More than Just a Key – Unlocking the Trip of a Lifetime

The first time we rented a villa was on a vacation we took with another couple to Positano, on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast. The view from this 2-bedroom / 2-bathroom apartment was just as spectacular as advertised. Breathtaking, really. Very, very romantic. Everything was perfect … except for the tiny detail that the second bedroom could be accessed only by going through the first bedroom. We had rented a beautiful two bedroom apartment with an incredible view and zero privacy.

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Buckets of Rain in the Green Heart of Italy

It started raining hard on Sunday.  By Monday morning, pockets of Northern and Central Italy had been devastated by floods.  Photos of what this 200-year storm did to Venice filled the Internet, but the big news in our part of the country was what it did to the area around Orvieto.

Orvieto has something of a split personality.  The glamorous and famous part sits on a plateau atop a huge tufa rock.  There is the iconic duomo, charming cobblestone streets, lots of boutiques and pottery shops, wonderful restaurants, and many happy tourists.  That part of Orvieto was unscathed.  But the part of town at the base of the rock, called “Orvieto Scalo,” the engine that keeps the region going, was flooded.

The train station is the long, taller, light-colored building in the center of this picture.  And behind it?  The parking lot that we and many of our guests know well.  Those black dots are the tops of the submerged cars of railway passengers who took advantage of the train station’s free parking, only to discover its hidden cost.

Teams of workers, civil authorities, flood victims and good-hearted volunteers are cleaning up the mess, and life is already getting back to normal.  But it was quite a couple of days.

Mom and I were at Rocca di Benano during the first full day of torrential rain, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that we lived through a record-shattering storm — 11 inches in 39 hours.  For the data geeks among you, I’m told that equates to 74 gallons per 3.86 square miles (which, I have to admit, means absolutely nothing to me).

I had to keep reminding myself that our house has been here for 1,000 years and has withstood worse.  I was right, of course, although we did lose a handful of 10-year old olive trees and part of relatively new stone stairs that run (ahem, ran) alongside the olive grove.  We were very lucky — all our problems are fixable.  I was also glad that I had harvested our young olive trees (olive trees can live to be hundreds of years old) on a glorious, sunny day just a few days before the storm hit.

And now, the last drops of oil that our dearly departed trees will ever produce are bottled and standing like brave little soldiers in the pantry.  Okay, perhaps it’s a little hasty to call them “dearly departed” given that Gino, a kindly neighbor who lovingly prunes our grove, says the displaced trees might do just as well where nature has relocated them, at the bottom of our hillside.

I wish I could report that I was brave, too.  In fact, the second day day of very hard rain worked a number on my nerves.  Instead of staying put in this solid old house, I let my imagination get the better of me.  Late Monday afternoon, I surprised my poor mother with the news that we were leaving.  I didn’t use the word “evacuate,” but that’s what I was doing.  My sudden exodus worried our dear friend, manager and caretaker Alex, who knew that we would have been much safer at home, given the roads and bridges that already were out.  I had to take a circuitous route to Rome in order to avoid both the flooded A1 (Italy’s main north/south highway) and the possibility of driving anywhere near the congested parts of the Eternal City.  I eventually made it over to the coastal highway and then to Rome’s main airport, where I parked the car, took Mom to a bar and immediately introduced her to caffe’ corretto (espresso with a shot — in this case, we chose Sambuca over the more traditional grappa).  Jangled nerves settled, we took a cab to Rome’s center, where dear friends took us and my wild imaginings in for the night.

This Old House

We landed yesterday morning in Rome and took the train to Orvieto, arriving just after 10:00 a.m.  I loved seeing our neighbors in Benano again, and my Italian teachers will be happy to know that our hard work is paying off:  I had actual conversations, simple though they were, with two of my favorite neighbors.  I was thrilled.  (ComplimentiAlessandra, Mariateresa e Michele!)

My Italian didn’t work quite as well in the meeting with our architect and contractors, but I would have missed half of a conversation in English about the kinds of finishing details we discussed.  (For example, I didn’t know the English word for a heavy, two-paneled ground-floor door on the outside of a thick stone wall, but now I know Italians use the term mercantile.)

The work on the house exceeded my expectations.  Since I was last here, our amazing and colorful team of contractors built an interior staircase that provides easy access from the first-floor kitchen to the ground-floor terrace, and they opened up a new window in an upstairs bathroom.  Permission to cut that window opening in the three-foot stone wall came only after we were able to prove to the authorities that there was historic precedent for it.  (We have a photo, which I will post later if I can find it, that shows the outline of a window in the stone wall.)  We’ve thus opened a view that was closed off many hundreds of years ago.  Seeing it for the first time, it occurred to me that the view from that window probably hasn’t changed a bit in all that time.  It still looks out on the same hill, the same forest, and the same fields farmed in the same way, with the same broad plateau beyond.


Let the Work Begin

Here are a few photos as the work to renovate the lower level of the house begins. Once we’re finished, we’ll have better access to the terrace, a new bedroom and bathroom, and a new living space.

Getting the truck into Benano was the first challenge. I notice they only did this once.

We got our first good look at the space that will become our new bedroom and realized it was once used as barn. The rings on the wall seem to be where the villagers tied up their animals.

We lost the old forno (oven), but we gained a new window

We lost the old forno (oven), but we gained a window

Arrivederci, Forno

This is what's left to see of the forno. The walls were erected since its last use.

According to local lore, the entire village once baked bread in the forno (oven) that now sits in disrepair in our ground floor.  The forno is no longer useable because of impossible-to-ignore ventilation issues.  And I’ll try to say this kindly, but there is really nothing attractive about it except the communal life it represents.  So with mixed emotions, we are about to dismantle one of the most evocative and interesting historic features of our house, Rocca di Benano.

Renovations on the ground floor will begin soon.  They will add much more living space to the house, another bedroom and bathroom, and connect the main living areas to the beautiful terrace, which is off the ground floor.  The work, which will begin as soon as one last approval is finalized (Italian bureaucracy!), will allow us to make more of the history that remains in these walls.  The stone walls in the ground floor make no secret that those walls were once arches.

Look carefully along the wall to see where there was once an archway.

Check out the rings!

The cantina

Even better, we will be able to highlight the ancient cantina (wine cellar).  The cantina is an amply sized room at the bottom of 36 steps dug out of tufa rock.  The brass rings our long-ago predecessors used to help roll the barrels down all those stairs are still in place.  Imagining the history boggles the mind.

We really wanted to keep the forno as a tribute to the history of the village, but we just couldn’t incorporate it into the renovation.  So we came up with a solution that satisfies all of us.  We will install oven bricks in the floor exactly where the oven once stood.  The forno will disappear, but we will preserve its footprint.

In years to come, people will certainly walk over it without giving it a thought.  But maybe a few people will be attracted by the untold stories in that space, sit between the doors leading out to the terrace and the stairs down to the cantina, and contemplate the very spot that was the center of village life in centuries past.