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October 4, 2008 1:18 am
Turning off a dust track on the route from Buonconvento to Montalcino in Italy’s Val D’Orcia, there is a small 10th-century Longobard church once used on the old pilgrim’s trail, the Via Francigena, for those making the journey from Canterbury to Rome. It is owned by Massimo Ferragamo, son of the late Salvatore Ferragamo and responsible for the US operations of the luxury fashion house. The light-filled clearing in which the church sits is hidden by willow, chestnut and oak. Not only does it feel like a chance find but the simplicity of the architecture is appealing – the curvature of the vaulted apse, the satisfying proportions. And there can’t be many places left like this in the Val D’Orcia – it is where The English Patient was filmed, and arguably Tuscany’s most beautiful region.
Ferragamo is currently stabilising the ruin’s foundation, bringing in archaeologists to catalogue findings. Cultural philanthropy, he explains, is a vital part of his vision for the 4,500-acre Castiglion del Bosco estate, or CdB, in which the little church is located. His sense of stewardship is also evident in the already completed restoration of another chapel on the property, Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo with its 1345 Pietro Lorenzetti fresco. But this is only a single element of a much more ambitious project: the estate’s rare potential to rewrite how the luxury villa holiday currently works.
“When Massimo first showed me the site, I started laughing. The scale, the integrity and this in the middle of a national park! I’ve been working 26 years in property, and I was overwhelmed,” says Stuart Siegel, head of the Brunello Development Group, which was formed in 2005 to restore and develop CdB: “Wine, hunting, land, real estate, a culturally rich heritage – I’ve seen some of the best properties in the world, and this beats them all.”
It’s not until I ride through the surrounding macchia forest the following morning that I get a sense of the scale of Ferragamo’s intentions. There are tumbledown houses, a river, and acres of gnarled vineyards, olive groves and unfenced grassland. In May, these become fields of scarlet poppies. Everything in view belongs to CdB. And this is what makes it stand apart: for the past 800 years the estate has retained its medieval borders. It is also one of only five founding members of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino, producing some of the region’s finest Brunello.
In the current economic climate, however, this all seems absurd. The numbers involved in the project – by spring 2010 it will include 20 villas, 26 “hotel” suites, a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course, spa, two restaurants, winery and stud – are clearly not for the credit-crunched. Nor are the sums easily accessible: Castiglion del Bosco has been set up as a membership club where fees are confidential. One source recently estimated it to be 120 memberships at €2m each. Siegel refuses to confirm this. Suffice to say the clients already visiting – nine of the villas are completed as well as 16 of the 26 suites in the restored Il Borgo – are using private jets to the town of Grosseto, within easy driving distance of CdB. And the guy on the nearby sun lounger is Bill Fischer, the New York travel agent who charges clients a $10,000 joining fee just to get his telephone number. The CdB team, I assume, have an eye on Fischer’s client list.The original vision for CdB belongs to Ferragamo – and you can tell, for although this project is positioned separately to his fashion interests, plenty of details speak of his heritage. But with CdB, Ferragamo is also not acting alone. Early on he put together a group of investors, including friends.
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“It started by chance,” says Ferragamo. “Everybody dreams of Tuscany but friends kept saying that everything they tried came short. A fantastic villa, but no golf. Great staff, but houses falling apart. With CdB, I saw potential. I fell in love with it.”
Not once in several conversations did Ferragamo or Siegel position CdB against hotels. The top echelons of the luxury travel industry are talking about holidays in terms of private houses, not resorts. These people want to be among family but have the complete services of a five-star hotel. They seek a sense of personality, but without the idiosyncracies of the “mama and papa” pensione. Nor do they want to manage their own second home overseas. It is this trend – evidenced by the boom in top-tier rental agents, fractional ownership clubs and hotel “villas” – that Ferragamo seeks to explore with CdB. The client they’re targeting wants to feel like they belong to something: a club of villa owners means familiar faces.
It’s a new way of vacationing – “a lifestyle choice and not an investment”, says Siegel: “You choose the menu – a driver or no driver. A 4WD Mercedes, Audi G7 or BMW parked at your door. Breakfast at home cooked by our chefs, or a fridge stocked with your favourite organic yoghurt. Security or no security, the cameras on or off. Golf, riding, tennis. A two-bed villa for a quick weekend, a five-bed house for the family get-together, or a wedding for 120.”
“It’s all about keeping the dialogue open with members,” says Ferragamo. “While CdB is exclusive, that is because there is a commonality between members who share a particular idea of how they’d like to spend time in Italy.”
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In this respect – bringing soul to the project – CdB already seems to have succeeded. When members appear at the restaurant, they clearly know each other. This sensibility is evident around Il Borgo, the geographical focus of the estate which once formed the agricultural village on the property’s highest hilltop.
At Il Borgo there are 26 suites (16 now completed), three members’ villas with pools, two restaurants, a kitchen garden, the cooking school, bar, library and reception. There’s a children’s play area with nannies, a dramatic infinity pool, a gym and gardens by Phil Auditori and Marco Battaggia, who worked on Sting’s Tuscan pile. In 2010, a 12,000 sq ft spa will open, overseen by Anna Bramham, the consultant behind the Montage hotels in California.
For now, non-members can stay in any of Il Borgo’s suites at a cost of €600 to €3,000 a night (this policy may change when membership reaches 120; the suites will then likely become off limits to all but members and members’ friends). The suites measure 2,500 sq ft, decorated with antiques sourced from Italy’s markets by Ferragamo’s wife Chiara and the interior decorator Teresa Bürgisser Sancristoforo.
The vast bathrooms have door handles made by Il Bronzetto (a small atelier in Florence) and cut crystal from La Moleria Locchi, a 19th-century Florentine botega. The beds’ cashmere throws have handmade linen coverlets, embroidered with beads. Everything is bespoke.
Ferragamo’s personal interests are the autumn boar hunting, the stud potential of the Maremma horses – available for members to ride – and restoring the estate’s 70 hectares of grapes. They have built a state-of-the-art winery, currently producing 200,000 bottles. “I want to make a top Brunello,” he says.
CdB’s members will either connect with this unusual lifestyle opportunity, or stick to conventional villas and hotels.
Sophy Roberts is editor at large for Departures magazine
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