A haven under the Tuscan sun

Borgo Santo Pietro in the Tuscan countryside is one inn that has it all, not the least of which is a marvellous sense of well-being.

Bergamot, Melissa leaf, plankton extract and white grapefruit oil are just some of the elements in the Divine Cleanse, one of the Seed to Skin rituals offered at the spa at Borgo Santo Pietro — which in turn is just one of the many attractions at this resurrected inn in the ravishing Tuscan countryside, between Siena and the Mediterranean Sea. 

I had long heard about Borgo, but only last October was I lucky enough to see it for myself. Set in 13 acres of primped and manicured gardens, surrounded by 200 acres of pristine farmland, gated Borgo is secluded enough to feel exclusive and remote, but close enough to Tuscany’s great cities — Florence, Siena and Pisa — to feel totally in touch. And getting there’s a breeze — a shiny black Mercedes dispatched by the hotel, leather seats supple and polished and air-conditioning gently purring, will whisk you from the Rome airport up to Borgo in a little more than two hours. Leave New York late evening and next day you can be sitting down to lunch on Borgo’s divine terrace, among the myrtle, sage and bay laurel, under a deep azure Tuscan sky, while your friends and neighbors back home are still sleeping.

A 13th-century coaching inn on the medieval pilgrim trail, Borgo had sat empty for nearly 30 years when Danish master-builder and developer Claus Thottrup and his wife, Jeanette, a fashion designer, both based in London and looking for a vacation home in Tuscany, first set eyes on it. With a great leap of faith — and, you imagine, deep pockets — they bought the property in 2001 and welcomed their first guests six years later in 2007. 

Little by little, the house has been restored and refined and the estate revived. Bespoke beds, frescoes, antique pieces — some real treasures among the eye-catching bric-a-brac and vice versa — all reflect Jeanette’s unerring good taste. Gardens have been planted with love and dedication and allowed to mature according to their own rhythm. They lead gently one into another — culinary and vegetable gardens providing plants and produce for cooking, a medicinal garden sourcing herbs for use in the spa and Jeanette’s Seed to Skin products. A rose garden and a lemon garden, along with formal and wild gardens, all clamor for your attention, and on any given day you will see Borgo’s in-house florist picking her way between them, gathering blooms to take back to her florist’s cottage on the grounds, to make heady arrangements for all the guest rooms and public spaces. 

No endeavor at Borgo ever seems rushed, because in the timelessness of rural Tuscany, nothing needs to be. And even as guest rooms continue to be added (there are now 24 rooms and suites), with a staff of 80, no guest is going to feel overlooked.

One morning, I chanced upon the artist’s studio, which I had not previously seen, nestling by the lake, and found Borgo’s artist in residence, Lena Lencek — a graduate of Barnard College and Harvard University, a professor of Russian and humanities — painting inside but happy enough to put down her brushes and chat. Her delicious watercolors, with their broad brushstrokes and dappled light, seemed to capture the very essence of the place. 

Plop down in a hammock in any one of Borgo’s gardens, or on a chaise longue by the pool and, as if by magic, a smiling waiter appears. Order a glass of fizz, a beer (Borgo never stands on ceremony), a sandwich, a plate of oysters or nothing at all, the smile will always be sweet and genuine.

Food, I quickly discovered, is taken seriously at Borgo, though never so seriously that the pleasure of good eating is sacrificed to the ego of a plaudits-needy chef. Breakfast, set out buffet style in the farmhouse kitchen, is as bountiful as it is wholesome, delicious and nutritious. (Early risers can pick their own eggs from Borgo’s hens, which live the good life in brightly colored, luxury henhouses that stand on the edge of the estate like a row of beach cabanas in some upscale seaside town.) Milk, yogurt and cheese come from Borgo’s own dairy, naturally; breads, cakes, cookies and Viennoiseries (Viennese bread) are all baked in-house.

Lunch might be an excursion, a picnic on the grounds, a plate of salumi and a glass of Ruffino on the terrace, or a bowl of pici pasta with Chianina (local beef) ragù at Sull’ Albero, Borgo’s own trattoria, built around an ancient oak tree. At dinner, you’ll want to try Borgo’s Michelin-starred Meo Modo restaurant, where the farm-to-table experience has more resonance than that tired phrase usually deserves — the farm, after all, is all around you. Rabbit agnolotti and lamb with aubergine were two dishes I especially enjoyed at Meo Modo, where the wine list, incidentally, needs a crane to lift it. And soon it may need two cranes, as Borgo’s own vineyards begin to bear fruit. With organic vines first planted by Claus five years ago, production in 2019 will likely reach around 5,000 bottles, with full production expected by 2021.

In the meantime, the hotel offers tutored wine tastings in its extensive cellars. In an hour with Laura, one of Borgo’s knowledgeable young sommeliers, I learned as many interesting facts about Brunello, Chianti Classico and Super Tuscans as I did in my 18 years as a restaurant critic. And in a morning spent in Borgo’s cooking school, you can learn how to make two or three classic dishes that you’ll still be serving at home long after your Tuscan vacation is over.

For further amusement, you can walk into the local hamlet of Palazzetto, less than half a mile away, and check out Jeanette’s Seed to Skin shop. (That will take care of your vacation gift-shopping.) Turn right out of the gate instead and it’s little over a mile to San Galgano, the region’s oldest Cistercian abbey, well worth a visit. Further afield, Siena is 45 minutes away. Along with the sightseeing, be sure to schedule time for lunch at Osteria Le Logge, one of my favorite restaurants in all Tuscany, just off the famous Campo. Florence itself can be reached in around 90 minutes. Just across the Arno from the city center, the Borgo-owned Bottega del Buon Caffè is a wonderful place for a Michelin-starred lunch or dinner, only minutes from the action but far from the crowds. 

Last but hardly least is Satori, the Borgo owned and operated yacht — a 140-foot, hand-carved, five-cabin schooner, available for exclusive charter, to cruise the Mediterranean. France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Croatia. You go wherever your fancy and pocketbook take you, fully motorized or dreamily under sail. 

“Five cabins is a good number,” says Jeanette. “Or you could use only four, and set up the fifth exclusively as a spa,” she adds, “so your guests can enjoy daily treatments.” Sybaritism mixed with a healthy dose of pragmatism — who can argue with that?

For more, visit borgosantopietro.com.

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