Derek contributed the following item to the Mail on Sunday, 22nd February 2008:
There are many countries in the world that hold a special charm all year round and Italy is one of those places. I wanted a winter break and asked a very well-connected friend where I might go. Within days she had me on a plane bound for Pisa and arranged my transfer to the hotel Le Case del Borgo in the heart of Chianti country.
According to our national treasure, the author and playwright Sir John Mortimer, Chiantishire ‘is heaven on Earth’. I was certainly not disappointed.
When I arrived, my breath was taken away by the autumnal colours of the leaves on the trees and the gentle rolling hills of the countryside. The colours are as striking as the rainbow. Is all not well in the world? Near the historic and unimaginably beautiful city of Siena, Le Case del Borgo is perched high on a hill in the village of Duddova. It has panoramic views over the Ambra valley, looking still and quiet.
Does much ever happen here, was my first thought, other than farmers gently tilling the land? This is a place of real tranquillity.
The heat of the midday sun lured me into a walk around the 30-acre estate. Guests stay in 14 Tuscan houses of varying sizes dotted around the manicured and well-arranged landscape. The houses have small windows and steeply sloped terracotta roofs, typical of Tuscan architecture. They are individually decorated, so no two houses are the same. But all have a rustic appeal that is charming in its simplicity. They also all have the latest state-of-the-art plasma flat-screen TV. My own house had terracotta tiles on the floors and crushed raspberry and olive colours on the walls. It did not take me long to feel at home here. But the best was yet to come…
Le Case del Borgo is less like a hotel and more like a home. The staff have deliberately cultivated this atmosphere, but the real inspiration behind it is effervescent hotel director Milena Anselmi. Her reason for having miniature houses around the estate is to give guests autonomy and privacy.
The main building houses the reception, the main kitchen, dining room and spa. You can choose to dine in the dining room but each house has a fully equipped kitchen and you can have a ‘Tuscan Mamma’ and butler prepare your meals there each night.
The hotel prides itself on its ‘Tuscan Mammas’, ladies who live locally and cook the most exquisite food. Each ‘Mamma’ has a signature dish – one might specialise in making pasta, while another does game or risotto. But they all cook as well as Rick Stein, and with his passion, every day of the week. Every meal was simply mouthwatering, and all washed down with delicious wines from the wellstocked cellar.
The informal nature of the place is heaven. I strolled in my bathrobe into the kitchen, helped myself to some freshly squeezed orange juice and chatted to Mamma Stefania about what I wanted for dinner later that evening. Where else in the world have you done that?
Another feature, again peculiar to Case del Borgo, is that it allows couples to book the spa for themselves, meaning they can enjoy treatments and the steam room all on their own. The rooms are spacious and the spa opens out on to the enormous swimming pool overlooking the mouth of the valley. To unwind, I had a massage and was momentarily transported into another world as I fell asleep; it was really that good.
Later, I received a surprise invitation.
A delightful group of enthusiastic hunters had arrived for a few days shooting pheasant and partridge and asked me to join them. A hunting breakfast, including the most delicious wild boar sausages, was cooked on an outside oven. Wine was served for those with a more robust constitution than my own.
Rather splendidly, the day’s ‘bag’ was soon in the hands of the ‘Mammas’ and cooked for dinner that night, using local herbs and spices to enhance the smells and taste. It was wonderful.
If hunting is not to your taste and perhaps you are more active, bicycles are available so you can discover the local countryside. I am a keen runner and the hugely charming Pieter, who works on the estate, is too. The hotel has a small running track, but Pieter will take guests on a longer run if desired.
There is so much to do and see. With Florence only an hour’s drive away and Siena much closer, the hotel organises tours to both cities. The time, alas, came all too soon when I had to pack my bags and return to London.
And as I tucked my Wordsworth book back into my suitcase, I could not find a better quote than this one: ‘Earth has not anything to show more fair.’ I couldn’t agree more – which is why I will be back..
Cleveland Collection (0845 450 5732) offers two nights’ B& B at Le Case del Borgo from £720 per person, with one dinner with a Tuscan Mamma, one St Barth’s softness body peel and one lymphatic drainage massage with avocado oil. Private airport transfers from and to Pisa are also included, as are flights with British Airways from Gatwick.