Monday, May 28, 2012

Italy - Charming By Design


Country home in Tuscany

In my travels, I often ask locals what has changed in the last ten or twenty years? Were I asked the same of Paris, the answer would include new restaurants and hotels, subdivisions in the county, expanded school campuses, closing of Merico and Phillips Lighting, and the rejuvenation of downtown.  Yet, on a recent trip to Italy, that inquiry generated quizzical looks and slow  responses.   “Nothing” or “Not much” were typical answers.

That reply is exactly why tourists continue to be drawn by the millions to Italy, especially the Tuscany and Umbria areas. Italians know visitors have a certain vision of their country that does not include skyscrapers, billboards, or endless suburbs.  The country also values its long history and has adopted strict rules for renovation of old and construction of new buildings to maintain the “Italian look.”  Red tile roofs (whether real or fake polymer) are required in much of Italy.  Home paint colors are limited to warm, earth pastels such as ocher gold or terra cotta and if you want something else,  permission must be sought from local councils.

Foreigners are so drawn to la dolce vita - the dream of sipping wine on the back porch while watching the sun set across the hills of Tuscany - that real estate signs in hilltop Cortona are in English as are many of the real estate magazines.  Web sites such as Italy Assists and Italymag have forums for those seeking advice on renovation costs and rules - also in English.  But ex-pats need patience.  At one site, businesses are advised to expect a minimum of 135 days before approval of a warehouse building permit.  In recognition of the inefficiencies of the Italian bureaucracy, a new “rule of silence” in larger cities allows construction to begin if you haven’t heard anything from the authority in 180 days.  For residential renovations or new construction, the wait can be just as long.  (And we complain about the 5 days  Paris requires!)

Historical renovation can be even more challenging.  At Montegualandro Castle, just inside the border of the Umbria state, Franca Marti described the journey to renovate their very own castle.  She lamented,  “If one stone has fallen off the castle wall, it must remain there.”  Just the permission to rebuild took two years.  In “Under the Tuscan Sun,”, Frances Mayes writes of the challenges working with master stone builders, wrought iron blacksmiths, and electricians who had never installed a rheostat.  Her home was finished in three years - a time lapse Americans would never put up with.

Restored Milan Duomo
Governments (national and local) pour millions into restoring  cathedrals, palaces, museums, and stone streets inside the walled towns.  This effort brings other benefits for the Italians who live with their history in the maintained areas. As Frances Mayes wrote, the Italians “have the good instinct to bring the past along with them.”   Despite the huge tourist presence, these communities are still active with families who live in the family home, buy in 200 year old stores, and worship in  centuries old churches.  Our guide in Sienna grew up in the porcupine district of that beautiful city, one of 17 such family neighborhoods.  Babies are baptized in the local church as an infant but at age one, they are dipped in the local fountain and wrapped in the scarf of the district indicating they will belong forever to that contrada.

It’s been 43 years since my first visit to Florence  in 1969.  Other than pedestrian streets, a single McDonalds, and changing fashions in the clothes stores,  little has changed around the cathedral.  Even the pictures hung at the Uffizzi Museum are in the same rooms.  It is a city and country that are well-worn from tourist traffic but purposely retain the studied ambiance.  As a hotel owner in Bellagio proudly told me, “nothing has changed” in the last ten years.  I have counseled other travelers of the need to see certain places in the world before old buildings are demolished or modernized.    Italy is not one of those.  This land will be forever charming, thanks to a populace that embraces that which it shares - its history.

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