February 16, 2016 2:24 pm

Debbie Travis transforms Tuscany property, and herself, in ‘La Dolce Debbie’

WATCH: Debbie Travis talks 'La Dolce Debbie' with The Morning Show.

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Celebrated interior designer Debbie Travis went on a personal journey to Tuscany, and she’s sharing it with all of her fans in the hopes that they’ll be inspired too. Her life-changing trip is captured on the new OWN Network Canada show La Dolce Debbie, a six-episode series chronicling the renovation and creation of a huge Tuscan estate.

The 13th century property, which was definitely a fixer-upper when first purchased, is transformed into the ultimate dream retreat, and Travis wants women of all stripes to experience the same powerful emotions she felt as she renovated the house from top to bottom.

Global News spoke to Travis, who was upbeat despite a broken foot, and she filled us in on her motivating forces, how hard it is to purchase foreign property, and how this may be the new form of reality TV.

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Global News: Why Tuscany?
Debbie Travis: What makes Italy so different than a lot of countries is that it changes every 15 minutes. The landscape changes, the food changes. The people change. You go around the corner and it’s like… the national dish in our area of Tuscany is pici pasta, like a sort of worm that they hand-make. They have fights about it. Wars have started over it. To them, it’s a religion. You start to embrace it all when you’re there.

What made you want to pursue this project?
The project came first, which is very unusual. We sold the show after the project was done. I had a dream over all these years, after a journey I’d taken in Italy many years ago. So many life-changing things happened: we were invited into peoples’ homes, we saw a land that we hadn’t really known before. Like many people, [my husband and I] started taking holidays there. We would rent an old farm with 10 friends and have a wonderful time. Then we started dreaming — playing, if you will — and house-hunting. It became more and more serious, and then a weird thing happened.

We met a lot of British expats who said that they’d done it, they’d bought the property, fixed it up, and they’d say, “The kids stopped coming and the house sits empty.” I started thinking, I feel so great [in Italy], I feel so inspired, I feel healthy… what if I shared this with other people? I brought it up during a speech in Vancouver, and by the time I closed my mouth after six minutes of talking [we were fully booked]. I flew to Italy a week later, rented a villa in this valley that I liked, and invited 16 or 17 women out and the week was life-changing. We said OK, now we need to buy.

How hard was it to find the perfect property in Italy?
It’s hard. Everything’s on the market, nothing’s on the market. My husband went to see one property and he said, “If you don’t like it, I’ll marry a woman in the village.” The average age is 86, so that’s fine. [Laughs] I came out two months later and hated it. It was a sad, rundown place… it was better than this one house where there was one whole room with graves and skeletons in it. Filled with dead nuns. Seriously.

Anyway, we saw all kinds of properties, including this dismal one. We went back the next day, but through the drizzle I could see the view from the property. It’s mind-boggling. Walking through the mud, it seemed like a s–thole, but it had the villa feel to it. We bought it and the day after buying it, there was a snowstorm. We got onto the main highway that goes right through the centre of Italy and we stopped. This is laughable for Canada, maybe an inch-and-a-half of snow, and we sat there for 18 hours without moving. Never saw police, never saw a truck. From Rome to Florence, stuck all the way. When people ask if I had doubts, I did. Immediately, right from the start! [Laughs] The country is mad.

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What are some unique qualities about this villa?
What was underneath the outward look of the villa is really quite spectacular. It began life as a tower, looking out everywhere. It probably went to wreck and ruin, and was rebuilt as a farm. The ground floor has these massive arches to house animals, and we recycled all the wood from the mangers. We still have salt coming out from the arches (from the animals), but I didn’t clean them properly because I love them the way they are. The stone floors were so pitted you couldn’t put a chair on them, so we took them out and used them outside.

We ended up taking out a metre of soil under where the living area is now, and it was literally soaked with urine. We found a prison under the dirt. Not even joking.

After the renovation was over, I understand you had a little party.
It’s traditional there, and boy, was it an emotional time! We tied the Canadian flag, the British flag and the Italian flag from the top of the house, and the 85 workers joined us. I memorized and delivered my entire speech in Italian. Of course I don’t remember any of it now, but I really practiced. To me, it was the most moving scene, and you’ll see it in the show. Grown men touching, hugging and kissing, celebrating. You just don’t see that here.

We see the final product, but we also follow the journey of three women who invest and come join us on the estate. We learn about their journeys; I believe there’s one woman from Saskatchewan, one from Ottawa and another one from Ontario. There’s a real gentleness to La Dolce Debbie, and I think this is the new type of television. It has a bit of reality, but it’s not sensationalist. There’s a warmth, and it’s a different pace. I think we’re bored of that, and this is about a journey that everybody is on.

Everybody is trying to work out what they want to do with their lives, and I want people to watch thinking, “I can do my project,” whatever it may be. “If Debbie can do this mad thing, I can do it too.”

‘La Dolce Debbie’ premieres on Tuesday, February 16 at 8:30 p.m. ET on OWN Canada.

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