Secret Hotels of Tuscany
A few years back--before Tuscany was the setting for all those books and movies, before the dollar dropped in value--you would have paid a lot less to visit. But you know what? Even at today's rates, staying in a medieval castle or cozy family farmhouse is absolutely worth every shiny euro.
A long way from the main roads in Chianti wine country, the refined retreat of Cosimo Gericke and Sveva Rocco di Torrepadula has two old guesthouses. The Fattoria, enlarged in the 18th century, is based on a structure more than 1,000 years old. It contains seven rooms with rustic furnishings and sloping brick ceilings laced with wooden beams. The rooms lack TVs, telephones, and A/C, though there is a common area with a stone fireplace that has satellite television and a modem hookup. The other guest building is the two-floor Villa Stella: eight rooms with plank floors and frescoes that are available on a nightly basis only in April, May, September, and October. (At other times of year, you must rent an entire floor by the week as a single unit--four rooms, each with its own bathroom, with a common kitchen and fireplace.) The Villa is open year-round, the Fattoria from late March to mid-November. There is a horizon pool amid the olive trees, with views of the rolling hills. The restaurant, in another cluster of farm buildings and under separate management, has tables on a patio and serves traditional Tuscan fare, including wide papardelle pasta with wild boar sauce, and delectable involtini (thin veal slices wrapped around cheese and prosciutto) stewed with zucchini disks. Doubles in the Fattoria $109--$122, with breakfast; Villa doubles $154, with breakfast; four-room apartment $3,846 per week. Near Greve in Chianti, 011-39/055-852-065, rignana.it.
Roberto Melosi left a promising hotel career at London's Savoy to become chef and host of an agriturismo--an inn on a working farm in Italy. His Paris-born wife, Marie-Sylvie Haniez, who had owned a modern art gallery in Florence, decided the only proper way to run an agriturismo was to share communal dinners with their guests in the French table d'hôte style. Together, they manage a restored 16th-century farmhouse, which has seven country-comfy rooms furnished with a hodgepodge of painted metal bedsteads, carved wood vanities, and worn terra-cotta floors. Credit for the vineyard's light, organic Chianti Classico goes to Marie-Sylvie's adult son, Pier Francesco, who gave up dirt bike racing to study viticulture and enology at the University of Florence. Wine obviously means a lot to the family: Vineyards encircle the house, and each guest room is named for a local grape. Malvasia, Trebbiano, Vernaccia, and Ciliegiolo are all on the east side of the house, which has the best vineyard views. In summer, guests enjoy that same view from the patio during three-hour family-style dinners that may include lasagne, steaks, and stuffed tomatoes. Roberto and Marie-Sylvie sit at either end of the long wooden table and do their best to keep the conversation lively, in multiple languages if necessary. On cooler days, dinner moves inside to a common room, where copper pots dangle from thick wood beams and the stone walls are decorated with oil paintings, ceramics, and Marie-Sylvie's collection of sun icons. The room's seven-foot fireplace, which dates back to the 14th century, is surrounded by armchairs and a sofa that Athena (Roberto and Marie-Sylvie's miniature schnauzer) is happy to share. In the spring of 2004, Podere Terreno's simple operation got a bit swankier, inaugurating a wine-tasting cantina and a tiny spa with a Jacuzzi and massage table. Doubles $231, with breakfast and dinner. Near Radda in Chianti, 011-39/0577-738-312, podereterreno.it.
Castello Ripa d'Orcia
Once you settle into a cavernous room in this medieval castle village three miles down a curving, bumpy dirt lane, the only contact with the outside world is the pay phone in the restaurant. Accommodations are gorgeous in an antique, minimalist sort of way: very rustic, with massive ceiling beams, thrilling countryside views, and no TVs to disturb the calm--just birdsong in the mornings and the chirping of cicadas on hot summer afternoons. There's a long, narrow garden with a fountain and sunning chairs, battlements once patrolled by soldiers (now guarded by flowerpots) that make for a nice stroll, and an old granary lined with books, gaming tables, and a fireplace for guests. The owner, Countess Laura Aluffi Pentini, is part of the Piccolomini family. They're a well-known clan in these parts: Several Renaissance popes came from the family, and the Piccolominis have owned the property since 1483 (the castle itself dates back to 1218). The Countess lives in the castle, but is only guaranteed to be around during check-in time (2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.), which adds to the feeling that, in passing through the tower gate, you've stepped out of the modern world and its frenetic pace. Doubles $147--$180, with breakfast, two-night minimum, open mid-March--October. About five miles south of San Quírico d'Orcia, 011-39/0577-897-376, castelloripadorcia.com.