Under the Tuscan sun

Tuscan monastery

There’s no better way to relax, according to Dr Gordon Heslop of Glenhaven and Winston Hills Veterinary Hospitals in NSW, than restoring a 12th-century Tuscan monastery.

“When restoring a Tuscan monastery that’s in excess of 900 years old, it’s important to never use a spirit level or create a straight edge. Originally, nothing was straight or level so we built by eye, guessing when we thought it was about right.

“This project began when we purchased a slightly Italianate farmhouse in Dural, on the outskirts of Sydney. It’s about 110 years old and had a garden in need of restoration. As inspiration, my wife Helen bought me a book called Venzano: A Scented Garden in Tuscany. In the back of the book was an invitation to come and stay in Venzano. So, we did. It was owned by a delightful couple of expat Australians. We loved the place and they asked if we would like to buy it but it was just too expensive.

Tuscan monastery
The Heslops in Tuscan heaven

“Many holidays later, we had never found a place as gorgeous as Venzano. Then I discovered it was for sale online. By this stage, it was pretty much a ruin but could be turned into four separate apartments with a communal courtyard, chapel and pool. After many international phone calls and a meeting in New York, we purchased Venzano with three American couples.

“That was six years ago. Every year since then we spend 10-and-a-half months planning what we are going to do and then six weeks in Tuscany working on the monastery.

“We hire local tradesmen and artisans to help with the renovation. They truly love the place and want to see it restored properly. We had to take the roof off but we preserved all the original tiles. There is also a strict building code in regard to insulation so now we have a centuries-old ceiling, 21st-century insulation, and a centuries-old roof. 

“We finally have a gorgeous villa with two bedrooms, en suites, a living room, a dining room, and a kitchen. There’s a beautiful, big courtyard where I celebrated my 60th birthday with a group of friends. Two years later we did it again for Helen’s 60th birthday, this time with 96 guests.

“I love the process of renovation. I find real joy in pulling on a pair of work boots, getting covered in mud and dust, and swinging a hammer and a pickaxe. When we go away for a holiday, I come back fitter, leaner and stronger. Lying on a beach is not for me.”


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