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Living the Dream: House Hunting in Italy

Anyone who has ever strolled through the streets of Rome, ridden a gondola through the canals of Venice, or tasted freshly made pasta in Sicily has had this thought: I could get used to this. On this episode, Dan speaks with a quartet of experts on all things Italian real estate.

March 6, 2024 By THE GRAND TOURIST
The $15.2 million Borgo di Comunaglia, up for sale from Sotheby’s International Realty. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s International Realty


Anyone who has ever strolled through the streets of Rome, ridden a gondola through the canals of Venice, or tasted freshly made pasta in Sicily has had this thought: I could get used to this. On this episode, Dan speaks with a quartet of experts on all things Italian real estate: Diletta Giorgolo, head of residential for Sotheby’s International Realty in Rome; designer and Chicagoan-turned-Milanese Eric Egan; Emily FitzRoy of Bellini Travel; and YouTuber (and Tuscan homeowner) Julie Montagu, Viscountess Hinchingbrooke. Everything is on the table, from the appeal of the so-called one-euro homes to the White Lotus effect, plus all the layman needs to know to make the leap.

Listen to this episode


Diletta Giorgolo: Even if they don’t learn the language, people are really welcoming. I’m just thinking of a friend, he’s from Kentucky, and he bought a hamlet in Umbria and he said, “Diletta, I bought in another country in Europe and people didn’t talk to me for 10 years,” and he said, “It’s amazing. On the second day I was Giovanni instead of John. People were talking to me. They were friendly, they were happy. So I know.”

Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years and this is my personalized guided tour to the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel. All the elements of a well-lived life. In the post-pandemic world, many of us can work or record wherever we want, and for many Americans, Londoners, and the like, popular destinations for a second home just aren’t as fresh, exciting, rustic, or affordable as they once were. Hamptons, I’m looking at you.

In the past, there’s one place that’s always been a dream country to retire to or just to have a second home. Today it seems more practical than ever. Italy. Come on. Who hasn’t dreamed of living out their own fantasy like the novel under the Tuscan Sun or had plans to live out the rest of their sun filled days like Gore Vidal did on the Amalfi Coast? Idyllic strolls through an ancient city center, cappuccinos with friends in the morning, and enough pasta to choke a cavallo…er, horse. Even The Grand Tourist has imagined a future life for himself after his podcast game has come to an end. Maybe I’ll have a little shop selling those aprons with Michelangelo’s David on them and give tourists my suggestions on where to have the best pasta in town.

For this edition of a new series I call Living the Dream, I speak with four experts on all things Italian when it comes to making the big leap from fantasy to reality. I’ll speak with Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, Julie Montagu, an American turned British aristocrat and YouTube sensation turned Tuscan homeowner, Emily Fitzroy, a British travel expert on all things Italy and the woman largely responsible for some of the most dream-like Sicilian locations used in the TV series, The White Lotus, and Eric Egan, a native Chicagoan, the second one of the show, actually, turned interior designer in Milan and the first person I would call if I were serious about pulling the trigger on my dream pied-à-terre.


The landscape around the Borgo di Comunaglia. Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s International Realty

First, I go straight to the experts and chat with Diletta Giorgolo, head of residential real estate for Sotheby’s International, in Rome. I wanted to ask Diletta what regions and towns the smart set are flocking to, what towns are truly underrated, and if the oh-so popular on social media, 1 Euro scheme is something a sane person should actually consider. When you meet a new or prospective buying client that wants to invest in Italy, what’s the first question that you ask them?

Diletta Giorgolo: The first thing is I want to know if they know Italy because sometimes they come without ever having been to Italy. So I asked them, “Do you know Italy? Which areas in Italy do you know and which do you like?” The second question is, of course, the lifestyle. Because to know what is the right property, I need to know are they looking for seaside, for Dolomites, for mountains, for design, then it would be Milano. Or would they prefer something historical? Then there are people that like Florence because it’s smaller, people that prefer Rome. So yes, a lot of questions to understand what part of Italy is the right part.

In the reverse, what is the most common question you get asked by a new client?

“Is it difficult for foreigners to buy in Italy? Are there differences?” Of course, people are always afraid to buy in countries that they don’t know. Personally, I’ve seen that if they get to speak to the right agent, the process is not really very different from elsewhere. I tell them the only thing they should be aware of is time, because to be compliant, a property has to have all the documentation, and sometimes to have it updated takes longer than expected. So time is something people have to take into consideration. But I must say, usually they’re surprised that it’s easier than they thought.

What kind of timeframe are we talking about, if someone just comes to you and says?

Usually I would say if the house is ready, but they’re usually never ready even if people think that the house is ready, it could be very quick. It could be a month or two months. Of course, if you are buying a landmark property, you have to keep in mind that there is the preemption right from the state, which is 60 days. So you have to count 60 more days. We try, of course, to have all the properties ready, but sometimes there are new rules and new regulations, so it can take also up to six months. We try to avoid to have to go through all the bureaucracy after. But to be honest, yes, it can be quickly, it can be long. We are always very upfront with our clients.

When it comes to those historic properties, basically what you’re saying is there’s a grace period where the government gets to say whether or not they want to buy it, essentially, right?


What percentage, would you say, of the homes that you sell fall under this ranking?

Dan, I would say 50%, yeah, in the upper part and if they’re historic. In 15 years it has never happened that the state did the preemption rights, so it’s just a formality that you have to go through. But there is no problem. Usually the state does not buy the properties then.

In terms of all of the different regions that you described, which one do you feel is the most popular these days? Which one do you get asked about the most?

Of course, the first one was always Tuscany or Lake Como. Tuscany, because it’s 200 years that Tuscany is the place where people come to Italy. They’ve done many films. As you know, there are movies like Windows over Tuscany or Room With A View. There are some moments where something becomes very popular. So after George Clooney bought his house in Lake Como, of course Lake Como became very fashionable. Now, even if it started to become fashionable before, you will not believe it, Dan, but there is the Netflix series that they did. I think it’s called White Lotus on Sicily.

Right, HBO here. Yes.

After the White Lotus series, everybody wanted to come to Sicily. So my office in Sicily, they called me and they said, “What’s happening? Overnight, all these people, buyers, tourists.” And I said, “I think it’s the White Lotus effect.”

How has that been going? Is the White Lotus effect sort of dying down or are people really still super interested in Sicily?

No, I think Sicily, there are many reasons. It’s not only The White Lotus, but I think the region has done a lot to promote itself. There is also another effect that before it was really trendy and fashionable, all the people from film industry, from fashion, from design, they bought the riads in Marrakesh in Morocco. So for 20, 30 years, Morocco was like the trendsetting place. Now it’s moving to Sicily for many different reasons, maybe stability. Also, people want something new. It’s also true that many architects and many people from fashion and from design bought their homes in an area in Sicily that is called the Baroque area. So it’s Noto. It used to be Taormina. Everybody knew about Taormina. Taormina is, of course, still beautiful. But now all the new, yeah, let’s call them the trendsetters, are moving towards Noto and it’s becoming really very popular. I can say, even in January, I met people from New York that owned properties there, from London, from Paris. There are very famous architects that are buying there.

Are there any region of Italy that you feel are kind of underrated, that you feel should be getting more attention that maybe people don’t think of because of White Lotus or whatever?

Yes. Even for us Italians, I just discovered a place south of the Amalfi Coast, which is, of course, very famous. But an hour or so south, there is the Cilento region with the town called Maratea, which does not have to be confused with Matera, which is the stone city that is also famous in Puglia. Maratea has maybe one of the most beautiful seas, so it’s a seaside location. The nature, it’s unspoiled, it’s not touristic. So yes, that is one place that I would say one should go and discover if you like to be a little bit more off the beaten track.

When it comes to Italy, obviously we’re talking about a lot of historic properties, as we mentioned, if someone says that they wanted to build something new, something from scratch, a new construction, how do you help your clients navigate that? How often is that happening, also?

Well, it happens quite often. Of course, Italy, there are rules and restrictions, especially near the sea. So in other countries there was a very strong development near the seaside. We are very conservative in respect of new buildings. It’s not only the seaside. You have to understand that in Rome it is forbidden to build buildings in the historical center that are over eight stories high because Rome is UNESCO site. So we would tell them which areas have building permission and there are everywhere areas, but not as many as in other countries because our state is very conservative regarding overbuilding and protecting not only the nature, but our landscape in general.

Are there any examples you can give of maybe someone who was on the fence, as we say, between either just refurbishing an older place versus building something from scratch?

Well, yes. To give you an idea, in Sicily, some people first say they want to buy something where they can build, a plot of land, and then they ended buying in a 17th century penthouse. So outside it was 17th century and inside it was really very contemporary. And it happens all the time. So sometimes they come, they want to build something new. Now, in Sicily, we are doing a lot of contemporary villas, like they want the classical all of glass, big glass windows overlooking the orange groves or the sea or a temple. In some areas it’s allowed to do, but people, really, like you said with the first question, sometimes people come with an idea to Italy and then they do exactly the opposite.

When it comes to the hidden costs that maybe an American or someone from the UK may not realize are there when it comes to purchasing a property, anything like that, are there any hidden costs or things that they just need to keep in mind in terms of their budget or not really?

So no, they have to know that in Italy, both buyer and seller pay commission. So they have to pay commission. They have to buy the property, they have to pay the public notary, which is the official, he’s more than a lawyer. He’s a state official that collects the property taxation. So the stamp duties and all the property taxes. What they have to know is, actually, and usually they’re surprised, positively surprised, that in Italy you mainly pay a taxation, not on the real value, but on the cadastral value, which is a lower value. It’s the value that the state, the municipality, gives to a property. So usually it’s one-tenth. Another thing that assures people to buy in Italy is Italians are 80% homeowners. It’s one of the highest rates in the world. And so the government, and it doesn’t matter which party rules, is afraid to touch property taxation in Italy. So we have a high income tax, but everything that regards property has a very low taxation compared to other similar countries.

When it comes to this new period of people working remotely and having this sort of new lifestyle, that is very much a product of the times that we’re in. Have you been working with people in this regard in terms of like, “I need to have a place where I can work and has great internet and is near an airport or whatever it is,” has that been part of the client base recently?

Yeah, since COVID, absolutely. During the pandemic, we had one of our clients calling us, telling us that he was so happy he bought in Sicily because he was working in finance. And he said, “With my internet connection, Catania,” which is not the biggest international airport in Italy, but very well-served, there are many flights to London, many flights to Paris, and I use it quite often, he said, “It was fantastic. I was in my big property with orange groves, I could talk to the entire world.” He did his remote work and we had many of these people doing remote work from Italy. Of course, usually you expect people to choose between Milano and Rome because they’re closer to the airport, but we had people buy also in a more secluded areas. Of course, it has to be within an hour max from an airport. This is always. The hour max from an airport is very important.

When it comes to smaller places, even if maybe they’re not something that Sotheby’s might be looking after, but if we’re talking about the pied-à-terre, the pied-à-terre in Rome or in Milan or even Venice, what would be some starting prices that you think in these different markets?

Well, I just went to see a few days ago something that is very cute, to give you an idea, it’s 600-square-feet inside, but has 1000-square-feet of terrace on top. It’s rather ready to move in, I don’t think you even have to update it, and it would go for $800,000. But we also have smaller things. We have things that you can find, also, it depends on the location of course, but we have things for $300,000, $400,000 that maybe you have to update.

Sotheby’s, it’s not only about luxury and big things. I think what we try to sell is the iconic Italian lifestyle. So it can be something small as long as it is beautiful and it is iconic. So it can also be a ruin like a medieval watchtower, small, or it’s really not about the price point, but it’s about buying something that is iconic, something that is a trophy in Italy that is really unique.

We have properties then that are inside the Teatro Marcello in Rome. The Teatro Marcello is called the small Coliseum. It’s 2,000 years old, and being the owner of something like this is also being a custodian of something that is 2,000 years old. We have people from all over the world, like collectors, they like to a piece of history and live. You live inside a piece of history. And then it can be completely contemporary because you are allowed to update. People are afraid that you are not allowed to do a lot of things. Of course, if there is a fresco of Michelangelo, you’re not allowed to paint over it. But then I’ve seen people in these historic homes doing really contemporary design properties. I think the fun of Italy is that you have the contemporary and the historic side together.

Is there any underrated part? We talked about a part of Italy that maybe you think is up and coming, but is there any sort of underrated part of Italy that you think should have more attention to?

Turin is underrated. I think it is architectonic, more beautiful than Milan. Of course it lacks the vibrant lifestyle of Milan, but Turin has the cheapest square-meter prices in Italy. It’s just unbelievable how such a great and beautiful city is still underrated. It’s close to the mountains, it’s close to France, it’s close to the sea, it’s an hour from Milano, and there are already people that are moving from Milano to Turin. Another place, maybe we were saying Lake Como, but go and see Lake Maggiore or Lake Garda.

Why so?

Because it’s less known, but it’s equally beautiful and it’s similar in style. It’s also maybe more convenient. And then depending on the type of person, I would suggest Lake Como or Lake Maggiore or Lake Garda. And the same goes for people that don’t know, “Do I want to buy in Venice? Do I want to buy in Florence?” The question is always, what I do is, “Do you like New York or do you like London?” And then when they tell me what kind of a city they like, I already know which city or town is the right one for them in Italy.

And so if someone said, “You know, Diletta, I’m not really sure is now the right time to buy in Italy,” what would you say?

I would say definitely so, because even to give you an idea, we did a plus 15% revenue this year with sales when in other countries it’s slowed down a lot. Prices are still interesting in Italy. There are peak prices in Milan, but definitely, for me, Rome is completely still going to grow. To give you an idea, Rome was like 20-30% cheaper than Milan until last year, and now the moment the big brands, I don’t know if you know, Dan, I know you like hotels, we have for the first time the big luxury brands like Four Season who is investing, the Mandarin who is investing, Six Senses has just opened, the Bulgari has just opened. We have seen a very big increase in demand and in sales all over Italy, but especially for Rome.

My last question is, you hear a lot about in the news and online, because it makes for good digital social media content, the idea of buying the 1 Euro or a very inexpensive property that needs to be refurbished, especially in some of the towns that are the medieval towns that the younger people don’t want to live in, and so they’re desperate for new investment. Would you encourage clients to do things like that? Like you mentioned someone who bought a hamlet. Is this something that you think is exciting or you’re kind of like, “Hey, be ready for the intense amount of renovation and investment required and time and all of that?”

Okay, I can give you an idea. We didn’t have a buyer for the 1 Euro properties in Sicily, but we resold the property that was bought with the 1 Euro advantage. And the thing is, of course, it takes time. You have to have very good professionals helping you. If you have the right people helping you get the authorizations, doing the renovation work, you can do it, of course, because usually it’s smaller properties, and then resell them really well.

So that’s still a good business to do, because Italians usually don’t use, especially the older generation, and we have a lot of sellers that are in the older generation, they always go, “No, no, no, I don’t renovate, because whoever comes wants to buy it like it is, and then he will do it with his taste.” But we have seen that if you put turnkey properties on the market, you sell them really for much more. So I think if you want to do an investment, and then keep in mind that, after five years, there is no capital gain in Italy, so that’s definitely a good time to do it.


So I would highly advise doing… Of course, if you are a busy person, and you want to enjoy Italy immediately, and you do it because you want to come and enjoy it, then buy something ready to move in. If you want to do an investment, then definitely buy something that needs a lot of renovation, renovate it to the highest standards, and then you will sell it very well.

But hold onto it for five years, essentially, if you can.

Well, hold on for five years, or you are taxed 26% over the value, of course, but the state will keep in mind you bought it for A, you have put another amount on renovation, and it is still very convenient to buy and to sell if you do it the right way. But then, I would say, find a very good agent that you trust, and then the right people, the right lawyers and everything. But we have people that we helped doing this, and they did it and it was very successful.


Designer Eric Egan at his studio in Milan. Photo: Courtesy L’Artigianato

My next guest is a fantastic interior designer in Milan, and his firm, L’Artigianato, which means craftsmanship in Italian, has created spaces like the Mandarin Oriental, Lake Como, Belmond’s Caruso Hotel in Amalfi, and residences worldwide. His stunning office has also become a hub of sorts during Milan Design Week each year in April, hosting all manner of events and showcases. He’s also one of two native Chicagoans we’ll have in the program today that fell in love with Italian life. And above it all, I consider him a dear friend and a straight talker who won’t let me down the wrong path. I caught up with Eric from his second home in Punta del Este in Uruguay to gossip about how he first found himself in Milan, why renting might be the best option you haven’t considered, and what to expect when renovating your dream home once you finally get handed the keys.

So I’ve known you for quite a while, and I like to think of you as my favorite American-born design fixer in Milan, tell me a little bit about yourself and what brought you there. I hear that you’re a native of Chicago, which I don’t think we’ve ever talked about.

Eric Egan: Yes, I grew up in Chicago, and I came to Milan in 1990, two weeks after I graduated from university, to start architecture school at the Politecnico di Milano, and that was way back before the internet, and so things were quite a bit different then. Then, when you went abroad, it was really, you were abroad.

Did you speak Italian at the time when you went to university?

I did not speak Italian. The Italian government had, and they still have, a program where they will pay you to learn Italian, and so the Italian government paid me to learn Italian. They sent me to school for two months, I had a two-month crash course, eight hours a day, because I had to pass the language exam to get into university.

Wow. And what made you want to go to living abroad and leaving Chicago anyway? How did that start?

Well, I wanted to work as a designer, and in the late ’80s, the two big places for design were Milan and Barcelona. And so, literally, I looked at Barcelona and then I looked in Italy, and the design scene in Milan was just booming, the design and fashion, and I thought if I wanted to stay and live and work abroad, then Milan would be a great city, because not only do they have the education, but they have the economy, and they still do. It was the right choice.

So you get there, you study, you graduate, and for that period of time in your life, between then and you starting your own firm years later, tell me a little bit about your career and tell people how your business is set up today.

Well, I did two years at the Politecnico di Milano, and during that time, I was hired by Gucci to work in their headquarters. And so, that was far more interesting than going to the Politecnico, so I let that slide, and I worked at Gucci during the period when Dr. Gucci was there, and that was fascinating, and that was where I realized that… One of the things I did there was in the new store openings department. And so, working on those renovations of the Gucci stores made me realize that it was interior design that appealed to me far more than classic architecture, so I changed course and went back to New York, and did an interior design AAS degree in six months and started working.

Wow. And you knew once you were even in New York that you were going to return back to Italy?

After about two weeks in New York, I knew it wasn’t the city for me. I thought it was important that I do my training there, and I was lucky enough to work with the people around Renzo Mongiardino, running some of their New York projects, they had a project at the Carlisle Hotel, a project in Greenwich, Connecticut, and that was a great way to that, but it was always my hope that that would lead me back to Italy. And then, I wound up staying in America for seven years, first in New York, then in Chicago, where I really learned how to decorate, and then, in 2000, I moved back to Italy and essentially started over again at 32.

And when you were living in Chicago, did you have an aha moment where you were like, I’m not doing this, take me back to Milan immediately and order me a cappuccino?

I was living in Chicago in a wonderful apartment in the John Hancock Center, the 78th floor, overlooking Lake Michigan, couldn’t have been better. And the owner of the apartment that was renting called and he said he was going to sell it, and did I want to buy it for the sum of $210,000. And I had $60,000 saved, which was enough for the down payment, but I thought, if you buy this, you’re going to be here in Chicago, this is it, or you can take the 60,000 and you can go back to Milan and start again.


And so, I sold everything, left with two suitcases, went to Milan, moved into a dumpy studio apartment, had to work in a bar for a while. I literally started from zero, from scratch, again.

Was it hard to find your roots again in Milan in terms of work and scene there?

It wasn’t easy. I lucked out in that about six months after I arrived, I stumbled across a firm called Hirsch Bedner. I had trained in residential interior design, and Hirsch Bedner is the world’s largest hospitality design firm, and they were opening an office in Milan, and I got myself hired, and that was great, because it was a full-time job, and I learned how to design hotels. And now, our business is 50% residential, 50% five-star hotel design, and that’s great to have the two areas of specialty, because design is a cyclical business, and when one is up, the other is down.

Tell me about the space you have in Milan. You’ve hosted many events and done some amazing installations for Salone del Mobile, and it is always a little beautiful hub for those in the know during Design Week in Milan, so in April every year. So tell me a little bit about that amazing space and where it is, for people who’ve never heard of it or been there.

We have an amazing office, and really it was a stroke of luck to find it. We’re on Piazza Castello, overlooking Castello Sforzesco, which has just undergone a massive public works project, turning it into basically the Tuileries Gardens, and it’s just a wonderful apartment. When I walked in there, I walked in, I said, “Oh my God, this looks like Mongiardino just stepped out to get a coffee.” There was nothing wrong with it. It needed a renovation, it had been many years, but the bones were so good. And the woman who owns the space is a wonderful woman who’s become a great friend, and she has really let us do what we needed to do to make it shine.

When we rented, I said, “This space has magic.” And it’s hard to know when a space has magic, what it is that causes magic, so you have to be very careful in renovating to not inadvertently take the magic away, and so we were very careful there, and it’s done up as if it were a house. The question to all designers is, so what’s your style? And I never quite know how to answer that question. So now I just say, “Why don’t you come over and look at our office? If you like our office, you’ll probably like our work. If it doesn’t appeal to you, we’re probably not the right firm for you.”

So if someone came to you and said, “Okay, I think this is great. I want to spend six months a year in L.A., and I want to spend six months a year in Italy somewhere, what do I do?” What kind of advice can you give me? What would you say?

We work with a lot of people who do this, and actually, there’s a couple that, not my direct clients, but friends who are doing six months in L.A. and six months in Milan. I think you have to think about a couple of things. One is, based on where you’re from, I think it’s really important to look at flight availability. So what flights go non-stop direct to Italy, and where do they land? And ideally, you need to have more than one airline doing it, because if only Ryanair flies there and Ryanair cuts the route, then you have no way to get there. So many places in Italy are lovely, gorgeous, but the door-to-door time becomes 12 hours, 15 hours, that’s too far. So you need to be thinking about, if you’re flying from New York, you’re going to be flying into either Milan or Rome. From there, you need to put, I think, about an hour and a half circle from the airport to get to your house. It should not be a planes, trains, and automobiles adventure each time you want to go to your house.

And in those circles, that hour, hour and a half circle outside of the two major cities in Italy, let’s just say, are there certain towns or areas where you think that people are going to or that you recommend people take a look at?

Again, I think it depends. Are you looking for life in the city? Are you looking for a country house? Do you like beach? Do you like mountains? Are you looking for your investment to increase in value? These are all the things you have to look at. If somebody is looking for an investment in Italy, I’m a huge fan of Milan real estate. Milan real estate can never go down in value, it is the only real city in Italy. It will always hold its value and it will always increase. A lot of people love the idea of Tuscany, Umbria as well. Umbria is less expensive, but Umbria is harder to get to. Umbria is a five-hour drive from Milan, whereas Florence from Milan is an hour 45 train ride, and then within 45 minutes of Florence, there’s tons of places. So you start to have to think of those things.

A big difficulty in Italy is, with country houses, is that they’re very easy to buy, they’re very hard to sell. So be careful about what you buy because it is going to be yours forever, presume that. The difficulty is that each house you go to look at, they say, “Look at this view. It’s unique in the world.” And you say, “Oh my God, it really is.” And then you go look at the next house and they say, “Look at this view, it’s unique in the world.” And they’re right too, it’s just looking on the other side of the same hill. Everything is beautiful, everything is unique. Trying to sell a house in Italy, especially a country house, is like a needle in the haystack. You have to find that one person who loves it as much as you do.

Second homes are fantasies, first homes in places like Milan, Florence, Rome, and then certain resorts like Capri, Portofino, Positano, those are strict economic calculations of, how many square meters is it? What is the going price for a square meter? In the worst case, on the worst day, you lower it 20% below the average price per square meter, your apartment will be sold in a week. But if you own a house, it may take three years to sell, and you may lose money if you sell it.

Okay. Now, let’s talk about renovations, because obviously that’s your specialty. I know anybody who even tries to do any renovations in New York or anywhere in life, obviously, it’s a huge headache. That’s why great designers such as yourself exist, because you have such expertise and such a Rolodex and great taste. What is the difference between renovating a house, say, in the Hamptons in New York versus renovating a similar house, say, somewhere in Italy?

I think American clients in general tend to be maximizers, meaning they want everything to be perfect, and when you come to Italy, things are not going to be perfect. And so, if you can become a satisfizer rather than a maximizer, you will have a much happier life.

Can you give me an example?

American clients worry about dye lots on fabrics. In Europe, we don’t even request a cutting for approval. You ordered green, it comes green. Maybe it’s not exactly the same green, but it’s a fine green. If you want perfection, do not come to Italy, go move to Paris or the south of France. Italy is about enjoying yourself. It’s lovely food, but simple food. Just enjoy your house, do not worry so much about the switches, and the home automation system, and the air conditioning, and all of that. Just worry about the big picture, not the little picture.

And as a designer, how do you focus on the big picture when it comes to that kind of project? What would you tell people? Is the bones of the house really the most important thing, is it location, is it view? Where do you tell people to put a little bit more attention into that they might not do down there?

I think all real estate investments are financial equations, and so wherever you buy, there’s going to be a rough value. If you’re buying a house for €500,000, your renovation costs should be proportionate to what you’re paying for the house and for what the house eventually could be worth. So if you’re buying in Piemonte, which is an undervalued region nearby Milan, and you buy something for 850,000, let’s try to limit our investment to 850,000 in renovations. If you’re buying in Capri and your initial investment is 2.5 million, but you want to invest three million, I can approve that because Capri is always going to be Capri. Piemonte may go up, but it’s going to be a slow road going up and you don’t want to over-improve the neighborhood. The same rules apply to America.

In terms of where to spend the money, obviously spend the stuff that you can’t fix later, floors, doors, windows, systems, air conditioning, heating, get your kitchen in. And then, where the money is to be saved is things like, especially if you’re going for a more of a country house look, we have amazing auction houses in Italy, in Milan, in Florence, in Rome, and antique furniture is so out of style now, you can buy it for nothing, for absolutely nothing.

And when I talk to people who have lived or have purchased real estate in, let’s talk about a big city like Rome or Milan, the intricacies of buying and the good real estate there that is for sale, I hear that just because of the way that money transfers from one generation to the next and the avoidance of taxes, that sometimes things just aren’t up for sale, and it’s harder to find these things, and you may have to wind up renting. Tell me a little bit about what that experience is like when you’re really looking for an urban home or something a little bit more special, and not just one of 100 farm houses that are dilapidated.

Things are changing and things are getting a lot better. It used to be that way. Now, they’ve been tightening the noose. You can’t pull a lot of funny stuff. Now, when you buy a house, the house has to be inspected, so things like illegal structures will be ferreted out. You do need to work with somebody from the beginning who knows the lay of the land, that’s a big help. But I wouldn’t be that scared about the buying process. You can transfer money, they’re not asking for money under the table. When I buy properties, we don’t do any of that stuff, it’s all above board. Just like in New York or in L.A., however, the really good stuff, there are whisper listings, pocket listings. Most of the things I buy in Italy and in South America, I buy through the doorman. You hear somebody, a friend’s leaving something, the most great real estate deals are insider deals. Even our office-

Meaning not on the market, they’re just…?

No, even our office, we’re renting, but even that was an insider deal, a friend knew the owner and this… Because in Italy, it’s very important to be [a trusted person], so being presented by somebody else as a worthy party is very important. But there’s a lot of real estate agencies now that have a lot of properties, but the great stuff is never going to hit the market. So in my building that we have the two apartments in, I have a standing order with the doorman, anybody who wants to sell, I will buy, so it’s not going to hit the market.

And to talk about renting, I think we’d always have these fantasies of having a second home, and we talk about buying and everything that goes along with buying any property anywhere, but when it comes to the rental market and just the process of renting in Italy, I have no idea what that’s like. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Renting in Italy is one of the best deals on the planet. Rental contracts in Italy are all in favor of the renter. Rental contracts are what’s known as four plus four, they are eight-year leases, it’s a rent-controlled system, like New York, the government decides the rent rise every year, which is magically only about 2%, because European inflation rates, they try to keep them to 2%. The last two years have been oddballs, but they’ve been oddballs all over the world. But with that, you can… And Italians are irrationally attached to brick and mortar, so they will accept a lower rate of return on capital rather than sell an apartment. You can rent, the Italians look to achieve about a 3% or 3.5% yield on their capital in the house, but if they inherited it and it cost them zero, they might be willing to accept 2% or 1.5% of capital, and if you can lock that space in for eight years with government set rent rises, there’s really no point in buying, your capital can be put to far better use elsewhere. It’s also a great way to try on an apartment.

The difficulty for foreigners is getting the bank guarantees for the rental. You have to get something known as a [foreign language 00:49:05], which is a bank line of credit, which requires setting up a bank account, it’s a little complicated. But rent prices, I just advised somebody this morning, I would far rather spend €3,500 a month renting a great apartment on Piazza Castello rather than spending €2.2 million at 5.5% interest rate, when you have to put 50% down in Italy.

And if you’re talking 50% down, that’s pretty big.

It keeps you honest.

It sure does. When it comes to rentals, is it easier to ask people to do renovations on a rental? Whereas in the US, I feel like when someone’s renting, even if you paint, they’re going to ask you to repaint it back to white when you leave kind of thing, that people really avoid doing anything more than just furniture when it comes to rental.

The space that you saw that in Milan of ours, we fully renovated that space, with the approval of the owner, nothing was done in a hidden way, and it was part of our rental negotiation. When you rent in Italy, nine times out of 10, the apartment is delivered without a kitchen because the kitchen is considered movable furniture, so you can buy and install whatever you like. Sometimes you can negotiate with the landlord that they’ll give you half of the cost of it if you leave it when you go. Either the landlord paints the apartment before you go in, or you paint it when you go in and then you leave it dirty. Bathroom renovations, that’s something that, if the bathrooms are tired, you can usually negotiate with the landlord either that they renovate the bathrooms for you in exchange for a higher rent, or you can get a discount on the rent and say that you’ll take care of the bathroom renovations. You can put in air conditioning. No, I’ve never had a problem. I’ve renovated many rentals. I think it’s a great deal.

And if you are willing to go a little bit outside the beaten path, are there any places that you’ve considered yourself or you’ve told people to consider?

I think in Northern Italy, the big buy is Piemonte. If I were investing right now, the hottest market in Italy right now is Venice, it’s the-

Why’s that?

Venice, 10 years ago, you couldn’t give an apartment away, everyone wanted to sell out of Venice, and now it’s like the Palm Beach of Italy. Everybody wants to buy an apartment in Venice, everybody above 40. So 40, 50, 60, Italians and foreigners, and it’s a really vibrant place, lots of parties, lots of events, lots of dinner parties, lots of social life, easy to get to on the train from both Florence, Rome, and Italy, high-speed train connections, walkable city, beautiful housing, complicated renovations, but they can be done. And we work a lot in Venice. I love Venice. If I were going to put money in Northern Italy, I’d probably put it in Venice. That’s where it’s going right now in, I think you’d have a great life. If you want to have upside potential and you have a longer horizon, I think Piemonte is great, down on the Ligurian Coast, Camogli is the best town.

Why is that?

It’s very close to Milan. It’s like the chicest little town, like the Amagansett, like the little hidden one. Everyone knows about Portofino, but I think Camogli is where I would put my money.

And when it comes to cost of living, you hear about other kinds of cities like Naples or creatives moving to these different cities. If you’re someone who is not someone who can afford your services and wanted to buy a little urban retreat in a city and possibly work remote or most people would do now, especially if you’re going to live there for three months plus. Where would you suggest if someone said, “Yeah, what about a really cheap city to live in, like Naples or whatever?” What would you say?

Genoa. Genoa is dirt cheap. Genoa, you can buy for 3,000 or 4,000 meters, so $300, $400 a square foot. Whereas Milan, it’s hard to find things for under 8,000 minimum. And it’s an hour 45 minute train ride from Milan. It has a nice microclimate, it’s warmer in the winter. You can get to the coast and 30 minutes. It has a lovely historic center, I think and the cost of living is very low.

Would you ever move back to Chicago?

Every year I go to Chicago, every year for a week in the summer. And for that week I say, “Oh my God, this place is so beautiful and it’s dirt cheap.” And then I think about February and the winter.


Emily FitzRoy, founder of Bellini Travel. Photo: Courtesy Bellini Travel

For many of us travel to Italy can be easy, visit a few museums, have some great food, and in a few days you’re off to your next destination. My next guest, Emily FitzRoy, Founder of Bellini Travel, helps her clients navigate not only over-the-top experiences, but sometimes crafts entire full-time lives in the country. Even the producers at the hit show “The White Lotus” knew Emily was just the person to ring up during the pandemic when it came to finding the finest palazzo to stage some truly lavish expat fantasies. I caught up with Emily from her office in London to discuss the ins and outs of scoring the ultimate retreat in Sicily, how to avoid the crowds, the lowdown on Apulia, and where she would buy a place in Italy today for herself.

Can you tell me a little bit, before we get started, tell me a little bit about Bellini Travel, and how it started, and what it is.

Emily FitzRoy: Bellini started, I think by mistake. If I was being completely honest, from the top of a tailor’s studio, I was actually working in a bathroom for the first year in Savile Row with a piece of plywood over the bath. But it was originally invented as an online travel guide to Italy for the discerning traveler. And you would pay the princely sum of nine pounds a year to access all this information.

And then what happened by hook or by crook was that people would just ring me up and say, “Where would you go if you were going to Rome for a long weekend?” Or, “We’d like to go to Venice.” And I’d been very lucky, and I’d lived in Italy, I’d lived in Venice when I was a student and in Rome for six months during my gap year. And so I just started telling people things that would make me happy.

And it grew very organically, very unprofessionally. There was never a business plan. My grandmother was Italian, but working with Italians, they’re quite suspicious at first of who you are. And I’m obviously not the first person to try and send people on holiday in Italy, but once they trust you, it’s a trust that really does last a lifetime. And before you know it, some Contessa in Venice will be saying, “You must meet my sister who now lives in Florence and has got a Botticelli in her kitchen that I think you’d like to see.”

And so slowly, slowly over the last 25 years, we really have built up rather a wonderful network of people all over Italy who go out of their way to look after our clients. Predominantly, we organize holidays in Italy, but we really only take on maybe 80 clients a year. And usually it’s people who don’t want the bog standard Florence, Venice, Rome package holiday for two weeks. They will come to us because they are curious about Raphael and his works in private hands or formal gardens of Italy or things that are much cooler. And so yes, and we don’t advertise, so it’s all word of mouth. So we’ve grown very organically.

And you’ve also gotten a lot of great feedback about your work, I believe in some TV shows recently, which is, I think you’ve become a reference point for a lot of people. Can you explain your relationship with “The White Lotus”, as I’m sure that you get this every day now?

No, that was a really extraordinary moment in the middle of lockdown when like every other travel company in the world, we’d had to shut our doors, lose the office, lose my team, and I was rather feeling very sorry for myself and licking my wounds. And the director of “Succession” got in touch and said they were looking for locations, they wanted to shoot in Italy and they couldn’t find locations that were true to the character.

That being Harriet Walters character, who’s Lady Caroline, who’s Logan Roy’s first wife. And it was extraordinary because it was the easiest job, which I actually never told them, but it was so easy because all these houses and places were in my head. And so before I knew it, I was over there showing them locations. We did a sort of mad five-day Skype trip when you could only be in Italy for 90 hours. Yeah, I think it was 90 hours. And I left after 89 and a half hours-

Oh, wow.

… having done Rome, Florence, Venice, Alto Adige, Lake Como, Milan. So a real whistle-stop trip.


And then they very sweetly, they’re obsessed with authenticity on “Succession.” So they then realized that my clients were nice versions, I’d say of the Roy family, but came from similar backgrounds. So they knew that I’d be able to advise on some very little details, which obviously mattered hugely to them for authenticity. So I found myself spending six weeks on set in the middle of Covid with them in Lake Como and Tuscany which was incredible.

And it was there that I became friends with Frank Rich, who was the old New York Times Theatre critic. The Butcher of Broadway. And he is now an HBO executive. And we became great friends and he got me the job on “The White Lotus” because he was making a show with one of the producers, and they were scouting France and Italy at the time with Mike White, who is obviously the creator of the show. And I ended up going to see them on the Amalfi Coast, and eventually they settled in Sicily.

And it was different to “Succession” because Mike hadn’t yet written it. And so what he wanted was funny stories. He wanted to meet interesting Sicilians. I found him an assistant who ended up staying with him for a year almost, I think in the end. And so in a way of thanking me, he gave me a ridiculous cameo just before the orgy in the penultimate episode, just before I can tell my mother.

But anyway, it was great fun. I was very lucky. I think I got to work on two of the greatest shows on earth having never done anything in film or television before. So I feel very lucky. I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything again like that, but it was a very, very, very funny time of my life.

And how have you seen this market for long-term rentals or real estate in general, evolve since you first started? have things changed from your point of view?

It’s funny. I think long-term rentals are different to how they are in the UK because the renter has a lot more power than the landlord in Italy. So Italians are, in general very suspicious of doing long rentals because you have far less rights than you do over here. So it’s much harder to kick a tenant out. And I think that’s quite interesting. So we do have clients who are always looking to, I’d love to take a house in Venice for three years, and it’s almost impossible to find.

In terms of buying, we’ve had, weirdly in the last few years, quite a few clients who I think there are various incentives, especially for Americans to live in Italy at the moment from a tax system. I’m not sure if I’m right there. But that has been interesting in the sense that we haven’t helped buy properties for people, but we’ve helped set up their lives in Italy once they’ve moved over.

And how does that work? What does that entail?

Well, it’s just you know I’ve got a client at the moment who’s moved to Milan and it’s really building a calendar month by month of wonderful things going on in Italy that he can do with his friends, whether they want to go and see all the big golf, football, sporting events, to his teenager kids who might want to see “Coldplay” in June in Rome, to his mother who loves gardens. So I say go to Tivoli in May when the wisteria is out.

So it’s building up this lovely calendar of what he might want to do through the year. And also putting them in touch with just nice people in Italy. Our clients in general become our friends, and so it’s quite nice making sure that they’re being looked after once they go over there and settle.

So when it comes to long-term rentals or buying where this market is, right? Even where do people want to find great properties versus number one and number two? Where do they actually finding them and actually pulling the trigger? Because you mentioned people want to find a three-year rental in Venice, and it’s just really hard to find.

It’s really hard to find. I’ve got clients looking to do exactly that in Rome and in Venice at the moment, which I am. It’s interesting with Italy. I’ve always found with Italy that actually in general, if the price is correct, most houses are for sale. I don’t know why I’ve always. So I’ve never gone through the big agents. I’ve loved being able to ask owners of beautiful properties, would they ever consider renting or potentially selling their houses? And weirdly, more often than not, the answer is yes.

In terms of clients who’ve actually gone and done the move. We have clients who have taken fantastic apartments in Rome and are really happy there, and they dip and out, but they do have houses all over the world, so they’re not living full-time in Rome.

But of course, you’re also looking at the very, very top end, I’m assuming.

Yes. Yes.

I mean, when you’re talking about buying any place and for your clientele, what would the floor be in terms of price?

Oh God.

Just we’re getting a good ballpark.

God, I don’t know. I don’t think I can even answer that.

Over a million Euro?

Yes, absolutely.

Over five?

Probably. Yes.


Probably north of 10.

That’s fine. No, that’s fine. No, I mean, listen, this is, they don’t call it The Grand Tourist for nothing!


Yes. No, I have to do another episode just to talk about what podcasters can afford.

Likewise me.

Yeah. Hello. When someone, and especially an American starts to spend real time in Italy beyond that two week vacation and you’re helping them with the actual life there, what surprises them the most? What’s the kind of bit of feedback you get for a Brit or an American?

That’s interesting. I’m trying to think. I think they’re amazed, having always thought the Italians have got this incredibly relaxed approach to life. I think the bureaucracy is quite a big thing that people underestimate.

I’ve heard this a lot from a lot of people and especially other guests. They’re just like, do not underestimate the bureaucracy.

They love rules. Italians love rules.

The Villa Tasca in Palermo, made famous in the TV series “The White Lotus,” thanks to Emily FitzRoy. Photo: Courtesy Bellini Travel

And as someone who I travel there for business and done all these different, spend lots of time there and vacation there. Give me an example of where in daily life forms and rules and bureaucracy stuff.

Genuinely going to post a letter in a post office is exhausting because we’re all in a hurry. We all come from cities where we’re busy and you get expect things to be done very quickly. And in Italy, you really want to invest a morning, and it’d be quite an enjoyable morning if you enjoy listening to people talking around you and watching life go by. But to post one thing, which then again, I posted something mid-August, two friends in Brooklyn, and it got there mid-October this year. So I think-

I actually just got a

… invested an entire morning posting.

We’re recording this at the very end of January, and I could just say, I’m getting Christmas cards from Italy now.

Yeah. And the Italians always fascinated because I love Christmas cards and I send them to all the Italians I love working with, and they’re absolutely thrilled and they always write thank you letters, which I find very charming.

But what forms do you have to fill out? Why does it take all morning?

It’s just the queuing and everyone’s got time to have a good chat at the counter, and you just have to force yourself to slow down.

And what kind of, any horror stories that you’ve heard of people that have just in looking for that home where it’s like they discover something afterwards or that reinforces this idea of hiring professionals to really go one layer deeper?

I think more with the hoteliers, funnily enough, I’ve had a few problems in the deep South with the big M word when it comes to building and things that you-

What’s the word?

… The mafia.

Sorry. Sorry, that was… You go on.

But that’d been probably very localized at the time. But I talked to a friend who’d had real problems, even though he jumped through all the hoops and ticked all the boxes, he had obviously bought something in an area where that wasn’t taken into much consideration if you didn’t work with the people that they suggested you work with. Actually no, I haven’t really ever heard of a big, big horror story.

And so when you, Apulia is one of those regions in Italy that’s often talked about but is more off the beaten path, even though I hear about it more and more, what’s your take on that part of the country today?

It’s so different to the rest of Italy. So it’s wonderful because it’s in the South, it gets the sunshine for longer. They’ve got much longer seasons. So you could happily go from March when the world flowers right, until really be swimming in the sea until early November. But I think the landscape is so different to the rest of Italy that you have to almost, I think when I have clients going there for the first time, I say you just almost imagine that you’re in Morocco.

Yeah, I was going to say rocky.

It’s flat and it’s sparse, and it’s little stone walls and cactus trees that are tens of thousands of years old and these olive groves, but it’s very, very different to anywhere else. So don’t go there thinking this is Italy.

Okay. And what are the pros there other than the… What’s like the food and what do you do?

I mean, the food is wonderful. You are not going to wander into a hill town and find a Perugino in the local church. But what you are going to find is some wonderful Baroque towns like Lecce and Ostuni and Otranto, which are really magical, but I think it’s… My Pugliese friends would shoot me for saying this, but it’s culturally not quite as rich as other parts of Italy and it’s much more about beaches.

And it seems like it’s harder to get to.

And no, it’s not, actually. It’s quite easy to get to because you’ve got two big airports, but the trains are quite difficult. I think it’s about seven hours from Rome. But it has got this lovely long season.

What would you say if someone is like, listen, I want to invest, or I want to spend some time in Italy, but I’m really tired of the expected spots, where should I go?

I would probably take an apartment in a town. Italian trains are fantastic in general, so I would probably go to somewhere like Lucca, which is a really civilized town in… It’s a city in Tuscany. And from there you’ve got Florence at your fingertips. You can get to Venice in two hours, you can get to Rome in two hours. I would definitely suggest spending time in a town because you get this I think when you learn.

I think if you’re stuck in a house in the middle of nowhere on top of a hill, albeit looking at wonderful views, I think it’d be rather lonely. And I think it’s quite nice. The whole point of Italy is the culture, the society. It’s watching the people doing the passeggiata in the evening and the children playing football against the walls of the cathedral. And that’s what makes us dream of Italy and love being there.

I know this might be the only time this film ever gets mentioned on this podcast, but it does remind me of “The Equalizer 3,” which is dealt with in the action movie and where the main character tries to live another life of not being a vengeful killer in Italy. And it’s so out of every Fellini movie and all the stereotypes, but it does have an allure. I mean, what can you say?

Yes, it does. But then I tell you what touches me is having spent last week in Northern Italy is that even though in the last two years, Italy really it’s been a deluge of visitors. And you have seen some cities really struggling to cope with the numbers of people coming in and out. Noticeably Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Capri have been absolutely swamped. Likewise Lake Como and Florence and Venice really struggling.

But then you have these moments even though these people have been inundated by visitors, you have these incredibly magical moments of walking into a bar to get a cup of tea. And the barman suddenly says, “You need to try my sugar syrup that I make from mountain herbs.” And before you know, you are drinking with all the mountain guides.

And of course Sicily, which was speaking about “The White Lotus,” are you tired of getting people calling and saying that they want to stay at wherever they shot “The White Lotus?” I mean, what is your take on someone saying, okay, how do I live out that fantasy?

I usually put the phone down. I think this whole, I don’t know, I was absolutely amazed by the reaction it had. And I was laughing with Mike White last year about the fact that we’ve basically sunk Sicily because there was such a volume of people who ended up going to Taormina. The only thing I felt was amusing and awful as the fact that the Villa Tasca, which I introduced him to in Palermo, which he reimagined as this lovely Palazzo in Noto. Noto actually is how it’s pronounced. That the two girls go to and spend the night there.

And likewise, when they have the big party with obviously my famous Orgy scene that in fact was not in Palermo, that was in a house outside Noto, I felt very sorry for what I imagined were thousands and thousands of Americans last summer thinking they were in the wrong city. “This is not where… I’m in Palermo, but where is this house?” And so I thought there was going to be a lot of confusion.

And I also thought it was incredible he made Taormina look so beautiful. And I don’t know if you’ve been there recently, but it’s incredibly popular. It’s been busy really for the last… I mean, it’s been busy since The Grand Tourist first visited it in the 19th century, but it’s a very touristy, in fact, the most touristy part of Sicily. And the way that Mike White shot it was this beautiful empty town with the Roman Arena and the amphitheater, and I was just like, “God, people are going to get there and just go, yikes, this is not what I signed up for.”

Okay, so maybe not Taormina if you’re going to go.



But it was wonderful. I mean, the thing about Sicily again is you don’t have to work that hard to get off the beaten track. So if you go to Taormina, I know that five minutes away is a wonderful fishing village where you probably won’t hear an English accent.

What’s that village called?

I’m not telling you.

And what parts of Sicily you think are in general underappreciated?

I mean, I think if you are really brave to go to the Island of Filicudi, which is one of the Aeolian Islands.

What is that like?

I think those places are just extraordinary because there’s such a pain to get to. I mean, you really have to invest in a day of getting on a boat, getting on a ferry, getting on a scooter by the end of it, and then you have to walk the last mile because there are no cars to these islands, which really have got very, very little apart from this extraordinary landscape and being on the sea and living in a different era.

I mean, they were prison islands for a long time. So it’s where the Italians used to always send prisoners, and there were lots of very funny stories about Lipari and the Mafia being sent there to this prison and the locals having to cook pasta for them, and then the local grannies went on strike, so we’re not feeding you anymore. So they all had to start behaving. There’s a great history, but I think Filicudi really feels like you’re on another planet and living in another century.

Where would you buy if you had… Here’s the thing, if you had your budget, where would you buy an actual real estate budget for you, Emily? And then if you had no object, had the budget of one of your clients, where would you live? So where would you buy?

So if it was my budget, I would buy a one bedroom or even a studio in the Spanish quarter of Naples.


Naples has got something that makes you feel so well and alive. It terrifies some of our clients and some of my Northern Italian friends, but there is nowhere else in the world where you are going to laugh, drink, eat, see better art. It’s just got everything for me, and it’s still relatively off grid. I think if I had a huge fat wodge of cash, I would probably buy a beautiful house overlooking Monte Amiata in the Val d’Orcia.

Okay. Where is that?

Which is southern Tuscany, and I would probably set up a commune with all my friends and hopefully retire there with lots of really handsome Italian men to look after us.


Julie Montagu on the terrace of her home in Tuscany. Photo: Courtesy Julie Montagu

My next guest is Julie Montagu, Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, but I know her as the American Viscountess, whose YouTube channel that I adore takes viewers through some of the most amazing estates in the United Kingdom, including her family’s own Mapperton house. More on that later, but I’ve asked Julie to join us today as someone who’s actually followed through on her dreams and purchased a second home, in this case, a charming townhouse in a quiet corner of Tuscany, redone with locally sourced antiques, chronically tardy local labor, and lots and lots of sweat equity. I followed her journey online and just had to get her on the program today, live from her little Italian palace, far away from the English countryside.

Anyway, I’m such a big fan. I’m a YouTube addict. And so it’s very surreal to talk to you, to see you. It looks like you’re in one of the bedrooms that I’ve seen you design and go and work on.

Julie Montagu: That’s exactly right. I’m in the primary bedroom, and beneath the clothes here I am splattered in paint, so I thought I should put on a nice scarf here just so I can at least look the part. But I have been painting, so I’m under kitchen renovation this week, but yes, behind me is the completed primary bedroom.

Amazing. And tell the people that are listening who maybe don’t know you, give us the lowdown on you and your life, and I know you as the American viscountess on YouTube, but if you could give to the Americans out there listening a little bit about who you are and where you come from and your life today.

Absolutely, Dan. I’m definitely not the American viscountess or even the aristocrats that you would see in Downton Abbey or those period dramas. I’m in literally trousers splattered with paint, but I still have that title and it works really well on YouTube. But a little bit about me, you can tell from my accent. I like you, Dan. I am American. I’m from Chicago, and my life really took a different turn when I moved over here and met my husband and had absolutely no idea about the aristocracy. I mean, I’ll be honest, I was actually quite naive. I came from a small town outside Chicago and just thought that the royal family, that was it, that’s all that existed. The next thing you know, there’s this whole other world of duke, duchess, counts, or I should say earls, countess, marquess, marchioness, vicount, vicountess, and that’s, I think, where I come in with being an American vicountess, Viscountess Hinchingbrooke.

It’s a real mouthful, but not even knowing how to pronounce it. So when I met my husband, he told me his name was Luke Montesquieu, that is what his name is. But, of course, there’s this titled name and the story goes, and it is 100% truth. When he pulled out a different credit card to pay for something, I asked him, why does this credit card say Viscount Hinchingbrooke? And, of course, he looked at me in absolute horror and said, “It’s Viscount Hinchingbrooke.” And I said to him, “But why would it be vicount? It’s spelled exactly like discount.” True story, and from that point on, he thought, “Oh great, I better marry this girl because she knows nothing about the English aristocracy and will have no idea what she’s getting into if she marries into my family and taking on a historic house.”

And where is the historic house for people that don’t know?

So the historic house is called Mapper House, and it’s in Southwest England about six miles from the Jurassic Coast, which is a beautiful part of England, and it’s in a county called West Mapperton. So it was given the grand accolade, if you like, in 2006 by a very esteemed magazine over here in the UK called Country Life. And we were voted not by the public, but by proper historians, et cetera, the Nation’s Finest Manor House because it’s a real mix between Tudor, Jacobean, Elizabethan, and with a hint of Victorian, and it’s beautiful and it’s lovely. It’s a beautiful manor house and you can’t hear any airplanes. We’re in the middle of nowhere. If you want to come to us, you need to want to come to us because you wouldn’t just find us passing off down a motorway, and no cars, we just hear birdsong.

How long ago was that when you moved in, let’s say?

Well, I’ve been married for over two decades, but we didn’t properly take over the running of the historic house Mapperton until about five years ago when my in-laws passed over the management of it, and that’s when we moved in to run it. And we are co-general managers. My husband and I we’re incredibly hands-on. We can fix leaks, sometimes electrical issues we can fix. I’m definitely a qualified decorator, so I do most of the painting inside the house, and that’s from basically restoring the walls and then repainting them. And so you have to be, times have changed. I don’t know of a single historic house or aristocrat who lives in a historic house that lives the same way that we see in Downton Abbey. I mean, we’re all very hands-on and trying to preserve our part of England’s heritage for future generations, and it’s very, very different from what it was even 50 years ago.

So you are accustomed to running one of the greatest states, Tudor era, gardens, people, expectations, probably a lot of regulations. And then at some point you’re like, “Let’s do this all over again but with my own little house in Italy.”

Yeah, I’m completely mad. Just everybody who’s listening, can I just tell you how Dan is incredibly patient because in Italy time just runs on a… It’s like we’re in a different, I don’t even know, planet almost. In Italy, time doesn’t exist here. You ask somebody to come over at a particular time and they may or may not turn up, and if they do turn up, it could be at 8 o’clock at night. So Dan has been incredibly patient because this interview was supposed to start an hour ago and, of course, my builder was supposed to arrive an hour before the interview and decided to arrive when the interview was meant to begin, so that’s just how it works. It’s taught me a lot of patience, definitely renovating my little Italian house. But what’s really lovely for me about this place it’s something that I had always dreamt about Italy for some reason. I love the culture, the food, the people. It is wonderful. And-

Were you regularly coming to Italy all the time?

… not so much. As a family of six, my husband, myself and four children, of course, it’s so easy to travel mainland Europe. We were going all over Europe, whether that was France or Spain or Austria, Germany, et cetera, et cetera, and of course, Italy was included in that. But I think for me personally and in particular, I really was drawn to the friendliness of the people. And I am going to admit, and the food. For me, I’m not a meat eater, so French food, if you’re a meat eater, it’s old.

There’s so much meat there, whereas Italy, if you don’t eat meat, well, there’s lots of pasta and really delicious pasta, so I was drawn to it I think for that reason in particular. And then the pandemic hit right before the pandemic, and I thought before I even knew the pandemic was going to hit, I thought, “I’m going to go out to Italy and just, I have a small little budget. I’m going to look for something,” and I found this, what I call my little Italian house, two bedroom, two bath, sitting room and the kitchen that’s about to be demolished on Monday, and I love it.

And tell me about the town that it’s in.

Oh, it’s so sweet. So the town is lovely. It’s a Northern Tuscany in this area called the Lunigiana. And so you look outside and you can see actually mountain peaks because you’ve got the Apuan Alps on one side, and then you can look to the other side and you have the Apennine Hills, so you’re seeing lots of hills and valleys and then peak mountains. So skiing is about 20 minutes away, and the sea is about 20 minutes away as well. So it’s still considered Tuscany, but it’s an area within Tuscany called the Lunigiana. So for me, it was very important to make sure that all four of my children wanted to come here. And I have some children that love being by the beach, and I’ve got other children who just want to ski or go hiking. There’s lots of hiking or mountain biking, and so this worked out well for everybody likes it, everybody loves it, I should say, all four of my children. So it was a real win-win for me.

And it’s a town called Fivizzano? Is that correct?

Yeah, it’s called Fivizzano.


And I needed to tick things off. Number one, at Mapperton, we have 15 acres of gardens, and part of it is formal gardens. And I did not want to have a garden. No, I already have a garden. So I have a lovely terrace, and I wanted to be able to walk as much as possible rather than having to motor about in my car anytime I wanted to leave my house. So the lovely thing is that the main Piazza Medici is a 32nd walk from here, and it’s filled with restaurants and cafes, and there’s a lovely Medici Fountain, and so I’m able to do all my shopping, my aperitivos by simply walking 30 seconds.

… and so how did you find this place?

So I started to look online and thought right here is then my budget if I were to buy a place, and I started to look within that budget, and it was a low budget, everybody. I mean, I’m talking low-

What was your range, if you don’t mind me asking?

… yeah, no, no, of course. My range was 60,000 euros to 100,000 euros, and I wanted Tuscany tough.

Okay, and in your budget did you already have a renovation budget in mind?


Oh, okay.

No, so I didn’t. What I thought to myself was, “Get the house that’s livable, and then just take your time and learn how to renovate it yourself so you can then save money, et cetera, and it’ll be more fun that way as well.” So no, to everybody out there, I didn’t set any funding aside for renovation. I thought to myself, “If the One Euro Scheme is out, what needs to be in is a place that definitely needs to be renovated, but yet I can still live in it,” so that was my range, and it was hard. I’m not going to lie. It was difficult to find something like that, but I narrowed it down and I was just, like we all do, searching far and wide on the internet. I inquired about a few places, a organization of real estate agency or property agency, I should say, got back in touch with me and said, “If you’re interested in this area, we can show you lots of other different houses.

And I might add this as well, the reason, and I’m going to be perfectly honest here, that I started to look Northern Tuscany because somebody had informed me that houses were less expensive in Northern Tuscany, so my budget was going to work there. And then of course, once I started to explore the area, I was like, “Wait, there’s skiing and there’s a beach, and the views are not what we see in Tuscany. Very different and very much more dramatic landscape.” So from that, I came out here, I flew out here, they had 12 houses lined up for me. And I kid you not everybody, I would go in and out of the houses. I knew what I was looking for. So by the end of the day or towards the end of the day, I thought to myself, “I’m not going to find a house.”

It wasn’t what I was looking for. And you know in your gut, I knew what I was looking for. And all of a sudden, one of the last houses we see, because I said to her, her name was Kiara, she was lovely. I said, “This is nothing, I don’t like any of these houses or the view, or where they’re located.” I really wanted to be by a Piazza, and I was quite specific. And she said, “Okay, well, there’s one more I want to show you and it’s off a Piazza.” And I remember driving into Fivizzano and I thought, “This is exactly the town that I had imagined I would find a place.” We park, we walk around the corner, and as we’re walking towards my current house, I couldn’t see a [foreign language 01:31:24] sign out there, a for sale sign, but they were walking straight towards this house. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, it’s beautiful on the outside. Please let this be the house. Please let this be the house.”

And lo and behold, I mean, I remember everything. She unlocked the door and I thought, “It’s the house,” and then I said to myself, “Please let it be livable. Please let it be livable,” and it was livable. And I went around the house, looked at everything. I mean, I was only here for about 15 minutes, and we went and had a cafe afterwards, and I said, “That’s it. I’m putting an offer on this house,” and I did, and then the pandemic hit. That’s a whole other story.

Okay. And so now, how long ago was this since you got the keys?

So I got the keys one year after I put my offer in. So I put my offer in on February 17th, I think it was 2020. Remember, Italy went into lockdown March 1st or something, everything was closed. But again, I had this agency working with me. So what we did, and they were very, very affordable, and they’re out there, they really are out there is when things started to open back up in Europe, June, Julyish, I was able to give power of attorney to the organization that was over here. So they were doing a lot of my signing because I couldn’t still travel over here.

And it wasn’t until February 2021, one year later that I was able to come over here, and that was even difficult because we were put into a second lockdown in the UK, but it was a little bit more relaxed. And so if you had a second home that you were restoring or renovating, you could actually go and see that house, so I was able to make it over here, but it was a year later and I got my keys. I remember crying. I remember everything about my first day arriving here by myself.

And after you’re there for that first month, what did you discover in terms of your renovation journey and where are you now in the process? It seems like everything is done, but maybe not.

No, not quite. So when I arrived in February 2021, I got my keys and I just thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m here.” And there was this door upstairs on the first floor that when I had viewed the house, I had asked the seller, well, the seller’s agent, “What’s behind this door?” And it was interpreted to me that it’s just an owner’s closet, something small, nothing. And they didn’t have a key to it, so it wasn’t opened. And next thing I know, it was my best surprise. The door was opened and it has piping. There’s another shower in there, and so I thought I was just going to have one bathroom. So now I have two loos. I have a bathtub and I have a shower because, of course, I’m [inaudible 01:34:34] now, so we have to have bathtubs. It’s really English—

And you have to call it a loo.

… and we have to call it a loo, exactly. So that was my biggest surprise. But while I was here for that first period for several weeks, I was on FaceTime with an interior designer that we use at Mapperton named Malcolm, who has really taught me a lot. Our view together was he can teach me a lot so that I can take it on board myself, but you need to be able to learn from somebody. And so we would spend hours during that first period measuring, I’m talking every square inch of this entire place so that Malcolm could then put the designs together.

And I think that’s also really important, for me, I’m the type of person, I’m visual and I need to have meticulous designs. And so I use Malcolm, who is proper old school, went to, I think, Central St. Martin’s, hand draws every design. And so that also really, really does help when you’re working with an Italian builder, especially if the language barrier is quite… Well, it’s a barrier. They can then look at the designs and it very much visually helps them, so that I would recommend that to everybody to make sure you have somebody doing, if you aren’t doing it yourself, doing your designs, and spend the money for that because in the long run you’ll save money.

No, that sounds like something I didn’t think about and I was going to ask you how much you then decided to take upon yourself rather than having a professional do it for you. If you’re, in terms of where the rubber meets the road of how you have to actually be there and not just say, “Okay, designer, work with the builder,” or as we would say, a contractor, “fix it up and then let me know when I’m ready to move in.”

Right. No, no, no. I don’t work like that, as you probably know. So once I had the designs in place, then I was able to communicate with the builders on the bits, in particular the plumbing and the electrics that they could do. But then the decorating, so the painting of the walls, I’ve put in a runner carpet. I did the entire sitting room myself from top to bottom, and as I said, the stairs as well. So I have been incredibly hands-on, and the other thing I think you probably know, Dan, is my love of upcycling. So for me, this house is literally filled with, I mean, I look around this primary bedroom now and everything including that’s hanging on the walls and the furniture and the bed is upcycled. I’m very into my flea markets, both online and here in Italy. I go to auction houses in London and find pictures there as well to hang.

But I definitely feel that at least my, a talent that, perhaps, I have is an eye for not only finding a unique piece that has a story attached to it, because then you didn’t just go to the shop and buy it, you negotiated the price. There’s a little story behind it. It’s 50, 70, 100 years old, whether it came from France or from Turkey, or England or in Italy. I prefer to be able to look around the room and tell a story. I’m looking at my Murano glass lamps that I found in a flea market and negotiated down. I’m looking at the Venetian mirror in front of me again, so that to me is really important.

And did you have any, I mean, we talked about a good surprise about the unexpected bathroom that you found behind a locked door, but were there any bad surprises, as we all know when you get the keys to an old place?

I think for me, I wouldn’t say any horrible surprises. I would say that the kitchen right now, which I’m just about, we literally are taking a sledgehammer to it on Monday, in two days time. The kitchen has started to develop quite a bit of damp, and I mean, I feel like damp follows me everywhere. I live in a house-

It’s a very British problem. So I have British friends who just talk about the damp as if it’s like a curse upon the land.

… I think I brought it here. I think it must be growing inside of me, and then all of a sudden I’ve given it to the kitchen. So the damp has started. I’m like, “You have got to be kidding me.” The damp, I would say was probably, we’re fixing it. It’ll be fixed, of course, as much as it possibly can be. But that was a not very fun surprise. It was one of those moments that I just thought, “Are you kidding me? I have damp on the west side of the kitchen.” And the other unexpected surprise is, which is a good one, I’m sorry, I don’t have too many other not so good ones, is there’s a cellar beneath me. And all these years I’ve been wanting to find out, not all these years, but for four years, wanting to find out if it belonged to me. But I’ve been so busy renovating that I never bothered to ask. Anyway, stay tuned for that. I don’t want to give it away too much, but some exciting news about the cellar.

… you didn’t know that the cellar was your… Sorry, I don’t understand. You mean there was a cellar to the house and you didn’t know if you had ownership of it?

Yeah, that’s how it works here. Because the entrance to the cellar beneath me is the door next door to my kitchen window that I never had access to. So to access the cellar, you go in a completely different door, but then I did.

Oh, I see.

You see? So there’s a separate entrance to it.

Something to know if you’re going to buy a place in town. If you had to describe your experience of finding, buying, renovating, and moving to your little corner of Tuscany in three words, what would those three words be?

My happy place.


Thank you to our guests, Diletta, Eric, Emily, and Julie, as well as Denzel Washington for making this episode happen. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, don’t forget to visit our website and sign up for our newsletter, The Grand Tourist Curator at And follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen, and leave us a rating or comment, every little bit helps. Ciao, ciao!


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