One thing Castello di Vicarello isn’t is easy to find. It has been two hours since we left the airport, and Mr Smith and I are still winding through vineyards, rolling hills and ancient villages. We’re peering desperately at the map for signs of a 12th-century castle, and it’s only by chance we stumble across a small hand-painted sign. ‘Aha,’ exclaims Mr Smith. ‘We’re here.’
The track, however, merely leads to several smaller tracks, and another hour of driving to parts of Tuscany into which I doubt any other hire car has ever ventured. Suddenly, though, just as our two-month-old relationship starts to show its first strains, Mr Smith spots another signpost. I hear him sigh with relief when we pass through the entrance to the estate, and start cruising towards the castle through vineyards and olive groves.
Ringed by fir trees, the imposing stone building is set against a backdrop of lush pastures and hazy hilltops that’s pure Renaissance fresco. We walk through an archway and into an ancient courtyard where we stand silently, looking at spikes of grass that poke like green hair from between the cobbles. The warm air carries the scent of rosemary and thyme, and the only sound is the buzz of insects. It’s hard to remember which century we’re in. It wouldn’t have surprised me had Russell Crowe appeared from behind one of the urns in full Gladiator garb – alas, I have to make do with Mr Smith in his shorts.
Lucia, the manager, spots us, and comes out to say buongiorno. Our suite, Vicario, is one of six on the estate, some in the castle and others just a short walk away. We don’t even have to worry about the short walk. Vicario is reached via a stone staircase so thick with mediaeval atmosphere that I can almost visualise Mr Smith tripping ahead of me in a doublet and hose. How many others have ascended these steps before us, I wonder?
The first thing I see when I enter our room is a fire that licks and crackles in an enormous stone hearth. The furnishings – wooden tables, huge day bed, wing chair in front of the blaze – are obviously inspired by owner Aurora Baccheschi Berti’s years in Bali, and our giant-scale oak bed continues the Brobdingnagian theme. I am six foot and Mr Smith is six foot two, and we can both comfortably make starfish shapes in it. At the same time.
Both windows in the suite’s living area frame views like perfectly composed landscape paintings, and the light they’re letting in is getting pinker by the second. When I re-enter the main room after taking a bath, the only illumination comes from the fire and flickering candles that Mr Smith has thoughtfully lit. He knows how to set a scene, that man.
Two glasses of wine later, and with heads feeling fuzzier than the peaches in our bedside fruit bowl, we descend the staircase for dinner. We start by asking the attentive Sri Lankan concierge, Damit, for gin and tonics, and he plonks a whole bottle of Gordons in front of us. Oh dear. Soon we’re sniggering like schoolchildren as we think up more inventive ways to misuse our friendly attendant’s name: ‘Damit, that’s a lovely G&T’; ‘What time’s dinner, Damit?’
Castello di Vicarello is not a place you’d come if you wanted to lose weight. We sit at a table big enough to take a castleful of knights – as well as the peasants from the next village – to enjoy the seasonal Tuscan cuisine, most of which come from the estate. Long before dishes are set down, we smell wild mushroom bruschetta and fresh ricotta-and-spinach ravioli being prepared. It’s sturdy stuff. By the time two giant slabs of beef are placed in front of us, we’re relying on the castle’s two grateful dogs to help clear our plates.
The next morning, I discover Mr Smith has pyromaniac tendencies. Propped up on pillows, I can hear plenty of poking and scratching, but see only a pair of feet poking out from the hearth. ‘Come back to bed,’ I call, and a sooty Mr Smith, clad only in boxer shorts, shuffles backwards to stand up. ‘Me man. Me make fire,’ he says, doing his best caveman impression. ‘You woman. You make coffee.’
I do. And, as the pot boils, I look out of the window onto thick mist that fills the valley below, leaving us an island in a white, gently swelling sea. It’s beautiful. I sip my coffee by the ledge, while Mr Smith’s cup cools on the mantelpiece. It takes until 11am to get him downstairs for a breakfast of home-made bread and cakes.
I don’t want to spend the next few hours watching Mr Smith burn things, so I lure him to Montalcino, a nearby hilltop town renowned for its wine. Its streets make delightful strolling territory, and we work up an appetite for lunch. In the cave-like Enoteca la Fortezza di Montalcino, we order a pig-sized plate of charcuterie and begin merrily washing it down with a carafe of Brunello.
‘Hang on,’ says Mr Smith suddenly, ‘someone’s got to drive back.’ We decide to settle things with a game of paper-scissor-stone. As I move to smother Mr Smith’s fist of stone with my palm of paper, the Italian family on the next table – enjoying one of those leisurely meals that six generations pitch up for – looks utterly bemused.
I’m glad Castello di Vicarello is hard to find. If I had my way, no one would know about it. And, though it may be too early for us to talk about marriage – Mr Smith nearly chokes on his breakfast when, on our final morning, I jokingly suggest we come back here to tie the knot – we have definitely decided on one thing. We’re going to buy a dog and name it after our concierge. We’ll always remember this weekend in Tuscany when we call him: ‘Damit, come here. Get back here, Damit…’