Rustic luxury meets modern flair in Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa.
I catch a glimpse of The Leaning Tower, a drunken shadow in the distance, then I’m out of Pisa, through the Serchio valley, and onto a narrow road fringed by chestnut trees leading to Il Ciocco Resort & Spa.
Set at the heart of 2000 hectares of private estate land in the foothills of Tuscany’s lofty Apuane Alps, entering this sprawling resort is like entering another world. Parking at the bottom of a small hill I walk up a winding cobbled path past wooden tubs planted with sweet smelling jasmine and dazzling scarlet bougainvillea. En route I pass clusters of low-roofed villas and a handful of shops selling designer clothes for chic kids, including a rack of Napoleon-style jackets with bright gold buttons and a wicker basket full of handcrafted babies’ smocks.
Ducking out of dazzling sunlight, I enter the blissfully cool reception, which is decked out in comfort-shades of cerise and chocolate. Seated on a stool at the zinc counter of the Nour bar, I sip a fruit cocktail before following the bell hop to my room. Scattered over seven floors, Il Cioccio’s 180 rooms and suites have thick, swirly-patterned carpets, chunky wooden bedsteads and wall-to-floor windows looking out onto small balconies with views to the steep surrounding hillsides. Stocked with the hotel’s own luscious brand of products the bathrooms are spacious, with walk-in showers.
After a refreshing nights sleep serenaded by the ghostly hoot of hunting owls, I take breakfast– crispy bacon with scrambled egg, cereals, mango juice and a fresh made smoothie - on a terrace overlooking the pool. As thick morning mists curl away from the tree-clad slopes the view is stunning: fronted by a dizzily-deep valley, the mediaeval, walled town of Barga where composer Puccini was born in 1858, sits high on a spine of rock, topped by its flamboyantly Romanesque 11th century cathedral.
You can ride horses along Il Cioccio’s winding trails, or take a mountain bike and pedal from peak to peak, but this morning I’ve chosen to take an 4x4 Mitsubishi Pajero off road tour. As a woman driver I’m expecting to be patronised with baby slopes, but instead for an adrenalin-pumping couple of hours I scuffle up sheer, scree-strewn slopes scattering gravel everywhere, or skid along narrow, wooded paths beside steep ravines.
Birthplace of the Slow Food Movement, the Serchio region is famed for its gastronomy, which is just as well because my hair-raising drive has given me an appetite. That evening at Le Salette, the hotel’s fine dining Italian restaurant, I gorge myself on succulent antipasti: sweetly tender prosciutto, spicy chunks of biroldo black pudding and hunks of the local pane di patate potato bread. This is followed by platters of porcini mushrooms gathered in the estate’s forests and served with wild game in a creamy, fragrant sauce, then come crunchy almond biscotti with a brimming glass of sinfully sweet Montescudaio Vin Santo dessert wine to dip them in – bliss!
The next morning I contemplate possible activities: Pisa, Florence, the Cinque Terra and Lucca are all within easy driving distance, but after a lazy breakfast watching sun glinting on the rooftops of Barga floating in mountain mist I can’t see any good reason to leave the estate. Instead I spend a lazy morning by the pool followed by an afternoon in the spa. A purifying face mask, followed by a hydrating hydro-massage with milk, honey and rose essential oil leaves my skin feeling soft and smooth. Then I spend the afternoon padding back and forth from steam room to sauna, whirlpool to heated swimming pool, pausing en route to lounge on the spa’s terrace listening to wind chimes tinkle and admiring breathtaking views of the surrounding slopes.
All too soon it’s my last evening at Il Cioccio. Sitting in the horseshoe shaped Nour lounge I sip a last cocktail serenaded by the pianist throatily singing the best hits of Italian pop idol Eros Ramazotti hits, and watch the lights go out one-by-one over Barga’s cluster of mediaeval towers and red-tiled roofs.
It is a magical end to a magical stay in Il Cioccio, Marriott’s first European Renaissance resort – and a resort that neatly encapsulates that subtle blend of top notch modern comforts, olde world country charm and attentive, friendly service, which is the company’s hallmark.
IN THE AREA…
Il Cioccio sits in splendid isolation in the Apuane Alps foothills, making it an excellent choice if you’re seeking a spot of tranquil pampering. There are several shops, two restaurants and a bar in situ, but if you’re staying longer and fancy sampling some of the local vibe Barga’s cobbled streets and bars are a ten minute drive away.
Drive ten minutes more and you’ll reach Lucca, a larger town packed with gorgeous gothic architecture where you can walk around the city walls, climb the 13th century clock tower, sample local speciality sweet bun buccellato or take a sunset bike ride to see the sights.
Rooms at Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa start at £84 per night, to book, visit www.marriott.co.uk.
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