The best retreats that come with wilderness as standard, from Tuscany to Scotland
High on a hill in Tuscany, the hamlet of Borgo Pignano has a very exalted form of self-sufficiency.
Not only does the wine come from its own vineyards, but its rare breed pigs are free to roam its woods before becoming charcuterie. At breakfast, the honeycomb that drips into small glass bowls has traveled a few hundred meters from the hives on the estate. And the wheat that grows in the fields below – the ancient low-gluten grain of Semolato Cappelli – ends up on the table in the form of bread and pasta.
Not bad considering the owner of it all is a boy from Cardiff.
Sarah Turner visits Borgo Pignano, a luxury country retreat in Tuscany “that feels both utterly modern and yet remarkably Renaissance”. Above is the estate’s “show-stopper” pool, which was built from a former quarry
Billionaire Michael Moritz was an early investor in companies such as Google and Yahoo. He has since turned to philanthropy, and he and his wife, novelist and sculptor Harriet Heyman, bought Borgo Pignano in 2000 when it was just a pile of dilapidated buildings surrounded by depleted farmland. It took more than ten years before it was ready for the first guests.
Today, with cleverly hidden solar panels and rainwater catchments, it’s an estate that feels both thoroughly modern and still remarkably Renaissance.
The views are immense and so is the vision – it’s more than agricultural tourism (called agrotourism), it’s about regenerating an entire region.
Given the feeling of plenty, room prices aren’t bad at all, starting at €300 a night (around £250) including breakfast.
Look down from the top of the hill and, in good weather, the Mediterranean can be seen in the distance.
There is a spectacular swimming pool which was built from an old quarry – this part of Tuscany is famous for its limestone, particularly the alabaster which fills the shops in the equally historic hill town of Volterra neighbor.
There is also another swimming pool for children, next to meticulously restored buildings, including a 12th century castle (castello), a chapel and a priest’s house.
With views over the vast, wooded nature reserve of Castelvecchio, it has the kind of landscape – rolling green hills dotted with estates and cypress alleys – that Leonardo da Vinci used as a backdrop for his paintings.
Pisa is an hour away by car, but once here you can borrow bikes to explore the hilltop towns or stroll through waterfalls, vineyards and orchards.
The suntrap at Borgo Pignano. You can enjoy a view of the vast wooded nature reserve of Castelvecchio
The ground floor of the castello opens up to a series of restaurants as well as lounges with plush sofas and chess sets. Courtyards and patio doors lead to the gardens. Follow the stairs and you will find pool tables and bookcases.
Among the rooms and suites, Il Poeta may seem small but has a two-story bathroom with an armchair at the top. In one of the hallways, the whimsical Marchesa has a secret entrance and an additional single bedroom. Mine, the Sala Musica, like the other rooms in the main building, has no television, although it does have a grand piano in one corner. I fell asleep to the sound of owls.
Stefano Cavallini, who ran the Michelin-starred kitchen at the Halcyon Hotel in London, taught us our guests how to make ravioli with garden-picked sage and local ricotta. Wood-fired pizza is served outdoors, fish is landed in nearby ports and everything else comes from the estate or local farms.
In a courtyard, Lisabetta makes potions from herbs and wildflowers growing on the estate. Some end up as soaps and shampoos in the rooms, others end up in the garden cocktail bar surrounded by lavender, butterflies and industrious bees. I got excited when I grew a handful of beans and strawberries on my roof during lockdown. At Borgo Pignano, it may be the same alchemy of earth, sun, rain and weather, but on a much, much larger scale.
“Across the estate there are a handful of villas – each one has its own pools,” Sarah reveals. Above, a bedroom at Villa La Lavandaia in Borgo Pignano
Another set of buildings houses a collection of classic Italian cars and scooters – not Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but beautifully restored bubble cars and Vespa scooters.
There is an artists’ studio, which houses the budding Raphaels of the Royal Drawing School to work and teach guests. You can also ride horses, including a Shetland pony for the kids.
The first Borgo wines were produced in 2019 from ciliegiolo and abrusco nero grapes – “Like unknown actors in a star family”, says Raffaele, who oversees everything.
There’s also the estate’s orta, a market garden filled with tomatoes, beans, onions and edible flowers. It’s not there to be scenic, although it certainly is, but to produce food in the most sustainable way, with swales to collect rainwater and planting systems to naturally weed out. pests, but also tractor ruts and fences to keep rabbits away.
Across the estate, there are a handful of villas — each has their own pools — and a small spa where treatments use ingredients from the estate. But there’s nothing more relaxing than sitting out on the shaded terrace with a chilled bottle of wine.
In the gardens there are people playing chess, honeymooners, extended families and beginners.
If there’s a common theme between them, it’s that they look like people who prefer nature and long meals to the latest high-tech gadgets in the rooms – although the estate’s wi-fi is quite strong to penetrate foot-thick walls in an invisible place. but resolutely modern way.
MORE BETTER RETREATS
Estate retreats are all the rage, popping up across the globe, from Blackberry Farm in Tennessee to Domaine des Etangs near Massignac in southwestern France.
In the UK, two other tech guys, Michael and Xochi Birch, who founded the first social networking site Bebo in 2005, are transforming the village of Woolsery in Devon with their 90-acre farm which already supplies the village pub in products while a 24-room mansion hotel will be ready in 2024 (woolsery.com).
Just like with Borgo Pignano, great visions take time. But if you’re feeling a bit impatient for Britain’s new kind of stay, head to The Newt in Somerset.
The Torridon Hotel (above) in Wester Ross, Scotland has a two-acre vegetable garden growing everything from micro broccoli to white currants.
Pictured is the Torridon Suite at the Torridon Hotel, where double rooms with breakfast cost from £180 per night
It’s the UK sibling of the Babylonstoren Wine Estate in South Africa, which rather than wine incorporates cider orchards across its 800 acres, some shaped into a maze that incorporates all of Britain’s apple varieties.
A 30-acre farm is integral, with a color wheel of carrots, beets and other heirloom vegetables fueling both the laid-back Garden Cafe and the serious Botanical Rooms restaurant.
Accommodation is a far cry from Cold Comfort Farm, with 23 bedrooms in the main house and more in the farmyard which opened last year. Double rooms with breakfast cost from £575 per night (thenewtinsomerset.com).
Harvard academic Gerald Chan was an early pharmaceutical investor before he opened the 46-room Heckfield Place (pictured) in Hampshire in 2018
Heckfield Place grows its own barley, wheat and spelled. Above, the pretty gardens of the estate
A tasty dish created at Heckfield Place
In Scotland, the Torridon Hotel in Wester Ross has a two-acre vegetable garden growing everything from micro broccoli to white currants, with a corner devoted to growing plants for its own gin. Torridon Farm has a herd of Highland cattle and Tamworth pigs which supply the family hotel with charcuterie. Double rooms with breakfast cost from £180 per night (thetorridon.com).
Harvard academic Gerald Chan was an early pharmaceutical investor before opening 46-room Heckfield Place in Hampshire in 2018. He owns an organic farm where the flock of 70 sheep are washed in l tea tree oil and, like Borgo Pignano, it grows its own barley, wheat and spelled. Double rooms with breakfast cost from £450 per night (heckfieldplace.com).
The Castle Ashby Falcon is owned by Lord and Lady Northampton, and when head chef Russell Bateman wants a particular vegetable, it is grown for him by the farmers on the estate. Double rooms with breakfast cost from £169 per night (thefalcon-castleashby.com).
At The Falcon in Castle Ashby, farmers grow vegetables on the estate for chef Russell Bateman. Above, one of the estate’s guest rooms
Sarah Turner was a guest at Borgo Pignano. B&B costs from €300 per night (around £250), based on two adults staying in the Villa (borgopignano.com). One-way flights to Pisa with British Airways start at £81 (ba.com).