Emilia Romagna isn’t usually high on an Italy trip list – unless it’s a business trip to visit the Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati headquarters, or a foodie visit to Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena and other culinary attractions to make pilgrimages in Bologna and Parma. Many simply drive between Tuscany and Milan. But apart from these cities, there is another reason to stop in this region: the Palazzo di Varignana Resort & SPA, 22 km outside of Bologna, combines a comprehensive wellness retreat, the culinary riches of the region, including wine and olive oil , produced on site and views of green hills at eye level with the foothills of the Apennines and six spacious villas including a newly opened converted from a 1366 church.
The property began with the renovation of the 18th centuryth Century Palazzo Bentivoglio, a country castle that caught the eye of owner Carlo Gherardi, CEO of Bologna-based credit agency Crif. The initial plan thereafter was to provide a housing facility for visiting multinational employees, but the project has expanded to include the restoration of other abandoned farmhouses and historic buildings, resulting in a 134-room hotel in six buildings on a 741-acre site dedicated to the olive trees and vineyards for the production of the estate’s olive oil and wine. Guests can sample in the red-brick cantina, a short drive from the main building, or for more active pursuits, hike or bike the hills past the vineyards, or practice their golf swing (there’s an 18-hole course in the nearby) practice on the driving range on site.
Long enclosed corridors connect the various lodging buildings to the 39,826-square-foot Varsana Spa, resulting in guests occasionally getting lost in bathrobes that pad back and forth. But the spa is worth finding. Several treatments make effective use of the farm’s agricultural ingredients, such as an olive oil massage, especially when performed by Thai-born and highly experienced therapist Yupin, a saffron stamp and vitamin C facial for women, the bioflavonoids of Sangiovese winery for men and more Sangiovese and Pomegranate Extract as a revitalizing leg treatment. Other treatments span the international spectrum, from balancing chakras with oils and gemstones, reducing cellulite with bamboo sticks, soaking in a Japanese Hinoki wood ofuro tub with an ancient Cha-no-yu tea ritual, or the Cleansing in a Moroccan hammam. There is also a salt room for halotherapy and a circuit with baths and showers, including the hot and very cold Kniepp path, a Finnish sauna, a salt water pool with whirlpool jets and, for real masochists, an ice waterfall.
Those wanting a more coordinated program focused on weight loss, better sleep, boosting the immune system, or generally improved health and fitness can begin by consulting Dr. Annamaria Acquaviva, who bases 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 involves deep breathing in the expansive, segmented gardens and moments of contemplation in the complex maze. However, the maze could also invoke an element of panic; if dr If Acquaviva hadn’t been with me I probably would still be there trying to find my way out.
Lunch with Dr. Acquaviva included what was undoubtedly a healthy meal: an appetizer of mixed berries, relatively dry black rice with poached seafood, and a very simple piece of grilled salmon. It was classy, 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 ordered another dose of their exceptional tagliatelle with ragu (I had she twice) requested Aurevo, the poolside restaurant.
The interior of the villa, which was Palazzo Bentivoglio, has been recently renovated and is refined and gilded. Accordingly, the restaurant Il Grifone located within presents itself as the upscale dining option of the resort. But I preferred the decor to the menu, which seemed too convoluted and forced with strange interplays of ingredients (red Sicilian prawns, watermelon, oysters, yoghurt and hazelnuts), dishes that tasted less interesting than advertised (cavatelli pasta with paprika friggitelli, pecorino and pinot noir) or dishes that were good but served in portions so tiny it reminded me of the failed experiment with Cuisine Minceur (a tiny assortment of duck strips with cherry chutney and smoked eggplant.) the delicious classic tortellini in brodo and tortellini with truffle butter are also created as a request in the more rustic restaurant.
Another restaurant is also on the way, menu to be announced, in a 1920s carriage formerly owned by the King of Spain and lifted into place in mid-October by a giant crane now positioned behind the pool shall be. Owner Gherardi, who seems to be enjoying his foray into the hotel industry, is still tinkering.