The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue
An Italian House Hunt
by Linda Lappin
After years of tireless traveling throughout the Mediterranean, I became convinced that the best way to consolidate my life-long romance with that corner of the world was to become the owner of a house there. When financial circumstances made possible for me what had only been a cherished dream since I was a girl, the great house hunt began. Bedazzled by the Tuscan sun, I chose Italy as my goal, but the high costs of property in Tuscany, whether in
the towns of Florence, Siena, or Arezzo, or in the outlying countryside, were way beyond
what I could afford. Rome, too, was impossible, as was Sardinia, the smaller islands, and even Umbria. As luck would have it, in my travels, I had become acquainted with an area
little-known to modern day tourists or foreign house buyers, Tuscia, a ragged, rustic corner of undiscovered Italy, not far from Rome, nestled in between Tuscany and Umbria, once homeland to the vanished Etruscans.
Here was an unspoiled countryside, set amid rounded mountains with a bluish mist hovering above them, covered with groves of hazelnut, walnut, and chestnut trees. Lower down the slopes, lay olive groves, pastureland, and row upon row of tidy vineyards. An endless series of medieval hill towns repeated itself across the verdant horizon: San Martino al Cimino, Soriano nel Cimino, Montefiascone, Vitorchiano, Calcata, Celleno, Monte Calvello, Bolsena, Marta — the list seemed endless. The area was blessed with pristine lakes for summer swimming; sulfur springs for winter bathing, an abundance of Etruscan ruins to explore, and baroque villas and gardens for a dash of culture. In short, Tuscia was paradise! And most amazingly, I learned, as I sat one morning in a Roman cafe, sipping a cappuccino and scouring the notices printed in the house-hunter's favorite newspapers, "Porta Portese" and "L'Occasione", with a yellow highlighter in hand — houses there were still unbelievably cheap. By the end of the morning, I had a long list of agencies and sellers to sort through and call.
Only one was worth following up. The notice read:
"Portion of 18th century noble farmhouse. 3 floors, 2 bedrooms. Spacious kitchen with wood oven. Ready to live in, some repairs necessary. Located in charming borgo, near century-old oak trees." It concluded with an absolutely, ludicrously low price: ten thousand euros.
Like any serious house-hunter, I had focused on my essential needs. I required a bedroom and study for myself, a big kitchen with fireplace, a small bathroom, and a guest room. Years of city living made me long for a rural setting, but I didn't want to find myself isolated out in the countryside. A borgo — a cluster of old houses often near or in the country — sounded perfect. There'd be neighbors, and probably shops, not far away. I phoned and was given an appointment for the next day.
Noble farmhouse.... those words conjured up a stately building, perhaps with a long drive lined by cypress trees leading to the front gate. I imagined high-ceiling rooms in pastel stucco with tall, arched windows overlooking an oak forest. The fact that it was ready to live in was ideal. Repairs could be done slowly when time and money were available. And a wood oven! I could see myself pulling loaves from the firry chamber and feeding guests with homemade bread, cheese, and wine.
The house was being sold not by an agency, but by its owner, an architect, a bright, young woman from Rome, who accompanied me to see the place, chatting all the while as we drove along the busy Via Cassia. She told me that the house had been occupied for years until quite recently by an elderly aunt, now in a nursing home. She also explained that the studio she worked for had drawn up some plans for remodeling the house, which the buyer was under no obligation to buy along with the property.
"You did say that it is ready to live in?" I inquired.
"Oh yes, except for a couple of minor details."
"Such as?" Already my dream had begun to fizzle out.
"We'll discuss that after you have seen the place."
We turned off now from the heavily trafficked two-lane road, onto a side road, lined indeed with giant cypress trees, leading across flat, parched fields. We passed a series of nondescript houses built of dirty grey stone, and came to a stop outside a three-story building, this too of dirty grey stone, where a narrow flight of stairs led up to an imposing porch. Above the porch hung a huge coat-of-arms sculpted in the same, grey stone. I recognized its heraldic symbols — it represented the noble Farnese family, once powerful landowners in Rome and Tuscia, but that coat-of-arms was the only aristocratic feature of this shabby little house surrounded by cement sheds and storehouses, rabbit hutches and chicken coops.
The house stood isolated in the middle of a barren field. There were no trees, bushes, or other vegetation in the vicinity, save an enormous oak tree, right next to the house, completely fenced in, encased in mesh to the very top, and supported by a series of props — presumably to keep it from falling over and crushing the roof.
"This is it?" I asked dubiously.
"Wait till you have seen the inside."
We went in through an arched door to a big, dark, and dank room on the ground floor. In the broad beam of the architect's torch, I saw it was festooned with spider webs suspended from the low wooden ceiling beams, from which came the unsettling sound of gnawing, voracious wood worms.
"This is the kitchen area."
The torch illuminated its spare furnishings: there was a wood oven all right, and a small iron wood stove, a long plank table, and a row of dusty, empty demijohns along one wall. A few bottles of tomato sauce were lined upon a shelf. It looked more like a cellar than a kitchen. Indeed there were no windows, and I quickly saw that there were no stairs connecting it to the upper floors, not even a trapdoor.
"The oven is original," she said proudly, pointing out the date 1785 chiseled in the blackened wall over the oven door. "And over here is another original feature hard to find these days."
She turned the beam of her torch upon a large rounded trough carved along one wall.
"That's where they soaked the laundry in ashes."
"Very interesting," I murmured politely. Evidently this had once been the house of Prince Farnese's washer woman.
"Wait till you have seen the upper floors."
We had to go back outside and up the stairs to reach the next floor. The door opened onto a tiny room, where a bed had been crammed along one wall, next to a fireplace. A kerosine lantern hung from a nail. This confirmed my suspicion that the house was not wired for electricity. A narrow, ancient ladder of rickety, unpainted wood led up about eight feet to the next floor.
"The other bedroom is upstairs," she said, pointing up the stairs. "Would you like to see it?"
There was no use in climbing up there and risking my life on that ladder. This was a house I wasn't going to buy, no matter how cheap it was, and besides I'd have needed a parachute to get back down again. Her aunty must have been a very nimble old lady indeed.
"I'm sorry, but it's not right for me. But please — " I said, suddenly looking around me, realizing something was missing, "where's the bathroom — I'd like to use it, if I may."
The architect widened her eyes and gave me a funny smile.
"Well, actually, there isn't one."
My puzzled expression prompted her to continue, "The addition of a bathroom is included in our plans. The pipes are all there, it's just the hook up to the city water and sewer lines that is missing," she hastily explained.
"Your aunt lived here without running water or a bathroom?"
"Oh yes, until last spring, But I assure you, the necessary pipes have been installed."
"How did she manage ?"
"My aunt is an old fashioned woman. She used a chamber pot." And as she pointed towards the bed, I now noticed that object discreetly tucked beneath the bed.
"Is it urgent?" She asked warily, "You can use it if you need to."
"No, it's all right, but I'd like to leave now."
"With our remodeling plans, hook up to the city sewer, water, and electricity, it only comes to a total of 60,000 euros. You can stop in at our studio to have a look at the plans, if you like."
"No, that's all right," I said as we made our way back outside, where we were greeted by a couple of straying chickens. She shooed them away and closed them in a pen.
"We've had several requests to show the place to investors from abroad. Now is the moment to make an offer, if you're interested."
"No thanks," I said, and I disappeared behind the oak tree to answer nature's call.