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July 20, 2012 7:23 pm
There is a marvellous episode of the timeless sitcom Seinfeld, called “The Maestro”, which revolves around the near-impossibility of finding a decent house to rent in Tuscany for the summer, because they’ve all been snapped up by well-heeled, well-connected Americans. This is not entirely how things are. The British have long been in on the act too. A cartoon in an August edition of Private Eye many years ago featured empty Georgian streets and a Hampstead sign, over which someone had written, “Closed – Gone to Tuscany”.
Nevertheless, affluent Americans flock to Tuscany, if not in reality then in their dreams. Received wisdom in US magazine publishing holds that a photograph on the cover of an aspirational lifestyle publication of the distinctive Tuscan landscape, or a Sienese or Florentine cityscape, can send sales soaring.
So Colorado-based Timbers Resorts knew what it was doing when it spent more than €100m on the refurbishment and building work at Castello di Casole (a figure that does not include the undisclosed cost of actually buying it). It is, at 4,200 acres, one of the largest private estates in Italy and was once home to Count Luchino Visconti, a celebrated film director. Visconti certainly had an eye for a backdrop. The centrepiece of the estate, an immaculately restored 10th-century castle – which opened earlier this month as a lavish 41-suite hotel – looks down over rolls and folds of almost tear-jerkingly lovely countryside in the hills west of Siena. To the north, the spectacular medieval towers of San Gimignano loom through the summer haze. Closer by, the village of Casole d’Elsa perches seductively on a hilltop as if auditioning for a role in one of Visconti’s films – or for a slot on a US magazine cover.
The bulk of the Timbers business is fractional ownership. Of the farmhouses on the estate, 14 have been restored, mostly from a state of utter dereliction, to visions of rustic chic. Almost all the fractions of the completed homes have been bought but there are another 14 plots still awaiting the mechanical diggers. Meanwhile, Timbers has sold two of the houses outright, each for €7.25m. One went to a British hedge fund manager, the other to an American, one of the early Facebook executives.
You can see the attraction: Castello di Casole has an infinity pool with a view to stir a gargoyle’s heart. Renovating the hotel accounted for about €35m of the €100m budget – and when you hear what the refurbishment entailed, it is a wonder they did it for so little.
For six years every brick and beam was scrutinised by the inspectors of the Belle Arti, which is charged with preserving Italy’s cultural heritage. Gary Moore, the managing director of Timbers, has the gracious manners of the American south, but one hears the faint echoes of a cursing outburst when he says that in the US, however hard it might be to obtain permission for redevelopment in a carefully regulated area, an eventual yes from the authorities means yes, whereas in Tuscany, yes means only maybe. Twice, the hotel’s walls were painted a muted Tuscan yellow; twice the Belle Arti decreed it not quite the right shade. Plans for a fountain in the courtyard were scrapped too, when the inspectors pointed out that, centuries ago, there would have been no such thing. There would, however, have been a drinking container for horses, so now there is a fountain in the rectangular form of a trough.
Still, the result of such demands is a hotel of immense style – so three cheers for Belle Arti fussiness and Timbers funds, with a further honourable mention for the design eye of Sandy Burden, wife of the company’s owner, David Burden, who oversaw the formidable project both indoors and out. Moreover, although I was there only three days after the grand opening, there somehow swirled the whiff of tradition, not to mention the whiff of some very fine food.
There is a classy pizzeria in the courtyard but the main feature is the Tosca restaurant, which spills on to a handsome terrace. The sublime cooking at Tosca is masterminded by Daniele Sera, late of the St Regis Grand in Rome, who also doubles as personal chef to Morocco’s royal family.
As far as possible the ingredients are local, and sometimes very local indeed. A hundred or so wild boar – Italy’s fabled cinghiale – roam the estate, and guests can accompany head gamekeeper Paolo Bagnoli in pursuit of them and other wildlife, such as deer, pheasant, hare and pigeon. While some of these shoots can only take place between strictly prescribed dates, it’s open season with the boar. Since 1970 they have rapidly proliferated and remain enormously destructive, relentlessly eating everything in their path, which includes the Castello’s vineyards and olive groves. Within the so-called zona bianca (white zone), there is actually an obligation to shoot them.
I had a pizza with Bagnoli before setting out on a boar hunt. I clambered into his truck, and we rattled across the estate, eventually stationing ourselves in a wooden tower at the edge of a forest clearing, where we sat until darkness came. The cinghiale, by contrast, didn’t. It was more of a wild goose chase than a wild boar chase, but patience and perseverance are a hunter’s greatest weapons, so the following evening we took to the tower again. This time we were rewarded, moments before nightfall, with the arrival of a small, snuffling herd of boar. Bagnoli whispered instructions, and I settled the cross-hairs on a young male 130 metres away and slightly apart from the rest of the group. The rifle flash and crack devastated the tranquillity and scattered the herd. “I think you take him,” whispered Bagnoli, and I had, although it took 10 minutes of creeping around in the long grass, by torchlight, to find him. He was big enough, about 35kg, and about a year old. The perfect size and age for eating, said Bagnoli.
I wasn’t there long enough to taste the fruit of my aim; after cleaning, he was to hang for five days. But it didn’t matter because for lunch that day I had already eaten pappardelle ragù di cinghiale – less lyrically, pasta with wild boar sauce – in the basic but charming Osteria del Borgo, in the nearby hilltop hamlet of Mensano.
The hamlet was part of the estate until Visconti in effect gave it to his loyal farm workers. so it felt right to toast his memory and his generosity in the hotel bar named after him, festooned with black-and-white stills from his films. For all its polished wood, leather and marble, the Bar Visconti is pleasingly unstuffy as, indeed, is the Castello di Casole as a whole. Americans will love it but so, I think, will everyone else.
Brian Viner was a guest of the Castello di Casole (www.castellodicasole.com) and British Airways (www.ba.com/italy). Doubles cost from €630 including breakfast. BA offers return flights from London to Pisa from £93, or a package of flights and three nights at the Castello di Casole from £879 per person
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