AN ITALIAN ADVENTURE
A story of Fiat 500s, food and five-star luxury
Summer lovin’ sure had us a blast this August – with the Middle Eastern heat becoming too hot to handle, I escaped to the sunny side of the world and indulged in a typical European summer in Italy. A country known for its beauty (as well as helping you put on a few extra pounds), two weeks is definitely not long enough to drink in all the sites that Italy has to offer, however thanks to some speedy trains and fiat 500s, we managed to see some of the highs (and lows) of the Caprese capital of the world.
Flying into Naples (and leaving the capital as quickly as we arrived), the Italian adventure started on the Amalfi coast, an area of Italy long sought after for its stunning sea views, beach-side restaurants, shopping and the seriously sophisticated Capri. Though the roads are treacherous (worse than any I’ve ever experienced) and the countryside hilly (ditch the heels – there is no use for them in Amalfi), the place is as pretty as a postcard, with towns built into the hillside, bordered by sparkling clear blue sea. The coast itself is riddled with caves – the most famous being Coral Caves and La Grotta Blanca – and towns, some busier than others. Whilst Positano is positively hectic and Amalfi town quite far from all the action, I found the small town of Conca dei Marini not only perfectly positioned, but also surprisingly local – in fact, we barely came into contact with any tourists. From its perch atop a sheer, rocky ridge the magnificent hotel Monastero Santa Rosa offers an outstanding location with incredible views in all directions, fantastic rooms (some of the comfiest in Amalfi, we have heard!) and a restaurant that will have you drooling for their Il Risotto ‘Acquerello’ from dawn to dusk.
Situated between Amalfi and Positano, Monastero Santa Rosa Hotel & Spa is a spectacular former 17th century monastery, which has been lovingly restored into just twenty beautiful sea-view guest rooms and suites. The family run hotel is nestled into the side of a cliff, and the vaulted ceilings and arched windows of the nun’s rooms and refectory have been carefully preserved and are cleverly linked together to create light and airy spaces. Each room is decorated with historical photographs of the area and the monastery itself, adding to the sense of history and beds are made up with the finest white Italian linens whilst the splendid bathrooms, done out in sand-coloured Jerusalem stone and with heated floors, are stocked with the fluffiest white towels and Ortygia amenities from Sicily. A true refuge from city life the hotel has a beautifully manicured, five-tiered Italian garden, spectacular heated infinity pool with the most amazing views over the Italian sea and award-winning spa, complete with heated hydrotherapy pool. To the personalised service and friendly staff play a huge part in the success of this luxury property – the monastery bell rings to mark a guests’ arrival; team are on-hand with all requests (big or small), a hotel car will run you to nearby restaurants, whilst the restaurant Il Refettorio team will be there to pull out your chair every time you sit down (without fail!).
In November 2017, the hotel’s restaurant Il Refettorio was awarded its first Michelin star. This was the culmination of five years of passion and dedication from the team under the leadership of head chef Christoph Bob, who has held leading positions in some of Europe’s top restaurants including Alain Ducasse in Paris, Torre del Saracino in Naples and Petermann’s Kunststuben in Zurich. As Monastero Santa Rosa hovers between sea and sky, fittingly so too does Il Refettorio’s outdoor terrace where we enjoyed the most incredible al fresco dinner, with uninterrupted views over the gardens and out to sea.
The culinary treats of Santa Rosa are as unique as the monastery itself and Christoph Bob has created an innovative Mediterranean gastronomic experience for guests using the freshest ingredients from the surrounding Campania region, created with the seasons and locality in mind. The hotel’s terraced gardens and extensive kitchen garden provide the team with a huge variety of fresh seasonal ingredients including the Amalfi region’s famous lemons, an extensive selection of herbs, roses, fennel, strawberries and delicate zucchini, to name but a few. Left in the incredibly talented hands of Chef Christoph Bob, we tucked into a delicious tasting menu accompanied by a selection of wines from the Monastero’s the wine cellar (which has among 400 varieties of incredible local wines as well as world-famous award winners).
Steamed then smoked lobster served with a salad of spinach, fresh almond, celery and green apple followed by lightly fried prawns, calamari and red mullet served with Maftoul couscous, summer vegetables, Castellammare lupin beans, and a lemon emulsion sauce was first, hooking us from the first mouthful. Next was risotto, which as you can imagine was outstanding! When Christoph uses a 7 year-aged Carnaroli rice whisked with basil cream and raw shrimp topped with a Amalfitano lemon sauce, you know its going to be nothing short of spectacular – there is no over-exaggeration when I say this was the best risotto I’ve tasted in my life! A fillet of grilled local buffalo was next, served with roasted root vegetables over a mozzarella di bufala sauce followed by a cake so soft and scrumptious, I could have demolished 10. My best meal on Amalfi, I’ll be raving about this for years to come.
Monastero Santa Rosa is a 90-minute drive from Naples International Airport and 20 minutes from the Amalfi Port. Guests can even arrive by helicopter, which includes a flying jaunt over Naples, Vesuvius, Capri, Ischia and the sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii, on to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, landing just below the hotel. Rates start from €400 per room per night on a B&B basis.
After a week of steps, seafood and scary roads, I jumped on the train at Naples station – destination, Rome. Having not visited the ancient city for at least 10 years, I was excited to revisit to eat copious cones of gelato, take in the views of Vatican City atop St Paul’s Basilica and see all the sights I had watched through many viewings of Angels & Demons. The centre of Rome is small and getting around by foot is relatively easy. That being said, position is definitely still important (especially when you’re getting up at 7am to get in the queue for the Sistine Chapel). Being a big fan of Design Hotel’s, they are always my first port of call when booking (especially for city breaks) and it was here I found Elizabeth Unique Hotel, a cute and cosy spot nestled discreetly among the golden cobbled streets and time-worn terracotta hues of Rome’s historic city centre. Located just a short walk from the Spanish Steps, in a restored 17th-century palazzo, the 33-room property is an homage to Roman classicism and the masters of yesteryear, yet a firm contemporary imprint reveals a snapshot of modern-day Rome. Here, a centuries-old townhouse of dramatic scale boasts wide-arched hallways, hand-crafted workmanship, stand-out service and an art collection curated by a neighbourhood gallery.
Accessed on the quiet side street of Colonnette, an impressive double-height entrance greets you on arrival before whisking you up to the lobby via an elevator or staircase. Public spaces are intimate and characterized by neoclassical elements such as white marble, neutral tones and fireplaces. In addition, the spacious corridors are dotted with groupings of chairs and tables and just outside the chic all-in-one bar/breakfast/bistro room and terrace, there is a tiny garden, which doubles as the perfect spot for catching the mid-day sunshine.
Around each corner hides a couple of the 33 guest rooms, many offering views of the picturesque Via del Corso from their windows. The key visual feature in most of the guestrooms comes courtesy of stunning custom wallpaper mounted on the walls which frame the beds. A replica of antique prints, the black and white sceneries depict typical Roman countryside imagery, an evocation of the ‘grand tours’ of eras past. Light, natural oakwood floors, custom draperies, steel canopy beds or dramatic velvet headboards, and gold details combine to create a distinguished stay steeped in past and present. Bathrooms are outfitted in marble, with some suite categories boasting the added perk of a private sauna. All rooms offer top tier amenities including complimentary minibars, a bottle of local grape, cookies and chocolates (the chocolate coated almonds are insanely addictive), a pillow menu, a ‘concierge’ tablet loaded with everything from daily newspapers to room-service menus, plus products by Italian perfumery house, Laura Tonatto.
Available from dawn to dusk, the 40-seat Bacharach & Bistro is located on the first floor of the hotel and pays homage to the distinguished American composer Burt Bacharach. Elegant yet cozy, complete with sage green banquets and bar stools providing a splash of color, it is here I enjoyed many a morning coffee or evening aperitif. With contrasting white and grey-veined marble floors, salvia green chairs, and a bar framed by walnut wood paneling, expect international classics from an à la carte menu alongside regional specialties, as well as one of Rome’s pre-eminent breakfasts, served daily until 2:30pm (hallelujah to that!).
Traditional yet contemporary, private yet in the heart of it all, the hotel presents travellers with the perfect launch pad to explore the city. Additionally, with the help of Elizabeth’s Guest Service Ambassadors, we managed to find some of the cities hidden gem. Friendly and available at all hours, the talented team are on hand to make everything from reservations to tours with selected art-historian ‘Culture Managers’. They actually tipped us off about home-grown Ristorante Dilla on Via Mario de’ Fiori. Merging rustic and industrial design, the restaurant serves an Italian version of tapas alongside a great selection of grape – get a table of the street side and drink in the atmosphere. The hotel is also on the doorstep of the famous Spanish Steps and the rest of the centro storico is within easy reach. Additionally, the Borghese Gardens are just a stone’s throw away – a stroll here will take you via the Borghese Gallery and the National Gallery of Modern Art for those who love a touch of creative.
Elizabeth Unique Hotel
From Rome, we travelled north to live the tales of Tuscany – a region in the centre of Italy home to famous cities like Florence, Siena, Pisa and Lucca. From the Roman era to the Renaissance, the region of Tuscany is not just famous for its grappa, but also its great repertoire of art. Whilst aficionados can drink in some of the world’s best-known masterpieces and gourmets taste the local olive oil with home-made bread and Italian cheeses, walkers can enjoy the many stunning hikers, cyclists the mountainous trails and vacationers, the colourful coastline – in a nutshell, Tuscany has it all!
Living around the fruits if its fertile earth, we chose the gorgeous Borgo Scopeto Relais as our Tuscan hideout. Located 20km far away from Siena, Borgo Scopeto Relais is positioned perfectly in the Chianti countryside, in the municipality of Castelnuovo Berardenga. A building that has become timeless during its existence, a stay at Borgo Scopeto Relais also means a trip back in time. This estate, which for five centuries was the residence of the famous Sozzini dynasty, is now one of the most exclusive hotels in the area, full of charm and character. The name of the “Borgo Scopeto Relais” comes from a shrub typical of the oaks forests and perfectly matches with the Tuscan farmhouse vibe, blending the building perfectly with its countryside surrounding. Meanwhile, the sophisticated interiors and rooms with bare touches of 17th and 18th-century floral decorations, complete the unique style that brings the hilling Chianti hills and luminous beauty from the outside, in. In the stunning Relais, the boutique hotel houses 58 rooms and suites, one stunningly beautiful restaurant, a wellness centre, two outdoor swimming pools and solarium.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, the restaurant offers stunning views of the city of Siena, with views over the Mangia Tower and the cathedral’s belfry. With the interiors based in the old cellars of the house and the exteriors sprawled over a stunning cobbled courtyard, the furnishings and the decor blend into the typical Sienese style of the premises whilst the menu is a delight of genuine local and regional flavours with traditional recipes presented with an original twist on flavours. Each dish is a work of art and served by a host of friendly and attentive waiters. Whilst dinner is a masterpiece of pasta dishes, foie gras and a selection of seafood and meats, breakfast is an open buffet, with cold cuts, cooked cuisine, fresh fruit and flaky croissants and patisseries. The grape selection is also outstanding with reds and whites grown in the grounds of the relais.
Borgo Scopeto Relais also produces its own olive oil and balsamic vinegar that turned out to be the best I tasted throughout my Italian Adventure – so good that I smuggled some back home with me.
As well as the two swimming pools, the relais offers a fitness room, tennis courts, billiard table and fully equipped meeting rooms. The building is also set in picturesque countryside making it perfect walking territory. The expert team who are always at hand can also organise tours, hiking and visits to Scopeto’s winery with tastings. You can also hire mountain bikes, Vespas, and vintage cars – no request is ever too big or small for the talented team who handle the daily operations of this stunning property.
I loved my suite, which made up one of the 58 rooms and suites and was spacious with traditional touches. Each room is individually styled with contemporary furnishings inspired by the Chianti colour palette – mine for example was a beautiful sky blue throughout, with wooden window shutters and white accents. The en-suite bathroom was small but perfectly adequate and finished in marble complimented by toiletries from Borgo Scopeto’s own cosmetic range. I also had a spacious living room totally separate from my bedroom plus a TV, minibar, telephone and safe. Whilst my suite was situated in the main building along with the reception, restaurant and bar, there are adjacent buildings converted from farmhouses that house a number of other guest spaces.
Home to cypress trees, olive groves, vineyards and views as far as the eye can see, Borgo Scopeto Relais is the epitome of a Tuscan dream.