Brigolante Guest Apartments, vacation rentals in Umbria
For this month's profile we talked to Rebecca Winke, owner of Brigolante Guest Apartments, three apartments on a farm in Umbria, the green heart of Italy, near Assisi.
Several years ago Rebecca joined the SlowTrav forums and entertained us all with her stories of life in Italy. I got to meet her a few times in Italy and she is as wonderful in person as she is online.
Rebecca Winke is a funny gal. Her sense of humor shines through her blog posts and articles about life in Umbria. A conversation with her is freely sprinkled with one-liners and a mischievous grin. But talk to her about Brigolante, her family's agriturismo located in a 16th century farmhouse in the forested hills near Assisi, and she turns positively passionate. In fact, it is her passion - for the farm, its guests, and the area - that is the secret of her success.
"Brigolante, for me, is more than just a job; it's a chance to show people the history, beauty and culture of this area," she told us. "I'm such a cheerleader for Umbria, and that's what makes Brigolante a unique place with loyal guests who make return visits and recommend us to their friends. I am passionate about this region and am able to transmit that passion to our guests, who often return home with a new-found love of Umbria."
The funny thing is, Rebecca originally wanted to live in France. After graduating from college she thought she'd like to live overseas and set her sights on the City of Lights. But other forces intervened and Rebecca found herself in Assisi, a lovely town where she had spent two previous summers on a high school cultural exchange program. She had contacts in the area and decided to go back to Umbria "to try out the ex-pat life for awhile ... 'awhile' being the operative word. I never planned to actually settle here. I would describe the route that brought me to Assisi a wild toboggan ride."
A Major Move
And what a ride, that propelled an urban Chicago girl to a farm (albeit one with stellar views) in rural Umbria. She and her now-husband Stefano began renovations on a ramshackle farmhouse that has been in his family for countless generations. While they didn't have a clear idea what they would eventually do with the house, it was in dire need of intervention. "Some structural work had to be undertaken as it hadn't been lived in for years, then 'una ciliega tira un'altra,' a melodious way of saying 'one thing led to another'. Our small fixer-upper weekend projects mushroomed over several years.
"Clearly I, a city girl who was living in the historical center of Assisi at the time, would never live out in the country. However, in a perfect storm of destiny or serendipity, while we were undertaking renovations there was a simultaneous boom in popularity of agriturismi in Italy. We decided to divide the sprawling farmhouse into apartments and see if we could make a go of an agriturismo. Stefano and I moved from town to Brigolante temporarily in 1997."
Thirteen years, a wedding and two kids later they are still residing in the country, and Rebecca wouldn't have it any other way. The name "Brigolante" derives from Brigulo, a Longobard who purchased the land in 1100 and for whom the farm continues to be named. The property has been in the Bagnoli family for more centuries than the US has existed as a nation, tying them closely to the land where they live. "A sense of respect for the history of the land and responsibility towards the future generations of the family that will continue to cultivate it strongly influence the bond we feel to Brigolante and our plans for its future. Every improvement we have made to the buildings and the land here have been done with a sense of passion and love that I think runs deeper than it would if we had simply purchased the property; we work hard to pass those same sentiments on to our children," Rebecca said. "One of the aspects of Umbrian culture that I love is the sense of belonging to this area and a shared history with its residents."
Not that it was always easy. The initial transition from metropolitan Chicago to a rural provincial town had its challenges, especially before internet use and cell phones became widespread. "Moving to Europe in 1993 was much more isolating than it is today. The adjustment of moving from a big anonymous city to a fishbowl of a tiny country hamlet was both traumatic and, ultimately, extremely rewarding." Now of course her family and friends are just a flight, skype or email away, but the abrupt transition that severed her state-side ties served to bond her quickly and irrevocably to Assisi. "I fell in love with Umbria, with the enchanting green and hilly countryside dotted with little stone villages, and with the people who are reserved yet warm, with social and familial networks still very strong."
A Work in Progress
Brigolante is a "typical" Italian farmhouse, meaning that the ground floor was used as a barn and storage while the living quarters were upstairs. Renovations converted the space formerly used to house animals into charming apartments. "One thing you quickly realize when you have a farm, especially one on which there are old buildings, is that your work is never done!"
They started the restoration project in 1994, and there is always something more in the works. Rebecca reports that while work on the main house is fully completed, this year they plan on restoring one of the barns to use as a reception area. "We are also going to move the hay shed to open up the view from the house," she said. "We have enough to keep us busy for many years ahead." Besides the restoration of the main barn, they have plans for a swimming pool as well as clearing some trails through the surrounding land.
"We have about 20 hectares [about 49 acres], many of them wooded. Much of our land runs along a ravine, at the bottom of which flows the Tescio River, where there are some lovely medieval bridges."
The land supports a small vineyard, a large olive grove which produces excellent extra-virgin olive oil, along with an orchard and a large vegetable garden. The main energies of the farm, however, are put into raising natural beef and pork. "We have a 'closed circuit' farm, meaning our animals eat forage we raise ourselves. Our pigs are reserved by local families at the beginning of the season, so we raise them until they are ready to be butchered. Our beef is sold to one butcher in Assisi who puts a sign with our name in the window when he has our meat to sell so local clients know to stop in. We feel very good about the way our animals are raised," Rebecca says.
A Family Affair
Brigolante is very much a family business involving three generations of Bagnoli's living and working on the farm. Rebecca says that they are all necessarily and inevitably involved in running the farm, but adds, "We are also all very territorial about what we do. I run the rental aspect of Brigolante – fielding requests, taking bookings, helping guests organize their days once they are here. Stefano, who owns a construction company, is the point man for all the restoration and building projects, along with the constant minor repairs that need to be down. Ugo, my father-in-law, is responsible for all the farming and stock raising. Emma, my mother-in-law, is in charge of all things culinary, so when guests get to sample homemade pesto, pasta, or torta di testa (an Umbrian flatbread), they have her to thank for it. Our kids, Nicolo and Leonardo, deal with international kid relations."
Rebecca makes the jams and liqueurs that guests get to enjoy, and Ugo produces the wine and the prosciutto. Stefano's 102-year old grandmother cross-stitched the lavender sachets that decorate the guest bathrooms. The kids have recently started to help out by foraging for fresh blackberries and collecting fresh eggs to present to guests. "I am very proud of them. Brigolante was my first baby, but then my real babies came along and, of course, nothing is ever the same again. I feel so fortunate to have the kind of business that I can share with my family, and the kind of family that I can share my business with."
She says that Nicolo and Leonardo are very much farm boys. "They do help out with some of the less dangerous chores, however they are not allowed in the barn where we keep the bulls or on the farm equipment without their grandfather. They are also both avid mushroomers, and they love spending an afternoon in the woods looking for wild asparagus or fishing in the creek. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of the forage and fauna on Mount Subasio. They also happily participate in the annual butchering of the pig ... something their mother spends most of the day inside the house to avoid!"
The boys have adapted well to having a rotating arrangement of guests coming and going. Rebecca says they get the chance to play with kids from all over the world. "They are completely and hilariously bilingual. They tend to speak in a charming mixture of English and Italian, often using both languages in the same sentence, if not the same word."
A Lot of Perks
The renovation works to date on the classic stone structure showcase Stefano's skills as a builder. The farmhouse was divided into three apartments, each paved in local terracotta flooring, sprinkled with hand-painted tiles, and decorated with rustic antique furnishings. Each apartment is bright and airy with lovely mountain views and outdoor patio space for unwinding. One apartment preserves the old-time wood beams and tile ceilings.
The apartments can accommodate from two to four guests and each has a fully-equipped kitchen with quality cookware, queen sized beds, a washing machine, spacious modern bathrooms, and satellite television. Internet access is available, too. Weekly prices range from €360 - €550. During slower seasons they will accept bookings for shorter stays.
Rebecca lavishes on the extras, starting with a welcome aperitivo of homemade liqueurs, as well as providing locally-made soaps, fresh-cut flowers, hand-stitched lavender sachets, and farm-fresh eggs, jams, olive oil and wine. Guests are also free to make use of the vegetable patch, the orchards, and the herb garden.
She is always ready and willing to give local advice and recommendations, and help guests make the most of their stay in Umbria. "That is one of the most interesting parts of my job as a hostess. I have a whole dossier of activities and suggestions for guests with special interests. I am a very curious and active traveler myself so I love when guests really want to explore all that Umbria has to offer. I can arrange private guides, cooking classes, wine tours, hiking and biking itineraries and rafting outings. Many of these services are offered by other professionals who are also friends, so I know the passion and enthusiasm they put into their work and know that my guests are in good hands."
A Local's Advice
Since Rebecca is so connected to Assisi and so passionate about Umbria, we asked her for some insider's advice about she considers the best things to see and do there.
She recommends visiting during her favorite months of May or October, when it is not peak tourist season but is still active and lively. "The cultural and food festivals are still going on, and the weather is beautiful." Rebecca is a big fan of the "sagras," the area's traditional food festivals, saying, "If you want to experience a real Umbrian summer evening, there is no place like a rollicking sagra."
She said that Umbria, being the "green heart of Italy" is famous for its natural beauty and lovely historic towns, which they have in abundance. "Umbria has a rich culture with museums, art and monuments too numerous to visit in less than an extended stay. In over 15 years there are still many things I haven't seen yet!"
Being the passionate hostess she is, Rebecca says she enjoys sharing the area's hidden special places, and gladly clued us in to a couple of them. "There is a small sanctuary near Perugia called Madonna dei Bagni, which is covered with devotional majolica tiles depicting miracles received. It is a charming and fascinating look at centuries of humble faith. I also love to send people to the historic Brozetti textile workshop in Perugia, where Giuditta weaves Umbrian linens of historic patterns on an antique wooden loom in a 12th century church." (Where else would you find that kind of information?)
Closer to home Rebecca waxes poetic about Assisi. "I love Assisi at sunset. The town is made of pink stone quarried centuries ago from Mount Subasio, and when the sun sets in front of it the whole town glows rose and the bright orange from the sky reflects on all the glass windows like a thousand tiny suns. It is one of those miracle moments that makes you feel like you've lived a charmed life, and makes you thankful for the crazy toboggan ride that brought you here."
Thank you Rebecca for taking the time to tell us about Brigolante and your corner of Umbria!