“I am a pastry chef with a degree in geology and have always been passionate about fantastic worlds. In my country, Bucchianico in the province of Chieti in Abruzzo, I decided to create the county of hobbits, a place to experience nature and human conviviality in a fantastic and bucolic context inspired by the life of the hobbits described by Tolkien”.
Thus, Nicolas Gentile, a young Italian pastry chef and father, tells us about his greatest dream: creating the Gentile County, which recalls the places, characters and stories of Middle Earth (revived in 2001 with the cinematic trilogy by director Peter Jackson, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s 1955 legendarium.) Gentile continues, “For over a decade, I have been organizing themed events and adventures with a high experiential content in literature, cinema and role-playing games. I can share these wonderful worlds. In my opinion, pretending to read books, or watch movies…is not enough to have that magic that one seeks in life”. It is a journey within a journey, in which Gentile strongly believes in creating a better world in the name of eco-sustainability, sharing and interactions between cultures. “To be protagonists of your own life”, he adds, “you have to experience the magic and therefore live in a context that may seem absurd to others, but in reality it is fun and beautiful. Is fantastic! One can do anything in life, but where do you win the battles if the world goes to pieces? So we have to save the world where we live”.
FRONTRUNNER finds out more about Gentile’s unusual, ambitious, and heartfelt project.
How and when was your passion for “The Lord of the Rings” born? First with the book or with the film trilogy?
I was lucky because I read the books before the movies came out in theaters in 2001. It was the first book I read of my own free will. I was sixteen, and that book, unlike the ones that force you to study at school , made me passionate about literature. Not only for the fantastic worlds and monsters, but more than anything else for a dimension that seemed real for its details and history because some friends manage to save the world. This made me realize that I, too, could do something: live my life in another way!
Did the Peter Jackson trilogy reflect your expectations in terms of locations, characters and how the story was told?
At the time, I was not a film expert. But after this film, I became passionate about the language of cinema. A film of this kind is unique in world cinema because it is a product that somehow marks a before and after of making films, before the publication of the film and then the cinema of the last 20 years, now almost entirely made on the computer. The Lord of the Rings highlights the human part, the feelings of the protagonists.
Is this what fascinates you the most about this story?
Yes. The human aspect both in the film and in the books. In particular, the figure of Gandalf, a sort of father figure – as if he were some kind of benevolent deity who leads you into trouble to give you a boost to save the world. In my life, I would have wanted a Gandalf who would lead me in this direction. I am a very pragmatic person, but at the same time I manage to have dreams that take me beyond what could be a common human thought like the county! Many don’t understand why I do this. I do it because in my opinion magic exists, but you have to create it!
Have you ever visited Matamata, one of the main locations that Jackson chose for the film in New Zealand, now a destination for fans from all over the world?
No, but in 2004-2005, I sent about a hundred e-mails to all those who had worked on the production of the trilogy to ask if they wanted to make “The Hobbit” trilogy in Abruzzo. Also in other parts of Italy. I also sent them photos to show my territory to make them understand that we have Middle Earth, too: castles, ancient woods, fantastic mountains, volcanoes. We have everything close at hand. In addition to the county, I am carrying out a project called “Abruzzo Terra di Mezzo” because Abruzzo is the territory I know best. But I realized that Molise and Campania are also wonderful lands. We have Middle Earth under our feet, but it must be preserved.
How did the idea of creating the Gentile County come about and what is its mission?
The Gentile County takes its name from my surname, but also because the people of Abruzzo are defined by others as “strong and kind” so there is a territorial meaning and, moreover, the name specifies the feeling with which I want to carry on the project. Gentile does not mean being weak, but it is a strong point and the county will be a meeting place where you can feel less alone. I come from a small town where I was the only one who loved these things and therefore I couldn’t talk about them with anyone. The hobbits were a bucolic people as we live and therefore I thought that the fantastic genre can also be used to promote the territory. With my “Terra di Mezzo” project, I would like to show our beauties from another, more fun point of view and tell how important eco-sustainability is. There is a somewhat pessimistic view of life, especially post-COVID. When we made the journey of the ring, we launched #savethemiddleearth, so even themes such as the environment can experience this problem as an opportunity. Show that a better future is possible, while having fun.
Greta Thunberg is pointing her finger at the moon, and we don’t have to look at the finger, but at the moon! Today, there is no more aggregation as before, but even before COVID-19 and therefore my project is also to bring together people from all over the world with a common goal: a better future. On 18 September we celebrated Bilbo Baggins’ birthday and people from Italy and abroad came to live a hobbit night! Another fundamental aspect is to tell the territory with the local workers; some small local companies are believing in the county project. For example, there is a beekeeper who produces mead (wine made with honey), cannabis without active ingredients, and whenever I need something, everyone is an arrangement.
What has been achieved to date and with what funds?
Up to now I have achieved everything with my own strength. I bought a piece of land in 2018 and I have already built a hobbit house where we go to sleep in the summer. About one and a half million euros are needed to build the whole village. There are standards to be respected for green structures, so the cost is very high and it is not important if the fundraising does not reach the predetermined amount, I do not want to use other materials that would pollute the environment; with 30-40 thousand euros it is already possible to build small hobbit houses. During the first lockdown here in Italy, I started sharing images and videos on social networks to demonstrate how nice it would be to be able to live in a simple, beautiful and magical way. Over time the followers have increased and so we launched a fundraiser to finance the project.
Did you get the support of the actors in the film, how did you get in touch with them?
I contacted Billy Boyd (Pippin), then right after Elijah Wood (Frodo), and Sean Astin (Sam). All three sent me videos to tell me about their amazement at the project we’re building in Abruzzo. Having an endorsement from the actors of the film who have now become legendary is something extraordinary. Elijah Wood told me that when he is in Italy, he will come and visit me.
Who is your “Fellowship of the Ring” made up of and how did you recruit the individual members?
I had the idea of making the journey from the hobbit house to Vesuvius, our “Mount Doom”. In addition to some of my friends, we then launched a contest to which over 300 people responded for only 6 seats! We did the draw live, and then we met everyone the day before leaving. From strangers we became real friends and they were perfect for the roles they had to play for the Fellowship. It was a great trip! Just think that we called each other with the names of the characters in the film because we didn’t remember the real names!
To somehow retrace Tolkien’s history, you went to Vesuvius, passing through ancient Pompeii to throw the ring into the crater…
Spending days and nights in the woods and mountains dressed as characters, you feel lost and really think you are in Middle-Earth. Before leaving, we contacted some mayors of the various countries where we thought we would go, also to find accommodation. So we left on August 27th from Bucchianico and crossed Molise and Campania. The first two nights we spent in the wonderful Roccascalegna Castle, location of many films such as Matteo Garrone’s “The Tale of Tales”. But the castle is also famous for the presence of ghosts, perfect for our adventure! Then we went to Palena, where we stayed in the suggestive castle, and then on the third day in the San Antonio wood in Pescocostanzo – where we could not sleep, so we remained in the cold – it was a disturbing experience for the sounds of the animals that were heard. At night, but all very nice! Unbeknownst to us, a member of the company suddenly made his family and some friends arrive all dressed up as Elves and in the middle of the woods with the lanterns lit, they started singing songs from “The Lord of the Rings”.
From there we went to Molise, where we got lost for a few hours in the woods as cell phones didn’t pick up, and we arrived in Rionero Sannitico, where the mayor received us and some people from the town made us find a nice banquet. Towards Venafro, we slept in a farm in the mountains and found a wonderful dinner! We arrived in Caserta, then in Pompeii on September 1st. We showed up at the entrance to the Archaeological Park, but they didn’t let us in as we were dressed. So, we contacted the Superintendent of Cultural Heritage to ask for permission. Luckily, some people knew about our project, so they let us in. We visited the Pompeii Archaeological Park under the amazed gaze of visitors! We went to Herculaneum to get to Vesuvius where some, dressed as Orcs with foam rubber weapons, attacked us. It was all a lot of fun! We then arrived at the top of Vesuvius, right above the caldera. Amidst applause, after a short speech live on social networks, I specified that the world can be saved in many ways. We threw the ring inside the Vesuvius. In reality, I didn’t throw it to avoid contaminating the natural park, so I threw a stone that I found there and we gave the ring to a fifteen-year-old boy who had been following us for some time. The ring did not return home.
When do you think the county will be finished?
Hopefully, next year the county will be ready and therefore it will be possible to sleep in and hold events. If it goes wrong in about 5 years, I think the county will be ready. It is a dream of mine that I want to realize, sooner or later the county will exist! The county is not just a physical place, and a boy from Romagna told me: “The county is not a place, the county is a hope!”. In fact, the county is a way to make others understand that anything is possible, and anyone can do something extraordinary in their life!
How do your family, your children live this ambition?
My children were born with the idea that they would go to live in the county. We have always wanted to carry out this project and as soon as they can, my children also dress up as hobbits. My wife, on the other hand, even if I put my face to it, is 51% of everything that is done. She gives me all the push I need, along with my parents. And then I already live as a hobbit with my family and friends, so the county only exists and when people meet.