I suppose we did have things turned around a bit. I’m told that most people visit a place before deciding to move there, but we’ve never been conventional in our approach to life-changing decisions. We concluded that we should move to Puglia and THEN we visited, not so much to confirm that we had made the right decision, but even WE were not going to buy a house without seeing it in person.
Our on-line real estate research exposed a large selection of homes available for purchase in Puglia, so many that we had to limit our search to the area between the Adriatic coast cities of Bari to the north and Brindisi to the south, an area generally referred to as the Valle d’Itria. In all, we arranged to meet with ten real estate agents over a four-day period and see thirty-three properties.
I’m not sure what we expected to find when we began our tour of homes in Puglia on a sunny September morning but, after the sixth property, Jessica and I wore discouragement and disappointment on our long faces. The photos on the websites were so enticing and the homes we picked to visit seemed to be so right for us but the realities were quite different. We learned what “70 square meters” looks like. Cramped. We discovered that “in the countryside” means that the property is impossible to get to without a GPS. We found that many of the places on the market were the holiday homes of Brits set up to accommodate two or three families on vacation, but not to serve as a permanent residence. Most were worn and fit-out “rustically.” Bathrooms were of colors unknown to us and the kitchen cupboards, instead of having cabinet doors, had thin drapes that slid open and closed on a wooden dowel. We saw trulli, the ubiquitous, conical-rooved buildings unique to the Valle d’Itria and, while Europeans were hot to buy them to holiday in, we found them to be uninhabitable, dark and claustrophobic. “I think Yoda lives in a trullo,” Jessica whispered to me. We were beginning to question our plan, but our patience was to be rewarded with the last property we were to see on our first day of touring.
It is not an overstatement to say that our lives changed when we met Colleen. To her and her partner in business and in life, Francesco, we owe more than we can ever repay. We had arranged to meet Francesco at 4:00 pm on our first day but, when I called to confirm, the British-accented woman with whom I spoke said that Francesco had been called out and that, instead, we would be seeing two properties with her. As instructed, we met her at the offices of Real Estate Cisternino. As we entered the establishment, Colleen arose from the desk and greeted us warmly. Tall, blonde and with a figure suitable for the runway, Colleen reprised the lilted tones of England that I heard on the phone a bit earlier. We got into our rented car and I drove as Colleen navigated.
The first place she took us to was, at least, a single-family, permanent (more-or-less) residence. It was owned by an elderly British couple, the gentleman of which had, unfortunately, fallen ill and they had gone back to England for his treatment. The relatively large three-bedroom home was in decent condition and had some attributes (such as central heating and a second bathroom) that some of our candidates did not. On seeing it, Jessica and I began to feel a bit more encouraged about finding a place that would suit us, though we both knew that this was not it. First of all, we weren’t sure that we would ever be able to find it again. We knew from the website description that the property was near a town called Ceglie Messapica but, after turning off of the main road between Ceglie and Cisternino, we took such a series of one-lane, dirt tracks that even Colleen seemed, at times, confused. A single bottle of wine at dinner in town would certainly have rendered us utterly incapable of finding our way home, regardless of how long we might have lived there. Second, the house clearly needed a good deal of work and we had, early on, decided that we absolutely would not take on a renovation project in a foreign country from 5,000 miles away.
Which takes us to the second, and last property presented to us by Colleen. Called “Villa Marinelli” on the website, it was described as follows:
“Located in the hilltop village of Contrada Marinelli which borders the towns of Locorotondo and Cisternino; an unusually large villa of 150 square meters, in reasonably good structural condition with the added benefit of numerous additional outside storage areas. The surrounding land is approximately 4,500 square meters. The property requires some upgrading as the style dates back to the 1980s.”
We arrived at the villa in Marinelli late that afternoon. Ten minutes later, I knew that I was home.