.

“It’s not just a re­sort,” says Ste­fan Neuhaus, Castelfalfi’s CEO. “It’s a real place where things hap­pen, where life flows daily, of­fer­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of liv­ing in a typ­i­cal Tus­can way of life.”

Many of the orig­i­nal build­ings have been pre­served and con­verted into vil­las, or casales, with gra­cious stone-floored ter­races. The orig­i­nal to­bacco dry­ing barn, which is right by the en­trance to the re­sort and serves as a check-in of sorts, is now a so­phis­ti­cated bou­tique ho­tel called La Tabac­cia — 31 rooms done in Tus­can-in­spired style with wood-beamed ceil­ings and olivepar­quet floors. Un­der con­struc­tion is a se­cond ho­tel on the es­tate, Il Castelfalfi, which opens next year; of­fer­ing 120 rooms and a spa, it will go a long way to­wards hous­ing the golfers who travel in to use the 27-hole golf course — the largest in Tus­cany.

Toscana Re­sort Castelfalfi is a place where you could pitch up for a two-week stay and not re­ally feel the need to go any­where else, de­spite it be­ing in one of the most cul­ture-rich parts of the world. This be­comes abun­dantly clear as we’re driven around the vast prop­erty (again, by our trusted An­to­nio — once here, you need a car). Be­cause La Tabac­cia is fully booked, we’re stay­ing in one of the con­verted farm­houses, a spa­cious two-bed­roomed home with an open­plan chef’s kitchen. There are other peo­ple stay­ing around the tenuta, of course, but it’s easy enough to not be aware of them.

The farm­house we’re in has been con­verted into four units, a pool shared be­tween them, set in grounds that over­look olive groves and or­chards. As it’s in­tended to, the place feels like home — or at least, a se­cond home, the sort of place where you show up with gro­ceries, some chilled Chardon­nay, an arm­ful of pool toys and a fully stocked Kin­dle, and not leave again, un­less it’s to nip down to the vil­lage, part of the re­sort, to buy cured meats and goat cheese from the gro­cer. Shop own­ers from the wider Tus­can re­gion have opened out­posts of their stores here. There’s also a gela­te­ria, a sta­ple of any Ital­ian via. A short walk down the cob­bled streets brings you to the cas­tle, now used for rather spec­tac­u­larly scenic pri­vate events (wed­ding plan­ners, take note). A for­mal restau­rant, La Rocca di Castelfalfi, is helmed by ex­ec­u­tive chef Michele Ri­naldi, who was only 27 when he got his first Miche­lin star. Guests gather on the ter­race for a sun­set aper­i­tivo, and then dine on calf sweet­bread; risotto with lime, av­o­cado and shrimp carpac­cio; suck­ling pig. Part of the cas­tle is set aside as a cook­ing school, a worth­while use of time here. Af­ter the five-star Il Castelfalfi is up and run­ning next spring, there will be a few more bars and an­other restau­rant to choose from.

It’s not just golfers who will love com­ing here; an­i­mal ac­tivists will be aghast at this, but Castelfalfi is also a reg­u­lated hunt­ing re­serve, where groups gather to hunt pheas­ants, red par­tridge, quail, even wild boar. This is, af­ter all, orig­i­nal ter­rain: Much of Toscana Re­sort Castelfalfi’s ap­peal is pred­i­cated on al­low­ing vis­i­tors to ex­pe­ri­ence what it might have been like to live in an­other time.

We cer­tainly get a sense of that, es­pe­cially on the 10-minute drive back to our villa af­ter din­ner, when it’s pitch black and the car crunches over the nar­row, grav­elly path­ways up the hill­side. Ev­ery­thing looks the same. There are no vis­i­ble signs. We feel so re­mote and iso­lated that we could well be back in the 15th cen­tury.

Thank heav­ens for An­to­nio.

We feel so re­mote and iso­lated that we could well be back in the 15th cen­tury

Quaint scenes from around the es­tate

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