ITALY

5 Ancient Villages Are Back in Business

In our last issue, we wrote about old Italian villages where guest rooms are spread out across town. Now we're spotlighting five hamlets that have been turned completely (or nearly so) into hotels.

By Reid Bramblett, Tuesday, Aug 19, 2008, 12:00 AM

(Map by Newhouse Design)

Castello di Fonterutoli
For nearly 600 years, the Mazzei family has produced wine, grappa, and olive oil on 300 acres of land surrounding the village of Fonterutoli—a majority of which the family also owns—in the heart of Tuscany's Chianti region. Once common all over Italy, this type of centralized, aristocratic agricultural estate largely vanished following the Industrial Revolution and the exodus of people from the countryside to the cities in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Mazzeis, who are still headed by a marchese, Lapo Mazzei, held on to their operation by modernizing the farm and buying back land they had sold off over the years. As the village slowly emptied of residents, the family also converted some of the old farmworkers' homes into guest rooms.

Three apartments share the cobblestoned village square with the 16th-century family villa and the church of San Miniato. The lodgings have been carefully restored to retain many of the original architectural elements—stone walls, beamed ceilings, fireplaces, and terra-cotta floors—and have been furnished by the Mazzei marchesa with paintings and antiques belonging to the family. There's also a three-room B&B on the top floor of a house where some members of the family currently live. Named Roseto after the rose bushes climbing its walls, the B&B is an odd but pleasing mix of modern and traditional styles—the sitting room has beamed ceilings, floral-patterned sofas, tapestries on the walls, and a bright-red resin floor. In the tiny courtyard garden is a swimming pool for guests.

An old stone country home overlooking the estate's vineyards just outside the village has been turned into the Osteria di Fonterutoli. The restaurant serves all the Mazzei wines, as well as classic Tuscan fare such as pici al ragù di cinta (hand-rolled spaghetti with a ragù sauce made with pork from a belted Sienese pig) and imaginative riffs on old-fashioned dishes. Patrons who order the tagliata dell'Osteria, for instance, receive a plate of raw steak strips that are cooked at the table on a blisteringly hot stone. Information: Via Puccini 4, outside Castellina in Chianti, 011-39/0577-741-385, mazzei.it, from $195.

Borgo Argenina
Elena Nappa calls it The Welcome. When guests arrive at her hilltop Tuscan inn, her dogs, Pasqualina and Bianca, escort them to the main house, and Elena seats them at her massive kitchen table. She then launches into a lengthy discourse on what they should see in the Chianti area, circling sights, vineyards, and artists' studios on a map and drawing in back roads that can save time. On the way to the room, she explains that everything in the minibar is free, as are the vin santo and cantucci (dessert wine and Tuscan biscotti) on the loggia, and she asks for at least a day's notice to cook a family-style dinner for $62 per person—she makes the pasta by hand. Finally, she gives her guests the key to the lock on the door's iron bolt.

Elena stumbled upon the abandoned medieval hamlet of Borgo Argenina while taking a walk in 1992. A fashion stylist in Milan at the time, she instantly fell in love with the crumbling homes and bought them from a local wine estate—the move was so sudden her mother thought she was crazy. Five years after Elena's team of workers began the renovations—rebuilding the walls and roofs, digging wells, adding bathrooms, and running electrical lines to the village—she quit her job and opened the hotel for business. The main house has six guest rooms decorated in traditional Tuscan style, with antique wrought-iron beds, hand-stitched quilts and lace curtains, and timeworn terracotta tiles on the floors. In contrast, one of the three smaller houses for rent, Villa Oliviera, has a contemporary design, with steel staircases, track lighting, curtains and linens made from old textiles, and polished cement floors.

The sunny breakfast room is always filled with conversation as guests get to know one another over a rich spread of cheeses, meats, eggs, bread, and cakes still warm from the oven. In the late afternoon, couples congregate on the recliners and low wall of the terrace, swapping stories and comparing their experiences. Elena might stop by to share some cherries from the orchard.

As accommodating as she is, Elena does request that her guests don't arrive in the afternoon, when she naps. "You have to stick to the rhythms of the land," she says in defense of her daily riposo. "A trip to the Chianti should be about rediscovering this pace of life." Information: Off S.S. 408 outside Gaiole in Chianti, 011-39/0577-747-117, borgoargenina.it, from $265. Closed from mid-November to March.

Fattoria di Titignano
Deep in the Parco Fluviale del Tevere forest in southern Umbria, the village of Titignano has remained virtually unchanged since it was founded in 937. Originally a farming estate like Castello di Fonterutoli, Titignano was built on a spot above the Tiber River by a French count and his family and sold at an auction centuries later to the Corsini family—one of the most important noble families in Italy—for the equivalent of $380. The Corsini clan still owns the hamlet and grows grapes and olives on some of the 5,000 acres of surrounding land. In the 1980s, the family renovated abandoned homes in the village to open an agriturismo, or farmstay.

Titignano, home to about 15 people today, sits at the end of a cypress-lined road and atop a hill overlooking vineyards, woodland, and Lake Corbara in the distance. On one side of the main piazza is a church popular for weddings (grains of rice and pasta are stuck between the cobblestones); on the other side is the imposing central keep, which houses the hotel's reception desk, a shop selling products from the Corsini farm and vineyard, and the ancient main hall. With its 20-foot-high ceiling and stone fireplaces large enough to roast a cow, the hall is Titignano's biggest draw. It's also where the hotel's seven-course lunches and dinners are served. The parade of dishes includes wild-boar salami, radicchio risotto, pappardelle with a pheasant ragù, and roasted spring lamb, plus wine from the vineyard. People come all the way from Rome, a two-hour drive through the countryside, just to indulge in the feast.

Titignano's 15 guest rooms and six apartments—set in various buildings in the village—are decorated with wrought-iron beds, patchwork quilts and blankets, and giant armoires painted with bucolic scenes. The paintings, however, can't compare to the views from the pool just below the defensive walls. From this vantage point, you can see two of Umbria's biggest attractions: Todi, a medieval town to the east, and Orvieto, an ancient Etruscan capital that rises majestically from volcanic tuff to the west. Information: Off S.S. 79 between Orvieto and Todi, 011-39/0763-308-000, titignano.it, from $140, or from $187 with dinner. Lunch can be purchased separately for $31 per person.

Castel Pergine
The heavily fortified, 12th-century Castel Pergine is one of the best preserved and most impressive Gothic castles in Italy's often overlooked Trentino-Alto Adige region, near the Austrian border. Guests enter the mighty keep—which is surrounded by two rings of ivy-covered stone walls—through an echoing, octagonal hall with a vaulted ceiling and a floor of mismatched flagstones. A stone spiral staircase leads up to the lobby and bar, where tables for two have been set inside the deep window bays (the windowsills serve as benches). The stained-glass windows depict the coats of arms of the various owners of the castle over the centuries: generations of Austrian dukes, Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I, and several Italian bishops.

Because the castle is medieval to the hilt, the hotel's managers, Theo Schneider and Verena Neff—a husband-and-wife team—have added 21st-century touches where they can. "We like the tension between old and new," says Verena. "The castle is old, and the walls are old and speak of history, but it's important to put something new in here as well." A different regional artist's sculptures are exhibited on the grounds each year, and the castle frequently hosts folk and jazz concerts.

There are 21 guest quarters in a long, ivy-covered wing, which was appended to the castle centuries after the keep was built and has more of a Renaissance look. The small rooms, or what Verena calls the "monastic cells," are filled with bulky neo-Gothic furniture that was brought in when the castle was initially transformed into a hotel in 1910. Fourteen of the rooms have their own toilets and showers, and there's a large, communal bathroom in the hall for the other seven. (In the next round of renovations, Theo and Verena plan to put private bathrooms in those rooms.) The tower above the double portcullis at the entrance has two more rooms that are available for stays of three days or longer. Guest quarters will also be added in another tower on the outer defensive wall when it is refurbished sometime in the near future, Verena says.

The nightly rate for all the rooms includes a candlelit dinner in a Renaissance-style hall in the keep, with dishes such as spinach cappellacci (a type of ravioli) stuffed with ricotta and asparagus and covered with a truffle-and-walnut pesto, a chicken and porcini mushroom stew, and trout with roasted potatoes and grilled zucchini. There are more than 250 wines in the cellar to choose from, including bottles of the chardonnay, pinot bianco, and nosiola produced in the Trentino-Alto Adige region. Information: Via al Castello 10, Pergine Valsugana (Trento), 011-39/0461-531-158, castelpergine.it, from $199 with private bath, from $153 with shared bath, including breakfast and dinner. Closed from early November to mid-April.

Castello di Montegridolfo
Because of its strategic position on the border between the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Marche in eastern Italy, the hilltop hamlet of Montegridolfo has seen its share of battles. Founded sometime around the year 1000, the village was fought over for 300 years by the rival city-states of Rimini and Urbino before they destroyed it during a clash in 1336. Rebuilt by the rulers of Rimini, the Malatesta family, Montegridolfo passed through the hands of numerous owners and later became part of a monastery. Then fashion designer Alberta Ferretti visited in the 1980s and, with the help of a few financiers, purchased most of the buildings, spent six years renovating them, and opened a hotel.

Today, Montegridolfo offers panoramic views of the countryside and an escape from the crowded beach resorts on the nearby Adriatic coast. Although recent renovations have diminished the patina of age—there are no cracks in the buildings, no crooked shutters, and no moss growing on the mortar—the village is gorgeous by any measure. The only entrance to the main square is over a steeply curving stone bridge that crosses a dry moat at the base of the outer walls. The square is flanked by a tiny chapel, a guard tower that now houses a bar and gelateria, and a wall with a niche containing a papier-mâché Madonna behind a pane of glass. The buildings were constructed with red, yellow, and gray bricks, giving the hamlet a mottled look reminiscent of Indian corn. About 10 families still live there.

The Palazzo Viviani, the main manor house, which dates back to the late 1330s, has eight elegant—and expensive—apartments for rent, one of which is adorned with 16th-century frescoes. Eight more guest quarters are scattered throughout the village. And the Casa del Pittore—named after its previous owner, a painter—has seven guest rooms and a pool overlooking the vineyards and farms on the hillside below. Everyone gathers for breakfast in an aranceto (a type of winter greenhouse for citrus trees) in the village, and dinners are served at the excellent Ristoro di Palazzo Viviani in the main house's old stone-walled cellar, accompanied by live piano music. Information: Via Roma 38, 011-39/0541-855-350, montegridolfo.com, from $218.

VILLAGES THAT BECAME HOTELS