SONY Music exec turned creator of Pienza's most characteristic boutique hotels
John and Christina Aguilera
John and Dave Grohl
What brought you to Val d’Orcia and Pienza?
Well, like everybody else who is here and not from here I arrived as a tourist. The first time I came here was in the late 90’s as my girlfriend at the time, Ondine, had lived in Tuscany as a child. We spent a couple of trips on holidays rediscovering the Tuscany of her childhood and some people that she knew, including people in Montalcino and that’s what brought us here the first time. I was amazed by Montalcino, Pienza and Val d’Orcia in general so we came back a couple of times and eventually decided to get married here, at Castello di Argiano.
I had grown up overseas in Asia, in Taiwan, then lived in New York and Cambridge for a while, all whilst traveling a lot with my job at Sony Music and Ondine had lived in Italy, was born in Ireland and lived in the Uk and New York – so we were from all over the place – and neither of us with particularly strong roots in one place.
Italy was always a refuge for me, I was not coming from a strong close-knit family with deep roots so I was amazed by the traditions here and by the roots that people have. The strength of family, the strength of community and tradition, something totally new for me as an American but specifically in my case as someone who had grown up all over the world.
In the early 2000’s people were just discovering Val d’Orcia from an international traveler point of view, and there were very few places to stay. There were some very fancy hotels around Siena, although very old style, and some beautiful villas to rent but they were just simply villas, nothing in terms of services offered. Agriturismi always existed but at that time were very basic, they’ve fortunately gotten a lot better over the years.
So I thought to myself “here is this beautiful place in Tuscany that doesn’t really have any hotels that appeal to me” and the idea of a small, stylish, more modern focused hotel in a beautiful place like this was something very attractive to me. An idea I developed on trips to this area as a tourist, amazed by how much there was to discover here and how little the world knew about it.
I was getting to know the area, getting to know people and also trying to develop what the hell I was going to do with my life after getting married. That’s the beginning of that story.
La Bandita Country House
Interior, La Bandita Country House
You didn’t have much experience in the hotel industry, you realized there was a gap in the market and lots of potential…
Yeah, and a gap maybe – although I didn’t think about it in these terms at the time – in the hospitality market in general. I was stumbling blindly into what I later discovered was a whole new sector of the hospitality market that the industry itself was trying to fill: boutique hotels. On one side to fill the gap in between generic brand hotels on the other completely unreliable BnB’s. Filling that gap in a time when design became a more important aspect of hospitality, and the idea of service changing from a formal old style to a more personal, identifiable and easy going, perhaps more authentic style of service.
I didn’t know anything about these forces happening within the industry, I was just somebody who traveled all the time and knew a lot about hotels by staying in them.
All these things were swirling around when I was thinking about making my tiny little entry into it. At the end of the day it was just 8 rooms and it was just a house, just few of us working there, so we weren’t allowed to change the world or anything. I was just trying to make a place that I would like, that I thought people would be surprised to see: a total white design, minimalist house on the top of a Tuscan hill.
La Bandita Townhouse in construction
You started with La Bandita Countryhouse, then years later created La Bandita Townhouse…
It took several years for the concept of the Townhouse to come to fruition as things move pretty slowly around here…
While I was working on the Countryhouse I was living in Pienza, in the centre, and I must admit I only started appreciating village life once I actually moved here, there is a great sense of community and of life.
It also took me a while to realize how strong the community was in Pienza, for it being such a touristy place. It has a strong background of local residents who live within the city itself. Life in Pienza has always been very different, the focus has always been on what was going on in the city and not the surrounding countryside, unlike most other Tuscan towns. The people who live here have always been proud urban people, much to my surprise.
I found this very authentic and realised that it was an element that people were missing when traveling around Italy. The side of real, daily life is easy to miss. Especially if you’re only spending a few days in Florence or Rome.
The pastures surrounding La Bandita Countryhouse
La Bandita Townhouse
Room, La Bandita Townhouse
They are two separate things: local life and what you do as a tourist…
Exactly, they are very separate in Italy’s cities. And when you get out of the cities you’re usually in the countryside, and if you’re an international traveler you’re probably staying in a very nice resort somewhere, which is lovely, although you’re there with other tourists and people working for you, so you’re not seeing any real people either, in fact, even less. You are only seeing other people like yourself, più o meno, you’re eating food designed for you, there are no locals eating at the resort with you and no locals would ever do that.
There hasn’t been a luxury stay option inside a real Tuscan Village, so I like the idea of having a luxurious and humble foothold in a real town that goes on around you, and even though Pienza is full of tourists all day long, when you stay in the Townhouse and get up in the morning there are no tourists around, and once dinner starts all the restaurants and bars fill up with locals, tourists and travelers all eating together. If you spend a couple of days you’ll see the same old lady on the corner and the same guy selling coffee and you’ll begin to understand what the dolce vita is.
These are really the attractions that I offer here, rather than going to the Accademia to see the David or visiting another church. Having your coffee and seeing an old lady hang her laundry out at the same time for three days in a row is something that touches people who live in big cities. Something authentic and meaningful.
My concept was to showcase what I was already living here, this sort of sweet daily life in a small Tuscan village, and the hotel offers an opportunity to do that. It was always the goal with the townhouse, and I like having both options, being up in a beautiful place in the middle of nowhere and seeing this gorgeous countryside of Val d’Orcia and nothing else is a lovely experience, and then being here in town and seeing the daily life going on around you, and is not being necessarily ruined or changed all that much by the global world we live in right now, is also really sweet.
La Bandita Countryhouse
La Bandita Townhouse
You spoke a lot about the local people and how important it was for you to be part of this community, is there anyone in particular, throughout the years, that had a very big impact on you?
I’ve always worked with the same architect and the same interior designer, starting at La Bandita Countryhouse, his name is Ernesto Bartolini and he was based in Florence, now based in London, they really helped design the concept of the Countryhouse way back in 2005.
In 2013 we designed and opened the Townhouse together, we designed and built the furniture, custom made all of the imagery, the marketing, the logos, the colours, all the way down to the nuts and bolts of following the work, we did all of that together. He was absolutely fundamental, certainly in the first years of my life here, helping me learn a lot and getting my roots down in various places, getting the contacts that I needed and things like that… That goes all the way down to the guy who sells coffee in the main square’s bar here, who’s been here for as long as I’ve been coming to Pienza, who has seen my son grow up playing in front of his cafe.
Infinity pool, La Bandita Countryhouse
Is there a place in Val d’Orcia that moves you?
Hmmm… that’s a good question. The view from La Bandita Countryhouse – not to promote myself – is what I feel in love with. Every curve of every hill from that point of view, and the light always hits them in a different way, no matter where you’re looking at them from.
Then I would say the Pieve di Corsignano, just outside of Pienza, a very old and strange 10th or 11th century church. I take a short run in the countryside every day and always finish there. It’s a place that has always calmed and moved me. You only find a few people there, even on the busiest of days. It has the most remarkable carvings on the outside: above the door is a mermaid opening her fins and another sea creature playing a violin and a third one licking the ear of a human. I often take a few moments and sit there, to clear my head.
Your favorite food or product that you discovered since moving here?
Other than Brunello of course – but I knew about that before I moved here – I didn’t really understand how good fresh porcini mushrooms are til I lived here, I didn’t understand how good real fresh ricotta is, you know when it’s still warm and before it’s been touched by anything. I didn’t really know about that and I didn’t know about new olive oil in the first weeks after its production. And I lived in a sophisticated place in New York City and I didn’t appreciate those things – I knew what they were but I didn’t appreciate them enough until I came to live here and found what a difference it makes, the quality of those.
Sette di Vino, Image by Giro in Giro
Where do you go when you want to go somewhere for a nice rustic Tuscan meal?
Any restaurant except my restaurant is my favorite restaurant I would say. It’s always better to be at somebody else’s hotel or restaurant than at your own, I can tell you that.
But when I can get away from my own, my first stop is always Sette di Vino in Pienza. Sette di Vino is no secret either, it’s always crowded, but for me it’s the best of the very simple old style rustic cuisine, and the owner is quite mad and they don’t have pasta and they don’t have traditional primi and secondi, it’s also small dishes like tapas and you share little plates of very simple and delicious things and you sit in a really pretty square, or even inside is quite lovely. Very rustic and very traditional, that’s always my first stop.