When I first see the house it is about 7:30 on an August evening– that magical moment just before twilight when the heat finally gives up its grip on the day and the air and sky take on a tiny hint of color, beckoning the sunset. We’ve driven from Venice– about 5 hours, after flying overnight from New York. We’re tired and we’ve left our bags at the agriturismo where we’ve stayed for the last 3 years. But we bought this house in January, sight unseen for me and our daughter Sophie, and we have to see it before the ritual first-night-in-Italy pizza at the only bar/ristorante in our town.
The house is nestled in a valley, midway between the Sibillini Mountains and the Adriatic. You can look down on the roof of the house from the ridge along which the town road runs. Formerly a “white” road– a mix of gravel and white clay– the road has been newly paved with asfalto by the commune. So our first glimpse is from that road, looking down on the old terra cotta tiled roof, a cozy house tucked onto the side of a hill. We make the turn onto the rutted path that runs to the house, formerly neatly cobbled with stones used by oxen to reach the stream in the lower part of the valley– but now clotted with mud, gravel and tractor tire tread marks.
The view is spectacular– we can see the distant mountains, the fields and olive groves on the other side of the valley, a few farm houses dotting the landscape, the distant point where the sun will set, giving us a vibrant, spectacular show every night. It’s different from the Tuscany and Umbria we all know and love. Tuscany has sweeping vistas, golden fields; there’s a gentle undulation to the land, with those fabulous cypress trees punctuating the horizon and defining the entryway to towns and estates. Umbria is manicured like an exquisite patchwork quilt. It’s richly textured and unmarred, like a tapestry. Le Marche, though equally beautiful, is a little scrappier. It’s green and hilly and the land draws you in with its deep colors and variegated fabric. But it’s a less magical and more down to earth, working kind of region. You can see the power lines running from place to place and fields of solar panels jar the view periodically. It’s a narrower region, wedged between the mountains and the sea, sharing borders with Tuscany and Umbria to the west and Abruzzo to the south. Marche is grittier and more muscular. We’re sure the flat, trafficky commercial roads near our town wouldn’t exist in Tuscany, but we were plenty glad to have them when we were restoring the house since we found everything we needed along their curbless length– kitchen and bath, paint, stonecutters, custom shower doors, furniture, cheap housewares, lumber, floor tiles… you get the picture.
So what brought us here in the first place? Our love affair with Italy began before we met. Each of us had traveled there often on our own or with other friends and partners. In fact, the friends who introduced me to my husband Jesse did so with the premise of meeting someone who, like me, loved biking and Italy. Jesse thought I would be a guy. We traveled to Italy once together before we got married–visiting all the towns Jesse had biked to over the years and knew the locals– Capodimonte, Faenza, Viterbo, Marta, Brisighella, Montepulciano.
We traveled to Liguria when I was pregnant, staying on the ground floor of the villa of friends of friends in Lerici. We visited Portofino, hiked Cinque Terre, strolled through Portovenere, went to the beach. Pregnancy instilled in me an aversion to seafood, and Liguria being on the Ligurian Sea, Jesse’s go-to phrase in Italian was something along the lines of, “My wife can’t possibly eat that– she’s pregnant.” People would then ply us with celebratory toasts (wait, aren’t you supposed to avoid alcohol when pregnant?) and embrace us warmly. It was a truly special and memorable trip.
A few years later, we took our baby girl Sophie on her first trip to Italy to celebrate the millennium. We figured if all the power grids were going to go haywire at Y2K, we might as well be in Italy where the power goes out all the time anyway and terrorists would find it too insignificant to mess with. We rented a tiny apartment in Ravello thinking it might be warmer a bit further south. Not so. And the apartment was so poorly wired that indeed the fuses blew every time we tried to use the heat and the lights simultaneously. Sophie was not quite 2, and I remember trying to hose her down, a tiny toddler standing shivering on a wooden grate in the bathroom of this freezing apartment without a bathtub. But Christmas in Ravello was beautiful and simple– a few strands of twinkling lights, theatre performances in the square, decorations in the bars, the band playing on Sunday morning outside the church. Friends from New York and Liguria joined us there, and we spent New Year’s Eve eating an 8-course meal in one of the bigger hotels, crowded with Italian families.
It was all lovely until Jesse came down with a stomach flu that was going around and got too sick to make it to midnight. I tried but failed to see the fireworks after I got the two of them to bed. It wasn’t until we were on the plane home that Sophie caught the bug. Welcome to Alitalia! A puking, miserable child, spewed-upon parents, sloppy shoes. The flight attendants ignored us with a vengeance not even offering us a moist towelette! But that’s another story…
As adults we came to Italy for spectacular art, food, museums and churches, and in Jesse’s case, serious biking and soaking up small town life. As parents, we made a beeline for the playgrounds and found them equally exceptional. Swings, seesaws, little rocking horses on big springs, sliding boards, and every one of them had some sort of whirly thing that you could push around, run and jump on, and spin around until you got really dizzy. These playgrounds were excellent and though we’d never noticed them before, there was one in every town and beach spot, always clean, always in good repair.
So the next trip, when Sophie was about 3 1/2, we tried an agriturismo in Umbria, not far from Lake Trasimeno. This was a beautiful venue– a pretty apartment, lovely grounds with a perfect little playground close enough to the house that Sophie could safely go there unattended, and a big pool with a marvelous view. The muddy beach by the lake, however, was overrun with bugs and mosquitoes. And then, 2 weeks into our trip, 9/11 happened. It was terrible to be away from home during this unthinkable and unprecedented crisis, worrying about family, colleagues, friends, our Brooklyn house, our city. Getting home was a chaos of cancelled flights, using our 3-year old to get sympathy and beg airline reps for seats, staying in airport hotels and a confused, unhappy toddler who desperately wanted to be back in her own room.
We didn’t venture abroad again for another three years. When we finally got up the nerve to put ourselves back on an international flight, Jesse had heard from a friend about the Marche region. Almost at random, we searched and selected an agriturismo, not too far from Ancona and close enough to a real beach on the Adriatic. About 2 kilometers south of the Ancona airport on the drive to our town, we looked at each other and said, “this place is gorgeous!” And that was just the view along the autostrada. It got better as we got deeper into the countryside. The agristurismo and the adjacent town were peaceful, simple, friendly and real. We thought about it all that next winter and started scouting real estate sites on line to see what might be available to buy in that area. We met with our financial guy to see if people of our relatively modest means could actually buy property abroad. We hooked up with a local agent and made up our minds to go back there the following summer, thereby starting the journey to find a house of our own.