Refined Tuscan estate Castello di Vicarello has had 900 years to cultivate its air of rustic majesty, so it’s little wonder that the honey-coloured buildings and perfumed gardens look like they’ve sprung from the canvas of an Italian master. Despite the romantic atmosphere, the hotel is still very much rooted to the rolling and fertile land on which it sits. Delectable home-style cuisine is prepared in the castle’s historic kitchen, which draws much of its produce from the organic garden, vineyards and olive groves, all of which sit within the enchanting grounds. There are two valley-facing infinity pools to choose from, a Balinese hut for massages, yoga and personal training in the summer months and several tiers of cyprus-studded gardens and manicured lawns on which to bask under the Tuscan sun.
Get this when you book through us:
A jar of homemade organic jam and a bottle of olive oil (100ml)
Double rooms from £555.49 (€621), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates include a home-made Continental breakfast of jams, cakes and breads.
At the hotel
Outdoor lounges, terraced gardens, library and free WiFi. In rooms: a minibar and air-conditioning. Some suites have open fireplaces.
Our favourite rooms
If you’re really looking to indulge, book the secluded Spa Suite, which is a short walk from the main castle. This modern, chalet-style suite has teak-clad interiors and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out across the Ombrone valley and river at the bottom of the hill. There’s an indoor hammam and sauna, and a wooden ‘barile’ hot tub on the sun deck, which has been positioned to perfectly catch the Tuscan sunset.
There are two infinity pools with sweeping views across the tree-clad hills and valleys. Each sits on a secluded terrace – one by the main castle, the other a little further down the garden. Both are set into clipped lawns and surrounded by the hotel’s fragrant ornamental gardens, which give off a heady perfume after they’ve been warmed by the day’s sun.
Unwind with a wood therapy massage, aimed to rectify energy imbalances and relax tense muscles, at the hotel’s secluded Al Fresco Spa. The Spa Suite has exclusive access to a sauna, steam room and an outdoor Jacuzzi fashioned from an original barrique (oak barrel) – the perfect spot to revel in the Tuscan sunset. In-room massages can be arranged on request.
Ditch the stilettos – bumpy stone paths and root-riven forest floors are no friend to wayward heels. A solid pair of flat-soled shoes will stand you in sturdier stead.
There’s no shortage of activities should you tire of relaxing: cooking classes and wine-tasting can be arranged in the hotel’s kitchen, and horse riding, e-bike tours and hunting can all be enjoyed in the nearby area.
All fruit and vegetables used in the kitchen are grown organically in the hotel gardens. Vicarello produces its own award-winning wine and olive oil, and a large amount of meat is hunted on the hotel’s grounds.
The round table in the corner by reception overlooks the whole dining area and the gardens – perfect for a romantic tête-à-tête. The owners will also arrange a secret spot in the gardens to dine in if you request.
Rustic and relaxed: skirts for sprawling in and shirts all a-billow. 'Smart casual' is requested for dinner and aperitifs.
The focus is on authentic cuisine using local, organic ingredients and recipes from owner Aurora Baccheschi Berti's cookbook, 'My Tuscan Kitchen'. Ingredients come from the property's organic fruit and vegetable gardens, and both meats and cheeses are sourced from local farmers and the family's estate.
There are two – you'll find the first, open year-round, in the lounge and the second, open during the summer months, is on the top terrace, replete with stunning views over the courtyard, vineyards and surrounding forest. Ask Simoh to mix you something mysterious or opt for a glass of the hotel's own vintage red.
The kitchen closes at 10.30pm.
Fruit and snacks are always available in the kitchen, and you can have food brought to your room from 08h to 22.30h.
If you’re lucky enough to arrive on a private flight, Grosseto airport is 45 minutes away; if not, both Florence and Pisa are a convenient hour and a half away, and Rome Fiumicino is two and a half.
The nearest Trenitalia (www.trenitalia.it) train station is at Paganico, a 15-minute drive from the hotel. There's also a station in Grosseto station, 40km away. Florence and Pisa can be reached in two to three hours; Siena is a direct train away, taking less than two hours.
Castello di Vicarello is 15 minutes from the E78 (Grosseto–Siena–Arezzo–Sansepolcro–Fano). To find it, first get to Paganico, and then proceed toward Monte Amiata; after three kilometres, follow signs to Sasso d’Ombrone, then Poggi del Sasso, where you should take Via Vicarello on your right. Montepulciano and Siena are both between an hour and an hour and a half away; the sights of Pisa, Florence and Perugia are roughly two hours. There's free parking at the hotel, and from February 2018 there'll be two Tesla charging points.
Worth getting out of bed for
Don’t leave Tuscany without vineyard-hopping: Poggio Antico in Montalcino runs tasting sessions in English and also boasts a great formal restaurant – book a sampling session in the morning and follow it with a lingering lunch.
Authentic Tuscan trattoria abound. Be sure to book a terrace table at Latte di Luna on the main street in Pienza; it serves pici al ragu (spaghetti in wild boar sauce) worth making pilgrimages for (+39 057 874 8606). Il Rossellino in the Piazza di Spagna is a tiny but elegant couple-run eaterie with a great wine selection (+39 057 874 9064). Humbler, but no less flavoursome, is the fare at child-friendly Buca delle Fate, on the Corso Il Rossellino where locals come in droves to savour the steak (+39 057 874 8272).
One thing Castello di Vicarello isn’t is easy to find. It has been two hours since we left the airport, and Mr Smith and I are still winding through vineyards, rolling hills and ancient villages. We’re peering desperately at the map for signs of a 12th-century castle, and it’s only by chance we stumble across a small hand-painted sign. ‘Aha,’ exclaims Mr Smith. ‘We’re here.’
The track, however, merely leads to several smaller tracks, and another hour of driving to parts of Tuscany into which I doubt any other hire car has ever ventured. Suddenly, though, just as our two-month-old relationship starts to show its first strains, Mr Smith spots another signpost. I hear him sigh with relief when we pass through the entrance to the estate, and start cruising towards the castle through vineyards and olive groves.
Ringed by fir trees, the imposing stone building is set against a backdrop of lush pastures and hazy hilltops that’s pure Renaissance fresco. We walk through an archway and into an ancient courtyard where we stand silently, looking at spikes of grass that poke like green hair from between the cobbles. The warm air carries the scent of rosemary and thyme, and the only sound is the buzz of insects. It’s hard to remember which century we’re in. It wouldn’t have surprised me had Russell Crowe appeared from behind one of the urns in full Gladiator garb – alas, I have to make do with Mr Smith in his shorts.
Lucia, the manager, spots us, and comes out to say buongiorno. Our suite, Vicario, is one of six on the estate, some in the castle and others just a short walk away. We don’t even have to worry about the short walk. Vicario is reached via a stone staircase so thick with mediaeval atmosphere that I can almost visualise Mr Smith tripping ahead of me in a doublet and hose. How many others have ascended these steps before us, I wonder?
The first thing I see when I enter our room is a fire that licks and crackles in an enormous stone hearth. The furnishings – wooden tables, huge day bed, wing chair in front of the blaze – are obviously inspired by owner Aurora Baccheschi Berti’s years in Bali, and our giant-scale oak bed continues the Brobdingnagian theme. I am six foot and Mr Smith is six foot two, and we can both comfortably make starfish shapes in it. At the same time.
Both windows in the suite’s living area frame views like perfectly composed landscape paintings, and the light they’re letting in is getting pinker by the second. When I re-enter the main room after taking a bath, the only illumination comes from the fire and flickering candles that Mr Smith has thoughtfully lit. He knows how to set a scene, that man.
Two glasses of wine later, and with heads feeling fuzzier than the peaches in our bedside fruit bowl, we descend the staircase for dinner. We start by asking the attentive Sri Lankan concierge, Damit, for gin and tonics, and he plonks a whole bottle of Gordons in front of us. Oh dear. Soon we’re sniggering like schoolchildren as we think up more inventive ways to misuse our friendly attendant’s name: ‘Damit, that’s a lovely G&T’; ‘What time’s dinner, Damit?’
Castello di Vicarello is not a place you’d come if you wanted to lose weight. We sit at a table big enough to take a castleful of knights – as well as the peasants from the next village – to enjoy the seasonal Tuscan cuisine, most of which come from the estate. Long before dishes are set down, we smell wild mushroom bruschetta and fresh ricotta-and-spinach ravioli being prepared. It’s sturdy stuff. By the time two giant slabs of beef are placed in front of us, we’re relying on the castle’s two grateful dogs to help clear our plates.
The next morning, I discover Mr Smith has pyromaniac tendencies. Propped up on pillows, I can hear plenty of poking and scratching, but see only a pair of feet poking out from the hearth. ‘Come back to bed,’ I call, and a sooty Mr Smith, clad only in boxer shorts, shuffles backwards to stand up. ‘Me man. Me make fire,’ he says, doing his best caveman impression. ‘You woman. You make coffee.’
I do. And, as the pot boils, I look out of the window onto thick mist that fills the valley below, leaving us an island in a white, gently swelling sea. It’s beautiful. I sip my coffee by the ledge, while Mr Smith’s cup cools on the mantelpiece. It takes until 11am to get him downstairs for a breakfast of home-made bread and cakes.
I don’t want to spend the next few hours watching Mr Smith burn things, so I lure him to Montalcino, a nearby hilltop town renowned for its wine. Its streets make delightful strolling territory, and we work up an appetite for lunch. In the cave-like Enoteca la Fortezza di Montalcino, we order a pig-sized plate of charcuterie and begin merrily washing it down with a carafe of Brunello.
‘Hang on,’ says Mr Smith suddenly, ‘someone’s got to drive back.’ We decide to settle things with a game of paper-scissor-stone. As I move to smother Mr Smith’s fist of stone with my palm of paper, the Italian family on the next table – enjoying one of those leisurely meals that six generations pitch up for – looks utterly bemused.
I’m glad Castello di Vicarello is hard to find. If I had my way, no one would know about it. And, though it may be too early for us to talk about marriage – Mr Smith nearly chokes on his breakfast when, on our final morning, I jokingly suggest we come back here to tie the knot – we have definitely decided on one thing. We’re going to buy a dog and name it after our concierge. We’ll always remember this weekend in Tuscany when we call him: ‘Damit, come here. Get back here, Damit…’