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La Villa Newsletter

This year, on August 15th, we celebrated La Villa’s 5th birthday. As we stood under the pergola amongst our guests and toasted the day, it felt hard to believe that seven years before we had arrived as a British family of four, with no useful Italian or building experience and absolutely no hotel experience to an enormous old house with only a semblance of live-ability about it. People who know us will understand when I say how proud Chris felt raising a glass to all that we had achieved in the hotel, the awards we have won, the piles of thank you letters and emails and the number of guests that we count as friends, whereas as I raised my glass I still dreamed of all the other things we could still do............... oh, for a limitless budget.

With work on the main building finished in 2009, the only obvious place left for me to re-live the feeling of brick dust in my hair and achieve a pair of hands that would make the most hardened manicurist weep, was the old grappa still. We planned to convert this into an outdoor shower and changing rooms. European flights in particular can be scheduled quite late in the day, so during the summer, many of our guests prefer to spend their last hours soaking up the sunshine by the pool rather than leave early and wander around sightseeing. The changing rooms seemed a sensible solution to providing somewhere to shower, change in comfort and leave refreshed rather than sticky. Not the most convincing investment proposal we had ever made, but still the right thing to do despite the crazy economic world we live in today.

As always with building projects, it took far longer to get started and even longer to get finished than we could ever have planned. The builders put it down to the seemingly ever present snow from November all the way through to mid-March. They would! Despite the length of time it took however, this was not a big build project by previous standards and it left us time to focus on other things that we wanted to change or improve. One of those things was La Villa’s bathroom products. For a long time, we have wanted to launch our own range of toiletries. We knew that what we were looking for was a tall order as finding someone with the knowledge and passion to create a range of natural products (i.e. organic plant based, natural preservative, sulphite free) wasn’t an easy ask, especially when we wanted the majority of the ingredients to be locally sourced. We have always had wonderful hand-made olive oil soaps, but until we met Guiseppe (Beppe) Poratti, owner of La Quintessenza, our ideas for a toiletries range had remained just that –ideas. Beppe developed a range of fresh smelling, gentle-on-the–skin, essential-oil based products for us, (our daughter Kelly’s words, as she will only use them now and no-one else’s). When we launched the range in late May, there was a moment when we thought we had gone a little mad and that no-one would even notice the difference. How very wrong we were – the range now has a small cult following, with guests asking for them to be shipped when they run out.

The other thing we decided to concentrate on at the beginning of the season was food. Living in the part of the world which gave birth to the Slow Food movement and where the locals endlessly discuss ingredients and recipes, it becomes impossible not to be infected by their enthusiasm for all things food. Working side by side with our chef, Hayley Bellenie, we started to refine our ideas about our in-house restaurant, La Vie, and how we could better show-case the abundance of local produce and take the restaurant itself to another level of sophistication. Although we have always been in favour of supporting the local food producers, we felt it was high time we paid them a visit at their farms, workshops and laboratories –in some cases, it felt like we were the only ones to have ever visited! Hayley had many happy encounters with cows, goats, sheep and lots, and lots of cheese. Freddie, our gardener, was inspired (or rather cajoled by Hayley) to plant a La Villa vegetable and herb garden, whilst I focused my efforts on grapes, tasting the latest vintages across the region, (hence, not cajoled at all). Although it sounds like we were enjoying ourselves it was, as I assured Chris every time we traipsed out the doors to the next tasting, very, very hard work. Spending a day tasting cheeses, olive oils or balsamic vinegars, tends to do interesting things to the tongue as well as the stomach. But the results were obvious and well worthwhile. Having found local fruit farms and honey makers, we were able to add home-made jams and organic honeys to our breakfast buffets, and lunches regularly included our own home-grown tomatoes, lettuce and herbs as well as locally selected olive oil. For me however, the most obvious changes were in our evening meals. Greater knowledge of local ingredients and in particular how they were used meant our menus became more inventive, with the quality and presentation of food reaching a point where guests regularly compared it to some of the near-by Michelin starred restaurants.

This year, it also helped that we had some of the region’s star ingredients in abundance. The ultra-damp, humid start to the year may not have made it easy to build, but it sure helped in the kitchen. There was a sea of asparagus to work with at the beginning of the season, and that embarrassment of kitchen riches continued throughout the year with black truffle and then in autumn, white truffle. In all the years we have lived here, there has never been a year like it for the white truffle or the autumnal colours that heralded its arrival. Normally more expensive than gold, and, according to my family, more elusive than a fully charged mobile phone in my handbag, by mid November we were overwhelmed by the sheer volume and quality of what was available. Even our younger daughter, Gemma, who never says no to a dish of fresh pasta and truffle, passed up the odd dish in favour of a simple dressing of butter and sage! Taking advantage of its abundance and better prices, we created a range of special truffle menus from late September until the snows in November put an early close to its season. The idea was hugely popular, and the aroma of truffle became a permanent fixture around the bar from early breakfast time, with their daily arrival.

The greater emphasis on the sourcing and development of La Vie’s menu had the knock on effect that more and more of our guests wanted to spend time in its kitchen. On-site cookery courses became a regular feature throughout the year, with couples in particular often wanting to take a little piece of their holiday home with them by learning to cook what they had eaten here. The growing emphasis on food at La Villa was matched by an increasing interest in the wines of the region. We have never had so many guests involved in the wine business in one way or another, nor organised so many wine visits and tastings. So, as I mentioned to Chris a few times in passing, all my gallivanting across the Piemontese landscape, talking to producers and drinking wine had a real purpose, after all. In fact very flatteringly this year, we have been asked numerous times to set up a Wine Club for lovers of the wines of this area and to provide specialist guided tours. We’re not quite ready for the Wine Club, but we will be spending early 2011 determining how we can best help our guests enjoy their limited time in the winelands. I’m all for more brick dust in my hair and converting our small wine cellar into a proper tasting room early next year so that we can invite the wine makers to La Villa for special tastings, but I have yet to plead my case..... Any notes or mails of support will be gratefully received!

Whilst I’ve been plotting how to further spend the money we have yet to earn, Chris has been hunched behind his computer screen learning his way around Java, html, robots and many clever bits of software. As guru of all things electronic in the hotel, (well, maybe not quite guru status as yet), he has been faced with the challenge of building us a new web site. Six years is a long time in cyberspace, and although the old site has stood us in very good stead, it was clear from our guests’ comments that the site no longer did justice to the hotel itself and that it was time for a change. To change what has always worked is a big step for a small company, so feedback is very, very welcome. The new site is still in English only, but we intend to try loading Italian, German and French versions later this year.

The web site isn’t the only part of La Villa which is undergoing significant change. Our team is, too. Anyone who has stayed at the hotel will know that we have a very close knit team, and those returning will see the same faces year after year. Chris and I are like proud parents, watching the team grow and develop both as individuals and in their jobs. Agne, our holder-of-the-fort and ace morning-coffee-maker in particular has been an almost third daughter for us. So when she told us early in 2010 that she was pregnant we could not have been happier for her. A few years ago, Chris had joked with her that she would be allowed to have babies so long as they were born out of season. Dutiful as ever, Agne had baby Aurora at the beginning of February and will hopefully be back with us in early summer. Hayley, too, is leaving. After two great years with us, she has decided to go back to England to be closer to family. Hayley will be running her own private chef company from home www.hayleybellenie.com for those who may need some catering support in the future, and continuing with her great blog - click here to be connected. She will also be helping us early next year through the selection process for a new chef, and may well be in the hot seat for some of our bigger events next year. We wish them both great luck for the big changes ahead.

Now that La Villa has become more established, we are aware of a greater rhythm to our season. With all the maintenance we like to do at the beginning of the year, and the threat of snow at the end, we now open from mid March until the beginning of December. Special events such as weddings and birthday parties, have been quietly playing an ever bigger part of the season, particularly in April, May and June when everything outside is fresh and vibrant green. Although in 2010 we have still not ventured beyond our magic number of six weddings a year, we have played host to many more significant birthday parties and a few corporate events, and in 2011 are under real pressure from guests who have stayed with us to squeeze in many more. 2010’s weddings and parties, as ever, have given us many laughs and lots of great memories. A very personal wedding for us was Yomi’s – Yolanda and Michael’s – as they have stayed at La Villa every year from the first full year we opened and have watched both the hotel and our kids grow up in the process. So, for bringing my whole family on the dance floor for the first time in years (and also for giving Chris a table tennis match to remember), guys - thank you!

When we sat down to review the past year in order to write the Newsletter, we expected that the things we would want to put in it would be the big ‘shout-about’ events, the fact that we were awarded the best hotel in Italy by Travel and Leisure; voted one of Escapio’s best hotels, or even that we got to be on television with Gary Rhodes, a top UK celebrity chef, and not on the BBC’s cutting room floor. However, the things that got us to talking, laughing and damned near crying a few times were the more personal, quieter moments that come with working in a people business. On that note we remember Rocky, Mario’s companion and great truffle dog, who died suddenly in July last year before the start of one of the easiest truffle finding seasons ever and who had the audacity to snaffle Gary Rhodes’ first ever truffle out of his hand and eat it from under his very nose. With that image in mind and goofy smiles on our faces, we send everyone our best wishes and hope that you have a happy and healthy 2011 in every way.

Chria, Nicola, Kelly, Gemma and team

Tel: +39 0141 793 890 or +39 347 281 8843