Photo of Castello di Potentino

Review by James Dunford Wood, published 8th June 2011.

The road to Potentino is beautiful and winding. From the southern slopes of Chianti, beyond the lovely villages of Panzano and Castellina and south from Siena, the landscape becomes more dramatic, even volcanic in places. Approaching the road west to Grosseto and the coast you glimpse this massive stone outcrop on a hill in the distance - and then it disappears again. The sign to the castle, on a sharp bend in the road, is easily missed, and then it's a mile or two of bone shaking track down into a valley and up the other side and there it is - more like something you see in Cathar country than here in Tuscany.

Approaching up the forbidding ramp with wheelie suitacases will test the most sturdy construction. There are no porters here - you enter into a cavernous hall with smells of delicious Tuscan cookery in the oven and holler for the chatelaine. Charlotte Horton - for it is she - bought this castle just over ten years ago through a tortuous negotiation with 22 separate families who had a share in it, and has turned it into both a magificent home and a wonderful maison d'hote. Its romantic and sometimes bloody history seeps out of every stone - from the sit in, inglenook fire place in one of the top kitchens in which boiling tar was boiled to throw down on the heads of beseigers, to the stories of a mysterious woman who murdered her lover here - some locals are convinced Charlotte is she, returning to make amends. In World War Two it was a hospital and refuge centre for the local population, as equally terrified of the Nazis as the advancing allied armies towards the end of the war.

Charlotte and her architects have kept the basic structure of the castle intact, with its massive stone walls and ramparts, and created a series of romantic reception rooms and apartments. Being a maison d'hote, guests are invited to eat together with her and assorted interns ('woofers' in the jargon) and collaborators, who include a sommelier, assorted musicians, residents who lease some of the rooms on a timeshare basis, and passing friends and acquaintances.

They also hold wine and cookery courses and events, and guests are encouraged to pitch in with various aspects of daily living, whether it's clearing the forest or harvesting the grapes. The wine production here is c 10,000 litres, and they produce a very fine 'Super Tuscan'.

Potentino is a great base for exploring this little known corner of Tuscany, off the beaten track and largely untouched by mass tourism. There are good walks through the woods and slopes in this hidden valley, as well as neighbouring castles to visit (there's something of an association going on between them), and a bracing river to swim in, with waterfalls, and bbq or picnic spot on the banks. They are building an indoor swimming pool in one of the outbuildings, ready for late 2011.

We recommend Potentino as a great stop en route through Italy, or simply as a getaway. However, a night or two hardly does the place justice - to fully appreciate Potentino you need to sink into the rhythms of the castle and its charming inhabitants.

However, maison d'hote tourism is not for everyone - if you are not the type to want to socialise with strangers, then it's possible to have a self catering deal in one of the apartments. But in our opinion that is missing the point entirely.