Real Estate Dreams Come To Life In Italy
We approach the home like soldiers wary of an ambush, for some reason whispering and stepping quietly, as if ghosts await in what very well might be a haunted mansion. In the shadow of the towering home, it's impossible at first to make out the details, the Tuscan sun hidden behind it.
Our realtor, a British expat named Roy Santi, stops in his tracks in the alley, as if startled, causing me to pull up short. “Before I take you in here, I need to confess to you as if you're the parish priest,” he says.
Santi's confession is a riches-to-ruin cautionary tale. Built originally as a reasonable three-story villa, the owners decided to expand it after coming into money. They added a shell that would have held tens of thousands of square feet. Then they lost their fortune, and here the structure has sat, far from finished, for most of a century.
“Now, be careful,” Santi warns. “Part of it has fallen in.”
As we get closer, it's clear this home in the countryside of Italy is a wreck, a ruin the color of bleached bones. No windows hang in the hand-carved panes. Scrap wood that passes for the back door creaks on rusted hinges.
On floors of dirt, we step over large chunks of concrete that plummeted from the darkness above. Everywhere, some squatter or untold beast scattered piles of corncobs. Santi leads the way with the stark light from his cellphone, catching dust suspended in the stale air.
We wind our way up a questionably constructed stairwell to inspect the cavernous empty shell of a home. Then we head back outside, maneuvering pits of mud that encircle the property like a swampy moat. It becomes clear: This place is a money pit.
But squint, look hard into a future of contractors and architects and structural engineers, and you can see the magnificent home it could become. Santi explains that the property sits just outside a two-street village. Unlike other working-class Tuscan towns, with the pickups of handymen parked in many driveways, this is a noble hamlet, a place of hilltop mansions, home to landed gentry.
Imagine this house, he says, with the family crests above the towering entrances refurbished; doors of rich chestnut wood and polished marble floors; salons and formal dining rooms and quarters in the back for the help; curving stairways up to parlors and studies; well-adorned third-floor bedrooms taking in the calming Italian summer breeze.
It can be yours, this castle in the rough, for a negotiable $683,000.
The archetype Italian daydream, inspired by tales like “Under the Tuscan Sun,” always involves buying a villa near famous towns like Cortona or Siena.
This was the sixth and final home we visited on a recent homebuying trip to northern Tuscany. It was, admittedly, mostly to fulfill a fantasy, to live out the dream we've all had of using the nest egg for a vacation property in view of the Italian Alps.
If you've had the same dream, I'd recommend taking the same journey, walking into truly fascinating Tuscan properties and imagining yourself there, entertaining friends who are visiting from back home, opening Sangiovese on the terrace, actually doing that thing you've always imagined. Think about it: spending a few hours with a realtor might just be your vacation's most enthralling outing, a look at how the locals spend their days.
The archetype Italian daydream, inspired by tales like “Under the Tuscan Sun,” always involves buying a villa near famous towns like Cortona or Siena. Those are places discovered long ago, filled now with tour buses and transplanted northern Europeans and tiny condos that'll cost you a literal fortune.
So, instead, my trip began further north, in the still inexplicably undiscovered and more affordable mountainous countryside near the town of Barga. My base of operations was the Renaissance Tuscany, a former hunting lodge converted into a grand Marriott hilltop retreat, where roaring fires in the bar warm cool nights, the restaurant starts lavish meals with hearty bowls of stews enriched with bread, and rooms offer views of Barga, its colorful medieval buildings clutching to the hilltop.
On the night before the home tours begin, I meet the general manager of the Renaissance by a fire crackling in the lounge off the lobby. Georges Midleje is quintessentially Italian stylish, with no less than two scarves tied around his neck, one artfully hanging down between his sport jacket and another larger one to hold out the cool Tuscan evening. Midleje recommends that anyone visiting Tuscany for a homebuying trip ought to also indulge themselves, so on his advice, I spend an afternoon soaking in the resort steam room, floating around in the indoor pool, and letting the breeze sweep into my room from the valley below. Midleje also arranges a cooking lesson with the chef, who takes me into the village to buy ingredients from the open-air market and then spends the morning showing me how to make gnocchi with a sage cream sauce.
Property highlights include the spa, mountaintop views and good Wi-Fi (which might sound small until you try to find one in the villages nearby). But for the audacious who insist on owning a plot of their own, the hotel will help by providing a list of local estate agents and some tips on taking those first unknown steps to ownership.
Those who commit to the area near the Renaissance will find something that's rare for Italy and even more rare in Tuscany, Midleje says. “There are cities in Italy where you can't move without bumping into someone's camera. They are overrun with tourists,” Midleje says. Here, though, in the valley that holds Barga, it's possible to buy an affordable spot in a quaint village and live like a Tuscan, seeing very few tourists, immersing yourself in what it's like to be a local. “This is a part of Tuscany that is an undiscovered little piece of paradise,” Midleje says. “This is a Tuscany where you can live like we do, like an Italian.”
The first day of my home shopping began with a realtor named Benito Casci. Like many in Barga, his grandfather moved to Scotland a century ago when this part of Italy was in financial ruin. Casci and many other Italian expats moved back over the last few decades, giving the area a surprising mix of Scottish and Italian accents, right down to the red British-style telephone booth in the city center. Casci explains that many of the area's palatial estates were built by Italians who made their fortunes in Scotland and returned home, building extravagant vacation homes and spacious mansions to hold the entire extended family.
Casci begins our tour with a trip up switchbacks to a $797,000 home built of stone on the first floor, with a strawberry-sorbet-colored second story of stucco. It's not hard to see, looking at the barrel-tile roof, where many South Florida buildings got their Mediterranean inspiration. We walk around to the front and take in the view, looking over rows of grapevines and then villages dotting the valley. Out in the distance, snow-topped mountains rise above the clouds.
“Those are the marble mountains,” Casci explains. “Michelangelo got his stone from them.”
Inside, the house is undeniably charming, an inviting fireplace, exposed wooden beam ceilings of chestnut wood and southern-facing windows that fill the place with sunlight. Like most houses in Italy, the kitchen is a practical place. Instead of cabinets, curtains hang from Carrera countertops. The upstairs holds three baths and six bedrooms, spacious enough for a large family or a B&B in the making.
As is the custom in Italy, the homeowner has joined us for the tour, along with her excitable border collie, who keeps jumping on everyone. She takes us on a tour upstairs, with five bedrooms and three baths. Living in a smaller home nearby, she uses this as a weekly rental, meaning, for instance, there's income potential for a new owner spending part of the year back home in Florida.
Next, Casci drives up the hillside through the village of Castiglione di Garfagnana, where slate-gray buildings look frozen in time from perhaps the 11th century. Above it, we enter a modestly adorned three-story house of rock with brown shutters pulled tight. It's a three-two, full of chestnut wood trim. Put it in Florida and it'd be worth millions. Here, it's yours for $433,000.
We head next to the sleepy village of Fiattone, and in the interest in seeing the bottom of the market, Casci unlocks the door to an apartment. It's one-third of a structure that was likely once a splendid manor home, now split into three attached residences. The downstairs is an open floor plan kitchen and living room, humble but modern, and undeniably Tuscan, with chestnut wood and burgundy tile floors. Two bedrooms and a bath sit below exposed beams upstairs. A large tile terrace nearly doubles the square footage and promises chill summer afternoons. The asking price is as much as some South Florida property tax bills, $91,000.
“This is a part of Tuscany that is an undiscovered little piece of paradise,” Midleje says. “This is a Tuscany where you can live like we do, like an Italian.”
The following day, Santi takes me out on a more high-end home tour. After coming over 24 years ago from England, Santi literally fell in love, with the Italian lifestyle, the countryside, and also with his future bride, a native of Lucca. They've settled now in a country home outside Barga.
His tour starts with Villa Moorings, a three-star hotel in Barga built in the 1920s as a vacation home. The owner is in the sparse-but-broad gardens out front, and she explains that her grandfather built it after returning with a fortune he made in logging and restaurants in Scotland. After his death, it sat for two decades, unused and boarded, until the heirs finally reopened it as a 12-room hotel in 2000. The ceilings hold intricate frescoes and sparkling chandeliers. Plush red carpet leads down hallways and up wide staircases. “Splendid!” Santi exclaims as we ascend. A spiral staircase leads up to a rooftop that looks out onto the center of Barga. With bathrooms added a couple decades ago, the place is dated, in need of exorbitant refurbishing to match its price. Perhaps it could become a luxurious hotel, or maybe the new buyer will convert it back to a vacation villa. It will need untold millions, on top of an asking price just below $4 million. But yet it's also easy to imagine it, your new life as proprietor of a Tuscan hotel, perhaps occupying the family suite while overseeing the property's rise to a well-regarded boutique.
We head a couple blocks into the center of town and push open a metal gate into a covered drive. Beyond it splays out a property including a rose garden and an olive grove, buildings scattered between them. During Italy's fascist years, this was the residence of Barga's mayor, and it includes eight bedrooms spread between five buildings. From nearly everywhere on the property, there's a simply stunning view of the village rising up, filling the horizon with a Mediterranean painter's palette of reds and oranges and yellows. At $1.4 million, it could become a place where you vacation in one of the buildings, while friends and family occupy the others, everyone meeting in the evenings for dinner at a table below the grapevine trellis.
The home tour ends at the shell of a house, the place that needs someone's fortune and their imagination. The owners live nearby in the village, and Santi explains that they're motivated to find someone to take on the project. This huge, bank-account-draining project. “It needs a lot of energy,” Santi admits.
Perhaps that someone will be you or me, living out our fantasy someday of owning a home in the Tuscan countryside. See you there.
If You Go
A homebuying trip to northern Tuscany ought to include some sightseeing along the way. Here's where to stay and what to do.
Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa
From the 1,700-acre property atop a hillside, the 180-room Renaissance boasts stunning views of the valley below and the Medieval town of Barga. There's a well-regarded restaurant, bar with a welcoming fireplace, spa, indoor and outdoor pools and lots of courtyards for that party in Italy you've dreamt of hosting. Prices run from a couple hundred during the offseason to thousands for the well-apportioned villa suites. The Week once wrote about this property: “The sky is vast and cloudless, the mountains a hazy, moody purple, and the bright aquamarine pool beckons.” Not a bad spot to serve as your Tuscan base of operations. marriott.com, 39.0583.7691
Named for an Italian word meaning “to drive away your troubles,” this cozy bistro is one of Barga's finest restaurants, featuring a rotating menu designed on what's fresh that season. If luck allows, arrive in fall or early winter for dishes built around pungent truffles pulled from soil nearby. scacciaguai.it, 39.058.371.1368
Owner Gabrielle Da Prato has become such a legend in biodynamic wines that Italy awarded him knighthood. A visit to his winery is a trip into a new way of winemaking, where the secrets of Tuscan farming from ancient times are used to produce funky-in-a-good-way organic wines. Be sure to book in advance a hearty lunch paired nicely with wines bottled nearby. podereconcori.com, 39.0583.766374
Gli Orti di Via Elisa
A visit to northern Tuscany must include a stop in the gorgeous walled city of Lucca, where Gli Orti serves up hearty plates of pasta, red-sauce-only pizzas and gelato made in-house. ristorantegliorti.it, 39.0583.491241
The Great Grotta del Vento
When you need a break from all that house shopping, head to the Apuan Alps Nature Reserve, where you'll find what's regarded as one of Europe's most unique caves, covered in stalagmites and stalactites, alabaster walls and underwater streams that leave behind crystalline deposits. Those with casual interest can knock it out with an hour tour, while those with geology in their blood can opt for a three-hour descent down vertical slopes. apuaneturismo.it, 39.0585.799462