As spring crowds in key Italian tourist cities like Rome, Florence and Venice indicate, mass tourism is unquestionably now one of Italy's major growth industries. But other less-known, quieter and more elegant forms of tourism also continue to exist.
One example is Castello di Gargonza in Tuscany, where Count Roberto Guicciardini has transformed an ancestral village into a simply elegant residence for visitors eager to combine in-depth touristic exploration with an ideal atmosphere for rest and/or study.
Imagine a small, medieval fortified village perched 1,500 feet above sea level on a pine and cypress-studded green Tuscan hilltop. Behind medieval stone walls stands a cluster of houses complete with their own romanesque church. From a tower dating back to the 1200s there is a spendid and unrestricted view of the olive groves and vineyards of the luxuriant Val di Chiana.
Here centuries ago -- originally an Etruscan way station; the tiny village as such dates back to the 13th century -- the boots and spurs of soldiers rang out against the gray Tuscan stone. Here the poet Dante took refuge in 1302 when, returning from Rome where he served as ambassador, he learned of his expulsion by his native Florence. Here walked feudal lords from the rival cities of Arezzo and Siena, whose repeated clashes led the Florentines to raze Gargonza's walls in 1450.
"That was the first destruction of Gargonza," says Guicciardini, 53, a descendant of the famous renaissance historian Francesco Guicciardini and the owner of Gargonza since 1971, when he inherited it. (Guicciardini's grandfather had married into the noble Corsi-Salviati family, which had come into possession of Gargonza in 1727 and transformed it into a profitable rural estate.)
The second destruction of Gargonza, says the count -- a tall man with glasses and a somewhat bemused air who in 1977 gave up his job as an agrarian expert to devote his full time to Gargonza -- resulted from the rural exodus that Italy over the last few decades and which, by the late 1960s, had left the village totally deserted. Guicciardini explains that it was precisely his desire to save Gargonza from final destruction that led him to the idea of restoration for small-scale, high-quality, culture-oriented tourism.
"It was clear that Gargonza could never again be what it originally was," he says with a hint of nostalgia for the old days. "But I thought that with a new identity -- one steeped in both its Tuscan origins and the arts -- that it might very well survive."
A weekend in Gargonza, nestled in the rolling hills typical of this part of Tuscany, makes it clear that one man's imagination has indeed been successful in breathing new life into a small village of the past.
Guicciardini, whose financial resources were limited, started by persuading the Italian government to declare Gargonza a national monument and to contribute some monies toward its tasteful restoration. The first step was to repair the leaking roofs of the abandoned houses. Then, one by one, these two-story dwellings -- named Nerina, Pietrino, Niccolina, Argentina, etc., after their most recent occupants -- were restored to life. Today 19 (out of a total of 21) provide accommodations for more than 80 people.
Simply furnished, all the houses have modern kitchens and baths. Rates are moderate -- from 151,000 lira or $175 ($210 in high season) a week for a house that sleeps two, maybe three, to 423,000 lire or $492 ($615 in high season) for a house that sleeps eight. For shorter periods there is also a guest house or foresteria where a double-room with bath costs about $30 a night. a short walk outside the village (cars are left in a nearby parking lot) is a small restaurant for those staying in the guest house or not in the mood to cook.
The exteriors of the houses, most of which offer a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside, are made of the original warm Tuscan stone; the interiors have the wood-beamed ceilings and tiled floors native to this area, and many boast the giant hearthplaces of yesteryear.
But the center of the "new" Gargonza is the concert hall and music center built in the building that once housed the farm's massive wood olivepress, the remains of which are tastefully on display. On a recent weekend Gargonza, guests and visitors from Monte San Savino (at 6 kilometers the nearest town), gathered in the former frantoio to hear a chamber music concert by three young musicians from Italy, Germany and Switzerland.
Earlier some had taken their cars -- essential here for a would-be tourist -- for side trips to nearby places of interest like Arezzo (25 km), Siena (37 km), Florence (80 km) and others like beautiful Montepulciano (where there is an interesting summer music festival), San Gimignano, and the Etruscan center of Volterra. Others had been out along the footpaths in the surrounding countryside.
The Guicciardini estate -- a total of 1,480 acres -- is big enough to suggest that some further expansion is possible. The count is already toying with the idea of building a swimming pool on a tree-sheltered natural terrace in the valley below the spring-fed, stone lavatoio , where peasant women once did their laundry. There are also vague plans to restore several of the now abandoned, sparsely situated farmhouses surrounding Gargonza and part of the original rural estate.
But for the time being, the village itself is the central focus of Guicciardini's attempt at a minor, modern-day renaissance. During the summers there are concerts most Saturdays and Sundays. Dance and drama groups are expected to come here to live and rehearse, and three special courses -- watercolor painting (June 1 to 15), weaving (Aug. 4th to 29) and renaissance and baroque music (Sept. 1 to 15) are planned for this season.
Some of the guests are Italian, many are foreigners, with the British so far in the lead, but they all share the desire for tourism based on the ability for self-entertainment.One spring weekend the guests included an Italian diplomat and his archeologist wife, a Canadian diplomat stationed in London and his family, a German painter, and American journalist, an Italian theater critic and a large British family interested in both the arts and mother nature.
Gargonza, which is open all year except for a few weeks in January, can be reached by car from the airports at both Rome and Pisa, or from Florence. bThe nearest mainline train station is at Arezzo, from where there are bus and train connections to Monte San Savino. For information write to: Count Roberto Guicciardini C.S., Castello di Gargonza, 52048 Monte San Savino (Arezzo). Telephone (0575) 847021 or 844465.