‘I’d really like you to stay… I’d like you to give the Magic of Tuscany a chance’.
The host of my very first accommodation in Tuscany texted me.
I had the strange sense it was not a line.
My venture buddy was sitting next to me in a café in the local village when I got that text. We were both on our third cappuccino. Our suitcases were packed in the back of my car. We had arrived at my Tuscan retreat the night before but by the time we went to bed the decision had been made that I was not going to stay.
Tuscany – at least the part of Tuscany I’d booked – was not for me.
The magic was not exactly screaming at me.
This needs to be put in context otherwise I might seem an ungrateful cow. The previous three months of my life had been a focused plan to live in Tuscany. I had packed my life into storage, linked all my personal identification to a UK mailbox and swapped my sports car for a small tank. I’d put energy, soul and a decent slug of cash into this venture. With my buddy I’d driven three days across Europe to get to the place I’d been dreaming about.
This was not venturing as an amateur! I was not on a weekend whim. This was my next life move as far as I was concerned. I even had an overflowing ‘Tuscany’ Pinterest board!
Tuscany… oh, what dreams! Golden kissed olive groves dotted with crumbling villas that throw a warmth you can feel from their ancient stones. The Tuscan dream has to feature a clunky original Fiat 500s and endless bottles of cheap yet heavenly red wine and melting pasta served by a Nonna who adopts you – doesn’t it? Doesn’t it??
The movies do, certainly. The reality – where and when I’d landed – didn’t.
Or the reality didn’t on my arrival anyway. The roads were unfinished and most of them wouldn’t register on my sat nav. It was raining, relentlessly making dangerous swimming pools of pot holes, even in my tank. After we left the motorway it took us over two hours to find the reservation, despite it being only twenty minutes from the junction. I couldn’t reach my host by phone. My chosen retreat was in the woods. IN THE WOODS. No view, no easy access road, no shop, café or bar within walking distance. The place I’d booked for the next three months of my life was at the top of a wildly winding road, hidden high in the forest hillsides. I worried about my handbrake failing all night and finding what was left of my life in a ravine in the morning.
It felt unfathomable, my dream a delusion and disappearing like a phantom.
Yet somehow – call it a hunch, call it a spell – my friend and I drove back up that wild hillside after just one more coffee to give Tuscany’s magic the requested chance.
I cannot thank my hostess enough for that text. Three years later I had spent more time in Tuscany than I had in the UK. I couldn’t wait for the winter and my out of season Tuscan ventures.
That’s what can grow from a spark of magic.
That’s what can grow from a glimmer of trust.
WHAT IS THIS ‘MAGIC OF TUSCANY’ OF WHICH YOU SPEAK?
Let’s start with the light. This is not exclusive to Tuscany, I know – but it’s a damn reliable place to look if you’ve craved light with a quality as if it’s seeped from heaven. Ok, I’ll stop that. But it is no coincidence that Florence is renowned as the birthplace of renaissance art. From Giotto in the early renaissance right to Michaelangelo’s high point, those skies are not fantasies. They are real and I have seen them.
I kid you not. Know what you’re doing with a camera or a paintbrush to give you a hope of capturing them. You won’t, but it’ll be breathtaking fun.
After I had rejigged my retreat location a bit (the full story is in The Secret Girl) my daily late afternoon debate was whether to start a fire in the fireplace that was the size of one whole wall, bigger than the deer that used to be roasted in it (*gulp*) or to drop down the valley to walk by the River Arno and watch the sunset fireworks.
I am a pyromaniac. Yet watching the sky alight mostly won.
THE MOUNTAIN MAGIC OF TUSCANY
I’ll admit it: I come from a part of the UK that is as flat as a pancake. The Malverns were the nearest thing to a mountain range in my childhood. When I finally visited the Peak District I was in awe. First time in The Alps? Orgasmic.
But Tuscany? Now that’s the way to live up a mountain. The Alps only beat it if you ski.
I am not a skier. I love red wine and olives and cypress trees. Tick, tick, tick! Every single south facing slope in Tuscany is excavated to accommodate a few vines or olive trees. Or a few acres of them. The ground is bursting with the best things of life, and the mountains create that magic. The mountains lift the soil up to the sun and channel the rain to rich valleys. The patterns of cypress trees start to be your sat nav.
Remember that quality of unfinished unfathomable roads that I hated when I arrived? Once I’d grown a pair and swallowed my terror I drove my tank across hair-curling winding mountain single tracks. Italian fast. Or I headed off, up and up and up again beyond the cloud line. I felt like a God: head in the heavens, feet on the earth.
I have stood in tears on the roadside at the beauty of it, and I am not a soppy sort.
Yes, the lakes are a fabulous tour in Italy.
But the mountains have a magic all of their own.
THE MAGIC OF COMMUNITY
If you know anything about Tuscany it is that it’s Italian.
When I first met an Italian friend in Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence she was embarrassed and made an apology for the Mussolini style modern facade. To her, it screamed Fascism. To me it just felt terribly functional and cold. Freezing cold (be warned!) but nothing more sinister than that.
I don’t know enough about what happened in Tuscany in the last world war. But I do know some. There is a spirit of community there that has a slight ‘underground’ feel to it. Villagers know when to congregate for a meal, where everyone brings a dish to a local café and pays a subsidy so that all can eat together – families, misfits, observing tourists. Yes, there’s a gossip culture in Tuscany that is old-fashioned, stories shared around the breakfast coffee to give you a shock and wake you up. Italians do like a dramatic tale. But later in that week you’ll hear how someone helped the soul in crisis, sometimes a secret benefactor. More than once I’ve watched how the community weaves a net to catch one among them who looks about to fall – donating money, a job, a holiday invitation, basic food and shelter even. And also to strangers.
There is a spirit of community help and care in Tuscany that is a rarity these days.
This is how it feels to me: that if the worst hit the world, the Tuscan spirit would survive and you would be welcome to find a place in it.
The magic of Tuscany exists, undoubtedly.
But I doubt that you will really find it in a weekend trip.
Take your time with Tuscany. Her magic will charm you. With any luck it may never leave.
It took me 3 years to be ready to stay at my original choice of retreat, high up in the hillsides. That year I didn’t need a view because I was going to write The Secret Girl. The welcome pack detailed that the buildings had been a nunnery and that allegedly the streams running through the woods had flecks of gold in them then.
Yep. I could believe it.