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Independent Minds: Alessandra Wimpole, Villa di Piazzano

When hospitality is part of your heritage, as it is for Alessandra Wimpole, whose grandmother began a thriving hotel business in Rome in the 1950s, choosing a hotel with history seemed only natural when continuing her family’s traditions. It was love at first sight for Alessandra when visiting Villa di Piazzano, an abandoned estate in Tuscany which was originally built in the 1500s as the hunting lodge of Cardinal Passerini, a favourite of the Medicis.

This love for rural Italy has only grown for Alessandra over the years, whose passion for unearthing the secrets of the Umbrian-Tuscan land has breathed new life into a place which has made visitors feel at home for over 500 years. “From the ancient well, to the Medici bell, to the medieval inscriptions on the doorways and windows, to the front façade and all the ancient rings where the hunters would tie their horses,” history is all around at Villa di Piazzano.

What does being ‘Independently Minded’ as a hotel owner mean to you?

Freedom of expression is an incredible advantage for independent hotel owners. We are able to create a property which somehow resembles us and reflects our vision of hospitality without any limitations other than our own good judgement. This means we can constantly fine tune our operations, not according to a manual, but to best suit the actual desires and requirements of our guests with incredible resilience. Independent hotel owners also tend to share their own ideas of hospitality and taste, making each property uniquely different.

What was the inspiration behind the hotel, and where do you continue to find sources of inspiration?

The inspiration of starting a hotel really comes from the heart and from the incredible legacy left by my grandmother. She had all the disadvantages as a working professional in the 1950s: she was a divorced woman with limited education (as was customary for Italian women) and a mother of three children. Yet she managed to fight off any prejudice and set up a thriving hotel business in Rome. When I came along, I only saw the positive results of her business, but most of all, I saw a woman who carried out her role with immense grace, dignity and always had a smile on her face. I somehow assimilated everything positive about my grandmother to her profession and have thus always been fascinated by hotels. When life offered me a chance to do just this, I felt compelled to leave my 9-to-5 office job to embark on a new adventure on the border between Tuscany and Umbria.

Villa di Piazzano was built as the hunting estate of Cardinal Silvio Passerini in the 1500s. By an incredible chain of events, his descendant, Count Silvio Passerini, brought my family and I to visit this abandoned estate. It was love at first sight. Even in the state we found it, the estate exuded a magical combination of antiquity, beauty and mysticism. What I like most about the property is the bond it is able to create with certain guests who remain spellbound, making it their holiday home year after year and thus becoming a part of “our 20 year story”.

How do you think your hotel stands apart from other boutique hotels?

When it comes to boutique hotels there are never really two properties which are quite the same.  In the instance of Villa di Piazzano, it is such an ancient building with an incredible stratification of history, architecture, countryside serenity and our particular way of welcoming guests which I really believe gives our guests a distinctive experience from any other property.

If you only had 24 hours to get a taste for your hotel experience, what would you recommend a guest must do?

If I only had 24 hours at Villa di Piazzano, I would concentrate on enjoying the very essence of the property:

  • The location – starting from its history, I would wander through the property and the gardens to retrace its heritage and architectural features: from the ancient well, to the Medici bell, to the medieval inscriptions on the doorways and windows, to the front façade and all the ancient rings where the hunters would tie their horses. I would then take a bike and ride down some of the country lanes to discover the surrounding area: the wild flowers, little brooks, the cypress tree lane and incredible Tuscan views.
  • The cuisine – Italy always holds its culinary tradition high and Villa di Piazzano is no exception. This year, in particular, we have greatly focused on locally sourced products, many of which are grown in our very own vegetable and herb garden.
  • The tranquility – I would read a book under the ancient oaks, meditate or do yoga on the lower lawn, go for a swim in the pool or a stroll in the garden.
  • The friendliness – I would never miss the opportunity of exchanging a few words with the Concierge, the Maître, the Manager or one of my family members to fully understand more about the real essence of the property and the area in which we are located.

How would you describe your own perfect luxury experience?

My own perfect luxury experience is one of simplicity. One does not have to go overboard in hospitality, but simply offer a genuine experience, evocative of the location and its traditions. The more I am attuned to the location, the more I enjoy myself. In Morocco I want to feel like I’m in Morocco, with all its quirkiness and folkloristic atmosphere. If I’m in New York I want to sense it. If I’m in Sicily I want to perceive it, taste it, smell it. What I personally dislike is walking into a hotel and not really sensing that I am anywhere in particular.

Do you have a vision for the future of the hotel?

The more I work and live in the countryside, the more I grow conscious of the environment. We are very much affected by climate change and have seen first hand, in these last 20 years, the negative impact this is having in our own little corner of the globe. For this reason, we are constantly trying to play our part by improving our daily activities in favour of the beautiful countryside which surrounds us. For example, we have installed a sophisticated system to save energy and to heat our water and pool during the summer through a series of heat exchange units. We only use eco-friendly cleaning products and have adopted a series of working practices to benefit the environment. I really believe that most guests are also sensitive towards the environment and realise how important it is for tourism to become sustainable and thus share our vision in working towards a more considerate form of tourism.

I am currently working on a project called “Active Holidays” where I want to bring our guests closer to nature by offering some really fun activities, including forest therapy, walks off-the-beaten-track, bike rides through UNESCO World Heritage countryside. Most people don’t know, for example, that the Mona Lisa was painted just north of Cortona. We spent a weekend clearing a piece of land which we believe is the very spot where Leonardo painted his masterpiece. These are the kind of secrets we want to share with our guests.