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Window on Italy

Colleen joined the Slow Travel Talk forums as "Colleen in Umbria" on January 26, 2010 after advertising with us for over a year. It soon became apparent that Colleen had a lot to share about life in her area of Umbria and we approached her about writing her stories for us in a column. She agreed and within two months submitted over four stories. We hope you enjoy them.


Colleen Simpson

It was the dream of course! Isn't it always? I had always thought I would be an expat someday, but forks in the road of my life did not permit. Then one day I woke up 50 years old and a yearlong reckoning began in earnest. By that time I had already introduced my husband, Tom, to Europe when we took our honeymoon to Umbria in 1993 some ten years earlier.

I had lived in France in the mid-sixties, in Scotland in the early-seventies, and had traveled all over Europe and North Africa. Our honeymoon was the first time I had been to Italy. We succumbed to the inevitable seduction by Italy, and particularly by Umbria, within hours.

That first night we zipped up the A1 Autostrada from Fiumicino in our little Fiat bound for a honeymoon tower in Montefalco. When we entered the glowing torch-lined path to the Villa Pambuffetti (www.villapambuffetti.com), it was like opening the first page of a fairy tale. From the glorious May evening, balmy and filled with the scent of jasmine in the air, wandering the medieval streets in search of a late meal, the "slice of heaven" that that meal became, to the full bottle of Sagrantino wine we consumed, we were not only in love with each other, we were hooked on Umbria! We traveled often to Italy: exploring Umbria, Tuscany, Liguria, Le Marche and Lazio over the course of our extended honeymoon years.

In our travels we found we were hooked on experiencing life in medieval hill towns instead of the touristy bullet points in guidebooks. But it was my middle-age "reckoning" that brought us to our dream. We determined that we wanted to live in Italy and become innkeepers or manage a spot for travelers to experience authentic Italian life. For over ten years we looked at real estate on each visit. Exploring a 6th century tower with no floors (which I thought had remarkable possibilities, but my husband was put off by the meter-wide crack up the side), an abandoned cloister (couldn’t figure out how to use the rooms), and an almost restored farmhouse (too isolated), we pursued our goal with relentless enthusiasm. Our dream grew harder and harder to achieve, as prices rose and the dollar declined.

Finally, in April, 2004, we booked a flight to Ancona to explore Le Marche region where we might find more space for our investment. Just a few days before departure, I sat down to my computer to look, longingly, one more time in Umbria. About six pages back in Google I found a geometra's (an Italian surveyor/construction supervisor) website with real estate listings that had an icon titled "industrial archeology." What on earth was "industrial archeology?"

The icon opened and I knew in an instant that our search was over! Here was a huge abandoned glass works on four levels, built on the 9th century walls of a perched and pristine Umbrian village on the border of Tuscany. The most ancient lowest level in the village wall was settled by Venetian glass maestros in 1292, starting a thriving glassmaking tradition that has lasted 750 years. This founding glass works was built up in the 16th century at street level with a huge place for working the glass and another level for many ovens. At over 940 square meters with a soaring two and half story ancient arch intact, and a 9th century defensive tower, it was an amazing space!

I telephoned Italy immediately to book an appointment to view it upon our arrival. And so it was that during an April thunderstorm, we drove like crazed people over the mountains from Le Marche to Umbria, just west of Perugia to see this marvel, arriving just at dusk to meet Giovanni, the geometra, and Mario, the owner. That first evening with the aid of Mario’s flickering flashlight, we climbed over debris, carefully walked along joists where the floor was missing, dodged the mummified remains of a village cat and crawled up a ladder to the top of the tower. The next day in daylight it only got better! Tom, who loves to negotiate, knew his goose was cooked when I started bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm! The price was so reasonable compared to what we had seen in all our searching that we signed the "preliminario" (the preliminary agreement before the purchase) within a few days. We marveled that we managed to land just an hour away from our honeymoon village of Montefalco that had begun our dream.

Andrea, Tom, Colleen, Mario and Giovanni Celebrate the Preliminario

Andrea, Tom, Colleen, Mario and Giovanni Celebrate the Preliminario

The odyssey we took to restore this gem is the stuff of more stories: how we met the mayor within days of arrival, were welcomed into a beautiful village, adopted by four generations of a warm Umbrian family, struggled to finish a massive restoration in time for arriving guests, vaulted months of red tape with the help of our amazing "fixer", the geometra who became our dear friend, and are now continuing to discover what "living our dream" actually means.

With these stories, I will share my own reality, much like a mosaic of brilliant ancient glass overlaid with the patina of true grit: life in a small village. I will take you with me as I explore the historical sites in Umbria and Tuscany that are so near and discover the meanings beneath the layers of that first romance with our dear, sometimes inscrutable, Umbria.

Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests.

© Colleen Simpson, 2010

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