Italy: A part-time home on the countryside

Rome: The first thing people ask when I tell them we have a house in Italy is why we chose Italy. The answer is simple, once Italy gets under your skin there is no escape. I think Italy has more beauty per square inch than anywhere else in the world.

My introduction to Italy came 47 years ago when I set off by ship, traveling via South America and docking in Genoa five weeks later.

Along the way I met a fellow traveler who took me to his family home in the tiny village of S’Agata sui due Golfi, between Sorrento and Positano on the Amalfi Coast. After many years of traveling to almost every region of Italy I still think this is the most exquisite place I have ever been. Sorrento, where my son was born, also holds a special place in my heart.

In time, I returned home, but the love of Italy never left. Many years later when my husband and I decided we would like a base in Europe, there was no doubt where it would be.

As much as I love the Amalfi Coast it was too expensive and too crowded for most of the year. So, we chose to buy further north. We bought our apartment in Bagni di Lucca in northern Tuscany 16 years ago because the price—$61,000—was right and the location is central to many of the things that interest us.

We are surrounded by the gorgeous mountains of the Apuan Alps. Lucca, one of the loveliest towns in Italy is nearby, the Tuscan and Ligurian coasts are about an hour away, and Florence is an easy day trip. Pisa airport is nearby and gives us easy access to other European countries and the Italian fast trains can whisk us off to all areas of Italy.

We originally bought an apartment that needed no renovation because we knew nothing about how things worked in Italy.

Later, when we were more familiar with doing business we bought a ruin, pulled it down and built Casa Debbio, our beautiful, three-level, stone house in a national park outside Vergemoli, an ancient village in the Garfagnana, a rugged, mountainous area near Lucca.

We were lucky with the trades people we chose to build the house. The builder was young and happy to include us in decisions along the way and always ready to do his best for us. Our geometra (a cross between architect, draftsman, and go-between with the area’s administrative division, the comune) was an ex-mayor of the village, so he knew which buttons to press.

It can’t have been easy to build the house but the workmen loved our site. It faces south so they had sunshine all day. We had no electricity until 18 months into the build. It had to be brought across a valley. All of the construction was done with the help of a Bobcat that became a cement mixer or a forklift and much more. I wish I had been there when the huge chestnut beams were lifted into place on the roof.

Six years on, the house is beginning to cover its yearly costs with summer rentals. Each year is getting better and all of our guests have loved the house. They are delighted by the glorious setting and the magnificent views over the surrounding mountains and villages, and thrilled by our garden.

The solitude, the views, the ancient walking tracks in the area, and the dozens of authentic Italian mountain villages to explore add to the allure.

The garden, started from scratch, is flourishing with the help of our fabulous gardener, Filippo. When we asked friends for help to find someone to work with us in the garden everyone suggested Filippo. He lives in the village and has become an indispensable part of our lives here. I love to walk along the lavender lined paths with him to see how everything has progressed under his watch.

We have extended the garden each year. The lavender is thriving and our peonies grow more flowers each spring. My favourite peony produced 60 blooms in June. This year we cleared another terrace and in the fall we will plant more fig, olive, and cherry trees to add to the 60 fruit and nut trees we already have. We added three more weeping cherries this year simply because they look spectacular in early spring. Soon our spring fruit blossoms will be visible from the village below.

We have been incredibly lucky with the people we have met on our Italian adventure. We have been welcomed warmly and included in all local festivities. It is wonderful to feel part of a community.

Of course there are difficulties involved with owning property in Italy. Official business can be a bureaucratic nightmare.

If you don’t learn to deal with this calmly and quietly you might as well just go home. My suggestion would be to learn as much Italian as possible, make friends with as many locals as you possibly can—and try to stay away from post offices!

Buying property in Italy is still the best thing we have ever done. A whole other world has opened up for us. We spend six months in Italy and six months back home each year and love our life in both places.