15 years ago, Diane and James Charney arrived at a small farmhouse at the end of a strada bianca—a simple dirt road—near the village of Castel Giorgio about 20 minutes outside of Orvieto in the Umbrian hills. “It was a ruin”, according to James, with a wall that was falling down and a few ancient animal stalls below the main living space that warmed the memories of its former family during the chillier months of seasons long past, but not yet entirely forgotten. It would be a complicated project, but their architects and newfound Italian friends assured them it had what they were looking for:
A sense of place.
There’s an oddly modern shortage of that in the most popular tourist-friendly regions producing good wines and even better pics for the cavalcade of travel sites that populate the online imagination. These days you can spend a month in Tuscany and never speak a word of Italian, and even Romans and Florentines are having to look beyond their traditional haunts to connect with the spirits of their pastoral ancestors.
Perhaps what brought Diane and James to the end of that dusty path instead of a guidebook stop was the fact that they didn’t come looking for red or white. They arrived on a tide that stirs the current of Italian life in its deepest waters—wanting to be near their son and finding a community they could call home.
What they discovered was authenticity, and it opened the door to the people, places, food, music, and rustic culture that leaves them little time for curating a stylized Italian life.
They’re too busy living a real one.
OM: What first attracted you to Italy?
Diane: Well, we thought our son was going to spend the rest of his life in Rome! I’m a French teacher so that’s the country we knew best, but when he went to Italy to study we decided to check it out.
James: I loved the Kenneth Branagh film Much Ado About Nothing which was shot in Villa Vignamaggio in the Chianti region just outside of Florence. It turned out it was an agriturismo, and we went that summer. We just loved it, and at the time we went we were practically the only people there. We went back several more times with friends, and through Tuscany we discovered many other places.
OM: How did you discover Umbria?
James: Tuscany seemed a little too groomed for us. It’s not that it’s inauthentic; there are many wonderful things about it. But it’s heavily geared towards tourists these days and you can feel it. They’re definitely catering to you, so you’re visiting Italy but missing out on a lot of the culture.
Diane: We had some friends who had visited Umbria and stayed in a country house outside of Spoleto, and we started exploring. The Umbrian villages are much more rustic, and they’re full of Italians, not just tourists.
James: Also, there’s a roughness and a generosity you don’t find in Tuscany. The portions are bigger, the vegetables are fresher, and the food is better.
OM: I’m sorry, can you say that last part one more time for us?
James: Absolutely. It’s an open secret: the food in Umbria is better! This is the countryside after all, and it’s where all the best ingredients come from. The top produce in the nation is in Umbria’s farmer’s markets, and when you order something with truffles, you won’t be able to find the dish under all of them.
Diane is a passionate gardener, and it was hard to get her to leave home for anywhere she couldn’t grow flowers and vegetables. That’s part of why France was the dream, but as soon as she realized almost everything she loved about France would transfer to Umbria, she was sold.
Diane: We were really taken with the region, and it turned into the idea of renovating a farmhouse. We were in Cambridge with our son and one of his Italian friends one evening, and he mentioned his godparents were both architects and might be willing to help. A few months later we were visiting Rome and we contacted these architects. They invited us to come to Ovieto the next day. We dropped all our other plans, hopped on a train and met them in Orvieto. They immediately took us to see several properties near where they lived. We were instantly enchanted, and then they brought us back to their beautiful house and served us an incredible lunch. Gabriella can really cook!
James: We loved their house, which had been a ruin, and knew we had found kindred spirits. During the 3 years that it took to find our property, design the renovation, and finish the construction, they became dear friends. That experience touches on one of the very special things about Italians–—relationships are everything. We know everyone who worked on our house, from the man who made the roof tiles by hand to the woodworkers and craftspeople who finished all the details. They become not just workers who do things for you, but friends. And once they know you they’ll go out of their way to help.
If you need a permit, for instance, you will very often get a “no” up front. But if you stick around, chat, tell stories, and find out he’s got a nephew twice removed in Pittsburgh and you have a connection in life, it slowly becomes a “yes”. Then things start to move quickly and everything goes well.
OM: Do you feel like you’re insiders now?
James: Not completely, but we’re definitely not tourists. Remember, in Italy, if you’re from three towns over you’re a foreigner, so that’s part of our identity. They love Americans here, we love engaging with them, and it’s a really rewarding dynamic.
Diane: You know, I always assumed I’d end up in France because my entire intellectual life was there. But here we are, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: Italians are nicer! And, of course, we’re very taken with the other expats we’ve met through dinners and events in Orvieto.
James: We have Dutch neighbors, and many German, Australian, and British friends here. Americans who, like us, choose a life here, often become dear friends too.
OM: What are some of your favorite things about living near Orvieto?
Diane: I started early on the flute, and was a latecomer to the viola; however, we’re both classically trained musicians, serious pianists who studied at Juilliard and the Eastman School of Music. Music is central to our lives, both here and in the States
Orvieto is also very historic, so it’s easy to find gorgeous venues. There are plenty of ornate spaces in town as well as ancient monasteries hidden in the surrounding countryside if you know where to look. We’ve been going to Orvieto Musica for years, and it’s a real summer highlight. Musically, it’s a very exciting place to be. Other events go on throughout the year, and of course, there’s the Umbria Jazz Festival.
James: We explored a lot of areas when we first started thinking about putting down roots, and Orvieto had everything. You’ve probably heard of Umbrian hill towns like Trevi and Spello because they’re routinely rated as the most beautiful places in Italy. They’re great, but there’s a problem: they’re not near anything. You have to take a bus and a train just to get started going anywhere else.
I used to consult for a school in Rome, and I could hop on the train in Orvieto, get to Rome in an hour, and be home for dinner. It’s also near the autostrada, but because it’s up on a hill it doesn’t feel like it.
Diane: Oh, and James mentioned the food already, but it’s worth repeating. The restaurants in town really are fantastic for after a concert or a long day at work.
James: It’s true. Orvieto and its surroundings are a wonderful place to build a life. We love our house, the people, and the lifestyle we’ve discovered here. Our son is in Slovenia now, but we stayed in Umbria. It’s an easy day’s drive to visit him and his family there, and the rest of the time we have a meaningful and rewarding life in the heart of the Italian countryside.
Diane and James Charney have been living in Umbria since 2009, and Diane writes a blog called In Love with France, at Home in Italy that details their experiences (and occasional misadventures!) in Umbria.