Conscious Incompetence: How Not to Buy A Small Italian Holiday Home

July 2, 2019

So, decision made. Buy a small holiday home in Italy. We'd continue our Art business in the UK and ease our way into Italy slowly over a few holiday trips - 'piano, piano' as they say. Culture Clash Comment - being told ' piano, piano' pi still irks with my natural style of racing into things at breakneck speed.

We had another ski trip planned in Cervinia with friends in March 2002 after which I'd travel on my own down by train from Torino to La Lunigiana (Northern Tuscany) to research the area with a real estate agent. 

Eva would fly back to the UK with our friends and re-open our business and collect Moley (our dog) and Beamish, Nobby and Finsbury (the cats) from their temporary lodgings. 

Last day of the ski trip, being an unrequited Punk I thought it would be a cool thing to shave my hair into a Mohican style - I got some decent glares on the slopes. So, job done. Because I couldn't expect to be taken seriously by the estate agent the next day looking like I did I needed to shave the whole thing off. Halfway through shaving off the crest the power went on my shaver and I hadn't brought the charger! 

I blustered into a barber's in town and explained in pigeon Italian 'I have a problem, help me'. The barber replied, "yes you do!" He refused to give me an appointment until next morning - dinner that evening in the posh pizzeria therefore was eaten wearing a hat.

Okay it wasn’t this hat, but you get the idea. aka subliminal product placement

Lesson 1. The more you push an Italian in a position of power, the worse it will get.

Me and my newly shaved head got horribly lost in Torino next day. Funny how big cities are even BIGGER when you get off the train at the wrong stop 5kms outside the center and several bus rides away from the one I should have got off at, Torino Porta Nuova!!

Lesson 2 - Read signs - they are there to help you

This is where I should have alighted.


This is where I did!!!

Ruffled, but not beaten I eventually headed to La Spezia from where I would get a taxi into rural Lunigiana. Once the train started to weave its way south along the Ligurian coast I was struck by the beauty of the coastline, its small towns and beaches all visible from the carriage - with people sunbathing on them IN MARCH!

Lesson 3. Italians will do anything to get to the beach.

Zoagli, railway over the beach!

I arrived at my hotel, The Gavarini in the castle town of Mocrone late that evening in the dark and enjoyed the most amazing dinner  - we are still to this day welcomed back like long lost family. 


Your hosts at the Gavarini Fabio and his mother Nadia.

Next morning when I stepped out I saw for the first time the natural beauty of Lunigiana 'The Land of 100 Castles'. Utterly, jawdropingly beautiful. Green, forested countryside, tiny medieval villages and the Apuans and Apennines as backdrops. OMG.

It really is this beautiful.

  Over the next 2 days I was escorted around various properties, some ruins, some habitable, some with elderly owners sat gawping at me! I narrowed it down to a short list of 3 and explained I wanted to present them all to Eva as soon as we could come back to Italy together. I even put in a provisional offer on one little place with the proviso that if Eva didn't like it, the offer (which was accepted), would lapse.

A couple of weeks later Eva and I were back in Lunigiana - all 3 properties failed Eva's 'nightie' test. They didn't offer the privacy required whenever she chose to wander around in her nightie. Much as I like to think otherwise, I am NOT the boss.

But as we toured around, getting to know the area better we found a deep connection with it and all that it offered. Rural bliss, a bit like the UK I grew up in might have offered 50 years ago we thought. Yet with Pisa and Parma and Lucca all less than an hour's drive away. 



Variation on the well known phrase… (photo credits @blushingfootsteps and and @shabbysheepdesign)

Firenze 2 hours - somehow that felt significant then, even though we never go there now. Too crowded dare I say it with tourists. Plus 35 minutes to the Gulf of Poets, Lerici, Portovenere and 60 minutes too to go skiing at Cereto. The thought of being able to go swimming nearby at such stylish towns really was important to us as was being able to hop in the car, hit the ski slopes then come home for dinner. N.B. in the 14 years we have lived in the area we have been to the coast to swim twice (we go frequently to eat and wander along the lungomare) and skied 3 times.



                                                                                                       Working Lunch at the Bocca di Magra

Are we imposters? No, priorities just evolved as you'll see if you stick with me. 

Lesson 4. - It's OK to Change Your Mind.

Over the next few months we kept coming back, looking for that elusive small holiday home. Until one day we found it. Only it wasn't small like you'd normally associate with smallness. It was a bloody great big ruined farmhouse totalling nearly 300m2 with land. 

Not a small holiday home



This ruin was nothing like what we were looking for, yet it was everything that we'd started to dream about - actually living in Italy rather than hopping on a plane every 3 months and then turning around and going back 'home' again. 

We wandered down from the ruin one evening past the old bell tower to the village cemetery. We looked at the photos of the people for whom this had been home for generations. It was like we wanted guidance or permission from them to enter their world. 

Sitting on a wall under one the important family tombs we hurriedly scribbled out the finances on the back of a fag packet (literally because I smoked back in those days - yuck!). To buy and renovate this place would mean selling our home in the UK, selling the business which we'd just created and loved. It would mean cashing in every penny of our savings. But Sterling was really strong against the Euro and so we felt kind of rich.

Lesson 5 - Exchange rates move. Exchange Risk can hurt worse than trapped wind.

Sterling : Euro 2003 - 2019

I think we trembled our way through dinner back at the Gavarini that night, and whatever wine we drank must have loosened our 'logic glands' sufficiently because Eva and I shook hands, hugged each other and ordered 2 grappas knowing that we had glimpsed the 'next chapter' in the 'book of our lives' and importantly that we wanted to carry on reading as fast as we could.

Lesson 6. When People say 'To Dream Costs Nothing' Slap them!

Our offer was accepted and within a few months we'd agreed plans on how we'd restore what we had named 'L'Olivo Piegato' - 'The Crooked Olive'. We should have called it the 'Bottomless Money Pit'!

Our house sold quickly in the UK as did our business. We rented the house next door to ours in the UK during the 2 year long renovation project.  Of note, as we neared our emigration date I embarked on a ridiculous plan (seemed ingeniously brilliant then) to import a used Left-Hand Drive Lancia Estate car I'd found going cheap in Belgium into the UK to emigrate with. I thought we'd look dead cool when we rocked up in Italy driving a classic local make. 

Ours was never this shiny.

What I hadn't bargained for was that the tachometer was calibrated only in km which made it illegal for the period whilst we were still in the UK. So, I ended up having to drive back to Belgium to purchase 'Export License Plates' which would see us through until I could get it re-registered in Italy (more on that next blog). Overnight in Brussels I unwittingly parked illegally outside my hotel and my 'illegal' car got towed away. Talk about my stress levels spiraling out of control. It took another day of negotiations with the Belgian Police before I was escorted on my way to buy the export plates and drive exhausted and full of self-loathing back to the UK.

Lesson 7. Don't make life more difficult than it needs to be.

Licence plates from hell.


It took six of them!

But eventually we were ready to go. Our final night in the UK was marked by a boozy pizza farewell with many friends some of whom the next morning cried as they waved goodbye to us, our dog and our shiny Lancia. (The three cats flew British Airways!) It was Thursday 7th May 2005. General Election Day. We didn't vote! But we had a strange feeling in our guts as we drove away to start our new lives. Maybe it was because the pizzas, like the politicians, were rubbish!

Liar liar, pants on fire!


At this point we were entering the Consciously Incompetent phase. (We were starting to understand the things that we knew little about).


I hope you will be able to join me next time as we start to ‘Live the Dream’! 



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