Hannah Frances is a freelance writer and photographer, with a passion for travel. She has a unique insight into countryside living, stemming from her experience as a housesitter in Italy. Read more about how photography and living in Italy has shaped her travels.
Hi! I’m Hannah Frances and I’m currently housesitting near Urbino in Italy. I’m from North West England but studied in France, and lived in California for a few years before moving back to the UK. So travelling has always been part of my life.
How does photography influence the way you travel and see the world around you?
I’m not sure that my own photography influences how I travel, but platforms such as Instagram certainly inspire new places to visit. Photography outside of the realms of shiny travel marketing is a wonderful phenomenon that enables us to discover new places through the eyes of thousands of other people. The geotagging feature and regional hashtags are great for this – we found the most beautiful river swimming spot in Marche thanks to local tags.
What sparked your interest to travel to Italy and how did you come to work as a house sitter there?
My partner and I left our jobs in Liverpool with the idea of freelancing whilst travelling. When working out our finances, I remembered reading about housesitting. Owners recruit willing sitters to look after their empty homes and pets whilst they’re away who can enjoy rent-free living for the duration. We applied for loads all over the world, had a few Skype interviews and managed to line up two housesits which were (unbelievably) both in the Marche region of Italy. Where we ended up was always going to be complete chance, but that’s what we quite liked about it. We never would have chosen to visit this part of Italy and I’m so glad to have been given the opportunity to get to know it inside out.
Which regions have you explored? What would say are their biggest similarities and differences?
We landed in Puglia - the heel of Italy’s boot - for a break before driving northwards to Marche for our first housesitting assignment. Puglia has the feel of a Greek Island - its whitewashed towns, dusty roads and sun drenched olive groves are the antithesis of Marche’s verdant hills and snowcapped mountains. Italy is so micro-regional - the food, landscape and even language changes dramatically as you move around the country.
We will have been living in Marche for around 8 months, hopping in the car for spontaneous trips to Rome, Florence, Venice. We spent a lot of time in Bologna, which is famous for its ridiculously sumptuous food. Just an hour and a half from Marche, where homegrown vegetables and local meat is simply cooked over an open fire, Bologna serves up an abundance of Italy’s best and most expensive products: Parma ham, balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano, truffles. Regional dishes are rich and extravagant in comparison to Marche’s humble yield of its land.
What have been some of your travel experiences so far?
Living in Marche for this length of time has made me feel so diﬀerently about Italy than I had previously spent as a week-long visitor. The marked variations in regional cuisine, culture and landscape really struck me. As such, Italians are so immensely proud of their origins. We forget that Italy is a very young country (established less than 150 years ago) so older communities express more loyalty to their town or village than to their country, or even their region. I met up with Enrica Rocca, founder of a celebrated cookery school in Venice, who maintains that there is no such thing as Italian food, it’s a kitschy fabrication. The cooking of Italy is the cooking of its regions. I’d really recommend joining one of Enrica’s classes if you’re in Venice. She gives a tour of the Rialto Market before the cooking class at her family palazzo. It’s been great to become part of what is a very small community here - getting to know the local cafe owners, the market stall holders and our neighbours. During our first week, one of our neighbours invited us to the theatre. We had dinner at an organic farm before heading to a converted monastery up the hill for a one-man show. We didn’t understand a word of it and were mourning our terrible Italian skills when our neighbour reassured us not to worry - it’s all gibberish and the Italians don’t understand either!
The most memorable location was Matera, just over the Puglian border in Basilicata. The prehistoric cave town was continually inhabited from the Neolithic period until the 1940s, when the Italian government relocated the whole population due to dreadful living conditions. Starting with squatters, then artists and writers, the town gradually became repopulated and today there are luxury cave hotels and Michelin star restaurants in the previously disease-ridden caves. It’s completely astonishing.
What advice do you have for individuals that are interested in becoming house-sitters in a similar way, but don’t know how to start?
Make a profile on Trusted House-sitters and Mind My House (you have to pay a subscription fee for both) and apply for as many as you can. House-sittng has become really competitive so it’s a numbers game. House sits can last anywhere between a weekend and a year and there are opportunities all over the world. We’re lucky that we can both work from anywhere with an internet connection (my partner Neal is a web developer, and I’m a writer / photographer) but there’s plenty of choice even if you’re limited by time or continent.
What recommendations/locations can you share for future travelers interested in exploring areas in Italy that are not jam-packed with other travelers?
If you’re drawn to Florence for its renaissance swag but hate queues, go to Urbino instead. The small university town is home to the Ducal Palace - a remarkable collection and unlike the Uﬃzi, it’s quiet and you can find yourself completely alone with works by Piero Della Francesca, Raphael and Giovanni Santi. Bologna is also a relatively unexplored gem. It boasts some of the best food in Italy but the tourists are few and far between, meaning fewer menus with pictures and more restaurants for locals and students - i.e. cheap and authentic! The regions of Marche and Puglia in general are great places to practice your Italian as English is not widely spoken (read: not as touristic)
What are three of the most important travel items you carry with you on the road? Why?
I always have a notebook for sketching and scribbling, my camera, and an iPad loaded with a local data sim (mostly for Google maps!) and good playlists for the car. And an Italian dictionary!
What’s next for you?
I’m launching an arts and travel platform called Palette over the next couple of months, which you can sign up for here. When the site launches, members will be able to save the addresses peppered through city guides, stories and interviews to their personal ‘Palette’. We’ve started applying for winter assignments, but are also considering renting a little studio flat in either Barcelona or Budapest. Somewhere cheap and cool to work from, for a couple of months before we move back to Liverpool.
To read more about Hannah's travels and house-sitting adventures, be sure to visit www.hannahfrances.co.uk
Images courtesy of Hannah Frances