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In 1970, Elsa ("Inge") Lintner did what many of us often wish we had done - she ditched a successful career and bought a rambling old house surrounded by magnificent nature that she turned into her home for life.
A successful journalist and popular news anchor on Italy's RAI radio station, 30-year-old Lintner fell in love with the place at first sight.
"I arrived at 6 a.m., well dressed in white city clothes. The moment I entered, I realized that my heart belonged to this old house. I stayed all day and emerged that evening filthy, but happy. I had a good job, but left it behind. I was an intellectual who had never touched a flower or animal before, but inside felt that it was the right thing to do." Her children, Anna and Elisa, were then six and eight years old.
A generation later, Inge's is still the only house in the Rio Chiaro valley, a deep, forested gorge of towering cypress and fir trees an hour north of Rome. One of Napoleon's generals, the Prince of Montalon, built the two-story stone structure in 1786 as a corn mill. For over a century, the building's upper floor was used as a barn for horses, cows and donkeys. The mill was finally closed between the World Wars and never reopened.
By the time she bought it, the building was in a dilapidated state. With help from her many friends, she slowly began a three-decade-long renovation process.
"The house had no electricity or running water, but it did offer peace and time to be with my daughters. I worked hard for many years to make it what it is. My idea was to have a place where everybody can be healthy of body and mind - a place to relax. I thought I could do it without money," she laughs, sipping a glass of locally produced wine from one of the hundreds of cool, shady cellars dug into the surrounding hills. Wine production remains a local mainstay, although many of the myriad cave-cellars are no longer in use.
"During the early years, friends would come and donate 5,000 lire. After three or four years, I ran out of money."
HER SOLUTION was to introduce the then-unfamiliar concept of agro-tourism.
"Agro-tourism is not a hotel or restaurant. There was no tourism in the area in the early 1970s, and I was the first in the Viterbo region to promote tourism. Many of my guests came for extended periods and helped renovate the house and gardens. They included many artists and musicians who came for inspiration. It was a beautiful environment to bring up my girls."
Her hatchlings have long left their nest - a talented singer-songwriter, Anna is pursuing an international musical career, while Lisa is a biogenetics researcher in Mexico City.
The domicile exudes Inge's inner tranquility.
"This house is the love of my life. It's spacious, has character and fits my life philosophy. I'm very romantic," she says.
Most of the original fireplaces, masonry and wooden roof beams remain, as does the original red and gray flagstone living room floor. It's always cool inside the stone structure, even on the hottest of summer afternoons.
Almost every wall in the rambling house is adorned by a nature-inspired painting by her ex-husband Rosario, a former senior props designer in Rome's leading theaters and opera houses who continues to create canvas images in the cavernous living room.
A section of the building has been converted into two, fully-furbished guest apartments, complete with open fireplace and charmingly comfortable furnishings. Nowadays, she explains, most of her guests are returning extended family groups who stay for a week or longer and occasionally help out in the garden. The larger apartment, with ample space for six or seven people, rents for 650 Euros a week, while the smaller apartment has room for four people and costs 385 Euros. A party of 10 may rent the two connected apartments for 900 Euros. The house is closed to new guests during the winter months.
Inge never made much of an effort to advertise her discrete guesthouse, preferring word-of-mouth to draw the right clientele. The German-speaking native of the South Tyrol Dolomites near the Austrian border also speaks fluent Italian, English and French. A humble lady, she asked not to be photographed for this article.
"FOR 20 YEARS, it's been a place that people return to. Most of my guests have been Italians, but soon the Germans, British and Dutch began to arrive and my daughters grew up among many languages." A disproportionate number are tranquility-seeking Buddhists. We were only the second Israeli family to stay there.
Unlike neighboring Tuscany or Umbria, the area remains relatively unblemished by consumerism, with rustic villages clustered around a cobblestone piazza alongside an ancient church or castle, and dirt tracks often linking communities.
Few homesteads are enclosed by fences. "People still don't lock their doors in Catell Cellesi [the nearest village]," boasts Inge.
She spends much of her days tending to her organic vegetable garden or picking olives, cherries, wild berries or fruits that she cooks into succulent homemade jams and marmalades. During the 1990s, she planted 11,000 black currant, apricot, citrus and peach saplings.
"I used to produce 2,000-3,000 jars a year, and developed jam production into a sideline, but now I'm slowing down," she sighs.
She often invites her guests to join her in a quintessentially Italian lunch - pasta cooked with garden-fresh cherry tomatoes, basil and celery, sprinkled with succulent mozzarella and washed down by refreshingly tangy local wine.
Inge lives a simple, fulfilling life of abundance.
"Life is what you make of it," she shrugs.
That attitude soon wears off on her guests. Waking to a lyrical soundscape of birdsong and cricket chirps over a background gargle from a gently flowing stream, we took morning strolls through the surrounding hillsides to pick wild blackberries. On warm days, we dipped in the refreshing waterfall-fed nearby lagoon.
Lazy late breakfasts were usually followed by a day trip. In terms of location, the Viterbo province bordering on Lazio and Umbria is strategically close enough to reach a tremendous variety of interesting places - and still get home that evening.
The area is difficult to access without a car, so we rented one at the airport - a not insubstantial outlay that would have been lower had we booked in advance via the Internet and brought our own baby seat (car rental firms charge anything from 7 Euros a day to 35 Euros for the whole rental period for a child's car seat).
TO THE NORTH lies Tuscany. Enough superlatives have been poured on this justifiably fettered region, birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and wonderful wines with its 120 nature reserves. But be warned - on warm weekends, half of Italy seems to descend on the province, and the winding country roads become gridlocked.
The magnificent Umbrian hill town of Assisi, famous for the Cimabue, Giotto and Lorenzetti artwork in the Basilica di San Francesco, is another option for a long day out.
Closer to what soon felt like home, the Bolsena lake is slightly smaller than and almost as beautiful as the Kinneret. The fifth largest lake in Italy fed by numerous tributaries, Bolsena occupies the crater of an extinct volcano. A panoramic 60-km. road skirts the lake, passing near the shore at times, climbing the surrounding ridges at others. Oak and chestnut woods are interspersed with vine and olive cultivation around its edge, and typical Mediterranean scrub vegetation thrives on two islets.
The narrow, rocky beaches and well-tended lawns surrounding the lake are considerably cleaner than their privately run Israeli equivalents around the Kinneret.
The lake is rich in tench and carpand eels (a delicacy since Roman times), and the towns of Bolsena, Montefiascone, Marta, Capodimonte and Valentano have evolved from fishing villages. Our favorite (and least touristy) town was Marta, where we took sunset strolls along the lakeside promenade and treated ourselves to a wonderful fish dinner in a friendly local restaurant.
In terms of historical and archaeological discoveries, few towns in Italy can compete with Viterbo, but we were more interested in its spas. Spas in Viterbo date back to the age of the Etruscans, who first recognized the curative value of the town's hypothermal waters that contain mostly sulphureous-sulphate-bicarbonate-alkaline earthy substances. The town's modern spas offer every kind of treatment to bring out the therapeutic effects of its golden river.
STANDING ATOP a defendable high cliff, Orvieto is justifiably famous for its cathedral, one of the most amazing buildings this much-traveled writer has seen. A prime example of Italian Gothic style, the magnificent sanctuary - reached via narrow medieval alleyways packed with visitors - boasts an astoundingly ornate fa ade that soars seven stories high. Its panels are acknowledged as the most important examples of early 14th-century Italian sculpture. Begun by Lorenzo Maitani in the year 1300 and elaborate in its simplicity, the majestic building took over a century to complete - yet in typically Italian style, no one knows for certain who designed the Cathedral (probably an obscure monk named Fra' Bevignate da Perugia or the great Florentine architect Arnolfo di Cambio).
Fifteen minutes south of Orvieto, in the direction of Lake Bolsena, we came across an amazing site: Civita di Bagnoregio. Built over an Etruscan settlement almost 3,000 years old, the medieval hamlet is perched on the pinnacle of a narrow, pointed plateau 440 meters above sea level that has been steadily eroding away over the centuries. Periodically, another piece of the ancient plateau plummets into the surrounding valley. The area suffered a series of earthquakes starting in the late 17th century, with more than 10 major quakes over a 60-year period, during which most of its citizens moved across the valley to create the modern town of Bagnoregio.
Civita, a village with a stable year-round population of 25 souls, has been drawing summer tourists by the hundreds in recent years, since being "discovered" by widely-read travel writer Rick Steves. Arriving by foot via a modern, 300-meter steel and cement footbridge suspended over the valley floor (the last stone bridgeway collapsed in a 1964 earthquake), we wandered the small stone paths that cut through the medieval village; we stared into the surrounding hillsides through windows with no buildings behind them, since they have already fallen into the valley below.
In a tiny taverna we met Fabrizio, a local lad who now rents out part of his farmhouse on the opposite hill to tourists.
"More foreigners are discovering this area," he told us. "We are not rich people and welcome the tourists, as long as tourism does not destroy our quiet lifestyle."
We took Inge's advice and traveled by (inexpensive) train to avoid the notorious Rome traffic on our one day of hectic sightseeing. This was the only time that week that we heard Hebrew - barked through mobile phones by inconsiderate Israeli tourists inside an otherwise calm church building. It was a relief that evening to return to our peaceful sanctuary.
Inge can be reached by phone at +39-761-914438.
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