Andrew and Babs Mitchell own a hilltop convent and mill in Le Marche. They’ve transformed the mill into a large family house, and plan to renovate the convent to offer luxury holiday retreats with four-room suites.
“Babs and I just love Italy,” Andrew says. “Every region is proud and competitive – they’ve all got the best food, the best wine, culture and history. So we figured we could spend the rest of our lives just going round Italy, and never get bored. No other European country has such a range of flavours, cultures, colours and spirit.
“To be honest, Le Marche was an accident. An old friend told us he was doing up a farmhouse in Le Marche and Babs and I asked “Where’s that?” When we started researching for where we might buy in Italy, it was quickly narrowed down to Le Marche. We looked through hundreds of properties online, but quite early on saw the one we eventually bought, which looked spectacular. Two fabulous 300-year-old buildings on top of a hill – both built in impossibly beautiful long, thin pink bricks.
“I went out in January 2005 to view properties for two weeks, covering about 3,000 kilometres and meeting with six agents. First I saw the property we eventually bought, then about fifty others to see if anything could get better. Nothing could. The convent is absolutely stunning, with curved roofs, cloisters and its own chapel. It’s been uninhabited for 45 years. The old mill had never been lived in, and didn’t even have windows. It had a donkey and a sheep in it when I first saw it. But it had magnificent walls, which were double-skinned. It looks like a house a child might draw – totally square, ten metres by ten metres. So we have three floors, each of a hundred square metres. The convent is also ten metres wide, but 35 metres long. And there’s a wonderful cypress tree on the hilltop, about 80 feet tall, that you can see for miles around.
“During the restoration of the mill, I came out for a few days every three or four weeks for almost a year to oversee the work. It was finished in August 2007. With the convent, our vision is eventually to refurbish in a very authentic, beautiful, original Italian style, and market it as upmarket holiday suites. We’ll do frescos on the walls, and maintain the convent’s original features and monastic character. That’s probably about five years away, when we’ve got the money together. We’ll provide massage and beauty treatments, and there’ll be a spectacular swimming pool themed as sunken Roman baths. Between us, Babs and I have backgrounds in marketing, hotel management and art history, so hopefully we have the right skills for the mission.”