The Quiet Inspiration of the Campagna

Our olive trees

Some of our olive trees

In Calabria, land is generally considered the best investment one can make. As the saying goes, they’re not making any more of it.

People tend to hang on to the plots in the campagna (country) that have belonged to their families for decades even if they don’t cultivate them, so it can become rather difficult to find the “right” piece to purchase if you haven’t inherited any — one that’s not *too* far from your house, gets good sunlight, is relatively healthy, and most importantly, has at least a crumbling wall on it so that you’d be free to build or add on to the existing structure.

From all I’ve heard, trying to change the zoning classification of your land would make dealing with Poste Italiane seem like the highlight of your week.

Around here, if people have a campagna and still use it, they live in the village and travel to the land daily or a few times a week to tend to it. If the land has a livable structure (often a stretch to call it a “house”), it’s used mostly for storage, a base for barbecues/cookouts, and as an actual shelter maybe a few weekends a year, such as during vendemmia (grape harvest) or la raccolta when olives are picked for oil.

Last year around this time, P and I were lucky to find a small piece of land at the right price after saving up and looking around for years. And it was definitely worth the wait.

Isn’t anything truly worth having worth the wait?

Now that the weather is getting nicer, P and I have been able to spend more time in our campagna, home to about 40 olive trees and an extremely humble structure — part of it doesn’t yet have windows or a door in place, but we’re working on it. Pian piano as Italians love to say. Slowly, slowly.

There’s not much else going on up there, literally or figuratively. And that is exactly why I love it.

Being enveloped by nature simultaneously calms and inspires me in a way nothing else can.

Indeed, the more time we spend up there, the closer we move to figuring out how we could stay up there full-time with the whole brood — dogs, hens, goats, and all. Living out in the campagna doesn’t sound so crazy to those of us familiar with the concept of a house unattached to others and no neighbors hearing your every movement, but to some Italians, living outside the confines of a city or village is an idea that is, pardon the pun, quite foreign.

Bouquet of wildflowers in the window

Bouquet of wildflowers in the window

Recently when P casually mentioned to another couple how much we’d love to live up in the campagna, the wife looked at me as if I had just put cheese on my linguine agli scampi and ordered a glass of milk to wash it down, then asked, “Ma non hai paura?!” But aren’t you afraid?!

Of what, I’m not sure, but I imagine just generally not having people nearby, perhaps scary animals, insects, snakes. Boh. All I know is that lucky for me, I found an Italian who is entirely on the same wavelength with me on this one.

Far from fear, the overwhelming feeling I get from absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of towering trees, chirping birds, and a ridiculous variety of wildflowers is . . . alive.

There’s no electricity or running water in our campagna, although P is working to change the latter as I type, so for right now, there’s no chance of an Internet connection, plumbing or a move in the near future, keeping our goats or hens up there, or even growing most types of crops. The olive trees, thankfully, do just fine without watering all summer. They range in age from five or 10 years old to hundreds, and I love imagining the stories each one could tell.

In fact, that’s absolutely one of my favorite things to do in the campagna:

Wrapped in the arms of my ancestors, I allow their spirits to guide me through the olive groves that P and I have worked so hard to bring into our family — and they may very well be the same trees my great-great-grandfather could only dream of buying from the baron who worked him and his fellow “contadini” like slaves a hundred years ago. I am repeatedly amazed and humbled that just a few generations later, here I am, so fortunate to have not only the choice but also the ability to come back to this place my family left in search of a better life, never to return for so much as a visit.

Yes, I love that the sun is emerging after what seems like a long winter away as it allows me to spend more time in the campagna — *our* campagna — imagining not only what these trees have already seen but also what they might see in the next hundred years . . .

Relaxing, daydreaming, soaking in the quiet inspiration, and simply being.

I can’t imagine anything lovelier than living among these glorious symbols of how far we have come, P and I, individually and together, and all that we can build in the future. And with each trip to the campagna, I invest myself deeper into this challenge.

Where do you find quiet inspiration?

36 Beans of Wisdom to “The Quiet Inspiration of the Campagna”
  1. Gil

    I think that the theory about why land is usually a good investment is Worldwide as I’ve the old Connecticut Yankee Farmers living near me say the same thing for over fifty years that I can remember. Loved this story and good luck getting services to your own Campagna!!!

    I think you’re right, Gil, about it being worldwide, but if I had written that, I was sure to have to someone chime in, “My wife’s family in Frosinone [or wherever] don’t believe that!” etc. So I try to stick with my personal experiences hahaha. Thanks for the luck — we’ll need it! For electricity, we’ve decided to look seriously at solar, but it’ll be a while yet…fingers crossed!

  2. 05.09.2011

    Wonderful story and so well written. Yes, it is great that you two are on the same wave length about your compagna. When I first moved here I used to get a lot of questions about being scared up here in the mountains and wouldn’t I rather live in town. It always took me by surprise. Now I realize that it seems to be a standard question and reply for Italians, as they seem to be “paura” about a lot of things. That and cheese on your shrimp linguini had me more than chuckling. Enjoy, enjoy, as only the country can give such simple gifts that can mean so much.

    Another common paura here is of dogs…needless to say, I’m also the crazy dog lady hahaha 🙂

  3. 05.09.2011

    A beautiful essay. I think you can imagine how much I identify with your words. I am happy that you have your piece of paradise, exactly as you want it. What a wonderful gift that is.

    Grazie cara; your words are always so very much appreciated.

  4. 05.09.2011

    Have you read ‘Extra Virgin’ by Annie Hawes? She’s an English woman who did just that – bought a campagna in Liguria and went to live there. She writes with tongue firmly in cheek, but something that comes over very clearly in her story is how the Italians all think that she’s mad for wanting to live out in the countryside.

    Finding that peace is very hard, especially when you live with other people. This weekend my flatmate was away. I could have gone to the beach, but that would have meant sharing my space with hundreds of other people, and I didn’t want to do that. So I sat on my balcony, reading and listening to the tiny sounds that you just don’t hear when you’re plugged into music or having a conversation. It was wonderful, especially over the lunch hour, when there wasn’t any traffic on the road and all I could hear was the murmur of conversation from people’s houses, and the goats on the hillside. Bellissimo.

    Sounds *so* lovely. I absolutely *loved* Extra Virgin, and I think I should re-read it soon since I wasn’t even in Italy yet the first time I read it. I imagine I’d get a whole new appreciation now!

  5. connie

    Your writings always manage to bring me back to my childhood with such great emotions, love it!!!

    Truly an honor, Connie; thank you for reading 🙂

  6. 05.09.2011

    This is so beautiful & touching. I’ve always wondered if I could live in the country. You inspire me!

    Well just between you and me, I’m convinced you can do *anything* 😉 xx

  7. 05.09.2011

    You are so blessed

    I’m fortunate and grateful indeed.

  8. Zagara

    What a beautiful story. I love the idea of being able to move there full time (or even part time!). Living in Manhattan with my Sicilian born and bred husband, we often have to search out little pockets of nature to satisfy his need for a respite from the honking/traffic/etc as well as my own need for a little green (I grew up in VA with a huge backyard). Granted, our little pieces are also shared with 8 million other people, but I love escaping. He owns a beautiful house in Taormina, but I’ve always said that if we ever move back there I’d want to get a little bit of of land outside the town. After so many years in urban American cities, I wouldn’t want to have almost the exact same experience, even if it was in Italy. Can’t wait to follow your journey as you make your campagna a little more habitable for you and your family (and not just the olive trees).

    Ps. Beautiful pictures!

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Zagara; I hope you get your land 🙂

  9. Zagara

    PS. I just clicked over to “The Lay of the Land”. Do you still have that smaller piece of land in town for planting veggies? Any thoughts on using your campagna for the same purpose? (I don’t remember how far away the campagna is…)

    Yes we still have the small piece of land nearby — it’s still where the goats and hens are. We can’t plant anything up in the campagna because of the lack of water — it’s just too difficult to take enough water up there all the time to make sure most crops that we’d be interested in growing are hydrated. The olive trees don’t need it, and there are some other fruit trees in the campagna as well as oregano and rosemary, which do quite well, but tomatoes, peppers, etc., would never make it so for right now, we don’t have any planting plans for up there…until we get water 🙂

  10. 05.09.2011

    what a beautiful post! living in the city, I keep my eyes to the sky and look for birds, Eagles, ospreys, crows, even hummingbirds.
    I follow the cracks in the pavement and look for friendly plants who have overcome the asphalt and concrete.
    I have had the good fortune to walk on property like yours in Calabria, and it really is a rush,thinking about how my relatives lived that land, like yours, contadini..
    By the way, You might be interested in a book that my cousin wrote:
    what she did was interview a lot of older people about the tradition of Chestnut gathering. It is wonderful. She also includes poetry and songs, it’s in Italian and dialect.

    Thanks so much for the link, Mimi; will check it out!

  11. 05.09.2011

    My own place for “peace, quiet, tranquility, regrouping of thoughts, etc., comes to me when I take the dog out for a walk down to what is now the ghost town of Peale -which a hundred years ago was a really thriving little coal mining town. Only one house left there but I love to walk the road down to where the town was and imagine how over 100 years ago -actually closer to 120 years now -my grandfather used to live there, had a chance albeit pretty brief, to play in those woods before he too had to join his father and older brother in going to work daily in those old mines. (He went to work in the mines at the age of 9! Can you imagine that?) But I find walking that road, just looking at the woods that surround me then, gives me much peace, quiet and comfort as I feel my Grandpa’s spirit is still there inside me then. Loved this post, Girl! Great job.

    Would absolutely love to go on that walk with you, Jeni! So many of my ancestors also went to work in the mines from a ridiculously young age…disturbing to think of even my nephew (who is 14…an old man by mining standards back then!) having to do that 🙁

  12. 05.09.2011

    This is lovely, Michelle. I try to find inspiration wherever I can though because I don’t have the possibility of living away from “civilization”. My most inspired time is in gardens, including public ones like the National Cathedral in DC. Also of course by the sea – anytime, anywhere.

    Good luck. I think the solar will definitely be the thing that enables you to move permanently.

    Love the photographs, too.


    I’m very much looking forward to getting some energy up there…gardens and the sea, I hear you 🙂

  13. Irene

    There is hope…


  14. 05.10.2011

    Brought tears to my eyes, Michelle. Thank you.

    Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment, AmyEmilia 🙂

  15. 05.10.2011

    I find quiet inspiration in my garden which I have created and maintain.

    Lovely, Elisa; thanks for sharing!

  16. Austen

    I really got a feeling for the “Village” and the “Country” plots when reading Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped in Eboli”.
    There were wonderful images of the village people walking down the mountain to tend their plots, or to care for the livestock deep in the gorge below the village.

    I still haven’t read it; it’s been on my list for years though.

  17. Gil

    Is it even possible to find water up there if you could manage to get well drilling of digging equipment up there?

    Actually there is water not too far from us in two different directions; the issue is getting permission from the other people whose land we have to run it through…but it shouldn’t be *too* hard. Fingers crossed!

  18. 05.10.2011

    I cannot imagine a more wonderful way to live than quietly among nature away from the hustle and bustle of city life. I hope that you are able to make your campagna home someday.

    As for where I find quiet inspiration? I’m at my best sitting on our deck with a time-of-day appropriate beverage in hand. Looking into the wooded ravine that is behind our house. And enjoying whatever the sky has to offer in way of clouds or blueness or whatever. That is where I can just be.

    So lovely; I’ve always enjoyed a good porch/deck/balcony 🙂

  19. Jim

    I share your feelings of amazement and ancestor presence upon visiting the olive trees and the campagna that your ancestors left behind. Similarly, I too am humbled when I get my hands dirty in my backyard garden and reflect on the fact that only one generation separates me and my desk job from the inevitable tenant farmer life that my grandfather and your ancestors left behind 100 years ago. Its even more humbling to think that the land and simplicity that you now enjoy was given up by many for the chance at prosperity by working in a coal mine. I find peace and get great satisfaction everytime I turn the soil, plant a seed or pick a ripe fig thanks to my grandfathers and the opportunities (and traditions) they unknowingly passed on to me.

    So lovely, Jim; thank you for sharing!

  20. 05.11.2011

    Michelle–We are blessed to have you blogging out there! I am so moved by how you connect with the big picture–your ancestors having to leave this place and now you are back, taking care of it and flourishing. Grazie for sharing.

    Grazie mille Susan; and we are lucky to have you scouting out all the great out-of-the-way Italian stops 🙂

  21. Lark

    What a beautiful entry! I loved your pictures of the olive trees and can just imagine what a wonderful time you must have there.
    ps. Just noticed the comment before mine is from Susan Van Allen. I was the winner of the 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go giveaway!!! I loved the book and thank both of you for sharing your lives with us.

    Thanks Lark, and what serendipity! Love it!

  22. 05.12.2011

    That was a lovely read and I am always inspired by nature also. I live in Alaska, so for me it is barely stepping out the back door to be able to touch things that have never been affected by industry. I am living in Soverato right now, doing a stage, and there is way too much cement, but fortunately there is the sea.

    It is amazing how you can get along without water to electric and resourceful you can become as a result. Good luck negotiating for access, may you find the right combination to unlock the supply.

    Alaska to Soverato must be quite an adventure, Marian! Enjoy 🙂

  23. 05.12.2011

    Great philosophical view of the “campagna” – I share the same feelings and maybe one day my small family will make a break for the Calabrian campagna!

    Vince from

    Calabria would be lucky to have you (full-time), Vince 🙂

  24. 05.13.2011

    I love nature and country places. The pictures reminds me when I went hiking during my summer classes. I hope there will be electricity or running water someday so the goats, hens and crops could enjoy it.

    Thanks Emma!

  25. 05.13.2011

    What an amazing adventure! I am so happy for both you and P to get to build this dream together.

    Thank you Meredith 🙂

  26. Love your writing, Michelle! The sights, sounds and beauty of the landscape here on the Amalfi Coast keep me going from day to day. Most people think of the tourist buses and crowded beaches … but my secret love of this part of Italy comes from the quiet spot where we live … where people look after their gardens to the sounds of the birds singing that donkeys going clomp clomp clomp up and down the stone steps. Sometimes you don’t have to go very far away at all to find that little bit of campagna … that’s something I love about southern Italy!

    People often comment how great it must be to live so close to the sea, but I’m just not a beach person…for me the real bonus is being so close to the mountains and countryside 🙂

  27. Michelle, this was very nice. Thanks for the images and the words that invoke even more images of the Italian region where my grandfather and his brothers spent their childhoods. Hopefully, I’ll be blessed enough to get there someday myself…

    Phenomenal post!

    Thanks so much for coming by, Joe!

  28. joe baccala

    Very different than how my father described the land to me, and where my step-grandfather emigrated from, Cosenza. My dad described it as a rocky place full of ignorant peasants and goats, (I don’t mean the goats were ignorant). It’s much more lush than I envisioned. Last trip my uncle made there, he said some of the people (relatives) lived in houses with marble floors, and some people still cooked out of a whole in the floor ( I guess he was pulling my leg)

    These medieval towns on hills remind me of Matera – so I half expect Leo McKern to appear babbling about the antichrist (an obscure reference…)

    Well FWIW, Cosenza is inland so it is quite a bit different from here. I don’t know anyone who cooks out of a hole in the floor, but P’s Zia does have an amazing hearth built into her attic space.

  29. 05.15.2011

    So beautifully expressed and heartfelt. I’m sure your ancestors are all smiling down on you for the way you have embraced their homeland and countryside.

    Grazie Linda 🙂

  30. 05.19.2011

    I must have missed this while I was away, now frantically trying to catch up. A beautifully written piece Michelle, I find my inspiration in similar ways to you, but it has taken me so much longer to find it, doing so as an ’empty nester’

    Thank you, LindyLou; glad you have found your inspiration 🙂

  31. 05.25.2011

    Very well written. There is nothing like living close to nature.

    Thanks for coming by 🙂

  32. 05.27.2011

    This is, quite possibly, the loveliest post you’ve ever written. I loved every word. Having just returned from my very first holiday in beautiful Italia, I can appreciate more than ever the beauty of a simple life lived out in the quietness of inspiration.

    So very kind of you, thank you…and I hope you will be back for many more beautiful holidays!

  33. 07.01.2011

    Very neat that you focused on country property and land in Calabria. Like you mentioned, most Calabrians live in a “village” environment and make their way to “country” or farm once a day. My grandfather, who’s now about 85, made the 10 minute car ride to his working farm and country place to tend to his wheat fields, animals, olive orchards, fruit trees, vegetable crops, etc. and the country represented his livelihood more than a place to retreat to (but I still think he had romantic notions of the country life).

    I think they all kind of do, deep down…not sure what stops them from moving up there full-time, other than that stereotypical Italian desire to be social 😉 Thanks for commenting, Vince!

  34. Joe Grandinetti

    Thank you so much for this post, Michelle…

    My paternal grandparents came from a few hills away from you – province of Catanzaro, neighboring towns of Soveria Mannelli and Decollatura. They and families arrived in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, settling on the west-side (little Italy) of Carbondale and joining many paesani. There they created mimi versions of their villages amid the culm banks.

    I’ve visited my ancestral towns twice and found myself completely entranced. I was welcomed as a long lost son by distant relatives and just melted into my surroundings while I was there. I am very proud of my Catanzarese-Calabrese heritage and continue the traditions of wine making, gardening and growing fig trees – and I’m trying hard to pass these along to my children.

    The greatest thing about channeling ancestral spirits is that you can physically “be” anywhere when you connect – but it’s true that the the reception is much better when you’re on their home turf!!

    Please keep up your great work – you are an inspiration…

    Joe Grandinetti

    Thank you so much, Joe; that means so much to me 🙂

  1. [...] in December, while Paolo is off chopping wood, you’ll find me either there with him in the campagna ke...
  2. [...] nothing particularly tangible, I’m afraid. As much as I love our olive trees and the concept of living...



Homemade apple butter
Green beans, potatoes, and pancetta
Glazed Apple Oatmeal Cinnamon Muffins
Pasta with snails alla calabrese
Onion, Oregano, and Thyme Focaccia
Oatmeal Banana Craisin Muffins
Prosciutto wrapped watermelon with bel paese cheese
Fried eggs with red onion and cheese
Calabrian sausage and fava beans
Ricotta Pound Cake