Italy is the country that seems to incite the most envy when you tell people you're going there.
"The art, the history, the churches!" everyone rhapsodizes. And most of all, "the food!"
Italy looms huge in our imaginations for its simple sensuous pleasures (gelato, pizza, vino, espresso) and for being the origin of all that's beautiful in Western culture: the paintings and sculptures of the Renaissance, the magnificence of the Roman Catholic cathedrals, the awe and mystery of the relics of Classical antiquity.
It seems to live as a dream in our collective unconscious, perhaps because Italy is so rich in wonders that two- or three-week vacations cannot do it justice. You always leave wanting more.
So when the chance for a leave arose, I decided to live the dream. With my two sons grown, my nest empty and my Roman-born partner feeling homesick, it was time to follow the advice on the fridge magnet we'd picked up on a previous visit: carpe diem. And besides, we'd been toying with the idea of a permanent move, and knew we had to try our hand at real Italian life.
We set out for the Sabine hills, historically famous for its beautiful women, who were abducted by Roman soldiers to help found the city of Rome almost 3,000 years ago. Since the Middle Ages, the verdant, olive-rich countryside has been studded with small, fortified hilltop towns, and we chose one of them, Moricone.
The town of 3,000 sits on a steep hill overlooking vistas of olive groves, cherry orchards, the forested slopes of Monti Lucretili national park and the distant floating peak of Monte Soratte, which appears to be suspended on a bank of pale-blue clouds (pink clouds at sunset).
Though it's only a 45-minute drive from Rome, the rents are
ridiculously affordable: We were able to rent our own tiny home for just €250 ($305) a month. No need to sacrifice weekly trips into Rome, and longer excursions to Naples, Tivoli, the Abruzzo mountains and the thermal springs at Viterbo known as the Baths of the Popes.
Our loft was a converted stable in the medieval part of town, which is perched at the hill's highest point (the better to spot approaching invaders!) and fortified with 700-year-old stone walls a metre thick. Inside the medieval walls is an autonomous little fairyland of cobbled walkways, steep flights of steps, inward-facing dwellings, communal ovens, an inn, a church and several small squares.
The laneways are lined with potted tropical plants, with cacti and pomegranate trees sprouting from cracks in the stones or dangling in baskets. Colourful laundry hangs on lines outside heavy, iron-fitted doors – underwear, sheets, stocking – all gaily flapping, pegged by fluorescently bright clothespins. And from every ledge and balcony, cats survey their domain.
At night, the lanes are lit by wrought-iron lanterns that create a glowing ambience reminiscent of a movie set. During Christmas week, when residents had added a sprinkling of coloured lights of their own, I fancied I might be walking the ancient pathways of Bethlehem, with a miraculous birth about to happen in a stable around the corner. It's that magical.
The homes lining the laneways look like little more than holes in the wall, but behind the antique doors they have ceramic floors, open fireplaces, built-in kitchens and ingenious sleeping nooks.
The cobbled lanes connect to small squares, each with an ancient water tap, often set on a beautifully ornamented pedestal, where people used to wash before the advent of running water.
Since the pathways are far too narrow for cars and too steep for Vespas, there is silence, broken only by voices. Men and women (including the still-beautiful young Sabines and their portly grandmas) go visiting in their pyjamas, or hang out in the nearest square to exchange gossip, take the sun or watch the kids chase the cats around.
Amazingly, there are still only two access points to the medieval centre – a tall archway designed for the gentlefolk near the top, and a low arch for animals and their herders at the bottom. Each morning, we strolled through the lower arch and down the hill into "modern" Moricone, with its coffee bars, pizzerias, pharmacy and shops. We availed ourselves of all the food and drink on offer – discovering exquisite hazelnut cookies, incredibly crusty pizza bianca, creamy cappuccinos and €2 glasses of red wine, and took advantage of the free WiFi in the town square. (The one drawback of metre-thick stone walls in the old town? No Wi-Fi signal). Also virtually free is fresh mineral water. At the town crossroads, across from the small gas station, a pair of taps dispenses still and sparkling spring water for 5 cents a litre (bring your own bottles, max of six at a time).
Walking the fields and forests gathering firewood and kindling on the slopes of the hills became a meditative afternoon activity. We hadn't actually needed to light a fire in October or November, when the weather was reminiscent of September in Ontario – warm and lazily mellowing from green to gold and red, with gentle shafts of sunlight releasing the scents of ripening fruit and crumbling leaves.
We spent November harvesting olives in nearby Stazzano, a village where a cousin of my partner lives.
Like many of the local landowners, this cousin works in Rome and needs little help through most of the year to
tend to his olive and fruit trees. But in November, friends and family are mobilized for the olive harvest, a month-long outdoor party in which the moderate physical labour of raking the fruit down from the branches and cleaning and pressing it is generously interspersed with feasts of barbecued meat and trays of steaming espresso. The days end with long evenings of wine and laughter by the fire.
Armed with small plastic hand rakes, we spread vast nets under trees, then grasp the hanging branches and comb loose the ripe purple and green olives. It's a most satisfying feeling as streams of fruit plop down all around you, and on top of you from the treetop where more experienced participants work atop ladders.
When a tree has been stripped, we tip the olives and their attached leaves and twigs into crates and carry them off (uphill!) to the pressing area. Before pressing, everyone gathers around a long, sloping, slatted table onto which the olives are dumped. We separate the olives from the twigs and leaves by hand, the cleaned olives rolling down to a waiting crate at the bottom. In the final step, the pressing machine slowly squeezes free the extra-virgin oil. Sadly, we could only carry two litres home with us at the end of February, but we probably poured a litre a week on our salads while we were there.
Our five months of living la dolce vita clarified something for me: Italians live for pleasure, not for work, and the puritanical, joyless tendencies of Canada seemed starkly obvious from afar.
Still, not returning to Toronto – to work for the money that might change a dream to a reality – was not an option. For now, the memories of a dreamlike existence in an enchanting Italian town will have to suffice.
Jane Gadd is The Globe's Facts & Arguments editor.