When South African couple Max and Joy Ulfane began searching for their dream Italian home around 28 years ago, they never imagined that they’d end up buying a rundown castle in Tuscany.
But the entrepreneurs, who are based in the UK, quickly fell in love with Castello di Fighine, a neglected medieval military fortress with an attached hamlet, when they came across it back in 1995.
The Ulfanes have since transformed the castle, perched 650 meters (2,130 feet) above sea level in the municipality of San Casciano dei Bagni, near the Umbria border, into a very lavish second home.
The couple say they’d viewed dozens of unsuitable properties around Italy before the hilltop castle, surrounded by olive groves and forests, was brought to their attention.
“One day the sales person told us ‘oh, there’s this place in Tuscany but it’s not for you, you won’t like it’ – and that did it,” adds Joy.
Feeling intrigued, they traveled to the hamlet of Fighine to view the castle, and were greeted by a hugely neglected ivy-covered building with high-vaulted ceilings and several rooms, including a wine cellar.
Although it was dilapidated and filled with rubble, the Ulfanes saw huge potential in Castello di Fighine and felt it was the right place for them.
The Ulfanes were also captivated by the timeless feel of Fighine, which is still encircled by 1.5 meter thick defensive walls with octagonal towers and small round turrets attached.
“We visited Fighine and it was just very romantic even if the castle was falling to pieces, covered in ivy and moss,” explains Joy Ulfane. “It was impossible to walk through.”
They purchased the fortress, which apparently belonged to an aristocratic family at the time, for an disclosed sum that same year, and soon got to work on what would turn out to be a four-year renovation process.
Once they began tearing down the vegetation covering the castle, a tower was discovered that hadn’t been visible previously.
The Ulfanes later decided to purchase some of the rundown houses in the surrounding hamlet, and began renovating them once they’d completed most of the work on Castello di Fighine. This process took a further eight to 10 years.
They’re very proud of the entire project and consider it to be a real feat, particularly as they to constantly had to liaise with local town hall San Casciano dei Bagno and Soprintendenza delle Belle Arti, the Italian government office responsible for heritage properties, throughout the process.
“The castle is classified as a historical property so without the necessary permits from the Belle Arti we couldn’t even overturn a single stone,” adds Joy Ulfane.
According to Italian law, any structural changes that could alter the original architecture and purpose of a historic property must be supervised and green lit by the appropriate office, placing many restrictions on the type of work that can be done during this type of overhaul.
But the couple focused on restyling the rooms and making the property habitable again.
While the renovation process was far from simple, the Ulfanes’ perseverance paid off, and they are very happy with their beautifully restored fortress. The rooms inside the castle have been completely overhauled, with stunning results.
Even the old barn has been redone into a reception hall, while the castle gardens feature beautiful box hedges, cypresses, lemons trees, grape vines and roses.
The Ulfanes visit their private retreat as often as they can and feel very at home in Fighine.
“We come here once a month from London to relax, we love the peace, tranquility and utter privacy of our castle,” says Joy Ulfane.
“The gardens, the olive trees and the incredible view from this hill set at 650 meters of altitude, I just wanted that.”
The Ulfanes, who keep the castle strictly to themselves, restyled the adjoining houses into five stunning villas with pools and two apartments, which they rent to vacationers.
They went on to purchase the hamlet’s old village school, and have since transformed it into a high-end restaurant, Ristorante Castello di Fighine.
World-famous German chef Heinz Beck serves as manager at the one-Michelin star restaurant eatery, which has a terrace shaded by wisteria.
Although much of Fighine now belongs to the Ulfanes, there are still a handful of locals who have held onto their homes, refusing to abandon the ancient hamlet.
Situated close to the likes of Siena, Orvieto, Montepulciano and Pienza, Fighine provides stunning views over southern Tuscany.
Visitors can stroll along the hamlet’s narrow alleys, take a walk around the tiny piazza and admire the ancient stone walls covered in flowers.
Fighine also has a private theater and a restyled small 16th century chapel, where weddings and other special events are held.
Built in the 11th century as a military lookout, Castello di Fighine is connected to the main road by one single unpaved public path.
Over centuries, noble families such as the Visconti, Medici, Orsini, and even the pope, fought to control the castle and its territory.
According to Paolo Morelli, a former mayor of San Casciano dei Bagni, Fighine began to decline in the 1700s when its strategic defensive role waned.
As living conditions in the town grew tougher, local families fled the hamlet in search of a brighter future elsewhere.
Historical documents unearthed by Morelli from 1746 indicate that the hamlet was inhabited by just 17 families at that stage, amounting to a population of just 60.The castle survived, but was neglected for many years.
“In 1606 it passed into the hands of a nobleman from Rome who was named marquis of Fighine and whose descendants lived in the fortress for nearly four centuries, until it was sold to the Ulfanes,” says Morelli.
By the time of Italy’s post-World War II economic boom, the population of Fighine had apparently shrunk down to around a dozen people.
“There was no electricity, running water nor toilets, just a nearby freezing cold fresh water source that fed Fighine’s historical stone wash house where village women gathered and can be visited,” says Gloria Lucchesi, an artist and history amateur from San Casciano who has interviewed various locals about life in the bygone days.
One interviewee, an elderly lady named Angelica who recently passed away, had lived in Fighine since the 1950s and said that she’d never once considered leaving.
“Fighine has always held a special place in the hearts of everyone in the valley, school kids are taken here on tours and tourists can’t miss it,” explains Lucchesi.
“Its past grandeur still resonates, it’s the biggest castle in the area and the most beautiful.
“The renovation has made it shine again. In Fighine, one can experience life in a medieval village, as in a journey across time.”