Castello di Gargonza

Neri Guicciardini who runs Castello di Gargonza in Tuscany continues his father's lifework. The man - a true trendsetter - remodelled the former depressive farm into one of the first castle hotels in Tuscany in the 1970s giving a kiss of life to the whole town.

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Neri Guicciardini and his wife Elisa
@Castles_and_Palaces's Artiom Ganin has sat down with Neri Guicciardini manager and owner together with his brothers of Castello di Gargonza in Tuscany. The castle which dates back to the 13th century has been in the ownership of Neri's family since the 17th century. Little by little, it lost its grandeur transforming into an agriculture estate. Then farming methods changed and people started leaving this once economically active area. The castle was abandoned and almost forgotten. It was Neri's father who gave it a kiss of life back in the 1970s. It was one of the first examples of a Tuscan castle remade into a hotel. Others followed suit making Tuscany a great place to spend your holidays especially if you look for a medieval castle. But it is very unusual that the whole town of Gargonza with the castle keep dominating over it is now one big town hotel. We've talked about the castle's past, the restoration process and the findings it brought. Neri has also shared his vision for the castle's future.
Castles_and_Palaces (CnP): Neri, how does it feel to own a castle which has been in the family for more than 300 years?
Neri Guicciardini (NC): It is natural for me. I have been brought up here, I have also contributed to the re-birth of this place - I played with my toys in the restored apartments while my mother was busy with getting ready for the start of the holiday season. Imagine – I still remember going to the first offices where we would collect the fax messages for the summer reservations of our guests. Naturally, we had no Internet, emails, booking systems. Pure 18th century – this is what comes to your mind first but NO! It was just 30 years ago! Now I run the family business and my concern is to keep the place, look after it and pass it in the future generation's safe hands.

CnP: You belong to a noble Italian family. Please tell me a few words about yourself.
NC: My family is famous for the 15th century writer Francesco Guicciardini who lived and worked when the Medici ruled the Republic of Florence. Gargonza has actually came in our family through an important family which was very much connected with the Medici. I am 45 years old, a father of two daughters (aged 16 and 12). My wife works in the hotel as well. You know I studied to be a lawyer but I have been attracted to Gargonza since my childhood. When my father passed away in 2016 I took over – it was the legacy he left behind to us. I have permanently worked at Gargonza since 2004. Well, what can I say - I love walking and riding my bicycle around the village and I also play piano.
CnP: Do you live in the castle all year round?
NC: I live in Gargonza 6 months a year. My house is right above the arch where an important figure of the Agricultural Estate used to reside - the so called "Fattoressa". She was in charge of a lot of things at the Farm (The Fattoria) like cooking for the landlord and for the people who worked directly with him, cleaning up the administrative offices of the farm, she was also responsible for the telephone post in the village. The other 6 months I live in Florence and commute back and forth.

CnP: The view from the tower of the castle is fantastic - what's your favourite part of the castle?
NC: Indeed - my favourite part is the tower but my wife loves all the apartments.
CnP: Castello di Gargonza is one of the first historic hotels in Tuscany, your father Count Roberto has set the pace and fashion, and others followed suit. Why did he want to do it? What was his motivation?
NC: Let me tell you a little bit of history. My father inherited the village in the early 1960's after his father Giulio Guicciardini died. Gargonza belonged to Marquis Bardo Corsi Salviati who passed away in 1907. He had only one daughter – Francesca. So when he died he passed all his property to his grandson Giulio. That is why he could add the name Corsi Salviati to the name Guicciardini.

When my grandfather died in 1958, the farm of Gargonza was still active but the village was almost totally abandoned. Why? Because the farm has stopped being economically efficient. It was just not worth it. All the farmers abandoned the crops together with the houses. My father was born in 1922. He grew up with a running farm in front of his eyes. But he also saw its decline due to the war and the farming revolution. When he inherited the village he waited around 10 years before deciding what to do. Certainly he wanted to save the village and keep all the buildings, inside and outside as they were. He always told me Gargonza was like a son to him. He needed to save it and to find a new meaning for it.
NC: My father worked in France in the 1960s and he would come every other month to check on his property. One day he said: "Enough! I have to go back!" He had a vision, he lived abroad and I think this gave him the impulse to do something important. He realized that there was an interest in Tuscany. But he had a vision without any doubt. Then this famous day came – he placed an adv. in the Sunday Times on the 12 of March, 1972. He began restoring the first 5 apartments. But he was sensible to not over-restore, or change the character of the village. And with the 1970's enthusiasm he started this labour of love which we continue.
CnP: I totally agree with you – you have to be very careful when you restore, otherwise you'll just lose the authenticity of the place. The restoration works lasted for more than two decades – why did it take so long?
NC: This is true, it took my father 25 years to complete the first restoration. You know it was a huge undertaking. It is an extremely old castle, he had to think of the basics and these were plumbing and electricity. Installing the systems at such an old property was a great challenge.

CnP: Did the Italian government financially participate in the restoration?
NC: No, they did not. But we had low-interest loans, which helped a lot as you can imagine.
CnP: It is not always the case with the banks nowadays! When I looked at the castle I thought that you just can't stop restoration and renovation activities. It's big, it is a whole town! It looks like a never-ending process. Doesn't it?
NC: This is correct. Since 2007 we are renewing all the rooms. Every year we make improvements in services and common areas and two years ago the castle had a great surprise for us! We were restoring a house and we had to make a second entrance in one of the rooms. We started all the procedures as required in case of a listed historic building. The organization which oversees the process was very keen, just like us, to preserve all the external parts. We prepared the required papers, we got down to work and then we realized that a section of the wall where we wanted to make a new entrance already had it – but it was hidden! Can you imagine what a surprise it was! Archive papers supported our guess. It was the entrance to a classroom of the former rural school of Gargonza.
CnP: What a surprise indeed! What is the most interesting artefact found during the restoration back in the 1970-1980s?
NC: Lots of them and they were all authentic. Like old stairs, old doors which we left as they were. Now this is interesting - my father has always searched for the original entrance to the tower. He used to say that there must had been an entrance not in the main square. The search was however fruitless. Once my father started some restorations at our private villa and he found an old stone arch which could have a former an entrance to the main building next to the tower! From there one could access the tower! Today our new challenge is restoring the tower. We have already started working on it.

And my general goal is to keep and maintain what my father achieved - with the same spirit and make sure the original restoration is as authentic as possible.
CnP: Revealing the secrets of the past is exciting! The hill the castle stands on used to hold a very important strategic position. So naturally it was a bone of contention between Guelphs and Ghibellines. Florence and Siena fought wars for it. What is the most unusual thing about the castle's past in your opinion?
NC: Gargonza has been a frontier land between Arezzo, Florence and Siena. The earliest records of Gargonza as a fortified village of the Val di Chiana date back to 1150: a quotation that mentioned a fortified castle along the road from Arezzo to Siena. Gargonza belonged to a noble family of Arezzo called Ubertini since 1285. It was then sold for 4000 florins to the Sienese. It was then conquered by the Republic of Florence in 1307 but the Republic of Siena tiered down the village before leaving it except for the medieval tower and the entrance arch. During this time Gargonza had a some kind of independence and some Civil Statutes, which are in the National Archives in Florence, give detailed rules for those who lived and worked in Gargonza. The population was mainly involved in the farming of wood and wool. In 1546 the village passed to the Lotteringhi della Stufa, a family close to the Medici family and through a dowry in 1696 to the Corsi family. So it was a harsh place to live but such a paradise on earth today for our guests.
CnP: And one world-famous Italian gentleman used to be a guest here!
NC: Exactly! Dante Alighieri spent his time here when he was in exile! Back in 1384 the historian Leonardo Bruni talked about Dante Alighieri finding refuge in Gargonza in 1304 while he was exiled by the Florentines. He was travelling back and forth and stopped in Arezzo and fought in the 1289 battle of Campaldino with the Ghibellines against the Guelphs which were mainly Florentines.

CnP
: If you look at the town from above you would see that it is enclosed by a wall. Like the town of Montereggioni or other cozy Tuscan towns. Is the whole of the fortified town a huge hotel now?
NC: Yes, Gargonza is more than a castle, it is a fortified medieval hamlet with a tower. It is also called "Castello di Strada" which literally means a road castle - a 13th century "Motel" - meaning that travelers, conquerors would stop by before heading to Siena or Rome. Today all the old houses of the village are restored and we have accommodations with different sizes.
CnP: How does it work? Is there a central office which gives the guests the keys to apartments scattered across the village?
NC: You can check in at the entrance of the village and choose your favourite apartments, most of them with fireplace and kitchenette. Today we offer bed & breakfast. We serve the arrangement in our old olive mill. We will treat you with homemade cakes, croissant, local cold cuts and cheese. You may also take a seat outside in one of our gardens. Our restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and it serves typical Tuscan cuisine and in summer you can also have a lunch in our pergola just above the swimming pool.
CnP: So, traditional Tuscan dishes are on the menu – what are you specialties?
NC: Pappardelle with wild boar sauce, Ravioli filled with pecorino cheese and pear with butter and sage, Ribollita (typical Tuscan bread and vegetable soup), Florentine T-bone steak on the grill, pork.

CnP: Sounds yummy. And you definitely make wine, right?
NC: We have 2 hectares of vineyards and 4 hectares of olives. And we sell our wine too.
CnP: How many guests can you accommodate at a time?
NC: We can accommodate up to 110 people and we can organize events and weddings. We have 5 meeting rooms for meetings and we often organize team-building activities taking advantage of the 1500-acre property. We have marked trails in the forest. We also organize other types of reunions like family reunions and weddings.

CnP: How is the local population involved? Or is it just a town-hotel with no local residents?
NC: It is a town hotel with very few locals. In the future we need more resident to recreate a more permanent community. With these strange times it might be an issue. We also tend to buy local products from local farmers and cook food for our guest.
CnP: This is important as it helps local communities thrive. I've read that the restoration was lauded by many – it literally revitalized the village. Now the Italian authorities are selling dilapidated properties in depressed regions for a mere 1 euro. Do you think this strategy will work?
NC: The migration of the 1960s brought people to big cities, now we could potentially see the migration back to smaller centres. It might be the case also for Gargonza. The idea is good – it could draw people back to remote parts of Italy. Italy is geographically beautiful but has hilltop towns across the Apennines where nobody wants to live.
CnP: Why should I definitely go to your castle hotel, what's your peculiarity and advantage if compared with others?
NC: It is family owned and family-run, it is authentic, one can hardly call it standard – the castle has such a unique history.

CnP: What activities do you offer at the castle?
NC: We have wine and cheese tasting, fresco making, e-bike tours, walking tours, shopping tours, also cooking classes, and of course truffle hunting!
CnP: Truffle hunting is very popular in Tuscany, people who spend their time here love it! The pandemic caused a lot of headache for the hotel owners across the world. But surprisingly for some castle hotel owners it was not that bad – especially due to remote places where their castles are located. How did you survive 2020?
NC: To be honest it was a very hard year. We are looking forward to 2021 and to 2022 I am afraid. This year the season was shorter, it was more concentrated and our guests were mostly Italians and Europeans.
CnP: Who was your most unusual guest and why?
NC: I wouldn't say unusual although we had a few! But once we had a guest arriving from abroad for a meeting. The guest was not willing to arrive late in Gargonza or else he would not participate. So the organizer of the meeting asked us to book a helicopter. We had 4 hours to arrange for a helicopter transfer and the guest arrived right before sunset!

CnP: It should have been a VIP guest! What's your favourite castle in Italy apart from Castello di Gargonza?
NC: I like Castello Ginori di Querceto, it is located in Tuscany, between the walled town of Volterra and Pisa.

CnP: Would you buy a medieval castle for yourself to restore if you hadn't have Gargonza?
NC: God no! I would get hired by somebody and run the show, this yes!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Neri Guicciardini, the owner of Castello di Gargonza in Tuscany!

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