There’s something about the beautiful landscape surrounding Fontelunga Hotel and Villas that has drawn countless expats to uproot themselves and begin anew; Cortona, the setting for Frances Mayes’ acclaimed memoir (and subsequent film) Under the Tuscan Sun is just a short drive away. For Paolo Kastelec and Philip Robinson the story of how they came to run Fontelunga is every bit as eventful as Mayes’. We sat down with them to learn that setting up a new life in the Tuscan hills may not always be the easiest journey, but one which ultimately brings the finest rewards.
‘We had some friends who lived locally that were running an agriturismo,’ Phillip remembers. ‘I was working in the film industry at the time and I used to come over on the odd occasion to help them run the farm. It was very bucolic, herding sheep in the Tuscan countryside!’ Encouraged by their friends to move to Tuscany themselves, Phillip and Paolo found themselves at a crossroads, and took the plunge. ‘We kind of thought well, you know, this would be a lovely thing to do,’ Phillip says. They searched in vain for a property that felt right for them – ‘the estate agent had shown us so many wrong places, either too expensive or with lots of neighbours,’ Paolo remembers – until they finally found the property they now call home. ‘It was the end of a super hot day and I was fed up!’ Paolo says, ‘We were following the estate agent in my mum’s little Cinquecento driving very fast down these country lanes, and as we came up from the valley and saw the house I said- that’s it! What really sold it to us was the view. It’s close to the village but not too close, we have neighbours but not in front of us and we have quite a lot of land where no one can build anything in front of us.’ Despite finding their dream property the couple, like Mayes, found that they had a lot of work to do. ‘The property had been empty for three years. It needed total renovation, it was essentially gutted. There was nothing outside, it was all scrub that fell away to an olive grove, not landscaped at all,’ Phillip tells us. ‘But I could see the potential of what it could be.’
Today, Fontelunga is a decidedly stylish contemporary bolthole nestled in the ancient Tuscan hills, with a décor that manages to be on-trend without feeling forced and uptight. Did Phillip and Paolo have an idea of what they would create when they started? ‘We didn’t really set out a vision at all!’ Phillip says, laughing. ‘You could say ignorance is bliss – we came into it and didn’t know what we were doing really!’ Nevertheless, Phillip sees this inexperience as what helped them define the unique identity of Fontelunga early on. ‘Neither of us came from a background of hotelier, so what we did was something just totally different. We never thought of it as a standard hotel but developed it more like a home.’ Thanks to this unique approach, Phillip and Paolo have achieved something very special; many hotels claim to be a ‘home away from home’, but nowhere does this saying feel more genuine than at Fontelunga. ‘We try very hard to be a hotel that’s not a hotel,’ Paolo explains. ‘So within decency, treat the house like your own – just don’t come down to breakfast naked!’
While the pair’s approach may be laid-back and informal, it’s underpinned by the hotel’s elegant furnishings and up-market décor. ‘Informal luxury is a big part of our ethos,’ Phillip explains, ‘There’s a sense that formality goes with luxury but that’s just not true and we’ve never agreed with that.’ A big part of their philosophy is to allow guests to fully relax, something that they have drawn from their own experiences on holiday. This atmosphere is established as soon as guests arrive, Phillip explains. ‘We don’t immediately ask for passports and all that, the first thing we do is to ask whether you’d like a glass of wine.’ Really? ’Well, maybe not at 10 o’clock in the morning,’ Phillip admits, laughing, ’but considering most people arrive after midday, a glass of wine at that point is obligatory… isn’t it?’
Phillip and Paolo’s idiosyncratic approach means that they have allowed their vision of Fontelunga to naturally evolve over time, seen for example in the hotel’s shift in recent years to become more family-friendly. ‘When we started, we weren’t so child friendly,’ Paolo admits. ‘But what we realised was that lots of our guests got engaged here, procreated here and now they have children and want to come back! So we thought why not? And why not dogs?’Why not, indeed – Paolo and Phillip are now proud parents to a family of energetic canines, who share their owners’ love for getting to know the guests who come to stay in their home.
Children too, are well-looked after at the hotel. ‘Children love us!’ Phillip says, laughing, ‘and I think it’s because it’s a home, so they feel totally relaxed and comfortable. They don’t feel like there’s any formality, where they have to kind of hold themselves back.’ The convivial atmosphere means that, unlike in some larger hotels, children have plenty of things to do, as well as new friends to meet. ’We’ve had three or four different families where, because they’ve all got kids, they gathered together and were having a football match,’ Phillip recalls, ’the parents were having a fabulous time – they could relax!’
While Fontelunga itself boasts impressive facilities, including a delightful swimming-pool, tranquil gardens and a tennis court, Paolo and Phillip are always eager to encourage their guests to get out and explore the countryside they fell in love with all those years ago. ‘We do lots of planning pre-arrival,’ Paolo explains, ‘arranging a cooking class, truffle hunting or a winery experience. There’s something for everybody. For us, it’s about really understanding who your guests are, trying to find out what it is they’re interested in.’ All of their recommendations are backed up by personal experience, they explain. ’Every time we discover something new, we share it with our guests. We’ve just discovered a new winery with an amazing location, and a modern restaurant with an amazing view.’
The informal conviviality of Phillip and Paolo’s approach is epitomised in the twice-weekly dinner parties they organise for their guests. ‘We used to seat all our guests separately,’ Phillip explains, ‘but they would always come together, and in the end we just thought ‘sod it!’, let’s just do a bloody dinner party, and we’ll serve everyone together.’Prosecco and oeurs d’oeuvres are served as guests mingle before enjoying a meal together. There’s no set seating plan, Phillip explains, ‘People get to know one another and they can sit next to whoever they want… They’re generally fun!’
Seeing Phillip and Paolo at work, entertaining their guests with exuberant tales and wild jokes, it’s hard to imagine what the pair were like before they found Fontelunga. Despite having no experience, they are natural hosts. As Phillip says, ‘We’ve always enjoyed entertainment. We’re both obviously entertainers – I think that’s kind of clear!’Paolo agrees. ‘I think hospitality is within you,’ he says ‘It’s amazing how many hospitality businesses are not actually hospitable. Especially at the higher end – many of those beautiful hotels worldwide, there is no soul. For me a hotel is all about soul.’ Mostly, their guests love the unique blend of luxury, beauty and joie de vivre that characterises the hotel, but Phillip makes it clear that Fontelunga doesn’t suit those looking for anonymous, faceless hotels. ’That’s not what we are,’ he says, ’And we’ve never tried to be anything other than what we are.’