Why we chose to live in Piemonte is simple enough. I have, to date, lived in 4 countries, the UK until 23, Singapore for a brief number of months at 23, Australia for 2 years from 24-26 and Ireland from 27 to 40. In between, and throughout, these moves I have visited countless countries and cities and like to think of myself as ‘well travelled’. I’m not naïve or foolish to think that a new country equals a new life, we carry our heads and our hearts wherever we go in this world. I did, however, know that I am over city living.
Writing this, I can hear the busy main road outside my Dublin office, teeming with diesel lorries, buses, roaring motorbikes and endless cars. I walk the back route from my Dublin house to my office, via the quieter back roads, to escape the pollution and get some mental solace before arriving at work, or at home. Around my office in town is a mish mash of cultures, ages, noise from the regeneration of some inner city flats, grime, graffiti, overflowing bins, useless pedestrian crossings at busy junctions, chewing gum littered pavements, the smell of stale beer from dirty pubs pretending to be trendy, and people everywhere, walking in to each other in their ‘don’t mess with me’ city body language, or just hypnotically looking at their phones, regardless of on-comers. Yes, I have had enough of city living.
When we went on our first trip to France in search of a new life we had a checklist, which read:
What we hadn’t expected on arriving, in The Langhe region of Piemonte, was to fall head over heels in love with the place, and all within a day of arriving. It hadn’t happened in France, we never got the ‘wow’ feeling there, and I know we had been moderating our enthusiasm since that disappointing trip to France. We knew a lot about Italy and had spent multiple weeks in various locations in Italy before but never in North West Italy. None of our Google research had prepared us for the mutual bolt of cupids arrow into our hearts from this magical place. Many web sites, I have read since, often mention Piemonte as Italy’s best kept secret. I’m not sure that it is being kept a secret, as there are multiple tourists here, it’s just that they are from other European countries, such as Switzerland, Germany and France. It’s not marketed that well to those in the UK and Ireland, that’s for sure, but then they are targeted with the romance of Rome, Tuscany, Puglia and Amalfi instead.
We hadn’t even travelled in the glorious heat of summer to this region, it was November when we arrived and all the 'tourist romantic trap' grapes were long gone, and there was no vibrant greenery of a summers day. Yet, this place was still glorious, the people we met on our visits to view property were the friendliest, compared to France, and very welcoming, the people in the local restaurants were happy to see us and talk to us about the area. There were no tourist tat shops, like in Tuscany, just small independently owned shops catering to the locals, all at local prices. There was heat a plenty in November, which our winter packed wardrobe hadn’t accounted for and we sweated our way around the land in rolled up sleeves wishing we had packed shorts! The produce though was the winner, all around, everywhere we went, was land being used to grow vast amounts of food and wine. We wanted to live somewhere where people were proud of their produce and where it was renowned, well we couldn’t have been more successful if we tried. The heart of The Langhe is award winning wine, artisanal food and IGP status hazelnuts, the best hazelnuts in the world were hiding out in this quiet spot, waiting for us to find them.
The villages were pristine with flower baskets adorning lamp posts, bridges and window sills, there were no over flowing bins or graffiti. A civic pride in their public living areas was clear to see. The landscapes with their curvy hills and winding roads and forests of hazelnut trees were all part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and we didn’t even know it was part of that famed list before we arrived.
Through our property search in The Langhe region of Piemonte, we made compromise after compromise, to ensure we could start living in Piemonte, our planned list of ‘must haves’ was scrapped, we didn’t care anymore, we just wanted to be here and live here.
No, there was no competition. Piemonte had won, not that it cared to be in a competition, I am sure.
Next chapter in our Piemonte Italy adventure
Awakening on our 2nd day of house hunting in Piemonte, particularly in the Langhe hills, Andrew was bounding around the hotel room like a Labrador puppy, full of excitement, as today was the day we were going to see his number one choice. We had also one other house to see but there were a few questions on that one in our minds already. I, in contrast, was still trying to recover from the let-down of my first pick on the previous day’s viewings, and not as optimistic about the day ahead, as I wasn’t really enamoured with either house on the itinerary.
Returning, again, to the local bar we met yesterday’s agent in, we also had agreed to meet a second, different agent for Andrew’s property. It turns out the bar is a well-known landmark location for meeting up with people in town, this agent was coming in from Acqui Terme, a good size Roman town, half an hour away. Natascia and Marco, a glamorous husband and wife estate agent team, were waiting for us outside the bar and even though Andrew was ‘chomping at the bit’, keen to see his property, he didn’t refuse the invite of a ‘café’ in the bar, which is a must do for all business meetings in Italy, and it would be a very poor show indeed if you decline a coffee before business; saying that, the tiny espresso’s were knocked back with the speed of a tequila slammer and off we buzzed in convoy, this time up a different uphill road. Looking out of the window there was lots to take in, a beautiful palazzo styled house with wrap around vineyards, other smaller elegant stone houses with reams of long sloping terraces, all with the trimmings of this seasons grape leaves, all crisp and russet and golden, empty of the bursting, flavour filled, grapes that had been recently harvested, the proud beauty of these hard working vines was a wondrous sight, as we weaved our way up a lovely wide road. Yes, a lovely wide road, we had had many a discussion on the pro’s and con’s of a road’s width the night before over dinner. Having survived the drive back down from the ‘little house’ we were having serious doubts about revisiting it, and though a 2nd viewing was on the cards it wasn’t filling us with any joy, just the thought of having to test our nerves again, hoping and praying a tractor wasn’t coming round the next bend…well it just didn’t seem like a possibility, and that, with Andrew’s immense driving skills, was quite something, as in the 14 years we have been together he has always been a sound and fearless driver, so if he was unsure, I was positively quaking in my walking boots at the idea of driving up there again. But back to the viewings today.
Finally, we abruptly turned off the road and up a private drive lined with huge imperial fir trees, a good start, at least it wasn’t overgrown grass, like yesterday’s drive, this was well maintained concrete, turning after 70mtrs up this drive and to the right, we drove into a long driveway of crunching pebbles through cast iron gates with 2 lion statues on top at either side of the gate posts, a Leo’s delight! I as a Leo, was truly delighted, I had forgotten about the description of this house to be honest, after all, this was Andrew’s favourite and truth be told I had neglected it in my mind. Pulling up at the end of the pebble drive I could see a beautifully wide maintained garden, sloping upwards with all sorts of fruit trees speckling the lawn and a neat raised flower bed, with ornamental trees in it, ran down the edge of the drive. And there were three further empty slopes, flat and clean, below the house. But there was no time for taking this in, for out of the house, with a big beaming smile and 'buongiorno - ing' for all he was worth, wearing worker overalls and carrying a witch’s broomstick, of all things, was the vendor, Giovanni.
Ahh, Giovanni, all of 5ft 6” and only like a Sardinian Italian man of 70 can be, escorted us like the conductor of the Royal Philharmonic orchestra, all arms, waving this way and that in the air, as with a flourish he guided us into each furniture bedecked, white wall gleaming, pristine room, like a proud father, beaming nonstop and talking away, at a rapid pace, with wild enthusiasm, Andrew had truly met his match in the enthusiasm stakes. He was so proud and happy to have us there, it was most infectious. This lovely little white house; see I used the word ‘lovely’ for the house, which at the beginning of the day was towards the bottom of my personal preferences; this man was weaving a spell on us, whether it had been the witch’s broomstick and its magical connotations, or his twinkly eyes, whatever it was, it was then surpassed by something more than magical, it was the view that really did it. I think I had been so swept away by Giovanni, as he ushered us into the house, that I hadn’t stopped to look at the view. We had climbed quite high up the hill to get there and as Giovanni led me over to the stately, wide, veranda edged, balustrade, we rested against the wall, and took a quiet moment of reflection, just the two of us, as the others had gone up into the attic. Giovanni and I looked out in silence at the view, an astonishing view, eye watering and sigh inducing, a ‘bella vista’, I said, quietly, to Giovanni, ‘si, bella vista’ he murmured in reply, both massive understatements. We looked out over an expanse of canyon like valley, with slumbering giant hills lined up, going into the far distance, each hill overlapping each other in a distance descending row, all covered in green pines and hazelnut plantations. To the right about ¼ mile away a little house, with more plantations, and a farm, down the hill below but again about ¼ mile away, Giovanni’s house, he gestured more softly, as he pointed to it, I think he had run out of steam after all his earlier excitement.
The quiet moment, that will forever be in my memory now, passed, as the others joined up, Andrew’s face was lit up like he had opened the best ever Christmas present. We knew there would be a second viewing and, via Natascia, we asked Giovanni if we could return tomorrow. What he said was pure, astonishing, alchemy, he said he doesn’t lock the door anyway, so we could come and go, as much as we liked and even have a picnic under the house’s portico! What the dickens!!! Now, coming from inner city Dublin, with our multi lock door and windows and house alarm, that we even turn on at night, not to mention the very attentive, curtain twitching, neighbourhood watch, this was truly staggering. The house was fully furnished, there were things to steal, if you were a nasty villain with evil intentions, which of course we weren’t, but we could come and go as we please! I love this place, I said, once I got back in the car, let’s never leave.
Next chapter in our Piedmont Italy adventure
We took in our surroundings in the Bar, while we ate and drank, over our very necessary lunch. As I observed in the previous post, the place was busy, no spare tables and the chatter was creating a great atmosphere. A couple of tables away a bunch of men mostly in their 60’s and 70’s were having a tranquil long game of cards while sipping espressos. We were sneaking peeks at them, and the other tables, to see what characters were in this bustling Piemonte town. While they too were sneaking peeks at us, wondering, I’m sure, how we had found this very non-touristy place, fortunately they all seemed content to have us there, giving us little smiles and nods and “buongiorno’s” from the late comers who came in after us, but then each entering customer was saying “buongiorno” to everyone when they entered the bar, from what we saw, and it was lovely not to be excluded from this greeting; what a welcoming town. It was all very civilised and we felt at home…until, that is, one of the men playing cards went off like a firework, he had let out a shout and jumped up from the card table shouting at his fellow players and slammed his cards down fiercely on the table! Red in the face he waved his arms around in the air like a man trying to swat a wasp away and fuming he stormed off out of the bar. The whole place was silent looking at the door that had just swung shut behind the departed man. It was like a scene out of a wild west movie. Then almost within seconds the place started to laugh – only in Italy! Thank goodness for the Italian sense of humour, the table of card players resumed their game with little smiles and the other diners carried on contentedly eating lunch and we acted the part of the nonchalant foreigners like nothing had occurred. I’m guessing that if the place hadn’t acted in such a manner after that outburst we may have started to have second thoughts on the town, instead we were still happy to be there.
We met our first estate agent, Eleanor after lunch, a really lovely agent and I will recommend her to anyone. Eleanor, escorted by her little dog, led us off in car convoy to the first property. Just 10minutes away, she promised. She was correct, there is though a little twist, and turn, to this ten minute drive. We headed up a road off the main road into town and began our ascent, like intrepid explorers waiting for the peak to come into view, but every turn we weaved led us further up and up the hill, the road became narrower, a lot narrower. So it eventually was really just one lane with a pretty much sheer drop, albeit through lots of hill clinging trees, to the bottom of a ravine. We eventually pulled off the ‘road’ into a grassy driveway, and as we pulled up the car we saw Eleanor ahead greeting the vendor, we climbed out and put our happy face on and approached Eleanor who was blocking the sight of the vendor, then as we got to them he was revealed, it was the furious card playing man from the bar! Still red in the face and not a care on him, as he greeted us warmly, if not a little over enthusiastically. He didn’t acknowledge being only 3 metres away from us over lunch so we pretended nothing and with big grins walked with him to the house, a beautiful big two floored stone farmhouse. The view over the landscape this high up was superb, magically set with the warm sunlight. Entering the house we came into a grand reception room with chandelier and large view framing windows, then through to the good size kitchen and bedroom, 1 bedroom. We wondered where the other bedrooms listed were? Then outside to the veranda with pleads of ‘attenzione’, watch out, we crossed a decrepit little landing with wobbly boards into the older part of the farmhouse and the further bedrooms but these hadn’t been lived in for at least 100 years. A big job was needed here. Passing back out to the garden our vendor grabbed a bottle of wine from a box and gave it to us as a present! Where would you get that? Outside we thanked him graciously, after all we might see him again in town during our trip, and he urged us to get in touch with questions, we headed off somewhat relieved to be going, we knew that this was not going to be the house for us, there was far too much to do.
Off in the cars, we were grateful to find ourselves headed back down the lane rather than further up it, thinking we would be off for a few minutes to the next house, one of my favourites, due mainly to the price. But 30 seconds after leaving we pulled into another grassy driveway and there the house was, pretty much one terrace down from the land of the first house. Not a great start, considering the driving conditions. But it looked lovely, just like the pictures and again had a great view, though, as it was lower down there was also a large industrial building in view at the bottom of the valley, a bit of a blip on the view. This house was small, tiny rooms fit for one person really, with the tiniest bathroom ever, this hadn’t been shown in the pictures online. But it had promise, due to the price. We had a look at the terraces, sloping down with overgrown abandon, one after the other and quite difficult, even with hiking boots on, to traverse. But they were good strong looking wide terraces with potential. We left knowing we would return for a second visit.
By now though I was getting excited, as we were off to see my number 1 house! We headed off fortunately right down to the bottom of the single lane road and off towards town again before turning up a wider, proper road, relief flooding my veins, you can’t beat a good normal road. We climbed up again but with ease and then pulled to a halt in the shade of some enormous trees not being able to see the house, we got out and headed down a very overgrown drive to the house. The house in the pictures had looked beautiful and dare I say, lady like, with pretty balconies and creamy yellow painted walls. This though looked a shadow of its former self, now, in fairness, it was actually in a shadow with the sun not kissing it as fervently as the prior houses that day, it was facing the wrong way and had a ginormous hill opposite blocking out the sunlight at this mid-afternoon point. I was sad and I think the house was sad too, because as we entered it the house was dark and rundown, but the worst of it was the sense of despair there, it didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel like a happy house. This feeling was the least of our worries, as we found the only way to get to the bedrooms was via an outdoors stairway, a common feature in this area of Piemonte, as I have seen around the place since. Upstairs we were closer to the road and yes, the mysterious road I had spotted behind the house in the pictures wasn’t the quiet laneway I had hoped for, it was the easy driving main road we had been relieved to drive up on but we didn’t want to hear the thundering trucks and buzzing motorbikes groaning uphill through the bedroom walls, or, as Andrew pessimistically feared, one arriving through the roof of the bedroom one night. The house, my number 1 house, was a goner, we left speedily, my heart sunken and feeling a sense of despair, as we headed back to town and the end of the first day’s viewings, all we had left on the list was a house we had a few questions on and Andrew’s number one choice.
Next chapter in our Piedmont property search
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