"Keep an eye out for Donna Nencia. She may turn up on a horse." Shielding our eyes against a lazy Umbrian sun, our small party scans the brushy edges of a little lake. In the mustard-green shallows, tadpoles are twitching. Two pristine rowboats nudge the wooden pilings of the jetty. But through trees half-clad in mid-season states of undress, there's no sign of one of Hotel Castello di Reschio's purebreds, nor its rider.
It's a uniquely Reschio kind of statement. Here, amid 1,500 glorious hectares of classic Italian countryside, it's somehow unsurprising that a member of the nation's nobility might ride up to greet you. Even if you are standing wrapped in a towel, hopping on one foot as you attempt to remove your wet swimming costume, blotchy and fresh from a brisk dip. This is Reschio, after all - the castle, estate and hotel where connection with the land is just as important as the property's millennium-long heritage and its impeccable interior design.
Opened to much fanfare in 2021, Hotel Castello di Reschio is the culmination of decades of love, art and sheer hard work by one family. Acquired by Count Antonio Bolza in 1994, the estate comprises unspoilt oak woodland, mist-filmed lakes, vineyards, olive groves and cypress-studied horizons, punctuated by traditional farmhouses and cottages - some in ruins, others immaculately restored. The estate's centrepiece is the castle, now home to 36 guest rooms, suites, a spa and living spaces that reference the 1930s in breathtaking style, thanks to the creative vision and talents of Bolza's architect and designer son, Count Benedikt, and his artistic wife, Donna Nencia, a princess from Florence's ancient Corsini family.
Rearing up from Perugia's landscape like some medieval spaceship, the castle dates from 1050 and was where Count Benedikt and Donna Nencia raised their own family from the 2000s. Originally a self-contained fortification where water and food could be stored to enable its inhabitants to survive siege conditions, it was always more of a defensive building than a structure for showing off and hosting grand banquets. Its lands were productive, down the years giving up olives, wood, wheat, fruit and - by the middle of the 20th century - a lot of tobacco.
Today, Count Benedikt Bolza sits across a table in the Tabaccaia, the estate's stunningly restored 1940s tobacco factory that serves as his BB Reschio design studio and creative hub. Impeccably dressed, effortlessly relaxed, he gestures to a series of aerial images, some shot by the British in the Second World War.
"You can see how heavily it was farmed," he says, pointing out the black-and-white rectangles that indicate agricultural terraces carved into the hillsides. "Everything was done by hand; they couldn't work these fields with tractors. The majority of the output was tobacco, but they were farming everything imaginable: grain, grapevines, mulberry for silkworms that they bred in the attics of the castle. They kept pigs in the woods. Where the swimming pool is today there were vineyards." He leans across the table for emphasis. "Every inch of the estate was used. And there were about 500 people living here, working on the land. Most of the farmhands were children; they didn't go to school. No electricity. No running water. And you wouldn't believe it but this system was still fully active in the 1960s."
By the time the Bolzas arrived in the 1980s - aristocratic exiles from Communist Hungary, via Austria, who had returned to their Italian roots - the locals had largely moved out and nature had taken charge.
"The estate was not farmed anymore. And the houses were all abandoned; the castle was not lived in. There were hardly any roads. It was beautiful - very wild."
Having started with one magnificent hilltop property, San Martino, Antonio Bolza was finally able to acquire the entire estate in 1994, by which time Count Benedikt was studying architecture in London. The memory of that moment still makes him smile. "I thought this was a fabulous idea," he says. "Because, of course, there were 50 farmhouses, the castle and all these incredible structures that we could restore like this" - he waves at the interior of the Tabaccaia - "and like the stables".
Gradually, restoration of the tumbledown properties got underway. Electricity was brought in via underground cables. Rainwater was channelled from Reschio's lakes, providing a sustainable source for the whole estate. Through the windows of the Tabaccaia, there's not a pylon in sight; the only apparent infrastructure being a road snaking uphill to the fortified building above.
"Nencia and I moved into the castle in '99," continues Count Benedikt. "We had five children, all born at the time we were there. And we loved our 11 years inside; it was a paradise. We'd walk through this tiny door in the big gate… Just one key for the entire house. Didn't need to lock anything once you were inside. And the children absolutely loved it. But it became a bit dangerous at the end because everything was starting to fall in. So after these 25 years of hard work, restoration, having, you know, a wonderful community of houses here, we felt it was time to do the castle."
You can feel the earthly roots of Reschio’s origins in every space: an unexpected sense of home, and a connection to the land
In some ways it's hard to imagine those early days. The Tabaccaia alone is a masterpiece of industrial design. Downstairs, I'd been greeted by a vintage Fiat and a roaring fire, before being solicitously led up an open staircase and along a broad walkway lined with examples of Count Benedikt's signature furniture and the light-filled offices of his architecture and design team. There are curvaceous, brass-wrapped side tables, bar stools with buttoned-leather finishes, steel and velvet standard lamps - all designed by Count Benedikt, made by local artisans and available for guests to purchase. As with the luxuriously appointed guest rooms - which are softly lit and strong on organic textures and natural, if gleaming, finishes - everything feels sinuous and timeless.
Yet you can feel the earthly roots of Reschio's origins in every space: an unexpected sense of home, and a connection to the land. Stepping through the great gated entrance to the castle proper, you're greeted not by the standard reception area but rather by the Boot Room, facing onto the inner courtyard lined with guest rooms. No dreary welcome drinks and forced chat here - instead, a long beamed space with a great crackling fire, shelves lined with glass vases and huge sprays of wildflowers from the estate, waiting to be arranged into artforms by Donna Nencia at the rustic wooden table.
Here, too, is the Palm Court - a soaring glasshouse with a reclaimed herringbone brick floor, elegant tropical trees, playful palm lamps, high-backed bamboo chairs and velvet sofas, cunningly laid out so as to give each lounge setting a sense of privacy.
Below your feet, the Bathhouse occupies the castle's former white wine cellars, and it's here more than anywhere that you're most likely to feel the property's medieval heritage, as you're massaged and dry-brushed in a huge stone room, lit by candles and yet another enormous blazing fire. Next door, stone steps lead you down into the Roman Bath, where you can wallow privately in warm saltwater and watch shafts of sunlight spearing the chamber.
Fire and water are running themes throughout Reschio. "I love fireplaces and I put them everywhere," says Count Benedikt, who designed the fire grates throughout. "They're so easy because nothing can fall out and they don't smoke. It's amazing how many guests nowadays are not used to fire any more, but I notice that when people come to the hotel, they always go straight to it. There's a real connection going on."
Two-thirds of the estate is woodland, the majority of it oak, which has remained uncut for the past 30 years, and is no longer harvested for firewood. "We don't need to plant because it's so vigorous," says Count Benedikt. "Rather, what we're doing is helping the undergrowth to stay clear so we could develop a high-canopy woodland - called alto fusto in Italian - and highly protected by the state."
What land they do cultivate is these days turned over to a range of biodynamically grown crops suited to the terroir: olives and grapevines, of course - this is sangiovese territory - but also ancient grains, chickpeas and hemp. In what Count Benedikt describes as a "closed circle" approach, the estate is designed to be as self-sufficient as possible.
The same philosophy applies to the ongoing restoration work of the old estate houses, some of which have been bought by private owners, but 10 of which are available to rent year-round. All the building material comes from the existing sites of the buildings, which date from 800 years old up to the pre-war period: sturdy old roof tiles, beams and sometimes steel girders.
Produce for the hotel's restaurants all comes from the estate or its immediate surroundings: Reschio supplies its farmers with high-quality seeds, which are then planted and resupplied back to the estate as fruit and veg. There's Reschio-grown wine, gin, amaro and an outstanding olive oil. Tumbling down the hill outside the castle ramparts are naturally growing wild herbs and medicinal plants that Reschio resident and botanist Selvatica Cipriani guides us through, stopping every few steps to help us select sprigs to make our own herbal tea: "Choose whatever calls out to you! Your body knows and will thank you."
My body is certainly grateful the morning we're driven out to the lake and told that Donna Nencia may be dropping by to say hello. Having kicked through the icy water for 20 minutes until my hands ached with cold, we're now draped over campaign chairs on the deck of the lakehouse, sipping freshly pulled cappuccinos and inhaling pastries and the crisp morning air. Reschio is home to a dressage arena and a stable full of Spanish purebreds that are the pride of Antonio Bolza, who still lives on the estate and rides every day, and we're hoping to catch a glimpse of our hostess riding one.
As we wait, I think of something Count Benedikt said: "What I think is interesting is how the slowness - slow food, slow evolution, slow development - has really helped Reschio evolve in the correct way. Of course, most businesses would go bust if they had to wait to evolve so slowly, but for us it was the only option. In a way, it was our saviour."
Suites cost from £758 per night (minimum two-night stay), including breakfast for two. The hotel closes for the season on 3 January and reopens 16 March 2024, but individual houses are still available to rent during this time. For further information and bookings, visit reschio.com