In Italy, you can turn a corner in a small town and a miracle can happen. It's just that kind of country.
This past weekend, my expat friends and fellow bloggers Sara Rosso and Michelle Fabio came to Acqui Terme to visit. To celebrate the first time of being together physically instead of virtually, we decided to take a Saturday morning walk around the city.
We walked through the centro storico, the historic center of town, upwards from Piazza Bollente - the square where steaming hot sulphur water has literally been boiling to the surface for over 8 centuries - into the tiny alley ways of the Pisterna, where twelfth century palazzi are built side by side into the steep hillside, cut by cobblestone walkways so narrow in places that two people holding hands with their arms stretched out can touch facing facades. Minty green, ochre, tea-brown. Russet. The buildings are at once beautiful and faded, beckoning and discreet. Under azure skies and in the chilly breeze, I wanted to give my friends the real feel of this most ancient neighborhood.
And this is when, as happens so often in this country, a change in direction led us to an encounter that left each of us moved, stunned, speechless. Walking along the back part of the Pisterna, towards the Duomo, we crossed over Piazza Conciliazione to Via Capra (a street name not lost on Michelle's keen eyes) . As we approached the corner of the appropriately named Via Bella, a couple were stacking a couple of cords of newly received firewood. They greeted us warmly and we shared a few words. I could not help noticing that behind the wood, inside the entry to what looked like an enclosed cortile was a grand stairway in the softest alabaster white imaginable, leading to the upper part of the palazzo. Sara and Michelle were looking too. We glanced at each other, what is this, really? What have we stumbled on here?
Introductions were made. Eleonora Ricci Misheff and Alzek Misheff. Eleonora is an architect who specializes in historic restoration using recuperated and environmentally friendly materials. Alzek an internationally known fine and performance artist, who escaped communist Bulgaria in 1971 and whose work has been exhibited throughout Europe and the United States. They split their time between Milan and Acqui Terme. They bought Palazzo Thea in the mid nineties, when decaying, derelict properties in the Pisterna could be picked up for a song. Before Acqui Terme was the restored gem that it is today.
Eleonora and Alzek kindly asked us if we wanted to see the rest of the palazzo, which they lovingly restored into their private residence and studios. What we experienced in the next hour amazed us. This couple, with their own hands, had created a masterpiece out of a ruin.
The building, seriously damaged by water over the centuries, was taken apart, piece by piece, and restored using traditional limestone plasters and pigment washes on both the vertical and horizontal surfaces. Detailed fresco ceilings were completely recreated. Alzek's remarkable and stirring art graced the walls of this home, which is comprised of room after room with 18 foot ceilings -more than ten thousand square feet of the most beautiful residential space I have ever had the privilege of visiting. The grand hall had three concert grand pianos - for special performances.
But there's more. The owners were so kind, so happy, so excited that we loved the space so much. They explained many of the details involved with the restoration. They treated us like friends. The heart and soul and blood that they had poured into this home was evident to me. It's a feeling I recognized in my self. These were not nonchalant bystanders in the restoration process. These people had spent months pushing and rubbing the leathery surfaces of the lime-pigmented walls and attending to the mosaic beading in the floors. I could tell.
Their passion was contagious. What impressed me the most about the spaces - every single one of them - was the simplicity. I felt a sense of peace in each room. The furnishings were the correct scale and style. There was respect for the past in this structure, and an eye for the future. But don't believe me.
I think that Eleonora and Alzek have a sense of genius. They have, out of a space that could be overwhelming and intimidating, created an elegant and inviting home - filled with beauty and light, art and a sense of intimacy that took my breath away.
This residence is, in the most unexpected way, the essence of uncomplicated creative living.
This experience of turning a corner and finding people so gentle, a creation so remarkable, and a passion so honest and pure, is quintessentially Italian. To say I feel grateful and blessed to live in a precious place that holds such secrets would be understating the facts. I myself am only left shaking my head, again and again, at how this country pulls at my heart.