I don’t want to leave. I’m pressed in embrace against Leslie, and it’s like I’m frozen. I know that when we part, I will have to join my family in the car, and leave her forever.
Or maybe, just maybe, this time I’ll be back.
I am an ADHD traveller. I rarely go to the same place twice. The world is too big. There is always something in the corner of my eye to distract me, and I am often planning my next holiday while the last still continues. But there are two places I have stayed that I know I will return to, and one of them is this particular house in Umbria. Leslie is it’s manager.
Tartagli Bassi is on the outskirts of Paciano – far enough from the centre to have grounds and a pool, but close enough to stagger to and from dinner each evening. The town is medieval – stacked slim red roman bricks, jutting walls, arches, shady alleys and an open square flanked with chairs and tables, where grandmothers and grandfathers drink from tiny wineglasses, while their children drink from beer bottles and thump the fuzball table, and their children’s children run around the fountain, playing the Italian version of olly olly oxen free.
Outside the walls, the landscape drops off rapidly, winding its way past the wonderful L’Oca Bruciata, and the heaving tabac, which serves the best coffee I’ve had in years. Then on one side, the roads continue down, down, past the church, full to the brim on Sundays and Wednesdays, then the co-op, terraced olive groves and finally into the plains of crunchy sunburned sunflowers, hanging heavy with seeds, completely sick and tired of the heat. On our side the road winds further up, becoming narrower, then gravelled. The houses thin, we are out of breath – the incline is steeper. We pass Senora in her garden. It’s 40°C, and she’s at least 70, but she’s there as always, trimming, sweeping, pruning her masterpiece. Just before our lungs explode we are home.
It’s a generous house. Geraniums sit in scattered rustic bowls atop slate retaining walls. Their vibrant pink and red contrast with the smokey-coloured and chunky stone walls. Inside it’s cool. The terracotta tiles look hundreds of years old, and the kitchen is like something out of a cookbook. A large keg of the house’s own olive oil is propped under the bench for us, tiny drips of gold left on the floor. It tastes like capsicum and pepper. It’s furnished in that careless-but-interiors-magazine way, lamps, cushions, tables and curtains that I would never buy, but here look like a family when placed together.
The garden is similarly planned to look unplanned. There’s an ancient well (thankfully sealed to stop the kids jumping in), an overhead archway of grape vines, and further down, another. It’s been so hot this year they are sweet already. The property stretches up the hill, with about a hundred aged olive trees. Every day Carlo shuffles in to nurse them. It seems the aged make the best gardeners in this part of the world. The pool stretches out to welcome the views and the sunset, and we often sit in it with our arms out holding a Prosecco in one hand and a novel in the other. But it’s hard to read – we keep getting distracted by the colours of the folded hills as the sun comes down, and the warming effect they give to the plum and fig trees beneath us.
Leslie is a treasure as much as the house itself is, an American who doesn’t ever seem to live in America. She knows everything about the region, secrets we would never have discovered on her own. One night she brought her friend Katia around to cook for us. She showed us how to make the perfect risotto, while we ate antipasti, then she stuffed us with roasted pork and pannacotta while we found out all about the italian male’s role in the kitchen. None.
Tartagli Bassi is in the centre of all things beautiful. Every other day we explore further afield – Orvieto, Montepulciano, Chiusi, Citta della Pieve, Castelione del Lago, Isola Maggiore, Magione, Cortona, Siena, and just three kilometres away, quaint Panicale, the big sister to Paciano with two charming and excellent restaurants. But we find that sometimes we don’t have enough time just to sit by the pool and stare at the view. And that’s it’s only problem. There is simply too much to do, and too much to see. It’s why I simply must come back.
So how do you find the perfect holiday house in Europe? The answer is research, and understanding what you value. Is a pool important? Do you need to work, and need wi-fi? Do you want to be away from it all, or meet the locals? Do you want country charm or modern comfort? Do you want to bother learning the language? (If not, stick close to major tourist attractions) Remembering that I am travelling with my family (two young children), often with others, have answered “yes”, “yes”, “locals”, “country charm” and “yes” to the previous questions, the places I have found to be the best had many similarities:
- Owned by someone of my own culture (I’m not trying to be racist here – it’s just that people of your own culture will usually have similar values and expectations, and if something goes wrong – which is often the case in very old houses – the service/refund you receive will probably be what you regard as appropriate.)
- Lived in by the owner in an adjoining property or at other times of the year (this means that they understand the local area, and love it enough to spend time there – not just invest their money in it.)
- On the edge of a village, not necessarily a large town, just somewhere big enough to have a grocer and a restaurant. (Who wants to cook every night? But in-village houses are smaller and often have no gardens)
- Close enough to several attractions to warrant many fun-filled day trips.
- Booked through one of the bigger holiday letting sites. (I like www.holidaylettings.co.uk and www.ownersdirect.co.uk), with good reviews on site.
- And, because we nearly always go in summer, a pool (which is ALWAYS too cold)
- About the same price of a two-star hotel per room per night in the same region for very good livable quality, more for luxury.
More Umbria and Tuscany coming in following posts. Next stop – Cortona.