Driving from the Florence airport to the small town of Casole d’Elsa in the heart of Tuscany feels like traveling deep into a landscape painting of rolling hills dotted with cypress trees and stone farmhouses. My perch for the week is a traditional stone casele (farmhouse) named Pulcinello (after one of the original farms on the estate), one of 28 farmhouses that have been restored at Castello di Casole, a resident/hotel property and working farm sprawled over 4,200 acres about 16 miles west of Siena.
Crowning this spectacular countryside is an imposing 12th century castle where the new Hotel Castello will feature 41 luxurious suites when it opens next spring. Once the home of the noble Bargagli family of Siena, and later a hideaway for Italian celebrities, the hotel’s architects and artisans have rebuilt much of the property using reclaimed materials—ceramic tile, wood beams, and terracotta—from the original estate.
During a tour, I walk along vineyards of Cabernet and Sangiovese grapes harvested for the Castello’s wines, and groves of olives pressed for the house olive oil, both of which are stocked in my farmhouse. I spot wild fennel and rosemary—ingredients that flavor several of the delicious meals I eat during my visit. The land surrounding the farmhouses looks untouched, with no development as far as the eye can see. Every now and then a small town rises on the horizon and beckons exploration.
Back at Pulcinello, my roomy bedroom has windows with more views of the endless verdant hills. Several of the Castello’’s farmhouses are available to rent (others you can purchase) and feature large stone fireplaces, unexpected, contemporary bathrooms with sunken tubs, glass-tiled, infinity-edge plunge pools overlooking the valley, and state-of-the-art kitchens equipped with Gianfranco Ballerini refrigerators. Friendly, attentive governantes (housekeepers) service each villa and are available to prepare breakfast (made-to-order eggs, croissants, salami, fresh fruit) or an alfresco lunch to enjoy on the farmhouse terrace. But even better is a hands-on cooking class in the kitchen with personal chef Lisa Banchieri, who taught a group of us how to make porcini and sausage risotto, eggplant bruschetta, and a tender wild boar (cinghiale) served with a subtle chocolate sauce.
In Tuscany, dishes aren’t complicated. They’re made with fresh vegetables, and flavored with a drizzle of olive oil. One night our governantes topped one homemade pizza after another with zucchini, paper-thin slices of prosciutto, caramelized onions, and cooked them in the farmhouse’s outdoor wood oven. The number of pizzas made and eaten reminded me of a scene from I Love Lucy.
Florence, Siena, and San Gimignano are a short drive from Castello di Casole, and the staff concierge will help you arrange a tour of the Uffizi, a personal shopping experience to hunt for handmade leather goods, or suggest local osterias for dinner. But the activities back at the property are just as appealing, and include bicycling to nearby hill towns such as Mensano and Radicondoli, taking an Italian language or ceramic class, and walking along scenic footpaths with the resident game warden to spot pheasant, deer, and boar. And if you’d rather just lounge by the pool with a glass of Chianti, life doesn’t get much better than being in your own farmhouse for the week and soaking in the country lifestyle that is Tuscany.
Susan O’Keefe is an associate editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine.