A bone-chilling buzz from a drill breaking through into stone walls built to withstand centuries. The clang of hammers ricocheting from one dwelling to another, echoing in waves along the cobblestones. Metal scraping metal like tapered fingernails across a chalkboard. Voices of workers rising and falling in a head-scratching, spin-cycle of disagreement and debate.
For more months than I care to remember, this was our daily symphonic-surround-sound living in the historic center of Lucca.
By late last summer, about the same time when Matt and I accepted an offer for the sweet little apartment featured on House Hunters International, it seemed that every neighbor on our street was undertaking their own renovation project. Meanwhile, the facade of our very own 17th century building was covered in scaffolding in preparation for a facelift, and ensuring accompaniment from a gong-heavy percussion section.
Italy’s “Super Bonus” tax rebate was in full swing – more on this topic below – and, when you consider our growing desire for more living space, coupled with this constant noise, dust and chaos, is it any wonder we began to explore different notes?
“What if we move…
…OUTSIDE THE CITY?” we asked, letting that question hang quietly in the air as a new dream began to swirl.
Anyone who knows me in the least realizes the radical nature of that thought. I’ve never not lived inside a city. Even growing up in southern Alabama, in a town with the nickname “Circle City” for the highway loop which separates those in the heart of the city from the surrounds, while most of my friends’ families resided outside the circle, in the new, tawny suburbs, my family lived in an inner city neighborhood built in the early 1950s – historic by American standards.
I’m scratching my head with the realization that I’ve moved across the world to, once again, live inside the loop of a circular city. There are so many bubble metaphors here, I don’t know where to begin. We’ll just let that be for now.
For those not familiar with the geography of Lucca, in short, the heart of the ancient town is defined by a grid pattern devised by the Romans. In the 2nd century, those ever-crafty engineers and builders also created a massive ring of defense walls to encircle and safeguard the strategically-located gem. As time marched on and new rulers emerged, Lucca continued to prosper and grow. A new ring of fortification was completed in 1270 during the Medieval era, expanding the city’s footprint by encompassing new neighborhoods developed outside the original Roman footprint. Then on the winds of the Renaissance, a visionary project began in the mid-1600s to create a new ring of walls, enlarging the city’s perimeter, and once again, bringing the outside, in. These are the walls you see today, beautifully preserved and stretching in an unbroken perimeter of 4.2 kilometers, rising almost 33 feet high in some spots. Today, on top of the walls, you find the most magnificent city park, a green-space-dream for runners, walkers, and cyclists.
From the heights of the ‘Muri di Lucca’ (walls of Lucca), you can gaze into the city’s tight nestle of buildings, towers, and churches, leaning together and forming one continuous marvel of human accomplishment. You can also peer over to the “outside,” to the green, leafy suburbs surrounding the city. In the distance, you see the mountains, often crowned with snow. No matter how many times you take in this scene, it’s dramatic and jolting. You realize that from any point within the city, it’s easy to reach a gate granting access to this outside world, yet – as near as it may be – it feels apart and distant. As a local perfectly summarized for us, “Living inside the walls of Lucca is like living on an island.” That’s exactly how it feels, minus marine life.
“Are we really ready to leave the island?” we began asking ourselves.
Dipping Our Toes in the Water
We vowed to give this question open space to breath, no perimeters or limitations. Properties are generally less expensive and more spacious outside the walls. Plus, it’s much easier to find the balcony and garden space we crave. There’s even the possibility of scoring an independent house or townhome (known as a terratetto). Maybe we can have the best of both worlds with a move to just the other side of the wall, keeping the city always in sight, sort of like a safety blanket? Or, maybe we should venture further into the surrounding hills? A small village along the train or bus line could be a sweet, sweet spot.
While being open is swell, how do you begin a house search in a wide-open field? We set out with three key directives. #1: Bicycle, Bus, or Bust. We’ve lived carless since leaving the U.S. in 2015 and, at this point, have no desire to buy or even lease an auto. The goal is to utilize public transportation – whether by bus or train – paired with foot and pedal power to reach all needs, from markets and restaurants to airports and hospitals. Walkability is one of the aspects we enjoy most about life in Europe, after all.
#2: The R-factor. “We would be crazy to ever do that again,” we say those words each time we complete a renovation project – and there have been a few. Then, before we know it, the yearning comes from nowhere and kicks into high gear. You renovators out there know this feeling. It’s a glorious addiction, if ever there was such a thing. Renovating the last apartment in Lucca was an education in local culture and language, not to mention, ancient architecture paired with modern design. Though it was incredibly stressful at times, we loved the process and are proud of the work. There’s no better feeling than leaving a historic space better and healthier than how you found it. For us, large-scale renovation works are a must.
Which brings us back to Italy’s building “super-bonus.” This program is the catalyst for all of the chaos in our neighborhood, and now, it’s also our re-construction catnip. To boost the economy and get workers back on the job during the pandemic, Italy introduced the shot-in-the-arm Bonus Program. In some cases, the government will refund homeowners 110% for renovation works, everything from renewing building facades and installing solar panels to replacing old and inefficient windows, doors, kitchens and bathrooms. For anyone in need of home works – which is most people in the country – the incentives are, by design, irresistible.
And, finally, #3. It must be a rock-solid investment. This last one may seem like a given for any real estate purchase, but, the stakes are higher when you are only a guest in a country. What happens if a day comes when we can no longer live in Italy? We must be reasonably sure that any apartment or house we buy has a good chance of solid resale, without issue, if necessary. Finding a property in need of renovation and priced accordingly is our smartest bet.
I should also mention here this is where having a killer team in place is crucial. As with the last property purchase in Lucca, for this one, we run everything – I mean, everything – by our real estate agent, geometra, accountant, and notary. Having a team to explore all aspects of a property – and go running with you down the “what-if’s” path is key. I’ll write more soon on the roles of each of these invaluable professionals.
Defining Our Own Perimeter
We took the “further afield” idea seriously, briefly considering other regions. During a three-week road trip to Trentino and Veneto, we explored listings in a favorite neighborhood near the historic center of Trento and along the shores of Lake Caldonazzo. Meanwhile, I did my best to convince Matt that it could be in our best interest to move directly onto “Prosecco Road” in Valdobbiadene, an investment of a different sort. He wasn’t buying.
Overall, even though we told ourselves we were open, now I’d say, these efforts were half-hearted. With every passing day of distance, our minds and hearts were slowly being pulled back by the thread connecting us to Tuscany. How I wish you could have been in the rental car with us on the last day of that roadtrip. We had spent hours, together with realtor and friend Lorrain, culling a list of properties located in the hills between Lucca and the sea. Each selection would be reachable by train or bus, yet too distant to walk or cycle from Lucca. The rental car was our chance to pinpoint these options.
I navigated directions – a shade of nightmare all its own – while Matt navigated the tiny Fiat up narrow mountain roads. With the list of 15 or so resting on my lap, I looked from the printed photo up to a house resting in front of us. “Nope,” I’d say, as Matt was already shifting into reverse. With some, there were no words required. I’d sigh as his foot hit the gas. In most cases, it’s not that the house was terrible – though, in some case…yikes! – it was more the feel of a place. Either there were no neighbors in sight or too many stacked on top, with a few junky-yards to boot. Two or three were hemmed in by dark forests, while another sat almost directly on train tracks. Most were further from a café or bus stop than the listing would have you believe. The realization of being outside, really outside, of a city began to sink in.
“You wanna live here?” became Matt’s question as we approached the vicinity of where a house might be. He knew the answer before he asked, every time. I guess it was an exercise we had to go through to be certain. With that list thrown into the recycling bin, we re-centered our focus:
Target update: A stone’s throw from the center of Lucca became our range.
Our trusty real estate Lorrain and I kicked into high gear. I began searching online for hours every day, passing along possibilities to Matt for reconnaissance, cycling-style. As soon as he returned home, I could read the review on his face. “You wouldn’t like it, trust me,” he’d say, day after day. So, on the few occasions, when his eyes lit up, I’d already be hotlining Lorrain for a viewing before the “maybe,” rolled off his lips. We were relentless, “officially” viewing upwards of two dozen properties in and around Lucca in less than three weeks. If you count the drive-by, run-by, cycle-bys, well, the number soars into the 50s to 60s, easy. Once we narrowed down options, there were four properties which we returned to for second, third, even fifth and sixth viewings! We brought geometra Matteo along for several viewings, a true indication of serious intent, if ever there was one. “We’d like to see it again, this time in the late afternoon light,” we’d say. “Then, tomorrow, we will come in early morning.” And, after a particularly soaking rain event? Yep, we dashed the next morning into another round of viewings to spy for leaks and water issues. Matt and I are nothing if not diligent.
Aside from the key criteria mentioned above, we are desperate for more space. Our current apartment is about 85 square meters (approximately 900 feet), which we didn’t view as even remotely small, until…pandemic. Now that we spend most of our time at home, using it as a living space, cycling workshop, writing zone, art studio, cafe, restaurant, yoga and meditation space – well, we are tripping over each other constantly. Which brings us to the concept of “open living space.” Of that 85 meters, nearly half is dedicated to the open lounge/dining room/kitchen we created by removing a series of walls. It looks great and flows well, especially for entertaining. But, it’s impossible for one person to do anything requiring concentration in this space without the other person needing to walk through.
Take for instance the one (and only) Zoom yoga class I tried to join on a cold, rainy day. With my laptop set up in the lounge to ensure ample mat space, I began sun salutations with the group, camera on. Then my husband walked through to reach the kitchen. He was wearing a bathrobe. He would have to cross again to leave the kitchen. Knowing this man and his gravitation to all things located in the kitchen, I knew this wasn’t going to work. There’s no mat space without Matt space. Ditto for writing at the dining room table. The result has become my takeover of our small master bedroom for writing and painting and his claim of the small guest room for listening to investment podcasts, meditation, and indoor cycle training. Doable, but far – far, far, and far – from motivational.
120 square meters would serve us well. We would also prefer a separate kitchen and lounge area, for the reasons above, but also because in our experience and for our personal style, it works better. In both of the homes we’ve owned previously in the US, we created separate kitchen, dining room, and living room space. This makes us atypical – aka weirdos – in this era of “open plan” living, but we have now learned from experience that we prefer distinct zones. Personally, I don’t want to see dirty dishes in the kitchen while enjoying dinner at the table. For Matt, he likes turning up music or a podcast while cooking without interfering with whatever I’m up to in the lounge.
Some sort of outdoor space, whether balcony, terrace, or garden, is also essential. And, of course, a good view is always on the wish list. Though, we are fully aware that it will be nearly impossible to match our current view.
Other than those requirements, we are open to different options and configurations.
And, boy, have we seen them all! We’ve viewed everything from 13th century farmhouses with tiny rooms and enormous potential to new construction shells waiting to be customized. Every property is highly-unique and singular – no cookie-cutter communities here – and, each has a long list of pros and cons. And, in an aspect I love about searching for property in Italy, each home or apartment offers new opportunities to learn about the region and its inhabitants. Each place provides a new window from which to experience and immerse in this beautiful country.
Budget-wise, we are looking for a property priced not too far above the selling price of our current apartment, especially considering projected renovations. In the region of Tuscany, the average cost per square meter is approximately 2250 euro. So, for instance, with a target of 120 meters, that would be approximately 270,000 euro. However, Lucca breaks all these rules! With the popularity of Lucca for Italian as well as foreign buyers, those averages are significantly higher – especially when there’s outdoor space involved. Still, looking outside the city walls helps our budget tremendously.
We thought you might enjoy coming along with us for the search, because who doesn’t like a little property voyeurism, right? Especially, in bella Italia!
I’ll share a handful of the most interesting prospects with you over the next few weeks, before revealing our decision. Because…YES, we have made a decision! (hooray!!!). Naturally, we don’t want to jinx anything before the official closing, though. Once the papers are signed, we’ll gladly share the news with you!
Okay, for your property-dreaming-pleasure, here’s the first round of considerations:
The River-Fever Dream
Located on the banks of the Serchio River, just a fifteen-minute walk from the city, we fell for this gorgeously eclectic independent, four-story home – yep, you read that correctly: a stand-alone, four-floor house! If you read the story about how we “accidentally” sold our apartment, you will remember this is the property which set this new quest into motion. It’s a house with the power to inspire dreams.
Location: 15-20 minutes walk from city.
Size: Approximately 300 square meters
Reno potential: Needs new facade and roof work outside. Inside, it needs works to convert from 3 individual apartments into one home.
Pros: There’s so much space! Three floors, currently composed of an independent apartment on each level. Imagine the renovation project to turn this into a cohesive, single-family home. In addition, there’s two huge ground floor spaces, currently used as wood-working studios, which can be transformed into a bike room for Matt and art studio for me.
All the windows are massive, allowing in ample natural light. And, then, there’s those original tessiere floors which I love.
And, what about that huge terrace? It’s as big as a dance floor! And, of course, there’s the beautiful river views.
Cons: It’s a BUDGET-BUSTER (every one of those caps is intentional).
And, really, what would we do with this much space?
While one side of the house in directly on the river, the other faces a busy road. And, while it’s only a 15-20 minute walk to Lucca, the path involves crossing one of the burliest intersections and bridges you can imagine. Do we really want to do that every day?
Then, there’s the river. While the views are spectacular, what issues come with living on a river? Will the sound of constantly-rushing water be an issue? (Think: Salvador Dali and those crazy-inducing Cadaques winds). Even though the house is elevated high above the river, is flooding a concern? What about when the water isn’t moving…mosquitos? Funky smells?
While having a highly particular house and location is also a pro, could this make it more challenging to sell in the future?
Is the river dream secure enough to become our reality?
A Cathedral of Your Very Own
Initially, we went to view this property only for comparison’s sake as it’s in the same general direction and distance of the river house. It’s a ground-floor apartment in a three-story historic building in the hills outside town. We’ve always been pretty certain that we were not interested in a ground-floor space; that is, until we laid eyeballs on this eye-popping property. In this case, being ground floor comes with the most lovely, private garden of old-growth palm trees and flowering vines. There’s also a basement / cantina-space with laundry facilities and extra storage. But, that’s just the beginning of the surprising features.
Nestled on the side of the garden, you find a historic cistern which a previous owner has painted inside and installed mirror-stars to create a magical sitting area. And, most interestingly, there’s also a “rustico,” which the seller’s agent refers to as the cathedral – because, believe me, the term “barn,” just doesn’t do justice. And, indeed, our thoughts did veer spiritual as we considered possibilities for this massive space. We could take our time, over years, to renovate the barn, beginning with enclosing the walls, creating a mezzanine, installing flooring and adding windows, then go from there. “Build an indoor pool,” someone said. “It could be an art gallery or yoga studio,” another decided.
Oh, the possibilities.
Back to earth, the ground-floor interior is also appealing. The farmhouse style kitchen has a modern twist in the form of eye-popping ceramic tiles by famous designer Richard Ginori, and the main bathroom is a study in spa-like-relaxation and zen.
Location: 20 minutes walking from city.
Size: 120 square meters current living space, then there’s the barn project.
Reno potential: Inside, there’s work needed to create a moisture barrier on a back wall in the guest bedroom (remember it’s built into the ground). Outside, it’s a renovators dream…hello, cathedral barn!
Pros: How cool is this renovation potential? We’ve viewed several “barn-renovation” projects while living in Italy and have a good sense of how this space could be transformed into a luxurious and grand home.
The combination in the kitchen of that ancient brick oven and those mid-20th century floor tiles lights us up! We also like that the kitchen doors open onto a terraced seating area with steps down to the garden which overlooks the city of Lucca. The entire outdoor space is fenced and very private. And, with all of these artful outdoor spaces, can you image the dinner parties we could host?
Cons: Do we want to deal with moisture issues that could occur from being located on ground level? As interesting as the project could be, do we really want to take on a cathedral-sized renovation? Then, there’s the same concerns as with the river house. Even though it’s a relatively-short walk to Lucca, to get there, you must cross a busy road and traffic-mangled bridge.
The Sunshine House
I pushed Lorrain to view this one, located further away than any of the others, at about 3 miles from the center. I loved the look of the bright yellow portico, and though small, I saw huge potential. In fact, the current owners already have permits approved to enclose the portico with glass, creating a sublime, all-season sunroom.
The inside is a blank canvas (so blank, I forgot to take photos). There’s not a kitchen currently in place, so we can easily create a dream kitchen with two French doors opening onto the private, fully-fenced yard. Upstairs, there’s two bedrooms, a small study, and one bathroom, without much renovation required there. We were surprised by how spacious and open this sunny home feels.
Outside, there’s huge potential to create garden seating and sweet outdoor spaces. There’s even an existing foundation in back for building an outdoor structure like a bike-room-shed! The views fulfill that classic Tuscan dream of rolling hills, Cyprus trees, and vineyards…in every direction.
Later, when I asked Lorrain her thoughts on the house, she stayed quiet for a minute, then said, “It’s so much more beautiful than I thought it would be, in fact, I’d like to own that house. It’s a nice, normal house. Normal people would live there.” Then, she carefully broke the news, “You two are not normal people.” We all laughed, though I wasn’t quite sure how to take that assessment.
Location: 45 minute walk from the city.
Size: 120 square meters
Reno potential: Fairly straight-forward. Inside, we would create a new kitchen from scratch and update both bathrooms. Outside, we would build garden structures for outdoor seating as well as an independent cabina / bikelandia.
Pros: It’s fairly new construction, so none of the “quirks” of old properties.
From the sunny, open yard, you can see mountains in every direction. It feels very quiet and tranquil while still being near the city.
There’s beautiful walks right outside the door. And, just across the highway, there’s a pizzeria and hair salon, with a winery a bit further (what else could you need, really?).
Cons: It is located further from the city than we had planned. While there is work needed, it’s not an extensive renovation project. Then, there’s the property’s age…did we move to Italy to live in new construction?
Are we normal enough to live in this house? What does that even mean?
Do We Have a Winner Here?
Well, what do you think so far? If these were the only 3 choices, which would you choose? It will be fun to hear your thoughts!
I hope you enjoyed this little tour through our house search process. Stay tuned, there are two more of these updates featuring more properties to come in the next few weeks!
And, of course, “the decision” is coming soon.
Oh, the drama! And, oh, how grateful we are. Thanks for joining us on this journey.