A visit to Umbria: interview with David Lang, owner of Casa San Gabriel

Written by on January 24, 2021 in Property, Umbria

family lunch at the restaurant - A visit to Umbria: interview with David Lang the owner of Casa San Gabriel

As part of a new series of interviews and features coming from the other parts of Italy: North East, Central and Southern & Islands, we are very excited to be able to take a first Good Life Italy look at the gorgeous and refined region of Umbria through the eyes of David and Chrissie Lang.

Originally from Australia and the UK, they are the proud owners of Casa San Gabriel, a beautiful collection of countryside holiday cottages near the village of La Bruna, in the Comune di Umbertide, located about 30km north of Perugia. They also own a lovely little cottage on the shore of nearby Lake Trasimeno. And David is the manager of a neighbouring wine and olive oil estate called Chiesa del Carmine on which an ancient church has been converted into another stunning and unique holiday home.

the estate from birds eye view

David, please tell us how your story in Umbria began

I’m from a sheep farm in Victoria, Australia and my wife Chrissie is from Cambridge, England. Chrissie is a Chartered Accountant and was working as an auditor in Cambridge while I was teaching Business and Economics in North London. We were living in a cottage on her parent’s farm, just outside Cambridge.

During a 6-month trip around South America in 2001/2, we decided we would like to start our life again after we got married in August 2003. We thought that if we lived somewhere in the middle between Australia and England, in a beautiful place, it shouldn’t be hard to convince our friends and families to come and visit us. During a visit to a heavenly guest house called Hacienda San Gabriel in central Mexico, Chrissie had a revelation – ‘we are going to buy a house in Italy, where we will have a family, rent out rooms for holidaymakers to make money and you will get a teaching job nearby’. So that was that. Not exactly half way but fate doesn’t worry about trivial things like geography!

I had never been to Italy at this stage and Chrissie had only ever slept on the steps of the Venice railway station for a night during a stopover when interrailing in her youth. So to say we were naïve about Italy is an understatement. Cutting a long story short that involved lots of property searching on the internet and on the ground, destiny somehow steered us first to Umbria, and then La Bruna. And we are thankful every day that it did!

proud owners of these beautiful run down stone houses - A visit to Umbria: interview with David Lang the owner of Casa San Gabriel

Please tell us about ‘Casa San Gabriel’

The property that we bought in the hot summer of 2003 was built originally as a farmstead in the 16th century. Renovations had started and we took it over in builder’s finish so there was still a lot of internal work to do, as well as all of the gardens and other outside work.

Chrissie had sold her basement flat in Queen’s Club Gardens in West Kensington to finance the purchase. We then put her accountancy skills to good use to produce a business plan which we presented to a nice local Italian bank manager. He lent us the money to do the renovations, most of which we did ourselves. We learnt quickly and after a mammoth effort it is thankfully all finished now.

Naming our new home was easy. It had to be ‘Casa San Gabriel’, in homage to the Mexican birthplace of our Italian adventure, Hascienda San Gabriel!

We live in the main house on the property and have three self-catering cottages for guests. They were originally farm buildings. La Stalla is a former piggery that sleeps 2, La Cantina was for wine and olive oil making and sleeps 2 or 4 and Il Fienile – the hayloft, sleeps 2/4 or 5.

Guests have their own private terraces and share the 4.5 x 12.5m swimming pool which sits above the property with views down the valley.

We have an organic vegetable garden and guests are encouraged to harvest away, as well as to utilise our herb garden when cooking in their cottage or on their terrace BBQ’s. There is a large communal BBQ, as well as a 16th Century bread oven which is the centre piece of our weekly pizza evenings to which all of our guests and the odd neighbour are invited.

2 of the rentable accommodations - A visit to Umbria: interview with David Lang the owner of Casa San Gabriel

How do your children find country life in Umbria

We have two beautiful daughters, aged 14 & 16. They were both born in Umbria and have attended local schools all their lives. They have loved the experience. They are both now at the Liceo Scientifico Statale Galileo Galilei in nearby Perugia.  Prior to Covid they took a bus every morning into school. But thanks to the Covid situation the poor things have had just 2 weeks at school since March 1st 2020 and the online schooling is not ideal. So it is lovely for us all to get out of the house every now and again and go for long walks with the dogs in the countryside surrounding the house.

Both girls have played volleyball since they were very young.  They now play for our local team in Umbertide and we travel to tournaments in the summer and winter, which mostly take place on the Emilia Romagna coast. Chrissie, always the accountant, has become one of the official scorers for the club.

girls are helping out with the serving up dinner

And how is your Italian

Learning Italian has been a steep learning curve but we have managed. A number of the people we work with on the farm don’t speak English and we both spend quite a bit of the time on the phone in Italian now. But we are by no means grammatically perfect.  Our daughters will condescendingly correct us when we make mistakes.

OK, please tell some more about your situation

We live in a beautiful valley. It is peppered with olive trees, vineyards, ancient buildings and rolling green hills. It is quintessentially Umbrian.

We have a number of walks, of varying difficulty around our valley through the woods, vineyards and olive groves. Our guests are welcome to take our dogs with them if they like. But many visitors find it hard to drag themselves away from the pool and its lovely views. The views are amazing from every angle. In the distance we can see Assisi twinkling on the side of Mount Subasio, with the Appenine ranges behind.

Our neighbours are an eclectic lot.  The properties dotted about the place were all tenant farms in the old days. Now they are inhabited by families from India, Sicily, Rome, Texas, Miami, Spain and Iran.  Obviously being from England and Australia, we fit right in.

I must just tell you about our Alpacas before I forget. Soon after our children were born, we had a guest from Puglia who was looking for somewhere to keep her Alpacas while she taught Alpaca management courses nearby. We decided to fence the land beside our house and build a simple stable for them to live in.  We since had 3 cria (baby alpacas) born on the property and our guests enjoy meeting them and feeding them in the mornings.

alpaca, swimming pool and the rolling hills in Umbria - A visit to Umbria: interview with David Lang the owner of Casa San Gabriel

You manage the Carmine Wine Estate, down the road from your place – how did that come about and what does it involve

In 2006, we started managing other properties in our local area, helping people to rent them and also deal with the local bureaucracy. One of the properties we were managing was our neighbour’s property. When all the surrounding farmland came on the market, he agreed to buy it, on the condition that we would manage things for him. This is how the Carmine Estate idea was born and it now occupies a significant portion of our time. Chrissie came on board to manage the rentals and marketing while I focus on the establishment of new vineyards, truffle woods, farmland, etc.

In the middle of the farmland was a 12th century church which we have converted into a unique and beautiful holiday home. We have added a winery with a state of the art commercial kitchen where we run catered wine tastings and other events. We have plans to start a cooking school. A vaulted underground barrel room is planned to start at the end of October 2021 to be finished for the following spring.

vinery and old church building - A visit to Umbria: interview with David Lang the owner of Casa San Gabriel

And you now also have a beach house on Lake Trasimeno, which sounds idyllic

In 2017, after 14 years living here at Casa San Gabriel, Chrissie was able to fulfil her dream of buying a property on nearby Lake Trasimeno. She had grown up spending her summers on the water in Suffolk and was desperate to re-create something similar in Italy. We found a tiny property in need of lots of work and now have this small bolthole, 25 minutes from our main home. Chrissie and the girls are keen water skiers. We have a small rib and paddleboards and get out on the water as much as we can. We have a firepit and love spending the evenings watching the sunsets with a nice glass of wine and some marshmallows for the girls. Last year after finally finishing the works and resolving planning issues, we started to rent it out when we are not using it.

boat house and its surroundings

How is your holiday rental business going

2020 was obviously an odd year due to the dreaded Covid but prior to that we would normally be pretty full from the beginning of April until the end of October, in all three cottages. We rent weekly although are more flexible outside of peak season.

One year I sat down and worked out where the guests came from, at our property and the others we manage nearby (see below) and arrived at a total of 53 different nations.  Over the years the numbers of people coming from particular countries has changed depending on exchange rates, world events, and other factors.

What services do you offer to guests staying at your properties

At all of the holiday homes we manage we provide a concierge service for guests – organising tours, giving local advice, recommending restaurants and experiences, whatever we can do to help. I cook for our guests and serve them on their terraces once a week via appointment. My daughter’s do the waitressing. And have I mentioned our weekly pizza night?

We have bikes delivered to the properties for keen cyclists. There is a Robert Trent Jones Championship Golf Course 5 minutes up the road and I’m happy to loan my clubs.

things to do around the area, bike, golf, pizza night

Do you do everything yourselves – sounds like a lot of work

After 14 years of doing everything ourselves and when the work on the farm started to increase we were able to employ a gardener to come twice weekly and assist. One of his many skills is he worked as a pizza chef for 5 years in Milan so he also helps out during pizza nights.

Someone once told me the beauty of running your own business is you get to choose which 80 hours of the week you work. We keep pretty busy and some weeks are busier than others, depending on the people and how much support they require. But we both love hospitality, having started as students trying to earn money during secondary school and later at university. We enjoy meeting people from all over the world and helping them to get the best out of their time in Umbria. Sometimes it is harder than others, especially if factors outside our control let us down, like the weather. Another positive of living in Umbria is that even the storms are worth watching.

bedrooms and courtyard of this magnificent place

Anita & I have been to Umbria a few times, it is stunning! Please tell us more about your part of Umbria

Assisi and Perugia are the cultural jewels in the crown in this part of Umbria, both stunning hill towns seeped in history.

We have one of the ‘borghi pui belli dell’Umbria’ nearby us, Montone.  It is home to a thorn from Christ’s crown and every year a festival is held in celebration of this.  It also provides a spectacular backdrop to the Umbrian Film Festival every July, organised by local resident and ex-Monty Python Terry Gilliam. Montone is great place for spotting film personalities, many of who have houses locally. Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth and George Lucas to name drop a few.

and about your local restaurants, bars, markets etc

Our local town is Umbertide has a produce market with a lovely atmosphere every Wednesday and another organised by Slow Food every Saturday in the main Piazza. Both provide good opportunities to support local businesses and buy super fresh ingredients.

We are spoilt for choice for lovely bars and restaurants in our local area. At the bottom of the valley is a restaurant which Conde Nast listed in its ‘50 secret things to do’ edition. Not far past this restaurant is another which holds the Italian Slow Food dinners for Central Italy.

wine tasting and eating out - A visit to Umbria: interview with David Lang the owner of Casa San Gabriel

A quick word about Umbrian wine

Through my work on the farm, we provide wines to restaurants across Umbria and so I’m often with restauranteurs, eating in their restaurants and taking their advice and what they think is best. I’m happy to put myself in the hands of the locals. I have grown up in kitchens and love to cook and this was one of the reasons why Chrissie and I chose Umbria, for its wonderful food and wine.

We make some great wines at the winery and our white, an Umbrian variety called Trebbiano Spoletino is starting to receive international recognition for its salty minerality and unique flavour profile. It is a variety everyone should try when visiting Umbria and we are now exporting to 10 countries internationally.

Thank you very much David! That’s brilliant and we cannot wait to come and visit you as soon as travel restrictions here in Italy allow.

To find out more information about David & Chrissie’s lovely properties, please visit their websites:

www.casasangabriel.com

www.lakehouseumbria.com

www.chiesadelcarmine.com

Read our other interviews from Le Langhe area and the Aosta Valley.

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