Borgo San Felice, Tuscany
An entire Tuscan commune given over to the indulgence of the senses, brought to you by those legends of fun, a massive German insurance conglomerate.
Are you an Epicurean? If you feel inclined to answer ‘yes’, it’s odds on that you consider yourself a lover of fine wine, gourmet food and all the luxuries that the discerning sybarite can consume. But woah there, as Socrates would no doubt have advised. Epicurus himself was no Epicurean. On the contrary, the man himself believed that what causes humans suffering is our false beliefs. In particular, we have many false beliefs about what is necessary for our happiness. We put a great value on some external goods such as status and luxury, because we think they will make us happy. In fact, Epicurus says, many of these external goods are not good for us at all, and the pursuit of them only makes us more miserable. Instead, he recommended withdrawing from mainstream society, vexatious as it is, and living in a simple commune, with separate quarters for like-minded friends. Back in 300 BC, his was called The Garden.
The only time you would generally associate – and this was a hardened rule – was over simple meals with rich conversation. Then you should retreat back for more quiet contemplation. Friendship and the occasional pot of cheese was all Epicurus craved. I’m reminded of The Garden as we pull into the driveway of Borgo San Felice, idyllically nestled deep in Chianti Classico country, slap bang between Siena and Florence.
A hamlet of detailed perfection, isolated within 140 hectares of Sangiovese vineyards, yet offering a warm sociability and sensual sanctuary. Once an actual village dating back to 714 AD, the epicentre of internecine wars between the city states, it eventually fell into disrepair. In 1991 the village’s medieval, palaces, stone houses, chapels and picturesque streets were bought by insurance giant, Allianz and fully restored. Now run by Relais & Chateaux, under General Manager Achille Di Carlo, the entire complex serves as a 5 star hotel and spa retreat.
In fact the village reminds me of The Village, the too-perfect-to leave playground that held Patrick McGoohan captive in The Prisoner. But this isn’t Port Merrion in Wales and I’m not a number, I’m a free man. So whilst here, I assert and indulge that freedom in all the ways that San Felice tries to lure you here forever. The food is by local Michelin 2 star hero, Francesco Bracali, who grew up working in his family’s restaurant, Ristorante Bracali, also a 2 Michelin star holder. Japan and New York honed his craft.
Highly refined Chianti dishes that combine local produce with sublime twists include duck breasts with truffle crisps in a translucent lardo sauce and a slice of sea bass with leeks quenelle, black truffle and orange sauce creamed codfish with olive oil puff pastry black rice Venus with sautéed squid. Being a wine grower itself, the amateur oenologist’s pleasure will be sated by San Felice’s many Italian and international labels, but highly recommended are Agricola San Felice’s own little masterpieces – the Vigorello, Poggio Rosso, Campogiovanni and a stunning Brunello di Montalcino DOCG. The 2010 Il Grigio was a particular favourite. If one’s palate craves something more rustic, Francesco’s graduates run the La Terrazza, offering yet more bewilderingly beautiful vistas as one gnaws on Tuscan meat cooked on the open air barbecue or slurps rustic Pici pasta slathered in genuinely mind altering ragu.
After a soul cleansing visit to the borgo’s Romanesque chapel (still partially consecrated), I head for some more corporeal purification. Located within the old oil mill, Dr. Paolo Vranjes, a renowned Dutch cosmetologist, pharmacist and chemist, operates a beautiful and fully equipped spa. One of the good doctor’s innovations is a recycling of the winery’s byproduct. Utilising the purifying, anti-oxidant and smoothing properties cause by the high content of polyphenols contained in the seeds, I go (not for the first time, it must be noted) for the wine bath. Rich in polyphenols, it soothes and relaxes. Aided by a glass of rich Chianti Classico, naturally. Followed by a vigorous olive oil-based massage, I come out two-parts reborn man, one part Bridget Jones.
Boredom never sets in. The suites are tasteful and genuinely lovely to spend some shaded time in. The quadrangle is a place to rest in deep thought, watching he swifts, swallows and martins weave through the awnings. There’s tennis, putting, boules, a painting studio, a beautiful swimming pool, the winery and, of course, that transcendent view. The backdrop for a Medici portrait brought to stunning 3D resolution, a Renaissance hologram. Then there are the day trips.
One morning we visit Castello di Ama, established in the 1960s by a group of families who now produce Chianti Classicos that stand among the world’s most prestigious wines.Led around by formidable owner, Lorenza Sebasti, we discover that their product is an award-winning world-beater. As is their contemporary art collection, nestled amongst the various subterranean cellars, retired chapels and cooling out houses and containing works by Anish Kapoor, Chen Zhen, Giulio Pallini and Christina Iglesias. One piece recreates the Berlin Wall in miniature. I dare say there’d be a lot more nostalgia for the old DDR if the real thing had been set in this landscape.
As is a tour of Siena. Mine was punctuated by the umbra of amber afternoon light that I’d always imagined the town to be framed in and the impossibly hard to refuse invitation into the Museum of Torture by two young dark-haired Sirens. I found the doorway in a tight side street. They looked me up and down and, bemused, offered me a personal tour. Dear reader, as comfy as that iron maiden looked, I resisted, made like Ulysses and tied myself to my own mast. I left them (and myself) bereft. Eventually, one has to leave Borgo San Felice. Yet, the feeling remains that whilst Epicurus would probably have disapproved of such a concentration of luxury and indulgence in such a lovely place, he would have probably taken a night off the cheese and gnawed on a Fiorenta T-Bone and guzzled a bottle of Chianti. Just to test its horridness, you understand.
The cost of two people sharing a double room at Borgo san Felice costs from €329 (approx £270) on a B&B basis, including taxes and service. Book online at www.borgosanfelice.it.