If anyone in history has managed to return from a trip to Italy without gaining five pounds, I commend you. For a land so rich in gastronomic treasures, it would be criminal not to indulge in every morsel. From sumptuous gelato in Florence’s Piazza del Duomo to the buttery sage ravioli at my best friend’s wedding breakfast amongst the vineyards of Chianti, to the best octopus I’ve ever tasted on a quiet terrace overlooking the harbor in Palinuro and the feasts I shall undoubtedly partake in on my tour of the Amalfi coast next summer, Italian cuisine always has and always will have my heart.
For those who aren’t so greedily inclined, I’m sure there are alternative destinations to spend your money and precious annual leave on. If, however, you share my view that a holiday should mostly be spent exploring local towns and sampling as much of the local food and wine as your waistband will allow, then you'll love the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa.
The hotel is a scenic 90-minute drive from Pisa airport along winding valley roads that traverse through sleepy picture-postcard villages peppered with plumes of wood smoke from chimneys.
Less than 50 miles from Pisa, nestled atop a hill overlooking the rolling mists of the Serchio Valley, the resort offers a year-round menu of tantalising options sure to tickle even the most refined taste buds. Situated between the Apuan Alps on one side and the Appennine Alps on the other, it’s a fascinating part of Italy that's begging to be explored and is quite different from the Tuscan landscapes you may be familiar with. While it is possible to reach the area via Italy’s superb train network (the nearest station being around four miles away), hiring a car will allow you to make the most of this area so rich in things to discover.
A room with a breathtaking view
Our balcony overlooked the Serchio Valley, with the ever-changing weather providing a living landscape that you could easily watch all day. A welcome tray of handmade biscotti was gratefully received after our morning’s travels and was hastily consumed with a coffee while taking in the view (the accompanying bottle of local red wine being saved for later), before a swift freshen up before our first excursion.
The amenities at Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa
Built in 1956 and renovated in 2011, the resort features 180 rooms, a wellness centre, two restaurants, a spa and a new outdoor pool. With views from its balconied rooms stretching out for miles across the valley to the snow-tinged peaks beyond, it’s easy to see why the hotel is so popular. While many visit Tuscany during the summer months, it's during the low season that the area really comes into its own, thanks to the natural beauty of the changing seasons and the rich culinary treats they bring.
A holiday fit for foodies
The hotel has an ongoing seasonal programme of activities designed to give guests a behind-the-scenes view of culinary delights, including tasting sessions with the local vintner, shopping at the local markets and a private cookery class led by the head chef.
I visited in mid-November, which proved the perfect time for a long weekend of autumnal feasting, spent eating our way through traditional Tuscan dishes and turning a hand in the kitchen to learn how to prepare Italian delicacies.
For the love of mushrooms
The region produces some of the most exquisite porcini mushrooms and chestnuts in Italy and with the right conditions, it’s possible to spend a morning foraging in the local woodlands just yards from the hotel, for some of the most sought after culinary delights of the region, not to mention an essential part of autumnal Italian cooking given their presence in so many traditional recipes.
For the love of the wine - Podere Concori Winery, Tuscany
Down in the valley less than two miles from the resort lies the Podere Concori winery, where owner Gabriele da Prato farms nine hectares of vineyards by hand, with the help of a small team of family and friends. A tour of the land shows the work that goes in to every one of the 12-15,000 bottles that are produced each year, with three varieties of red and one white that are sold across the country to bars and restaurants as well as direct to the consumer. With the youngest vines just 15 years old, the land was previously used to grow vegetables for what was previously the on-site restaurant, before Gabriele changed it to a vineyard and began farming biodynamically (to create different harvests at different times of the year in accordance with the cycles of the moon). Guests who visit in September can partake in the harvest, stomping the grapes beneath bare feet, though be warned; only ladies are allowed as they are deemed 'more delicate of step' than the gentlemen.
The views were stunning, and after a tour of the vineyard, we settled down to a delicious lunch, handmade by Gabriele’s wife in their farmhouse kitchen. Local charcuterie, cheeses and Tuscan antipasti were followed by a wholesome bowl of tomato-drenched pasta, with each course accompanied by their award-winning wines. Different regions of the vineyard lend their qualities to each variety, with distinct flavours paired perfectly with the dishes presented us. Fear not, if travelling with hand luggage only, you can have wine shipped home for an additional fee.
The spa at Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa
Post-lunch retiring to the wellness centre was really the only option. An afternoon spent drifting between pool, sauna, steam room and lounger is always one well spent and given the addition of the relaxation lounge, with tea always at hand and a valley view with the Alps in the distance, it was difficult to tear ourselves away. The beauty spa has 12 cabins for treatments, including the Suite Cabin for those wishing to indulge in a couple, a private Turkish steam bath, jacuzzi suite and pedicure room. With a menu of treatments from indulgent massages to private hammams and mud wraps, a winter visit need not be spent yearning for the outdoor pool and sunshine; it’s perfectly possible to while away the afternoon in the spa.
The cuisine at La Verandah restaurant at Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa
Of course, dinner is always going to be big news at such a food-focused resort and with the menu at La Verandah rich in Tuscan favourites and local dishes cooked to perfection, you’ll be hard pressed not to order three courses. Night one and our choices included a rich and creamy ricotta cheese and truffle timbale with pecorino fondue and a melt-in-the-mouth marinated beef carpaccio served with artichoke salad and a crispy Parmesan basket. A tender braised leg of duck with orange sauce was served with rosemary roast potatoes and the T-Bone steak, while not for the fainthearted, was a deliciously juicy cut that was met with much satisfaction. The local cheeses presented for dessert, a mix of cow, sheep and goat, were heavenly, accompanied with chutney and honey and washed down with a very pleasant bottle of the Maremma Toscana Rosso from the organic Capalbio Fattoria vineyard.
The next morning after we rose to a fine mist blanketing the valley, we headed down for breakfast, a classic continental buffet with the added option of ordering a la carte; I can concur that both the pancakes and Il Ciocco’s eggs benedict are delicious, though with such a food-filled day ahead, it would have been wise to tread lightly where breakfast was concerned.
Italian cookery lessons at Renaissance Tuscany II Ciocco Resort & Spa
If you’ve ever dreamt of learning real Italian cooking from a real Italian chef in a real Italian kitchen, Il Ciocco’s culinary experiences are not to be missed. With options ranging from a cooking lesson and tasting to a full day with the chef, shopping for your own ingredients and creating a personalised menu, it's hard to beat when it comes to hands-on experience. If you’re lucky enough to stay at the hotel on a Wednesday or Thursday, you can enjoy a trip to the local market in Barga, a quaint medieval village a few miles from the resort, where the chef will join you to handpick the ingredients for your own personal feast.
Though we stayed on a Monday, we took the ride down the hill with chef Stefano where we visited the local alimentari or grocer, something of an institution and run by the same family for some 104 years. Despite it being barely 10am, the owner Agostino poured glasses of red to accompany the wafer-thin slivers of prosciutto and hunks of sheep’s cheese he presented us, as Stefano ordered a bag of chestnut flour for the pasta we would turn our hands to making that afternoon. A visit to the butcher for the beef and all ingredients were in hand, ready for an afternoon in the kitchen. Had it not been pouring with rain, a morning of exploring Barga’s cobbled lanes would have beckoned, given that it is an immaculate village of small piazzas, ageless shops and galleries, narrow streets and historic monuments, untouched by mass tourism and blessed with an impressive duomo, as well as the internationally famous Caffe Capretz.
What followed was our one-to-one cooking class with Stefano in the hotel’s kitchen, where we learnt some secrets of traditional Italian cooking and created three classic dishes that would later become our dinner.
The menu comprised homemade macaroni - made with the heady chestnut flour we picked up earlier - served with a ragu sauce, followed by a beef and olive stew served with polenta and finally, a booze-laced creamy ricotta and chocolate dessert. Despite being a novice pasta maker, the result was surprisingly edible and while we didn’t quite turn our hands to the crispy Parmesan bowls our dinner would be served in, we did witness the other chefs having a practice session on how to create them.
Being a keen baker, I enjoyed making the dessert the most, as I moulded pastry into its cup and piped in a deliciously decadent (not that we tried it…) mixture of ricotta, eggs, chocolate chips and a fairly potent liqueur. The whole experience was accompanied by samples of local wines and a tasting plate of homemade bruschetta, salami and cheese, ensuring our hunger was sated while the cooking took place, before our creations were presented to us later that evening, although I do suspect with a few additional tweaks from Stefano. Waddling back upstairs to exchange jeans for elasticated pyjamas and enjoy a post-prandial lie down, I was thankful that our room was mere metres away.
Travelling further afield - A day trip to Treppignana
Our final morning in Tuscany dawned bright, crisp and clear, the perfect opportunity to head out on one of one of the walks suggested by the hotel, a return trip to the nearby hilltop village of Treppignana. Deserted woodland paths gave way to roads surrounded by meadows with utterly sublime views of snowy alpine mountaintops in the distance. We passed but one other soul on our journey, a gentleman pruning his roadside olive trees, and even upon arrival in Treppignana we were met with an eerie stillness, a village totally silent with not a soul in sight, but a panorama that was worth the climb.
One final luscious luncheon in front of the log fire in the Nour Lounge, overlooking the sun-drenched, and it was time to say our goodbyes. After three days of feasting on the finest Tuscan treats it’s no surprise we were sad to leave. The Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco may be a buzzing holiday hub in the summer months, but these quieter seasons are the time to visit for an almost private encounter, an opportunity to relax your soul, revive your mind and indulge your taste buds without disturbance. The perfect place to create your own epicurean adventure.
Room prices start at €102 per night with room packages starting from €143. Culinary experiences start from €160 per person.
Via Giovanni Pascoli
55051 Barga LU
*During my visit I was hosted by the lovely team at Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa. All views are my own.
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We’ve all heard about places in the world which have been victims of their own success - over development, pollution and pickpockets are just some of the things that seem to come hand in hand with popularity. When I was younger, it wouldn’t have been enough to put me off, but with age has come discernment, and probably more than a healthy dose of jadedness. Was Rome always this oppressively crowded? Was there ever a time when people could actually just admire a monument without having to whisk out a selfie stick (and in doing so, take out the eyes of any hapless bystanders)? Was the food on offer near the larger attractions always so overpriced - and so average?
Rome was the first European city I ever explored, and I can’t imagine that I’ll ever regard it as anything other than alluring and magical. I still want to see everything there -The Pantheon, The Colosseum, La Bocca della Verità - as much as I wanted to the first time around. But I don’t want to do it non-stop from morning until night - I want to relax on my travels! And the problem with many of the hotels in the centre of Rome is that they don’t really offer much of a respite or any sense of place - call me demanding but I still want to feel like I’m in Rome, even when I’m not marvelling at an ancient monument.
So, the Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria resort, is nothing short of a revelation - what it lacks in absolute centrality it makes up for - decadently - in amenities and view. Set high upon one of Rome’s Seven Hills, the city is laid out before you in a jumble of rooftops, domes and spires, with St Peter’s and the Vittorio Emanuele II monument clearly discernible. And, for when you’re ready to head back out and face the madding crowds again, the hotel runs a complimentary shuttle bus with regular service to and from the city centre.
Activities at Rome Cavalieri
Art is unquestionably a huge part of what draws people to Rome; there are incomparable masterpieces housed here. But neither can it be denied that their appeal palls somewhat when you’re caught in shuffling tides of people blocking your view as they angle iPhones and selfie-sticks (are they even seeing the painting?!). Staying at the Cavalieri, however, makes you feel like you’re staying in a gallery, albeit a languidly-paced and tour-group-free one, with a collection of over 1,000 pieces spanning centuries, from the Beauvais tapestries in the lobby, to original Warhols in the penthouse and a series of works from 18th century Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, you can either browse completely on your own or plug in to an iPod tour. Alternatively, the hotel’s resident Art Historian can take you through the collection.
The Spa & Pools
The Cavalieri has a magnificently luxurious spa, offering a range of wellness and relaxation treatments so blissfully efficacious that you’ll feel as if you’re hundreds of, rather than four, miles removed from tourist throngs. There’s also a state of the art gym with high-tech workout equipment, and a variety of classes for those who prefer to exercise with guidance. But for me, when the temperatures are searing outside, there’s no better place to be than beside one of the hotel’s four swimming pools. Forget sitting bolt upright at an outdoor table of a bustling cafe to get your people watching fix - here, between refreshing dips, you can recline on a sun lounger and observe from behind your sunglasses - all while being served snacks and cocktails by smilingly attentive staff.
Where to eat
A trip to Italy requires sampling some of the culinary delights for which the country is famed but, as is often the case in such enduringly popular destinations, there’s a lot of sub-standard (yet overpriced) food to be found. Even if this weren’t the case, the Cavalieri offers plenty of incentive to dine at L’Uliveto restaurant, where the focus is on authentic flavours and seasonal produce, with a range of fish, meats, pastas and risottos on the menu.
For getting a more authentic feel of how and where locals eat, book with The Roman Food Tour, who will take you on a walking tour to some of the best salumerias, pasticcerias, markets and pizzerias in a residential neighbourhood, offering you the chance to not only stuff yourself silly, but to do so on quality food about which you’ll learn loads in the process. Dietary requirements? Just let them know in advance.
As a gluten-avoider, I thought I’d be glumly sipping a coffee at the pasticceria but our guide had me covered; likewise at Bonci Pizzarium, where creations by Gabriele Bonci - otherwise known as ‘the Michelangelo of Pizza’ - creates his masterpieces with the finest and freshest ingredients (never more than three per topping; any more will destroy the balance of flavours of colours) to be sold ‘al taglio’ (by the slice).
Another unforgettable dining experience awaits you back at the hotel, which is home to La Pergola, Rome’s only Michelin three-star establishment. Book well in advance if you want to dine here: not only will your senses be dazzled by the view over the city, but by the culinary creations of head chef Heinz Beck, whose attention to detail in the presentation of ingredients and combination of flavours falls nothing short of genius. The wine list is tome-like, but head sommelier Marco Reitano is both charming and informative.
Choices abound even for those eschewing alcohol: there’s a water menu with H2O from around the globe, complete with information about the properties of each. Some salt with your meal? Allow the waiter to talk you through the rainbow of choices on his tray - there’s Hawaiian Black, Australian Pink or Peruvian Blue, to name just a few. And in a final magic twist, you’ll discover that you’re not, as you thought you were, far too stuffed to take another mouthful but that you can, in fact, find room for one (or some) of the chocolates and truffles that appear on your table in a tall, silver many-drawered chest.
Rome if you want to - but I can’t imagine doing it any way better than this.
As I boarded the plane for my flight to Pisa on the way to the stunning Castello del Nero, in Chianti, I couldn't help but reminisce about the last time I was in Tuscany, which was for my wedding at Villa Nozzole (near Greve in Chianti) nearly four years ago.
For those who haven’t had the fortune of visiting Tuscany, I’d definitely put it on your bucket list of ‘must-visit’ destinations. Boasting rich cultural heritage, verdant rolling hills, the infamous Tuscan sun and the remarkably delicious cuisine (and not to mention, world-class wines), all of these factors combined make it the ideal destination for culture vultures and foodies alike. Add to this a generous helping of Tuscan hospitality, and you have all the essential ingredients for a truly memorable holiday.
Castello del Nero is everything you’d hope for in a ‘wow-factor’ accommodation – and then some. I’m now a firm believer that all rooms should come with frescoes as standard. Let’s just say the bar has been seriously raised.
The 5-star deluxe hotel (the first of its kind in Tuscany upon its opening 10 years ago) has 50 luxurious rooms (comprised of 18 lavish suites), two restaurants (La Taverna and 1-Michelin star restaurant La Torre), a bar, a 20 metre outdoor swimming pool, a 1,000 sq metre ESPA spa, a private chapel from the 1700s, and two tranquil lakes, giving one everything they need for a bit of R&R.
Up until 1986 the hotel was a private residence for the Torrigiani family. Rumour has it that the beautiful Cyprus trees that surround the property were planted by Mrs Torrigiani, who didn’t want the servants to see her when she visited her vegetable garden.
The hotel has been sensitively refurbished, ensuring that each room at Castello del Nero is unique, while retaining its natural character. Vaulted ceilings, frescoes and original fireplaces feature throughout the accommodation.
My favourite room in the property was Room 122, which featured Dutch blue and white floral décor, a small sitting room with views of the countryside and a gorgeous bedroom, which is entered via a striking arched doorway.
No trip to Castello del Nero is complete without experiencing its restaurant offering. Whether you enjoy a casual, poolside lunch at La Taverno or a more formal dining affair at 1 Michelin Star La Torre, you won’t be disappointed. The service is impeccable and the authentic cuisine prepared by Executive Chef Giovanni Luca Di Pirro is divine. If you’re just looking for a bog-standard meal, then this isn’t your place, but if you’re looking for a sensational gastronomic experience, then you might want to stay a bit longer...
The wine cellar
One of the highlights of my visit was enjoying a wine tasting in the wine cellar with their friendly and highly skilled sommelier, Roberto. Up to eight guests can enjoy a tasting at the tasting table, which is a real treat and a unique experience that’s both educational and enjoyable.
During the tasting, we learned a wealth of information about Tuscan wines as we tasted several grape varietals, which we enjoyed with a selection of meats and cheeses. While the Chianti Classico, the region’s most famous wine, was great, my favourite wine was the Tignanello, a Super Tuscan wine that’s been produced in the area since 1952. Comprised of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Cabernet Franc, the Tignanello is a complex wine with balsamic vinaigrette flavours. Other wines that are worth checking out include Sangiovese (of which there are 600 varieties in Tuscany) and the Brunello di Montalcino, a rich, ripe wine with jammy flavours, which has a strong maritime influence thanks to the sea, which is only 1.5 hours away.
The largest spa in Tuscany, the ESPA spa is a great place to unwind during your stay. The spa includes a vitality pool and relaxation areas to ensure a restful experience. The staff were incredibly friendly and committed to ensuring that you have an enjoyable experience. During my visit, I enjoyed the Signature Spa Treatment that they had created for the 10th anniversary, a 75-minute treatment, which included a welcome foot ritual, a back scrub with Castello del Nero’s olive oil and a head massage.
If you're feeling really lazy, you can simply flop on a wooden sun lounger by the pool with a good book and an Aperol Spritz, in true Italian style, as I did and would highly recommend. In fact, one of my favourite memories was simply gazing over the vineyards in awe of the natural beauty of the landscape. As I took it all in, I thought to myself ‘If I were a grape, I’d be very happy indeed in these conditions!’.
The Italian Garden
Gardening enthusiasts will fall in love with the perfectly manicured Italian gardens, with a handful of bistro tables scattered throughout. I felt exceptionally relaxed sitting in the garden and feeling the sun on my face, showing that it really is the simplest pleasures that can make all the difference.
Activities one can partake in during their visit (for an additional cost) include bicycle rides, horse trekking, hot air balloon rides, truffle hunting, wine tasting in the wine cellar and spa treatments at the ESPA spa. For those who want to try their hand at Italian cuisine, you can also join a pasta making class, which was jolly good fun, despite me being a hopeless pasta chef. Although I love pasta, my experience is generally in eating it, not making it, so I was excited to get stuck in making ravioli, tagliatelle and my personal favourite, tortellini.
To ensure no one rested on their laurels, we were quickly put to work assisting with stirring the Bolognese sauce (made with chicken stock, celery, carrots and onions – who knew?) and cutting the pasta. The chef was sensible enough not to give us free reign with the pasta machine, which looked like a giant and slightly dangerous looking toaster, which you feed the dough through to press it into a long, thin sheet. I was assured that I wouldn’t lose any fingers in the process, but nonetheless I entrusted this step of the process with my fellow pasta makers.
Day trips from Castello del Nero
For those wishing to venture further afield, Castello del Nero provides its guests with a complimentary shuttle service for day trips to a variety locations including San Gimignano, famous for its towers on the hills and gorgeous vistas, and the equally fabulous cities of Florence and Pisa, which are also easily within reach. There is also the option to hire a vintage Fiat 500 (similar to the Castello del Nero branded 1971 model that guests will notice sitting outside of the hotel), for those who want a more authentic driving experience.
After a long weekend at Castello del Nero, I felt totally relaxed, which is testament to the transformative powers of a bit of sun, sensational cuisine and being immersed in stunning natural surroundings, all while indulging in a slower pace of life. I believe I’ve found the perfect tonic for a peaceful existence.
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