A medieval Italian village re-emerges as a grand resort that mixes past and present to create something special. It’s worth discovering.
BY ANDREW SESSA — Fall 2017
ne of the wonders I love most about Tuscany — besides the wine, the weather, and the food — is that it’s often hard to tell whether I’m visiting in 2017 or 1217 or somewhere in between. As I walk down the quiet curve of cobblestones in the tiny medieval hilltop town of Castelfalfi, for example, I pass a Romanesque church and a green park with a Victorian-style onion-domed metal gazebo. Continuing, I admire terra-cotta-roofed two- and three-story sand-colored stone buildings, glowing golden in the late-afternoon sun, as they have for eight centuries. Before me rises a towered castle, the eponymous building in the village’s name, bisecting my view of rolling green hills, pine and oak forests, fallow fields, and bright blue skies, all as pristine as any landscape in a Renaissance painting. At the road’s end, I pause and listen. Save for the wind and the faint sounds of shopkeepers and artisans shutting their shops for the night, I hear nothing. Then, a rustling in the brush, a low exhalation of breath. Could it be a wild boar, I wonder — or just a ghost of Tuscany past?
I’m visiting this bit of relatively undiscovered countryside — about halfway between Pisa and Florence — not in the 13th century, of course, but the 21st. Yet the sense of history I find here and the blurring of time periods has not come about by chance. For Castelfalfi isn’t just any town in Tuscany. Over the past decade, the German hospitality group TUI has carefully restored the all-but-abandoned village to its former glory, simultaneously adapting it to modern sensibilities. Today, it stands as a sweeping 2,700-acre resort whose three restaurants; 27 holes of golf; 30 acres of vineyards; 75 miles of hiking, biking, and riding trails; 48 apartments; 43 villas; and two hotels — La Tabaccaia and the 6-month-old, 120-room five-star Il Castelfalfi — beautifully blend past and present.
On my trip over Il Castelfalfi’s opening weekend, I find its seamless combination of preservation and innovation captivating. Despite its status as the first newly built hotel to open in Tuscany in decades, the property looks like it has always been here. Set lightly into the landscape and designed to mimic the area’s low-rise rural structures, the building’s dun-colored plaster walls and gently pitched roof disappear when seen from afar — but from its huge windows and broad terraces, guests can drink in unparalleled valley views. Inside, decorators have selected traditional local materials (linen and leather, stucco and stone, weathered wood) and colors (ecru, burgundy, deep blue). The interiors impress with clean lines, modern conveniences, and accents by Italian design companies — including lamps from Artemide — that make them feel entirely of the moment. Another indication of its 21st-century values: The green-minded resort has already received CasaClima certification for the eco-consciousness of its design and operation.
Two of the village’s restaurants re-spin Italian food in similarly mod ways: At La Rocca, inside the castle, chefs use hyperlocal ingredients to make haute cuisine (left) out of typically humble Tuscan fare, such as the vegetable stew ribollita, while for the fine-dining La Via del Sale, at Il Castelfalfi, they use modernist gastronomy techniques to deconstruct, then reconstruct, standbys including bruschetta and tiramisu. At the casual trattoria and pizzeria Rosmarino, a short walk from Il Castelfalfi, the unadulterated rustic classics impress, too.
The 10,700-square-foot spa also flows from old to new, offering hot and cold hydrotherapy areas like those of ancient Roman baths alongside cutting-edge treatments from the Australian beauty brand Sodashi.
Even the hotel’s bicycles blend eras. The electric-powered e-bikes feature small engines to boost you up those rolling hills. That’s indicative of the sort of careful attention paid to the creative merging of history and modernity throughout Il Castelfalfi — and it’s exactly what makes the place so special. From $343. castelfalfi.com
A New European Hotel Renaissance
Il Castelfalfi feels like the bellwether of a trend sweeping across Europe, as a recently opened Four Seasons and newly refreshed grande dames mine their historic settings to create their futures.