Winning Over Italy

Mandarin Trims….Ruins and Renovations

Ruins and Renovations, in Pentedattilo

The air is warm and still, fresher after last night’s rain.  The perfumes have been released from the rosemary, mingling with the coffee that drifts from the kitchen.  I’m sitting in the shade of the mandarin tree, eyes half closed with nothing disturbing the quiet except the sound of the chickens discussing last week’s egg production.  “Really Margherita, you’re going to have to push your weight a bit more, otherwise you’ll find yourself swimming in your own juices with the potatoes.” The only other sound is a low buzzing noise somewhere near my left ear.  How many people can say they’ve had their hair cut by an itinerant barber under a mandarin tree?  His electric clipper works its way round to the other ear.  Sadly it takes longer to trim my beard than cut my hair these days, but I shouldn’t complain.  Normally my shearing takes place on the patio but that’s gone for the time being, removed on the back of the builder’s lorry to allow for the new foundations.  The work has finally started on our envelope-planned home. 

If I sounded a little less than complimentary about the Calabrese approach to driving last week, let me make amends immediately.  The work rate among builders here is something else entirely.  From the minute the two men arrived, sharp at seven, they got stuck in without prevarication.  No cup of tea to appraise the situation, no two-observers-for-every-labourer and no break for a full English and a flick through the ‘Soar-away’ at the nearest caff’.  The only sun being absorbed is the one beating down on their backs as they work solidly without rest till twelve, leaving the site tidy and organised before lunch.  At 1pm they’re back and continue with a level of  productivity that makes your back ache just watching.  When the builder initially said that the whole job would only take two to three weeks I confess that I laughed a little to myself, my own estimate jaded by past experience.  Now however I’m beginning to realise why Gino, our Sicilian friend back in London, always brought over workers from his home town to do any building work in his restaurants.   These guys are harder grafters than anyone I’ve seen before and I take my hat off to them.

We had to think carefully about how the place was going to look.  It had to be modern enough to be efficient and easy to maintain but neither of us wanted to lose its ‘authenticity’ or rustic appeal completely.  A dream project would have been to use old stone and build it ourselves ‘literally’, but that was just romantic nonsense… wouldn’t be finished for decades.  We will draw the line at a token cart-wheel on the wall (I promise) but I’m sure at least that it won’t look so modern as to be dull. 

This issue can be a problem in Reggio.  Although it’s Italy’s second oldest city it has a bit of a split personality when it comes to building these days.  Keats came here for a weekend and stayed a month, Gabrielle D’Annunzio famously described the main promenade as the most beautiful kilometre in Italy at the turn of the last century while in 2006, wit and raconteur Scott Smith said of the city, “Be nice when it’s finished.”  Scott isn’t far wrong.  You fall in love at once with the little towns perched on their mountains, steeped in myth and legend, and the villages that climb up from the sea, intent on surprising and seducing you as you turn another corner on the coast road but, Reggio itself is a far more confusing affair.  One minute you love the mixed Liberty style and Venetian buildings of the centre and next you stare appalled at the unfinished square blocks of urban growth.  A few Italians, like Paolo who we lunched with last week, will painstakingly and lovingly restore an old cottage over a period of years, a joy both to look at and live in, while their neighbour will build a small featureless block of flats that look sadly out of place next door.

There’s a good reason why much of the building work looks unfinished, from the outside anyway.  In Calabria old habits die hard and the now-visionary concept of not having something till you’ve saved for it still remains strong.  In one year of living here I’ve yet to see a credit card used.  You build your property as you can afford it so at least what you build is yours, not the bank’s, and as a result the credit crunch has had much less of an impact here.  The ‘dream home’ just stays a dream for a bit longer.  The inside of these homes is a completely different matter.  Again with great common sense the Italian reckons that the inside of the home is where your guests are going enjoy your company, not standing looking at the external walls.  You can find  yourself approaching your host’s domain clambering through scaffolding but once inside your treated to marble floors and expert finishing that you might expect in a small palace.  Indeed the interior of the most anonymous looking public building can be decorated with renaissance friezes and intricate ceilings that make even the inside of the Westminster Palace look positively drab.  

Gerace’s cobbled streets

The preservation of many of the old domestic homes around the region comes from a surprising quarter.  Recently Roberto and Arianna took us to the beautiful medieval town of Gerace which is remarkable for many reasons, not least its situation perched on top of a mountain 1,600ft above sea level.   What makes it so beautiful is that it’s almost entirely made of up original buildings, from its Norman castle and Byzantine cathedral to the narrow cobbled streets of tradesmen’s homes and shopkeepers, with little of the last century in evidence. 

“I’m amazed that so much of the town has been preserved in such good condition.” I remarked, as we wandered slowly up from the main square to the castle.  “You feel as if you’ve stepped back about four hundred years in time.” 

“We’ve got people like you to thank for that.” Smiled Roberto. 

“How so?”

“Most of the old houses have been kept up by visitors from abroad who’ve come and settled here or bought homes for holidays, I think they appreciate the value of keeping our  heritage more than we do ourselves sometimes.”

Much the same can be said of Pentedattilo (see ‘Tales of the Unexpected’) where the abandoned town is slowly rising out of the ruins again thanks to the work and determination of visiting artistes and tourists.  In fact this is where I learned, at the annual film festival last week, the other reason why many of the old houses are left to crumble.  We were  talking to Maria Milasi one of the festival organisers when (my) Maria asked if it was possible to buy one of the ruins and rebuild it, just for a little studio to escape to you understand… another of those little dream things that make life fun.

“Funnily enough we’ve been trying for ages to buy something ourselves.” Said (the other) Maria.  “The problem is that when the place was abandoned fifty years ago most of the occupants left for America or countries like Argentina and the local authorities can’t track them down.  You see, they’re still the registered owners.  You could take a risk that they’ll never come back or that they’re dead now, but it would be a lot of money and work if  they suddenly turned up again.”

“Thanks for the work mate, very kind of you.  Now if you could move out by Friday, my grandfather in Rio left this to me in his will.”

This is a common story all over, the owners die and no one claims the property until years later when the damage from lack of maintenance has been done, if they’re ever claimed at all.  If you can’t find the owner, you can’t buy the property.

In the meantime we’ll do our best to keep in-tune with our surroundings as much as possible, completing each stage as we go over the next couple of years.  In the future? I think I’ll be having my trim under the mandarin tree from on.