So we lived for many years on the road in trucks or on the ground in tipis, as a part of a group consciousness process. We started making yurts in 2003, and set up Spirits Intent, making yurts and other nomadic tents in 2005, and at that time there were only a handful of other yurt makers in the UK, and the word ‘glamping’ didn’t even exist. We focused more on the canvas sewing side of things, as that was what seemed to be missing in the UK— our clients included other yurt makers, and obviously campsites, who need replacement tent covers, which we do from afar using measurements, whilst also supporting them with ongoing canvas care.
We always had an idea to build a new kind of campsite, with a focus closer to the origins of these tents, and as a base for the group consciousness process which we have part of for many years. The cost of land in Britain was prohibitive, so fast forward to 2015 when we packed up and left the little valley in Wales, where we had been living and working, and headed to Italy.
Who doesn’t have romantic ideas of La Dolce Vita in Italy: good food, a rich history, beautiful language and great climate. As we crossed the border into the Abruzzo region of Central Italy, we were welcomed by a magnificent double rainbow, so knew that this was going to be our place. We had never ventured this far south in Italy, and were amazed at the extraordinary variety of the land, with dramatic peaks over 3000 m just a short drive from the beaches of the Adriatic Coast, hardly any big industry, and hilltop villages with spectacular views.
Abruzzo is a land of mystery, who has never forgotten her history and origins: traditions, folklore, festivals and ancient varieties of grains and vegetables have stood the test of time. It still stands like a stronghold against the mainstream of Italian culture, like it did when the Samnites, its nomadic people, fought with Rome and is now known as the Green Heart of Europe with rich vegetation, forests and wild life: wolves and bears, deer and wild boar, magnificent birds of prey.
We found 12 hectares in an old abandoned farm with an old stone house, as we found that having a building on the land helps considerably with any project. The farm is called La Difesa, an ancient term that comes from its prior land use, where the feudal lord had a parcel of land, defended (difesa) for the grazing of large animals, feeding on the acorns under the massive oak trees, which were not allowed to be cut. As well as oak forests, it is abundant with fruit orchards and olive groves.
It stands on the doorstep of the Majella Massif, known as the ‘Mother Mountain’, whose views are so jaw dropping we still can’t believe we live here. It’s a wild powerful land, lying between two rivers and the nature is strong — the mountain has a rhythm of its own and it’s not unusual to have intense storms, interspersed with endless sun, never mind the myths of old goddesses lying asleep next to sulphur springs that are hidden in a grove 500 meters away.
To begin with, alongside our UK canvas work, we just focused on building Heartland, our site: clearing the land, restoring the orchards, making yurts, renovating the house, and running small non-profit events with a theme of well-being and sustainability. The local people were curious and overwhelmingly welcoming, coming to meet us and bring us gifts of their produce, the local priest even came to bless the house, and recently, the mayor of the local commune came and sat around the fire and joined in the singing.
We soon realised we couldn’t just focus on our project as we could help the local region, which like much of rural areas in central and southern Europe suffers from the disease of depopulation with outlying areas of villages being abandoned as the farmers compete with big industry on the plains and youth leave the villages for jobs elsewhere, taking with them ancient knowledge of the region. We realised that we could design glamping sites as a tool for famers and land owners to diversify and supplement income and bring energy to the area in a sustainable way. Glamping in Italy is no where near as established as it is in the UK, and still in its infancy in Central Italy, so a Glamping Revolution was born: GlampItalia. It started promoting Glamping products in Italy, and got names like Featherdown Farm, Outstanding Safari Tents, and others on board.
We started sitting in meetings with famers and local bodies, eventually gathering a whole network of small eco-projects and farms in Abruzzo, for the creation of an integration between sustainable tourism, and organic farming that has roots in the rich farming tradition of the area. Abruzzo is a well kept secret, and doesn’t need an invasion of mass tourism, but a slow tourism which supports the local culture. There is an opening to put together a methodology based on a concept that has transformed the hospitality industry in the UK, but here it can actually save villages from ruin.
Meanwhile we started hosting more events: yurt-making, healing arts, green building, with personal transformation work always an underlying theme. Living as a group around the fire in the quiet of wild, abundant nature is a profound experience. We intend to host two events every year, Spring and Autumn, and this Autumn we plan to raise the central canopy of our Zodiac Tent. We have always had a passion for tent palaces and, over the years, have made or been part of making several of the grandest. This tent is a reproduction of a court tent of the Mogul emperor Humayun: a grand 20 metre central tent (representing the celestial sphere) surrounded by 12 yurts in a circle (for the 12 Zodiacal signs) – a micro cosmos, and will form a magical venue for events for all over Europe but with a base on our own site – Heartland.
The site now has 4 yurts, a tipi, a kitchen area, compost toilets, outdoor wood-fired bathtubs and a Shepherds Hut under construction. As well as running our own events, we intend to open the campsite, including the Zodiac Tent, for groups of people to run independent events such as team-building workshops, bushcraft courses, and holistic health events.
Bureaucracy in Italy is agonising and about 20 years behind the UK, but the legendary red tape for planning permission has been surprisingly not so red, and can be as easy as liasing with the local Commune. Obviously the nature of permit is defined also by the activity, but there are options that do not exist in the UK, where tents can be pitched on agricultural land, or the commune can bypass a need for a change of land use with a simple declaration from the mayor.
The Italian tax system is more prohibitive than in the UK, but like many people that have moved here, the sun, food, culture and warm hearted people by far make up for it. It is important that a place inspires your love strongly and we advise people moving over to allow two years for the leap, and to work with a solid local team of commercialista, geometra, lawyer and architect. There are an endless amount of rural properties at a fraction of the price of land in the UK, and some villages in Italy are even giving away houses to reverse their abandonment. If you have a dream of moving out to Italy to start a glamping site or similar project, it is a good time now before Brexit as who knows what will be possible then? We are happy to offer advice and bring more projects onboard to create a sustainable tourism network throughout Central Italy, and a movement of visitors between them.
Abruzzo is unbelievably beautiful, and we are finding a balance between reversing the abandonment yet loving the quiet it produces – living in a myth of ancient Italy, on the verge of a new dawn of sustainable redevelopment. It’s a full, fulfilling life and a good cause to live by.