We curled our way through the Tuscan countryside, passing through dense vegetation, higher and higher, perching precariously on the edges of valleys that looked like a patchwork of green shades under honest skies. Mother Nature was showing off. We could see dense clouds creeping across the skyline, chasing our little fiat. We didn’t mind. It all added to the drama of the story. We were off to discover the secrets of Villa Lena, an Artist-in-Residency come Agriturismo, that was creating a stir in London.
Shrouded in mystery, what was this hotel, hidden in the remote Tuscan hills between Pisa and Florence, that brings together Artist’s from here and far, allowing them space for creativity and find inspiration amongst acres of gardens, woodland, and vineyards?
After a quick stop at the local town, Palaia, for gelato (of course!) we eventually found the 19th Century Villa, home to the artists and proving even more enchanting and alluring in reality. It’s shabby grandeur, nestled between intentionally unkept grounds of wild flowers, a woodland backyard that you enter through a secret garden gate, and even a rickety treehouse built by a anonymous past guest, all veiled under a Tuscan pink-ish haze. Instantly you can see the romantic appeal of the setting, certainly fitting for the dynamic and enigmatic minds of artist’s, or those who just wish for an Italian summer romance, or both (why not!)
Maintaining this transient rendezvous of diverse guests and artists, coming together in such a harmonious way, is due to the founder and contemporary art collector, Lena Evstafieva, and her vision for Villa Lena. She founded Villa Lena alongside her musician husband, Jérôme Hadey, and their friend Lionel Bensemoun, a successful entrepreneur and founder of the hip Parisian nightclub Le Baron. Their vision was to create a space where art and culture could coincide in a sustainably conscious and creative place. And the surrounding environment is a key factor in maintaining this harmony. The panoramic views of the rolling Tuscan hills has an undeniable presence and is what, arguably, the omnipresent inspiration for the artist’s no matter whether they are a Painter, a Ceramist, a Photographer, a Musician or an Author. It is the common ground shared by all and the staff at Villa Lena take their title as an Agriturismo very seriously, and with passion.
Head Agriculture Manager, Pietro, is as passionate as they come. An artist in his own right, he, along with his green-fingered crew, have painted the 500 acres of Villa Lena with poppies, vegetable gardens (80% sufficient for their farm-to-table restaurant with hopes of achieving 100% sufficiency by next year), olive trees for Villa Lena’s very own olive oil, and stripes of biodynamic vineyards that will produce their own red wine. Pietro eagerly discussed the benefits of biodynamic farming drawn from ideas of Rudolph Steiner, a step up from organic due to the fact that what is taken from the land is put back, making sure a harmonious balance is maintained. Nothing is wasted; branches are made into chips to fertilise the ground and to add vitality back into the soil. As an Agriturismo there are rules, meaning all produce has to be home-grown or locally produced.
In the similar way, nothing is left behind by the artists who reside here. As part of their stay, they are to donate a piece of art to the Villa Lena Art Foundation - A foundation that has already created an impressive catalgued treasure from past residents. Selected pieces are exhibited on the walls of the hotel, throughout communal areas, rooms and guest houses. Or they are hung on the crumbling terracotta walls of the Villa, lit by cascading chandeliers and reflected in ornate mirrors, linking past and present. Some are eventually sold to help raise funds for the continuation of the residency programme. A sustainable ethos has been established here at Villa Lena: not only from the way the hotel tackles design, food, and staff, but providing artists a chance to creatively grow, as well as giving back to the Villa.
It is not only the artists who get to be creative here. Guests can also enjoy the activities organised by the talented hotel staff: you can learn about the locally sourced wine at their wine-tasting workshops, make pasta with the resident Chef, or take painting and ceramic classes to rival the other artists. Learn to cook with nature with their regular ‘What’s in the garden?’ and ‘What’s in the wood?’ sessions, offering guests a chance to harvest ingredients to later cook in the VL’s kitchens.
At Aperitivo, artist’s and guest come together to engage in varied and refreshing conversation against a dreamy backdrop of the sun setting on the Tuscan countryside, a moment only found within such a place as VL. Drink a spritz, or Villa Lena’s Spumante (highly recommended); a pink fizz as pretty as the colour palettes used in the design of the hotel’s more modern building, San Michele.
Deemed as the ‘heart’ of the property and home to the restaurant, bar and guest rooms, the stylish design of San Michele maintains a Tuscan yet modernised twist, inspired by traditional Italian design, colours and the nature surrounding: find deep green parquet flooring like forest grounds, botanical prints, modern pastel palettes and vintage furniture reclaimed from local flea markets. Leading Designer, Fred Rigby, talked to us about the inspiration behind some of the vintage tables that reminded him of the furniture found in his Grandma’s conservatory. In the same way, he cleverly designed the space to bring nature indoors, fitting with VL’s ethos of bringing together old and new, nature and art. Each space is created to offer rest and respose whilst remaining stylishly picturesque, particularly the ice-cream-coloured canapes set around the heated outdoor pool which looks like a real-life Hockney painting.
Villa Lena definitely encourages a social feel, hoping artist’s and guests can learn something new from each other. Yet, there is still a personal intimacy to be found here; a perfect balance has been established between interaction and seclusion.
Artists and guests can find time to reflect, not only within the hotel, but at one of the many hidden spots in the generous grounds. A quote I can’t take credit for, but summed up by my friend as we explored the grounds, is that you feel like every ‘secret’ spot has been discovered by yourself, and you alone, no matter how much it has been shared by others.
The grounds and buildings may be have been there long before, already with its own myths and tales, but Villa Lena has already started to create its own stories. A trove of art, as well as summer secrets, have already started to be collected within and around the walls of this artsy bubble in the Tuscan countryside. If you aren’t writing a novel there, you could almost feel like you are living in one. The nature surrounding provides an endless amount of masterpieces, with colours and light changing hourly. Mother Nature was still playing with us as we left the Villa, heading back through the lanes of the countryside to real life, as, finally, the sun came out and tempted us to turn back.
Villa Lena is open from April - October
Artists are to apply for the Residency through the Villa Lena Foundation, which can be found on their website (link below) - 8 spaces are available per month
Read our Interview with Designer Fred Rigby, Villa Lena
Travel through Tuscany with the TWENTY6 Team
Room Rates for Guests start from €77
Flights from London to Pisa start from around £60 return pp.