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Five historic hotel hideaways in Europe
May 8, 2013 | By:
Boutique hotel specialists Mr & Mrs Smith select five history-steeped retreats that combine rustic charm, rural surroundings and modern comforts.
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Boutique bedrooms and a pool sit alongside the more rustic charms at Kapsaliana Village Hotel

Kapsaliana: a Greek village amid the olive groves 

Not many hotels come with their own 18th-century olive press, museum, artefacts and medieval monuments. But then Kapsaliana Village Hotel isn’t a run-of-the mill retreat (though there is a mill, owned by the Arkadi Monastery and now used to showcase tools from the press). The living areas are scattered with an archaeologist’s dream bounty: terracotta urns, traditional tools, lanterns and candlesticks. Even the bedrooms, set in 16 stone buildings, are steeped in history, with vaulted ceilings, rustic stone walls and uneven outdoor staircases.

The village’s focus was originally the olive oil press. These days, the boutique bedrooms, relaxed restaurant and outdoor pool take centre stage, and the press has been taken apart, with wheels dotted around the museum and pitharia in the lounge. The gardens look out over the olive groves, with snatches of sea in the distance, and pads come with private terraces.

The restaurant is styled around a typical Cretan kitchen, with wooden tables and chairs, white arched walls and bright tapestries. Chef Maria finds out guests’ culinary leanings, and cooks a simple set menu based on their preferences. Food is organic, locally sourced and simply delicious, with dishes such as lamb with artichokes, chicken with lemon and olives, meat pie with wild herbs and delicate sugared pastries. Each room is named after a different Greek hero – and you can write your own epic adventure with a stay here. Kapsaliana.

Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle: a Provençal inn with a superstar chef  

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This Alain Ducasse-owned inn in rural France, where grapes grow fatly and the sun shines ripely, is as Provençal as petanque and pastis. Nocturnal nuns and Gallic generals have bedded down here – though they had to make do without the turquoise pool and wine conservatory, poor things.

All ten rooms are beautiful but for historic gravitas, opt for the Lucrèce de Barras suite (where General de Gaulle often rested his hoary head).

Unsurprisingly, the star of the show is the restaurant. Ducasse wouldn’t leave just any old Tom, Dick or Jean-Claude in charge of his kitchen: head chef Benoit Witz has already enjoyed a glittering culinary career, having first worked with his boss back in 1987, at Louis XV in Monte Carlo. Witz’s philosophy is low-key: “Real ingredients, simple cooking and authentic tastes.” Most of the restaurant’s produce comes from its gardens; everything else is from within a 30km radius.

Choose from a variety of menus: seasonal, six-course tasting, and the weekend lobster menu. Porcelain vegetables by local French artist Jean-Paul Gourdon decorate the white-linen-topped tables and the crockery comes from Atelier Soleil, one of the oldest pottery producers in Provence. Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle. 

Sextantio Albergo Diffuso: a fortress conversion in Abruzzo, Italy
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This unique hotel is spread throughout a hamlet in the Italian Apennines. It’s a throwback to the Middle Ages (thanks to the craftwork made by villagers, restoration-revived traditions and rustic simplicity) that seamlessly incorporates a healthy dose of thoroughly modern luxury.

All the dimly lit and atmospheric rooms are minimalist and medieval, with working fireplaces, stone walls and wooden doors. The beds are high enough to fit a chamberpot beneath (don’t worry, there are flushing toilets in each bedroom now) and have hand-stuffed woollen mattresses.

The sense of history is embodied in the kitchen too. Locanda Sotto gli Archi, the hotel’s restaurant, serves Abruzzese cuisine in a rustic 16th-century building. Try traditional antipasti such as pork liver salami, prosciutto and the freshest ricotta. The speciality pasta of the area is also rustled up in the kitchens: strips of chitarrini are made using a guitar-shaped tool to shape the pasta sheets. Sextantio Albergo Diffuso.

Castell d’Empordà: Catalan castle cool 

Wannabe explorers should head to Castell d’Emporada, sandwiched splendidly between the Pyrenees peaks and the Costa Brava’s cliffs and coves. Having discovered new worlds and plundered the oceans with Christopher Columbus, the explorer Captain Margarit decided to up-ship and settle down in this castle in the Catalan countryside. Good enough to tempt a reluctant landlubber into domesticity (along with Salvador Dalí, who tried unsuccessfully to buy the castle in the 70s), it has certainly piqued our interest.

It is kitted out with Gaudí-esque bull’s-head decorations, furnishings etched with dragons (the village’s symbol), heavy silk drapes and opulent black chandeliers. Scatterings of artefacts, Chinese art, antique rugs and sumptuous velvet wall panels pay homage to Margarit’s globetrotting bent.

The hotel also has a sexy, atmospheric restaurant and a pretty cellar bar. And of course there are the beautiful grounds to explore, including an olive grove, a sprawling rock garden, a herb- and vegetable-packed kitchen garden and a winding path, flanked with jewel-coloured flowers, leading off into the forest. The outdoor turquoise-tiled pool, built into a timber deck near the edge of the cliff, is a great place to soak up the Catalan countryside views. Castell d’Empordà.

Borgo della Marmotta: a rustic villa in the Umbrian hills

This 17th-century hamlet set amid 12,000 olive trees, with views of Spoleto Valley and deliciously romantic rooms, is the kind of place you lose your heart to. Sure, Borgo della Marmotta is a hotel, but by gum, it doesn’t feel like one. Staying here is a chance to slip seamlessly into Italian rural life – farmers were still working the land just 40 years ago.

Though the labourers have moved aside for discerning guests, farmyard trappings remain. Rooms are set in what were once the hamlet’s stables, granaries, pens, mills and sheepfolds. They come styled with natural grace: wood, stone, linen and cotton. Even the paint is made from lime and natural pigments.

Unsurprisingly for a hotel with such a glorious Umbrian perch, it’s what’s outside that really counts. The hamlet is still a busy producer of olive oil, and this flavours a stay here. Guests can tour the olive groves, sample the oil varieties, and even take a little piece of the local history home with them: the hotel runs an olive tree adoption scheme. Take a tree under your wing and you’ll be signing up to a regular supply of Umbria’s ‘green gold’.  Borgo della Marmotta