What’s it like to live your dream? Part-time Italian Debra Kolkka talks about house hunting, blogging, trusting your instincts and why a lifetime in Italy is never enough.
Two hours or so from Florence in the rugged top corner of Tuscany heading towards the sea lies Bagni di Lucca, the much-loved second home of award-winning blogger and fashion designer Debra Kolkka. The Australian lives the dream, spending half the year in sub-tropical Brisbane and the other half in the easy-going hamlet of Ponte a Serraglio in her button-cute apartment by the river at the foot of some of the most striking scenery in Italy. But if that wasn’t perfect enough, Debra and her husband Jim have built their very own traditional stone and chestnut country house in the Tuscan mountains which they now let, complete with four wheel drive, to holiday makers wanting a taste of Italy far off the tourist map.
Tell us a little about yourself - what brought you to Italy and what keeps you coming back?
I first visited Italy in 1972 as a 19-year-old and was immediately captured by the sheer beauty of the place. I met and married Angelo, who lived in a tiny village between Sorrento and Positano. His family was wonderful to me. I loved the history, the food, the weather and the Italian lifestyle.
Of all the places in Italy, why did you buy your first apartment in Bagni di Lucca 10 years ago?
We did very little research. I knew I wanted to be near Cinque Terre and a friend suggested Lucca. We loved Lucca, but it was a bit expensive to buy a house there. I had seen Bagni Di Lucca on maps, so we headed there. We stood on the bridge, below what would become our house, and decided it had everything we wanted. Our instincts were correct.
How did you come to start your award-winning blog Bella Bagni di Lucca?
I started my first blog, Bagni di Lucca and Beyond about 6 years ago to help friends who were coming to stay at our house. It was a resource of what to see and do in the area. I had no idea what a blog was, but I soon learned! The blog seemed to develop a life of its own and gradually drew followers. I started to include all my travels and about three years ago Bella Bagni di Lucca began. I have now visited and photographed all of the villages that make up BdL – there are about 25. The best part of the blog is the friends I have made along the way.
Your style in 3 words?
Simple, comfortable, go anywhere.
Your 3 favourite cities? Lucca, Florence, Helsinki.
Where do you like to shop?
In Florence I like to shop at Luisa, which has a great mix of labels. I also love Roberto Cavalli and Max Mara. I often buy their accessories, scarves and costume jewellery to dress a plain black outfit. I think Milan has the very best shopping in the world. The golden triangle of Via Manzoni, Via Montenapoleone and Via della Spiga is shopping heaven. I have quite a collection of Giuseppe Zanotti sandals and Moschino handbags bought from there.
You have a background in fashion, how has living in Italy influenced your personal style?
Because I travel often, I wear a lot of black. I like Mela Purdie because it is comfortable and stylish, and can easily be dressed up with colourful scarves. I love cold weather because I get to wear lovely coats, something I didn't own until I began to live in Italy. When I am in Brisbane I throw off the black and wear bright-coloured linen, cotton dresses and shirts, which I make myself.
What and where was the last great meal you had in Italy?
That's hard, there have been so many. The one I had at Cala del Porto in Punta Ala just the other day was wonderful. I had a poached egg, delightfully called uova affogato, with zucchini, peas and broad beans. The plate came with the egg surrounded by zucchini and the pea and broad bean purée was poured around the edge. There is also a great restaurant in Pitigliano a little closer to home where I have had some of the best food I have eaten in Italy.
What is the one thing you love most about Italy, and what is the one thing you find hard to take?
I love the beauty of the seasons. I find the inefficiency the most difficult thing to get used to.
You recently built a house in the Tuscan mountains. How did that come about?
We decided with a friend to take on a project without really realising what we were in for. It actually wasn't my idea, it was my husband's, and I was only half-hearted about it until I got involved with the finishing touches.
What was the best moment of the Casa Debbio project and what was the biggest challenge?
The best moment was when it was finished and I decided that it was beautiful. I love the village of Vergemoli and the people there. They have been wonderful. The biggest challenge was getting things done when I wanted them done. We had a building manager, but it would have been better if I had been around for the entire build.
If you had to choose to live in one place – Australia, Italy or someplace else – where would it be and why?
At this time of my life I would probably choose Italy. There is just so much to see and do here. I could never see everything I want to even if I had another lifetime. If I were younger and still had to earn a living or bring up my son, I would choose Australia for all the opportunities there.
You live part-time in Brisbane and part-time in Bagni di Lucca. How does that work?
I am equally at home in both places. When I am in Brisbane I get to see my friends, go to the movies, eat Asian food – things I can't do in Italy. When I am in Italy I also have friends. I travel a lot within Italy, have places I visit regularly and try to discover new places each time I come.
What does a typical day in Italy involve for you?
A typical day right now in spring involves working on the garden at Casa Debbio. We have planted the terrace below the house. We now have about 130 lavender plants, 35 peonies, roses, geraniums, hydrangeas, lilac, fruit trees, raspberries, blueberries and more. The planting is almost done, so now we are watering, weeding and willing the plants to grow. I also like to gather stories for the blog, so I am regularly out and about taking photos of things that interest me.
What are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to a trip to La Foce, a beautiful garden near Siena. I have just read a book about Iris Origa, who started the garden in the early 1900s. We also get to drive along the road to Asciano, one of my favourite drives in Italy. There are 360-degree views of the beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany.