Sara Pierdonà meets the adventurous Italian family who turned an abandoned castle in a forgotten, once-inhospitable area of Tuscany into a thriving estate and vineyard: Maremma's Castello di Vicarello.
When Carlo and Aurora Baccheschi Berti decided to take over a ruined castle in Maremma in the early 1980s, their perplexed friends asked them: “But where is Maremma?” Mentioned in Dante’s Inferno to denote a rough and wild territory, Maremma is technically enclosed within Tuscan borders, but has little to do with the rolling hills and postcard-perfect landscapes typically associated with Tuscany.
A refuge for bandits and highwaymen, left firmly on the fringes of the Renaissance civilization and plagued by recurrent malaria epidemics that crushed peasant labor, Maremma, in popular mythology at least, had become the oppositional pole of the loci amoeni (‘pleasant places’) scattered around Florence and Siena. This was despite the fact that Maremma itself could boast comparably beautiful landscapes, fascinating vegetation and dramatic sunsets.
Forty years ago, when Carlo and Aurora first discovered the castle, Castello Di Vicarello, which they now run as a guest house with breathtaking views, only Villa Chiesina (one of the suites) was habitable. On the rest of the property, the roofs had collapsed, the walls had crumbled, and cows and pigs grazed freely amid the ruins. The surrounding land had remained uncultivated for years.
But the couple were ready for adventure and, with a proud business legacy – the Baccheschi Berti family had for years lived in Bali, trading in furniture, textiles and antiques – were unafraid of new challenges. Nonetheless, it has been, and continues to be, a labour of love: the initial restoration took 12 years, while renovations of the supporting properties (the lookout tower, the chapel) are ongoing.
“I was born here, inside the castle, at four in the morning… by candlelight, because the gasoline from the generator had run out.” recalls Neri, the second of the couple’s three sons. Corso, the third son, adds: “Our parents did something rare: they had the courage to believe in a majestic project, while of course everyone was discouraging them and advising them to give up. With tenacity and enthusiasm, they managed to create a family-run hotel in an absolutely unique place.”
It would seem Carlo and Aurora have an unalterable romantic inclination for arduous places. After leaving the castle to their sons, the pair moved to Sifnos, in the Greek Cyclades. “We liked it for the sound of the sea, the sunlight against the white facades of the houses,” says Aurora. “But it is becoming too mundane and we set out to find a new island, more anonymous and remote, where we can be in peace.”
While their sons, Brando, Neri, and Corso, left the castle to study and travel abroad, all three have since returned. “As soon as they were old enough, they ran away, choosing to live around the world. But then they came back, all three of them – in order, from the eldest son on,” smiles Aurora. The brothers take care of the vineyards, pools, vegetable gardens and, most importantly, the castle’s guests, distributed in the nine rooms.
The long-term goal is to open up new areas of the castle – “to get to having 15 keys, but no more,” Neri says, adding: “We like the idea of preserving an intimate atmosphere, where it comes naturally to gather in the living room with guests to exchange travel stories and anecdotes from faraway places. Real friendships are often established.”
Access to Castello di Vicarello is via a dirt track, which sets the scene for the pace of life ahead. “That way newcomers are forced to get used to the rhythms of the place right away, to the slowness that nature imposes on us,” says Corso, who takes guests to pick asparagus, mushrooms and wild herbs, and teaches children how to plant parsley or recognize trees. “I have always been the one most fascinated by nature," Corso says.
"I love following the orchard and and deciding with the chef what vegetables to plant to have a full menu season after season, and I am very proud of the six quintals of tomatoes we produce each year.”
One of his fondest childhood memories is of neighbours coming to make ricotta in the castle’s kitchen, following a recipe that would later appear in Aurora’s cookbook, My Tuscan Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from the Castello di Vicarello (2016). “Mom published a book with our family recipes…starting with Grandma's,” Corso says.
In these endeavours, Corso is supported by two valuable figures: the head gardener of 20 years – who straightened the cypress trees and caused the rose bushes to thrive until they became a fragrant cloud that envelops the entire castle – and an antique seed supplier, scouted by Aurora years earlier.
“It is thanks to him that we are so well stocked with rare vegetables, a variety of zucchini and eggplant, and fruits that are tastier than those found in normal cultivation,” Corso says. Word has spread far and wide, and friends around the world now contribute: "seeds for chili peppers are sent to me by our Indonesian friends”.
The castle is not far from Montalcino, which provides an ideal microclimate for vine farming, and production of the estate’s five wines. On one side Mount Amiata, the highest mountain in the province, protects the vines from the coldest winds; on the other, the landscape opens up to the sea, which, with its gentle breezes, keeps the crops from being damaged by heat stroke in the summer.
Eldest son Brando, in charge of the estate's vines, was eight when the family moved to Maremma. As a result, his memories about the initial phase, “the really adventurous one”, and his parents’ bravery and bold vision, are particularly vivid. “I remember the kitchen, now the heart of the castle, did not exist…it was the stable! I also remember the mistrust of the neighbours...Maremmani people are known to be a bit gruff and in the beginning called us “the Milaneses”, even though Dad is from Florence.”
Corso asks if I have seen the wonderful, mighty olive tree that stands at the entrance to the property. How could I not notice it! “That olive tree was an incredible discovery, which seemed to everyone to be a positive sign,” Corso reveals. “We were clearing the woods all over the property, to open paths and get rid of brambles.
"Near the main road there was a giant marruca bush: a plant that makes nice flowers, but full of thorns and considered a weed. We ripped it out layer by layer and discovered that it had grown up and overwhelmed an incredibly beautiful and very old olive tree. It now welcomes anyone who enters the property."
Castello di Vicarello, Maremma, Tuscany: www.castellodivicarello.com