Zenocratic Destinations: Tuscany’s Castello di Casole

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Sun streamed into the beautiful room, which looked like the lair of some Tuscan aristocrat with soft terra cotta tile floors, massive chestnut beams overhead and powder blue walls. With the windows open, the autumn air induced a languor, so I settled into the plump sofa upholstered in nightshade velvet with another cup of tea and read the morning papers. The sleigh-shaped extralong bath tub in front of the window guaranteed we’d be getting off to a seriously slow start on this Saturday morning. Sure, there was a tempting new restaurant I’d heard about in Sienna, and friends in Florence, plus several good museum shows, but none of this was going to happen, because I’d very quickly figured out that the best thing to do at the just-opened 41-room Castello di Casoleresort is to rusticate.

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To be sure, even if you eat elsewhere in Tuscany, there are lots of things to do besides have a meal on this 4,200-acre, newly renovated estate, the largest privately owned one in in the region. Paddle around the gorgeous heated infinity pool, swoon in the spa or grunt in the gym. You can also hike, bike, learn to make pizza, hunt wild boar or opt for a tutored tasting from the brilliant winemaker Paolo Caciorgna, who manages the estate’s 88 acres of vineyards and whose organic label Dodici, a blend of merlot, cabernet and petit verdot, is one of the more suave and original Tuscans I’ve tasted. Or you can just idle, which is what we did without actually making a decision, and ultimately the reason why this hotel is such a great addition to any tour of Tuscany, because the one thing everyone always forgets to include is a day or two to take it easy. Although we did scoot off to the excellent Osteria del Borgo in the nearby hilltop hamlet of Mensano for some pappardelle ragù di cinghiale one day, and went on several wonderful long walks

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What a difference a day makes. The previous afternoon, I was apprehensive to see whatTimbers Resorts, a Colorado-based American time-share company and hotel group, had done with the hilltop hideaway of the late Luchino Visconti, a magnificent property of forest, fields and vineyards. It was almost as if Martha Stewart had been hired to freshen up Versailles. I’ve witnessed some pretty queasy resultswhen eager marketing-driven Americans disembark in the Old World with not just a can-do but a know-better attitude — the sorry sacking of the Italian hotel chain CIGA, now part of Starwood, and Paris Disneyland immediately come to mind.

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But no. By spending 35 million euros and working closely with the inspectors of the Belle Arti, the body charged with preserving Italy’s cultural heritage, Timbers Resorts pretty much admirably aced it. During a delightful weekend at the handsome hilltop Castello, which is also the centerpiece of the time-share villa project on the surrounding estate, the only false notes I clocked were the ugly metal shopping-mall-style sign indicating Tosca, the hotel’s gastronomic restaurant, and an overuse of balsamic vinegar, a flat-footed gastronomic flaw that’s oddly more American than Italian, in the same restaurant’s otherwise very good and imaginative cooking. (Try the buckwheat spaghetti Felicetti, a surprisingly good riff on Roman cacio e pepe with the ur-American addition of grilled chicken strips.)

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To be sure, I preferred the Castello’s second restaurant, the Pazzia Pizzeria, because it was more in keeping with the rustic chic setting, and the service style throughout the hotel is very North American, since many guests here like the odd mix of deference and intimacy implied by having your waiter orwaitress remember that you always have a soy-milk cappuccino before your egg-white omelet, or some such. One can throw darts at the evolving codes of plutocratic privilege in the 21st century, but the bottom-line reality is that the young staff here, mostly local hires, really are blushingly eager to please; their sincerity originates from the ancestral customs of rural Tuscan hospitality, which protect and honor a stranger, so in the end everyone goes away happy from this very successful aesthetic high-wire act.

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Castello di Casole, Località Querceto, Casole d’Elsa, Tuscany, Italy; 011-39-057-796-1508. Suites from about $815.

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