Andrew and Katja spent more than three years looking in Abruzzo until they found their perfect home. Something that had enough space for living and working — plus fantastic views. Then came the earthquake . . . here’s how they recovered their dream and are discovering all the pleasures of living in Abruzzo.
“I discovered Abruzzo on the internet,” says Andrew Miles, a British photographer and former tv producer for National Geographic. He and his then-girlfriend, German-born Katja von Schweitzer, decided to come for a ski holiday in 2005. “We stayed in Pescocostanzo and skied Roccarasso and were hooked,” says Katja, who had lived in Switzerland and Austria previously, so she knows a thing or two about skiing. She was enchanted by what she found in Abruzzo.
The two married, had two children (Safina, now 12 and Rocco, 11) and, as Andrew became more and more disillusioned about all the travel he had to do for his job (it was about 90% travel), decided to set their sights on Abruzzo, which they had both fallen hard for. They left their home in Brighton (UK) many, many times in search of the perfect property. Andrew estimates they saw at least 100 houses. But that all changed in 2008 when they went to San Benedetto in Perillis.
Andrew was searching the internet when he saw it. It seemed perfect, but he phoned a local friend and asked her to go and have a look before they made yet another dead-end trip. Her response was simply, “I think you should come.” Turns out, if they hadn’t bought it, she was going to!
“The house is massive,” says Andrew. “It is a mix of a 15th century palazzo, an 8th century fortified building, and an 11th century watch tower. We learned that the palazzo was built by a Spanish captain.” The 1000-square-meters property was well situated in the middle of four national parks, affording great views, and had the potential to give them everything they were looking for: a home for their family, four apartments for tourists, a place where they could work, a space for a garden and quick access to the wilderness of Abruzzo. Everything was falling into place, they were getting ready to start the renovation but then came 2009 and the earthquake.
The watch tower collapsed, although there was not much damage to the rest of the property. “Still, the house was put into the red zone,” says Andrew. “And time stopped in its tracks. Now we owned a house that we couldn’t live in and the money we might get from the Italian government would barely fix the watch tower.”
Eventually they learned that they could have the house declared a historically important property in Italy, which they did. The exterior construction was taken entirely out of their hands and they had neither a key nor a say in the work for more than a year. In 2018, Katja took a rental in nearby Popoli so they could be closer to the project, and in mid-September this year, they got their keys. But while the house looks amazing on the outside — restored to a high standard, and as original as possible — inside it has no electricity, kitchen, or internet, and their furniture is stuck on a truck in France. So Popoli it is for a while longer, but they are hoping to move in by the spring.
Why San Benedetto?
Apart from it being in a simply beautiful corner of Abruzzo, Andrew and Katja chose San Benedetto in Perilis because it is such a special place. “There’s lots going on here,” says Katja. “There’s an 8th century Abbey and a gorgeous main street, which is being restored at the same time as our palazzo.” The last time there were even 1,000 residents in the town was the 1950s, but they both agree that this will change.
“It’s in the middle of four parks, close to the motorway and it’s easy to get to anywhere from here,” adds Andrew. “Mountains, hiking, skiing, the beach – it’s all here. And it’s being discovered.”
Andrew especially loves all the open spaces. He enjoys being so close to nature and calls it “very elemental.” Having four proper seasons is incredibly important to them both, and they are struck by the kindness and generosity of the people they’ve met as well as by what they agree is the best food they’ve had anywhere. And they swear by the Montepulciano wine. . .
“I love the intergenerational aspect of living in Abruzzo,” says Andrew. “Go to a restaurant and you’ll see the young and the old interacting together, enjoying themselves and their lives in this amazing place.”
Andrew and Katja have been building a travel business since arriving in Abruzzo, with the aim of sharing the bounties of this place with tourists. First there was Sacred-Walks holidays, which is now being incorporated into the larger Exploring Abruzzo site where, with their friend and guide Lorenzo, they offer everything from food and wine tours to guided private one-day tours, bespoke holidays and the sacred walks experience.
The earthquake could have dissuaded them. Not speaking much Italian could have stopped them in their tracks (although Andrew admits to knowing a lot of construction terms by now). And the time factor could have been a negative. But they are realistic about what they’ve been through and have some advice for people considering a move to Italy. First, don’t just visit once, they say. Come a few times, at different times of the year, and see what the seasons have to offer. “The summers are very hot and the winters are very cold in the mountains here,” says Andrew. “Come with a different head on your shoulders in terms of how and how fast things should be done. Money is not the most important thing here. Relationships are, nature is, enjoying life is.”
As for the lives they left behind? As the saying goes, living well is the best revenge.
By Linda Dini Jenkins