Sant'Antonio Country Resort, vacation rentals in Tuscany
For this month's profile we talked to Nico Pannevis, owner of Sant'Antonio Country Resort, an estate in the heart of Tuscany, near Montepulciano, with villas, cottages and apartments.
I have spoken with many people who have stayed at Sant'Antonio and they all report that it is a fantastic place to stay and that Nico and his family are wonderful. I hope to stay there soon!
It was a roundabout route that brought Nico Pannevis to Tuscany by way of Africa and England. He lived in Kenya, Tanzania, The Democratic Republic of Congo and the Seychelles, before moving to Great Britain to attend university. One constant through those years was the annual trips to visit family in Italy, which they considered their "home base".
After graduating he began working in the hospitality industry for posh and renowned establishments like the Savoy Hotel in London and the Ritz Hotel, before joining the Capital Hotels Group, where he gained insight in opening and operating businesses. He was a recipient of the Acorn Award for young entrepreneurs in Great Britain in the hospitality sector.
It seems that hospitality is in his blood. Nico's father was a hotel owner with a property in Kenya, and then became a hotelier who developed, opened and operated hotels in various African nations for several companies.
The Making of an Estate
In 1998, Nico returned to his Italian roots and the farm estate of Sant'Antonio, which has been in his family for about 160 years. "It belonged to an indirect uncle who became a father figure to me. Franco Sorbini was my senior by a couple of decades. We went into business together; he wanted me to take the property and turn it into something special and unique."
Nico has certainly succeeded, judging from the beauty of the estate and the glowing recommendations of his past guests. The former monastery is one of the oldest in the Montepulciano area and listed on the register of historic places, ensuring that it will retain its historic character and rustic charm. "My promise to Franco was that this property would always continue to be improved, and that it would never be sold. That is a legacy that I continue to strive for. I hope that my children will see and understand the beauty of this estate and will continue in the same spirit."
Over the past ten years Nico and his wife Elena have renovated Sant'Antonio, which consists of five separate buildings with thirteen apartments, each one keeping many of the original features and antique furnishings.
"Credit has to be given to the monks who, 800 years ago, decided to build the property at this very location, as we have not changed or added extra buildings to the estate; we have just restructured what was already here. Every year we change and remodel one apartment, staying within the limits that the Beautiful Arts Council will allow us."
The estate is idyllic: a cypress lined drive leads to the complex, fragrant bay hedges form exotic privacy borders, tranquility abounds, and views are breathtaking. The property encompasses 50 hectares of farmland cultivated with grains and olives – 1600 olive trees in all – and just under 50 hectares of natural forests. "We produce our own extra virgin olive oil; however, we do not have vines for producing wine as we are too high in altitude to make quality wine from these particular terrains. I am a strong believer that if we produce something then it has to be done properly. Besides, I cannot allow my father-in-law, who is one of the top wine producers in Italy, to have a laugh at my expense with us making poor quality vino!"
Rural Atmosphere, Resort Amenities
Sant'Antonio is billed as a "country resort" - with the amenities to back it up. Apartments are outfitted with quality Egyptian cotton linens, comfy orthopedic mattresses, fireplaces, quality cookware and cutlery, satellite TV, wireless internet, and private patio or garden space secluded by hedges. Guests are provided with local wine and other beverages during their stay. There is a swimming pool, Jacuzzi and lots of terraces for enjoying the tranquil setting and spectacular views.
Nico and Elena converted the stables into a lounge and dining room where they hold wine tastings and cooking classes, as well occasional art and painting courses. They also host a weekly group dinner there if enough guests are interested in partaking in Tuscan specialties.
Nico is always willing to offer touring advice, shopping insights, winery recommendations, and historical information about the area. He will gladly arrange for tour guides, babysitters, and massage or spa treatments.
A unique benefit for one fortunate couple per year is a wedding at Sant'Antonio. Why just one annually? Nico believes each should be unique and personalized. "The event, which is one of the most important days in the life of the bride and groom, has to be done perfectly and it has to be fun for them, their family and friends, and for us as well. If we turned it into a business and money-making event then it would become monotonous, which takes the uniqueness away from such a special occasion. I used to organize weddings at The Ritz Hotel in London and don't wish to photocopy special events! Therefore we do only one and we wish to meet the bride and groom before we all say "yes" – that is, to organize the wedding!"
The Language of Hospitality
Nico speaks six languages – Italian, English, Swahili, Dutch, German and French. His wife Elena speaks three – Italian, English and French. "Swahili was one of the first languages I learned growing up on my grandfather's coffee farm and I still speak it," he boasted, though he admits that now it is a rarely utilized skill. "I occasionally get the odd call or email from people who have live or have lived in East Africa who write [in Swahili] for accommodations, though this is done mostly for fun."
Nico or Elena make all the bookings personally. "Most reservations are done via email, especially for international guests. Italians reserve the old-fashioned way, by telephone, and some Germans use fax for some reason."
Their two children, ages 6 and 9, help out a little when they want to on Saturdays, picking olives or helping in the kitchen on Wednesday nights. "We are also lucky to have a much-appreciated helping hand from Paola, Franco Sorbini's wife who is very much a part of the family." Their dog, Caio, and two housecats, Perla and Sangria, round out the residents.
Their staff are all locals from the area and have been with them from the beginning. "Where I would be without them?" Nico says. They help run the property on a daily basis, do not need to be told what to do or pushed, which provides me with complete freedom to spend time with my guests. They do not speak much English but they are super friendly, always available and they are really what has helped me strive to make Sant'Antonio what it is today."
While he cringes at the necessity, Nico has had to impose booking conditions in recent years. "I find it so impersonal, but we have had to introduce them in the past two years as, unfortunately, there have been an increasing number of late cancellations or no-shows which occurred on a weekly basis. I found myself waiting up all night into the early hours of the morning for arrivals that forgot to cancel or simply did not show up. It cost us tens of thousands of Euros in lost revenue each year. Therefore, unfortunately, we require a 25% nonrefundable booking deposit by credit card or bank transfer to confirm the reservation." He says the balance of the payment is settled on arrival at Sant'Antonio, paid directly by cash or credit card.
Past guests consistently rave about Nico's hospitality and warmth. He told us that most of visitors are American, Canadian, Australian, British, German, Dutch and Italian. He boasts that his guests run the gamut. "My youngest guest was a two week old baby girl from Switzerland, and my oldest was a gentleman who turned ninety while staying with us. He flew in from New Zealand for his daughter's wedding!"
The estate's busiest period is from May through October and Nico reports that they are lucky enough to consistently book up during that time. "We are open year-round. Sant'Antonio is our home and people are welcome any time of year."
Many Beautiful Apartments to Choose From
While rightly proud of all the apartments at Sant'Antonio, Nico says his personal favorite is the Casa Franceschi. "This accommodation has a personal history in it as it was the apartment I stayed in just before and after I got married."
Casa Franceschi boasts a terracotta floor that was laid in the 14th century, wooden doors dating back to the 1750s, and furnishings from the late 18th century. The typical Tuscan kitchen has a fireplace that was used for cooking. The living room has original frescoes commissioned in the 1850s. "The only modern furniture in the living room is the satellite television," said Nico. The views from the windows overlook the forests and farmlands of the estate, and also take in pretty rolling hills and olive groves.
The best time to visit Tuscany, Nico says, depends on the traveler. "We have four Mediterranean seasons. Those who enjoy the fresh, newness of the blooming season may want to travel in April and May. Warm weather is from June through September. Those who wish to experience the grape harvest should come at the end of August, September and early October, while the olive harvest is done in November and the first two weeks of December. That is a great experience – to see how olives are picked, pressed and turned into the most incredible nectar! If someone wants to experience Tuscany as the locals do and have the historic towns to themselves, then November through March is the best time," he advises.
There are a number of historic and appealing hill towns in the area to explore, but many guests also take day trips to Florence, Rome and Siena. Just a couple minutes' drive from the estate are some hot springs, and some of Tuscany's most beautiful country drives are easily accessible from there.
Nico revealed some of is favorite spots in the Montepulciano area to Slow Europe. "My favorite casual restaurant has to be Osteria dell'Acquacheta, owned by my friend Giulio Ciolfi. He is passionate about what he cooks and serves, has found the right equation between quality and price, and is complexly unique. He is always booked up, and not just with tourists. All the locals go there throughout the year ... that says something."
For a more upscale dining experience he recommends La Grotta, opposite the distinctive church of San Biagio, saying the chef in this more formal spot is highly skilled and passionate.
Want a winery? "Avignonesi speaks for itself, even if the owner was my father-in-law," Nico quips. The vast vineyard is one of Italy's oldest and most progressive, constantly researching and experimenting in varietals and growing techniques. Nico also likes Capoverso, a small local winery that he says "has a wonderful Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a 100% Merlot wine called Cartiglio that is amazing."
As far as cafes, he says Café Poliziano has a classic ambiance with great views. "However, there is really no coffee bar that makes a truly fantastic caffé in our area," he laments. "Coming from a family of coffee producers and being half-Sicilian, coffee is extremely important to me. But Café Poliziano does a good cappuccino in Montepulciano, and Pasticceria Regina in Sant'Albino does a good morning cappuccino as well, but it depends who is behind the bar making it." He says that the well-held Italian adage is true, the farther south you go down the peninsula, the better the coffee.
Nico's advice to Americans traveling to Tuscany is to "bring lots of memory sticks for downloading photos, and bring a good pair of comfortable walking shoes, as our medieval hilltop towns are known for helping shed the odd calorie!" He also says, "When visiting Italy, use the first word of Slow Europe as a guide: slow down! Take your time to experience our simple but renowned regional foods, our great wines, incredible culture, our history and art, and the landscapes that differ in each region and will positively surprise you as you drive through our country."
Thank you Nico for taking the time to tell us about Sant'Antonio Country Resort!