It Takes a Village TUI Builds Tuscan Playground for the Wealthy

Europe's biggest travel company is investing a quarter of a billion euros in a Tuscan village and a large piece of surrounding countryside, turning it into what they hope will be a modern, multicultural vacation paradise for millionaires. But where are the Italians?

DPA

By and


When God created the earth, it wasn't a terribly difficult task. Granted, he was under some pressure to get it done on time, but it was a deadline of his own making. After all, no one had stipulated that he had only six days to complete the project. In return, he had the seventh day to plant the seed for all kinds of social nonsense that persists to this day: driving prohibitions on Sundays, holiday surcharges and strict store hours.

God also did not have to contend with the challenges modern real estate developers face. Convoluted concepts like land use plan modification applications and toxic waste cleanup requirements weren't invented until much later. And although Mr. Schlüter really doesn't want to start with Adam and Eve, the task he faces is vastly more difficult: what could very well be the largest project ever launched to develop an earthly paradise.

Schlüter, who works for TUI, manages 11 square kilometers of prime Tuscan countryside between Florence and Pisa. "It's almost six times as big as Monaco," says Schlüter, which sounds a lot better than "at least half the size of Berlin's Marzahn district," although that too would be perfectly correct. Size alone is not the issue, but rather a dream of beauty, luxury and authenticity, or, as the brochure states philosophically: "a simple life done to the highest standards." Peace, joy and spa living.

Schlüter is sitting on the terrace of the golf-course restaurant, the only building completed to date. Green lizards dart across the tiles, and the lasagna is almost as warm as the midday sun.

A guest surreptitiously steps on a large spider, which Schlüter would probably have rescued. He has just devoted a sizeable chunk of the conversation to describing how sustainably his staff will protect this unique cultural landscape, which extends well beyond the 18-hole golf course -- also an authentic Tuscan creation.

Welcome to Castelfalfi

He already has the bloodsucking horseflies under control. They weren't going over well with the golfers. Now the offensive insects are swimming in a brown liquid inside extremely green-looking traps hanging from trees on the edge of a slumbering forest. The resort has its own lake, and even a little village on a hill, not to mention 8,000 olive trees, which are already being used to produce olive oil once again, or the 400 wild boars that have to be kept locked up to prevent them from soiling the greens. Even eco-fun has its limits.

The godforsaken village is called Castelfalfi, but now that Schlüter has arrived, it goes by the name Toscana Resort Castelfalfi. Schlüter has obtained building permits for two new hotels with a total of 320 rooms, as well as about 160 new apartments, villas and townhouses -- which sound better than row houses.

A third, existing hotel is currently being gutted. The first pizzeria is under construction along the village street. Most of the 28 Casali (the original, now decaying hovels on the property) will be renovated, as will 50 apartments up in the village. All the old walls must be preserved.

Potential buyers are unlikely to find so much as a closet priced at less than €250,000 ($365,000), and the sky is the limit when it comes to prices in the upper range. The old estates start at €1.5 million, with the largest house having about 1,500 square meters (about 16,000 square feet) of living space.

When Schlüter's legions of construction workers, engineers, architects, craftsmen, designers and gardeners complete the project in the spring of 2013, this piece of Tuscany will look like…Tuscany. The only difference is that it will be a state-of-the-art resort with all the necessary accoutrements, including a security service, high-speed wireless Internet, pools and concierge service. The first visible evidence of construction which can now be seen -- drainage pipes, water pipes and cable harnesses -- will quickly be buried.

Unpopular Germans

Schlüter finally has free rein to press ahead with the project. It's already been six years since he discovered the sleeping beauty of Castelfalfi. If the village were a woman, she might be said to have had a checkered past. Things have been going downhill for this diva since the end of World War II. Residents died or moved away. The farms became dilapidated. Italian investors came and went, had plans and buried them again. Castelfalfi became a sleepy village once again, until TUI bought the property in May 2007.

Prices were high at the time. Soon afterwards, the economic crisis erupted, and for various reasons nothing was happening in Castelfalfi once again, except that Schlüter brought his family to live there with him. He felt that he had to remain on site to familiarize himself with the Italian mentality, which is how his own tale of creation began.

There simply weren't enough interested parties with money to spend. TUI was suffering as a result of the economic crisis, and at home in gloomy Germany it was forced to bail out its container ship subsidiary Hapag Lloyd. And in Castelfalfi Paola Rossetti, the striking, leftist mayor of the town of Montaione, to which Castelfalfi belongs, was making things difficult.

Rossetti, whose father was also once mayor of the town, likes to talk about all the concessions she wrested from the Germans. Groups of angry citizens were causing trouble at the Teatro del Popolo. The guests from the north aren't exactly popular in Castelfalfi, particularly since it isn't their first time here.

During the Second World War, German soldiers shot Tuscan partisans, which didn't exactly improve German-Italian relations. Then came Germany's student riots of the late 1960s. When the investors finally materialized, the locals wanted to first show them what their money couldn't buy.

Modern But Conservative

The seasons came and went. Schlüter discussed and appeased, explained and persuaded. There were hearings and PowerPoint presentations and meetings in Montaione, Florence, Rome and wherever else there were people were involved in the decision-making process.

Schlüter is like a tree, but more of an oak than a cypress. Nowadays, he can shout at his construction workers in halfway decent Italian. But even such an energetic and dynamic person needs a healthy dose of unshakable faith, lest his goal of creating a paradise become hell on earth when progress is hindered.

He is all too familiar with luxury resort dreams. Years ago he supervised the development of the Fleesensee vacation resort in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomeranian lake district for TUI. The most important difference between that project and the Italian venture is that Tuscany already has a reputation, and a very good one at that. And not just among Germany's limousine liberals, who probably can't even afford Castelfalfi. Gerhard Schröder, perhaps, or Otto Schily.

Meanwhile, none of the celebrities of the local Tuscany faction has put in an appearance, even though they fit into the target age group, which is no longer entirely relevant in terms of advertising: successful men starting in their mid-50s, with grown children and a second or third wife looking for a prestigious second or third home. Modern people with conservative values, which could include the owner of a chain of southern German butcher shops or the head of a Düsseldorf advertising agency -- just not too many of them.

If there is one thing TUI fears, it is that its future luxury village will become a Germanic haven of sorts, complete with Italian-style sausage and sauerkraut. First, this would only deter other nations, and second, the Germans who could afford Castelfalfi wouldn't want it anyway.

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BTraven 06/15/2011
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When I was reading the article I remembered "Avanti, Avanti" a movie directed by Billy Wilder. Jack Lemmon played an industrialist who came to an Italian island off the coast of Naples to pick up the body of his father who died there during his vacation. Quite soon after he arrived at the luxury hotel where is father was staying he found out, to his great surprise because he always thought that his father would be as religious as he, that he had spent his holidays, he had been a regular customer, with a mistress there (I have to mention that both were killed in a car crash). To cut a long story short he followed in his fathers footstep – he had let himself be taken by la dolce vita a the Italian way of life. I don't think that will happen to those who buy property there. Perhaps they do not want it. I hope wanderers is allowed to enter the area. I can remember the protests when German cottage owners in Mallorca fenced in their real estates. Newspapers reported thoroughly about it. By the way there will no doubt about it that the resort will like a place planed on a drawing board. Fleesensee does not have the charm Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is famous for.
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