By Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi
What is Italy all about, really? Is it sleek design and architecture? A passion for living? A love of tradition? These are the questions I ask myself as I head towards my destination: a castle nestled away in a lesser known part of Tuscany called Maremma.
Centuries ago, the region was isolated from the rest of the world, cut off by extensive marshlands and bandits known as “briganti”. Today, it’s become an ideal holiday destination with a diversified landscape that includes marshes and flat lands, long beaches, hills thick with forests, black rocks and natural thermal baths.
I’m on my way to visit Castello di Vicarello, which was constructed in 1112 A.D. and fell into ruin for decades, until Carlo and Aurora Baccheschi Berti transformed it into an exclusive luxury retreat, equipped with all state-of-the-art comforts and modern services. This cosmopolitan family conceived a luxury travel experience with an Italian soul – but what does that mean, exactly?
Forget money, power or beauty – nothing ranks so high in Italy as family, and Castello Vicarello is by all means is a family run business. The delightful resident manager here, Luciano Ricciutelli, filled me in a bit on who’s who: Aurora and Carlo decorated this labour of love with items collected from their travels around the globe; their three children help to run Castello di Vicarello. The two younger sons – Neri and Corso – work to expand the unique hospitality experience that the family has established, whilst the eldest, Brando, takes care of the vineyard, which produces ten thousand bottles of red wine per year that are distributed in selected restaurants in the US, Switzerland, Germany. and of course, at the castle.
The 100% organic wine was awarded 5 grapes by Bibenda, the Italian Sommelier Foundation, and won the Great Gold Medal at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles for the production of Castello di Vicarello 2012 wine. During the Wine Tasting experience at the castle, guests can experience the results of a careful, varied grape selection that results in exquisite bottles of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese and Petiti Verdot.
It’s not only the wine here that’s the result of organic farming; the food is, too, as I noted on my exploration of the farmland and woods that surround the property. I passed by the hen-house, which, produces 16 eggs per day and continued my hike towards the vineyard under the Tuscan sky. Luciano described the many varieties of greens grown on the land, and recounted how the castle’s dog Uva, protected visitors by chasing off a wild boar that was prone to appearing on the grounds out of the wilderness. We strolled to an ancient olive grove, which produces the rich oil used in abundance at the castle – not only in the kitchen, but in the bathroom as well – the soap is made from the stuff.
But let’s get back to the food, shall we? This is an Italian castle, after all. Everything eaten here is natural and locally produced, from the freshly squeezed juices to the chunky homemade jams and smooth, creamy yogurts. Meals are simple and sumptuous: crisp salads, sauteed vegetables, fresh pastas and hot bread, fresh from the oven. Guests are often so impressed with these offerings, they demanded recipes, so now Tuscan cooking lessons are offered, and Aurora has even written a cookbook called My Tuscan Kitchen, which guests can take home. Meals are served at sprawling tables under the stars or nestled inside the stone walled interiors, lit up with warm candle light. For those hoping for an even more romantic, intimate evening, room service is available, too.
History and a mystery
Every room in this ancient edifice has a story to tell – a fable of modern travellers, hungry for beauty and history; a history of a noble family fallen on poor times; and even a prankish phantom who wanders the halls. Mark the words of a true skeptic! I’m a pure rationalist and orderly person. I recall holding my room keys in my hand, while I was enjoying an aperitif before dinner, and I had witnesses who saw me do so. But suddenly the room keys were gone, I looked into my bag but they were no place to be found. I decided to return to my room to see if I’d left them there – and I found them waiting for me, in the lock. No one could not find a logical explanation, to what had happened.
You can’t blame that ghost for wanting to stick around this place – it’s truly lovely, with artfully staged furniture and a particular peace thanks to the lack of televisions here. Each room has its own charm: the Suite Giardino Segreto boasts a secret garden overlooking alluring views, the Suite Vicario pays homage the Castle’s vicar, whilst Suite Sassi emanates serenity with its coral coloured walls and lavish central lounge that makes it the ideal honeymoon cocoon. Deluxe Grotta is furnished in an elegant Venetian style with a lovely private balcony off to the side of the entrance; whereas the tribute to China is blatant in the enticing Chinese Room. I resided in the ravishing Suite Sprone, a two floor suite with a living area, Indonesian four-poster bed and modern fireplace on the lower floor, and bedroom and bathroom with separate shower and tub on the upper level.
The limited number of rooms makes this travel experience wonderfully private, relaxing and friendly – perhaps this is why Castello di Vicarello has attracted various prominent guests such as Gerard Depardieu, Richard Gere and Colin and Livia Firth. It’s not uncommon to share a meal or a cooking class with a celebrity or two here. During my stay, I had incredibly amiable neighbours, such as a cultured travel agent from Singapore, an elegant couple from Spain and a Canadian singer-songwriter with his television presenter wife.
The magic of this twelfth century fairy-tale castle is truly epitomised at night: when bedtime approaches and you have completed your meal, under the stars or next to the fireplace, and will walk back to your room by the light of torches dotted along the courtyard. Before retiring to bed, you’ll find yourself surprised by a little literary treat – poems are left on your pillow to send you off to sweet dreams. And now I realise: what else is Italy, if not poetic?
Get the vibe
Here are two of the oems I brought back home with me:
Crossing the Tuscan Maremma by Giosuè Carducci
Sweet country, from which I have absorbed
the same proud character and contemptuous poetry
and the soul where hate and love never cease to flow,
I see you once again and my heart bounces for joy.
I recognise your distinguishing traits,
uncertain whether I should laugh or cry,
and in those features I follow the trace of my dreams.
The author of this poem, Giosuè Carducci, was a very influential poet from Tuscany who became the first Italian to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature and is considered the national poet of modern Italy. Whereas in this second poem there is a fond appreciation of the horse-riding shepherds typical of Maremma, known as “Butteri,” considered the Italian equivalent of the English cowboys.
They moved in a parallel world
a world that seemed still and distant
yet close to ours.
Someone smiled amused as they passed,
but to most people they remained invisible.
What to see
It’s easy and worthwhile to explore the towns in this area around Castello di Vicarello. Here are a few recommendations for some day trip excursions:
Monte Argentario is a peninsula with a promontory stretching towards the Tyrrhenian Sea, located about 35 kilometres south of Grosseto. The peninsula is connected with the mainland by three strips of land which form two lagoons, called Laguna di Ponente and the Laguna di Levante. The two main villages of Monte Argentario are the largest town in the area, Porto Santo Stefano, where there is a 16th century Spanish Fortress, and Porto Ercole, where you can visit the imposing Forte Filippo complex and the church of St. Erasmus.
Pitigliano is the town situated on a steep rock, 313 meters above sea level. Pitigliano has an ancient past, with centuries of changes in civilisations and cultures and the town is still home to treasures from all these former rulers: Etruscan tombs, the Roman origins of the antique Gens Petilia, the Orsini, Medici and Lorraine family, who initiated urban development and modernisation.
Montalcino was defined by Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio as the “windowsill of the Apocalypse.” On a clear day you feel that the entire world is at your feet, since you can see simultaneously Corsica, the island of Elba, the island of Giglio, the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Apuane Alps, the Abetone and Terminillo. You may also recognise in the far distance the cities of Siena, Pienza and Montepulciano, as well as the long sleeping volcano Monte Amiata casting its shadow over the valley.
Bagni di San Filippo is a small village of the Val D’Orcia, historically known for its thermal water. The Hot Springs are located within captivating limestone formations, waterfalls and lush forests. These waters are extremely beneficial for they are rich in sulphur, calcium, magnesium, and other healing and soothing elements.
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