Friary of finery

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iol travel sep 3 tuscany INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS This is one of the many indigenous forests near Siena.

Milan - They were unveiling a shiny new Lancia when my wife and I stayed at Castel Monastero in the Tuscan countryside near Siena.

Even though the 11th century monastery is now a fabulous hotel, it felt slightly discordant to see it staging such a genuflection to modern materialism as a car launch.

A walled medieval hamlet, quintessentially Tuscan and almost tear-jerkingly photogenic, Castel Monastero is surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and by rights should still be full of cowled friars, rather than sleek Lancia executives and “Fine Dining con Gordon Ramsay”.

Yes, the ubiquitous Gordon has his corporate cleaver well and truly embedded, though he visits only a couple of times a year. We ate in “his” Contrada restaurant, and very plush it was too.

Anyway, we much preferred the Cantina, which offers less formal dining in a vast vaulted cellar where the monks used to store their wine. It would have been atmospheric even without the huge refectory tables, illuminated by candlelight.

A further surprise is that this distinctive collection of buildings wasn’t converted into a hotel until 2009. Before that the estate belonged to a celebrated Tuscan winemaker, Lionello Marchesi. But for 900 years it was owned by the aristocratic Chigi family, who produced a couple of popes and whose family home in Rome, the Palazzo Chigi, is still the official residence of the Italian prime minister.

But Ramsay is not the only famous name attached to Castel Monastero. The hotel has also signed up Dr Mosaraf Ali to oversee the sumptuous spa, enabling it to trade on Dr Ali’s reputation for combining traditional Indian and Western medicine to achieve great and profound things, such as getting the Duchess of Cornwall to give up smoking.

Reintegration of mind, body and spirit is Dr Ali’s credo, which would doubtless have pleased the original monks who built the place even if they might’ve baulked at the cost.

Castel Monastero stands on a hilltop about 30km south-east of Siena, appealingly off the beaten track but close enough to the main road to Arezzo. Like practically everything else in this lovely region of gently rolling hills, the cypress-lined main road itself could illustrate the front of a tourist brochure.

Castel Monastero is well placed for trips in and out of one of Italy’s most unspoilt medieval cities and the hotel even has its own apartment overlooking Siena’s Piazza del Campo, complete with balcony for the best-possible view of Il Palio, the horse race held there twice every summer.

The 75 bedrooms are mainly around the piazza, though we stayed in a simply but lovingly furnished suite in a converted stable. We used the two bottles of free local wine to toast the donkeys who’d lived there before us in an age that was not entirely donkey-friendly. (The Florentines, during their regular sieges of Siena, used to catapult them over the walls.) We had every modern convenience, including free Wi-Fi, huge wall-mounted televisions in bedroom and sitting room, and a proper fridge.

The service was impeccable and there was a swimming pool and floodlit tennis court if we needed them, but being so busy reintegrating mind, body and spirit, we didn’t. – The Independent

l Castel Monastero, Monastero d’Ombrone, Siena, Tuscany, Italy (castelmonastero.com)

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