Think of Tuscany and the obvious attractions spring to mind: Florence’s ancient bridges, Pisa’s topsy tower, Siena’s gleaming domes. But away from the tourist traps lies a land of rolling hills, forested trails, vineyards, winding rivers and hilltop villages.
The northern part of Tuscany is particularly stunning, and there is no better place from which to explore it than the Renaissance Il Ciocco Resort and Spa. Perched atop a lush hill surrounded by forests and 1,700 acres of landscaped gardens, the hotel is a gleaming pastel-hued haven overlooking the beautiful Tuscan countryside. Which is why The Handbook visited for a long wellness-based weekend – and we’re already planning our return trip.
Rooms at Il Ciocco are sleek, spacious and sophisticated – think dark wood fittings, plush patterned carpets and crisp white linen.
As you might expect from a five-star, Marriott-owned hotel, luxury runs through every detail, from the stylish marble bathrooms to the ludicrously comfortable, sink-into-me beds.
Combined, the decor gives the rooms the feel of an exclusive members’ club, with a touch of modern business chic.
Deluxe rooms have their own balcony, but eveen many of the standard variety offer stunning wake-up and sunset views across the Serchio Valley and the Apuan Alps.
Il Ciocco offers excellent dining across its three restaurants.
The hotel’s main eatery is “The Veranda”, located (as you might have guessed) on a beautiful terrace with views of the valley.
The menu draws heavily on local ingredients, including chestnut flours, comb honey and biodynamic wines from the surrounding vineyards.
A bountiful breakfast is served in the morning sun and includes an excellent offering of fresh fruit and pastries, along with the usual hot and cold fare.
Ludicrously comfortable, sink-into-me beds
For dinner, the crab ravioli was particularly divine, as was the Nutella calzone – if you somehow manage to have room left for dessert. Polish it all off with a large limoncello as the sun sets over the valley below you and the stars begin to emerge overhead.
Il Ciocco Resort & Spa,
Via Giovanni Pascoli,
Pascoli LU, Italy
Prices from around: £200 per night
1 hours 37 mins from Florence Airport
2 hours 45 mins from Bologna Airport
2 hours 42 mins from Parma Airport
Flights from approx £70 return
Aqua Trecking – E2Avventure
For a more informal dining experience, the “Le Salette” restaurant, right on the balcony overlooking the valley, offers more standard Italian dishes, as well as regular barbeques and pizza evenings.
The third option, the swanky Nour Lounge, has a good range of bar snacks to accompany a cocktail or three.
Il Ciocco is ideal for relaxing over a long weekend in the Tuscan hills. If the forest walks, sunset cocktails and hearty Italian food aren’t enough to help you unwind, the hotel’s luxurious spa offers a full range of soothing treatments, including scrubs, wraps and massages.
We tried the 50-minute Herbal Pindas full body massage, which involves wrapped bunches of Tuscan herbs soaked in warm oil being used alongside almond and lavender oils for the perfect relaxation. Disappointingly, we didn’t have time to try the intriguingly-named “Cuddles for Your Face” treatment – the details of which will remain a mystery for now.
All treatments end in a calming lounge with a cup of green tea – and the almost irrepressible urge to take a nap.
The spa also includes an indoor pool with technology to replicate natural river currents. As impressive as that sounds, we much preferred the outdoor pool and the opportunities it offered for lazing away the afternoon a sun lounger overlooking the valley.
If you are more of the restless sort, the hotel has enough to keep you easily occupied for a long wellness weekend.
There is a bounty of stunning walking, hiking and mountain biking trails through pine forests and verdant hills around the hotel.
Even closer by, the hotel has a good-sized gym and offers yoga classes led by local teacher Marzia Cavana. They take place on a grass verge with wonderful views over the valley (or inside if the weather is bad).
Il Ciocco also offers private cookery courses with the hotel’s head chef, who teaches guests how to make a range of traditional Tuscan dishes. We had a great time hopelessly trying to squeeze spinach and ricotta filling into something that vaguely resembled ravioli, although thankfully the typical Tuscan bean stew and the chocolate pudding proved easier challenges.
You get to eat what you’ve rustled up, albeit once the chef has transformed it into something more edible-looking. The classic experience costs from €170 per person, or you can pay a bit more to spend a whole day accompanying the chef, including hunting for fresh produce at local markets.
As spectacular as the hotel is, you won’t want to spend all of your time there – the surrounding area is far too enticing for that. This, after all, is authentic Tuscany. The beautiful hilltop village of Barga, only ten minutes away, is perfect for whiling away an afternoon wandering around its shops, checking out the local market (Fridays and Saturdays only) and leaving plenty of time to stop for coffee and ice cream.
The town of Castelnuovo Garfagnana – 15 minutes away – is also worth checking out. Visit its medieval centre, peruse its array of craft shops and then take the Path of Ariosto up to the 11th-century fortress for majestic views across the valley.
The wider area around Il Ciocco also offers a range of adventure activities. We tried the aqua trekking experience provided by E20Adventure (€40, available May-September) in the exquisite Val di Lima – a limestone gorge with a brilliantly blue, shallow river running along the bottom.
We walked, climbed and swum our way over rock formations and through deep azure pools with the afternoon sun flickering through the canopy overhead. The crystal-clear water is a chilly 10C but thick wetsuits are provided and the experience is exhilarating.
Also worth a visit is the Podere Concori winery, which the hotel partners with to offer guests wine-tasting and vineyard tours.
Visitors interested in checking out the region’s better-known tourist attractions won’t have any trouble either: Pisa is about an hour’s drive away and Florence can be reached in under two hours.