FINDING JOY

The Quest

Finding a villa in Italy took two years.
Long summer days under skies dressed in denim-blue. Years spent smelling the espresso, sipping Negronis at Aperitivo o’clock and passing art and culture so thick you could paste it on bruschetta.

Umbrian Bruschette by Debbie Oakes

For two years I bumbled around Central Italy on fast trains, slow trains, full trains, regional trains and late trains. Never knowingly under-packed and not speaking a word of Italian. It’s nothing short of amazing I made it anywhere. It’s nothing short of a miracle that my bag did! But eventually I travelled the length and breadth of Tuscany and Umbria. Never losing faith. I knew I would find that home glimpsed at the edge of my dreams.

View over Tuscany and Umbria from Villa Gioiella by Debbie Oakes

A few months before the first adventure I closed my eyes and tried to visualise home. I saw sun-baked piazzas. I could feel the warmth of summer sun painting my skin. The smell of blushing tomatoes added a lusty fragrance to the breeze as it rustled through the olive trees. My mouth filled suddenly with an ache for the musky flavour of truffles and deep green aroma of fresh-pressed olive oil.
I needed to hear lovers loving, neighbours chatting, couples fussing, fighting and making up…
I needed passion like I needed air.
After years of squashing myself into a voiceless toned-down version; I needed to silence the white noise, the slow rusty creak of a failing marriage. I needed expressiveness. I needed to literally and figuratively find myself amongst people who assumed that right before their first cappuccino.
‘Tuscany’ floated into my mind. I had never been there or knew anything about it. But the word had a magical ring to it somewhat like ‘Provence’. So, fuelled by Paulo Coelho’s quote: “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” (and a generous dash of red wine), I went to Tuscany. It could, for all intents and purposes, have been a Godforsaken hole where women were repressed. That would have been disappointing.

The quest eventually had me scaling vertiginous goat trails in the Apennines, trekking wild boar tracks through chestnut forests and climbing up winding hilltops built on Etruscan towns. All the while, bag in tow, listening longingly and ironically, in enforced linguistic mute, at the expression and poetry of a language that old men sang on trains. I did find houses in the process. Lots of houses. Good, bad and ugly… but houses that are ‘the ones’ are notoriously hard to find. Especially on my budget.
Finding Joy

Gioiella by Debbie Oakes

With the vivid recall of a lovelorn teenager; I remember when the day finally came. I wasn’t supposed to be there. And, strictly speaking, I wasn’t in Tuscany. Winter had started to ride the wind, gathering yellow leaves and velocity as it passed over the sunburnt heads of farmers harvesting grapes and olives. During the summer I thought I had seen every converted windmill and farmhouse for sale this side of Hadrian’s Wall. Somehow, due to a conspiracy of circumstance, I was back for ‘one last look’. Zooming up and down the sweet rolling hills on the border of Umbria and Tuscany, along an ancient Etruscan trade route now called Via Garibaldi. I was smack-bam in the middle of wineland between Lake Trasimeno and Lake Chiusi, with Real Estate agents, Titti and Francesca. It was so much fun I forgot I was searching for something. So much so in fact, that when I finally found it, it was a surprise.
Francesca slowed down (relatively) as we gossiped and entered a hamlet called Gioiella. It was sunbathing sleepily on a hilltop between Montepulciano (famed for its Vino Nobile) and Cortona (famed for being Under the Tuscan Sun). The village was lined with the most colourful houses I had seen in Umbria: pink, yellow and grey-blue. Francesca did a sharp left and pulled into a narrow driveway tucked behind Chiesa San Lorenzo, the village church. And there it stood in ‘Piazza Piccola’, a mere skip to the local Bar Ruota. Its higgledy-piggledy brickwork glowed warmly in the autumn sun. The shuttered windows and tall frontage gave off and aura of centuries of refuge. Then, like finding Narnia through the wardrobe, gobsmacking views of Tuscany and the Valdichiana waited on the other side. That’s when I knew: I had found the one.

Valdichiana from Villa Gioiella by Debbie Oakes

There is a legend that Gioiella was named after a beautiful innkeeper who once-upon-a-time lived in the village. And, depending on whom you ask, Gioiella means ‘little treasure’ or ‘slice of joy’. It all sums it up perfectly.
I had found my joy.