While many of us have spent our time during the pandemic dreaming of our next escape, partners in love and entrepreneurship Steven Riseley and Harvey B-Brown are working hard to make that escape a reality. The pair is undergoing two major restoration projects that will revive historic Italian landmarks in Puglia, creating inclusive and LGBTQ+ welcoming destinations that travelers of all identities can visit and feel at home. Queervadis caught up with Steven during a break from his daily management of their most ambitious project, Castle Elvira, to hear more about how their journey has been, and what we can expect to see when they finally open their doors to travelers.
Queervadis: How did you and Harvey meet?
Steven: Harvey and I met in London in late 2011, I had a thriving restaurant/Gastro Pub business and Harvey was and still is an artist and film director, mostly directing commercials and music videos. We were married within three years, in fact, we were one of the first same sex ceremonies after the same sex marriage bill was introduced in the U.K. in 2013. So I guess you could say it was a quick blooming romance. We have never looked back, it seems, we are the “perfect” fit.
We are most definitely life partners in all senses, although Harvey is still primarily based in London. We live, work, and do almost everything together. Fortunately we never seem to get bored.
QV: What was your first experience in Italy together, and how did the two of you decide to go into business together?
Our big move to Italy actually came about without too much thought or planning. I had given up my gastro pub business because Harvey had written a musical feature film and I wanted to be free to support him and help him to get the film project off the ground. We are still working on that. As always with the film industry, there were slow periods when not much was happening and I had some time on my hands. I proposed the idea of buying and restoring a holiday home for us both, I saw it as something I could work on full-time, but could pause if I needed to travel with Harvey to help promote his film.
Italy was actually my choice of destination. Harvey tentatively agreed to take a look at what was possible here and we travelled to Puglia on a seven day scouting trip. We had agreed to purchase a beautiful, Palladian style, abandoned villa before we returned to London, we were almost instantly in love with Puglia and fully committed to that first project. We completed that villa restoration in less than two years and looked forward to the endless holiday in our new home. As with all best laid plans, things took a different turn of events when we were approached by a buyer wanting to buy the villa, at first we were very reluctant to sell, but after some discussion we decided to let it go and find another project.
This was when we discovered the beautiful ‘Castle Elvira’ and the medieval ‘St Elia Tower’ both sat on the brow of the St. Elia Ridge. Negotiations took about one year, but we finally bought both monuments, along with 15 hectares of stunning park land and Italian gardens. It was a substantial project, but we could not have been more excited. We are now nearing the completion of all restorations and we will be ready to launch the business soon. It has been a massive challenge, a lot of sweat and some tears, not to mention a number of tantrums, but I can honestly say that we have no regrets.
QV: Can you tell us a little bit about the two projects you are planning to open: Castle Elvira and Torre Prato?
The concept of our project was to discover and acquire beautiful historic monumental buildings, cram them with luxury comforts and state of the art technology that you would expect in any 5-Star hotel, and then to restore the monuments to eventually look exactly as they did pre-restoration.
Our portfolio consists of the magnificent ‘Castle Elvira’, the imposing medieval ‘St. Elia Tower’ and the ‘Ancient Masseria’, all of them situated in the protected nature reserve of St Elia. Also in the grounds of the estate is an ‘Art Studio/Atelier’, where Harvey will work on his unique portraiture projects. Harvey still works from his London art studio, but he will bring clients to stay in the castle to take inspiration and work on their commissions with them in the Atelier. There are also three swimming pools, two private garden jacuzzis, a carved stone, garden bath-tub and a spectacular round, carved stone bath-tub on the roof of the tower.
QV: What’s been one of the most surprising things you’ve learned about Italy based on your experience starting a business there?
An Italian project of this scale has certainly thrown up many surprises, not all pleasant ones, but I suppose this would be true of any restoration of this size in any other country, although it would be fair to say that Italy has a complicated and sometimes unfathomable bureaucratic system. You are often passed from office to office to office and times and schedules are not their number one priority here, delays happen, in fact they are inevitable and they can be very long and extremely concerning.
QV: Castle Elvira is located in the Apulia region of Italy (the heel in Italy’s geographic “boot” shape). How have you and Harvey gotten to know the local culture? What are some of your favorite things to do in the region?
Puglia is a more traditional and unspoilt region, it is also a rapidly growing tourist hot spot, attracting travellers from all over the world. The local Apulians are generally very friendly, even if on occasions a little shy, they are of course, like nearly all Italians, very family-orientated.
The region is awash with countless cultural and religious events. It has a fascinating history and an almost endless coastline with beaches that could easily compete with some of the world’s already famous beach destinations.
The typical Apulian cuisine ‘Cucina Povera’ (poor person’s food) is extraordinary. Almost totally comprised of locally-farmed seasonal ingredients and produce, including a wonderful array of locally-fished seafood, it offers something for everyone. We never get bored of eating the local specialities. Of course, we must never forget the region’s wines. With many exclusive grapes born to this region, including Negroamara and Primitivo, which you can already find in restaurants all around the world.
Maybe now it is a little easier to understand why we chose to put roots down here and to invest so much of ourselves into Apulia. What might have been an agonizing decision for most, whether to invest so much here or not, was actually much easier in reality for us. We quickly fell in love with Puglia and we are super confident that every guest that visits us will also fall for its charms and visit us again and again.
QV: Can you describe how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted your launch plans for the business?
We initially planned to launch the business in 2021, but due to the covid restrictions and the relatively slow vaccine progress in Europe, we recently decided to postpone until 2022. In some ways, we are not disappointed. It gives us time to make a trial run and to perfect every tiny detail, then we can be confident that when we do officially launch, we will be giving our guests 100% satisfaction.
QV: How has your experience in Italy been as an LGBTQ+ traveler. Do you feel that Italy is generally welcoming to LGBTQ+ tourists?
Being a gay couple, we did have some reservations. We did consider that we might have received a less than warm welcome from the locals. These concerns turned out to be completely unfounded. I can honestly say that the welcome we have received, from even the more simple-living locals, has been anything but cold. Our dance card is always full.
QV: As LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs in the tourism/hospitality space, how will you ensure that LGBTQ+ travelers feel welcome when they stay with you?
As an openly gay couple with a deep rooted ideology about diversity and acceptance for all, we understand the importance of inclusivity for all.
An essential goal for this project is to create a truly ambient and welcoming space for our LGBTQ+ guests, we will make sure that this is illuminated through all of our advertising and social media. The team workers at Castle Elvira are chosen specifically for their instinctive non prejudicial characters. This is something you can not always expect from people, even with training, as gay owners this was not a big challenge. We feel that we have that in the bag already.
We will not promote Castle Elvira as exclusively LGBTQ+. That would after all contradict our true belief in complete inclusivity. But we will work closely with LGBTQ+ publications and outlets to make sure that we make a strong connection with the community. Although in reality, with our own existing LGBTQ+ friends, contacts and existing connections, we feel that our LGBTQ+ clientele will probably dominate Castle Elvira’s future. Of course, we would be extremely happy for that.
QV: How can people keep up to date about your progress with Castle Elvira and Torre Prato as you near their opening?
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Quiiky Magazine is the premier Italian lifestyle and travel portal dedicated to LGBTQ+ travelers, featuring articles on Italian destinations, cuisines, wines, art, history and culture.