A Dream of Italy – The Field Stones of Umbria

I am honored to share the latest in our series of guest posts on one of my favorite topics – Renovating in Italy. I knew that we couldn’t be the only ones out there dreaming about houses in Italy. Today we are joined by Authors Nina (The Field Stones of Umbria) and Pavel who share the renovation of their stunning home in Umbria.

Twenty years ago, this is what we fell in love with….


Yes and no. We had no intention of buying a farmhouse that needed “renovating”, let alone buying one that was a complete ruin without water, electricity, heat or anything else except brambles and trees growing out of the center of the house, surrounded by what looked like sturdy walls until you took a closer look.

But we had fallen in love with Italy, with this tiny valley near Montone in the Upper Tiber Valley, and we just went giddy with emotion and bought it. Our intuition proved to be valid when the geometre saw the house for the first time in its present condition, and quietly said, “Nice house.”

After we bought the house and property, we started to get to know our neighbors.

This contadina family had owned most of the valley (including our house) for generations spanning over 100 years.There wasn’t much history to the house itself—it was maybe 150 years old—but there was a history full of hard work and strife in this valley during and after World War II.

Our neighbor told us he had lived in the small tower throughout the war when he was in his teens without heat, electricity, or water. When the Germans “retreated” north in 1944, they wreaked havoc and destruction throughout the Upper Tiber Valley.

The women and young boys had to escape into the hills between Montone and Pietralunga where they lived in the wilderness during one of the coldest and snowiest springs ever. They hauled wood and water for five kilometers every day and had to rely on hunting for food. When they returned, their homes had been ransacked but at least they were still standing.

That was the last time the house was habitable and now we were going to reconstruct it completely.

We worried what they thought of this—so many foreigners were buying up old properties and turning them into fancy buildings that have nothing to do with the local landscape. But when we said we were complying with the style and rules of Umbrian architecture, they seemed pleased. Our valley is so tiny—only 12 houses—and a style outside of the local architecture would look completely out of place.

I’m not sure why we chose to undertake this renovation, and I say renovation with a bit of a giggle because it was a total, complete reconstruction. We really didn’t know what we were doing or getting into, we just knew that this was huge in our lives and we were ready for it.

We didn’t think we could afford to add the tower, especially since our geometre had tripled its size from the original. He insisted that the house would not be Umbrian without it. We finally gave in to his passion, and he was so thrilled that he managed to build it without going over the original budget.

Our neighbor came over to see us one day toward the end of the construction phase. He asked if he could see the tower. We took him up and he stood quietly for a long time, then turned slowly around taking in the light through the windows on either side. He smiled through his tears and thanked us for bringing his tower back to life.

After two summers and one autumn here, we knew.

The lure of Italy had pulled us in, challenging us to recreate ourselves and make this our home forever.

We responded. We sold our house in California, put everything into a container ship, and moved here in 2000. We’ve never looked back.

We did not ever intend to live here permanently. This was going to be our summer house, and the rest of our time would still be spent living in Santa Cruz, California, where we had had our careers, family, and the Pacific Ocean 200 meters away.

Over the years we’ve renovated, landscaped, planted gardens, and have settled in to what many people thought was the impossible dream in ruins. Thank goodness we never did! What we’ve experienced here was so special that I wrote a book about it. The Field Stones of Umbria  tells more of our story but also reveals those moments in life, which—if you choose to take them–can change you forever.

Here are some further images of our renovated and recreated life.

Related Links:

Written by Nina Hansen Machotka for Renovating Italy.

Images from the private collection of  Nina and  Pavel.



24 comments… add one

  • sally April 9, 2012, 4:03 pm

    Beautiful place and story. I know the feeling of life challanging me to start all over again ! 🙂 New home, new life, wonderful feelings. Thanks for sharing your story Nina! Thanks to Lisa for showing it !

    • Lisa Chiodo April 9, 2012, 4:54 pm

      How beautifully put Sally, life challenging us to start anew. I’m so glad Nina has joined you here to share her story. Each is unique and I love the fact that she adores cats just as you do. I’m looking forward to sharing many more stories of the heart and home here.
      love lisa x

  • Misha April 7, 2012, 8:48 pm

    An “impossible” dream realized. What an inspiring story. And amazing pics too. Just wonderful. 🙂
    Misha recently posted..Apples and blackberriesMy Profile

    • Lisa Chiodo April 9, 2012, 4:55 pm

      I think most people would look at those initial images and think “impossible” how lucky that Nina and Pavel went beyond that to uncover their dream.

  • Neal Winfield April 7, 2012, 12:06 am

    What a lovely looking place Lisa.

    • Lisa Chiodo April 9, 2012, 4:56 pm

      Isn’t it Neal, I’d love to see some more images of inside and Nina has promised me a signed copy of her book which I will treasure.
      ciao lisa

  • Linda ~ Journey Jottings April 6, 2012, 10:14 pm

    Renovation is so rewarding 🙂
    We renovated a Welsh stone and slate cottage dating back to the 1600’s with thick oak beans and a wonderful inglenook fireplace –
    The warmth of the place emanated from all the lives that had lived there previously – Happy days!
    Linda ~ Journey Jottings recently posted..Charters Towers – Victorian HeritageMy Profile

    • Lisa Chiodo April 9, 2012, 4:58 pm

      Linda that sounds fantastic, my side of the family have Welsh backgrounds so I’d love to go there one day. It’s the thing I love most about old houses, the lives they have nurtured and the history created. ciao lisa

  • Roselea April 6, 2012, 7:33 pm

    Ah…… How fabulous!

    • Lisa Chiodo April 9, 2012, 4:59 pm

      As are you Roselea, thanks so much for your help and I think the problem with the comments will soon be resolved!
      ciao lisa

  • Lisa Wood April 6, 2012, 12:33 am

    Oh MY gosh – never ever would i have believed that a ruin can be turned into something so gorgeous. Its beautiful and yet it was not even a house – incredible! Love the photos, and there passion for renovating Italy – amazing to live where there is only 12 houses!
    Lisa Wood recently posted..EMR Mechanical Services To The RescueMy Profile

    • Lisa Chiodo April 6, 2012, 6:06 am

      Yes Lisa it surprised me as well that a shell of a house could be so lovingly restored. Our village in Veravo only has 50 something people so we will certainly stand out for a while. Looking forward to going from the suburbs to such an intimate way of life. x

  • LindyLouMac in Italy April 5, 2012, 8:12 pm

    A lovely story, Nina and Pavel have certainly made a beautiful home for themselves in Umbria.
    LindyLouMac in Italy recently posted..Our Garden in March – Il Nostro Giardino in MarzoMy Profile

    • Lisa Chiodo April 5, 2012, 8:26 pm

      Oh how I would love to come back as one of those beloved cats and live in this beautiful home…
      ciao lisa x

  • Cathy April 4, 2012, 4:40 pm

    This is a wonderful story, I am so glad that Nina was happy to share her story with your readers Lisa.
    Cathy recently posted..Sunday PasseggiataMy Profile

    • Lisa Chiodo April 4, 2012, 7:45 pm

      Cathy I feel this has just scratched the surface and now has me with so many other questions. Pavel is an author also and with a love of art. I’d love to see more of the interior so maybe another post follow up is in order. xx

      • Cathy April 4, 2012, 9:44 pm

        I agree with you on that one Lisa. I hope that Nina does another post about the interior of her house.
        Cathy recently posted..Sunday PasseggiataMy Profile

        • Lisa Chiodo April 5, 2012, 6:36 am

          It’s something I always long to do when I see a beautiful home….take a peek inside.

  • Janine April 5, 2012, 12:18 am

    Just my cup of tea Lisa! Beautiful story and you can feel what beautiful souls they must be. Italy attracts the nicest people don’t you think? I’ve left a note on Nina’s blog. Thank you for a wonderful, wistful moment to end my day. Jxx
    Janine recently posted..Love in the afternoonMy Profile

    • Lisa Chiodo April 5, 2012, 6:39 am

      Doesn’t it just shine from them Janine, I love the photo of the two of them. It’s such a beautiful dream which is why I think it attracts such beautiful souls, I’m so happy you touched base with Nina, and her husband is fascinating also, the images she shares of her cats could fill a separate book.

  • Ingrid April 4, 2012, 4:14 pm

    Dear Nina & Lisa,

    Thank you for sharing this experience! I bought my ruin – not even expecting to buy a house!! Sometimes you just know when something ‘feels’ right – maybe the house chose you as I say mine did also! What an amazing history the area has – you must be extremely proud of the restoration and having befriended your neighbours in the process.

    Ciao Ingrid
    Ingrid recently posted..Architect Returns Measurements Taken Progress Made!My Profile

    • Lisa Chiodo April 4, 2012, 7:48 pm

      Ingrid every time I think of your gorgeous “ruin” I can’t wait to hear more. I’m sure your house chose you, I know for sure ours at Borga Nari chose us. I’d love to hear more of the story of the neighbor (Nina probably covers all this in her book). My father in law has such amazing storied of his life in Italy as a young man. I’d love to feature your home when ever you’re ready. xxx

  • Annette Piper April 4, 2012, 10:22 am

    How wonderful and so inspiring! Off to visit Nina and Pavel’s site now and say g’day 🙂
    Annette Piper recently posted..Beadie CrittersMy Profile

    • Lisa Chiodo April 4, 2012, 7:50 pm

      Say G’day from me as well Annette…we all need a little inspiration now and then!
      PS I love your beadle creatures!
      ciao lisa

      Just off to have a better look at them…


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