I’ve just come back from 9 days in Italy spending time with various friends and family at our house there. It is always a really difficult thing to drag myself away from the beautiful views and silent landscape that surround our house. Everyone who visits is amazed by just how beautiful the house and its surroundings are. We feel very blessed to have this place to slip away to. It’s an old farmhouse that we found as a ruin about 7 years ago. We had discovered this area of Italy when a colleague of my husband came here on holiday and raved about it. ‘As beautiful as Tuscany but without all the tourists’,is how he described it, and he was right.
We came out for a two week holiday in the summer of 2008 and then returned in the autumn with the idea of finding somewhere to buy. I had been researching properties online between our return to the UK at the end of the summer and going back to Italy at the end of October. I had already found our house before we got on the plane to return. I knew even from the tiny, grainy photos that made it look as though hostages might have been chained to old iron bedsteads in the rooms, where the shutters were obviously falling from their hinges and large cracks allowing sunlight to shine through into the dirty deserted rooms, that this was my house.
Houses have this habit of telling me that I’m going to be buying them.
We had arranged to stay at a hotel run by a British couple who offered to help us with what seemed like the daunting prospect of buying a house in a country where we didn’t yet speak the language. They arranged for us to view several properties that they thought fulfilled our brief. I insisted that I wanted to visit the old tumbled down farmhouse I had found online. Pam, our guide, had found out exactly where that house was and we set off in the back of a 4X4. It was at the end of a ‘strada bianca’ – an unmade up white road. The house was in a worse state than the photos online had conveyed. Not surprisingly really! The ground floor had been home to farm animals. The feeding troughs were still in place and the floor was dirt, of sorts! Upstairs there were perilous holes in the floor tiles of every room, the shutters no longer did their allotted tasks and some of the cracks in the walls gave serious cause for concern. But this was the one. I knew it, and just as importantly, my husband knew it too. But can you imagine coming back from a house hunting trip in Italy to tell folk back home that we had bought the first house we looked at? Of course not. We went through the charade of looking at many other houses over the next few days. When we felt it looked as though we had done an acceptable amount of house hunting we asked to go back to the first house and announced our intention of buying it.
It was a wet and misty autumnal day. The perfect time to buy a house. If you can fall in love with it under those conditions how much better will it look at the height of the summer sun? Amazingly, we exchanged contracts the next day. Lawyers, estate agents, a translator, the seller, the local farm union chief (no idea why he was there) and our guide were all amassed with ease on a Saturday morning in a nearby office. It was that easy. Can you imagine that happening in the UK? Not a chance. We went back on our own for one last look before heading off to the airport to find, to our amazement and delight, that the mist had lifted and we had a fantastic view of the mountains that no-one had thought to tell us existed.
Now 8 years on and we will be spending our fifth summer there this year. The whole process was far more expensive than we had ever thought but the renovation project was much easier than you would think. We now have a beautifully renovated home where we are able to invite friends and family to join us for holidays. We are beginning to get to know people locally and we love the pace of life when we are there.
The local restaurants, bars and shops recognise us as we return many times a year. The girl at Ludo bar remembers we drink decaf cappuccinos and we remember never to order them after lunchtime – not the done thing at all. The restaurants remember that we are vegetarian and the pizza place knows we like to substitute prosciutto for capers on our quattro stagione pizzas and that my son always has tiramisu for dessert. We are greeted with warm handshakes at all our local haunts, some kisses and, as we leave, complimentary limoncello is usually proffered.
The olives, from our own olive groves, which I go out with a few friends in November to harvest, have given the best yield of olive oil in our village several years running, much to the amusement of the locals. The old man at the olive press asks me each year if I bought my house and olive grove from him as he jealously squeezes my olives between his gnarled old fingers. Each year I reassure him that they are not his olives. We didn’t buy the property from him. But he will ask again next year. I transport cans of olive oil home in a suitcase and I’m always amazed that we haven’t had a spill so far. I’ve got very good with bubble wrap and black sacks.
Over the years we have learnt to speak Italian – well I have, enough to get by, but it’s a work in progress, and I have weekly lessons when I’m in the UK. Our neighbours, at the top of the strada bianca, are the kindest people, who have helped us out of many scrapes over the years and then there’s James who is a wonderful friend and looks after everything when we can’t be there.
I can hear you clamoring ‘but where is this idyll?’ Well, if I told you that it would soon be full of tourists wouldn’t it? But as a clue, I will tell you we are half an hour from the mountains and forty-five minutes from the beach and if you eat meat you will find a local speciality is wild boar. If you work it out please keep it to yourself!