I have a new found respect for jockeys. In the saddle for the first time in 15 years and safe in the knowledge that my chosen steed is the calmest of the bunch, I set off on what promises to be a romantic ride along the Italian coast. The horse, however, has other ideas. Not one metre out of the stable and he’s taken over the directions, charging towards the field of juicy grass he’s no doubt been lusting after from his pen. My feeble kicks go unnoticed and the hour-long pony trek I’ve embarked on quickly becomes more of a battle of strength – a fight he often wins.
There is a positive about my stop-start journey, however: is it gives me time to admire the view. We’re on the outskirts of Castiglione della Pescaia, a coastal town in the Tuscan region of Maremma. We trek (or shuffle) through fields of dancing buttercups and bright poppies, flanked by a view of the Mediterranean Sea. There are cypress trees, olive groves, vineyards and a beach of flour-fine sand; it is Tuscany epitomised. It’s hard to imagine this former marshland as anything other than picturesque, but these rolling hills were once an uninhabitable swamp. Its appearance today it owes much to Leopold II, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.
Known as one of the ‘enlightened despots’ of the 1800s, Leopold II authorised the Tuscan constitution in 1848, which paved the way for a marginally free press, removed freedom restrictions imposed by his predecessors – the house of Medici – and introduced a rational taxation system. In between fighting for a more liberal Italy, he called for marshland in the Tuscan area to be drained – including Maremma. It’s here that he set up his holiday home, a terracotta villa where he and his court would retreat during the blazing summer months.
When I arrive at his former bolthole, now the five-star L’Andana hotel, it’s easy to see why he settled on this particular spot. Cypress trees line the mile-long driveway like fluffy green needles, through which you can catch the odd glimpse of grapevines and the occasional grazing bull. Beyond that, it’s fields for miles. Apparently peace and quiet were top of Leopold’s agenda.
Centuries later and the Duke’s desire for a quiet life is still very much being fulfilled at L’Andana. The building has been sensitively decorated to match the Italian grandeur once awarded to its original owner, with ornate furniture, trickling lions-head water fountains and grand chandeliers. But it also has something of a country house feel to it; a rustic retreat dancing on the edge of opulence. Guests roam around barefoot, eating picnics of burrata and crusty Tuscan bread on the grass and lounging by the outdoor pool. There’s also an indoor pool for rainy days, a sauna and an ESPA spa for post-pony trek massages.
As to be expected from a Tuscan hotel, the food is outstanding. In the villa’s former granary you’ll find La Trattoria Enrico Bartolini, the eponymous ain restaurant headed up by the Tuscan Michelin-starred chef. Bartolini’s contemporary take on Tuscan food is both delicious and daring: fish tartare, prawns served both raw and deep-fried, traditional Tuscan soup and a runny chocolate dessert are among the highlights. At the more casual La Villa restaurant, chunky spindles of pasta are topped with beef ragout, grilled sea bass is served with fresh broad beans and dessert is an indulgent tiramisu – it is delicious. All of the produce, including the estate’s own olive oil, is grown onsite – on more than one occasion I spot a chef returning to the kitchen with a bowl full of fresh greens. It also boasts its own Acquagiusta winery, where four types of vino are produced – oenophiles can partake in a wine tour and tasting.
Cycle tours and horse riding excursions can also be arranged by the concierge, and there is a golf course nearby should you wish to practise your swing – I, however, find the villa is best used for what it was originally intended: relaxation. A long weekend goes by all too quickly and I know I’m not the only guest who wishes they could spend their whole summer here. Of all the Duke’s successes, this is perhaps his greatest.
From €440 per night based on two people sharing, including breakfast, +39 0564 944 800, andana.it