Four kilometres up a slim snaking track that leads to the Tuscan mountains, we pull in and crunch to a stop on a patch of gravel. Had it not been for the delicately carved sign that confirms we’ve reached our destination, we’d have assumed that a wrong turn had been taken into a postcard of a quaint hilltop village. In fact, the oldest looking building of the cluster is actually a holiday home for those lucky enough to discover it.
Once the oldest olive mill in Eastern Liguria, Casale Amati Country House began welcoming guests twenty years ago when husband and wife, Manuela and Roberto, decided it was simply too large to maintain as a family home. Dating back to the 14th century, the mill has been passed down throughout the Ingolotti Marquis family and is now maintained by their children Federica and Enrico.
The family’s history isn’t just a romantic notion; it brings the house to life. Black and white wedding photographs and vintage trinkets sit on every surface, one of which is a large walnut table from the 1600s. ‘I look at the photos of my Grandpapa and Grandmama playing in the garden and it makes me smile, so we share that with our guests’ says Federica.
As well as teaching mathematics and science in the local village of Massa, Federica manages the three villas that sit within the mill. Two family sized homes are notably spacious whilst Il Frantoio (translating to The Oil Mill) is a more intimate apartment, mimicking that seen in a classical love film. ‘I call this the romantic one’ Federica says, lengthening her vowels in a strong Italian accent. ‘It is completely private and a favourite for honeymooners, we’re even planning to add a Hamman Spa in the basement’. It’s like being on the set of 90s Richard Gere movie; one where you wish you were the co-star.
We stayed on the other side of the mill in La Marchesa, the once three-bedroom summer home of the Marchioness Eloisa Ingolotti, Federica’s great-grandmother. In the master bedroom, hand painted murals are lit by a delicate chandelier whilst the rest of the house is painted a vintage blue and eggshell, complementing the wooden beams and brick floors. Next door at Le Macine, the lounge curves around the impressive original wheels and press that were used to extract the olive oil.
‘Most of the old mills in Italy have been gutted but we wanted to make the manufacturing part of the house, it’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ Federica’s pride for her family’s heritage is understandable and something to be admired; not every child would be happy to invest time and energy into an heirloom. ‘We considered selling it, but when I look around I see laughter, music, cold swims in the river, lunches in the garden: happy summer memories of mine and my parents’ childhood.’
It comes as no surprise that Federica is passionate about restoration. She talks of how after hundreds of ancient buildings were destroyed during World War II, they were rebuilt with cheaper coloured housing. The smooth pastel walls may look quaint to us Brits but to those like Federica who adore the brick-laid architecture, they serve as a reminder of what Italy lost. ‘You have incredible protection for buildings in England, I wish we had that in Italy. Thankfully the old style seems to be coming back into fashion though – more and more people are moving to my side of the neighbourhood!’
As we explore the local area by car we begin to notice what Federica means. Up a steep curving road, the charming hilltop town of Ortonovo stands out among the surrounding jade forests, its warm terraces the shades of a rich sunset. Twenty minutes in the opposite direction, rolling waves replace rolling hills in La Spezia. Here tourists flock to board the train to the Cinque Terre, perhaps one of Italy’s most vibrant coastal regions that regularly features as a colourful Instagram backdrop.
Equal proximity of sea and countryside are an added benefit of Casale Amati. Days are spent swimming in the refreshing crystal sea, at secret coves only reached by boat, exploring unchanged medieval villages perched high among the hills. There is leaning in Pisa, tasting Tuscan produce in trattorias and navigating the testing lorry populated roads of the marble mountains.
Between the timeless towns that sit in the foothills of the Alpuan Alps are dozens of dusty marble quarries. Here Federica’s brother Enrico works, earning his living as an artist in his studio Chicco Chiari. Using the mined marble from nearby Carrara he creates a series of pop art sculptures. The iconic vintage figures of his youth are illuminated in the white stone, which are traditionally used for Roman busts and religious plaques, make Pac Man look as modern as a meme.
When not putting his hands to marble, Enrico maintains the 7000 square metres of garden that lead down to Casale Amati. In the early 20th century, their great uncle, Marquis Panfilo Ingolotti, enriched the garden with autochthonous plants and flora, emitting a hypnotic aroma of cherries, grapes, jasmine and rosemary among bamboo canes and walnut trees. Each part of the house has its own section, continuing on the tradition of alfresco family meals and sunning among the olive trees that the Ingolotti Marquis family began all those years ago.
We spend our evenings barbequing fresh fish on the veranda or simmering tagliatelle on the stove using one of the many copper pot and pans that adorn the kitchen walls. For more attuned chefs, wooden pasta making tools are found among the cupboards, another Italian home comfort that adds to the charm of Casale Amati. Red wine is sipped in front of the fire where in the morning kettles heat to pour a cup of tea on the terrace.
Stepping out of the house, one will likely face the bark of a hello from a fox red terrier, owned by next door neighbour Rina. Often seen on her patio (or on Casale Amati’s Instagram account as a guest at a family meal), Rina grew up with the Ingolotti Marquises and now welcomes guests in absence of Federica.
That’s really what sums up Casale Amati. Federica and her relatives have not only maintained and renovated a piece of Italian heritage. They’ve restored history. Family. They’ve restored a home.
19034 Casano SP
A huge thank you to Federica and Enrico who hosted us at Casale Amati Country House. Although our stay was complimentary, my words are all from the heart.