The Reawakening of Castelfalfi
By Carol Antman
Prince Charming has come to Tuscany and awakened the Sleeping Beauty with a kiss … and a big investment. It had appeared that the abandoned town of Castelfalfi would sleep forever. It was first settled by the Etruscans over 2,500 years ago and reached its peak prosperity in the 13th century when its castle and most of the current village was built. A tobacco factory brought success in the early 20th century but by 1970 it had closed and only five residents remained. The town fell under a spell. Occasionally moviemakers like Mel Gibson or Roberto Benigni would recognize the crumbling beauty and film there. Squatters wandered in. Each decade another plan to restore the town fizzled like a rejected suitor vying for the princess’s hand. “If it remains as it is, then the village is dead,” resident Andrea Mechancci told the German newspaper Die Welt. But in 2007 a Knight in Shining Armor, the giant German tourism company TUI AG, purchased the entire walled village and the extensive vineyards with ambitious plans to resuscitate them. Stefan Neuhaus, the CEO of Toscana Resort Castelfalfi, said, “Castelfalfi is coming back to life, regaining its original features and revealing unexpected potentialities. A jewel like Castelfalfi can regain its sparkle.”
The tremendously ambitious plan has taken years, vision and capital. It now is beginning to fill a niche that TUI AG identified as lacking in the region. “Tuscany is a dream destination. Many holidaymakers want to go there, but have not been able to find exactly what they want,” said Karl Born, a German professor of tourism and former member of TUI’s governing board. In particular they identified golf and spa facilities as missing. But not anymore. Castelfalfi’s new golf courses have opened to rave reviews. The scenic Golf Club Castelfalfi Course has 27-holes and over 9,400 meters of hillside and greens nestled between olive groves. The 18-hole Mountain Course features steep gradients and water hazards making it one of Italy’s most challenging layouts. The newest 9-hole Lake Course, driving ranges, putting greens and a short pitch area surround the spacious clubhouse. Golfers often call the courses the most scenic they’ve ever played.
Another fairy tale that inspired the project was the novel “Under the Tuscan Sun.” All over the world armchair renovators fantasized about claiming a perfect farmhouse in the Italian countryside that they’d gleefully restore into their own piece of rustic paradise.
But the practicalities of finding and rebuilding a dilapidated house, often one that’s hundreds of years old, were very frustrating and difficult. Toscana Resort Castelfalfi solved this situation by offering vacation properties and working closely with owners to renovate them. The result is an array of lodging choices that vacationers can buy or rent. The large Casale La Valle, for example, offers four independent apartments in one building so families can have the space and privacy they need with a private swimming pool and garden for their use. The quiet sophistication of L’Orchidea offers a smaller option with luxury furnishings. The former factory that dried tobacco for Tuscan cigars has been brought back to life as a 31-room boutique hotel, the first of two planned. For those still intent on reliving author Elizabeth Gilbert’s dream, opportunities remain to purchase real estate and design their own rustic paradise without hassle. The Medieval Borgo has been restored and divided into 48 apartments, and plans call for the various Casali, typical Tuscan country villas, to be restructured according to the wishes of future buyers. A 5-star hotel with 120 rooms, a spa and wellness center, heliport, tennis courts and more shops are slated to open in the near future. Once completed, the vacation hamlet will have a capacity of 3,200 guests.
The location of Castelfalfi is ideal. Florence, Siena, Lucca and Pisa are within an hour drive. Nearby, the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites of San Gimignano, known as the “Medieval Manhattan” for its 14 ancient towers, and Volterra, known for its alabaster art, are an easy day trip. Authentic special events like the Palio di Siena horse races, the Gran Fondo della Vernaccia cycling race, Giornate degli Autori, Venice Days or the medieval pageant Ferie Delle Messi are colorful experiences to plan a vacation around.
Other compelling activities are at the resort’s doorstep. The estate itself has 75 miles of walking paths and nearby there is an extended network of hiking and mountain biking paths including the famous strade bianche (unpaved roads) that crisscross the region’s hilly terrain. You can channel your inner cowboy while galloping through woods, villages and Chianti vineyards with guides from the nearby Il Gelsomino Ranch. There are four swimming pools including a 30-meter-long lap pool surrounded by snack bar, gym and sauna. Castelfalfi guests can also benefit from collaborations with nearby locations that offer beaches and a marina.
Toscana Resort Castelfalfi is a gourmand’s dream. The fragrance of herbs greets visitors as they drive into the property. The farm to table experience is as obvious as the fields of thyme, oregano, basil, rosemary and marjoram waiting to be handpicked and the panorama from the restaurant’s window: 57 acres of vineyards and over 10,000 olive trees. The resort employs a gamekeeper and agricultural director who enjoy showing guests the traditional farming operations that produce the three proprietary wine labels and extra-virgin olive oil produced and sold on-site. Lorenzo Lani, the resort’s enologist says, “My work…will focus on producing original, long-lived wines and, if it is not too presumptuous, on creating wines that cannot be produced elsewhere.” Giovanni Gallerini, the gamekeeper, even takes guests truffle hunting in season. The menu features the bounty of surrounding farms, fields and forests such as the indigenous Chianina breed of beef cattle and wild game. Every dish, including pasta, is handmade at the resort with fresh ingredients.
La Rocca di Castelfalfi is the resort’s main restaurant. It’s located in the heart of Castelfalfi, a restored Castle built in the Middle Ages. From its terrace, diners can look across the countryside and across history. “I am of the opinion that you have to understand what you eat and flavors must be immediate,” says Chef Michele Rinaldi. “Fortunately Italy’s climate allows us to have raw materials of excellent quality: artichokes, asparagus, mushrooms…fresh fruits of the season, meat and fish make the tastes unique.” He delights in creating simple but tasty cuisine and in the challenge of cooking with wild game. In 2011, his skill earned him a Michelin star at the age of 27. The Castle is also animated by a cooking school that offers various courses from classic dishes to homemade pasta, baking and more. An educational program brings culinary students from around Europe to train at the Castle and introduce them to the many sustainability initiatives which include the extensive use of renewable energy resources and reconditioned rainwater which is collected on-site.
“The challenge here is to give this land its true identity back by providing the modern comforts our visitors need without compromising the balance of nature and history of this place,” says Stefan Neuhaus. Their vision and commitment has reawakened Castelfalfi and seems destined to ensure that the town and its visitors live happily ever after.