Tuscan Tales Chapter 6 – A Flickering Candle


The next morning Liam is up at 7am writing check lists for Jurgen’s phone call at 8am … which does come at 8am on the dot. Jurgen is to tell the agent that he will be involved with us for a set fee decided by Jurgen. Stefan will be the go-between and will get all the papers from the agent and give them to us. Jurgen will meet with us either in Italy or in Hamburg – the UK is about to go on a baggage strike.

We breakfast on the terrace. We see Stefan and arrange to go to his house after packing. Stefan takes the first bag down and I pack the wheelies. He does not return so I, with two room cleaners, take the bags down. I’m smiling and laughing, trying Italian, and thinking … ‘Maybe you will help clean our house one day, it’s just down the hill from here.’ I wait in the garden and allow myself to dream. Perfect, rounded thoughts … family, children swimming, pools, loggias

Can’t think, won’t think. What’s that? Won’t listen …

Liam is on the phone … ‘Yes, yes I quite understand Jurgen, and I wouldn’t expect anything else of you. Thank you for letting us know.’

We see Stefan raking up leaves on the tennis court. He cannot believe it. ’But’ he says in an impetuous burst, ‘It’s Jurgen’s decision, not the agents. I’ll phone him straight away.’

‘No Stefan,’ Liam says ‘You cannot do that. Jurgen is honour bound, and that I quite understand. Leave it alone. We have lost the house.’

We decide not to take the highway to Florence, but drive up the SS222. This ancient roadway, linking the main Chianti towns to Florence, is known as the Via Chiantigiana and is breath-taking. Simply everything I see confirms my dreams that we had the perfect location. Liam sees my stress and is so caring, so kind. I try to take myself in hand, what is the matter with me? It is, after all, only a house, and I am ashamed that I am so materialistic.

via-chiantigiana
Via Chantigiana (SS222)

Jim and Laura are at already at Fiesole, which is just above Florence, and have checked into our hotel. The hotel is modern, belying the brochure, and our rooms are not ready. They have flown 23 hours from Sydney and are exhausted. It’s boiling hot and we sit on the terrace and trade news. They are fascinated by our near-buy. Laura looks at her twin. ‘Come on.’ she says to Liam ‘Tomorrow, take us there. Let’s see what caught your heart so.’ Laura knows her twin.

The next morning we set off to show Jim and Laura what we so nearly had. We drive back south down the SS222, stopping at Greve-in-Chianti to show them the piazza, and then head straight down the bumpy track to Stefan, who knows we are coming.

The big Alsatian bounds out and we watch him play with the cat. Takes her in his mouth and gently teases her. The kitten gets tired and makes for the tree, she’ll stay there until fetched down. We walk past the old Italian’s higgledy-piggeldy confusion of rusty cars, old tools and washing. The old one, old Cosimo, is sitting on the swing seat in amongst the vegetables today. Faded rheumy eyes watch us as we pass … nothing much misses him, I guess.

Jurgen’s house is simply stunning today. The views have put on an extra effort, and the house nestles in around them. We spend ages there, then at Margarethe’s, then back. Margarethe’s slope is gentler than I had thought – some-one would do good to garden and clear from her terrace down.

We ask Stefan to join us for lunch and he suggests a ‘workmens’ café’ in Greve-in-Chianti  – away from the piazza and the tourist prices. It is called Casa del Popolo. Laura and I drive with him in his old green kombi, the Alsatian at our feet.

Ch 6 Greve-in-Chianti 2
The piazza at Greve-in-Chianti …

The café serves the best seafood soup I have ever had – tuna, octopus, calamari and shellfish in a thick tomato base. We swallow it down with a huge carafe of vino frizzante bianco – light and fizzy. Stefan tells us that he spoke to Jurgen last night. ‘Finally’ he says ‘It is up to Jurgen. The agent is not the sole agent, they have signed nothing, and no money has changed hands.’ But Liam is adamant – if Jurgen feels honour bound, then he must go through with it, and Liam is not prepared to ‘gazump’ or get into a bidding war.

And so we leave Stefan for the last time. He is still hoping to stay on with a better position at the hotel, but it is all too fragile. His wife is clearly pining to be back in Germany with the children near to family, friends and culture. Stefan’s dream will soon be sold too. But when? He has let us see half of it. It is not like Jurgen’s, and has a view of the messy complex below. From the sides the windows are small. The olives run up the hill behind the house. Yet all is free standing and it would be less of a nightmare for neighbours, noise and title deeds.

We explore a little further, deciding to show Jim and Laura the little church at the tiny hamlet of San Leolino. For a long time it stood lonely and derelict. Then a group of priests got permission from the diocese of Florence to restore the building and its community. Their brief is to reach the people through art and music. Throughout the summer there are small art exhibitions in the 11th century cloisters, and music recitals inside the church. Today it is quiet and peaceful, not like the buzz of the concert we attended last Sunday evening. I am not Catholic, but somehow I hang back and light a candle …

the little church at San Leolino
‘the little church at the tiny hamlet of San Leolino.’

Finally we are back in London. Liam has phoned Jurgen from his office, just for a friendly chat. It seems that Stefan had got it wrong, and the agent is much further down the deal than he realised. The buyers have a bond approved, and Jurgen will meet them to sign the ‘compresso’ (the deal) next week.

So, although we ‘owned’ a small place in Italy for 12 hours, it probably, actually, was not for sale …

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 5 – Dream A Little Dream …

it is wonderful country
‘It is wonderful country …’

The next morning we breakfast on the terrace of our hotel. It’s my Dad’s birthday today, he is 86. We telephone him in faraway Cape Town; tell him about the excitement of yesterday. He sounds as thrilled as we are. ‘We are going to Castellina-in-Chianti nearby, to a swimming pool place, Dad’, I say, ‘We just hope that we can get permission to put in a pool. Then we will drive on to Siena for lunch.’

‘There’s a little café on the upper side of the Campo, on the left.’ he says, ‘Have a cappuccino for me.’

‘How do you know about that cafe?’ I ask him.

‘I was in the Campo on Armistice Day’ he replies.

I never knew that. He must have been about 27 years old. He has never spoken about the War. Only about me. ‘Don’t think that just because the War ended on 8 May 1945, we all went home,’ he would say. ‘I was part of the mopping up operations in Italy and stayed on for many months. Then, when I finally got back to your beautiful mother, why there you were in your cot! At first I couldn’t get used to you at all … just thought you were in the way …’

Liam and I have talked practically all night. Apparently the owner, Jurgen, is on holiday and Stefan had promised to try and track him down. Will Jurgen really contact us? Will it be today?

What are the plusses? The house is in perfect condition with nothing to do. Most of the furniture goes with it and an old car too. The views are great. It is one hour to Florence by bus. It is under an hour and a half to Pisa Airport. It is in a cul-de-sac and, importantly, it has not had a burglary for twenty years. From what I could see any burglar would practically have to drive over old Cosimo’s feet to get to our front door … his place on his plastic chair is as good a look-out as you can get. There you go! We would have ADT onsite in the guise of an ancient and curious nosey-parker!

and an old car too
‘… and an old car too …’

What are the hitches? It is deep down the valley, not on top – but the views are pretty spectacular. Also, the access road is a shocker. Margarethe’s place, directly abutting, is for sale and who might we get as such a close neighbour? There is a division of the land directly in front, between Jurgen and Margarethe, so the slope on the downside would not be ours, but this land would be directly in front of us. Will the tight building restrictions mean that any form of swimming pool, other than a ‘portapool’ will be forbidden?

We head off for Castellina-in-Chianti and the ‘Big Blu’ pool company. The receptionist is friendly and helpful. ‘You need to go to the Municipal Office at Greve-in-Chianti’ she says. ‘Basically the minute you dig, you need approval. If you get approval then we do everything … we submit the plans and landscape the surrounds.’ Their brochure is stunning. I watch Liam discussing various pool options and he is in his element … we would have such fun!

There is a ring on Liam’s mobile phone. It is Stefan. He has got hold of Jurgen who said ‘Go through the agent’. The agent apparently has an Italian buyer, but there is no fixed agreement yet. Liam tells Stefan to go to the agent and tell him to firm his buyer up as there is another buyer willing to do a straight, clean deal.

Stefan wants us to come to the agent with him, but Liam says no. That will tempt the agent to play one buyer up against the other. Stefan goes off to the agent and rings us back: ‘The arrangement now is that Jurgen will ring the agent in two days’ time. Then either the agent’s buyer will formally meet with Jurgen to sign the compresso (the deal) or there is no sale.’

We then take a much needed ‘tourist break’ and do a 3 hour circuit from Castellina-in-Chianti … on to  Radda … and then running up the SS69 to Figline and straight across through Lucolena to Greve-in-Chianti.

It is wonderful country, but a lot of it is wooded and I am glad to get back to the more open fields of Greve and Panzano. It’s 4pm, boiling hot, and we go down to Stefan again. The hammock is empty, but the black Alsatian runs out barking. We walk down to Jurgen’s house, waving to Pasquale on the way.

the hammock is empty
‘… the hammock is empty …’

We sit on the steps in the shade and Stefan comes along. He was to show us his house today, but won’t as he has still not washed the dishes. I do not want to see it – it is also for sale, but only at the end of the summer, when he will have to leave. I feel so sorry for him. His work has not worked out and his wife is homesick for Germany. It is clear that he loves this place passionately. His house is a free standing house, set above the big old stone house, and another possibility, but oh! Hope! We trudge slowly back up the hill in the evening heat, chatting as we go …

Basically all now hangs on Jurgen, the agent and his buyer. There is not much we can do. In Greve and in Castellina, just to do our homework, we had looked at agencies selling properties in the area. In Greve Liam was cross, telling me that I was sullen, as I would not even look at what they had to offer … but it was rubbish at twice the price. We liked the agent in Castellina though, Daisy O’Molony from Ireland, but she offered us a two bed flat with a communal pool for a ridiculous price. Go to hell! I’m dreaming olive groves

Once more we are sitting on a terrace, but this time at a restaurant high in the hills above Greve called Ristoro di Lamole. From where I am sitting the evening light seems to be having a game of hide and seek with the tall cypress trees – long thin finger-like rays reach out, bend a little, twist a bit around a branch, then suddenly pop out on the other side. All around there is silence, and I feel as if I am being slowly and deliciously hypnotised.

'once more we are sitting on a terrace'
‘Once more we are sitting on a terrace …’

We do not get these long evenings in South Africa, and I wonder if my children, who are so far away across the world, could learn to love these clear demarcations of the seasons as much as I do …

Suddenly the silence is shattered by the shrill ring of the mobile phone. It is a phone call from Jurgen. We’re there! We have a ‘small place in Italy’! Jurgen has grown tired of the buyer introduced through the agent and has decided to drop them because of all the procrastination. He will fax Liam the plans tomorrow at our hotel in Florence, and from there move on to a mutual meeting – essential in Italian property transactions. He says that he is retired, and he can come to London, or we can meet him in Hamburg. Meanwhile he will ring Liam at 8am tomorrow to discuss immediate details.

Ristoro di Lamole’s meal is lovely – some sort of cheese and antipasti, the Chianti rabbit for me … will we need to return here annually? Drink champagne?

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 4 – Jurgen’s House

Jurgen’s house … one step inside and I know I’ve found it! It is exactly right. As it was the cattle wing, it juts out southwards, with the main house behind it. The front door is a massive arch, used for wagons to come in and out. We walk into a terracotta tiled hall with stairs leading to our right. A tiny passage leads past an arched enclave, ‘Where the cattle feed was mixed’ says Stefan.

I go further, down three steps, and simply sit down, trying to let it all sink in. All around there is light and views – to the east through huge arched double glass doors onto a vineyard sloping vertically upwards, to the west a mirror image of the doors, with views across a valley onto a ploughed field and a house on the top of the ridge. Straight ahead, to the south, two arched windows lead my eyes through the woods and to the valley below. I am sitting on a raised ‘spit’ of land with a 180 degree view all around me.

‘That’s it. We’ll have it.’ I say.

‘But you haven’t even been upstairs!’ Stefan’s voice is incredulous, disbelieving.

‘I don’t have to,’ I say. ‘I could sit right here and never move again.’

Liam looks at me. It’s a long, measured, and sombre look from those intelligent brown eyes that I know so well. He turns to Stefan. ‘Well, where do we go from here?’ he says. ‘How do we go about it?’

‘Well, let’s look over the remainder of the house, and then we will talk,’ Stefan says.

The rest of the house is just as good. There are two double bedrooms upstairs, with the same gorgeous views, and a small bathroom with one of those continental hip baths usable only if you are a contortionist.  ‘Lovely,’ I say, ‘All lovely. Two bedrooms are just fine.’ I say.

‘Too bad we have five children,’ I think ‘We’ll just stack them up the walls.’ I’m clearly not thinking straight at all … did Liam really say we’d buy it? No-one has even mentioned a price. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes in life you know that something is right, and I know that this house is right. It is in perfectly good condition so that Liam’s nightmare of restoration will not come true. It is also small and manageable. Because it was the cattle wing, the big house tucks behind it, making this section part of the community of the house, and yet peculiarly private.

Neither of us would have wanted a large free-standing house in ‘Chiantishire’ where we would only speak English, getting little chance to mix with neighbours. In this house we will either speak Italian or nothing. Nobody can even say hello.  But best of all, the owner has neglected the garden for 35 years. Liam will literally be able to ‘grow a garden’ from scratch. Plan it, landscape it, and work in forever.

Back downstairs we walk onto a small terrace facing east. It is enclosed by a low bay hedge and the view is simply stunning. There’s a small blue tractor working the vines, buzzing up one line and down another.

the view is simply stunning
‘… the view is simply stunning …’

‘Oh’ says Stefan, ‘I’ve forgotten to show you the apartment.’

What?’ we say.

‘There’s an apartment attached to the house,’ he says ‘It’s between Margarethe’s terrace and Jurgen’s front door. You have to go up some steps. We go now.’ Up narrow stone steps there are some ancient dark wooden doors – ones with huge black hinges and a solid bolt. We open up and walk into a small hallway. To the right are steep, wooden circular stairs. ‘Mind your head at the top.’ says Stefan. Once up there is a small door, so low that it has had to be cut according to the slope of the roof. We duck our heads and suddenly find ourselves in the most enormous room. It is simply gigantic.

Stefan walks across and opens the shutters. Light floods in, bringing the same vineyards and little blue tractor back into view. There’s an old black wrought iron bed and a large chestnut wardrobe opposite. The floor is a sort of mottled yellow and black stone, rather like the floors on the older tube stations in London. ‘This room may have been a sitting room once,’ explains Stefan. ‘These floors are common from that era, and with the cattle living below, the warmth would drift upwards in the winter time.’ Off this room there is a small kitchenette. ‘Wouldn’t matter if we had ten kids in here,’ I think happily.

Once out of the house Stefan shows us the extent of the land. In front of Jurgen’s section there is an access ‘ring’ track at the bottom of the slope. It leads only to the eastern side, to Margarethe’s other terrace.  Jurgen owns the top half down towards the track and Margarethe owns the bottom half. Both are a fair size, south facing with a gentle slope. There is further land to the west.

This land would be ours. It is about two hectares running down to a stream, and away down the valley. It is a tangled mass of brushwood and thorns and one can barely see the tips of the olives sticking out of the top. ‘Pasquale has always wanted to clear this,’ says Stefan ‘he wants to restore the old olive grove, but for some reason Jurgen would never let him.’

'... a tangled mass of brushwood and thorns ... olives sticking out of the top.'
‘… a tangled mass of brushwood and thorns … olives sticking out of the top.’

We turn back, walking slowly up the slope. I drop back and walk on my own. All around me are white cabbage butterflies, dipping in and out of the rosemary and lavender. Now and then giant bumble bees land on the blue flowers. I watch one of them land and take off again, heavy with nectar. ‘Maybe,’ I think ‘Just maybe … I can have my very own apiary, and my own bees will be busy working, gathering honey to fill my very own bottles?’

Ahead of me, Liam and Stefan have their heads down, discussing the logistics of a sale.

 

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 3 – Stefan’s Story

down through an avenue of tall cypress trees
“… down through an avenue of tall cypress trees …”

It turns out that he is not Italian after all. He is German and his name is Stefan. He is living with his young wife, Ingrid, and their two small sons, in his father’s house. They are trying to start a ‘Walking in Tuscany’ business. It has not gone well this summer, and he is working at the hotel to supplement their income.

‘About 30 years ago,” he says, “my father and two of his friends, Jurgen and Margarethe, bought into this valley. They bought part of a massive old Tuscan farmhouse in need of repair, and a small freestanding house above.  Our family took the freestanding house, and Jurgen and Margarethe turned their section of the big house into two separate dwelling units -there were already two local families living in the back section.

Last year my father had a stroke, and he will never return to this valley. I would love to buy our house, but have five brothers and sisters to pay out and could never afford to do it. Shortly after my father’s stroke, Margarethe’s closest Italian friend died, and she feels that she can no longer come here from Germany. Now Jurgen has said that if his dear friends are not to be here, he has no wish to come back either.’

By this time we have bumped our way to the bottom of the hill, crossed a dormant stream and are making our way back up the valley on the other side. Stefan’s house is clearly visible above us, a pretty stone building with old terracotta tiles on the roof.  ‘I can’t take you into my house right now.’ he says, ‘Ingrid and the boys are in Germany and I have not washed the dishes.’

an old stone building of enormous proportions comes into view
“… an old stone building of enormous proportions comes into view …”

The road curves round again, and then down through an avenue of tall Cyprus trees. As the line of trees ends, an old stone building of enormous proportions comes into view. It’s rather like a double-storied shoe-box. Tiles seem to be slipping off the back roof, and black electrical wires lie around like spaghetti.

There appears to be some sort of building in progress, but no-one is around. To the right is a higgledy-piggeldy array of washing, scratching hens, abandoned vehicles and a skinny old dog on a chain. Liam and I glance at one another dubiously. Stefan parks the car, and attempts to explain the configuration.

higgledy piggledy
“… higgledy piggledy …”

‘Originally it was one enormous house,’ he says. ‘Now it has been divided into four sections. Think of it in terms of the compass – of north, south, east and west. We’ve parked on the northern side.’ He points, ‘This north-eastern section belongs to Marcello and Martina. They live and work in Florence and come here every week-end.’  We follow the track down the western side. The road narrows to almost path-like status. There’s a front door with a tatty old curtain hanging in front of it, and an old man sitting on a white plastic chair in a white vest and plaid carpet slippers.

His face breaks into a grin when he sees Stefan. ‘Buorngiorno, come stai?’ he says.  “Good morning, how are you?”

‘There’s absolutely no English spoken here,’ says Stefan as he translates for us. ‘Old Cosimo’s family have lived here for years. He was once the Head Porter on the Florence Railway.’

‘Si, si’ nods Cosimo proudly, ‘Yes, yes! I have the certificate on my wall, in my house.’

‘These days the only member of the family working on the land is Cosimo’s son-in-law, Pasquale. He too was a porter on the Florence railway, but he is blind in one eye, and has had to take early retirement … now the other eye is going. Dove e?’ asks Stefan. ‘Where is he?’ ‘He’s up in the top olive groves,’ says Cosimo ‘working on his tractor.’

We walk on down to the section owned by Margarethe. It faces east, but there’s a small terrace and a door on the south side. Stefan has the key, and in we go. It is enormous and pretty dark. No-one seems to have been there for ages and I feel just as if I have turned back a page and entered the rest of Miss Havisham’s house.

Good stuff is all around me, full of cobwebs …  persian rugs on stone floors, leather armchairs pulled up to a fire, ashes still in the grate, and ancient musical spinnet across the corner. There is a cavernous dining-room, a kitchen to the right and what could be an entire apartment with steps leading down to a cellar. Upstairs there are at least four bedrooms, with beautiful old wooden cupboards and chests of drawers, huge wrought iron beds and interesting books, mostly German. Even higher there is a huge studio – the only room with any significant light. There is no real outlook, apart from the patio and the place is daunting.

‘The thick walls and narrow windows keep the heat out in summer,’ says Stefan, ‘Tuscans don’t mind having no view. They live with it all around them all day, and prefer their houses well insulated. These old houses are all listed, and planning is strict. You would never get permission to open up any exterior wall in this valley.’ We leave via the front door, through lovely glass and iron, and drop down stone steps to …

 

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