Shaken, Not Stirred

I have a lot of things to write about my week in Italy, but I think I’ll start with the earthquakes.

Earthquake Activity This Week
October 2016 earthquakes in Italy
October 2016 earthquakes
Click image to enlarge

I arrived Monday afternoon and went to Urbisaglia where I stayed in a small, older hotel in the village center until Friday morning. It’s located about where the blue circle is on the map of the quakes that’s on the right of this page.

Wednesday evening about 7:10 pm I was in my room and it shook a little bit. Just a couple of seconds but very noticeable. This one was magnitude 5.5. I figured it was an aftershock to the August 24 quake — rather than being a before-shock for those to come.

About two hours later I was at dinner about 3 miles away, on the bottom floor of a newer (1960s? ’70s?) building and the shaking started again. Everyone bolted for the door, including me, of course. Outside, people were visibly shaken. Some were crying.

The shaking lasted longer this time and was stronger, measuring 6.1. (That difference from 5.5 doesn’t seem that great, but the scale is logarithmic, so this one was roughly 10 times as strong as the first one.)

When I returned to the hotel, the owner came to my room. He reassured me that the hotel was in a building that had been restored to meet earthquake standards.

There were some smaller shocks during the night.

On Friday, I went to the larger town of Macerata. Located where the red circle is, it’s the provincial capital and about 40,000 people, compared to about 3,000 in and around Urbisaglia. Lots of older buildings.

Saturday evening there was a small quake. You could see and hear the television rattle on the table. Magnitude 4.5.

October 2016 earthquakes in Italy
Click image to enlarge

Now the big one. Sunday morning I was just getting up, about 7:40. The room started to shake like crazy. I’m trying to figure out where to go. I’m not dressed, on the fourth floor, with no obvious place to go where the structure might be strongest. I’d say this was 10 seconds of serious fright. Once the shaking stopped, I got dressed, grabbed my stuff, and got to the ground floor and outside. This was a 6.6 quake, so about 30 times stronger than the first one on Wednesday.

Now I had just one problem. The car was in a garage a couple of blocks away and I needed to go back inside to get the keys to get the car.

I didn’t see any visible damage to the buildings nearby, but I wasn’t going to explore. I got the car and drove toward the coast. I wanted out of the hill towns. (My original plan was to go to a sagra delle castagne — a chestnut festival — in a small town in the mountains. It was almost certainly cancelled, but I wasn’t going there to find out.)

On the way to my next hotel near the coast and the airport, I decided to stop at IKEA just to what they had that we might use in the house. To my surprise, it was closed, at least for a couple of hours, I assume to check the building.

Some Perspective

While this week and year have been very active seismically, history shows this level and severity is very unusual. I found a list of quakes in Italy. In Marche, there have been 9 over 5.0 Here’s the list, with dates, in order of severity.

Oct 20166.6
Aug 20166.2
Oct 20166.1
Sep 19976.1
Oct 19305.9
Oct 20165.5
Oct 19435.5
Oct 19365.5
May 19875.1

So the top 3 and number 6 have been this year.

I’m hoping that the pressure on the faults has already released and we may be in for another quiet period. And our house is being built to standards to survive, at least long enough to escape, in an 8.5 or so, and there’s never been a quake nearly that big in Italy.

So the risk we do face is when we are in a village somewhere and there is a 6.0 or over.

An Update

I’m now back from my trip and a 4.9 aftershock was recorded today in the same area. Also, scientists are using satellite imagery to assess the quake and the likelihood of future events. Here’s a quote from a BBC story:

The colored bands represent motion toward or away from the satellite
Earth movement: The colored bands represent motion toward or away from the satellite.
Click image to enlarge

There remains the potential for future quakes in Italy’s Apennines region, say scientists who have reviewed the latest satellite maps of the region.

The new radar imagery suggests Sunday’s big tremor ruptured a segment of a fault in between sections broken by two other quakes in recent weeks.

But the Magnitude 6.6 event has still left the deeper parts of the fault system locked in place. And this unrelieved stress now represents a risk down the line.

The researchers are keen to emphasize, however, that predicting precisely when and where a future quake might strike is not possible.”

Map sources

House Hunting in Le Marche – Day 3

There were a couple of houses we were interested in that were listed by another agent, Richard, so on Day 3 we went to see them.

La Perla Segreta (The Secret Pearl)

La Perla SegredaOne of the nice features of this house was that it was walking distance to the town of Mogliani, while still being very private. It was a good-sized house, with five bedrooms and five baths and a pool. It also had 80 olive trees and a small vineyard, a plus from my point of view.

But it didn’t show well, as it was totally overgrown and it would be quite a big project to clear the property. But its biggest unfixable drawback was that the living room was rather small and was down a long, narrow hall on the opposite end of the house from the kitchen. We quickly decided to pass on this one.

Casa Tranquilla

Case Tranquilla, Le MarcheCasa Tranquilla sits below the town of Penna San Giovanni, but still high enough to have panoramic views of the whole valley. We were met by the owners Trud and Udo and their two dogs as we drove up the driveway, and they showed us around both the main house and the apartment in back, as well as the extensive grounds (about 7.5 acres).

Casa Tranquilla poolThe house itself was a charming country cottage that had been thoughtfully restored to maintain its character and vintage details. It had a wonderful loggia in front, where I could picture enjoying all our meals in good weather. Inside, the floor plan was a bit quirky and chopped up. The master suite was on the ground floor and there was another bedroom upstairs, but without a bath. The upstairs hallway had a door leading to the apartment, which could be closed off or left open and integrated into the main house. The apartment itself was great, and provided a Casa Tranquilla interiornice rental income in summer for Trudi and Udo. It had a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room, plus a large, partially covered terrazza with incredible views.

The property was awesome. Besides the pool and the views, it had lots of olive and fruit trees as well as a bocce court. There was also a barn in back, where Udo had his art studio and workshop.

It was hard not to love this place, but we decided the inside space was too awkward and didn’t have the right rooms in the right places, so it probably wouldn’t work for us.

Casa Ideale (Redux)

After we returned from seeing these two houses, we decided to go back to Casa Ideale (the ruin) to have another look at the property and discuss whether the option of building a new house was something we would really consider taking on.

The neighboring farmer had blocked the lane with his truck so we had to stop short of the property and trudge through the fields to get there. But what a view.

Ideale_view1      View from Casa Ideale, Marche

We discussed the size of the house we could build, how and where it might be sited to take advantage of the views, where the pool would go, etc. Most importantly, could we actually pull off building a house in Italy while living in Chicago. This would have been a non-starter if it were not for the fact that Kevin, in addition to being a real estate agent, also worked as a general contractor, overseeing restoration projects. He had a team of architects, builders and other tradespeople who could do this for us, and he would be in constant communication with us to give us progress updates and get our feedback. We were intrigued with the notion of building something to our own specifications and not having to live with awkward floor plans or someone else’s taste in interior finishes.

We also felt it was a plus that the property was close to two towns: Colmurano and Urbisaglia. We really want to get involved in local life, so this was important to us.

We had a lot to think about, and our decision was made all the more confusing by the fact that we were comparing apples, oranges and grapefruits when it came to what property to buy. We had two fully finished houses in contention, a couple of partially reconstructed houses and a ruin.

That night we had a long discussion over dinner, helped along by a couple of bottles of local wine.

Images: Copyright Our Big Italian Adventure

Le Marche? The Part of Italy You've Never Heard Of

Blank stares. That’s what we get when we tell people the area we’re looking at in Italy. Essentially, no one has heard of Le Marche or really knows where it is. Even my online Italian teachers were hard-pressed to tell me anything about it. So, let me fill you in.

The first three questions everyone has are, “Where is it?”, “Why does it have a strange name?” — in English, it’s often translated as The Marches — and, “Why not Tuscany?” Let’s deal with these.

A Geography Lesson

map of italy with marche highlighted

One of the 20 regions of Italy, it’s on the eastern side of the country, with a coastline on the Adriatic Sea and a western border along the top of the mountains that run down the center of the peninsula. North and south, it’s about in the middle. It’s northeast of Rome, about 3 1/2 hours by car, and southeast of Florence, again by 3 hours or so. The distances to these cities aren’t that big, but you have to cross the mountains to get to either.

The terrain is mostly rolling hills, plus the mountains, with a small sliver of flat land along the coast. There are a number of river valleys that run down to the sea, so traveling east-west in the valleys is a lot faster than going north-south through the mountains and hills.

marche provinces map
It’s divided into 5 provinces, named after the biggest city in each. With one possible exception, you’ve never heard of any of these places. North to south, they are Pesaro & Urbino, Ancona, Macerata, Fermo, and Ascoli Piceno. The exception might be Urbino, not a big town but the birthplace of the painter Raphael.

After my reconnaissance mission a year ago, we’ve decided to focus our search primarily on the Macerata province, in the farmlands around the towns of San Ginesio, Colmurano, Urbisaglia and Amandola. That will put us about 35-40 minutes from both mountains and sea.

A History and Language Lesson

In the Middle Ages, most of Italy was ruled by the Pope, but on the eastern fringe were the Marches of Ancona, Fermo, and Camerino. These were nominally part of the Papal States, but were in fact under the control of local rulers, called a marchese, or marquis in English.

The term march in English or marca in Italian, comes from the Latin word marco, meaning “margin” or “edge”, and because of their locations this area became known as Le Marche, the Italian plural of la marca. (The name “Denmark” comes from a similar derivation.)

An Economics Lesson

Tuscany is great: the art, the terrain, the wine, the women, the song. Tuscany is also bad: overrun by Americans, both for houses and summer visits, and home to high real estate prices. (Try visiting Cortona, made famous in one of those books about moving to Tuscany. If you hear anyone speaking Italian, you win a prize.)

Based on our extensive online searches and four days visiting about 15 houses, house prices, even on the far edges of Tuscany, are at least 30% higher than Le Marche. Look near Florence and, as they say, if you have to ask what it costs you can’t afford it.

Now, I hope your blank stare has turned into a wise look of recognition.

First map source: By Gigillo83 – Own work., Public Domain Second map source: Licensed: Copyright: lesniewski / 123RF Stock Photo