Review featured in our 'Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection Italy' guidebook:
Candles burned from every end, we’d been mixing hard work and benders. Our break in an elegant villa with spa in the middle of the Val di Merse was perhaps undeserved, but certainly needed. Moments after arrival, Mrs Smith and I are ushered onto a scenic terrace blushing with lemon trees and offered our first Negronis. It’s like an injection of pure, instant relaxation.
Borgo Santo Pietro is an ancient building dating back to the 12th century, carefully restored by the energetic Jeanette Thottrup and her husband Claus, an elegant, understated Danish gentleman. The renovation of the building must have been a hell of a job, but it has been worth the effort: the villa and its estate is perfectly restored and fully functional – with well-stocked frigobars.
The Borgo has just eight suites – large, inviting bedrooms that overlook manicured grounds mazed with long hedges and gravelled paths. Once we were installed in ours, a plate of fresh fruit arrived along with delectable squares of white coconut ice and an excellent bottle of Franciacorta. Suitably refreshed, and it being sundown, we wandered out, falling upon an Eden of secrets – a herb garden here, a fountain there; pergolas under which divans were scattered; peacocks appearing and disappearing. Further along, there were prepared courts for outdoor diversions such as pétanque and lawn tennis. We strolled under a portico, beside a rockery and swimming pool. A pervasive feeling of peace and warmth accompanied the fading day.
Our first night, we dined at the hotel, and had an excellent meal. Friendly and attentive service is helped along by the high ratio of attendants per guest. The cellar is looked after by the young sommelier Mirko Favalli, equipped with knowledge and a desire to please, as well as chutzpah in choosing some obscure and pleasantly challenging wines. We had much to discuss. It is hard to recall the number of courses (well, they were numerous), but I will never forget the 1995 Faccoli sparkling wine; Mrs Smith, meanwhile, took great interest in the prized Manni olive oil and triple choice of salts on the table: a black variety from Hawaii, pink from a river in Australia, and white from Trapani.
After a meal like that, we needed a bit of a lie-down. Thankfully, good-sized, classy rooms are further enhanced by an impeccable choice of mattress – a line specially flown in from Denmark. The following day, after a reviving slumber and an energising breakfast in the garden, we hit the area’s less-beaten tracks, steering clear of Siena and San Gimignano, where lightning-bursts of flash photography could be seen from afar.
We embarked on a round trip from the mediaeval village of Chiusdino – the first part on a panoramic road on the top of hills, passing ancient settlements and alpine forests. Next, Radicondoli, another mediaeval village; a few miles further is Mensano. This picturesque town’s 12th-century church has 14 column capitals and a Romanesque sculpture cycle by Pisan master sculptor Bonamico, and Mrs Smith is intrigued by a labyrinthine pattern set into the diminutive piazza outside its main entrance. A small family trattoria in the ancient centre here – Osteria del Borgo – serves honest, inexpensive Tuscan food at tables outside. Perfetto.
Casole d’Elsa, the livelier of the small towns we saw, holds communal barbecues on Sundays in the summer. It is also home of the excellent Osteria del Caffè Casolani, which has a pleasant rustic space inside and tables outdoors. There is no written menu, and the verbal offering is limited, but impeccable. Home-made pasta with wild pig ragu and a selection of local cheeses and charcuterie together with pulses made a perfect alfresco lunch. After two glasses of vernaccia, when we asked for a refill they casually gave us the rest of the bottle. ‘It is nearly finished – have it.’ A quick reminder that we were a thousand miles away from our home city of London.
From here, the old blue Lancia (driven by our guide Alfonso) crossed the valley and segued into gentle hills and isolated old farms, and we headed to Scorgiano. This settlement of just a few huts is the only point of sale for the Montagnola farm, which has 1,500 acres of land and forest, mostly dedicated to the organic raising of Cinta Senese. These pigs are cured in a similar way to Iberico ham. Great for us – not so mouthwatering a fate for them.
Back at base, a pianist playing West Coast jazz on a 19th-century rosewood Steinway eased us into our evening while we, in considerate undertones, discussed the inscrutable selection of art. What seemed the bust of a stern schoolmistress we deduce in fact to be someone’s elderly aunt. Another portrait of an old dame had these Smiths agreeing that there was something teasingly exciting about it: perhaps a reminder that brains plus money is always sexy.
On our last day, before lunch, Mrs Smith paid a visit to the spa for a one-hour massage that ended up being two; then she disappeared to the nearby river for a skinny-dip. I opted for a seat by the pool, plunging in occasionally – a preliminary ritual before the next Negroni. Too quickly, though, our driver’s car wheels were crunching their way down the gravel drive. As we glided through the Borgo’s gates, we looked up at the two enigmatic sphinxes guarding the entrance. Unlike them, we were grinning from ear to ear.