A place to recharge body and soul
You can find many “Casa Colonicas” all around the Tuscan hills between Florence and Arezzo. One of these ancient villas is now home to a Waldensian holiday centre where people of different origins meet and experience living in harmony with nature.
Barbara Imbergamo, who is in charge of the centre, talks about their work, earlier and recent challenges, inviting us all to discover this fascinating place.
From Florence, the road goes through picturesque little towns in the valley of the Arno river. Then you have to take the narrow crooked road going up into the hills at Sant’Ellero. No regular bus goes up there, only a minibus, which toots before every curve to indicate it’s coming, so that those coming from the other direction can pull off.
After passing some villages where beret-wearing old men drink their espresso calmly in front of the ”bar” (that means coffee house there) and children run freely on the square, you turn left, go further up a bit and arrive at your destination. The air is balsamic, you can smell freshly cut herbs in it, and when you look towards the valley, it’s just like a renaissance painting right in front of your eyes. You can see the afternoon mist descending to the hills in front of each other, cypress trees planted in a row, vines, and olive groves in terraced lands.
You enter the 14th century villa through its imposing arcaded porch and you are shown your room. The view from your window is again indescribable. You must be in some film… or in your dreams. You relax and refresh yourself a bit. When you are ready, so is dinner. It’s pasta with tomato sauce, then some Italian vegetable stew, but it’s just the best you have ever had. Probably because you had a long day…
While having dinner, you start talking to the nice people working there, all of them come from different countries and backgrounds. You are tired, but when they invite you to sit outside the garden after dinner you gladly join them. Surprisingly to you too, you share stories of your life with complete strangers, but it just feels so natural. Then someone brings a guitar and you all start singing along. Probably because you had a long day… or is this place really different from everything else?
Everyone arriving at Casa Cares has somehow similar first impressions. The Waldensian guesthouse operating in a 14th century villa has attracted many visitors from many different places over the past decades. The Waldensian Church is that was founded much earlier than the others, in the 12th century. Simplicity, social service and tolerance characterises the organisation.
Apart from the breathtaking scenery, the ecological sustainability makes this place irresistible – by staying here you are actually benefiting the environment. So if you are looking for a place for responsible tourism, look no further, it has the EcoLabel of Tripadvisor. Water is cleansed and reused, the garden is organic – that is the reason behind the tasty and aromatic food.
They grow many special kinds of local and ancient fruit trees including jujubes, azaroles, medlars and persimmons. But the majority of the land is covered by olives: they produce the flowing gold, a superior quality cold pressed extra virgin olive oil visitors can buy and take home.
The centre was run by a Swiss-American couple for over 30 years, Antoinette and Paul Krieg, who embodied the welcoming spirit of the house. They worked tirelessly to create and run the centre, yet always had time to chat with the guests and volunteers. Another iconic figure was Iris Amico, the cook, or the soul of the kitchen.
Times are passing, today we see new faces in Casa, but the atmosphere is still the same. This is what we spoke about, among many other things, with Barbara Imbergamo, who is in charge of the centre today.
Can you tell me some words about the past of Casa Cares?
Casa Cares has a long and very interesting past from being the manor house of a great wine and oil factory, to property of nobles and finally a guesthouse of the Waldensian Church. From the 17th century until around 1970, the owners were Florentine noble families who also owned the surrounding lands. Then in the ‘70s a group of American Evangelists bought it and created a “family house” for children and families in difficulty. From 1970 to 1975, Casa Cares was home to many children and young people. You can find the whole story with beautiful pictures on www.ricordicasacares.com.
In 1983 the Villa was donated to the Waldensian Church and was transformed into a meeting and holiday centre. It has welcomed hundreds of groups since then… but I will come back to that later on.
How can you describe the Waldensian Church? What is the role of the church in the life of the Centre?
Casa Cares as many other guest houses in Italy are operated by the Waldensian Diaconate (www.casevaldesi.it). Casa Cares, just like the other centres, is a free thinking institution, open to everyone. Actually the Waldensian Church distinguishes itself by the spirit of openness and secularity. The frequent visits by the members of the Waldensian Church from Florence links the centre to the church.
How does Casa Cares work as an ecological project?
The Waldensian Church pays a lot of attention to sustainability and the environment and for this reason Casa Cares has always been very attentive and careful with the environment. Recycling and savings are important, so we produce energy using solar panels, we clean water by phytoremediation, we use compost for the land, and separate waste. We have a big olive grove that produces high quality olive oil and a garden where we grow organic vegetables we serve on the table, to the delight of our guests.
Who are the guests and volunteers? Do some of them return?
The first thing I want to say is that guests and volunteers of all times have the same characteristic: they return or wish to return, and remember Casa Cares as a special place even after decades of their stay and dream about sitting at the porch drinking tisane or looking at the sunset.
So it seems like this place has a soul that remains unchanged throughout the years that is felt by everyone staying here.
Casa Cares is also loved by retreat groups of yoga, shiatzu, music, psychotherapy, dance, bio-dance, traduction, painting and many more. We have groups who come back every year and new groups that discover the centre and fall in love with it.
Every year we have four or five 18-year-old volunteers who dedicate a year of their lives to work at Casa Cares. It is a very rich experience both for them and for us who welcome them.
Who are the key personalities of Casa Cares today?
Casa Cares was managed for more than 30 years by Paul and Antoinette who lived here with family and the volunteers and have started this story and this climate that’s found by everybody even until now.
Today none of the employees reside at Casa Cares, only the volunteers. Most of us arrived in the last three years.
My job is coordination, Myriam and Andrea are at reception, Sonia is responsible for the rooms, Beppe for the maintenance, Julie and Daniel are in the kitchen, Giordano is at the garden, and together with the volunteers we do our best to receive our guests. Seems like we manage to do it.
What are the products made at Casa Cares? What is your favourite?
Olive oil is the most valuable and esteemed product; we also have guided tastings to help guests know it. My favourites are vegetables from the garden: ever since I began work for Casa Cares, I only do my groceries here, I can’t buy supermarket veggies anymore. These are much more tender and tasty!
When did you first come to Casa Cares? What was your first impression? How is everyday work there?
I came for the first time at the end of 2016 for the job interview. It seemed to me a very interesting place, different from the others, welcoming, something that has a special message. It is actually like that. Work, – when there is no Covid ˗, is endless, and we are not so many, so we are continuously running to make everything work. But at the end the guests compliments as they leave about the nice cuisine, the beauty of the place or the hospitality of the staff are a great satisfaction.
What projects do you have for the future?
We are about to start to prepare Casa Cares jams and tomato paste, so our guests can take something home of the taste of Tuscany countryside. We would also like to have more groups from abroad. For example we have been missing groups from the UK for a while.
If you could ask anything for Casa Cares, what would it be?
Not to lose this genuine welcoming spirit.
Special thanks to Barbara Imbergamo and Casa Cares for the photos.
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Name: Barbara Imbergamo
Studies: PhD in contemporary history
Professional background: has worked for 10 years in social research, then she wanted a change and started to work for the Waldensian Diaconate, where she is also in charge of the Venetian Guesthouse.
Free time: (if any) she likes to read, to study and to walk her dog.
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