As my fifth visit to Tuscany in two years I think it’s fair to say I’m a pretty big fan of the Italian countryside. The beautiful mountains, delicious, fresh cuisine and the friendly locals; it reminds me of a better (and hotter) version of the UK. Just a short flight from Ibiza, we flew into Pisa excited at the prospect of relaxing an gaining around four stone in pizza and pasta weight. Collecting our hire car (a MUST in Tuscany as everything is so spread out and rural), we drove two hours through the lush green countryside to our luxury spa hotel; Castel Monastero in Castelnuovo Berardenga. Once serving as an 11th century monastery, the walled hamlet sits atop a selection of mountains overlooking the beautiful rolling fields and forestry below.
Although the weather was chilly and the sky full of cloud, the week progressed into fierce sunshine and light breezes making it ideal sunbathing conditions next to the hotel’s infinity pools. Sprawled over a vast site, there’s no shortage of hidden coves and secret hideaways to recline with a glass of wine in the evening sun.
Making our way through the courtyard of Castel Monastero to our Prestige room, it’s easy to forget you’re walking the halls of a hotel as the personal touches and modern art adorning the corridor walls quickly make you feel at home. Contemporary furniture and comfortable soft furnishings lend an air of sophistication that wouldn’t be out of place in a London gentleman’s club. Romantic accents and classical wall murals ensure your reminded of your surroundings in the most grown-up fashion.
Home to not one, but two house restaurants and a more notable collaboration with Gordon Ramsay on their third, Castel Monastero knows how to do traditional Tuscan cuisine, and knows how to do it well.
For the more informal choice of eatery, La Cantina is set deep within the original wine cellars of the hotel. With soft lighting and authentic features throughout, the restaurant boasts a laid-back atmosphere and discreet romanticism. The menu combines seasonal countryside catches with more elegant and modern dishes of seafood stew, grilled Sea Bream and homemade pasta. As you’d expect from the historic connotations, the wine list is second to none, in particular a 2012 Chianti led to a particular memorable headache the next day!
But in terms of fine dining, we saved the best til last at Castel Monastero. Gordon Ramsay’s influence over Contrada is evident not only in the exceptional service but in the precision of flavours, daring menu and simple ingredients done really, really well. Starting with prawn ravioli with diced courgette and thyme volute, it was a starter that makes you sad when it’s over. A clash of explosive flavours and smooth texture, the pasta is light and thin making it the ideal first course. As September is the month of the seasonal mushroom, the second course of chicken breast with a mushroom accompaniment was the perfect choice. Although a tasting menu is an impressive option, choosing the A La Carte gives you a better selection, includes just as many courses (after the palette-cleansers and ‘gifts’ from the chef) for a slightly cheaper price.
If you’re worried about your waistline after such an epic display of cuisine, fear not because Castel Monastero is as well known for their spa facilities as they are for their menu’s. Just a stone’s throw from the hamlet, you can try out the extraordinary Slimming, Detox and Anti Age treatments of Prof. Giorgio Calabrese, the renowned Italian nutrition expert and international promoter of the Mediterranean diet. Although the spa facilities are an additional 40 euros per person to use, they are worth every cent. If your weight loss goals can’t wait until you get home, take a 15 minute soak in the spa’s magnesium pool, designed to melt fat and firm the skin.
But you don’t have to have an end result in mind as the spa’s beautiful whirlpool jacuzzi complete with waterfalls, steam room and sauna is the perfect place to relax, unwind and spend a rainy Tuscan day.