Tuscany has, and always will be, one of my favourite corners of the world. The region breathes romance and serenity with its undulating hills, vineyards and cypress-lined olive groves, and picturesque sun-soaked vistas. It's no wonder tourists and locals alike have a love affair with the area, or why thousands of Brits chose to say "I do" in Italy every year. In the heart of the Chianti wine region lies Castello del Nero Hotel and Spa, a five-star luxury retreat from where you can truly lap up la dolce vita, and where I recently had the pleasure of spending the weekend.
Located a mere 30-minute drive away from Florence and Siena, the property, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, is the ideal base from which to explore Tuscany, and get that real, authentic local experience. San Gimignano, perhaps not as frequented as much as its big sisters Pisa, Lucca, Florence and Siena, is a quick 20-minute ride away. The historical town is studded with 14 imperious towers and has been dubbed the 'Medieval Manhattan'; it's the epitome of charm with its narrow, windy streets, convivial plazas, rustic houses and small boutiques.
You can't miss Gelateria Dondoli, one of the gems on the main square that's packed with tourists and locals ordering at least three scoops of artisanal gelato. The gelateria is run by local Sergio Dondoli, who's made a name for himself on Italian TV thanks to some of his kooky, award-winning flavours including raspberry and rosemary, gorgonzola and nuts, and prosecco and grapefruit. Mr Dondoli has also recently opened a gelato-making school just down the road for the real aficionados.
A day trip to San Gimignano is easy to arrange. Meanwhile, the hotel's complimentary shuttle can take guests to Florence and Siena. The tourist favourites are both half an hour's drive from the hotel and well worth a visit for the art galleries, museums, cathedrals and squares. And when you're done exploring the area and manoeuvring the crowds, retreating back to Castello del Nero and making the most of its facilities is just as appealing.
The castle-converted-hotel was built in the 12th century and used to be owned by the noble Florentine family, Del Nero. The hotel is now home to 50 opulent suites and bedrooms, which strike the perfect balance between offering modern facilities and maintaining period features. The grandeur of the past can still be felt through the family crests, majestic frescoes and vaulted ceilings that adorn many of the rooms. One suite has a walk-in wardrobe in what used to be the castle's tower, while another, the Royal Galway Suite, has its own private 50 sq m terrace - perfect for stargazing!
Each room has its own charm, decor and personality, not to mention that quintessential Tuscan view. The hotel's prime hilltop location means guests are spoilt for panoramic vistas of the 740 acres of rolling hills, vineyards, olive groves, woodlands and lakes that comprise the estate. The grounds, home to wild boar, pheasants and deer, seem to stretch on and on as far as the eye can see. With so much space to play with, it's no wonder the hotel has created kilometres of criss-cross trails for running, hiking, walking and cycling. Guests are free to explore the expansive lands, or stay closer to the main castle and enjoy a spot of tennis in the tennis courts. There's also a state-of-the-art gym for the gym bunnies, and an inviting, extremely Instagrammable, outdoor swimming pool for the sun-seekers.
Located adjacent to the pool is Castello del Nero's pièce de résistance - their destination ESPA spa. The spa is the largest ESPA centre in Italy and complimentary access is provided depending on your room booking. But if not, it's well worth paying the daily entry fee and making use of the facilities. The destination spa is reason enough to visit the hotel, and some locals do as day guests. The outdoor vitality pool, complete with hydrotherapy points, is the perfect place to rid your body of aches and pains. The spa also boasts an invigorating tropical rain shower, a sauna and steam room, an aromatic Turkish room, a relaxation room and a refreshing ice fountain. Treatments include rebalancing mindful massages, soothing sleep rituals, cutting-edge facials and body therapies, some of which make use of the hotel's homemade extra virgin olive oil.
As well as the spa, guests will also be drawn to the two local restaurants on site, La Taverna, which is moved to the pool area in the summer, and the Michelin-starred La Torre Gourmand Restaurant. On the first night, we had dinner at La Taverna, which treats guests to a very traditional Tuscan experience. Using locally-grown, organic produce, the menu includes wild boar from the estate; pici pasta with duck ragu; and succulent steak, which, following the local way, should be drizzled with olive oil, pepper and salt.
The poolside restaurant is perfect for a relaxed, alfresco meal, but if you're looking to celebrate a special occasion, a night at La Torre is a must. Spearheaded by executive chef Giovanni Luca Di Pirro, the restaurant prides itself on offering the ultimate, gastronomic experience. The new eight-course tasting menu includes octopus, turbot, scampi and scallops and ends with pastries delivered in a wooden jewellery box. But the meal isn't over then. A waiter wheels over, first, a mouthwatering chocolate trolley displayed with truffles and sweet treats, followed by a colourful macaroon trolley, offering all the flavours under the Tuscan sun.
Foodies, in particular, can continue their gastronomic stay at Castello del Nero by taking part in a cookery class with master chef, Mr Di Pirro. The 'All About Pasta' class is unforgivably Italian and includes lunch after a workshop. For the oenophiles, a trip down to the hotel's original 12th century cellar is a must. A refined and intimate wine tasting session with the resident sommelier can be organised for small groups, who will have a choice of no fewer than 1,100 labels to taste from. You can't leave without trying the Chianti Classico, a favourite in the region.
Plans are currently underway to refurbish six medieval villas also located on the hotel's estate, to rent them out to holidaymakers. There's also talk of restoring the 740 acres of land for agricultural production; the hotel already produces its own wine and olive oil, but are looking to expand their opportunities further. It's no doubt an exciting time for Castello del Nero… We'll just have to come back to see the progress.
For more information visit castellodelnero.com/en.