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.
- Nina’s Website Labacciana Let her know you found her on Renovating Italy!
- Nina’s book The Field Stones of Umbria, is available through amazon
- Pavel Machotka artist and writer
Written by Nina Hansen Machotka for Renovating Italy.
Images from the private collection of Nina and Pavel.