Don’t rent a villa, rent a village

In her book Fame and Frame, the celebrity photographer Pat York includes a shot of actor Jack Nicholson walking away from a modest Provençal cottage, on the chimney of which stands a peacock. The picture was taken, she wrote, at a property “near the village of La Garde-Freinet, owned by the director Tony Richardson. We had been invited to join other guests – Buck Henry, Anjelica Huston, David Hockney [who painted the swimming pool] and John Gielgud”. The peacock, she said, symbolised “the otherworldly quality of time and place ... at this escapist’s paradise.”

That paradise is now available to rent. In the foothills of the Massif des Maures, 21km from St Tropez, the hamlet was deserted by the time Richardson happened upon it in the 1960s but gradually he began to do up its rustic dwellings. There are now half a dozen: a main house with four bedrooms, three smaller houses and two annexes, one containing an office and laundry, the other a gym. Combined, they sleep 20 and the whole place is available through Petersham Properties.

Founded last year, the company has a small portfolio of alluring properties. Among them, further inland, 90 minutes’ drive from Avignon, is another once-abandoned settlement. Le Grand Banc was rescued by a scion of the Fry chocolate dynasty, the engineer and philanthropist Jeremy Fry. Perched 792m up in the Lubéron hills, the 400-acre estate has 20 or so buildings clustered around a single cobbled street. It sleeps up to 24, across eight houses, some of them self-contained studios, others with two or three bedrooms.

Given the rising popularity of big groups of friends or multi-generational family parties opting to travel together – “3G travel” as it’s known in the industry – it’s not hard to see the appeal of renting a hamlet rather than a large house. Underlying tensions are less likely to erupt if each couple or family unit has their own space. Those who like to sleep in on holiday won’t be disturbed by over-excited, early-rising children.

It is a growing trend. According to 63 per cent of the 6,000 upmarket travel agents surveyed for the annual Virtuoso Luxe Report in the US, “family and multi-generational travel” is the pre-eminent trend for 2011.

It’s a finding that chimes with the experience of the Landmark Trust, the UK conservation charity that rescues “historic buildings at risk”, renovates, and rents them, using the income generated to maintain them and expand its portfolio. “We’ve certainly had people book the whole of Coombe,” says its spokesperson Katherine Oakes, of a picture-book hamlet of mostly thatched whitewashed cob cottages half a mile from the north Cornish coast. “And we do know that many of our groups of buildings are used for multi-generational gatherings or friends having reunions. People enjoy being on neutral territory so no one feels obliged to do all the hosting. And staying in a historic building makes the weekend even more memorable.”

Certainly Coombe is an unforgettable place for a holiday. There are eight houses, sleeping between three and six people (the village sleeps 36 in all), among them a handsome 17th-century Mill House and a light and airy white-weatherboarded 1930s bungalow, Coombe Corner, set high on the hill that rises above the village.

By contrast, Rhiwddolion is a loosely configured hamlet near Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia, North Wales, a minuscule place with just three habitable dwellings. One sleeps four, one just two, and the former school-cum-chapel is, rather oddly, fitted out with three single beds in its gallery bedroom. But the setting is sublime, two miles from a paved road in the heart of a Forestry Commission reserve.

When it comes to fortified villages, however, nowhere compares with Italy, which perhaps explains the number for hire: places such as Castello di Gargonza, a castellated medieval hill estate 28km from Arezzo, where Dante was briefly exiled in 1303.

In 1696 it became the seat of the counts of Salviati, explains Neri Guicciardini Corsi Salviati, daughter of the Conte Roberto Guicciardini Corsi Salviati, and was run as a farm until the end of the second world war. “But after the war all the peasants left for a better life in the cities, or emigrated to the US. After 30 years of decadence, my father decided to restore it.”

At first just five houses were converted into holiday apartments but “in 1997 we added the swimming pool and in 2000 we started refurbishing all the houses [as well as] the stables, the olive press mill, loom room ... ” Its 23 residential buildings now offer a range of apartments and villas that sleep between two and 10, which together with the castle-turned-B&B at the top of the village accommodate up to 90 people and can be rented in total or in part.

In spirit it has much in common with Montegridolfo, near Urbino in Le Marche, another medieval hill-top village that’s become holiday accommodation thanks to the fashion designer Alberta Ferretti. “Everyone said we were crazy but for us it was a crusade,” she said in 2000. “Once I hit on the idea of a hotel, the decision to rehabilitate the whole village followed naturally.”

After the opening of an eight-room hotel in the palazzo, she and her co-investors set about having the rest of the place restored and it now offers accommodation for just over 100 in rooms, self-catering studios and apartments, as well as four restaurants, a spa and a church, with school-of-Giotto frescoes, that can be used for weddings.

Newer still is Monteverdi, perhaps potentially the ne plus ultra of idealised Tuscan village restoration projects. Located at Castiglioncello del Trinoro, a walled medieval village overlooking the Val d’Orcia, it’s the brainchild of Michael Cioffi, an American lawyer and professor who “fell in love with the place while travelling in Tuscany. It felt lost in time,” he says.

He found a building to buy – “a complete ruin” – which he had restored. Then he bought more. To date he’s acquired seven, three of which are now stylish villas with state-of-the-art kitchens, leading-edge technology and wine cellars, and two, three or six bedrooms, all ensuite. More will open in due course, as, in June 2012, will a small hotel. In total, he expects the “village” to have about 25 rooms.

That said, the business model for Monteverdi is intended to be self-sustaining rather than profitable. Income from the lets is, for example, being used to fund the only privately sponsored archeological dig in Italy, an excavation of Etruscan remains on the site. And Cioffi has also established a cultural hub, the Maria Mazzone Centre for the Arts, named after his Italian great-grandmother, a place for classical music, visual arts, small theatre productions and visiting artists and scholars.

“This month,” he says, “we’ve had a Chinese piano and violin duo performing in the 13th-century Romanesque church, which we’re also restoring.” It is a project that, as Cioffi puts it, was born of “a dream, then a vision and is now coming true”.

Details, price on application;, price on application;, doubles from €120;, doubles from €150;, doubles from €385;, from US$5,000 a week, including daily housekeeping and breakfast. All can be booked by a single party

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