I was baffled. My Lunigiana resource pages were humming with visitors. I live in the Lunigiana, and I had no clue as to why it had suddenly become a hot destination.
The article is one of those typical “search for the stats and spit them out” articles that lacks the kind of substance that used to be found in magazines and newspapers. It paints the Lunigiana as a paradise for retirees without giving any idea of what one might expect to encounter if one plunked down a good chunk of change for a ruined farmhouse before starting the dream of the Tuscan good life.
Since the mass media has syndicated the Kipplinger report, and the Chicago Tribune has paid me the backhanded compliment of stealing one of my pictures to flesh out this teaser, the number of folks contacting us for information has increased greatly. It is obvious they have no idea of what they’re getting into. Perhaps the scribbling below will help curious almost-retired folks to decide for or against the Lunigiana as a likely place to land.
First, back to the mother article that spawned this media frenzy:
The Lunigiana region of northern Tuscany is home to a network of villages connected by well-marked hiking paths.
Ah, very, very nice. Tranquillo we might say. Do we need to mention that the Lunigiana is really three valleys carved deeply into the Apennines? I’m talking mountains here. Yes, everyone knows about the trails folks used in the old days to get to the donkey trader’s shack. But this idyllic vision of a network of villages—I dunno. Has the writer ever been here? Where did this phrase come from?
Ok, so I looked it up. The phrase “network of ancient paths” is mentioned on lots of Lunigiana pages, but they’re all talking about the Cinque Terre. So that makes sense. The Cinque Terre is not the Lunigiana, however.
Don’t get me wrong, the Lunigiana has lots of trails. Mike over at A Path to Lunch has made it his job to show you the more compelling of these trails. People do walk the ridge-top paths on the occasional weekend. But people have cars here, and they use them.
And we take the train to the Cinque Terre.
There are many things you should know before you consider coming here. Language, for example, is a barrier. It’s not an insurmountable barrier, but if you think every restaurant is going to have a menu clearly written in English you’d better think again. In fact, I was astounded to find a restaurant menu in Aulla featuring an English translation. But then, reality hit. Would you really order ravioli to the juice of escapes? Well, if you wanted ravioli with scampi sauce you would. Let’s just concede here that you need to understand a little more Italian than you think you might. Being off the beaten track where the cheap housing is means you should also expect a lack of tourist infrastructure.
Dude, You Need a Helpmate in the Lunigiana
So you learn some food words. Great. What about your neighbors? How are you going to communicate? Maybe you don’t really communicate with your neighbors in Cleveland and it’s no big deal (I, in fact, know my Lunigiana neighbors about 100 times better than my California neighbors). But then, if you live in the U.S. (the target audience of the referenced article and its syndicated children) you live in a country where your manners don’t mean diddly when you have cold cash in your hands. In Italy things are strangely different. If you need to get around this bureaucracy, you’ll have to mind your manners in public and be very, very kind to the neighbor who knows how to get what you need. Interfacing. Favors. It’s how things get done.
I don’t mean you have to speak like a native. Heaven knows I don’t. A little helplessness might make you more worthy of a potential helper’s attention. But you need to know not only how to communicate your problem clearly, but how to make it understood that you might reciprocate some day. You need to spot and mark the person in your village who has taken pity on you and might smooth the way toward your dream. Then, when your gas gets turned off and you don’t know why, you have someone to go to. aiutami!
You need to cultivate relationships like the Lunigenese cultivate tomatoes and zucchini. By the way, when you try this, you just might find that you like it. You never know. It’s nice when your neighbors greet you pleasantly in the evening and ask what beautiful place you’ve visited that day.
Travel changes you if you let it. Living in a foreign country changes you more.
If you’re from the US, you’ll have to give up what the politicians and insurance company apologists call “the best health care in the world (sic).” You are entering the horrifying “single payer” zone in which people live a couple of years longer and the infant mortality rate is half what the horrifying US rate is. This may give you pause.
You’ll need to get a residency permit to get access to care. You can also buy private insurance in Italy. These are not easy things to do.
You also need to know that there’s no reciprocal agreement between the US and Italy regarding drivers licenses. You’ll need a residency permit to buy a car (but not to buy a house!) and you’ll need to pass the Italian driving test within a year of purchasing your car.
Your Dream House
Medieval stone houses with exposed beams and marble sinks provide a lot of eye candy for foreigners. They are darned pretty to gaze at. They are also damp in winter and the older ones without insulation are also darned near impossible to heat to the levels required by many folks from the U.S. And even if you only get that living room warm enough to where you stop shivering, you will be absolutely astounded by the heating bills. That’s why there’s cheap wine and grappa. You’ll need it.
Italian houses are also likely to have several stories. That means stairs, of course. And if they’re in the 15th century configuration, those stairs mean you have to go down them bent-over. Yes, the people of the middle ages were considerably shorter, or maybe didn’t mind bending as much. If you are particularly tall and don’t bend, your head will likely be ripped clear off by the time you’ve almost gotten to the final landing. There can be a severe lack of clearance. Check that out before buying.
Oh, and marble sinks? Well, they do look interesting. But don’t lay a cut lemon upon one. Don’t leave a spoon with acidy tomato sauce on one. The former eats the polished surface clean up, the latter stains it. Forever.
And doors and shutters. There are no “Shutters Are Us” stores where you buy a cheap set made by political prisoners in China for a Euro and a half that don’t shut properly but otherwise do the job. Shutters are expensive.
The Cost of Food
Food in the Lunigiana costs slightly more than a Californian pays at a typical supermarket. The good news is that if you actually like good food and prefer artisan-produced cheeses and salumi, or what we call “cold-cuts” you’ll have an unbelievably huge selection at prices well below what you’d pay in the US. If you’re a wine drinker there are many cheap wines, and you can even go to the wine shop and fill your bottles with decent wine—often for less than 2 euros apiece. Great wine will cost you about the same as it costs in the US, if not slightly more.
So I Think I’ll Try the Lunigiana for a Year
Um…hold on there—if you’re from the U.S. there are rules—like you can’t just come to Italy and stay for longer than 90 days. And no, you can’t leave for a day and come back to a freshly reset clock, either, no matter what your Uncle George says. A tourist visa is automatic (with your US passport) and allows you to come look around for three months. Any more and you’ll have extra paperwork to shuffle. And it’s not easy. (See: How Long Can I Stay in Europe?)
For now, these are the things I can think of that are vastly different than they are in the US. The rest of this blog is full of other differences that are more nuanced.
These are just some things to consider if you’re in the first planning stages of getting out of Dodge. You’ll need to know much more before buying a house or doing all the paperwork for residency, which is way beyond the scope of this article.
We do, however, have some resources available. Tips on Buying Property in Italy for example.
In fact, my neighbor Francesca is selling her family house in the Lunigiana, in the delightful town of Fivizzano. It looks a wreck, but it’s an old, solid house that could use your care, and could end up to be a fabulous investment. The pictures will give you some indication of what is typically needed in a house that’s been abandoned for many years. See: Fivizzano House for Sale
If you need help in visiting the area to see if it suits you, and wish to have someone “on the ground” in the Lunigiana to be your eyes and ears in looking out for suitable property, we’ve just learned of a new endeavor and have interviewed the owner, Karen Feeney of Italy Homes and Gardens. Contacting them might be a time (and hassle) saver for potential homeowners or long term renters in the Lunigiana.
And don’t get me wrong. I live in a 16th century house in a tiny village and I’m giddy with happiness at being here. (Then again, I have a pellet stove and neighbors who help me fix it when it decides to belch ugly, black smoke.) I just figured you should be informed before you start spending valuable time planning to retire in a place you’ll come to hate because it isn’t anything like Our Town in the US.