Over the years we’ve travelled fairly extensively in Italy, and each time we go, we tend to stay for four or five weeks at a time, staying in one or two places, so we can really try to get a feel for each place. We always stay in apartments, buy our food at the local markets, and just live. As a family we haven’t yet spent any time in Italy during the summer months, mostly because its the middle of winter in Australia, so we’re limited to the mid-year school holidays, which are not terribly long. But besides that, its a lot of money to spend on a peak-season airfare if you’ve only got 12 days to spend there.
For us, the shoulder season (April or September) or in winter represents much better value. There aren’t so many tourists, its just a bit easier to get around, and its cheaper to travel and to stay. The other thing is that as Aussies – we have long hot summers. We have great beaches and lots of time to spend at them. We don’t go to Europe for the beaches and hot weather – we go for the art, culture and history. All the things that we don’t have at home.
So last winter, we spent most of December in Rome, and then a couple of weeks in Orvieto, in Umbria. It was our first time in Umbria, and we had a bit of time to spare, so we decided to go on little reconnaissance and look at some properties while we were there.
As a Sydneysider, I’m used to hugely expensive property prices. In Sydney you’d be hard-pressed to find a 2 bedroom apartment anywhere close to the city for $500,000. There wouldn’t be much to choose from at that price, and you’d be competeing with every other first home buyer and investor for those few places. And those precious few apartments that are in that price range tend to be in areas with irregular public transport and probably wouldn’t have the convenience of being within walking distance of any shops or amenities.
On the fringe of the city or in rural areas, half a million dollars goes much further. The problem, for me, is that once you drive out of Sydney you say goodbye to decent coffee, restaurants, any kind of cultural life, social life, bookshops, or delicatessens. You become totally dependant on a car to get around, and the distances can be huge. If you love nature and isolation, its perfect. But that life is not for me.
In Umbria, a buyer with budget of half a million dollars (or around €320,000) to spend can choose the position they’d like to be in. An apartment in town? On the edge of a town maybe with a view, or with land around you? The choice is yours. We didn’t really know what we wanted when we started looking, and we still aren’t totally sure.
So, one day while we were in Orvieto, I contacted several estate agents, and it was Filippo from CasaItalia International who we decided to go with. We were clear from the start that we were not in a position to buy, but that we just wanted to see what was out there. After discussing our price range and hypothetical requirements with him, he chose a few properties from his books to take us to. They ranged in price from €230,000 to €500,000, with the most expensive apartment in need of the most work, and the cheapest needing only minimal work. It was a really interesting exercise, and we were very grateful for his time and expertise.
First, Filippo took us to see two apartments in Spello. He drove from his office in Spoleto to pick us up in Orvieto. Being in the middle of winter it was a very chilly misty day. We had looked on the map at the distances and they didn’t seem that far… but what we had completely failed to understand is that the Umbrian mountains are quite a barrier to east-west travel, which meant we had an hours drive or so to get back towards Spello, where the first two apartments were located.
We had never been to Spello before, but we’ve had friends go there in the summer and love it. That cold morning that we went, it all seemed eerily quiet, but incredibly clean and beautiful.
We looked at two homes in Spello. Both were family homes ~ both were far more spacious than any apartment I’ve ever seen in Sydney, with big windows, high ceilings and lots of storage space. They were both in good condition. We found in general that the central stairwell in both apartment buildings were very clean and spacious, and both had space to store a bicycle or two in the ground floor area. We asked who maintains these common areas, and were told that generally everyone looks after the common areas together. Its a communal effort. Wow!
Then we drove on to Spoleto. It’s a town built on a hillside, and has 11 escalators that take people to the upper heights of the town, while the train station is down the bottom of the hill.
We had two apartments to look at there, both needed work, but were very different propositions from the homes we’d seen in Spello. Both apartments in Spoleto had lots more original features, quirky arches and spaces, but they both required quite a lot of work to get them up to date.
What was really interesting was that we felt far more at home in Spoleto ~ there was much more happening there, more cafés, more restaurants open, more people about.
The last town apartment we looked at was in a recently restored mansion building, with what seemed like only one other home in the building, owned by an elderly lady, and it faced towards the Town Hall. It had been a ‘noble apartment’, meaning it had been originally built and owned by a Duke of Spoleto several centuries ago. It had been in their family for generations, so all the rooms were of very generous, grand proportions, with huge stone fireplaces, beautiful wooden panelled ceilings, internal and external shutters…. and it was filled with decrepit and filthy but gorgeous antique furniture (which if cleaned up and sold in Australia would probably fetch a small fortune) but it had stood empty for many years and was layered with years of dust and debris. It was difficult to see much as the electricity had been switched off and because it was such a grey day, but even in the dim light we could see the proportions, the beautiful original features.
It also had a huge cellar or workshop area, which once cleaned up would provide a great workshop or studio or music or games area.
But the whole place needed rewiring, new central heating, new windows, and lots of restoration work. Filippo told us that its very easy to get builders and tradesmen in Umbria and that they really needed the work, (just a crazy thought for us because in Sydney its just the opposite! Tradesmen are very expensive, can charge what they like if they turn up at all) so that was not going to be a problem at all.
This apartment hit all the right buttons for me, because it contains everything that is impossible to find in Australia. We liked that it had space for a studio or workshop, we loved the fine original features and the high ceilings. We liked that we could walk to get a coffee, or a meal, or a light bulb.
It really helped clarify for us what we want ~ even if that particular property itself required too much work for us to take on ~ that we want something with some original features, and within walking distance of all the things that makes Italy so wonderful for us.
That evening we parted company with our agent and walked back to Spoleto station to take the train back to Orvieto. We had much to talk about and were looking forwards to getting home ~ but once again, we didn’t factor in those lovely Umbrian mountains… we thought the train wouldn’t take too long… boy were we wrong! What we didn’t realise was that its impossible to take a train across the mountains, so we would have to take one train all the way to the south of the mountain range, get off, and then take another train on a different line north again to Orvieto. I think it took us almost 2 hours to get home that evening ~ and it really made us think about the logistics of getting around in Umbria. Such a beautiful place with those rugged mountains, but so difficult to get around. We clearly had to think about this a little more. Hmmm….