Like a fine wine, it has been some time in the making
We'd been invited to Tuscany to celebrate the opening of Toscana Resort Castelfalfi’s new clubhouse. It was a long way to go to visit just one Tuscan clubhouse so we decided to visit them all. And play their golf courses too!
Toscana Resort Castelfalfi is a ‘gateway’ to the wonderful Italian region of Tuscany. Equidistant from the cities of Pisa and Florence with low-cost airlines whisking you in from most European hubs, you can arrive at the hotel, check-in and be ready to golf in little more than an hour.
This relatively new, 5-star resort is an island of elegance far from the ‘madding crowds’. Service levels are exemplary with 5-star care and attention in an expansive, multi-faceted resort.
Toscana Resort Castelfalfi
Castelfalfi is run and operated by TUI Blue, the German tour company, not your typical golf resort operators but they’ve done something quite exceptional here, renovating a derelict medieval village and returning it to rude health.
Castelfalfi’s history goes all the way back to the Etruscans. The village or ‘Borgo’ prospered through the Middle Ages, even adding a tabbacaia in the early 20th century to dry tobacco plants imported from America. WWII didn’t do the community any favours and the Borgo and farms were gradually abandoned as tenants migrated to find work in nearby cities such as Valdera and Pontedera.
Toscana Resort Castelfalfi
The estate was restored by TUI AG after the purchase of the whole area in 2007 and what has transpired is a self-contained celebration of Tuscan life. The viticulture, olive groves and kitchen gardens have all been fully restored, producing delicious organic wine and olive oil.
As for accommodation, the main 5-star hotel is a class-act of comfort and elegance while the neighbouring 'Tabbacaia' has been tastefully transformed into a 4-star facility. Within the village, there are villas and apartments for sale or rent for more secluded stays, all overlooking the most enchanting Chianti countryside. Also in the village, you find an array of craft shops, bike rentals, cafes and even a hairdresser to augment a decidedly self-sufficient stay.
The stunning new clubhouse at Toscana Resort Castelfalfi
We’d come on the occasion of the opening of the new Castelfalfi clubhouse, the final piece of the jigsaw at the heart of a superb 27- holes of surprising diversity.
The main course is called ‘The Mountain’, a bit of a misnomer as it’s not really ‘mountainous’. But it is fairly hilly! Don’t let that put you off! The holes flow seamlessly through the undulating Tuscan terrain and you can walk the course as I noticed most of the members doing - but it must keep them fit!
Luxury surrounds the new clubhouse at Toscana Resort Castelfalfi
From a playing perspective, the Mountain is noticeably demanding. You need to have your A-game from the 1st. I recommend you play the course at least twice to appraise its character and capture its full flavour. There are a couple of quirky corners that the designers have done their best to work into the sometimes challenging terrain but all-in-all, they’ve done a grand job and it’s a hugely rewarding experience. Out of numerous remarkable holes, the 9th is the most memorable, a par 3 with a 50-meter drop. The 18th, although a dogleg par 4 finishes in a similar fashion.
Toscana Resort Castelfalfi
We didn’t have time to play the Lake Course which looks shorter and more open and would no doubt make a good warm-up round ahead of the more demanding Mountain.
It was time to hit the road and what a road it was! Tuscany’s golf resorts are conveniently positioned about an hour’s drive from one another so it makes sense to plan a two or even three-centre vacation. That way you can make time to appreciate all that this fabulous Italian region has to offer.
The village of San Gimignano is only a short drive from Castelfalfi and a highly recommended first-stop. Its medieval skyscrapers and ancient apartments stand amid a warren of slender lanes and diminutive squares. Tuscany is peppered with such hilltop villages and it would be remiss to miss any of them.
Our next golf stop was Royal Golf La Bagnaia which might be a mouthful to pronounce but it was certainly not hard to enjoy. Out of all the courses we played, La Bagnaia stands out as the best presented, in superb condition, not long but wide open with amply generous fairways. So if your driver’s working well, it can be a good day at ‘the office’.
Royal Golf La Bagnaia
Water and bunkers are the course's main defence but these can be carefully navigated. The Borgo of La Bagnaia is not dissimilar to Castelfalfi in that the main hotel facility had been tastefully blended into original buildings lending the place an air of authenticity.
That evening we took the short drive back to the town of Siena for a stroll around and some dinner. Siena’s medieval streets surround a central square, the Piazza del Campo, where Il Palio, a spectacular horse race is held twice a year. Siena is also famous for its cuisine and there are dozens of exquisite little ‘trattoria’ hidden away in small alleyways. The only problem is which to choose!
Castiglion del Bosco Golf Club
And now for something completely different! Castiglion del Bosco is one of the most exclusive corners of Tuscany, a unique country estate at the heart of one of the best wine-producing regions in the world. The property includes exclusive accommodations, wine tours and an impeccable, Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course.
The story of Castiglion del Bosco is compelling. Massimo Ferragamo, the youngest son of Salvatore Ferragamo, founder of an international luxury leather goods empire, came here to find a modest 10 hectares of Brunello countryside in which to produce some wine. He ended up buying an entire abandoned village along with 60 hectares of surrounding vineyards.
Castiglion del Bosco Winery
Today, the village has been transformed into the most elegant Tuscan retreat, favoured by well-heeled patrons, particularly Americans. The luxury accommodations include suites in the Borgo plus 11 luxury villas scattered throughout the estate. Castiglion del Bosco Winery is also part of the estate and the ideal place to learn all about one of Italy’s top wine-producing regions. Tours need to be booked in advance but it is definitely worth calling in here. Following a round of the cellars and the ageing room, we enjoyed a tasting of four wines including Brunello di Montalcino accompanied by some of the finest Tuscan cheeses and homemade cold cuts.
Castiglion del Bosco Winery
The road to Saturnia took us through some hilly countryside that, if it wasn’t for the acres of olive groves and rows of vineyards, reminded me of Scotland. We stopped to take a shot of the landscape and by good fortune, there below us was the Cascades of Saturnia.
The Terme di Saturnia is a spa resort, its main pool fed by a single thermal spring which bubbles up from the earth’s mantle at a comfortable 37.5 degrees. There has been a ‘spa’ here since the Etruscan-Roman era. Today, the thermal pool is surrounded by a full, 5-star hotel facility not to mention 18 excellent holes of golf. Apart from a slight odour of eggs, what more could you ask for?
Terme di Saturnia
In the excellent company of Procolo Sabbatino, the club’s professional, we enjoyed one of the best rounds of the tour. Saturnia’s course was crafted by American architect Ronald Fream back in 2007, a markedly moving configuration, twisting and dipping with never a dull moment through an ecologically sensitive area. And after golf, it was straight back to the thermal pool to relax and revive tired golf muscles.
Our Grand Tour continued with another hour’s drive this time towards the coast. The Argentario Golf Resort & Spa is yet another fine, 5-star facility with a strong design-slant, two magnificent restaurants, an extensive wellness centre and the only PGA National golf course in Italy.
Argentario Golf Resort & Spa
Situated on an island, the golf course is never short on views or challenge. What I liked about the Italian courses we’d encountered thus far was their 'shapely’ configuration and Argentario is no exception. The greens are small and in a speedy condition so it was here we were most challenged. The overall experience is one of the finest quality and the same can be said of Argentario’s main restaurant, ‘Dama Dama’ where chef Emiliano Lombardelli lead us through his Tasting Menu, a tour of the flavours, aromas and colours of this delightful corner of the region - with wines to match, of course.
The skies were darkening as we headed north towards the seaside town of Punta Ala. By the time we reached the town of Punta Ala, the heavens had opened. In the deluge, we missed our hotel entrance and drove on towards the golf course, seeing virtual rivers cascading across the greens and fairways. Surely there would be no golf the next day!
Much to our delight, Punta Ala was perfectly playable the following morning. Set close to the sea, this undulating, wooded parkland drained effortlessly and there was little evidence of the previous night's floods.
I don’t want to go on about how great the courses are throughout Tuscany (as you might stop believing me) but yet again here was another exciting test, completely different from any we'd sampled so far and offering great views to the island of Elba where Napoleon Bonapart was once exiled.
Enjoying a glass of wine in Florence after a hard days golf
If you come to Tuscany, you need to spend at least a day or two in the city of Florence and at this unprecedented time, we were fortunate enough to have the place largely to ourselves. I’d prefer to see the place busy but it was a sort of inverted privilege to stroll through Florence's charming streets and bridges without the customary hordes of tourists.
The city doesn’t seem that big and even near the principal tourist area surrounding the Ponte Vecchio, there are lots of little bars and trattoria where the locals congregate with prices a lot less than you would expect. I could get used to a place like this.
Night falls in Florence
From Florence, the GPS lead us across the mountains on a winding road that eventually, brought us to the district of. We could have come more directly and quickly but it was an interesting drive.
This little, unassuming golf club set in the hills of the Montalbano with its 9 guest rooms turned out to be a highlight of our visit. The course is pure fun, not long but twisting through olive groves in a medley of doglegs and drops that keep you on your toes. In the company of two members, we played almost into the dark, so keen we were to sample all of this wonderful little course.
Golf Montecatini Terme
The main clubhouse building is an old Tuscan farm that has been lovingly restored with the newer hotel block attached. This is the real Tuscany and we felt quite at home. We had a superb meal in the clubhouse restaurant that evening, settling our bets with glasses of whisky.
Directly south of Florence is Ugolino, the oldest club in Italy and one you absolutely must visit, not just to capture its sense of history but because the course is hugely entertaining, employing the dips and rises of this magnificent Chianti countryside. After a look round the historic clubhouse, we had lunch, loving the old fashioned, authentic Italian style, not to mention the incredible food.
Ugolino Golf Club
The original Florence Golf Club was founded in 1889 but that course is now buried somewhere under Florence Airport. In 1933 the club relocated to more secluded hill country south of the city and has never looked back. It’s a par 72 that only measures 5,672 meters (almost 6,200 yards) which tells you a lot of the course’s tricky nature. Besides the undulating terrain, you have sloping fairways and small, very well-protected greens.
Golf Bellosguardo Vinci
Just south of Montecatini Terme, we finished our tour at Golf Bellosguardo Vinci, a relatively new facility which, imaginatively celebrates the works of Leonardo Da Vinci who hailed from the neighbouring village. The superb clubhouse restaurant is flanked by an open-air museum with models of his most famous inventions. There are very comfortable rooms available here also. The course is only 9-holes carved onto the sides of a valley to great effect.
We set out to conquer the entire Tuscan region and we managed it, although I did learn along the way, there are a few more golf courses - 22 in all. I don’t recommend you do the same but perhaps you can use this information to pick the most appealing resorts and courses and plan your own Grand Tour of Tuscany.
For more information on Tuscany: www.visittuscany.com / www. playgolfintuscany.it