Debbie Travis, the Scots model turned Canadian TV decor and renovation superstar didn’t want to do another television series.
But she did want to continue to inspire women to be their best and fully enjoy their lives.
That dream became a reality through another dream – to live in sunny Italy.
She and her husband bought a derelict, 13th-century watchtower/pig farm in the country’s Tuscany region four years ago.
They then expended blood, sweat and – according to Debbie – tears in transforming a place she admits she hated at first sight into a welcoming all-women retreat.
It was tough – Travis was in a foreign country, her husband was working out of Montreal and she couldn’t speak the language — but she’s no quitter.
She rebuilt Villa Reniella, instituted her Tuscan Getaway initiative, and lets us follow her every step of the way on La Dolce Debbie, a new series which premieres on OWN Canada tomorrow.
We spoke with Debbie in Toronto.
M&C: Welcome back to TV! What was the idea for your women’s retreat?
DT: I have spent enough time in crappy hotels around the world for business. It’s hard. So I asked myself what I would want.
That was always at the forefront. Just having someone to care and make decisions.
It would be beautiful, and then there was the pleasure you get from making people happy. There’s nothing like it.
After a week, the women we took there had the feeling of a girls’ night out. We had the best night; got drunk, laughed and danced on the table.
We created a safe place for women where they can become their fourteen-year-old selves at camp again, but with alcohol.
And it’s like crying all the time – it’s a relief. Emotions come out, stories are told. And every woman has a story.
We feed off each other. I have a picture I took in June of a girl of around 35 walking down a dirt road by the tress, holding hands with a woman who is 55. They didn’t know each other a couple of days before.
I see that picture every day and it tears me up. When I have doubts, I look at it.
M&C: What can someone who aspires to this, but can’t afford a castle or a trip, take away from the show?
DT: They can take away their dreams, and be inspired. I really aspire to make their dreams come true.
You may have four children and a mortgage, and maybe it’s not the right time, but it will come. I had to sleep on this for twenty years.
I couldn’t do it twenty years ago, but I kept pictures of Sicily pinned on my notice board and I knew that I had a vision of walking around in a caftan.
I left home at 15 with a suitcase. You drive your own ambition. You want to open a bakery? Write? You can do it.
Nothing is holding you back except fear.
You might not be able to take a year off but you can do something. I remember sitting eating a pecorino sandwich and wondering why I had been stupid enough to do this, but then I heard the builders laughing and singing and I knew this is the land where I wanted to be.
Everybody has that kind of feeling; it could be something very small. But you keep the dream alive.
M&C: You didn’t want to make another series. What made you change your mind?
Debbie Travis: It was a surprise. I didn’t want to do another series because I’d been working really hard, but we started this project after we were approached to do a reality show on renovation.
Documentaries are coming back very fast in the UK – and they can be so beautifully done. I thought, if I can do that, and away from reality in a different place, then it would be interesting.
The journey began with an idea.
I fell in love with Tuscany and felt invigorated and alive there; the food, people, kindness and sweetness, so I decided to look for a property. Like most dreams it started small and grew and grew.
I thought, what if I can get other women of all ages across the country and show them how to do things? So in 2009 I rented a villa and took women there for a retreat and it changed my life.
Then we found this property. It took a long time. It’s a thirteenth century house on 100 acres, a farm, where we make olive oil and lavender oil, and we have vineyards.
M&C: What was the process like?
DT: Renovations in Italy aren’t like they are in Canada. There is no drywall, everything is stone and you have to take down the ceilings and make it stable against earthquakes.
We kept the very old buildings but put in the mod cons. It’s 500 years old. It was a tower look-out protecting the village and then it was a poor man’s farm and sixteen families lived there over the last few hundred years.
I lived on the site in the rain and snow; it’s not always under the Tuscan sun. I still don’t speak Italian, but in one episode I order a coffee! It was very challenging when I was there alone, the only female amongst the builders.
M&C: You must have had doubts. Did you have nightmares because of the scope of the renovation?
DT: I had doubts right away. When I first saw it I had doubts. I hated it with passion because it wasn’t this vision I’d been looking for.
My husband said “You stupid woman, look at the view!”. Many nights I would wake up at 3, 4 or 5 in the morning, panicked.
But the beauty is so breathtaking it makes me cry. I still stop on the side of the road and look at it. I am so lucky.
It’s a national heritage site. The light changes every twenty minutes or so and even when there’s a storm it’s beautiful.
It truly is la dolce vita, the sweet life; it’s about living in the moment.
My panics today are if more about whether we are going to get 800 litres of olive oil!
It is a beautiful life but it was very frightening. My husband was on my back every day from Montreal. But he’d say “you can do this”.
I had an architect because I didn’t want to make any stupid mistakes. It was frustrating but the builders were impeccable.
In Canada we wonder where we’ll put the light switch and it’s up in three minutes. There, 20 people discuss it after lunch.
But you have to trust them.
La Dolce Debbie premieres tomorrow, February 16, at 8.30pm ET on OWN Canada.
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