Wow! My friend Trish and I just came home from a whirlwind tour of several cities in Italy. Each one has its particular charm but Florence leaves me breathless every time.
Anyone who has been to Florence or who has an obsession for quality purses and handbags knows that Florentine leather products are world renown for their quality and craftsmanship.
The reason for this is that the craftsmen who create these dreamy products have all been well trained and apprenticed and, many times, has family who have done this type of work for a long time.
Walter Moretti at Pelletteria Moretti in Florence is no exception.
When I first launched my website, Chasing La Bella Vita, I wanted to sell quality leather handbags online. I had come over to Florence to scout out a supplier so that I could get super high quality products for a good price.
I had been all over Florence on a bike and had talked to many people in the various shops. None of them were at all interested.
I was about to give up when I happened to ride by Signore Moretti’s shop just as he was going outside to get some air. He was wearing a leather apron which halted me in my tracks. It was a good sign.
I went in and and started looking around. The first thing I noticed was that the designs in this shop were different than the cookie cutter cutout designs I had seen in all the other shops. It was like they had all stuck to the same design for years. In fact, when I go back to Florence and see the stalls on the street or the shops near the monuments, I see the same designs I saw when I first visited Florence many years ago.
The second thing I noticed was the palpable quality of the leather that Signore Moretti uses. You could tell just by touching it that Signore Moretti used super high quality leather for his designs.
After having looked and liking what I saw, I asked Signore Moretti about selling his bags online. At that point he sat me down and gave me a whole lesson on how to find great quality in handbags.
He went over each handbag point by point and explained the work and the attention to detail that went into crafting such a beautiful work of art.
He then would not sell me any handbags until I promised to go out and about and really look at the handbags I found in the other shops and the stalls.
After my primer on handbags, I did not even have to look closely to see the obvious differences in quality.
Signore Moretti advised me that many of the products you find on the street in Florence are mass produced and the quality can be very poor. I observed this for myself by looking them over and finding blemishes and cuts in the leather that would never be found in a Moretti bag.
I came back to his shop and purchase a bunch of handbags to take home and sell.
In the end, I decided against selling the handbags on Chasing La Bella Vita and many of them became gifts for people in my life. Everyone I have ever given one of these bags to has been overjoyed to get it and have ended up loving it for years.
And of course, I kept a lot of them. I mean how can you give the best ones away?
I have one of his adorable little round bags with a bow on it in gray. It goes beautifully with a black dress and breaks up the too much blackness problem with a slight change in color. Very classy!
I also have one of his little jewel box bags with the toggle on the front. Mine is in red and black and is perfect for evenings out. Again, it pairs beautifully with black dresses of which I own many.
This time, I did buy gifts for friends and family members. And of course I bought gifts for myself because why would I not?
I got a beautiful perfectly crafted square bag in bright orange and a gorgeous purse in teal with stunning details.
I just can’t help myself! I love his bags so much that I am like a kid in a candy store. Even with my giant suitcase full, I was thinking about the little bright green bag with the bow on it and trying to figure out how I could squeeze another trip to Moretti’s before my train left. Obsessive? absolutely!
Confession time! My friend and I had to purchase a huge wheelie suitcase we named Big Red just for all the gifts to ourselves and others we brought home. Happily she was booked into first class and was able to check Big Red for free. Big Red is now available for future trips to Florence and this is a good thing.
When you go to Florence, do yourself a favor and go see Walter Moretti and his wonderful family. They are lovely people and you will be dazzled by his works of art. And his prices are really super reasonable considering the passion, attention to detail and quality that goes into every handbag.
Oh and buy yourself a Big Red, you are going to need it.
I have been in Santa Domenica Talao all week and if you have been following me on Facebook and Youtube, you know I have been up to some really fun and cool things and I am designating a portion of this blog “Ruin Flippers”.
To start off with, I have been working with our village architect and contractor on renovations for the house my husband and I purchased in 2011.
When we bought our place here in Santa Domenica, it was a good sized apartment but we needed more bedrooms. So we purchased the ruin that is attached to our place with the idea that one day we would fix it up.
Initially we were thinking of making the ruin into a separate apartment but then we decided that it would be much more practical if we opened up the wall between our living room and the ruin and expanded our current living space.
This gives us an open plan living area and a new kitchen while freeing up the existing kitchen to be a good sized bedroom. Ultimately we will have two more bedrooms, another bathroom and another balcony with sweeping views of the sea.
Soooo I met with Antonello the architect and one thing led to another. In the end we are getting a roof terrace as well and another storage and laundry room up top.
For a better picture of how this will roll out, please see my Youtube video as I walk you through the house and explain the changes.
Knowing that we are renovating our house, Antonello, the village architect and incredibly smart historian insisted that I see the inside of the massive ruined palace that sits at the top of the village overlooking what used to be the original piazza.
Our village is actually upside down from what it used to be. The old piazza used to be at the top back of the village and overlooked the mountains. The newer one is in the front and overlooks the Mediterranean.
In its heyday, the ruined palace overlooked the piazza and the little alleyway that ran down from the upper piazza to the church. The alleyway was filled with shops and stalls all the way down and as you walk down from the top today following it, you can see how it might have looked.
The front door of this ruin is actually located on the opposite side from the road leading up to it and half way down a little alleyway.
The palace is a block long, multiple levels and God knows how many square meters.
Antonello took us in through the locked door that opened onto a small courtyard. On your right were the old stables (The stables were placed under the residences so that the body heat from the animals rose and helped keep the upper floors warm in Winter. One can imagine that the smell also rose with it which gives you a slightly unwelcome glimpse into what life there might have been like back then)
Going up the from steps, the front door opened into a large entryway with a huge hallway/living space beyond it. And as you walk in, you step back in time to the late 1890’s when this palace was in its original grandeur.
For now, the beautiful terrazzo floors are covered with dust. The original furniture remains along with the teapots and dishes.
A sofa that was new in the 1950;s looks oddly out of place next to the walls that have been standing since the medieval period.
As you walk through the grand hall to the front of the house, you enter a huge drawing room big enough to be a ball room.
In front are two large balconies overlooking what used to the the main piazza and the center point of the village.
The walls are covered with bright red wallpaper which, upon close inspection of the newspaper backing it, reveals a date of 1960’s when the wall paper was added to dress up the space.
The floors however were the most beautiful part of this huge room. Again covered with decades of dust, the tile floor is a complex pattern of painted tiled put together to look like a fine carpet.
Although the floor is covered with dust, you can look at the walls, the furniture left in the other rooms, the chandelier that has been promised to the church in the new piazza, and see exactly what this room once looked like. It was grand and beautiful.
As Antonello took us on a walking tour through the house he pointed out pictures on the wall.
One picture was a daughter of the owner. Antonello told us her sad history and her photo shows a sadness that is frozen in time here on a wall in the corner of the hallway.
As we made our way through, more photos were revealed, again frozen in time and miraculously still attached to the walls waiting for someone to collect them.
According to Antonello, the owners of the house want to sell it and sell it for cheap. They understand the amount of work it would take to repair and restore this beauty and it is a labor of love that Antonello showed it to me in the hopes that I might help him find the perfect someone who wants to restore a beautiful place in the a perfect little hill town in Santa Domenica Talao, Italy and live there.
This place would make a stunningly beautiful home for someone who wants to live in a place where life is piano, piano, love and community are still important and where food, art, architecture and beauty reign supreme.
If you are that special person, please contact me. The asking price is peanuts and I know the local builder. Antonello would love to set his considerable talents to work redesigning the spaces so that they work for a modern lifestyle.
In the end you could own a palace that takes up an entire block at the top of a stunningly beautiful village in Calabria for less than you would pay for a crappy condo in San Jose, California.
And if you want to join the ranks of Ruin Flippers, you could live here in Santa Domenica Talao, in the most beautiful village in the world.
If you are interested in purchasing any property (And there are many) I am offering a consulting package. Your flight, your accommodations, your train tickets, your rental car, your real estate agents and tours and translation in Calabria with architects, builders and legal counsel will be included. I will personally show you around and arrange everything. Most of the amazing properties I have seen recently in our village are not on the Italian multiple listing service
If ruins do not appeal to you, there are renovated properties available that are so cheap you could almost put them on a credit card. .
They are very affordable and have magnificent views of mountains or the sea. It is a buyer’a market right now so a great time to buy.
For advice on moving to Italy, please check out my interview with Bonnie Gale Oliver. She gives you a glimpse of life in the village and valuable advice on how to make the move.
And stay tuned for detailed pictures and videos of our own renovation projects. We are renovating our house and eyeing a property that would make fabulous BNB. We are ironing out the details right now but we will soon be in full swing.
See you there!
PS for more photos and reasons to chuck your life and move to Italy, check out my blog post on why Calabria is such a great retirement destination.
Who has not dreamed of uprooting their life and starting completely fresh in a foreign land? Many people think and dream of this but how many really do it? How do you move to Italy?
Generally, one thinks about it, maybe researches a bit online and then gives up because between learning the language, learning an entirely new culture and completely undoing one’s life and redoing it elsewhere is just, well, overwhelming.
And one has no model to follow. One simply scrunches up one’s eyes and dives in hoping they can learn fast enough to avoid a major disaster. Or one just doesn’t do anything and regrets it.
That is why, during my recent jaunt to Calabria, I asked my new neighbor and friend Bonnie Gale Oliver to sit down and let me interview her.
She graciously did and as soon as Pete has edited it to make me look thin, it will be up and available.
In the meantime, some of her tips were so important that I thought I would give you a brief preview.
What makes one decide to pull up roots and start all over somewhere else?
In Bonnie’s case it was a love of travel and a love for Italy. For the last several decades she was a nurse and had limited time off. Travel to Europe takes a couple of days each way. A week off is not enough time to see much of anything. When you do, it is through a blur of jet lag so that you can barely remember what you did see.
If one really wants to spend a lot of time exploring Europe, it just makes sense to either live somewhere where travel to the rest of Europe is manageable, or to buy a place there.
Bonnie found what Pete and I found, that Calabria is the perfect jumping off point for all of Europe. The airport is a train ride away and all of Europe is a short flight away.
Is living in a medieval Italian hill town a hardship?
In America, when you mention hundred years old houses, people cringe. Pictures come to mind of money pits filled with termites, water damage and other costly nightmares.
In our village, the houses are hundreds of years old. Pete and I recently found out that our house was built in 1642 and was part of one of the grand mansions in the village. It took up an entire city block.
There is very little wood rot because there is very little wood. The massive walls are made of stone and leftover building materials from centuries ago. There is no earthquake damage where we are because the houses in the city center are like a honeycomb of dwellings that lean on each other for support.
During our renovations I asked our contractor about escape routes in case of fire. He looked at me like I was mad.
We don’t have house fires in our village. Everything is stone and brick, Ceilings are held up with metal beams.
Any time we leave our place there, we simply shut of the water and electrical and go. It is the easiest thing in the world.
In Summer the two feet thick walls hold in the cool and in Winter they hold in the heat.
Our village has a butcher, a pharmacy, a doctor, and two little grocery stores. Everything you need for every day life is there.
If you need or want more, there is a huge Conad market down the hill in Scalea that has more than what you would find in a supermarket here in California.
In addition to all the things you would expect in an American supermarket, they have varieties of fresh cheeses, beautiful produce, gluten free selections and a cafe with amazing food to eat in or take out.
If that were not enough, we have a bar in the piazza where you can buy a perfectly brewed cappuccino or espresso and a warm, freshly baked croissant filled with cream or marmalade. Is the afternoons fresh gelato is served at the tables set outside in the shade of the church tower.
On the corner of our village sits a fabulous restaurant where you can watch the sun set over the Mediterranean while enjoying freshly made pasta dishes, oven fired pizzas with fragrant mozzarella di bufala and my favorite, impossibly light and delicious zucchini fritters that make my mouth water just thinking of them.
Is the language a problem?
In southern Italy not everyone speaks English. For that matter not everyone converses in Italian all the time. Many of the older residents in our village speak dialect which is a mix of Greek, French, Spanish and Italian thrown in for color.
That said, most of the younger residents speak pure Italian and recently I have met several young kids who learned English in school. They looked eager to try it out on us. It was nice to converse in either language with the idea that we are helping each other get to the point where conversation will someday flow easily.
In any case, when you need to communicate, there is a huge desire to understand you. Phone apps come out that translate in real time, Italian charades are performed, many times to gales of laughter and in the end, all is well.
In addition, you learn quickly if you open yourself up to it and make an effort.
Bonnies tells me that she and her sister Carolyn are going to be attending the free Italian classes offered to foreign residents. Our other friend Kathryn attended these classes and her Italian is flawless (In my opinion).
What about the Italian Bureaucracy?
There is no question that certain things in Italy are done a certain way. In our interview, Bonnie tells us about her adventures getting her residency status, registering her car and next she will get her Italian drivers’ license.
The beautiful thing is that many of the neighbors who know all the ins and outs, have given her advice and helped her in each of these endeavors.
What do you do for fun?
Bonnie and her sister Carolyn want to travel. the train station is just down the hill from our village and from there you can go pretty much anywhere in Italy, or even in Europe.
From where we are, Sicily is a hop and a skip, Reggio Calabria, a much overlooked destination is half a day away. The ruins at Paestum, one of the most beautifully preserved ancient Greek cities is two hours. Naples is two hours on the train and Rome is five hours.
If you do not want a train ride, our area is studded with little jewel hill towns, each with its own character and charm. Take your camera and good walking shoes and you can discover some of the most beautiful views, stunning churches and picturesque villages. It is a photographer’s dream come true.
A lunch at one of the fabulous restaurants sets you up for another tour of a different glittering hill town. Each town has its rich history and its warm and wonderful people.
I can’t wait for Pete to put the finishing touches on our interview. I loved talking with Bonnie and I love watching it over and over because I get more great information every time.
Please watch for it and when you have seen it, send me a note letting me know what you think.
And, as always, if you want to plan a trip, let me know. I would love to put it together for you.
And if you want more reasons to retire in Calabria, read this blog post. See you there!
If you are reading this then you are likely a foodie, not just any foodie but a real true believer, a foodie who would move heaven and earth for a great meal. You plan your trips around the meals you foresee. In Winter you pore over glossy food porn magazines anticipating your Summer trips because you, like every Italian, know that life affords you a certain set number of meals before you die and that to waste even one of them would be a sin.
You have come to the right place. Pete and I love to eat. We love great food and understand it as an art form. We don’t eat to plug ourselves up or to keep going. We eat because it is a religious experience.
This is one of the reasons we chose Calabria as our second home. The food here is unrivaled anywhere even, dare I say it, in the North.
Calabrian food is strong. The flavors meld perfectly and it is the last word in comfort food.
I could wax lyrical all day about it but it is best to show you. And what better way than over lunch?
Il Ristorante Di Aligia, Maiera, Calabria, Italy
Pete and I are starting the renovation process for our ruin in Santa Domenica Talao. When we purchased the house here, we bought the ruin next door and are finally ready to fix it up.
After an exhausting morning of trying to translate plumbers, electricians, general contractors and tile vendors, we took off up the hill from the main drag along the coast and headed to Maiera.
Il Ristorante Di Aligia is a bit of a trek but once you get there, you know you have entered paradise.
The restaurant is set mid a beautiful sculpture garden with flowers and plants everywhere.
The Summer heat can be oppressive in Calabria but up on the hill, on a verandah shaded by trees and plants, the breeze is gorgeous.
I ordered grilled chicken. The waiter told me that it would take awhile so he started us out with zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese, fish and some other heavenly substance all lightly floured and fried. These were accompanied by magical little loaves of vegetable “polpetti” which, God knows how they are cooked but they are magnificent.
Since no one wanted us to go hungry even for a little bit, slices of home made toasts covered with tomatoes came to keep us company along with their best friends, spicy Nduja which also my new best friend.
Shortly thereafter Pete’s plate of fusilli with goat arrived along with my grilled chicken, fries and grilled vegetables.
And the fun began!
Restaurante Di Aligia is a true find. It rivals top notch restaurants anywhere in the world and the bill including everything we had, home made cedrocello and my espresso was all of 29 Euros.
Al Caminetto, Tortora, Calabria
I have to admit that I am biased. The restaurant is owned by the cousin of our great friend Giacomo and I have fallen in love with Roseangela and her family. She is an angel in a white apron who cooks like one imbued with divine grace.
Our first visit there, Giacomo ordered traditional Calabrian dishes for us to sample.
This was the first time I had tasted Baccala, the dried cod that is magically rehydrated into the most amazing dish anyone could ever experience. The dish consists of the baccala, capers, olives, something magic, something else magic and something else magic.
This is also where I fell in love with Arancini, seasoned red rice, stuffed with meat, formed into a ball or a pear shape (oddly “arancini” means “oranges” in Italian and they look like pears) and (get this!) rolled in seasoned bread crumbs and fried.
When these little monsters are made correctly they transport you immediately to heaven where angels sing and play on their harps. Crispy, crunchy, soft, aromatic and filled with magic.
Additionally Roseangela creates her own pasta and for a fun filled video of Chris making a mess with a fusilli, check out the video below.
Al Caminetto is also a bit of a climb but if you could climb to Heaven why would you not?
The Bella Vista, Santa Domencia Talao, Calabria, Italy
Again, I write about this place a lot because I go there a lot.
From Scalea on the coast, you have to climb the hill to Santa Domenica Talao which is where we hang out. On the corner of the village is the Bella Vista. You can’t miss it because there is always a table out front and several people congregating there.
The Bella Vista fare is simple but fabulous. The pizzas are authentic Southern Italian pizzas, the pasta is home made and if you want something light you can get panini and appetizers.
The magic of the Bella Vista is in the location. Perched as it is on top of the hill and in front of the village, you get a 360 degree view of the most magnificent mountains ever created by any deity, the impossibly blue Mediterranean and the village behind you. As the sun goes down, the gold lights in the village come up bathing it in a golden glow and imparting a fairy tale magic that will stay with you forever.
The last time I was there, I asked the owner where she bought the house wine. It was so fresh and light. I wanted to see if I could get it in the states. She told me they make it themselves. There is nothing artificial in it, just the ingredients God gifted to this area. It is seriously good and no snobby half glasses here like you may get in Rome. They fill a juice glass to the brim.
So, Foodies! What are you waiting for? A true foodie goes to the ends of the earth to find the best food. I think this is the best so come here and decide for yourselves.
Call me and let’s plan your trip.
During our first trip to Calabria, Chris and I stayed at the Casa Cielo Scalea B&B in Scalea. This fabulous B&B is owned and operated by Clive and Kathryn Bayton.
Along with being a gourmet cook, accomplished artist, and photographer, Clive is a historian of the region and has gleaned much knowledge of the origins of Calabria. He has graciously provided us with his account of the history of Calabria:
A Brief Ancient History of the Original Land of the Italians
Before the recorded civilisation of the mainland of North and West Europe, the Greeks had established an empire of culture and learning around the coastlines and islands of the Mediterranean Sea.
From their established bases in Sicily they gradually moved to the mainland into what is known today as Calabria, the first tribe they encountered were the Itali and they named the land ‘Italia’. So it is always with a smirk while defending my adopted people that I proudly tell the modern day inhabitants of places such as Milan, Rome and Venice who tend to look down their noses a little at the poor people of the south, that no matter how they view the Calabrese, they are the original Italians.
While the hills on which Rome would one day be built were frequented by no more than wildlife, sheep and the occasional shepherd, Calabria already had great towns built by the Greeks. As the Greeks established themselves, cities such as Sybaris (founded 720BC) were built. So rich was this city that the inhabitants’ opulent lifestyle would put the word ‘sybaritic’ into the English language to describe a person of luxurious living and outrageous pleasure seeking.
Many famous Greeks walked or established themselves in this land, Pythagoras set up home and a school here, while ancient Olympic heroes such as Philippus of Croton were born here, their taste for the local wine ‘Ciro’ which is still made here today was so great that it was sent back to Greece as a reward for other victorious Olympic athletes.
While Calabria and Greece were living in relative peace with class, civilisation and culture, a new force was growing in the north apparently with its origins in two human baby boys suckled by a she wolf (c.753BC)! Guess those shepherds didn’t do their job that well, but all the same Rome grew.
The first republic was established in 509BC and thus started the road to an Empire. But before the republic could conquer the rest of the known world, first it had to conquer or unite the tribes of Italy. Calabria was then as is now, almost an island from the rest of the Italian peninsula with sea on three sides and a range of mountains blocking easy passage from or to the North. It is said of those days that some of the fiercest opposition to Rome was here, as the different tribes battled for their lands, the Greeks on the other hand made an organized withdrawal…. and as we know, Rome eventually became the master.
Throughout Rome’s history as an empire it has had its fair share of enemies on its homelands. When first trying to establish itself around the Mediterranean, Carthage of North Africa was ahead of the game with Sicily, parts of Spain and other lands already under its laws.
We have all heard of Hannibal (Born 247BC) the Carthaginian and his epic journey over the Alps with his army and war elephants but few know that he kept Rome in fear for eight years by stationing himself and his army in Italy. His base was in Calabria close enough to Sicily for passage to Africa if his country should recall him, and on Rome’s doorstep keeping them busy at home and their ideas off of a march on Carthage.
So strong were Hannibal and his army that even the politicians of his homelands feared that if he returned he may take power and so they decided to keep him in Calabria. It was only when Rome was knocking on the city gates that he was recalled, but with Rome already having a firm foothold on the continent it was all too late. Carthage and its empire were torn down to its very roots and Europe started to be taken into Roman occupation.
A thought for the modern world is that these were two great nations of equal strength struggling for power, the victor would one day influence the known world with its rules, laws and religion. That victor was Rome which many years later would convert to Christianity and spread its beliefs to all. The vanquished, or the lands in which they once lived turned to Islam, one wonders what the prominent religion of the world would have been today if Hannibal had been victorious.
And so it came to pass that the Roman Empire became rich, powerful and looking at the facts, a little stupid. Slaves from all its conquered territories were shipped to Italy to entertain and do all the work. So many slaves were brought in that they outnumbered Roman citizens and so the story of Spartacus (born c. 109BC) and the slave uprising can now be told (which is not necessary as we have all seen the movie when all the captured slaves after the final battle claim to be Kirk Douglas!)
But again one of the Empire’s enemies and general pain in the butt travelled to Calabria with his army and settled in what is now the area around the city of Reggio Calabria. When Rome finally caught up with him they built a huge containing defensive wall around him from coast to coast, and with the sea to his back Spartacus and his troops were surrounded. A great battle took place and miraculously the slave army broke free and headed north and out of Calabria. However, weakened and in disarray, once the Roman army again caught up with them in which is now the region of Campania, the revolt was finally quashed.
The final enemy of Rome to visit us here in Calabria was Alaric the king of the Visigoths (born 370AD). Alaric and his armies were the first to sack the city of Rome. By this time the empire had been split into two, the western empire with Rome its capital, and the eastern empire ruled from Constantinople, so I suppose we can say he only defeated one half of the Romans, but he did give the city a bashing and emptied it of all its gold and treasures.
With this little bundle well wrapped up, instead of heading north towards home he came South and camped outside what is now the city of Cosenza in Calabria. Here he died of a fever and was buried with all the treasures he had taken from Rome. It has never been found as the slaves that buried him were all put to the sword in order to keep the location secret. It is out there somewhere, but before you all buy a metal detector and jump in a car or jump on a plane, you should be told of the method of the burial. It took place at a point where two rivers met, both were diverted while the grave was dug and the burial could take place, and when done the rivers were again put on their natural course, so unless you can walk on water…forget it!
So there it is a little bit of Italian history that many know of but few associate with Calabria … Calabria the birthplace of Italian civilisation, the very first Italy that hardly gets a mention in modern travel guides.
Today Italy’s tourist trade is enticed over by the images of wonderful places like Venice, Pisa, Florence and Rome. Its history is shown through museums and historical sites such as the ruined cities of ancient Rome and Pompeii, while the very roots of its existence are ignored, yet still await discovery under the fields of my adopted homeland … can someone lend me a shovel?”
Clive J. Bayton
Be sure to visit Casa Cielo Scalea B&B’s Facebook page!
Here’s an excellent full-length documentary by David Marker about Southern Italian culture told through its indigenous folk music. This film focuses on how these traditions have been affected by the rapid changes in the local economy and by the homogenizing effects of globalization.
Filmed by an Italian-American rediscovering his family’s roots, the film takes the viewer through remote regions in Sicily, Calabria, Campania and Molise, introducing the people who carry on ancient traditions.
The Zampogna – the Italian bagpipe – is the physical manifestation of these traditions, its music representing the spirit and vitality of Southern Italy.
Watch Roseangela at Ristorante Al Caminetto in Tortora, Calabria demonstrate her pasta-making skills to us!
Please be sure to visit Al Caminetto when you’re in the area to enjoy the best Calabrian dishes that we’ve had anywhere! You can find them on TripAdvisor.
Here is Chris at Al Caminetto with our friend Giacomo Oliveri and his wonderful family, along with the proprietors of Al Caminetto:
Last summer, while on the way back from Florence to our apartment in Southern Italy, Chris and I stayed with some friends of ours in a villa in Montepulciano for a few days. While having dinner at a restaurant in the area, I noticed a nearby hill town silhouetted against the beautiful Tuscan sunset.
The following morning, the village looked even more interesting from our villa, and we decided to visit it.
Pienza is just a few miles away from its better-known sister village of Montepulciano (which we had visited the previous day) and turned out to be a short 20-min. drive away from our villa.
The history of Pienza is fascinating. The village is in the beautiful Val d’Orcia area and was originally settled in the 8th century as Corsignano. The noble Piccolimini family from Siena had vast estates in the neighboring areas; Enea Silvio Piccolomini was born into that family in Corsignano in 1405.
After studying in Siena and Florence, Enea became a brilliant orator and scholar, and was elected Pope in 1458 as Pope Pius II. He had a dream of transforming his native village into an ideal Renaissance town, much like a smaller Rome. He enlisted the help of the architect Bernardo Rossellino to start work on the reconstruction of Corsignano in 1459. Pius II renamed the village as Pienza, after himself. Most of the work on the village stopped with his death in 1464.
In 1996, UNESCO declared the town a World Heritage Site.
We found Pienza to be much less crowded than Moltepulciano and enjoyed walking through its narrow streets and visiting several shops.
One of the highlights of our visit was seeing the Palazzo Piccolomino, the main residence of Pope Pius II, with its beautiful courtyard, gardens, and views of the surrounding Val d’Orcia.
Pienza’s Cathedral is a masterpiece by Rossellino that combined Gothic style and new Renaissance ideas.
In Pienza, you can enjoy beautiful artistic and architectural beauty, in a peaceful setting away from the large crowds of the bigger Italian cities.
Contact us to help you plan a trip to Pienza!
It is 7:00 AM and I am so comfortable. The antique bed holds me in its arms and refuses to let me go. The sun slants in my window tickling me awake.
From the edges of my consciousness I hear the sounds of the church bells reminding the faithful that it is time to get up and come to the church in the piazza. It is time come together to start a new day.
With my eyes still closed I smile because I am waking up knowing I am still in Italy.
The weather is warm and moist in my village, just up the hill from the seaside town of Scalea.
I toss on a light dress and head up to the piazza. I sit at a table just outside the little bar while the owner brings me a cappuccino and a freshly baked croissant filled with sweet cream, still warm from the oven.
The people buzz in and out of the bar tossing back bitter, black espresso and shouting to each other as they head off to work.
The lady who owns the flower shop across the piazza opens her doors and brings out her flowers. She stops and smiles, and we wave.
Seven years ago, my husband and I purchased a house on the top floor of an ancient building in the hilltop town of Santa Domenica Talao, Calabria, Italy.
After a short visit we decided that this is where we wanted to spend our best years. We wanted to wake up to the church bells, gaze at the sea from our balcony and laugh as the swifts dip, dive and buzz our heads.
And we have never looked back.
When travel guidebooks talk of Italy, they rhapsodize about the regions north of Naples. They completely ignore the South of Italy and in doing so, do a grave disservice to their readers.
There are so many reasons that Calabria is the dream destination not only for travelers but also for expats. It is tough to list just a few.
Southern Italy traditionally was considered the poor region. While this was true before the 1950’s it is not true now.
Nonetheless, the prices are ridiculously inexpensive compared to Rome or anywhere in Tuscany.
A cappuccino in Rome costs about three euros whereas a cappuccino and pastry costs one euro thirty in my village.
Hotel accommodations are almost half what you would pay for similar accommodations further north.
Most mornings I visit my friend Nunzia who owns the store in the piazza. Parked nearby is an ape, the little three wheeled truck that is ubiquitous in Italy. It is filled with whatever produce is leftover from family farms for Nunzia to sell.
Today it is peaches, still fresh and fragrant with their leaves still clinging to them. Tomorrow it will be tomatoes as big as your head, sweet and juicy from the Calabrian sun.
Every Tuesday the fish man comes through the village with his loudspeaker announcing the fresh catch of the morning.
Your dinner has just been pulled from the Mediterranean.
Olive oil is a staple and the Mediterranean diet has been touted as one of the healthiest diets one could adopt. Italy as a country ranks among the highest for longevity.
When my husband and I first arrived in our village we must have been a sight. I am a tall blonde lady with wildly curly hair. My husband is of Northern European descent. In short, we are very different than the average villager.
Nonetheless we are accepted with open arms by everyone.
Our village is a giant family, I witnessed this one night as Nunzia and I took the passagiata (the evening walk). We stopped and kissed all the babies. We chatted with neighbors. We celebrated their joys and mourned their losses.
Throughout the piazza women walked arm in arm. Men played cards at tables outside the bar and everyone belonged. They are part of something bigger than just themselves or their nuclear families. They are part of the village.
I truly believe that the absence of mental health issues in our village stems from this vital fact. They all belong and everyone is loved and accepted, even a lanky blonde with faulty Italian.
The food is art
Calabrian cooking is becoming famous. Most Italian food you enjoy in the US has its roots in Calabria.
Many Calabrians came to America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s bringing their recipes with them.
Since we are right next to the Mediterranean, seafood is king. Tiny anchovies dressed in lemon grace our plates while calamari, fried with impossibly light breadcrumbs, come next. Octopus, swordfish, cuttlefish, giant prawns, clams and other shellfish are plentiful.
Most of the restaurants in the hill towns serve house made products. The pasta is hand made, the sauces are crafted from old family recipes and the bread is as fresh as it can be, having come out of the oven that morning.
Traditional pizzas are baked in brick ovens and topped with a perfect sphere of mozzerella di bufula.
The wine is amazing
Most of the wines in Calabrian restaurants are locally created. Calabria is known as the Mezzogiorno or the “midday” region. The sun shines most of the year and the mix of sea air, bright sunshine and rich soil seems to be the perfect environment for wine grapes.
The wine is light enough to avoid interfering with the cuisine and you taste the fruit rather than just the alcohol. It pairs perfectly with Calabrian specialties.
It’s rare to see a Calabrian rushing off somewhere. The pace of life is softer and gentler than I am used to.
The focus in life is life. The joys and sorrows, the family times together and views of the sea are vital to my neighbors. Work gets done but it is given its proper importance.
Calabria is home to miles upon miles of the most beautiful beaches on the planet. The stretch of seaside from Scalea down to Reggio Calabria boasts of stunning beaches and picturesque seaside fishing villages.
Looking inland you see the dramatic, jutting mountains that turn from pink in the morning to grey to purple as the day progresses. The mountain ridges carry tiny hill towns on their backs while little farm houses dot the fields below.
My favorite pastime is sitting at the restaurant at the edge of my village, gazing at the 360 degree view first of the mountains, then the sun setting over the Mediterranean and finally the village glowing gold and looking so much like a fairyland that you have to look twice.
Everywhere you look in Calabria there is something jaw droppingly beautiful. The sea is crystal blue and warm, magnificent art and architecture are everywhere, and the people, so willing to smile and hug you are the most beautiful sight of all.
Calabria is home to some of the toughest and yet most warm and loving people I have ever met.
Not so long ago, these people eked out a living from farms and the sea. They withstood the horrors of two world wars, and yet when you approach them, they smile.
It is so easy to make friends. There are several expats in our village. We all get along and we all fit into this little village of disparate personalities and backgrounds.
Calabria is a great jumping off point for travelers
A short trip south on the train is Lemezia Terme airport. From there you can catch cheap flights to anywhere in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
From Santa Domenica Talao you can drive east to Bari, Puglia and take a ferry to Greece.
Or you can drive south to Reggio Calabria and take the ferry across the Straits of Messina and over to Sicily.
The travel possibilities are endless.
We are there
And we want to share this idyllic life with everyone we know.
Book your flight and head over. You too can wake up to the church bells and enjoy the healthy and beautiful Italian lifestyle. Your best years are ahead of you. Give yourself the gift of Calabria. You will never want to leave.
Call us. We can help you plan the perfect trip. Don’t miss this perfect destination.