One of the delights of my Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ holiday [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany] was a life-enhancing visit to the Castello di Meleto [http://www.castellomeleto.it/eng/castle/castle.php].
This is an intriguing place, a medieval hill-top castle documented from 1256 and for centuries owned by the Ricasoli-Firidolfi family, who sold up only in 1968. The interiors, on the ground floor at least, are entirely baroque, with an unrestored patina of faded splendour.
We were treated to a cookery demonstration by the chef, Elena, who spoke only Italian, translated (or perhaps explicated) by the hostess Geraldine, who extolled the quality of the Castle’s extra virgin olive oil, which we were invited to smell and taste.
We were shown how to make an Italian stew, which seemed to me exactly how I would make an English stew with Italian ingredients.
The pasta-making demonstration was more entertaining, and a great deal of pasta was passed hand to hand around the group.
We were invited out for antipasti on the terrace, where a classical wing of the house (with a medieval turret on the end) faces a flat lawn and a wall, from where expanses of hillside vineyards are visible.
No sooner had we wandered outside than a misty rain began to fall, and within ten minutes the waitresses shifted the antipasti back into the castle and a loud clap of thunder heralded a downpour that lasted no more than half an hour.
We tucked into the antipasti indoors while Geraldine gave lectures first on the Castle’s white wine and then on the rosé, all the time pouring wine into everyone’s glasses and interrupting her flow with “I’ll fetch another bottle.” There was no sniffing or spitting. This was a straightforward invitation to get trollied.
We weren’t formally shown the downstairs rooms, but instead trotted off to the cellars which are tricked out with barrels and racks of bottles.
Geraldine took us from the cellars to a surprise – a tiny, intact private theatre, dated 1741, complete with perspective scenery and a balcony. I can find nothing of any significance about it online, and I’ve never come across it in the theatre-history literature.
Indeed, I wonder if its provenance and history have been seriously researched. It is at any rate a great rarity.
A three-course dinner followed, liberally lubricated with red chianti and a dessert wine. I sat back from the conversation and watched the sunset through the trees outside the window.
Then predictably, “pat,…like the catastrophe in the old comedy”, came the buying opportunity. My fellow guests queued up to buy bottles of wine and olive oil, while I sat in an armchair and watched.
Eventually we began the journey back, of which the first seventy minutes were simply a succession of hairpin bends and a few small villages. We joined the motorway south of Florence, and it took another three-quarters of an hour to reach our hotel in Montecatini Terme.
I reflected on the considerable appeal of the Castillo di Meleto. It’s now owned by a joint-stock company and you can stay there, at rates which are high but not outrageous. However, it’s so remote that it would be impractical to go anywhere: it’s simply a place to enjoy, with extensive gardens, an infinity pool and a restaurant down the drive for lunch and dinner: https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://www.castellomeleto.it/&prev=search.