Whether it’s for a summer or a lifetime, Italy isn’t only for the wealthy. I first got hooked on la dolce vita when I was young and had very little cash to spare. But as I was in love with the vagabond lifestyle, relative impoverishment was no barrier to doing my own version of a Grand Tour. I was happy to cut down on costs by having picnic lunches, eating in unpretentious osterias (taverns), and staying in cheap guesthouses.
That first trip, I traveled to Rome and onto Puglia, the heel of Italy. But the adventure started in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Stumbling off the overnight train from Paris into the station bar at Domodossola, I realized that I’d never tasted real espresso coffee before. Outside, everywhere seemed touched by magic. It was May, but spring had already turned to summer. The colors of the flowers were so vibrant, it was like stepping into a painting.
With hindsight, I now realize that Domodossola probably wouldn’t top any index of picture-book Italian towns. But I’d go back in a heartbeat. Places that aren’t touristy seem so much more authentic than towns that cater for coachloads of foreign visitors. (Mama Mafalda’s guesthouse was certainly authentic. She sent her sons to forage for dinner—I’d never eaten wild pigeons with shot-gun pellets in them before.)
Out of curiosity, I’ve just checked a local property site. A one-bedroom apartment in the town, furnished and with around 660 square feet of living space, is available to rent for $485 per month. In surrounding villages, little stone built houses can be had for less than €100,000 ($138,650). If your idea of Italy is mountain scenery with sunshine, this area is definitely worth a look. I definitely think I should return for a scouting trip…
Like so many Italian towns, Domodossola had a fantastic market, and for me it made an affordable base for day-tripping to glittering Lake Maggiore with its twin islands, Isola Madre and Isola Bella. With its fairytale baroque palace and terraced gardens of statuary and fountains, Isola Bella truly lives up to its name. In those days, I was really into hiking and numerous alpine valley villages were also easily accessible by bus.
I almost envy people who have yet to discover Italy’s charms and quirks. My first gelato, my first sip of limoncello (a lemon liqueur)—oh, wow! Nuns on the train playing cards—good grief! Strangers who smiled and said buon giorno. OK, that might not sound overly special, but back then I lived in a grim part of the U.K. If strangers ever smiled at me, they usually fit “the crazy person on the bus” description.
So much was an eye-opener, and it wasn’t only that people spoke five times faster than on my “Teach Yourself Italian” tapes. Pizzas came from wood-fired ovens. There was far more to pasta than spaghetti bolognese. And not all red wine was called Chianti.
But one of the biggest lessons that first trip taught me was that it doesn’t require a lot of money to live the good life in Italy. My own idea of happiness doesn’t revolve around fancy restaurants, posh hotels, and Milan fashions. Give me a cobbled square on a warm, sunny evening… bars that treat their customers to free nibbles…spaghetti con vongole (with clams)…street musicians…kids kicking around a football…teenagers on scooters…old ladies sitting outside their houses shelling peas…families taking their evening stroll. That’s la dolce vita.
It’s all there waiting for you—not only the lakes, but the beaches and the stunning countryside farther south where medieval towns crown the hills and meadows are ablaze with wildflowers. And when you know where to go, it’s far more affordable than you might expect.
I’ll be telling attendees a lot more about affordable Italy at the Ultimate Retire Overseas Conference in Puerto Vallarta this June. Away from the tourist trail, you can eat well for $11-$13. And Domodossola isn’t an exception—throughout Italy there are numerous places where you can rent for $500 a month or less. And should you want to buy, you can find move-in-ready properties for under $120,000—yes, even in parts of Tuscany.
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