I had my last “big birthday” in Tuscany, in a dreamy villa close to Lucca. I’d decided on the general location years in advance and discovered, as if fate had a hand in it, that a friend’s family had a giant house with a pool that they’d be happy to rent for me for an insanely modest amount. Nothing else does it for me quite like that light, those hills, and €3 bottles of Prosecco.
As it turned out, my birthday was a short drive from Barga, a place I hadn’t really heard of until going to a wedding within its medieval walls last month. “Ah, a Scottish wedding,” remarked someone I’d got chatting to in a Florence trattoria the week before. “Actually, it is!” I replied. “Do you know the couple?”
“No,” came the response, “if it’s a wedding in Barga, it’s always a Scottish wedding.”
It turns out that all those Glaswegian ice cream parlours and delis with Italian surnames above the door have their roots here. When the locals left Barga during the industrial downturn of the early 20th century, they uniformly headed to Scotland. Now, their offspring are coming back to get hitched, with all the trimmings that nonna could hope for.
Only in Italy would a mariachi version of “Hotel California” be considered apposite aural accompaniment for a sunlounger
I was late for the wedding due to a tardy local taxi driver, and arrived a hot mess, on the most stifling day of the year, having run up the hill to the Duomo in the direction of bagpipes and the bride already making her entrance. If the couple had gone with their original reception venue idea – close to Il Ciocco mountain and its surrounding park – I could have nipped back for a shower. This is where the fanciest hotel in the area is: the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa. I was staying there less for proximity to the church, and more for the pool – after a week of Pitti Uomo, pasta, Chianti and a wedding, I figured I could do with tagging on a day of doggy-paddling and snoozing before heading back to London and a much needed carb-free diet.
The branding of the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco suggests corporate Americana (it is, of course, a Marriott), but it’s typically Italian in many ways. The lobby is fully of fabulously fussy contemporary blown-glass lighting, while everything has been laid out to be as close to counter-intuitive as possible. When I went for a Campari and soda by the pool, I had to ask for the music to be turned down, down and down some more; per favore dio OFF. Only in Italy would a mariachi version of “Hotel California” be considered apposite aural accompaniment for a sunlounger. Likewise, on the way to check-in there’s a kind of mini-village of antique and art stores, which seem permanently closed. So far, so Italian.
Going by the scale of it all – and the various deserted banquet halls and meeting rooms I passed – conferences and weddings that are the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco’s bread and butter. Nonetheless, it’s still a really rather excellent hotel to use as a base from which to explore some of the most beautiful scenery in Tuscany. There are wineries and cobbled towns aplenty, and mountain treks if you fancy. The bedrooms are all impressively five-star – as tasteful and fresh- feeling as they are plush, albeit with an obsessively strange arrangement of cushions on each bed from housekeeping. I really liked the Tokyo Milk body products – an unexpected appearance by the Denver-based beauty brand, particularly when hotels in Tuscany seem to obsess about wine and olive oil for their bathroom soaps and unguents.
Dining here is a little odd – lunch is served on a small terrace and room up a couple of flights of stairs, indicated by signs that seem temporary. Later on, other areas of the space open up for dinner, with a much larger terrace for al fresco dining. The food is as good as it needs to be, with some low points and some standouts: the “Fassona” beef tartar has the texture and appearance of an overly blended meatball awaiting the frying pan, but I could eat the little bites of fried pasta served with the wild boar ham and the deer speck for days. See also: deep-fried sage leaves. Consider them Italian tempura. Truly lovely. There are solid pasta dishes, made all the better for their simplicity, and there are all the grilled chop and tagliata dishes you’d expect. Dining on the terrace at sundown, beneath the golden slanted Tuscan light, makes you forgive any shortcomings in the kitchen, while the wine list and the accessible pricing are both surprising and appealing.
Like a lot of big hotels, life at the Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco is, essentially, all about the pool. I’d recommend staying here just on the strength of it. After you’ve schlepped around the Tuscan must-sees in weather that could induce sunstroke in a camel herder, it’s got solid gold Slim Aarons appeal. It’s worth getting married, or turning an age that ends in a zero, just for the views across the countryside from poolside, midway up the mountain. C
Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, Via Giovanni Pascoli, 55051 Barga LU, Italy
+39 0583 7691; marriot.com