Matthew Bell experiences some Old World glamour in the stately surrounds of Tuscany's Castello di Casole.
Call me a ponce, but I do like a grand arrival. I mean, if you're going to splash out on a luxury hotel, you don't expect to creep in by the bins. You want to swank up a tree-lined avenue, preferably a couple of miles long, and have your driver sweep round the fountain before setting you down on a crisp marble step. That's why in London, the Savoy will always be glamorous, while the Ritz, since they stopped using the front door, feels like a yacht without its mast.
So I was feeling quite the superstar by the time I was deposited in front of the Castello di Casole, with all the cypress trees and far-reaching views you would expect of a hilltop Tuscan palace. The former seat of the merchant Bargagli family, during the 1960s leading film director Luchino Visconti lived here. How I wish I could have seen it then: parties lasted for days, and Sophia Loren would emerge from the swimming pool.
Today, it's in the hands of an American firm called Timbers Resorts, which specialises in high-end ski hotels. I know what you're thinking: uh oh, Disney does Tuscany. But actually, they have been surprisingly sensitive in their restoration, and clearly had the deep pockets to pay for the highest spec. That's why it's taken five years to complete, not made easier by Italy's infamously fastidious heritage bodies, nit-picking over paint colours. (They had to repaint the façade three times.)
The result is a 1000-year-old property in spanking good nick. No scrimping on Carrara marble or antique chests here. But mercifully, they haven't gone for all-out bling, so there's no ritzy golf course or rooftop helipad. Keep it authentic, was the maxim. So there are terracotta brick floors and warm pastels for the walls.
They have even restored the original pizza oven, where they will teach you how to make pizza - harder than it looks. This is the centrepiece of the low-key Pazzia Pizzeria, which serves light lunches and snacks, and homemade ice cream. For more formal dining, the Tosca restaurant is presided over by Genoan chef Daniele Sera, who is also personal chef to the King of Morocco, so occasionally he has to dash off.
The highlight, by a long chalk, is the swimming pool, which is new and enormous and has been cut into the hillside looking west. If, like me, you don't visit Tuscany in the heat to charge about looking at frescos, you will want to spend most of your time here. And with its film-set views and pleasantly cool temperature, it's the ideal place to consider the merits of the white peach Bellini. All that's missing is Sophia Loren.
The hotel is the centrepiece of a 4200-acre estate. The owners have refurbished the 28 outlying farmhouses and are selling them through a shared-ownership scheme. The estate is classic Tuscan countryside, all rolling hills and wild boar reserves, and one of the great perks is the extensive network of white roads you can explore by mountain bike. However, you're not particularly near any major towns. It's a 90-minute drive south-east of Pisa airport, and San Gimignano is an hour's drive. Although popular with Brits (Sting lives just over the hill), this area isn't technically Chiantishire: the local wine is a white Vernaccia, and very refreshing it is too.
All 41 rooms are suites, and they vary substantially, owing to the eccentricities of the building. All are noticeably generous in space, and there's a guaranteed wow factor in each: either a vast piano nobile bathroom, or a mesmerising view. The 18 villa suites occupy the main house and converted barns around the back courtyard, and if you like being in the action, this is the place to be.
For privacy, the more contemporary-themed Oliveto suites, or two-storey Limonaia suites (in a converted lemon barn), have private gardens. All bedrooms have simple decor, with wrought-iron beds, acres of white linen, antique chests and crushed velvet sofas.
The bathrooms are exceptionally well appointed: alabaster is used for everything. Classic English-design taps and fittings are made by the hilariously named Italian firm Devon & Devon. You may struggle to decide whether to wallow in your standalone bathtub, or take a good drubbing from the walk-in shower. For research purposes, I did both: the bath won, as you can't drink Vernaccia in the shower.
There are flat-screen televisions in bedrooms and sitting areas, discreetly hidden away in period-style cabinets. Though frankly, when there are views and baths and white peach Bellinis to enjoy, why would anyone come here to watch telly?