The rich tapestry of golf property in Tuscany
CASTELFALFI & LA BOGNAIA, TUSCANY
Chianti, olive oil and Leonardo da Vinci typically come to mind when we think of Tuscany. Now there is another reason to visit or even buy a holiday home in this central Italian province, namely a quorum of new golf courses. Just as the talent of the Molinari brothers and the splendid Matteo Manassero is coming to the fore, Italian golf course design is also on a roll, with projects like Toscana Resort Castelfalfi leading the way.
In the heart of the Pisa-Florence- Siena ‘Chiantishire’ triangle, Europe’s largest travel company, TUI, is restoring an historic hilltop village dating back to the 12th century, beneath which 27 holes have already been built, with another nine planned. The 6,945-yard Mountain Course, which opened in 2010, is maturing nicely. Built on a series of wooded hillsides, the set-up features water and substantial elevation changes. On the rather unusual 482-yard dogleg 18th, for instance, you drive down to a series of ledges overlooking an island green 60 feet below you. With the wind swirling, it’s a potentially card-wrecking end to the round. Perched on the hilltop overlooking the club, the ancient castello has a distinctly operatic charm. The course is in great shape, and the stylish if occasionally noisy enthusiasm of Italian club golfers all makes for a good day out.
In the first phase of the £210 million Castelfalfi project, the castello is being turned into a gourmet restaurant and cookery school, while the original main street of the borgo (village) is being converted into shops, bars and 35 freehold apartments, priced from just £190,000 through agents Knight Frank.
Over fresh pasta with wild boar sauce, the scheme’s manager, Martin Schlüter, explained: “Because we already have these atmospheric old buildings, this will soon be reborn as a typically vibrant Tuscan community. And behind stylish Italian exteriors, there’ll be efficient German interiors,” which sounds to me like a winning combination. I also like the idea of consuming wine and olive oil produced on ‘my’ estate, not to mention a spot of truffle hunting. One 32-room boutique hotel is already being refurbished, two more will be built, and 11 fairway-side golf villas created, costing from about £1m each. The 2,700-acre estate also contains 18 old casali, authentic Tuscan farmhouses, which are ‘ripe for conversion’ as they say, starting at £588,000.
The 2008 recession and Italy’s current financial woes have killed off a few similar projects, but with the clout of TUI behind it, this one has a bright future.
Another coming to the market this year is La Bagnaia, just eight miles from Siena. A brand new Robert Trent Jones II course which I was lucky enough to play last autumn is opening to the public in a few weeks.
Turning off the road from Grossetto to Siena, one approaches Borgo La Bagnaia down an avenue of ancient Cypress trees. The medieval hamlet and 5-star hotel sit halfway up a bosky hillside with the course spread out below. The maestro has taken a relatively bare 130 hectares and created a compact 6,672-yard track that could in time become of the region’s very best.
It already plays well from tee to angled fairways to multi-tiered greens, although the landscaping is still a work in progress. Time will change that, but as RTJ II has decided against planting new trees, it’s left to aggressive bunkering and several man-made lakes to provide the challenges to low scoring.
I particularly liked the par-five 560-yard 13th, an acute dogleg right, around water, with a cluster of bunkers protecting the elbow from overly ambitious tee shots. Even for the pros, a good drive still leaves an approach with a fairway wood to a small green over 200 daunting yards of water – or in my case, a lay-up left with a rescue.
With five tees on every hole, the overall design suits a range of abilities, but scratch players will find plenty to enjoy, especially if the wind gets up. The terrain is quite open, though, so it could feel a tad crowded on busy weekends.
Which brings us to the property side, for such is the economics of modern course construction, the one helps pay for the other. There are already 100 hotel rooms on site, a palatial spa and fine dining, plus the commodious new clubhouse, all of which drive custom towards the new club, but the future welfare of the course relies in part on the success of property sales.
Ten new stone buildings, reflecting the existing borgo stone, stucco and terracotta slate design, should be ready later this year or early next. One will be divided into six apartments, starting at £498,000; another will be townhouses from £1.65 million, and a single palatial villa will cost £3 million plus. Underground parking, integrated A/C, broadband, cellar storage, and the very best in Italian interior design go some way to justifying the rather ambitious prices. If buyers want a little more space and privacy there are also a number of farmhouses scattered around the one-time hunting estate just waiting to be restored. A long weekend in the resort hotel is a good way of enjoying the course and exploring the region.
There are other excellent clubs nearby. Fifteen miles north of Florence, the long, hilly Poggio dei Medici features USGA-spec greens and a design varied enough to attract the Challenge Tour. The ritzy clubhouse has fine dining, and the modern 70- room hotel, with a spa and two swimming pools, is sensibly priced – about £180 per person for two nights, including dinner and green fee. The nearby Arnold Palmer-designed parkland Le Pavoniere course has something of the K Club about it.
Wide-open fairways, giant bunkers, and water hazards short of the greens all look attractive but require careful course management – long hitters will like it. Clubhouse cuisine is so good, members finish their game, go home to change, then return with their guests for dinner.
The courses at Terme di Saturnia, the new Tom Weiskopfdesigned Castiglion del Bosco, and a little further south, Argentario, are all welcome additions to the Tuscan golfing scenery. Ugolino may once have been good but has sadly fallen on hard times.
The lunchtime gorgonzola on bruschetta smeared with black truffle, covered in fresh virgin olive oil with just a drizzle of honey was, however, heaven. In Tuscany, there are culinary compensations around every corner.
Another way to play golf and enjoy the region is to buy a fraction of a restored borgo that is near but not actually on a course. Close to Cortona, Borgo di Vagli is a one-time Medieval hamlet that’s been converted into holiday homes. Just £63,000 gets you a one-tenth share of a charming one-bedroom apartment, with almost unlimited all-year-round access. Two-thirds of the shares in the 21 picturesque stone farmhouses have already sold, and a weekly golf tournament organized.
Tuscany is still more about lifestyle, culture and history than straight golf – this will never be the Algarve or the Costas. But for discerning second home-buying golfers, especially those with non-playing partners, the region really does promise la dolce vita.