It’s not just anyone whose dream for her dream home is to share it with hundreds of other people. But celebrity decorator, TV personality, and author Debbie Travis was inspired to create a home that doubles as a luxurious retreat—not just for her own family, but for groups of women seeking a life-changing getaway, and now, for other travelers seeking week-long Tuscan escapes as well. Her find, the 13th century medieval villa known as Reniella, is situated on a 100-acre olive farm in the midst of Tuscany’s breathtaking countryside. While strikingly beautiful today, it took Travis five solid years to renovate the estate’s tower, barn, and pigsties into a collection of stunning en-suites with private gardens, plus a plethora of living and dining spaces inside and out.
Calling it a labor of love is putting it lightly. We sussed out the backstory behind the ruin-turned-retreat—and how it’s constantly evolving.
DEBBIE TRAVIS: The first television series I did was a show called Painted House. [Travis hosted it from 1995 to 2002.] During the course of it, we did a trip to film a few segments in Italy. And that trip changed my life. My husband and I had a little dream of going back and house-hunting there, so finally, we did. We looked for about 10 years, all over. And we kept coming back to Tuscany because it really is a jewel within Italy. The more I’ve returned, the more I’ve realized there’s something very special here. The food is all local, and you feel so good because you’re eating very little processed food. And the wine, oh, the wine is really good. There’s no sulfites or tannins in it, so you feel great after drinking it. And the landscapes, the views, well, you just can’t get Tuscany out of your system—it’s just stunning. It really is la dolce vita, the sweet life.
LR: Tell us about the history of your 13th century, completely renovated villa, Reniella. What moved you to purchase it—and then spend half a decade restoring it?
TRAVIS: I actually hated it when I first saw it. It was a ruin. It was raining, it had pigs running around, there were dirt floors. I couldn’t see at first what it could be.
But the view here brings you to your knees. I think its the most incredible, perfect view you could ever imagine. When guests arrive, they sometimes have tears running down their faces when they first see it.
So we bought it, and got into the whole shebang of how hard it is to renovate here. This is a National Heritage Site, so you have to get permits for everything. We have 27. You practically need a permit to brush your hair here! Along the way I became absolutely obsessed, and it truly became a labor of love. There were many times during the years of renovation that I was here alone in a tent, living with 80-some workers. We had a great architect from Florence and a local building company—and their workmanship is impeccable. It’s by far the biggest project I’ve ever done, but I never once looked back. I love it. It’s a whole little kingdom here.
LR: How would you describe the décor and overall feeling of the property?
TRAVIS: I wanted to make it young without being ultra-modern, but also keep the rustic charm of the place. Tuscan décor can be quite dark, and Tuscany’s furniture can be a bit like your granny’s, and I didn’t like that much. So all the furniture I chose is high-end and very contemporary, and the lighting is very modern. Plus, I went to all the big design shows in Milan seeking out the latest items to hit the market. For example, we have these great big umbrellas outside which look like huge skirts—they’re really funky and cool. But also I’m very into rustic antiques, like tables made from planks of wood, zinc containers from a 100 years ago, bistro tables with beautiful patinas… When you use just a few of those items mixed in with contemporary items, it creates so much personality.
The bedrooms are very simple, which is what I wanted. But I also wanted the best. The mattresses are all made from wool, the sheets are Designer’s Guild, the towels are Frette. I wanted stuff to last, and I wanted everything to be special. I want to make everyone who stays here feel amazing. I want everyone who opens the door to their suite for the first time to say, oh my god, and cry. I’d say that eight out of 10 times with our retreat guests, it happens.
The villa has the feeling of a five-star hotel, but it’s a house, it’s my home. It’s not a Ritz Carlton, but I think it’s actually better than that. It has that personal touch.
LR: What part of the renovation do you especially love?
TRAVIS: We have a salt water infinity pool made from Bisazza glass tile, Italy’s most beautiful glass tile. Ours is done in blue, green, and gold, so it glitters in the sun. It was very costly—most people use this tile in a shower and complain about how expensive it is—but we kept saying, oh my god, just look at it, let’s do it.
I also loved recycling things from the renovation back into the design of the home. The old pigsty doors, for example, were a beautiful, faded rose-colored wood. So we sent them to a guy who waxed them, and now they’re headboards. People love that.
LR: What other additions were on your Italian dream home bucket list?
TRAVIS: We put in a bocce court, great massage huts, a yoga platform. We even have Sting’s yoga teacher (he lives in the area). And I’ve recently put in a lavender field so we’re making soap, massage oil, essential oil, and we just started making rosemary oil as well.
This is an olive oil farm with 1,000 olive trees, and we produce about 5,000 liters a year. And we’ve put in vineyards and chickens, as well as an amazing vegetable garden. I take pride in the fact that most of our food comes from our property, or no more than two kilometers away. It’s the shortest ever farm-to-table: It’s all our own wine, our own eggs, our own vegetables. We’re 100 percent organic, and even have the European seal for organic farms.
LR: What do you love the most about Tuscany and the area closest to your villa?
TRAVIS: Recently, Tuscany has become very young again. It’s not just people in their 70s coming to drink wine, now its the hot honeymoon place. It’s romantic for couples, and great for families with kids. And it’s so, so beautiful. One of the reasons Tuscany is so beautiful is that they don’t allow you to put, say, a pink extension onto your house. And they check you by helicopter! Now of course, I love it. Our view will never change: No one will be allowed to put in a supermarket or add a new road, it’s all protected. These valleys are where they shoot all the movies about Tuscany—Under The Tuscan Sun; Eat, Pray, Love... Even if you came here and did nothing, just sat under an olive tree, it’d be a remarkable week.
But it’s also the people, and what I’ve learned from them. One day, an old man came down to my vegetable garden and said he didn’t like the way the garden had been done—could he do it? It turns out he was born in this house. He’s now here every day. I’ll wake up in the morning and there’s baskets of vegetables outside. He’s never charged me a penny, not even for the seeds. I just don’t know why he does it! He has a vegetable garden himself, 10 times the size of this one. He just likes being here.
It’s just their whole way living life, and you can learn from that. It’s a simple life that is incredibly beautiful, and it rubs off on you.