Tales from the Hamlet – the adventures of a British woman “of a certain age” in rural Italy…
Three years ago, in the typical Cotswolds town in which we lived, I loaded my elderly Siamese cat, Geisha, into my car which was packed to the gunwales with our stuff and moved to Italy to start a new job and a new life…
My name is Cassandra and I am now 63 years old. At the age of 60 I was head-hunted by an Italian company to move to Italy to take up a very high-powered job in the beautiful city of Verona. Having been told, in the UK, that I was too old and therefore unemployable (isn’t that illegal?!) I jumped at the chance. Having worked in Italy in the mid 90’s, I still remembered my Italian, I had friends from that time who were delighted I was returning, so with butterflies of excitement in my stomach Geisha and I set off for our new life.
My British friends told me I was mad, lucky, brave and all sorts of things in-between and there were certainly times when, despite living in such a lovely city, the almost daly struggle with the Italian bureaucracy associated with being Resident, made me occasionally long for home and the familiar “normality” of life in the UK. But The Fates had decreed otherwise so, stiffening my upper lip, I just “got on with it” as we Brits tend to do…
Suffice to say that the job lasted 15 months; I was made redundant, ending up with very little money and no prospects – but out of adversity came great good fortune and the tales that follow are our adventures in the the Emilian Appenines of Central Italy…
Losing my job hit me hard, both financially and in terms of my self-esteem, but I had good Italian friends who rallied round me and picked up the pieces.
One, an old friend from years before, said to me “Darling, you need to come and spend a weekend at my house in the mountains, it will do you good”. Little did I know that those few words would have such an effect on my life!
So, one weekend in mid September two years ago, I drove down from Verona and met him at a motorway exit near Modena, the home of Balsamic vinegar and Ferraris!
As I followed him away from the motorway and the stifling heat of the plains of central Italy, the road opened up to reveal the most incredible landscape of rolling hills and, in the distance, mountains – the Apennines of Emilia on the west coast of the country, a relatively unknown part of Italy and almost completely undiscovered by anyone other than the Italians!
Each corner we rounded revealed a new panorama and as the road started to climb I gasped aloud at the beauty, the fecundity of the land, the great swathes of rich farmland dotted with groves and woods and all shimmering in the crystal clear air.
After about 20 minutes of switchback-like corners, we arrived at the top – about 800 metres above sea level – and, turning through a gap in the trees we entered a courtyard around which were several barns, a couple of houses built in the local creamy grey stone with terracotta roofs and then, rounding the corner we stopped before the most magnificent old manor house. Three storeys high with wooden shuttered windows, graceful archways, yet more barns and a lovely if slightly unkempt garden. There were also several farm cats dotted around, sleeping in the sunshine.
I had arrived in heaven! Exclamations of wonder, surprise and delight tumbled from my lips, I’d never been anywhere so magical.
Getting out of the car, my friend grinned at my surprise and welcomed me to the house of his family who had lived there continuously since 1620. I could almost see the ghosts of their ancestors hovering at the windows, wondering who was the new arrival.
We walked into the main room, dominated by a huge fireplace, several comfy sofas and armchairs and a massive oak table surrounded by dining chairs. They’d even managed to squeeze in two enormous oak dressers full of glass and china.
Leading me on an impromptu conducted tour into the kitchen, the scullery, the cantina (filled with numerous bottles of local wines and Prosecco!) and the other rooms I wandered around in a daze, marvelling at the displays of copper pans, cooking utensils of every shape and size, a massive stone sink (with no plug!) and a rickety old window through which appeared a grey tabby cat, Mimi.
She made a beeline for me and wound herself around my feet emitting little meeps of welcome. My friend was astonished because, apparently, she is not known for liking people much – preferring her owner, the 87 year old patriarch of the house who was sadly not in residence that particular weekend.
The three storeys contained numerous bedrooms, several bathrooms, huge cool terracotta floored hallways, stone staircases, hidden corners and lots of big oak furniture – a bit like the Professor’s house in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe!
Moving outside into the sunshine, we then took a turn around the garden, the overflowing orchard, alive with the sound of birds and insects, the farm cats scampering around, not at all afraid of us.
At the end of the “tour”, my friend stopped at the long low building, connected to the caretaker’s house by a stone-floored loggia, and, opening the door, we stepped into the Tavernetta – a perfect little house comprising sitting room with fireplace and massive wood-burning stove set into a wall which, acting as a room divider, separated it from the kitchen and by an ingenious method kept the entire house warm. There was also a good sized shower room (with obligatory bidet!) and a perfect-sized double bedroom with massive fitted cupboards.
When I’d stopped oohing and aahing in delight, my friend asked me if I’d like to rent it and move down from Verona, as it would cost me a fraction of what I was paying there and I could stay there all year if I wanted. The rent he mentioned was affordable and I jumped at the chance, little knowing that moving to this extraordinary place would change my life so much. For, from adversity came opportunity beyond my wildest imaginings!
Of course I said “Yes” immediately and we agreed that I would return in a couple of weeks to meet Signore S the owner, who at 87 years of age, turned out to be one of the most interesting, intelligent, amusing and generous people that I had ever met. He was, apparently, equally struck by me and seemed happy to welcome me into the “family”, both the blood and adopted varieties.
Talking to him, I began to understand what a special part of the world this is. Not only is it famous for it’s organic cheese, meat, bread and dairy products – all produced in the nearby villages, it is the heartland of a fascinating Medieval personage, Matilde of Canossa, who upon unexpectedly inheriting her father’s lands and titles in the late 11th century, became the benefactress of a huge swathe of the country, building, enlarging and endowing 100 churches, abbeys and pilgrim hostels. She spent most of her time in our local town, Carpineti in her eyrie, the Castello di Carpineti, from where she and her close friend, Pope Gregory VII, spent much time, overhauling the then corrupt priesthood and trying to win back self-governance for the people of her domain.
Matilde’s castle of Carpineti… still standing after almost a thousand years (and now home to a great bar/trattoria selling artisan beers and wines!)
So, as a result of perceived misfortune, Geisha and I moved to, what I have christened the Hamlet. She loved it, after having only had a little balcony in Verona from which to watch the world go by and even the farm cats, recognising that she was a venerable old lady, left her in peace to wander around the garden and lie in the sunshine.
Two years on, I am part of the Hamlet family, I am known and accepted by the locals – not least because I am “under the protection” of Signore S which counts for a lot as he is well respected, has always treated everyone with kindness and fairness and genuinely cares about preserving the traditions and life of this wonderful part of the world.
My life here is so rich and interesting, the people so welcoming and the everyday experiences so joyful, that I have begun writing stories of my time here – Tales from the Hamlet – which I happily share with you. I hope you enjoy them!
© Cassandra Campbell-Kemp 2018