Ever daydreamed about leaving everything behind and moving to some picturesque corner of Italy? Meet the WA couple who did just that.
David Lang’s story is the sort that makes you want to throw in your job and move to the Italian countryside.
Working as a driller in Western Australia’s Goldfields, he packed it all up to travel. While in Mexico, an epiphany hit him and future wife Chrissie — why not buy a farmhouse in Italy and rent it out?
One thing lead to another and today David and his family own a 16th century farmhouse that has become the boutique accommodation of Casa San Gabriel, nestled in Umbria’s mountains.
The couple also manage the neighbouring Chiesa del Carmine — a vineyard, working farm and 12th century church renovated to provide luxurious accommodation.
David tells his tale ...
My wife Chrissie and both love to travel. Chrissie became fed up with the politics of high finance and wanted to work for herself so we set off for six months in South America.
During a visit to a beautiful old country house called Hacienda San Gabriel in central Mexico, Chrissie said: “I know, why don’t we move to Italy, buy a farmhouse, I can rent out a room to make some money, you can teach locally and we can start a family.”
We went to the first English-language bookshop we could find in Quito, Ecuador, and brought a guide to Italy.
We thought it would be a great challenge to start again, make new friends and absorb ourselves in another culture.
The leap to Umbria
Arriving in the UK after our travels, we set about looking for properties.
We started looking in Umbria and on seeing the first property Chrissie called me to say she had found it. It was a complete ruin dating back to the 16th century, a farmhouse with three farm buildings nearby, a piggery, a hayloft and another building for olive oil and wine-making equipment.
The previous owners had lived upstairs in the farmhouse and the cows had lived downstairs to provide the heat.
We were lucky that it was pre-GFC and so a nice Italian bank manager would loan a 29-year-old Australian and his accountant wife the money to restore a ruin based on a business plan.
Although looking back it was not an enormous gamble, the walls and roofs were structurally sound, the view was to Assisi and beyond, and it was in the middle of Perugia, Assisi and Citta di Castello, and so easily accessible for tourists to visit Umbria’s famous hill towns. We survived the restoration with a few bumps along the way and were soon into our first season of guests.
Soon after we arrived in Umbria, a number of people locally asked us to start looking after their properties, including my neighbour, the chief executive of an advertising multi-national.
Then a local I knew approached me and asked if we were interested in buying the entire valley. I explained that teachers don’t normally buy valleys but I would talk to a couple of my neighbours and see if they were interested.
The advertising chief executive said he would go ahead to stop anyone else buying it and doing something we didn’t like.
In the middle of the valley was a ruined 12th century church, and vineyards and farmland abandoned in the 1950s.
The church was called Chiesa del Carmine and thus the estate was born.
We quickly started the long process of bringing the farmland back to its former glory, ripping up the vineyards and replanting them, restoring the church, negotiating the complex planning laws that govern archaeologically classified ruins in Italy and converting all the land to organics.
We purchased and started work at Casa San Gabriel in 2003, arriving the day after we married.
Unfortunately the property had what they call in Italy a “builder’s finish” — no electricity or hot water, half the windows and doors were installed and a swimming pool that was almost finished.
The problem was it was the hottest August in more than 50 years and so too hot to paint. Every evening we would go and sit in the pool with a glass of wine and imagine what it would be like with water in it.
We worked hard with the help of friends, including pizza chef Julian Carroll (who also happens to be a founding member of Australian alternative rock legends Something For Kate), who restored the old wood-fired pizza oven, and by the beginning of September we had our first guests.
We now host weekly pizza nights for our guests where everyone can get together and learn how to make pizzas and cook them in an authentic oven, afterwards sampling homemade orangecello.
Guests can now choose from three self-catering cottages, all with their own terraces and each with fantastic views down the valley.
The Chiesa del Carmine restoration was a much slower process.
Specialist craftsmen were found to build stone staircases, vaulting from scratch, and re-point the church tower. It took 90 different people more than two and a half years to restore it. The church was built in 1270, with the farmhouse a 16th century addition. It is a magical place and the attention to detail is quite amazing.
The owners sourced antiques from Lots Road in Chelsea. The acoustics in the church are beautiful and a grand piano was added. I was able to find award-winning musician Herbie Hancock’s piano tuner locally in Perugia and organise for him to visit twice yearly.
We now host weddings and rent weekly for everything from big family get-togethers for special birthdays to Hollywood actors trying to get away from it all.
The Chiesa del Carmine experience
Chiesa del Carmine sleeps 14 people in luxurious surrounds, with a daily maid service and a multi-lingual chef who can serve up everything from simple, light meals to gala dinners, as well as organising cooking classes for adults and children.
We have an organic vegetable garden on site where guests are encouraged to pick their own vegetables, and a pizza oven and barbecue for use.
The property is surrounded by farmland, vines, olive groves and a truffle wood, and the gardens are stunning. Throughout the estate there are mapped walking trails for varying levels and bikes can be hired.
We also have a sommelier who takes tours through the vineyards of the estate and runs tutored tastings of the estate wines with local produce.
Less than five minutes away there is a Robert Trent Jones Jr championship golf course and Umbria’s hill towns and culture are on your doorstep. The hardest part, people find, is to drag their children away from the beautiful pool and start exploring — but there is always the lure of gelato to help with this.
Why we love Umbria
We wanted to live somewhere our children could learn two languages and enjoy the great outdoors, as we did growing up.
In the summer we have an amazing film festival at nearby Montone. Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame lives there and organises the event. They always have an actor release a film at the festival — recent actors include Colin Firth, Ralph Fiennes and Laura Carmichael from Downton Abbey.
Umbria Jazz is on every July in Perugia and the whole town is abuzz during this time.
Lake Trasimeno, one of Italy’s biggest lakes, is only 20 minutes away and we love taking a boat out for the day sailing, water skiing or just visiting the islands for a picnic.
Most towns in Umbria have a festival showcasing local produce and it is hard to eat badly with lots of fantastic local restaurants nearby.
When to go
- The best times to visit are spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November).
- During spring, plants are flowering, it is warm enough to swim, the days are getting longer, the poppies are out and the valley is dotted with fireflies. There are also lots of festivals, including Ceri in Gubbio in May.
- Summer is hot but great for lying by the pool, eating gelato and heading out for dinner in the evenings when towns come alive with old men playing cards in the piazzas and children playing football.
- Autumn is when all the agricultural activities happen — olive harvest, vintage and the hunting season starts. Menus abound with mushrooms, truffles, wild boar, chestnuts, capriolo (little deer), hare and rabbit. Festivals are all about food and wine. It is normally warm enough to swim until early September when Umbrian greenery starts to change to autumn colours. It’s also great time of year for walking.
- A mid-season stay at Casa San Gabriel costs $133 a night for a bed-and-breakfast double room, and $806-$1052 per week for a self-catering cottage. casasangabriel.com
- To rent Chiesa del Carmine mid-season costs $7713 per week. chiesadelcarmine.com
- The accommodation and surrounding areas were not affected by last year’s earthquake.