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.
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.
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.