Borgo Pignano with Michael Moritz
From Wales to the rolling Tuscan hills, the preservation and conservation of landscape has obsessed entrepreneur, philanthropist and writer Michael Moritz. Here, he describes how he has created a piece of Italian eco-heaven for us all to enjoy.
On a late October day in 1966 the rain was hammering against the fogged-up windows of a classroom in South Wales when the teacher stopped the lesson to announce that, just 20 miles away in the small mining town of Aberfan, a coal tip had slid down a hillside and hundreds of people were missing. I had just turned 12. Occasionally, when I’m gazing at the views from Borgo Pignano – the countryside hotel my wife and I have developed on a Tuscan hilltop – I think of Aberfan and the way the natural beauty of the valleys of South Wales was decimated by the coal industry. I also sometimes think about How Green Was My Valley, a film about a Welsh coal town that won the Oscar for best movie of 1941 but, thanks to the illusory tricks of Hollywood, was actually filmed in the hills above Santa Monica.
On an early autumn day, such as the one on which I write, and after the excitement of a colossal night-time thunderstorm, none of the views from Borgo Pignano are an illusion. They stretch unimpeded as far as Corsica – some 70 miles away – and there are no coal tips or signs of industrial depredations. The freshly ploughed fields in the valleys around us are maroon and chestnut; the fields that have been planted with cover crops are a soft, cobalt green; the leaves on the vines are turning orange and gold but the trees have yet to lose their leaves. Our valleys are green.
From the time Borgo Pignano was first settled until about 80 years ago, its inhabitants had no choice but to live from the earth. That was true for the Etruscans who were Borgo Pignano’s first settlers, and the Romans who succeeded them and used stone from the estate’s quarry to help construct a recently discovered coliseum in nearby Volterra. It was also the case for the many generations of Italian landowners who owned Borgo Pignano until about 60 years ago. Visitors to Borgo Pignano in the 1930s would have found a community of about 150 people who, with the exception of the owner and his functionaries, the schoolteacher, the baker and the priest, were living a hard-scrabble life as tenant farmers. The elegant copper- plate inscriptions in the annual chart of accounts that records with meticulous detail the quantities of grain, beans, seeds, wool, wine, oil, cheese and silage turned in by these tenants offers a glimpse of the unremitting rigour of their lives.
Most of these people lived on the upper floor of small stone buildings, with their pigs and chickens below. Water was drawn from various wells or the cisterns that collected rainwater. Candles were the source of light during the long, cold winters; wood harvested (by handsaw and axe) from the nearby forest provided heat. Before oil and the combustion engine brought the tractor, the fields were either ploughed by hand or by oxen. Little wonder that for these farmers and their wives the arrival of tractors, mechanical harvesters, chemical fertilisers, motorcycles and the three-wheeled Piaggio Vespa (made at a small factory about 30 miles from Borgo Pignano), seemed like a godsend. But the benefits were short-lived. The fields were over-ploughed, which led to terrible erosion, and fertilisers poisoned the earth.
When we bought Borgo Pignano, the hamlet needed extensive work. This gave us the chance to refashion the relationship between the property and the surrounding countryside and we felt it our duty to do everything possible to help Borgo Pignano sustain itself with as light an energy footprint as possible. The planning officials of the local municipality have become allies in this effort since they wisely prefer ecologically-sensitive building materials.
A year-long reconstruction of the roofs means we now capture every drop of rainwater, which we store in the same underground cisterns that have been here for centuries. The most interesting water-saving excursion was the creation of the first field in Tuscany to have swales – trenches dug into the natural gridlines – which collect rainwater and prevent erosion. The results have been astonishing. A field that was parched and ochre for much of the year is now green and alive with fruit trees. Much of our heat is drawn from a furnace fuelled with woodchips from the trees in the surrounding forests. We obviously make sure these woods remain healthy and vibrant. Solar panels provide supplementary electricity and these days we also have chargers for electric vehicles.
The evidence of the rejuvenation of the land is apparent every day for guests. Soaps and shampoos are made on the property. Bread and pasta are made from our own flour that we mill. The olive oil, wines, honey and preserves all come from the trees, vines and beehives that are dotted about the property. Our dozen horses munch on the hay we grow but it is the ‘orto’, our five- acre vegetable garden, which deserves the prize for productivity, spawning – among other items – asparagus, artichokes, tomatoes, potatoes, peas, beans, chicory, raspberries and strawberries. Food or products that we don’t grow are sourced locally. Cheeses are produced by nearby neighbours with small farms. A fish supplier appears several times a week with the morning catch from Elba, which is about as close as a sea bream can swim to Borgo Pignano.
We’ve learned much from operating in this manner, something which requires the fortitude to work with nature rather than be constrained by additional costs. Now, we’re ready to apply all we have learned to our new undertaking, Borgo Pignano Florence, which will open in 2023. With its 30 luxury rooms and suites, surrounded by olives and vines, it will become a bucolic countryside retreat, set within the largest grounds of any hotel, in the birthplace of Michelangelo, Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci.
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