Water, water everywhere. Life on an Italian peninsula.

CASTIGLIONE DEL LAGO, Umbria, Italy – Not a bad place to be on a sunny day. The “del Lago” part you’ve probably already figured out is all about being right on the lake. Strangest, no – I think the chamber of commerce people would say most unique – geography I can imagine. First, you have this nice round lake in the middle of the Italian peninsula. There are some hilly approaches to the lake but mostly on the far east and some on the north. On the south it is all an agricultural plain around the lake, same with the west where this peninsula, for no reason at all, inexplicably juts straight out into the lake. And there it is. A long, tall rock in the middle of a lake. How did that happen?

I suppose it really doesn’t matter how it came to be there. The point here is that the peninsula is very interesting and when you get up there, the town built there on the peninsula has water on all sides. And you have enough elevation to pull up a gelati and enjoy the view. Look, isn’t that Panicale on that hill over there? If I squint I think maybe it is.
castiglione del lago in umbria, on an italian lake

When you first drive through the main gate you will likely be parking in front of a big palace where there are art shows and exhibitions. That palace is connected to a long skinny defensive corridor to an imposing fortress where the views get really grand and wild. You can sometimes see outdoor movies in the center of the fortress on a summer’s eve. Been there, done that, quite liked that. People smoke, they talk, kids run around, there is a long intermission. Very much not like a night at your multiplex back at the mall in your home town. Meanwhile, along the main, and almost only street, are frame shops, books stores, restaurants, hotels, and pastry and fruit stores of every stripe. And lots of stores with mounted cinghales where you can get wild boar sausage, wine, cheese and other necessities of la dolce vita. And down by one arched entry to the city (you can just barely see it in one of our photos here) is an eccentric “antique” store. Its merchandise is all over the map, just like the owner. He’s tiny and busy as a bee. We usually talk in Italian but every now and then he surprises us with his English. Something about South Africa? I disremember exactly where he misspent his youth. But what I do remember is pushing in through the clutter and inching my way sideways like a crab past decorative farm tools and glass dishes to the furniture cavern at the back and being kind of bowled over by the lofty, seemingly optimistic, prices. I expressed my “concern” over the cost there and the owner said “oh, you need my ‘cose povere’. We have a whole building full of poor things” He herded us out of his building, locking the door behind us, jumped on a long suffering Vespa and motioned for us to follow him. And we were off. The cinder block building he led us to was just a few blocks away, down the hill. And when he opened the doors it was like Ali Baba’s cave to us. Great, fun and funky stuff, dirt cheap. And choices? You bet. This was a nice size place and full to the rafters. In more, shall we say, our price range. We bought things we loved, he steered us to a cousin who is an aces restorer, we picked new marble tops for all of the pieces. That made them seem to match, we had them all stained to match, and a few months later we had a set of bedroom furniture to be proud of. They look old money but they cost hardly any money. And we got what we wanted.


Below the walled town itself the ground goes almost to sea level – ok, lake level. And there are beaches and ice cream vendors, and ferries to the islands and parks. And a nice drive around the peninsula. Being Italy, it is a bit of circuitous route with a baffling one way / non one way kind of pattern to it. Someone in their department of transportation decidedly thought about this way too long. But along the drive, on a sunny day anyway, the lake can be an almost unnatural Caribbean turquoise blue. And should a storm come up, I’ve seen that that blue can change to black water and white caps in a flash. When we took these pictures it was sort of an in-between kind of day. Just recently along this lake drive there is a new modern crop of sculptures that have sprung up. Their job seems to be to frame views of the lake the way their ancient ancestors in the city up above have framed their views for centuries. You remember Katia the broker of course. The people shown next to the sculpture are Katia’s parents celebrating life, good health and Italy on a summer day. Wouldn’t mind being there with them right now. Ciao, Mario, Ciao, Angela!

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

8 thoughts on “Water, water everywhere. Life on an Italian peninsula.”

  1. It’s a bit of a challenge to get to a place where one can be open-minded about the new-fangled modern sculptures along the lake drive. Even with the two wonderful accompanying photos of the main gate and the view of the lake that they also frame from the city above. Sono di Honolulu. I grew up in Hawaii, land of another ancient culture where one’s relationship with nature, particularly the mountains and the sea is paramount. When I first saw the photo of the lakeside sculpture, it felt like the scupture presented an imposing distraction/barrier between that important oneness with the lake and the surrounding hills. I couldn’t imagine anyone being allowed to put up sculptures like that along Oahu’s North Shore or even Waikiki! But I guess Italy, like Hawaii, can’t be about all things old and ancient, even tho’ that may be part of its allure and enchantment for many of us. I must say, tho’, that I would have loved to have been in on the Castaglione del Lago town meetings (do Italians even have town meetings like we do here in the states?) when they were deciding/debating about whether to install the sculptures or not. It would have been a terrific chance to watch Italian culture as it evolves!

  2. Adrienne, an interesting perspective on the art. I like them, but can understand your point too. They do interfere with the “purity” of the view. I thought they were sort of whimsical. The ones that I’m referring to were either rusty or black and they didn’t dominate the view for me. What is your impression of the glass pyramid added to the Louve in Paris?
    I had an apartment once that had very contemporary furnishings. When I added a couple of old pieces like my fathers console radio, it seemed to make the other furnishings look more contemporary. Of course I live in Southern California where the oldest culture is Disneyland. There isn’t any construction here that would survive 500 years. A blessing, now that I think about it.
    Having gone through the process of buying property there, they seem very strict about what is allowed. Certainly a beautiful place on earth. Maybe they serve wine at their town meetings . . . .

  3. Ciao Don, Glad to hear the sculptures described as whimsical. It lends a sense of playfulness and delight, which is always a good thing. I’ll keep that in mind when I trek out to see them next summer, along with the glass pyramid at the Louvre. I remember all the controversy in the news when the I.M. Pei design was chosen and then finally unveiled. I’d like to research it again before I make the trip. I find it fascinating when values and cultures meet: old and new, European and American, local and global, etc. And wine, as you suggest, probably contributes to making those encounters all that more amiable. How lucky you are to have a place in Italia. We are looking into it as well.

  4. Buongiorno Adrienne, We are molto fortunate to have our casa in Umbria. Giancarlo and Katia at See You in Italy were excellent during the search and during the closing. They have helped us a great deal since. Katia seems to know everybody and has connected us to very competent people. We had connected up with a few other realtors in the area, but didn’t seem to have the connections that Giancarlo and Katia have. They were very patient. I’ve seen some of Giancarlo’s restoration and was impressed, so you get that added bonus to working with them. Bounfortuna in your search. If I can help in any way, please let me know. Ciao!

  5. Salve Don,
    Grazie for the offer to lend a hand. My Italian language instructors at the local community college, both from Roma, tell us (in fun) that Toscano and now Umbria have become the playground for rich Americans and that in Toscano in particular,you’re apt to hear more English spoken than Italiano! I’m sure that’s all a bit of an exaggeration but I’m looking forward to getting over there myself to take a good look at the place and get a sense of things. One of the instructors suggested that Le Marche might be a good region to check out. Apparently it’s relatively undiscovered and likely to be more affordable. Glad to hear that Giancarlo and Katia were wonderful. With one kid in college and another looking towards graduate school, getting involved in a restoration property in Italia is highly unlikely! I can imagine that it must have ultimately been a great experience for you and your wife, tho’.

  6. Ciao Adrienne,
    I haven’t seen any “rich Americans” in our area. With the value of the dollar looking like the last hours of the Titanic, the only Americans in our neighborhood are getting poorer by the day. We are still working to try to get in a retirement mode. We think it’s very funny that people assume that we just had a few hundred thousand lying around unused, to buy in Italia.
    Our casa in Castiglione del Lago is very modest and needs work. Our Christmas present to each other last year was a new furnace. I think this year it will be a new roof. Our “great experience” in Italia continues . . . We actually have two units attached to an old farmhouse. We hope to live in one and rent the other to rich European tourists.
    We went to Italia about a dozen times before we found the area that suited us. We love the area South or West of the lake. Umbria is much less expensive than Toscano and I prefer the landscape. Le Marche is less expensive but the weather tends to be a bit cooler. Calabria is quite inexpensive too, but too hot. There are many diverse areas in Italia, I’m sure you’ll find what’s right for you. Looking is part of the fun. You should start right away. See You In Italy is the best source we found. Buying is a bit more scary, but we found the Italians to be VERY thorough and it pays to have a competent Realtor. We hope you’ll come by for coffee or a vino.
    Ciao, Don Waller

  7. Ciao Don,
    A dozen trips to Italy? What a wonderful Italian house-hunting method. Not to mention a lot of glasses of wine! We unfortunately do not have that kind of luxury. I guess we’re more the fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants-and-necessarily-so types. When we made the big move from Honlulu to San Francisco and then later San Francisco to New York, we knew nothing and no one. All we knew was that we had a real hankering to be in those places. And it always turned out happy and well. But you’re right. Buying in Italia is a bit scarier. Luckily we have access to Stew and his team at seeyouinitaly. Thank you for your real estate advice on the different regions. It was molto helpful. Buona fortuna on your continuing Italian adventure. A new roof is a terrific Christmas present. Jodi must be a good sport. Molto Italiano. When our plans firm up, we’ll try to contact you and maybe we can meet up for that glass of vino on Marco’s steps.
    Ci vediamo,

  8. Ciao Adrienne – My wife, Jodi and I have American Express Delta credit cards for our own use and our small company. It takes a lot of discipline to pay them off every month, but we get a lot of benefits. We can always upgrade to Business Class and at the end of October we have enough miles to get round-trip tickets for only tax and fees (about $85 for both of us). We also watch American Express’ web site. Sometimes they offer double miles for a short period of time. We try to coordinate any major purchase with those times. When it comes to getting back to Italy, our scheming never rests. Good luck on your efforts. We look forward to sharing a glass of vino on the church steps with you in Cortona.
    Ciao, Don Waller

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