Continuing our weekend special on Italy’s most iconic region, Larry takes to the countryside in a somewhat unconventional manner…
If Hollywood could create a picture of Tuscany, it would do it from Castello di Casole. The hilltop that may have served as a defensive advantage when it began life as a 10th century castle is now to its guests’ benefit with views of Tuscany’s timeless landscape. Misty morning hillsides, terracotta hilltop towns, sun-baked vineyards and cypress trees; to wake at Castello di Casole and draw your curtains is to look upon a Van Gogh painting.
Hollywood might well have come calling, too. In its 1000-year history, the castle has served as a haven for political exiles in 14th century Siena, become the seat of one of the region’s most esteemed aristocratic families and, more latterly, was the home of Italian film director Luchino Visconti.
Traces of this rich history weave throughout the property, from the vaulted cellars of the spa, to the medieval chapel, and the original brick oven of its pizzeria, its transformation into a hotel has been handled with integrity and sensitivity, conscious that’s very much part of its appeal.
Similarly, the décor is complementary. For such a substantial property it only offers 39 rooms, all suites in an elegant rustic style. Rich colour palettes in Tuscan hues, terracotta flagstone floors and wood-beamed ceilings, locally sourced antique and custom-designed cabinetry, with original oil paintings and framed photographs all suggesting you’re not so much arriving at a hotel as an Italian count’s palazzo.
It’s an image I can’t escape as we arrive. It’s an ink-dark night, the hour transfer from the airport telling me I’m remote, even by Italian standards where distances aren’t dramatic. As we pull up to the castello and its solid, hulking door, it reminds me of that scene in The Last Crusade where Indiana Jones gatecrashes a chateau with a beret and a phony Scottish accent to view tapestries. This is a little more sophisticated.
We’re met by Frederico, the GM. Less a manager, more a host, Frederico is quite possibly one of the most talkative men I’ve ever encountered. That’s not disparaging, I envy his ability to smooth over any awkward silence with a gentle suggestion or an engaging question.
We enjoy a welcome apero and a joyful bowl of chef’s ‘daily’ taglioni pasta that tells us we’ve definitely landed in Italy, before retiring to our suite and the welcoming silence that accompanies the depth of the countryside, anticipating what would, the next day, be a tour of our surroundings – with a difference.
I’m first alerted to something quite different happening when the tranquillity of a bath in that fine marble Medici-esque ensuite was broken by a sound not unlike a Titan clearing its throat. At breakfast a few minutes later, there was a distinct level of excitement among the guests’ chatter. The source of this was the presence of four gentlemen seated at a table booth sipping espresso. I say ‘gentlemen’; these fellows were more ursine in appearance, bearing worn, dusty leather jackets and sporting facial hair that would make a Bavarian blush.
These ‘quattro muskatere’ as we later named them, were members of Harley Davidson’s Chianti Chapter and, as forboding as fortune would have it, were our guides for the day.
Their conductor was the affable Ranier. More accountant than Hell’s Angel, Ranier is an unlikely looking biker if ever I saw one, but nevertheless a Harley fan for some 40 years, and the architect behind Luxury Bike Pearls, the ingenious enterprise offering tours of the countryside with the hotel. Following a brief introduction, we were ushered outside and met enthusiastically by our muskatere, issued with helmets and invited to choose our steed.
I’m not one to enthuse too much about motorbikes, let alone Harleys, but there’s something about fine craftsmanship and a well-established reputation that can always turn heads, and we’d gathered a small crowd, smartphones out and snapping away, as we straddled our steeds.
As I get on, the suspension bobs me like a baby on a bouncer and my driver (rider?), Stefano, unhitches the stand, turns his head to me and, giving me a thumbs up, starts her up. Forming into single file, we wave to the gathered guests, and coast down the long cypress-lined avenue and out into the Tuscan countryside.
As we chug pleasantly past fields, vineyards and olive groves, the wind taking the edge of the day’s gathering warmth, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly provides an accompaniment, completing the scene. It takes a moment but I realise this isn’t in my head but coming from Ranier, up in front, blasting operatic arias from his bike’s speakers.
We break for an espresso at a small roadside trattoria– at which I’m an incongruous addition to the hirsute leather-clad brutes I’m sat with – before we set off again, going off-road onto dusty tracks, cruising through quaint, sleepy villages and stopping at vantage points for photo opportunities of iconic vistas. It’s a thoroughly pleasing morning, and surprisingly relaxing.
Frederico is on the steps as we pull back into the castello, arms outstretched, welcoming us back with a warm smile and a fine lunch al fresco on the terrace. That afternoon, as I anticipate an indulgent massage in the Essere spa and a tasting of the estate’s wines in the Visconti bar before dinner, I take a moment to cool off in the pool, itself giving a terrific view across the landscape to a distant Siena and the village of Casole on a nearby hillside, and reflect on what I’ve just experienced.
To explore the Tuscan countryside in any form is a joy; wandering among olive groves is immersive, certainly, taking a drive will cover some ground, and cycling gives the benefit of exercise but obviously requires effort.
But there’s really only one way to see it; on the back of an iconic motorcycle.
The Ultimate Harley Davidson Experience in Tuscany departs the estate at 9.30am and returns at 2pm. Prices start from €850 per person based on two people, a co-driver can be added to the experience for €130. The experience includes a tour briefing, morning coffee break, lunch, afternoon break and all petrol.
Destinology, the experts in luxury travel, offer a four-night stay in a Suite Classica from £725 per person on a B&B basis including flights from London Gatwick to Florence. For further information or to book visit www.Destinology.co.uk or call 01204 824619.
Castello di Casole – A Timbers Resort – has been showered with awards, most recently reaching #15 in TIME magazine’s Best 100 Hotels in the world. For more information on Castello di Casole including details of its history, amentities, and residences’ sales and rentals, please visit www.castellodicasole.com.