Ruin Hunting in Tuscany
Finding and restoring the perfect old house in the Italian countryside takes patience and resolve. A little luck helps, too.
Few things are as wonderful as spending a lazy afternoon in the hills of Tuscany looking for a ruin. The most idyllic part is the triangle from Montepulciano, west to Massa Marittima, then south to Pitigliano. Much of this area is wild: dense forests or rugged mountain pastures, few houses and narrow twisting roads. Below the forests, the countryside is a mix of olive groves, wheat fields, and vines. At sunset or in winter mist, its sea of hills will take your breath away. I covered so much of it by bike, car, and foot that farmers began to address me as Il Cercatore: The Searcher.
In a reckless leap at midlife, my wife, Candace, and I picked up and moved to Tuscany. We bought a lovely small house, called La Marinaia, near Montepulciano, but I still dreamed of finding a romantic piece of land with an old stone wreck to restore and gentle slopes for growing vines. Sometimes life turns out even better than you imagined.
I began my search modestly, heading on foot into the country just beyond our property. One should not go ruin hunting too sober; it’s best to start out right after lunch with the sun high, your stomach full, and your brain alight with wine. The wine is good not just for disposition, but you won’t care how far you walk, what walls you scale, or how the brambles claw your thighs. And the contadini you meet in the fields are likely to feel as rosy as you, so you’ll make fast friends and hear stories about the old days.
Enlarging my circle, I found stunning houses but on barren hilltops, where the Tramontana wind of winter would blow you off your feet, or the summer sun roast you; where it would take decades to grow trees in the hard clay to fend wind or give shade. I also found poderi in beautiful locations notched into hillsides, but they were either the size of a shoebox or ruins whose roofs had caved in and walls barely stood.
Prices of ruins had tripled in the previous 15 years, and understandably so. Just like waterfront, there’s only so much.
On some days I went out searching in my Matra, an old French sports car—almost as wide as it is long and slung so low it has trouble crossing small bumps. On winding Tuscan roads it is a dream, but once I got off onto the dirt byways I found myself banging and scraping on the uneven ground. Any reasonable person would avoid these rough stretches, but I had ruin fever. Once, determined to reach a house on a distant hill, I hit the gas. The Matra bounded ahead until, with a deafening blow, it stopped dead, the engine still revving. In the middle of nowhere, I sat. It was getting dark; I cursed until I ran out of curses. And out of light.
Under the car I expected to see the transmission on the ground, but there was just an army of ants and a dangling rod that used to shift the gears.
“Buona sera,” a gentle voice said.
I pulled my head out. A tiny old lady dressed in classic Tuscan garb—a thin dress and apron—stood surrounded by curious sheep. I explained the problem and she smiled. Few things are more embarrassing than three rams, side by side, pulling your sports car on a rope through Tuscany.
One calm afternoon at La Marinaia, while I was playing soccer with our son Buster, Candace called out from beneath the arbor, “Chum, I found your dream.” She was helping Eleanora, our neighbor’s daughter, with her English, and they’d been reading a copy of Country House magazine. I couldn’t believe my eyes: It was an aerial shot of a small, enchanted castle. The olives around the long-abandoned property were shrouded in brambles, broom drowned the fruit trees, and the forest on the hill seemed an impenetrable jungle.
But the house, my God, the house. It must have been built over many centuries; bits and pieces were added everywhere, the roofs angled in various directions, and doors and windows were of many sizes. Two wings—two stories high—formed between them what I had dreamed of all these years: a courtyard, and above it rose that rare gem, a tower. The heading read: “Potential wine estate, Tuscany.”
“I need a drink,” I said.
“You’d better sit down before I read you the rest,” Candace said as she poured me a glass of wine. “A rare estate opportunity for the most discerning, in Italy’s most prestigious wine zone, Montalcino. Nestled on two hills, a 5,000-square-foot, 13th-century friary, ready for restoration. Seventy acres of forests, olives, fields, and a small vineyard. Thirty acres are ideal for vines. Five acres of planting rights for Brunello di Montalcino.”
Candace refilled my glass. “Don’t stop breathing,” she said. “We’re expected for dinner.”
Candace and I met sultry Silvia, who represented the owners, in Montalcino’s central piazza. We sat at an outdoor table and Silvia drew a folder from her briefcase. We weren’t used to her professionalism in Italy. We’d come to expect agents who doubled as butchers or funeral directors, using as reference material odd bits of paper stuffed in glove compartments and old photos that had been on the dashboard since the war.
We were speechless when she announced that the house in the magazine was one of 13 for sale, each equally beautiful and owned by Banfi, the biggest vintner in Montalcino. We gazed at abandoned abbeys, magnificent wheat mills, and a small church with an adjoining monastery.
Silvia read my mind: “Would you like to see them all?”
I fell in love with Silvia instantly.
A few miles south, we turned onto a dirt road. Since town there hadn’t been a soul in sight. The oaks gave way to lush evergreens, corbezzolo with leathery leaves and red, cherry-size fruit, and lentaggine with clusters of tiny flowers. The air misty and mild, we had crossed from the cool interior into the warmth of the Mediterranean.
A valley of heaving knolls and gullies sprawled before us. The Tyrrhenian Sea glowed on the horizon and, in it, the Isle of Elba, where Napoléon was exiled. Lakes glittered, and castles, towers, and ruins nestled on hills. All for sale.
“Who’s been hiding this place?” Candace murmured.
Beyond a row of cypresses that ended at a graveyard, we stopped outside the village of Camigliano. We walked through the town to a bluff, with the Amiata volcano in the distance. Silvia pointed to a house on a hill. “It’s called Centine,” she said.
The house had panoramic vistas. Its walls were beautiful; for Tuscany they were “new,” built in 1890 by a fine mason: all stones cut, corners shaped, the joints so tight there was barely need for mortar.
“Sign the check,” I whispered.
“Calm down,” Candace said. “We have twelve more to go.”
The next jaw-dropper was called Belreguardo; the view could stop your heart. It even had a walled-in barnyard, but on the dirt road alongside, Banfi’s tractors and trucks kicked up steady clouds of dust.
We drove to Lavatrice, with rambling outbuildings popping up like mushrooms. But it was for sale with only an acre of land, and I wanted some forest and room for vineyards.
In Tuscany there is a lack of land with poderi, the old houses abandoned in the sixties by the contadini, who moved to cities for factory jobs after working the land for centuries. The structures had little value, but the surrounding land was gold for agriculture. When 25 years later a demand arose for these ruins to be restored as country homes, the landowners included only an acre or two.
After touring the first eight houses, we were enamored but confused. Thankfully, Silvia suggested lunch. “Which did you like best?” Silvia asked.
“The condo in Miami,” Candace said.
We were under Banfi Castle in a place called Il Marrucheto, 20 miles from the sea. The first course was clams, mussels, and octopus steamed in white wine and garlic. Then we ate spaghetti with mixed seafood in a piquant tomato sauce, followed by a plate of fritture: squid, prawns, and tiny fish fried in a light batter, washed down with a Banfi Pinot Grigio before chocolate-laced profiteroles. We were drinking our espressos when the owner brought complimentary grappa. As we talked, the grappa fog thickened.
“Would you like to see the other houses?” Silvia asked.
We passed up buying, among others, an old mill in a dark valley and a good-size church attached to a small house, doors ajar and windows gone. From the tenth century, the church was a national treasure that could not be touched; only the small house could be restored. The sun was low; billowing clouds started pinking the sky. We drove through a creek, then up a winding path, and as we bumped along Silvia said, “Now for the jewel in Banfi’s crown: Il Colombaio.”
We passed a family returning from the vineyards with their hoes, then into the forest gloom and over a stone bridge.
“From Roman times,” Silvia said.
The road wedged so tight between two houses, I was sure we’d lose our mirrors. The homes were beautifully rebuilt, with sprawling vineyards and lush gardens.
“The high-rent district?” I asked.
“That’s Soldera,” Silvia said. “He makes the best Brunello in Montalcino, $200 a bottle in New York.”
We swung around a church where an old man with a slight limp carried a rabbit. Smiling, he waved it as we passed.
“It’s the last house on the road,” Silvia said. “It borders on a canyon.”
We turned onto trail; wild roses scraped the bottom of the car. Silvia stopped. “From here we go on foot.”
I was like a kid on Christmas: I tried counting the rows of fallen vines, but they were so covered in brambles I gave up and ran to the woods just above the house.
Candace hollered from below. The women had bushwhacked their way to the 800-year-old house. Half of Candace’s body was in an outdoor forno—a big brick oven—that had baked Tuscans their bread through the centuries.
“It’s in perfect shape,” she yelled. She had always wanted an old forno. Inside its arched opening was a wonder of architecture, a perfect dome of tapering bricks. One could imagine cooking a chicken, ribs, and, toward the end, a tray of tarts.
The west face of the house soared above us like a fortress, its tower against the sky, and arches yawned darkly in the fading light. A twisted fig tree had conquered the courtyard from wall to wall. I crawled into the house and felt I’d entered a fairy tale my grandmother once told me. Dank odors drifted between the massive walls; in the cavernous gloom vaulted ceilings loomed and silence reigned. Through a narrow opening, a stairway wound up into the dark, and hanging from the wood beams overhead were darling little bats.
Upstairs, beside an open hearth, stood a low brick structure where sauces in iron pots once stewed for hours. The beams, runners, and brick tiles of the formerly whitewashed ceiling were now black with soot. In one room a hole gaped in the floor where salt, dripping from hung hams, had eaten away the mortar. Ancient books and papers were heaped in a corner: a mildewed Chekhov’s Three Sisters, hand-colored postcards, and a sheaf of letters—tied up with coarse string—written between 1791 and 1822.
I wanted to walk to the top of the property but the sun was setting. Layers of hills, with mist between them, reached the horizon. Cypresses darkened, and a dove cooed as if saying farewell to the light. The sun fell behind clouds, the sky began to burn, and far to the south rain covered the hills with a drifting dust of gold.
“Chum,” Candace whispered, “God built this ruin for you.”
Over the next two years—with some stumbles and frustrations along the way—we restored Il Colombaio and its gardens while successfully planting a 15-acre vineyard on what turned out to be some of the best soil in the region. Rebuilding an ancient ruin in Tuscany, where every brick and stone is a protected monument, requires patience, passion, perseverance, and four times your body weight in official documents: permits, affidavits, plans, authorizations, applications, and supplications.
I was the designated worrier, while Candace trained to become our winemaker. And in two years, we had our first wine. We toasted to the vineyards and to our good luck, and to the ancient walls around us that we imagined would stand proud for another 800 years.
This article is adapted from Ferenc Máté’s recently published A Vineyard in Tuscany (W.W. Norton). The couple’s wines are available on matewine.com and from Morrell in New York (1 Rockefeller Plaza; 800-969-4637; morrellwine.com), which last year named the Máté 2003 Syrah its Italian Red Wine of the Year.
Tuscan Real Estate: The Short List
Buying a house in Tuscany can be a bureaucratic headache, so it’s essential to deal with a good, English-speaking agent. Real estate listings often aren’t exclusive, laws change quickly, and local connections are a must. The best agents offer a variety of services, from facilitating paperwork for renovations to recommending reliable architects, gardeners, consultants, and artists.
Established in 1972, Ercolani is one of the region’s oldest and most reliable realtors. The firm, which has offices in Montepulciano, Pienza, and Chianciano Terme, finds unusual houses in the countryside and apartments in historic centers. Ask for Gabriele Dragoni, who can also help you coordinate with Ercolani’s separate renovation division (39-057/875-7756; ercolani.it).
Specializing in medieval towns as well as the prestigious wine-production zones, such as Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino, Luciani handles villas and farmhouses, vacation homes and vineyards. Agent Clara Bassi knows all the properties inside out and can offer her knowledge on antique and modern furniture. The agency has branches in Siena, Torrenieri, Buonconvento, and San Quirico d’Orcia, but the main office is in Montalcino (39-348/092-2142; immobiliareluciani.it).
Irish agent Diana Levins Moore, a resident of the Siena area for 20-plus years, specializes in helping foreign buyers find properties in Tuscany and Umbria. Her company, Tuscany Inside Out, which collaborates with Knight Frank realty in Britain, taps into a network of local artisans and restoration firms (39-057/826-8016; tuscany-inside-out.com).
Independent Florentine agent Francesca Nannini Gonnelli focuses on the Chianti area, particularly around Impruneta. She works loosely with the real estate firm Ceroni, but—thanks in part to her husband’s connections in olive oil and agriturismo—she also has access to unlisted properties (39-335/543-3431; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Architect Giovanni Cini, based in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, has been buying, repairing, and selling Tuscan houses and villas for the past 35 years. Cini has experience with antique materials and construction methods (39-333/428-1567; email@example.com). —Elettra Fiumi
Located on seven acres near hot springs in the majestic Val d’Orcia, this charming stone-and-brick country house has stunning panoramic views. The ground floor of the mid-1800s structure features three wide, elegant arches.
This 3,230-square-foot brick home, with a large front staircase, was built in the 19th century. It resides on 2.4 acres of land near Montepulciano and comes with an option to acquire an additional 12 acres suitable for vineyards.
A few miles outside Montalcino, this huge L-shaped stone house sits on 2.5 acres of gently sloping, prime Brunello-growing land. With 9,690 square feet and an internal courtyard, it’s ideal for dividing into multiple residences.