In June 2012 Soph fell pregnant with what was to become the indomitable force that is Alfred. I knew immediately that I needed to change both of our lives to ensure that we never fell into the rhythm of being parents and ignoring our passions. Whilst Soph is highly motivated, I’m fairly lazy and I wanted to provide Alfred with a home from home, a place to have adventures and to explore nature. I realised that if I left it until after he arrived, it would never happen as the daily grind of 5am starts, continual colds and nappy changes would grind me into submission. I had to act whilst the iron was hot.
That summer during a three week climbing trip, Soph joined me to start the search for a home in the Dolomites, which we could renovate and make our own. Initially the idea was to buy a small place and to have it just for ourselves and so we spent 3 or 4 days driving around in our Nissan Navara, looking at beautiful Finiles high up in alpine meadows, old houses around the small villages in the valley and more modern places in resorts. We soon realised that to buy within the confines of a resort would cost an absolute arm and a leg, and that the level of work required to convert an old traditional hay barn would be too much work. Using the Italian equivalent of Rightmove, we identified where prices were more acceptable and explored them to see what area offered the best activities. We came away excited and keen to plunge headfirst into this project.
Roll on February. As the months had passed, our ideas expanded – not only did we want to provide for our little boy, we also wanted to offer the same to mountain lovers. The Dolomites for me had become over many years nothing short of an obsession. Alfred was due to make an appearance in early April – we booked flights out for a 5 day trip. The week before was snowy and we arrived in Venice on a cold bleak night; driving through the darkness, we blindly followed the sat nav over Passo Staulanza on our way to an area we had identified that we felt offered huge potential, Rocca Pietore. Climbing through Zoldo we hit the snow line. Our poorly equipped Ford Fiesta struggled onwards, wheel skidding as I tried to avoid putting the chains we had rented on. We reached the top and stopped to take a photo of the blizzard outside. I pressed on.
Half way down the pass I was wishing I’d been a bit more sensible. I fell quiet as Soph in her highly pregnant and highly excited state bombarded me with ideas. Even at 20km/hr, we were effectively in a wheeled toboggan – why didn’t I insist on snow tyres at the airport? Eventually the gradient eased as did the snow and we reached out destination, Sol e Nef in Sottoguda. Checking in, we realised we had struck gold – our room was immaculate, the hostess was friendly and helpful – we felt inspired. If only we could offer something like this!
Over the next few days we looked at dozens of houses – some only from the outside but we packed in the miles and made sure we saw what we needed to see. From small barns, to massive traditional farm houses high up on the mountain, and from total wrecks, to utterly immaculate, we saw it all. One house I was so in love with, if I’d had my cheque book I would have ended up with a home at the top of a 3 km single track lane, with 30% hills, only rudimentary ploughing and the very real chance of being cut off by snows. But the view! In any case, one of the last we saw was a house we had initially discounted. It need a lot of work to make it what we wanted, but it had potential, and it was a reasonable house. We thought long and hard and decided that most of the places we’d seen were either just far too much work, or were a lot of money and despite that we would still need to invest to make them a business prospect. What we needed was something that we could mould into what we wanted, that provided the bare shell on which to hang our vision.
It was decided, we made a series of negotiations and a few weeks later a sale was agreed. We entered the murky world of Italian house sales. Utterly different to the UK system and difficult to navigate. In May I flew out, this time on my own to meet with the owners and the conveyancing solicitors and to sign on the dotted line. That signature bound us to a sale unless we wanted to lose a 10% deposit. We were in; no turning back. Back at home Alfred was with us and I continued working on my engineering projects until finally in mid July we bought a trailer, hitched it to our Subaru and I drove through a German heatwave with the dog to our new place in the hills. Soph and the boy flew out and after a delay of a couple of weeks, the house was ours.
The next three months were spent consulting our Architect, Jacopo Tollot putting into place a scheme to convert the house, working out what we could do and what we could not, understanding what planning regulations required and working out how we would achieve the best possible result with our very limited budget. Originally we had planned to help out where ever we could – it soon became apparent that that’s not the way things work in Italy. It was going to be exponentially more expensive than we had expected – we would need to make it count. We eventually decided to split the house into three flats, each with a kitchen and living space, a shower room and enough accommodation to sleep between 10 and 17 people. We would market it to climbers and skiers – with the famous Sottoguda up the road in the shadow of Marmolada the tallest peak in the Dolomites, we knew we had to appeal to a diverse market. A ski resort this was not. So we would build it rugged and basic but comfortable. Everything a walker, climber, skier or biker could want.
Planning applications went in and took frustratingly long to be granted – but as Jacopo told us, we were in Italy now. We just had to go with it. Work finally commenced 3 months after we had hoped, but it progressed quickly and efficiently. I made two visits, firstly to give direction on finishes and the second whilst on a trip with friends to climb and walk as many Via Ferrata as we could manage between the rains in what was a particularly wet summer. Most weeks we would receive a batch of photos to give tantalising views of the progress. And here we find ourselves at the end of October, preparing once again to make the drive across Europe, plumbing and wiring done, plasterboard up, windows replaced the house insulated to withstand the winter cold, the damp, cold basement transformed and the outside painted and partially clad, with new balconies and a new face. We are both so excited to be seeing the house within the next couple of weeks and we hope that soon we will be seeing you come through our doors, discovering this beautiful corner of these beautiful mountains.Welcome to Casa Alfredino, the most positive panic of my life – without his lordship it would never have happened.
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