Castello di Vicarello

The Baccheschi-Berti family saw the castle while traveling in the area. It was a complete ruin, restoration took 12 years!

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@Castles_and_palaces' Artiom Ganin is talking to Neri Baccheschi-Berti, one of the owners of Castello di Vicarello in Tuscany. He runs the castle hotel together with his two brothers. Back in the 1970s their parents Carlo and Aurora fell in love with the picturesque medieval ruins and had only one option - to buy them. It was only the beginning of a very long journey. Decades later their sons who turned out to be talented managers, brought the hospitality standards to a very high level - so high that the castle hotel received prestigious awards and made it to the Condè Nast Traveler's Gold List 2019.

A RUINED CASTLE FOR A BIG FAMILY

Castles and Palaces (CnP): Could you please introduce your family?
Neri Baccheschi-Berti (NB): Sure, with pleasure. We are a family of five. My parents are two very aesthetic people and really like design, art, wine and food. Imagine my father Carlo – a man with a cigar inspecting his vines! My mother Aurora takes care of the garden and our fantastic kitchen. Then I have two brothers. One is Brando, who mainly takes care of the wine business and Corso – he helps me out with the operation of the hotel. And me, Neri! I manage the overall hospitality business.

CnP: Nice to meet you! How long have your family owned the castle?
NB: My parents have owned it since the late 70s.
CnP: Why have your parents decided to buy this particular castle?
NB: Well, to tell you the truth my parents just fell in love with it. One day they were hiking around this area and then all of a sudden they saw this ruined property. The decision arrived almost in no time – so they bought it. Actually, the family lived between Milan and Bali, the parents worked in textiles, fashion industry and furniture, so once the deal was signed they had no choice other than bring themselves and us - three young boys - to Tuscany. And this is how our new family adventure began.
CnP: Many castle owners say that – they saw the ruins, they fell in love with them, they bought them. Tell me what happened to your castle? How come it does NOT look like a castle? It has no towers, turrets, merlons and so on?
NB: Look, this is the castle from the 12th century. And it has seen a lot of turbulent times. It survived several sieges only to be rebuilt later to be destroyed again. So during all those years it lost certain features and had its shape changed too. But this is how it looks now. But you know, back in the late 70s it was a ruin. It was a complete ruin. And that's why it took us 12 years to renovate it.
CnP: What was the most difficult thing to accomplish?
NB: Well, my parents did most of the work. The location of the castle caused a lot of headache during the works. I mean there was no proper road, the castle had no electricity or even water supply. My parents did a tremendous job to make it a property with modern comforts and it was quite difficult. We also respect the history and have great attention to detail - when we had to rebuild a part of the wall we referred to authentic techniques to make sure it is not different from the original masonry. So we were very, very careful about it.

CnP: The medieval ruins turned into a nice hotel. Let me ask you this - Italian municipalities try selling dilapidated properties in depressed areas really cheap to attract people in these areas. What do you make of this initiative?
NB: I think it won't change much. And I don't think that many people will be able to go to these places. The price is low, you get a ruined house and then you will need to invest a fortune to restore it. And don't forget about time – you will invest a lot of money and time. I don't think it will pay off in the long run.
CnP: Your castle dates back to the 12th century, to the time of the Republic of Siena. Have you found any interesting artifacts of those times?
NB: We found some engraved stones and also some arrowheads. When we were doing the renovation we found a big stone that looked like it blocked a passage, but we decided not to remove it and carry on with the works.

CnP: Mention a little known fact from the history of the castle.
NB: Here's a funny story for you. Not far away, I think some five kilometers away from Vicarello, there is a small village that is called Campagnatico. And Campagnatico used to be owned by the Aldobrandeschi family, while Vicarello was owned by their relatives and rivals. It was long time ago but even nowadays there is no road connecting the two places. They never liked each other, they never built a road to keep in touch. And they fought a few wars against each other. So this is, I think quite an interesting fact.
CnP: Some families behave just like this nowadays. Do you know how many times your castle was razed to the ground and rebuilt?
NB: Good question. I don't have the exact answer to it. I'm not sure anyone has the answer.

CnP: What's the oldest part of the castle?
NB: The oldest part of the castle is the church. It is a Romanesque church and it dates back to the 11th century.

CnP: Do you live in the castle all year round?
NB: Yes I do. But you know what - sometimes it makes sense to mix your city life and your life in a place like this, depending on the times.
CnP: And you remember the first night in the castle, don't you?
NB: Yes, I do, but this was when I was a teen, it was before we opened up to the public. So I remember how I was feeling that night, it is hard to explain but this was what children feel about the atmosphere that surrounds you and you have this feeling deep inside for many years to come. It's hard to explain.

CnP: You didn't see any ghosts that night, did you?
NB: No! I've never seen any ghosts. But if we do have them, let's say I don't see them, so they seem to be very nice ghosts.

CnP: But there are legends about you castle, right?
NB: Look, people say that mysterious Knights Templars used to reside here. And then afterwards the castle hosted sort of an observatory to watch stars – is it true? I don't know we just have to believe it.

A CASTLE, A HOTEL, A WINERY AND AN OLIVE GROVE

CnP: What was the biggest surprise the castle had for you?
NB: You know, I never thought it would become the greatest job on earth for me!

CnP: What part of the castle is your favorite?
NB: The glass room where we are sitting at the moment.

CnP: You are focused on the green and sustainable agriculture. What do you grow and where?
NB: We have about 7 hectares of vineyards which surround the castle. We also have about 2,000 olive trees. Everything is organic. So we make our organic olive oil and wine, actually three kinds of red and one rosé. And then we grow organic vegetables - all kind of vegetables, seasonal vegetable that you can imagine and our guests can taste them at our restaurant. And we also have a chicken house.
CnP: You also produce wine. So do you do wine tasting, too, right?
NB: Yes, exactly. My brother Brando is responsible for wine tasting. All our guests can sit with the winemaker itself and ask different questions about the wine. This is very interesting and informative.

CnP: Let's talk about covid – covid is a curse, how do you manage to survive?
NB: Well, I think that we are very lucky because we are in this distant place. We are a small property so our fixed costs are not as high as other properties'. And we are a remote place with only nine suites. So this privacy and seclusion has always been at the core of our hospitality. We are faring rather smoothly. Actually, the new anti-COVID procedures are very similar to our standard approach towards hospitality. This crisis does not affect us the way it affected other hotels. This is one of the advantages of being in the middle of nowhere, in the countryside.
CnP: The castle is a great hotel which has been lauded for its service numerous times. The The Condè Nast Traveler'd Gold List 2019, Food and Travel Magazine's International Hotel of Year 2018, Decanter awarded you with a Platinum Medal – just to name a few. Tell me what's so special about your hotel?
NB: I think it is all about our family touch. We always make our clients feel special and welcome and I think they really feel that. They feel the passion and they feel the care and the attention to detail. And they know that we are there for them and we would do anything to please them.
CnP: What's the most difficult thing in running your castle or any castle in principle.
NB: I think the main thing can be logistics. Let me explain it a little bit - the castle was not born to be a hotel, right? It was born to be a castle. And on the one hand, this makes it unique, beautiful and what not. But on the other hand this advantage can be a problem in terms of logistics. You need to be aware of it and make sure you have a solution.
CnP: Describe your usual working day at the castle.
NB: I wake up, I have breakfast, I talk a bit with team leaders to get feedback and check the plans for the day. Then I have a meeting with all the heads together. We speak about the day and what kind of activities we will have, or about guests that are checking in and checking out, we discuss any issues and whatever we need to solve. Then I go to my office, have lunch and work till the evening. When I am done, I normally have a drink with the guests, sometimes we have dinner together.

CnP: What activities can you offer?
NB: We have a vast range of activities from cooking classes to truffle hunting, olive harvesting, grape harvesting, massage, yoga classes, bike tours, also with e-bikes. And we also organize a bit of hiking. We have a personal trainer for those interested in staying with us for a longer period of time. Leather workshop and horseback riding, which is a 15-minute walk from the state.
CnP: How many guests can your castle accommodate and what are the castle's amenities?
NB: 22 guests is our maximum. When our guests arrive we meet them with a nice welcome set which is wine and bread, the toasted bread with our olive oil, our tomatoes and some fruit salad.

CnP: Is it profitable to run a castle hotel.
NB: Yes. But you need to be ready to invest a lot of money for a long period and then one day you will to pay off. But it's a very, very long process and it is not easy.

CnP: What would you tell to those who are dreaming about buying a dilapidated castle, restore it and turn it into a hotel?
NB: Good luck. You will need it!
We very much hope that you loved the story told by Neri, who runs Castello di Vicarello in Italy's region of Tuscany!

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