House hunting in Italy

Wish-fulfillment and the imagining of other lives: our trip to Arco and Lago di Garda

To house hunt is to imagine other lives.

Take my most recent obsession: buying and renovating an old house in Italy. It seems I’ve been fully captured by the promise, not so much of an Italian ruin for 1 euro, but by something more like a €50,000 Italian farmhouse, at least with a roof in good repair and surrounded by a grove of olive trees, that I can renovate in peace and solitude, in which I will keep warm by the light of wood-burning fires in the winter, stay cool in the embrace of old stone walls in the summer, and cook gigantic plates of pasta draped in olive oil all year long, eating them outside on a large farm table with wine from some vineyard just down the old cobbled road.

If I’m clever about the whole thing, I will find this farmhouse near a kitesurfing beach or a rock climbing crag, or—too good to be true?—both. And I will write, and smell the open air, and I will learn how to crush the olives into olive oil, and all will be happy and romantic.

I’ve been thinking about this vision for a long time, especially the combination of a climbing area with a kiting area, which, if found, must be close to certain nirvana. And if it were found in Italy?

But there are natural factors working against it. Sizeable climbing crags don't tend to appear near oceans, nor oceans next to climbing crags. Maybe the lone exception to this is Squamish in British Columbia, home to “The Chief,” which stands right above a windy cove where air from mountain glaciers pours down into the ocean from May to October. There are two downsides to this Canadian outdoor playground, though, and I’ve already mentioned one of them, namely the ice cold, glacially-fed water. The other is the property prices, which are inflated to abnormally outrageous levels in part by Chinese millionaires looking to offshore their wealth.

Neither of those factors makes Squamish an appealing investment for either my time or money, and so, in life, I have contented myself with the knowledge that I must choose: either to go to a climbing area or a kitesurfing beach (a warm one) and besides it’s trouble enough to travel with the gear for one of those sports.

Plus, there is climate change to consider. My last trip to the DR provided a depressing reminder that tides change, literally. Beaches shift, erode, even disappear. In Cabarete, my fourth trip over six years, I found that the beloved kite beach I had fallen for so hard when I first learned the sport had quite literally disappeared from the shoreline. Whereas once one could look from the beach restaurant through the plexiglass windows onto the kiters on the sand inflating their gear, launching, and landing their kites, now one looked out only onto ocean, the waves crashing up against the very foundation of the restaurant.

I have long wanted to own a property on a beach somewhere the wind is strong and where there are kiters and fellowship and beer and sun, and I very nearly did buy a two-bed, ground floor apartment directly on that beach in Cabarete that is no longer a beach (they tell me it comes back a little in the winter, but one day soon that too will be gone). But then I remember how fickle the weather is nowadays, and I think of how winds and sand shift, but mountains don’t, and I am glad I never bought the Cabarete property.

I was thinking through this whole wish-fulfillment dilemma again with my partner while we Summered in Prague when I remembered that you can also kite on lakes, if they’re big and windy enough, and also that lakes could be near mountains, and in fact wasn’t there a kitesurfing destination on a lake somewhere in Italy? I couldn’t quite remember where, but I soon found it online: Lago di Garda. I typed it into Google maps and that’s when I saw that it was next to one of my little gold stars they give you to mark locations. I use them to remember places I want to go, so that if you zoom out while on my account you can see a kind of global geography of my travel desires. And there, next to Lago di Garda, I had marked down a climbing destination: Arco.

A light went on. My heart fluttered. Hope arose. Could it really be, that there is a world-class kiting destination directly next to a world-class climbing destination? I zoomed in to the Italian mountains, just south of Trento, north and west of Verona, to where the Dolomites meet the plains where they’ve built the autostrada I’ve driven back and forth on half a dozen times in my life moving from east to west. But I never turned north, because if I had, I would have already known about this mecca of climbing. Arco sits on the northern tip of Lago di Garda, Italy’s painfully gorgeous mountain lake where the thermal effect of air moving down from the mountains combined with the tunnel effect of the towering elevation gains on either side of the water makes it reliably blow around 300 days a year. I Googled pictures, and there they were: kiters superimposed not in front of an open ocean, but in front of jaggedly high bare cliffs looming over the water in the background.

Arco and nearby Lago di Garda aren’t just a kiting destination next to a climbing one—but the climbing is year-round, and if you can bare the cold water in the winter at least it’s still windy. I had to go. I couldn’t wait.

We started planning a trip immediately. I would be in Croatia at the end of August, so getting to Italy from there wouldn’t be a problem. There was the overnight ferry from Zadar to Ancona, and if that failed there were always the cheap Ryanair flights. Meanwhile, my partner found the train down from Prague, by way of Munich, through the Alps, which would deposit her in Rovereto, not 25 minutes east of Arco. So long as the German train strike or ever-shifting COVID restrictions didn’t get in our way, we had our plan: one week in Arco just before flying back to the U.S.

Of course, the thing about wish-fulfillment is that it doesn’t wait for reality. Even as I climbed in Croatia, at nights I surfed Idealista.it, even with the knowledge that it was a pale substitute for actually being there. Idealista may remind you of a Trulia or a Zillow, but in truth the aggregators in the world of online European property for sale haven’t really achieved the all-encompassing smorgasbord of availability that the U.S. aggregators have. Which is to say: Idealista can still only show you a fraction of what is actually for sale. How did I know? Well, let’s just say this wasn’t my first rodeo.

Four years earlier, my partner and I had road-tripped through Spain and Portugal in a campervan, stopping at climbing and kiting destinations and charming Andalusian towns along the way. We visited El Chorro, just north of Málaga, then curved south to Tarifa, where we met with two real estate agents who explained to us that it was actually quite difficult to renovate anything, so stringent were the building regulations and the town councils.

We also learned that what is online is not what is in real life. Real estate agents in Spain (and, I suspect, in Italy) still hold the keys to the kingdom, the way U.S. agents did back before big tech got all involved. In Tarifa, we met an agent who showed us a cute-as-could-possibly-be two-bedroom apartment in the old town, walking distance to the kiting beach, with a balcony overlooking an old medieval square with a café and a bar and a restaurant, and at that moment we had to honestly wash some cold water on our face and ask ourselves: just how many months a year are we really planning to come to Tarifa?

If the answer had been anything more than maybe one at the most I probably would have handed over a deposit and proceeded to figuring out how to transfer funds. But alas: we were imagining another life, not seriously planning one.

Would it be different in Italy? I didn’t know. In Prague, we had looked at the online listings together, and then she had looked at them more while I worked, and we found some old ruins in Mori and a few other towns we could look at when we were there. She was all-in on the notion, or rather on the dreaming, and we never discussed the question that had held us back in Tarifa, which is whether we would actually restructure our lives to spend time there. We each have kids and custody agreements and the kids have schools, and those schools are in the U.S., and so the question was always whether we would cross the line from imagining other lives to actually changing the ones we had.

Regardless, in Croatia, I kept browsing properties. I thought about the olive oil and the vineyards, and also about that beautiful Italian girl I met once in Lisbon. Where was she now, I wondered? Then I was on the cheap Ryanair flight from Zadar to Bergamo, where I picked up our rental car, a tiny little Fiat Panda, and drove east on the autostrada until Verona, where I peeled north, to Mori, then west to the northern tip of Lago di Garda, and on to Arco.

The road was hundreds of feet above the lake, and the mountains another several thousand feet higher. I checked in at the hotel, then went into Arco to see the town. Honestly pictures don’t do it justice, and nor can my words. I have never seen so much beauty in every direction, everywhere I turned, as I did during that next week. I wandered the streets and bought a guidebook for the climbing areas, then bought a rope, a light and thin 50-meter I pictured myself traveling through Europe with. After, I got back in the Fiat and started driving to Rovereto. Down below the road, the water, nestled between mountains, stretched out further than I could see.

I picked up my partner at the train station just as it got dark, so she couldn’t see everything that day. But the next morning, in our hotel, I woke up, peeled the curtains, opened the window, and told her to look:

Everywhere you turn in Arco there is either a cliff, an olive grove, or a vineyard. That is what the town is. That is why it exists. Climbing, olive oil, and wine. In the center, there are a dozen shops for outdoor gear, most of them climbing-focused. I thought of REI in the U.S., which normally keeps three or four brands of climbing shoe in stock, and one or two brands of rope. The climbing section in the Rockville REI, in Maryland, is about the size of a walk-in closet. In Arco, that would be space for the climbing ropes in one store alone. Everywhere I turned there was gear, and the gear was relatively cheap, or otherwise on sale. I wanted to fondle all the gear, including the new belay devices I’d never seen, and the clothes from all the European brands I’d never heard of. I gazed at an entire wall just filled with La Sportiva approach shoes and thought to myself: is this heaven?

What retail space is not reserved for climbing goes to biking or hiking the Via Ferrata, and what is not a shop is a restaurant, a pizzeria, or a gelateria. The message is clear, and it is that one should be outdoors during the day, and then at night eat pasta or pizza, drink wine, and eat ice cream.

And so, that is mostly what we did. The first day we visited one of Arco’s most popular crags, Massone. The directions in the guidebook say to take care through the narrow roads on the way up the hill past the old village (I can’t imagine anything wider than the Panda would have fit), before driving through an olive grove to the cliffs. It was perfect, really: the crag in front, the olive trees behind.

From Massone we drove north through the valley to Sarche. Our goal was to drive a loop up and around to the west, then back down past mountain towns we’d seen only in the descriptions of property listings: Ballino, Tenno, Varone, and others. The road goes straight through the towns, always narrowing down to the scale of what one imagines from the 1500s, where only horses and people needed to move through the streets.

The architecture in this part of Italy is vaguely Austrian, since it had been Austrian territory up until the end of World War I. The province is called Trentino-South Tyrol, the actual Tyrol being just north of the border in Austria. The service industry speaks three languages: Italian, English, and German. Read any travel guide for the area and it will mention the German-Austrian influence, not just on the buildings but on the food and, apparently the trains (the “only place in Italy where they run on time”). This is all reflected in the people you see, older German tourists out for long day hikes with their walking poles, and also to some extent in the prices.

Yet what made it all so heartbreakingly beautiful wasn’t anything built by man or Germans. It was, as it always is, nature itself which occasionally inspires me to think of the divine.

I pictured a life there. Mostly, I pictured looking out from a window or a garden and seeing those mountains, that lake in the background, the light, the vineyards, the olive groves. All of it. One cannot be sad for long among such beauty, I thought. This of course has very much been the case at my home in New Hampshire, where at any moment I can hike to the top of Rattlesnake and gaze down at the Baker River Valley, and appreciate the beauty, and if I want to go deep into the mountains they are there. They say that wherever you go, there you are, and that simply moving to another place cannot, in the final analysis, make you a happier person. But this is rubbish. A place and its character very much can make a difference, and there is actually science to support this (some of which I wrote about here).

Besides, there is the rather obvious wisdom that how you spend your days is how you spend your life, and so if I could live in a place with 5,000 bolted sport routes and counting, and year-round kitesurfing, and where the olive oil (I know I keep mentioning it but I’m probably going to beat that drum forever, so if you don’t like it unsubscribe) is so fresh and wonderful it is like a nectar from the Gods, well then how could that not work? I could live happy just dipping good bread in fresh olive oil.

On day three, we took a rest from climbing and went to explore Lago di Garda. I headed for the Kiteclub Malcesine, on the eastern side, one of two places on the lake where you’re allowed to launch from the shore. I was used to wide-open beaches, but Lago di Garda is something else: the mountains rise so steep from the water that the launching and landing of kites has to be strictly managed. The choices are to either go on a boat with one of the kite schools and launch from the water (fine if you are a beginner) or to launch from one of the two kite clubs. Malcesine was one, and the other is in Limone, directly across the lake on the western side.

Yet the lack of launch sites doesn’t mean there’s a lack of access. Nearly the entire shoreline is a public beach, if you can call the narrow strips of stone beaches. It’s probably the one place in the world I can forgive the complete lack of sand, so beautiful is the view, and really no complaining is to be done about a gigantic, pristine, turquoise blue mountain lake in Northern Italy. It was September 1st and 85 degrees and the stone beaches were full.

We parked near the kite club and walked down the path where we found a 40-something Italian woman manning a small hut owned by the club. She was tanned and in shape like a kiter, wearing sunglasses and baseball cap. She explained how it all worked: next to the club and perpendicular to the water was a paved driveway leading to a tunnel. When you were ready with your kite and your lines all sorted, you took your bar down toward the tunnel until they were taut, while she took your kite over to the small, rocky outcropping on the shore. You give her the thumbs up, she launches the kite, you immediately move toward the water. She is the only one allowed to launch or land kites, and it’s strictly one at a time. Any other system risked your kite flying into trees or lines or getting stuck in the still air of the shore and crashing onto the concrete or the beachgoers nearby or up near the cars in the parking lot.

Later, when the winds started up, I saw the whole choreographed dance in action.

I strongly considered paying the €80 to rent kite gear for the afternoon, but this was one of two full days left in Arco, and there were more mountain towns to explore, more alternative lives to contemplate.

We drove down the coast a little, sat and drank a beer in Malcesine proper, then broke off the lake and headed into the mountains. For the next two hours, I wove up steep, narrow roads that hugged the sheer cliffs that led up to Monte Baldo, elevation 7,277 feet (the elevation of Lago di Garda is 213 feet). I floored it in second gear, then in third, and back down to second every time I hit a switchback. On the eastern side of the mountain, we took the road that headed as close to the summit as we could get, and before every blind corner I contemplated how likely it was that our lives could be cut tragically short with just a little bit of bad luck if another car came around at just the wrong time. They say climbing is dangerous and kitesurfing is extreme, but neither is even remotely as nail-biting as was that mountain road around Monte Baldo. This despite the fact that somewhere I am sure there is some family travel blog recommending the whole circuit as a nice scenic drive.

Around minute 90, when it seemed I might get us through the day unscathed, and the road finally appeared to be headed downhill and back toward Arco, we came across a house, perched up on the ridge, a garden and some farm animals outside and firewood stacked near the door. It was the only house we’d seen at this elevation—to go buy a gallon of milk would have entailed a winding one and a half hour round-trip down and up again, a trip I didn’t even want to contemplate in wintertime. Not with a Fiat Panda, at least. But I couldn’t help marvel at the life this family had chosen. It must have been hard, and isolating. But oh, the view. For a working family home, few views could beat it.

The next day I spent mostly working. Client stuff came up and I put my head down and wrote in the hotel lobby, where the woman was by then used to my coming down with my computer and asking for two café americanos in quick succession. After work, we drove to Trento, stopping along the way at a small town called Calavino. Calavino is a former mill town with a small but mighty stream rushing through the center and a jumble of narrow, three-story medieval stone homes bunched together in the center. It’s not isolated up a harrowing maze of switchbacks, nor is it in the center of some tourist trail. It’s accessible, but secluded, and there are several crags nearby, excellent but away from the crowds in Arco. My partner had spotted a home in Calavino on Idealista, €58,000, and wanted to stop by and see if we could find it.

Online the place looked partly renovated, with a nice finished bathroom and kitchen, while other rooms were in need of a total rehab. The address said Via Garibaldi, which when we arrived we found was just off the main road through the town. We parked in the center and started walking the street. Everything was quiet. There was one café that was open and one restaurant that was closed, plus a building in the center for the town services, and a few old chapels. Old woman hung their clothes on balconies. A few kids played in the street. A couple tended their garden. We cut into the little passageways that weaved through the old stone buildings in the center, trying to find a vantage point and match what we were seeing to the pictures in the listing. There were three stories, a staircase on the outside, an arch, some old wine cellars in a basement, windows on three sides. We looked and looked and double-backed down into an area we had already tried, which went under a stone tunnel into a shared courtyard where there was some construction. My partner pushed past a gate that said private property and into an alley. We turned around, and there it was.

It was locked of course; there would be no tour. But this was it. If we were going to buy an old stone ruin in the center of an old, quiet Italian town in the mountains, this would be the the thing to buy. We walked up the exterior staircase, and tried to peek into the dark interior rooms. We discussed where one might park (no car could fit past the narrow alleys we’d used to get there), and how we might bring building supplies—or even groceries—into the building. I looked up at the third-story window and wondered if there was a view toward the mountains, or if the building next to it was in the way. I thought about how to tell the kids: hey, we found a home in Italy, it’s in a town called Calavino, well yes of course there is room there for you, we just have to convince your other parents to let us take you to an Italian town in the middle of the mountains with nothing but climbing, vineyards, and olive groves all around. You’ll love it though, we promise.

I thought about this home and all the homes I’ve looked at in my life, in cities and towns, on beaches and in mountains. I thought about all the different lives those homes represented, and about how I wanted to live so many of them. House hunting is an exercise in imagining what could be. Maybe it’s masochistic, but I’ve always done it, and, of course, I probably always will.

From Calavino we continued to Trento, and wandered more streets, sat in more cafes. I worked on the computer some more and drank a beer, then we headed back to Arco for our last meal: pasta, house wine, and tiramisu for desert. And to start: bread, draped in olive oil.