Emilia Romagna isn’t top of the list usually for an Italian trip-unless it’s for business, to visit the headquarters of Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati or for gourmets to make a pilgrimage to Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena and other culinary draws in Bologna and Parma. Many just pass through it driving between Tuscany and Milan. But apart from those cities, there’s another reason to stop in this region: 14 miles outside of Bologna, Palazzo di Varignana Resort & SPA combines a full scale wellness retreat, the area’s culinary richness including wine and olive oil produced on site, views of green hills on par with Tuscany’s courtesy of the Apennine foothills and six spacious villas including a newly opened one transformed from a 1366 church.
The property started with the renovation of the 18th century Palazzo Bentivoglio, a country castle that caught the eye of owner Carlo Gherardi, the CEO of the Bologna-based credit information company Crif. The original plan after that was to create a housing option for visiting employees of the multi-national company but the project expanded to restoration of other abandoned farmhouses and historic structures leading to a 134 room hotel in six buildings on a 741 acre property, half of which is devoted to olive trees and vineyards for production of the estate’s olive oil and wine. Guests can taste both in the red brick cantina a short drive from the main building and for more active pursuits, hike or bike the hills past the vineyards or practice their golf swing (there’s an 18 hole course nearby) at the driving range on site.
Long enclosed corridors connect the various accommodations buildings to the 39, 826 square foot Varsana Spa resulting in the sight of guests in bathrobes padding back and forth, occasionally lost. But the spa is worth finding. Several treatments effectively use the farm’s agricultural ingredients such as a massage with olive oil, especially if administered by the Thai-born and extremely skilled therapist Yupin, a facial treatment with saffron pistils and vitamin C for women, the bioflavonoids of the estate Sangiovese for men and more Sangiovese and pomegranate extract as a revitalizing treatment for legs. Other treatments run the international gamut from balancing chakras with oils and gemstones, reducing cellulite with bamboo canes, soaking in a Japanese hinoki wood Ofuro tub with an ancient Cha no yu tea ritual or cleansing in a Moroccan hammam. There’s also a salt room for halotherapy and a circuit of baths and showers including the hot and very cold Kniepp path, a Finnish sauna, salt water pool with whirlpool jets and for true masochists, an ice waterfall.
Those who want a more coordinated program geared to weight loss, better sleep, an immune system boost or generally improved health and fitness can start by being examined by Dr. Annamaria Acquaviva who grounds her personalized programs on five pillars including personalized nutrition, inner harmony, physical activity, rest and since this is Italy and not Arizona, cosmetics. The inner harmony segment includes deep breathing in the extensive, segmented gardens and moments of contemplation in the complex labyrinth. The labyrinth could also induce an element of panic, however; if Dr. Acquaviva hadn’t been with me, I probably would still be there trying to find my way out.
Lunch with Dr Acquaviva involved a meal that was undoubtedly healthy: a starter of mixed berries, relatively dry black rice with poached seafood and a very plain piece of grilled salmon. It was noble but since this is Emilia Romagna, land of tortellini, prosciutto di Parma, the even more delicate culatello, mortadella and the classic Bolognese ragu, I would have preferred another dose of their exceptional tagliatelle with ragu (I had it twice) in Aurevo, the restaurant by the pool.
The interior of the villa that was Palazzo Bentivoglio was recently renovated and it is refined, gilded luxe. Correspondingly the restaurant within it, Il Grifone, is also presented as the resort’s fine dining option. But I preferred the décor to the menu which seemed too convoluted and forced with odd interplays of ingredients (red shrimp of Sicily, watermelon, oysters, yogurt and hazelnuts), dishes that tasted less interesting than advertised (cavatelli pasta with the pepper friggitelli, pecorino and pinot noir) or dishes that were fine but served in such minute portions that it reminded me of the failed experiment with cuisine minceur (a tiny selection of duck strips with cherry chutney and smoked aubergine.) Another time to wish for the tagliatelle ragu or the luscious classic tortellini in brodo and tortellini with truffle butter also created as a request in the more rustic restaurant.
Another restaurant is also on the way, menu yet to be determined, in a 1920’s train car that formerly belonged to the King of Spain and is set to be lifted into place in mid October by a giant crane now positioned behind the pool. Owner Gherardi, apparently enjoying his foray into the hotel business, is still tinkering.