Like so many people, the pandemic had left me listless, dissatisfied with my life, deeply mourning lost loved ones—and determined for change. A very kind author friend had lent me her apartment in Florence so that I could re-evaluate my life, with the added benefit of a big dollop of soul-enhancing Renaissance art. It was complete chance that brought me to Poppiano, a tiny hamlet about 18 kilometres southwest of Florence, in an area replete with natural beauty and history. (I was especially fascinated to learn that the Castello di Poppiano had stored masterpieces from the Uffizi and Accademia during World War II, to keep them safe from Nazi pillaging.)
I’d intended to find an apartment in the city, near where I was staying in the piazza Santissima Annunziata, but found nothing suitable. How was it possible that this beautiful city had so many flats decorated in 1980s chrome and leather furniture—and why were so many sixth-floor walk ups draughty from actual holes in the roof?
I’d fallen in love with the Poppiano apartment at first sight, a year ago, when I’d taken up a spontaneous offer of a weekend away with a bright Austrian woman I’d met at the Wednesday Book Club at The British Institute of Florence. We were to stay at her friends’ villa to look after their two Labradors.
One day, on a long walk up the Tuscan hills, through vineyards with leaves starting to turn in the autumn chill, Lara, the blonde Lab, pulled us to a stop outside a massive casa colonica, which stood behind a very old, rusty iron cancello. The lane below was lined with traditional Tuscan cypress trees. The beauty of it was breathtaking—it was as if we’d walked into a picture book.
“I could live here I think,” I sighed to my companion.
As if by magic, a small woman with a strimmer popped out from around one of the buildings.
“Do you know if there are any apartments for rent here?” my friend asked, as my Italian was rustier than the iron gate.
“Yes, come tomorrow, and I’ll show you.”
And so, we did, and my fate was sealed.
The apartment was staggeringly beautiful, even though it was in a state of almost complete disrepair. The walls were a carnival array of colours: garish reds, blues and yellows, plus stickers from generations of children past. The bathroom was an incubo, so dark it was (possibly fortunately) impossible to see the calcified shower, the rotting cabinets, a sink poised to fall onto any feet unwise enough to step beneath it. But I could see it had “good bones”. It was almost 200 square metres, with 18-foot ceilings beamed in chestnut, antique terracotta tiled floors and two fireplaces large enough to sit in (perhaps with a glass of Flocco, a delicious Sangiovese produced by my landlord in the cantina beneath my apartment), and an enviably huge garden. On one corner of the building was a late 19th-century glazed terracotta Madonna and Child, beautiful even if it wasn’t a Della Robbia.
My builder had taken one look at the interior and had shaken his head. “These walls look like they were strafed by bullets. This could be World War II or Ukraine.”
He sniffed, deeply. “It’s not just the walls. It’s the smell, the puzza. You’ll be airing this place out for six months. It’s a very old building—you will have nothing but problems.”
“Surely it can’t be that bad?”
It was that bad. And just when I drew breath to appreciate the newly whitewashed walls, or the beautiful antique bedroom furniture I’d bought from a friend that had transformed my camera da letto from an 18-square-metre blue grotto into a room straight from a Henry James novel—heavenly—something new would go wrong. A perdita found in one of the internal bathroom pipes, after renovation, that had cascaded water into the flat below. A temperamental caldaia, which conked out mainly when I had houseguests or the weather turned cold. A nasty spider bite that inflated my hand like a balloon and sent me in an ambulance to Pronto Soccorso, where a team of six medics poked and prodded me because they’d never seen anything like it.
But the apartment is now renovated, if sparsely decorated. The garden is pruned and starting to take shape. And I’ve thus far avoided any more chance encounters with spiders or scorpions. I know that all of the problems I’ve encountered over the past six months are typical and I don’t think I would have had it any other way.
Without the frustrations, I’d have not taken extra-long walks in the countryside to calm my shattered nerves. I’d not have discovered many of the things that make my nook in Tuscany special: my archaeologist neighbour Guido Gualandi’s delicious organic sparkling wine (reported to be loved by none other than Paul McCartney); the meatballs and sauce from the local macelleria that remind me exactly of my Italian grandmother’s; the stillness of the night, subtle lights twinkling in the distance; spotting bats flying home to roost as I sit in the calm of a morning sunrise.
I don’t know if my new home will allow the possibility of reinvention—after all, as Buckaroo Banzai says, “No matter where you go, there you are”—but I feel very lucky to be living in what feels like a fairy tale.