There are various ‘top ten’ lists on the internet for reactions to a mid-life crisis - a spot of Botox, a sports car purchase, maybe even an afternoon’s skydiving or a bungee jump - but nowhere does it list selling up your house in England, packing all of your possessions into a container on a farm in Yorkshire, buying a touring caravan to drag behind you and heading to Italy to start a new life together. But, at the age of 43, that’s exactly what my husband Marcus and I did three years ago.
It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, although we had only ever visited Italy once before on a four-day trip to Sorrento with friends, but it obviously made its mark.
We’d been running our own property development company for the last ten years renovating and reselling houses for a living around our home in Yorkshire, doing most of the work ourselves and learning a lot, culminating in us building a large four-bedroomed detached house from scratch. We did everything - just the two of us - we were the architects, the builders, the roofers, the electricians (don’t worry, we were qualified), the plasterers and the interior designers, and we ended up with a beautiful house.
But with that finished, we started to get to fidgety and were soon looking for the next challenge, and apparently that was going to involve not only a new renovation project, but a new country and a new language as well!
We continued to watch the various property programmes on television that tempted us with a new life abroad, A Place in the Sun being one of them, and we also visited the exhibition at Birmingham’s NEC a couple of times to learn more - A Place in the Sun has a lot to answer for!
France and Spain were always in our minds as a more obvious choice as they both appeared regularly on the TV but the trip to Sorrento captured our hearts – the people, the food, the language – it just felt right. In fact we were so confident that we would be moving to Italy that we even called in at Meadowhall shopping centre on the way back from our NEC trip to buy ‘How to Learn Italian’ on CD.
Househunting Italian style
Our decision to buy a touring caravan was to give us flexibility, and comfort amongst our own belongings, during our house search – we never wanted to commit to a six-month rental somewhere to look at an area, only to decide on day two that we didn’t like the place. With the caravan, we could just drive to the next place on our list!
The plan was to head for Le Marche and Abruzzo with our £100,000 budget, driving through Liguria as a natural route from France into Italy but with our trip falling out of season we had a limited choice of campsites so had to make the most of the ones we found.
Albenga was our first stop for a couple of months where, after some exploring we discovered a potential house near the top of Monte Beigua, and with that our estate agent, Tommaso Badano of Arcadia Agenzia Servizi Immobiliari at Sassello, who had the property on his books.
Being nearly a two-hour drive to the house prompted us to move closer and we found another campsite near Albisola, cutting the trip to an hour. However, this house was not for us, once we hit the heavy snow season on the mountain and realised how very isolated it would be.
We persevered with our search, getting a lot of suggestions of properties in the area for sale from the Italians we met on the campsite (a real bonus for getting to know the locals) but we were often put off by a lack of privacy.
At the end of summer last year we gave up, announcing to our Italian friends that we would be leaving the campsite to move onto Le Marche to try our luck there. At this point, one friend mentioned a house he knew of that might be worth a look – a quick internet search revealed it wasn’t for us, but there was a very interesting listing below it.
We worked out where it was, having got to know a lot of the area over our past searching, went to visit it, fell in love with it (we could hear the boxes ticking themselves as we wandered around outside it), and made a call to Tommaso to ask if he would act on our behalf as we’d finally found our house … it seems Liguria really didn’t want us to leave!
We had our offer accepted at the beginning of November (note that at this offer stage it is legally binding, unlike in the UK) and it was ours just in time for Christmas. At €58,000 plus additional fees on top for the estate agent and solicitor, etc. of around €7,000, it’s not the cheapest Christmas present we’ve ever bought ourselves but we’ve got a lot for our money – it’s a little two bedroomed ‘cascina’ (farmhouse) with a kitchen and a ‘cantina’, no bathroom, four store rooms, a hay barn, an outside wood oven, a well and five acres of land and woodland, all just outside a little village near the town of Cairo Montenotte in the Province of Savona.
The day we signed for the house, our agent used the phrase ‘You are now the rich owners of a wonderful Ligurian property’, and he was right – we have grape vines, walnut trees, plums, peaches, apples, figs and even mulberries, but this abundance outside highlighted the lack of basics on the inside.
As I said, we have no bathroom (the estate agency photos distinctly showed a plastic port-a-loo type thing in the corner of the bedroom which I am very relieved to say was removed from the house before we got the keys), there was no water connection (the kitchen sink doesn’t even have taps above it, only a small piece of mirror – exactly like an ATM – just in case someone creeps up behind you whilst you’re washing a particularly stubborn pot I presume), we have no sewer system, and the electricity, whilst connected, sends an alarming fizzing sound through the old wiring when switched on.
However, for us it was the perfect place to start our new life at the beginning of this year and we are currently in the throes of understanding the intricacies of living here in the Italian countryside - and boy is there a lot to learn!
When we tell people we now live in Liguria, we automatically follow with an explanation of where it is, anticipating the puzzled facial expression of the person in front of us. It is not one of the ‘often talked about’ regions in Italy so here’s a quick geography lesson: follow the south coast of the French Riviera to where it meets Italy and you’ll find a thin crescent-shaped region bordering the sea – that’s Liguria, also known as the Italian Riviera.
Properties along the coast are mainly apartments starting around £200,000 for a basic one or two-bed, and a detached villa can be over £500,000 but just 30 minutes’ drive inland towards the border with Piedmont, you find yourself with a choice of value for money, rustic, somewhat forgotten properties set amongst fields and vast areas of woodland, the land still worked and the woods still cut for firewood. With our £100,000 budget (to include fees and enough left over to make the inevitable ‘rustico’ habitable) we weren’t short of choice once we’d left the bustle of the coast behind.
Liguria is a region probably best known for its production of traditional pesto (the basil is grown in an area around Genoa) but it is so much more than just a place for green pasta sauce! It is an area of tradition with the village ‘festa’ celebrating everything from gnocchi to tripe almost every weekend, it is an area for food foraging - chestnuts and ‘funghi’ in Autumn to primula leaves for a frittata or woodland strawberries for a dessert in summer.
It is an area of hill-top villages and distant mountain views and it is an area populated by the friendliest and most generous people we have ever met. There has been no escape from us having to learn the language - we started just before we left England with the CD but during our two-year long house search, staying on the campsites in our caravan, we learnt so much more of the language from just having everyday conversations with the holidaying Italians, any mistakes quickly forgiven and a couple of impromptu lessons if we got something drastically wrong!
However, in a rural area we’ve also been introduced to the local dialect - almost another language of its own and spoken by a lot of the older generation who still live in the surrounding valley - but we try out our Italian on them and are immediately rewarded with a huge smile and a flurry of ‘standard’ Italian from them as they are just so happy to be able to talk with us ‘stranieri’ (foreigners).
We were told that Ligurians can be very private people but we have not found that at all – we are welcomed, and in most cases already known, by everyone we’ve met so far – rural communities are very tight!
We’ve had to get to grips with rural Italian life, something very different from our suburban life in England. We’ve swapped supermarkets for our ‘orto’ (vegetable garden) and foraging in the woods and hedgerows, we’ve swapped busy main roads full of traffic jams for a thin strip of tarmac with maybe three vehicles a day passing our house (two of which are normally colourful, old tractors) and we’ve swapped high garden fences for uninterrupted valley and mountain views.
We have the privacy and tranquillity we wanted, occasionally broken by the bark of a deer or the call of a buzzard, we have the grape vines and our various fruit trees to maintain, and a vegetable garden bigger than the entire back garden of our previous house. Everything is on a much larger scale … we no longer have a fifteen minute stroll around the garden with the lawnmower and a lawn edger when the grass needs cutting - we arm ourselves with a ‘falce’ (scythe) and a homemade hay-baler!
Our life here has a new pace … with everything done ‘piano, piano’ (meaning slowly, slowly). We spend much of our time outside, whether in the garden, on the land or in our woods, clearing the undergrowth, or collecting wood for a new barn door or a fire for homemade pizzas in our wood oven.
But we’re grateful for all of this activity as the fat-free/low-carb diet has definitely taken a back seat. We have many local trattoria serving wonderful traditional food, the wine growing Langhe region is a short drive away and all of our Italian friends are great cooks. It’s rare that we leave one of their houses without a new recipe scribbled down in Italian, for me to translate when I’m back at home!
And with activity in mind, we’re ready to start on the renovation of our house. We put things in motion back in July when we found a local Italian geometra (similar to an architect), chatted to him about our ideas for the house, and even provided him with scaled designs so there was nothing lost in translation! He filled in the gaps and presented the project to the ‘Comune’ and two weeks ago we had our go ahead.
So now we’ve come full circle with a house to renovate. Our budget isn’t huge at only £40,000 but will be sufficient for the small extension attaching the barn into the house, restructuring the internal layout and installing bathroom, as we’re going to do a lot of the work ourselves.
And that work started recently – our above ground water pipe that we laid when we moved up here in April now needs insulating and burying at least two feet underground to prevent it from freezing during winter.
There are large rocks, a badger’s sett and next door’s donkey to negotiate along the 250 metre pipe length so we’re having to do the work by hand, but every shovel of earth adds up to a piece of focaccia or a glass of wine in the evening!
The finished two-bedroom, two-bath farmhouse seems a long way off at this point but our touring caravan is a welcome retreat in the garden whilst we work, not only our home but now our site office as well.
We also have the added challenge of a whole new vocabulary of technical Italian building terms to learn along with the different building methods. But we’re in no rush. For there are the tiny villages to visit, the various ‘funghi’ to gather and long lunches to have with friends, and we want to enjoy every moment of living here, so … piano, piano!
If you would like to continue reading about our life here in Italy or follow our renovation project then please take a look at my blog midlifeitaly.com.