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The Umbrian countryside of central Italy is presided over by hillside towns. Crumbling and majestic, they sprawl down the sides of craggy slopes, overlooking acres of green forest below. Dispersed among the trees are an assortment of ancient houses, stone cottages and castle-like villas. Festooned with crawling ivy and jutting, slanted balconies, they are in various states of disrepair: some are shuttered holiday homes, a few have been deserted and many are working farms, practising the same rural traditions that they have for generations.
One of these farms, found up a long, winding track, is Monestevole, a pioneering eco-project, dedicated to maintaining and developing the ancient alliance between the Umbrian people and the surrounding countryside. A sort of ‘working hotel’ which marries local artisanal skills with a refreshingly informal, impassioned approach to sustainability, it’s part of the Tribewanted initiative, an organisation which develops low-impact, environmentally friendly holiday destinations.
Established in 2006, Tribewanted was founded by entrepreneurs Ben Keene and Mark James who, noticing how much time people were beginning to spend on social networking sites, recognised an untapped potential for altruism online.
Their idea was to create an online community who would help to build sustainable communities offline. By paying a monthly fee, members could fund the development of Tribewanted’s projects and participate in their evolution by contributing to collective decisions about infrastructure, building work and the facilities. For Keene and James, the ultimate goal was to establish long-term financial support structures for the local communities they worked with.
Their first project was in Fiji which, though now closed, was the subject of a five-part BBC documentary. Now working in Mozambique and Sierra Leone, Monestevole is their first permanent project and aims to provide a replicable model for building sustainable lifestyles within the developed world. Run by Filippo Bozotti – an Italian documentary maker who became involved with Tribewanted while he was making a film for MTV on the link between hip-hop and blood diamonds in Sierra Leone – the farm initially faced difficulties as Bozotti worked out how to weave a contemporary approach to sustainability into timeworn Umbrian traditions.
These challenges were soon overcome and today Monestevole is home to a warm, eccentric, all-encompassing community of staff and visitors. Intermittently throughout the day, guests are invited to hand-roll pasta, pick fruit and make jam, or watch expert farm hands make the creamiest ricotta in the kitchen. Beer is brewed, fresh olive oil produced and vast quantities of homemade wine is drunk from thick glass bottles.
The interior of the house is imposing, with thick beams, steep, narrow staircases and high, arched door frames. It’s a clashing array of furniture, much of which is crafted by Monstevole’s resident carpenter. The dining room is dominated by a hefty oak table and meals are cooked from industrial-sized pans which hang from an antique ladder, precariously strung across the ceiling of the kitchen. The rooms are furnished with huge four-poster beds built from locally foraged wood, and the flagstone bathrooms are stocked with organic citrus-scented products, the water heated by solar power.
The sweeping, grassy lawn is animated by brilliant bushes of yellow and fuschia flowers. One side is edged by a panoramic view of the surrounding hillsides, while the other drops suddenly into steep olive groves, which are lit up at night by swarms of luminous fireflies. A red-brick pizza oven is tucked into the far corner, while an ivy-covered archway leads to a field where two horses languidly soak up the sun. Further down the track are the pastures, populated by a mix of hens, goats and pigs, who are dominated by a fat sow named Mathilda.
Then there is the vegetable garden. Administered by the 6ft 6 polyglot permaculture expert, Nicolo Tacconi, it is militantly ordered and provides the house with food, water and energy. Tomatoes, artichokes, courgettes and spinach grow in abundance in fertilised beds which are arranged in perfectly geometrical circles. Aubergines and lettuce, fennel and onions are cultivated according to strict permaculture principles, faithfully mapping the rhythms and patterns of nature.
Relaxed, vibrant and informal, Monestevole, with its remarkable garden and haphazardly elegant interior, represents the glamorous, accessible and affordable changing face of ecotourism.
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