The Euro Dream House: Part 2

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Examining the house with the realtor
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Editor’s Note:  The dream of buying an old house in the countryside for cheap and then remodeling it captured our man in Europe, Kurt Stewart, in 2020. This is Part 2 of his two-part story about what happened when he realized that dream.

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Part 2Running out of fantasy

“It has great potential” – that’s what Herzog must have thought too.

The story behind the making of Fitzcarraldo is legendary. Documentary filmmaker Les Blank was on set with Herzog to capture the sheer madness of attempting a film of this order. There are scenes in the documentary that show Herzog on the verge of losing his mind. At one point, an exasperated Herzog declares, “I’m running out of fantasy. I don’t know what else can happen now”.

And it’s no wonder. The production was beset by a string of other-worldly catastrophes: attacks from hostile Indians, diseases, plane crashes, venomous snake bites, violent tropical rainstorms, mental breakdowns of cast and crew and a two-year stoppage when they were forced to find another location some 1,500 miles away.

The actor Jason Robards was originally cast as Fitzgerald but had to quit the production when he was stricken with amoebic dysentery. Mick Jagger was also cast in the film but dropped out too. He left for commitments for a new album and concert tour after nearly 40 % of the film had been shot. The film had to be scrapped and started from scratch again with new actors to fill the roles.

Herzog’s investors in Germany were ready to pull the plug on the film. When they asked him if he had the strength and will to finish the film, Herzog responded, “How can you ask me this question? If I abandoned this project, I would be a man without dreams”.

Imagine this dream then: you are in a jungle, but it’s not the Amazon rainforest – it’s your new house. You arrive, like Herzog, with the idea of making it your masterpiece. It has the raw materials to be something special – an old stone house in the countryside, the way you always dreamed.

It’s almost romantic – it would be, if only the nagging question of limited financial resources (money?) wasn’t hiding in the underbrush like a python ready to swallow you whole.

Contractors on the job

That day when you signed the contract, your realtor pulled you aside and said, “There will be some remodeling to do but it shouldn’t cost you more than __________”.

You’ve already forgotten what that dollar amount was. Trauma has erased it from your memory. It was low, that number. Much, much lower than what you later discovered would be the true cost of renovating this very old, very stone house.

 Slowly, surprises crop up that you hadn’t expected. At all.

Like a septic tank on the brink of exploding. The realtor forgot to mention that. It turns out that the tank itself is way too small for a house of this size anyway. So now you have to pay a visit to the local town hall. Eventually they’ll send an inspector over to determine how they can connect your house to the local sewage system. Costs to be determined.  

Stairway to heaven?

 Like the windows. You knew they were old, but that they ALL had to be replaced? Double-glazing those more than 20 windows? Your heart stops beating. And throw in all the doors for that matter. The wind and rain are pouring through them now. Costs: about the same amount as what the realtor had estimated for the renovation of the entire house!

Like… you can imagine. The expenses are piling up. As for finding contractors, good luck. Their services are in high demand and they are hopping between a half dozen different job sites. They are so over-committed that they frequently leave you in the middle of the job to complete another one somewhere else.

It has happened on four different occasions where the work is suspended for months at a time. The house is left looking like a construction site halted for the holidays. They couldn’t give a definitive date for when they’d be back: maybe a month, maybe three or four – who knew?

And now throw Covid into the mix, and you have a recipe for a steamship-sized disaster.

The “adega” before renovation

Picture large holes in the walls waiting to be filled, tubing and wiring hanging from the rafters, blocks of granite in piles of rubble, half installed bathrooms, floorboards with large gaps giving view to the basement, and kitchens left unfitted.

The surprises keep coming. All the electrical wiring has to be pulled out and re-installed. The plumbing is more of the same. The costs are piling up, but this is your dream home. You are far too deep in the jungle now to think of abandoning the project.

Like Herzog going mad in the Amazon, you too are losing it. The only option is to keep moving forward.

The words “It has great potential” come floating back to you every day.

“Potential! Potential! Potential!” – the potential to rain financial ruin down upon you, your children and their children’s children.

The “adega” after renovation

But this is much bigger than a simple story about caveat emptor, of cost overruns, of a money pit or of just plain ignorance. It’s not even a cautionary tale. Yes, it’s costing us more than we bargained for. And yes, there are headaches galore trying to put it all together.

But if you asked me if I’ve ever wanted to abandon it all, if I in fact have the will to finish it, I’d say “How can you ask me this question? If I abandoned this project, I would be a man without dreams”. Yeah, it boils down to a simple, sleep-depriving dream.

 The dream is to make a place that we can share with others who are looking for something different in the way of rural tourism, what is known in Portugal as “Alojamento Local”. So when all is finally completed, we will have a separate studio in what used to be the “adega” (wine cellar), where we can receive guests. We are listed on AirBnB and the entire house will eventually be open for vacation rentals.

Interior, dining area

This is part of a bigger project involving European funding to help create employment possibilities in and around the center of Portugal. Our business offers a combination of rural and urban stays in three different locations in Portugal: Porto, in the city center, Tras-os-Montes, in the rural north-east of the country, and now here, in the center near the city of Viseu.

At the end of Fitzcarraldo, Fitzgerald and his crew have managed to salvage some of the tattered steamship after its trip down the rapids. And improbably, Enrico Caruso does come to the Amazon. In the conclusion of the film, we see him singing on the Molly Aida in a makeshift performance of Bellini’s I Puritani, with full symphony backing. Fitzgerald watches from the deck of the ship, smoking a cigar in triumph.

What is the lesson in all of this? There is none – buy a very old stone house for a euro or a million euros, or don’t. Take a chance on flubbing it all, making all the classic newbie mistakes. Whatever happens, have faith that Caruso will show up, eventually.

And even if you happen to run out of money, don’t run out of fantasy.

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Kurt Stewart is a writer, educator and entrepreneur who has been telling stories about the places he has lived and worked for more than 35 years.  

After leaving his native San Francisco in 1981, he began his writing career in Paris where he wrote feature articles for Paris Passion magazine and USA Today. He later moved to Portugal where he taught in the School of Film and Television at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Porto. He spent several years in Malaysia working with the Ministry of Education training teachers in the public schools. While there, he wrote travel stories for the Hawaii Reporter. His latest venture involves country living in the heart of Portugal’s still undiscovered central region.

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