Room Service: Castel Monastero, Tuscany
The 11th-century monastery is now a fabulous hotel that provides splendid solitude fit for a monk, says Brian Viner.
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Friday 24 August 2012
They were unveiling a shiny new Lancia when my wife and I stayed at Castel Monastero in the Tuscan countryside near Siena. Even though the 11th-century monastery is now a fabulous hotel, it felt slightly discordant to see it staging such a genuflection to modern materialism as a car launch. A walled medieval hamlet, quintessentially Tuscan and almost tear-jerkingly photogenic, Castel Monastero is surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and by rights should still be full of cowled friars, rather than sleek Lancia executives and "Fine Dining con Gordon Ramsay".
Yes, the ubiquitous Gordon has his corporate cleaver well and truly embedded, though he visits only a couple of times a year. We ate in "his" Contrada restaurant, and very plush it was too, although memorable to us for a loudly disgruntled Australian who complained 23 times (we counted) over a fruit platter, a vegan option for his wife, saying: "I could have done this at home."
Anyway, we much preferred the Cantina, which offers less formal dining in a vast vaulted cellar where the monks used to store their wine. It would have been atmospheric even without the huge refectory tables, illuminated by candlelight. With them, it was a vague surprise not to be served by Professor Dumbledore.
A further surprise is that this distinctive collection of buildings wasn't converted into a hotel until 2009. Before that the estate belonged to a celebrated Tuscan winemaker, Lionello Marchesi. But for 900 years it was owned by the aristocratic Chigi family, who produced a couple of popes and whose family home in Rome, the Palazzo Chigi, is still the official residence of the Italian Prime Minister. Men of wealth and influence strode across this splendid central piazza even before the arrival of Gordon Ramsay.
But Gordon is not the only famous name attached to Castel Monastero. The hotel has also signed up Dr Mosaraf Ali to oversee the sumptuous spa, enabling it to trade on Dr Ali's reputation for combining traditional Indian and Western medicine to achieve great and profound things, such as getting the Duchess of Cornwall to give up smoking. Reintegration of mind, body and spirit is Dr Ali's credo, which would doubtless have pleased the original monks, who built the place even if they might've baulked at the cost.
I dare say they would also have approved of the rigorous marma massage I was given by a wiry little therapist called Roberta. She was trying to promote good blood flow by stimulating my marma points (the 107 neuro-muscular junctions where veins, arteries, tendons, bones and joints meet). Whatever, Dr Ali's methods have had widespread celebrity endorsement, not least from Morgan Freeman, who goes to Castel Monastero for treatment to the nerve damage he sustained in a car accident four years ago. And, doubtless, for the food, wine and tranquillity too.
Castel Monastero stands on a hilltop about 15 miles south-east of Siena, appealingly off the beaten track but close enough to the main road to Arezzo. Like practically everything else in this lovely region of gently rolling hills, the cypress-lined main road itself could illustrate the front of a tourist brochure – or could but for one regrettable feature: the women standing at the roadside every 200 yards or so were not, in fact, hitch-hikers. The hotel's charming manager clapped a hand to his forehead when I mentioned it; he has written to the council more times than the Australian guest moaned about his wife's starter.
The manager cheered up, however, when talking about Siena, which he said, "was built to celebrate the majesty of God ... whereas Florence was built to show off". Castel Monastero is well placed for trips in and out of one of Italy's most unspoilt medieval cities and the hotel even has its own apartment overlooking Siena's Piazza del Campo, complete with balcony for the best-possible view of Il Palio, the horse race held there twice every summer.
The 75 bedrooms are mainly around the piazza, though we stayed in a simply but lovingly furnished suite in a converted stable. We used the two bottles of free local wine to toast the donkeys who'd lived there before us in an age that was not entirely donkey-friendly. (The Florentines, during their regular sieges of Siena, used to catapult them over the walls.) There were Molton Brown products in the bathroom, and every modern convenience, including free Wi-Fi, a huge wall-mounted televisions in bedroom and sitting room, and a proper fridge.
The service was impeccable and there was a swimming pool and floodlit tennis court if we needed them, but being so busy reintegrating mind, body and spirit, we didn't.
Castel Monastero, Monastero d'Ombrone, Siena, Tuscany, Italy (00 39 0577 570570; castelmonastero.com).
B&B from €385. BA (0844 493 0758; ba.com/pisa) offers seven-night fly-drives in Tuscany from £159pp, with Heathrow flights.
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