Nestled comfortably between rolling hilltops in north-western Italy, and a 20-minute drive from the azure coast of Imperia, sits the charming, medieval village of Pieve di Teco; the picture-perfect setting which would play host to a complete life-change for Kiwi mum Jackie Miller.
Dealing with a relationship breakdown and with empty nest syndrome kicking in, heading to Europe to travel and work seemed like the perfect opportunity for Jackie to get out of her head and "live a little". With her work in the superyacht industry already based around European hours and a daughter living overseas, she began a six-month journey working and travelling where, as she puts it, she "fell in love with Europe and the life they live".
Upon returning to New Zealand to an empty house and feeling somewhat isolated working the opposite hours to friends and family, Jackie's soul searching came in the form of many episodes of the TV show, A Place in the Sun, and the dream of small town living started taking root in her mind.
With annual work in Monaco and a daughter in Milan, Jackie's initial plan was to find a base between the two, and she admits to quickly becoming obsessed, spending hours scouring online listings for the perfect location.
But despite looking at dozens of properties, she kept returning to one listing in particular – a four-storey circa 1400s townhouse in a little village in Liguria.
"I saw it online and I just kept coming back to these cathedral-style ceilings, they were really gorgeous, they were really Gothic."
Instantly intrigued by the architecture of the house and the proximity between the village and the coast – and with airports in Nice and Genoa just over an hour away, she was sold.
"I decided, 'Look, let's just do it!'" she says, laughing off the idea of a mid-life crisis. "What's the worst that can happen?"
What followed were a series of exchanges with a rather nervous Italian real estate agent who unsuccessfully tried to convince Jackie to come and view the place first. Already won over by the online listing, she steadfastly said, "I'm not coming all the way there, I want to buy it now."
She proceeded to do just that. Fully aware of how potentially nonsensical and impulsive that may seem, she viewed the entire process through a particularly rosy pair of glasses. On inspection of the property, they were promptly shattered.
Having arrived in Pieve di Teco to everyone already knowing that she was the 'New Zealand woman who had bought a house sight unseen', Jackie quickly understood just how small this small town was, and that her business was truly not her own.
Finding her way through muted terracotta facades and narrow, cobblestone streets, she arrived at the property and was hit with a huge reality check.
"I just expected that I would turn the light on and walk through the house, but of course the shutters were closed and the house was dark and there was no power – it had been abandoned for five years. The only things that were living there were the rats. There was so much furniture – the previous owner deserted it along with the rubbish."
Daunted but undeterred, she set about planning the renovations, which without knowledge of the local language was an undertaking on its own. But having renovated properties in the past, Jackie had a certain level of confidence while dealing with the language barrier and the ins and outs of foreign bureaucracy.
Thankfully, once she was able to get people in to clean up the place and peg up the holes, the rats quickly moved out.
While determined to maintain a positive spirit, Jackie remembers being about three weeks into the project and ready to call it a day.
"It might have been that I couldn't find something, or I couldn't communicate. I was just really frustrated and I could feel my eyes welling up," she says.
"It was just frustration, and I was thinking 'What have I done, have I completely lost my mind? I've come to the other side of the world, I don't know a single soul, I can't speak the language, and I've bought a house!'"
Fighting back tears, she was approached by a local man who reassuringly patted her shoulder, got her to sit down and brought her out a cup of coffee – trying his best to console her in broken English.
Jackie credits the locals with providing a real sense of home and comfort, some even referring to her as 'Ja-Kiwi' – an affectionate weaving together of her name and nationality.
She describes the sense of community as just a part of everyday life there, whether it's the local butcher checking in on how you cooked that cut of meat he recommended, to someone handing in your lost keys to the shoemaker down the end of the street.
It was this sense of camaraderie and fellowship that provided some much needed cushioning around the renovation process, which Jackie tackled over the next four years.
With a vision of creating a space where she could feel at home, while keeping the classic architecture in focus, Jackie incorporated natural tones throughout the property, with delicate accents and fittings complimenting the raw beauty of the rooms at the forefront.
Bold, wooden furnishings provide a striking contrast to the neutrality of the rooms, while arched stone ceilings and angled rafters allow for dappled sunlight to drift in during the day.
Jackie was struck by how initially renovating the property as a place to stay when spending time on that side of the world, many visitors commented on what a fantastic location it was to be able to show off. She found herself agreeing wholeheartedly and without needing much encouragement, the idea of her company 'You, Me, Italy' was born.
With a passion to show people the "real Italy" and have them experience local life, Jackie set about creating tours that would capture the close-knit family feel of the region she had come to love.
Using her property as a base, her tours take guests through the area, visiting a mix of local vendors and gastronomic hot-spots such as Piedmont.
"That's where white truffles are from, and also all the famous red wine, including Barolo and Barbaresco. People think of Tuscany being Italy's capital for food and wine, but Piedmont is much more sophisticated."
Liguria itself is an area she's passionate about promoting, with its vast green areas and textured countryside complete with spectacular swimming spots.
"You don't even need to travel 20 minutes down to the coast for a swim, you've got these natural waterholes that you can go and swim in which are just stunning – all limestone cliffs and you jump in, trees all around you. They're really beautiful."
The local festivals play an important role as well, with all the little villages throwing parties for a myriad of delightful reasons. Whether it's a lavender or ravioli festival, these social gatherings are a celebration of local produce and customs, all of which the guests are encouraged to get involved with.
Long, leisurely day trips involve bicycle rides along the breathtaking Italian Riviera and through old railway tunnels, popping into colourful towns en route to indulge in a refreshing gelato or settle in for a meal.
"Everything comes with wine at lunch of course, then you have a swim in the Med, and then you come back."
Jackie believes it's this relaxed pace that makes the tours popular with visitors of all ages.
"This year we had a tour where we had a 24-year-old and an 82-year-old, and everything in between. And you know what? It was a wonderful tour, they really loved it and honestly, the 82-year-old had so much go, they're still sending me text messages."
It's that togetherness across ages that Jackie feels really passionate about, praising the way the locals all come together over a meal.
"You'll have the young people talking to the old people, a grandchild talking to Nona. You're all at a table and it goes on for hours and I love this," she says.
"This is, to me, what living's about. It doesn't matter if everything's not perfect; it's that you're all together."
Even while living on the other side of the world, Jackie manages to keep family close with her daughter working as a guide on some of her tours and helping to share their love of the region with others.
Looking ahead at where she would like to take the business, she has views on possibly extending tours down to Calabria – the 'toe of the boot' in the south, and an area she believes is often overlooked.
She concedes that it may not be for some time, making reference to "walking before we run". However, if her journey so far is anything to go by, she seems far more likely to run headfirst than idly wander.
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