Co-founder of Villa Lena, Lena Evstafieva left the art world to set up a hotel and artist residency, with art, culture and nature at its heart.
A creatively inspiring and serene place both for individuals and families, the 500-hectare domain, Villa Lena, is much more than just a traditional Tuscan retreat: it artfully reinvents hospitality. As part of a series on inspiring women leaders in sustainability, we speak to its founder, Lena Evstafieva.
How did it feel to be a woman imagining a luxury hospitality destination from scratch in the middle of Tuscany?
I never had a vision or desire to be in the hospitality industry. I wasn't trained for it. I wanted to create a place where all people could interact seamlessly, find their own rhythm, explore, retreat whether families with kids, honeymooners, friends. For guests at different stages of their life to mingle. I wanted to be inclusive as I feel hospitality is usually geared towards a singular audience. Today, after a decade, Villa Lena feels like home: it’s not a hotel, nor a boutique getaway, and it doesn’t feel corporate. We always wanted to create immediate and intimate interaction with and within a creative crowd, which having artists in residence enables at all times. It is possible because we have so much space that guests can
There should be more women in hospitality, it is about caring about people. Making sure everyone is well taken care of: that is something women do much better. I always tell my staff: imagine every client is your favorite grandma.
As for respect, I did ask my peers for advice, but it wasn’t about gaining respect it was about staying in line with my ambitions for the place. Call it self-respect? It was and still is difficult to find the right staff for this project: like-minded people that have not been ‘standardized’ by past experiences. There is no exact formula: Villa Lena is a living organism.
At Villa Lena, you treat the whole site like an ecosystem, thinking about nature as much as about the built environment. Could you talk about this vision and how you thought to keep the site as wild and natural as possible?
I am very passionate about sustainability and devote a lot of energy to do so. The task is endless, and it takes many forms from big to small. Each time we renovate a building, we do it so that it becomes a green building, well insulated and frugal when it comes to energy consumption. We took a big leap forward when we installed solar panels and started recycling water for irrigation. We also have a worm farm: 40m2 dedicated to composting and generating natural fertilizers.
We also rely heavily on local artisans and materials and refrain from importing anything from outside: for example, we didn’t buy any new furniture during the renovation, and found ways to upcycle.
How important is it for you to imagine a ‘holistic’ destination where farming, art, the elements and wellness are all part of a whole?
The body and the soul are taken care of. My team is very passionate about this project, they get to meet a very diverse group of people. It does take a lot of work, but everyone is involved. The chef is great: passionate about seasonal, simple and easy, Tuscan and fresh. We have a Yogi in residency who also does very simple massage, move and rest, back to basics.
What role will sustainability play in the future of Villa Lena and, in your opinion, in the high-end hospitality sector generally? What are your aspirations or projects?
Central. But there is still a long way to go at Villa Lena: we want to renovate more buildings, upgrade them in terms of sustainability. My next big project is to create a solid water plant to collect all rainwater, so we don't use public water. I have a passion for flowers and do have to water them. There are also a lot of wild animals on the property and we want to build water holes for them in the summer.
You have surrounded yourself with a talented chef who sources everything locally. What kind of cuisine do you want to put forward? How important are the hand that cultivates and the soil that nurtures?
At Villa Lena, Gigi, our ‘orto man’ takes center stage: a unique gardener, he looks after our two vegetable gardens of two hectares. Alongside, our talented chef offers a farm to table menu and we also have an in-house baker!
Mostly, agriculture is about trial and error: there are so many variables, it is not an exact science. We grow the best radishes but can’t grow good carrots. Same, at Villa Lena, iris bloom and peonies die. We just, modestly, keep on trying, learning and adapting.