One day on my first bike trip to Italy in 1990, I was riding with Lou just outside of Radda-in-Chianti (let’s not forget to pronounce those 2 d’s!!), when I saw what I considered THE perfect Italian villa. It sat at the top of a beautifully symmetrical hill, with vineyards sloping down the front and sides. It was a drab, gray day, but even with overcast skies as the background, I just had to stop and take a photo. And I gave the place the incredibly clever name of “My House”.
My next trip to Chianti was in 1996 — also by bike. While the organized route didn’t go by it, I talked some others into joining me for a short detour past “My House”, so I could get a few more photos.
Then came trips in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003 where I would always plan at least 1 drive-by — even we weren’t staying in the area – just to get another picture or 2…..or perhaps 5.
While its location was absolutely perfect, I started noticing that the buildings themselves were looking a bit rundown. There was the big “house”, but there were also smaller out-buildings, and all looked like they’d been abandoned.
On one of these trips, someone in the group suggested we go up the driveway and see what it really looked like. I was quite reluctant, because I wasn’t sure I wanted the truth; I much preferred the romantic image from afar. And it was a sad sight. Rather than a grand house with attractive out-buildings, it was a little borgo — a hamlet — surrounding the dilapidated main house. Some of the smaller buildings could have been homes for the workers, some shelter for animals, and some garages for farm equipment. All had seen better days, and the only ones that looked like they were still in use were the ones for equipment storage.
So in my mind I made up the sad story of the land baron losing all his money (you can take your pick here of how he lost it: 1. through gambling, 2. the spoiled n’er do well son’s drug habit, or 3. the trophy wife’s penchant for diamonds), and having to abandon his ancestors’ patrimony and let all his loyal workers go….including the one who saved his father’s life when he was a boy by heroically stopping a herd of stampeding cattle. There had recently been a lottery in the US where someone had taken home over $280 million, so I completed my fantasy by picturing myself winning it and using that money to fix up the place, thereby allowing the workers to come back to homes with modern kitchens and bathrooms. – 2 things that were missing from what I saw in the abandoned buildings. (While my make-believe trophy wife might have a thing for jewelry, in real life I have a thing for kitchens and bathrooms.)
All of this took place during the cameras-with-film age. Remember that time?? You didn’t know exactly what you had taken a picture of until you got the roll back from the camera store?? So while I probably have 50 “My House” photographs in albums in the US, the first one I can show you comes from 2004, when I finally moved into the digital camera age:
You’ll notice that it looks like there’s activity around the place…..land cleared, equipment scattered, new grapevines planted. Here’s 2005:
Hmmmm…..something was afoot! Vines had grown, ground looked less barren. We were staying at the Relais Fattoria Vignale (one of our most favorite hotels) in Radda and saw on the reception counter a brochure with a familiar picture on the cover showing property for sale at “Castello di San Donato in Perano”. The Vignale people had bought “My House” and were selling it off – piece by piece!!!!
We went to look at it. It was going to be irreparably gentrified, with the out-buildings being made into “vacation homes” starting at over 300,000 euros. So much for my dream of the workers returning to modern kitchens and bathrooms…. They planned apartments for sale and rent in the “manor house”, and when we returned in 2006, they had the crane up for that round of construction, as you can almost see to the left of the building if you click on the photo below to enlarge it:
There are 2 very good restaurants – one casual, the other more upscale — where we’ve eaten. It has a nice website. The grounds are lovely. The workmanship looks excellent. However, now that we live in Orvieto, we don’t get to Chianti very often, so I haven’t seen it in several years. What started out as a romantic dream has now turned into a matter of mild interest.
Do I sound a bit melancholy? Well – I’m not! And this is one of the reasons I love being in Italy. It’s been 22 YEARS since I first fell in love with “My House”. In that time, I’ve seen it change VERY slowly, and it’s been done with great care. In the US, this gorgeous piece of land would have immediately had the vines ripped out and replaced with at least 200 incredibly tacky homes – most of which would be starting to fall apart by now. There’s a very good chance that Italy will become a bit more like the US in the future and the rate of change will increase. But let’s look at the bright side: I’m not sure I have enough years left in my life to see that….meaning I can live out my time here enjoying the beauty that brought me in the first place. At least for now, I can be thankful that I haven’t heard of any plans to — in the sad words of Joni Mitchell — “pave paradise, and put up a parking lot”.