Monthly Archives: January 2016

THE IMPORTANCE OF ITALIAN WHEN BUILDING A ROOF

After a few years of living, here I have to say that I consider being able to communicate in Italian exceedingly important. Prior to our move I attended classes for over three years but when I arrived on  a permanent basis  I found myself no further forward than good morning , good night and how are you. As the years pass the Lingua becomes easier and many doors have now opened for us.

At the beginning the language barrier caused us a huge problem. The house was in a terrible state and we had wanted to do our own planning, project managing and some labouring. Somewhat crazy but we felt this would cut down our costs as funds were exceedingly low,  We would be living here and thus able to put all our time into the build. We needed advice from the experts,  builders ,architects  in fact anyone who could help us .  Our estate agent introduced us to a few contractors and said she would be willing to translate for us. Although she was helpful this was limited as I felt she seemed to misunderstand our intentions.

These so called experts clambered around our house and produced amazing plans some were works of art. Their estimation of their own costs were even more amazing  and that was only for their services not for the construction.

We kept hitting brick walls,  they said ” Italian legislation says you must have a geometra or an architect, a builder and most importantly it prevents you from participating in anyway with the build.

Frustrated by this and concerned that this would slow the renovations we eventually enlisted the aid of architects who could speak some English. However we quickly realised that we had made a mistake, they were certainly good at extracting money but slow at coming up with the goods.

They did manage to get the project on its way with the construction of the new roof. This was however done with some bullying from my friend Ernestina who was panicking as winter was rapidly approaching. Quite honestly I don’t think the roof could have taken another winter. They also found us a builder who gave a fairly low estimate for the roof but I guess this did not come without problems.

We all parted company somewhat amicably six months later when we refused to continue with their very modern unsympathetic plans for our farmhouse.

THE NEW ROOF

The 12,000 euros originally suggested would not look at it. It might have bought us a couple of  years of respite but the beams were rotten, there were many tiles broken, there were large gaping holes and the supporting walls were buckling. It was obvious to all that this needed a demolition job.

New earthquake legislation also required us to have a ring of cement (cordola) placed on top of the walls to support the new roof beams. It was a huge job and cost well over 45000 euros which did not include guttering, down pipes or chimney stacks.

The house was completely clad with scaffold that took three Egyptians ten days to erect.house renovations 004

On the first morning of the build I was shocked to see a very large crane arriving up the drive. house renovations 002 It was sited to the front of the house, we slept each night with this huge monstrosity hanging above us. We had one evening of absolute panic when I noticed that it started to move by itself. AS it twisted and turned  we could hear it creak, I was terrified was it about to flatten us in our bed ?. I rang the builder who came post haste,  he viewed the scene and  bemusedly informed us that it moves freely in the wind which just happened to be quite strong that evening.010

They constructed the roof in two stages dividing the house in half, it took three months in late summer 2013 and thankfully we only had two days of rain during the build.

Unfortunately the first was a really nasty thunderstorm that happened one evening after the builders had left leaving the beams uncovered. The heavy rain poured in between the rafters permeating all the ceilings below which included the room were we had stored all our furniture. once again there was a frantic call to the builder who arrived to find us inside the room knee deep in buckets , plastic covering and standing with umbrellas.lucy's holes 025

The head builder was hilarious he was a chain smoker, he was able to speak with a cigarette in his mouth. It would stick to his top lip going up and down as he spoke. I marveled at how he could toss a cigarette in the air, catch it with his lower lip and light it all in one move, quite ingenious. My brother in law Ugo who was living out front in his camper ( but that’s another story) nick named him Clint as he wore a cowboy stetson and was always puffing away.house renovations 033

They worked away dismantling the roof collecting the old cotto tiles one by one and stacking them on pallets for later use. They cleared away years of straw and rubble from inside the barn, they cut out the big old beams and dismantled the gable ends. Mounding the bricks and rubble in huge piles in our garden.

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We were not allowed near the build and were enclosed in our apartment with that dreadful orange plastic fence like prisoners behind bars.  We would kneel on our balcony and peer through the holes in the plastic to catch a glimpse of the goings on.house renovations 037 When the builders left the site in the evening we would guiltily climb onto the scaffold like two naughty children and peruse the work done. We had many an evening sitting on our open roof enjoying a glass of red wine and admiring the views around us.

To be honest, we were thinking to ourselves how the hell did we get into this one. !!!!house renovations 036

We learned from this build, there was no interaction with us and we were completely cut out from any of the decisions made.

This was certainly not the way we had planned our new life in Italy to be.g

They did however advise us to keep all our old bricks so with time on our hands we spent each day cleaning and storing over 3000 bricks. (They cost one euro a brick to buy here.)020

When our roof was complete the builder finally knocked on the door to ask where we wanted the chimney stacks to be placed I was thrilled to at last be involved and replied

“obviously over the chimey breasts in the house”.

Whoops the roof had been designed without any consideration to that trivial fact. One of the main beams was directly in line with the chimney. So much for the expensive architect. OH had mentioned it to all on many occasions but was always ignored.

End of the road for Clint.

 

 

 

 

OUR CHOSEN AREA A GARDENER’S PARADISE

THE HILLS OF MONFERRATO

may2014 001It has  just been nominated a Unesco World Heritage site for its outstanding beauty and historic integration of nature and agriculture. After living here a few years I can honestly say it is the garden and the larder of Italy everything grows with abundance, especially the weeds!!

The Hills are gentle and rolling with little villages perched precariously along the ridges. From these ancient villages you can see amazing views over the countryside and to the high mountains beyond.

Piemonte is  shaped like a bowl it’s sides are surrounded by the peaks of the Alps which create protection from extreme weather conditions.

It has cold winters and hot summers thus perfect for my type of gardening.

It was difficult to choose one particular area but if we had not selected we would still be looking because each valley is beautiful and distinctive with its own charm.

The main agricultural produce of Monferrato is wine. There are hundreds of vineyards carpeting the steep hillsides. The grape vines flourish on these sites sending their stems upwards and outward towards the warm sunshine. It amazes me how they manage to anchor themselves on such steep gradients.

The vines are all carefully planted in neat straight rows with a single red shrub rose marking the row end. They say the rose shows the health of the vine if it is ailing then so must  the vine.

The vineyards are served by huge cascinas ( farmhouses) painted in all colours of the rainbow. Their roofs have quirky little chimney stacks breaking the line of the red terracotta tiles.autum 2015 029

The most famous wines of the area are Barbera, Moschato and of course Asti spumante.

The wine flows here in more abundance than the water,

At the local cantinas 1 euro 50 easily purchases a litre of good quality wine.

The other main crop is hazelnuts because Piemonte is also the home of world famous Ferrero Rocher and Nutella.     Nocciola  gelato is a must.

As you look along the hillsides you can see small rectangular parcels of land planted with little round lollipop trees. They create a checker board effect,  their pale green mounds giving a formal contrast with the long rows of the grapevinesautum 2015 031

During  late summer the farmers can be heard hoovering up the little nuts with large vacuum machines (giant hoovers) which they carry away on red trailers pulled behind little rickety tractors.

Poor us we had to harvest ours by hand but we do only have four trees.

There are also groves of poplar trees planted orderly in rows, standing tall and proud like soldiers on parade. They give winter protection from the storms and also provide foraging areas for the treasured white truffles. On cool Autumn and winter days you can see the locals out with their dogs scrambling  in the undergrowth  in hope to find one of these dark gnarled treasures.

The seasons are very distinctive spring usually begins on March 1st the sun is now stronger giving lovely warm days but the night temperatures can still be cold with many nights of frost. Everything springs into life after the deep slumber of winter, the light is bright, the air is fresh and clear, the hills are lined with fluffy white cherry blossom glistening in the spring sun these are later followed  by the deeper pinks and reds of the peach, almond and walnut trees. april 2015 049

We wake each morning to the joyful call of a distant cuckoo or the continuous tapping of a nearby woodpecker.

The plants in my garden grow with such vigour pushing their shoots through the rich brown soil, their leaves hurriedly opening to bathe in the warm sunshine. They grow upwards and upwards as the temperatures rise higher each day.

The flowers are now in plentiful display we start with the bulbs followed closely by, the blowzy paeonies, the stately bearded irises and then the splendour of the roses  by June there is a profusion of colour everywhere.Start of may 2015 - iris 036

The scent is intoxicating with the false acacias, lime trees and roses. The perfumes hang in the air and it can be quite overpowering.

The meadows are a vibrant  tapestry of flowers which peeping between the grass blades the blues of the cornfowers, the purple spikes of salvia, the yellows of the achillea and the dots of red poppies. The fragrance of the wild mint and the lavenders abound.

The insects are everywhere bees, hover flies, butterflies and huge furry moths. Sucking the rich nectar.029

Summer is hot on occasions 40 degrees upwards. It brings the festivals to the villages when we dance till dawn to famous old Italian songs and eat pasta and peaches washed down by huge glasses of velvety red Barbera. It is now that the vineyards are in full leaf they carpet the hills with their various shades of green. The fields in the valley are full of golden corn  and of tall sunflowers their smiling round faces looking down cheekily at passers by.lucy arrives in italy 005

The markets are brimming over with fresh fruit and vegetables brought from nearby fields and from large market gardens down by the coast.

Late summer into Autumn brings the anticipation of the Vendemia ( grape harvest) you can feel the excitement in the air. The grapes are turning the deepest purple and hang low on the vines heavy and juicy waiting to be picked.august 2015 045

Many days in Autumn begin  with a misty haze which is slowly pierced by the suns rays warming the hillsides to accompany the harvest. The smells are of the land and the fermenting grapes.vendemia 2015 008

This brings the food festivals which are popular in the villages and towns each having its own specialization/. Truffles, wines, pasta, mushrooms it goes on and on.food festival asti 017

 

 

Finally towards the middle of December winter arrives and the temperatures plummet minus 10 and more. The days are still sunny and the temperature can rise as high as 15 c by midday but dropping quickly as the sky darkens. Quite frequently we can be seen lunching outside at the front of our house to the amusement of our neighbours.

Christmas brings much celebrating and all the houses are adorned with colourful lights twinkling against the dark sky. The Christmas markets line the little village squares and everybody focuses with great expectation on the feast soon to be had. On Christmas eve we dawdle up a candle lit cobbled street in a nearby village following a live nativity on its procession to the ancient church above. we are accompanied by the voices of the village children dressed as little angels singing sweetly and excitedly for thought of the pending arrival of Babo natale.099

The trees stand stark against the vivid blue sky and the vineyards look bare and lifeless. It is now that the hunters are out looking for the prized cinghiale.(wild boar) Deer can be seen grazing at the woodland edge and night time silence is broken by the occasional shriek of the owl searching for its prey ..P1030271

 

 

 

January and February bring the snowfalls creating a romantic hush across the land.  The days are short and exceptionally cold, the crisp dry air burns the skin and scorches everything that stands in its wake.  There is a silence in the valley and nothing stirs as if nature is holding it’s breath waiting patiently for March to arrive and the delights of spring to return once again..012

 

 

EUREKA THE HOUSE OF OUR DREAMS!!!!

The house of our dreams what a perfect location031

It is a very old farmhouse set in the Tiglione Valley at the foot of a beautiful vineyard which adorns the hillside that curves like an amphitheatre.

The house faces south southwest and is surrounded by four acres of gently rolling meadow. All the front windows look out across the valley towards the hillside with the old village of Cortiglione perched high on the crest.vendemia 2015 055

 

 

The rear opens out onto the meadow and the vineyard beyond.autumn in piemonte 001

The property is situated on a small lane a hundred metres from the Asti to Alessandria road. It has a bus stop handily situated at the lane junction.  There are many houses close by with enough distance away to give us privacy but close enough to be neighbourly.the big freeze 009           Italy 195029

The Village of Belveglio is about 3/4 kilometre away, it nestles in the valley looking out towards the Maritime Alps. It has a bar ,a shop, a Pizzeria and all other necessary amenities.

Our main town Nizza, is exactly a nine minute drive from our gate to the gelateria ( ice cream shop).

If we want more sophistication  Asti is 20 minutes drive and Aqui Terme is 30 minutes.

The location is perfect!!            but ………………………………………………………………….

there was a big compromise  – the state of the house , it was a problem, it was a disaster!

OH,  was so in love with it that he was confident that we could overcome all, me I am not so optimistic and can’t deny having many sleepless nights of worry.

I could see huge amounts of money required and having used all spare cash to purchase the property we had little left in the coffers to renovate.

A year followed during which we sold our business at the height of the recession hence at a  reduced price which again lessened the pot.

We literally sold everything we had all the niceties of our other life including OH’s baby the Porsche.  We left behind the designer clothes , the exotic holidays etc etc. This was all in our past life.

We got into the van that day for a new start it takes a lot of guts  –  or just sheer madness.

Yes we jumped off the treadmill but landed on a roller coaster

Our farmhouse was huge, at the beginning people used to ask me how many rooms it had – to be honest I never counted. I just used to say it’s big!!!!Italy 106

The downstairs had six rooms to the front with two staircases leading to the upper floors. belveglio 038

At the rear there was a cantina flanked on each side with large open barns. Upstairs there were six more rooms and two bathrooms and on each end there was another large barn  area. belveglio 063belveglio 071

There was also  a third level which ran the whole length of the house and was an enormous space with the floor all at different levels.                                           .Italy 140

Each gable end had a porticoe and some outbuildings which housed old toilets and a couple of chickens. We later found that they belonged to our elderly neighbour Antonio.belveglio 060

At first I got lost going up and down the wrong staircase and I admit that on occasions I still do this. Only to find myself wondering where the hell I am.

It had been built into the hillside behind and over the years the soil had worked its way down settling on the rear wall. Thus causing much distortion and dampness.belveglio 067

The roof OMG!!! described to us as needing only minor repairs that should have cost us around 12,000 euros.

We found it was held up with old carpet cardboard inners and wooden posts.belveglio 079 We could see the daylight through many of the old terracotta tiles and there was one large gaping hole through which rain tumbled in during heavy downpours. The water trickled down the electric wires into the bedroom below damaging the ceiling and making everything damp.Italy 111

We shared the attic space with a little owl, a family of bats and four resident feral cats. That was what we knew of – –   how many rodents you can only guess?

The house was actually split into two separate units both having a kitchen downstairs and a staircase leading to bedrooms above. Both houses were practically a mirror image of the other. It was hundreds of years old with numerous additions through the years all done in contadini (farmers ) style  with very little money spent and no consideration to building regulations.

On our first viewing it was difficult to see the insides because they were full of old furniture and rubbish., There was very little light available so i had to rely on  the camera to give us a full view of what the rooms entailed. Even the barns still had all the hay for the animals which was well over half a metre deep.Italy 134

Thankfully the owners cleared away the old furniture and most of the rubbish inside, I do believe they had a large bonfire. However the old hay and maize was left for us.

TAKING UP RESIDENCE

We decided to make a list of necessities to ensure we could survive

dry clean rooms,   electricity,     water,    heat,     bed,     cooking facilities,     phone line and a washing machine.

Our first priority was to the roof we placed plastic sheeting and numerous buckets to catch the rainfall and OH found another couple of posts which made handy props just in case the winter snow proved too heavy for the old rickety tiles.

We ear marked two rooms and a bathroom on the first floor in an area where the roof did not leak .They all had unbroken windows that actually closed and locked. This we decided would  be our living accomodation during the renovations for perhaps a year but things never go to plan and in the end we stayed there for over two.

I set about cleaning, I bleached everything once, twice, thrice ………. . The bathroom which was to the rear had an old water boiler which amazingly still worked and even better there were connections for a washing machine. Incidently it is common practice in Italy to have washing machines in the bathroom.  A local electrician checked out the safety aspects not perhaps to the law!!! but thankfully there is only 3 kilowatts of power entering the house . An electric kettle and hairdryer on together were simply out of the question.

Thankfully the water was clean and piped from the mains. There was a sewage system of types which we later found that some of the  pipes had fractured but I must admit for a while I did have the biggest tomatoes in the area!!!!

Before we left Britain I went on my now favourite site Preloved and found a little wood burner for sale in our local area. We purchased it for a hundred pounds and what a life saver that turned out to be. Not just for heat but a cooking facility too.

So by the following May eighteen months after purchase we had hot and cold water, a possibility of heat, cleanliness and areas to make a kitchen.lucy in italy 029

We were so excited all was now ready for the big move and we could only think of that wonderful summer ahead of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE BIG SEARCH

OUR REQUIREMENTS

We wanted a south facing house on the valley floor or at least a little plateau,basically it had to be on flat land . It had to be near to a village within walking distance, with neighbours close by. —

Would we want to live as hermits for the rest of our lives?

I think not, we wanted to be part of a community.

There was necessity for a bus route and easy access to the main road. It was important to have a beautiful view but did not have to be drop dead gorgeous and so high that it gave us vertigo every time we looked out of the window.

autum 2015 119

As for my beloved husband it had to have its own driveway running straight up to the front door and  curving back to the road just like in the old country houses in the UK. For me an area of land encircling the house in which I could create my masterpiece – My New Garden, an Italian / cottage garden, where I could grow and cultivate all the plants and flowers so dear to me. Many of which I used to sell on my plant nursery.

The house had to be quite large with a possibility of five bedrooms and as we love light it needed to be spacious and airy. Our ambition was to have three bedrooms to rent for guests so they could share and enjoy our beautiful house and gardens.

The most important requirement was that the house should be habitable, at least to a certain extent because we intended to live in it. We wanted to project manage the restoration and do some of the work ourselves. Something of a new concept for the Italians  involved with us. It appears that very few stranieri (foreigners) do this in the area.vendemia 2015 048

We decided to make Nizza our main town and we drew a 20 kilometre circle around it and started our search. We trawled the internet, local estate agents and property sellers in the UK. august 2015 003vendemia 2015 071

At the beginning we found it hard to work out the details of properties. Some were described as detached but went onto mention adjoining walls which could be a garage or the next door neighbour. The description of habitable could mean anything from having an intact roof, fresh water and maybe electricity.

Easy access could mean parking a few hundred metres away and walking perhaps through woodlands, vineyards, or over obstacles to get to the main door and possibly over someone’s land……….. A point to note there was not always available parking.

Some descriptions just gave the  square metres of the house and not how many rooms. When we did find rooms listed we later found many of these designated sgombero (boxrooms) made not habitable for tax reasons.

The Italian builders prefer to renovate from the roof down thus the roof was the most important thing to check because if the roof requires  renewing there will be major structural costs. 103

There are many building regulations in accordance with earthquake legislation. Thankfully this area is not so prone.

The photographs – now these are a gem, any budding photographer could make a good living here. There were some not of the building or of the land not even of the view, but of the interior showing an old wardrobe and a toilet seat. I beg the question why?

However to be fair we did find ourselves some very good estate agents who obviously did have these traits, but were still able to guide us through our many viewings with enthusiasm and sometimes just a little impatience when it was obvious  – we were not going to buy

OUR DREAM HOME

It was number 24 but we viewed 26 just to be polite .

To be honest the search actually began in Toscana in the surrounding countryside of Lucca where my OHs family originate. Here in the very early beginnings we viewed a few properties, it was quite fun – but we soon realised that our funds could not stretch to any further than a one bedroom flat with a skylight and a ladder to see the view. Although beautiful and benefiting from the many contacts,we agreed it was not the Italy we hankered for. OH said he felt it was like walking along the promenade in Largs. So we had to have a rethink, in fact the rethink took over nine months while we worked away chewing over what we actually wanted.

Six years ago as a Christmas present I bought OH two tickets for La Scala , in Milano as we both love opera ( obviously I hoped I would be his accompanying partner). Well he is part Italian !!!.  After two days in Milano we were citied out. I am a country girl and 24 hours in a city is enough for me, OH he loves the buzz which can be a problem as it makes him hyper and we end up seeing all the sites in five hours.

So we hired a car and with a friends advice headed towards Piemonte, It was the darkest of winter nights, wet, cold, snowy and drab.buon natale 007 They say this is the best time to view a house or a new area because if you love it at its worst it can only get better. Piemonte was love at first site.Autumn piemonte 111

Our search took  2 years but what a great time we had. It is the perfect way to learn about an area. It was quite a challenge working with the estate agents we could not convince them that we did not want to be perched on a precipice so hence we politely viewed various properties many propped up with giant walls of concrete, bricks and even piled rubble. Some views were incredible as long as you were not prone to sleep walking. With these came the problem of the land which was always on a steep gradient, not for me I’m welsh and have spent a lifetime gardening on severe gradients.august2015 116

Access also seemed to be a big problem we viewed one that literally had a gradient say 1 in 4. There were 3 of us in a hired Renault Clio and we couldn’t manage to drive up the hill. OH found the only way was to reverse up avoiding huge potholes. I must admit the 360 degree views were amazing, as the estate agent so enthusiastically pointed out when we all thankfully arrived at the top.  Crikey somebody bought that property and I often wonder if they have a cable car to gain access.autum 2015 020

Another property we viewed was sited in the centre of another owners vineyard with access being a little dirt track which had been partly washed away by the winter rains. A handsome house but totally useless – well to us anyway. In the same area there was another we couldn’t even reach because the road was closed due to

landslides!!!

.august2015 119

Some even when advertised as independent turned out to be semi – detached without an occupant next door and in fact one had not been occupied for 80 years which was great for the privacy but who was going to do and pay for the upkeep.

There were others with huge apple orchards what on earth were we going to do with hundreds of apple trees, enormous woodlands and  rivers. Some had no roof others very little walls just mounds of rubble.may2014 002 It was exciting each day waiting in anticipation to find that ‘ perfect house’

Many were full of dusty old furniture, photographs and clothes of the previous owners and one in particular had slippers conveniently left behind the front door- yipes what ever happened to him I thought.

I became adept at climbing ladders and looking at roofs. On one occasion when I pointed out I could see the sky through the tiles. I was impatiently informed ‘ that is the way they build them here’. I can now categorically confirm it is not.

My worst moment was the house with the dolls once again propped on a top of a hill, I braved the somewhat rickety staircase and calmly pushed away the thick cobwebs from my face. As I reached the hallway on the second floor I peered down the long dark narrow corridor which led to a gloomy room. It was lit by a few sun rays passing through dusty windows  there sitting on an old armchair were two life size china dolls I do believe they turned their heads and gazed towards me.january 2016 028

Oh no no no I don,t do dolls, I was off.

I took those stairs two at a time and as I emerged into the garden the estate agent laughed saying the owner would take them away – oh no they will always be there in my mind. —- Again somebody bought that property I wonder if they inherited the dolls!!!!!

I am sure they will still be there somewhere.

As our search failed to uncover any gems we decided to increase our purchasing price which did not seem to make a lot of difference it just brought us a viewing of a half built house consisting of a roof and 4 walls, again the views were spectacular but the house was just a new build with no character. This house was twice as expensive as others we had viewed but offered much less.114

Sometimes they seemed to think up a number which had no realistic value to the property.

A couple of years later  on a very cold January day we decided we would have one last search  before returning to Wales. While out viewing with the estate agent he mentioned that there was a house nearby for sale which was not on his list. He thought it might just interest us.  However he did say it needed a lot of work and it had a huge vineyard. Normally we would have discounted this immediately but we thought ” what the hell we better take a look”

As we drove up the driveway towards the front door I noted the drive crossed  the front of the house and curved away around a large conifer and returned to the lane. I glanced over to OH who was wearing a huge smile.

I knew here it was,  house number 24  this OH will buy and he did.Italy 183Italy 182