$16.95True Stories

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By James O’Reilly and Tara Austen Weaver
October 2001
ISBN 1-885211-68-6 256 pages


Languish under the Tuscan sun. Melt into its soil. Indulge in its fresh foods and world-renowned wines. In this sumptuous collection of stories by some of today’s best writers, you’ll journey into the heart of one of the most beloved regions on earth, the rolling hills and ancient cities of Tuscany. In these irresistible tales, you’ll experience the seasonal daily joys of life in this magical place: harvesting grapes, hunting for truffles, marveling at Michelangelo’s David in Florence, hiking the Etruscan paths, and glorying in Tuscany’s bountiful art, music, history, and above all, romance.

Notable authors: Frances Mayes, William Zinsser, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, Jan Morris, and more.

When you have grown up in Italy, her landscape is the map of your heart, a geography that is at once history and event. That stalwart and rocky boot, daring in its poise, has for millennia been encroached from every side, yet each time Italy stamped an indelible print on her invaders. Both brazen and vulnerable, Italy penetrates. Region by region, though, the shape of that mark differs. Italy is never one.

The part of Italy you have sprung from—or have made your home—tells the story of your passions and forbearance. Italians are fierce regionalists, unwilling to discount their differences. It is the foreigner who coalesces Italy into a continuous entity. Italy herself could not manage to unite until 1861—making her one of the last European countries to unify. The Italian is likely to know (and name) himself differently if his childhood summer days were drawn on Tuscany’s Tyrrhenian coast or the Emilian north Adriatic. The former, a cliff- struck coast, plunging and rocky; the latter, a ruler-flat, sea-lake of calm, horizonless sand. One, a lesson in beauty born of tectonic struggle; the other, erosion’s final offering of endless ease. These territories are lessons in life, lessons in one’s dreams and designs within a landscape—that has become oneself.

So what is this region—of the heart, in the heart of Italy—of Tuscany? It is the one region Tuscans and travelers single out. Ask anyone about Italy; he can usually name cities and Roman monuments with alacrity, but regions? You must mean Tuscany.

The writers in this volume awaken in us the discovery that Tuscany herself is multiple. In fact, her geographic compilation—somehow everything in one—is of great pride to Tuscans. Tuscany is the sculpted Tyrrhenian coastline and a sprinkling forth of sun-swept islands: Elba, Giglio, Gorgona, Capraia. She is mountainsides of Carrara, home to the purest white marble in the world; choose Michelangelo as testimony. South, however, her Maremma—old haunt of the enigmatic Etruscans—festered with unapproachable malarial swamps well into the 1950s. Not far away, in optimistic opposition, thermal springs bubble. Since the Roman Empire, they have misted hill and vale with the call of their healing. Not only a landscape, Tuscany raised the cities of Pisa, Siena, and Florence. Their competitive patronages caused an artistic furor, spawning a Renaissance that changed the face of the Western world. Lucca, San Gimignano, and Viareggio are also hers. Surrounding these, rise the rolling hills of chestnut and oak woods, inhabited by wild boars (chinghiale) and buried truffles (tartufi). Where this wilderness ends, Tuscany’s agriculture unfolds in a production of wine, olive oil, mustard, sunflower, and barley as glorious to the eye as it is fecund. A silver olive grove is shot through with vermilion fodder. Magenta poppies shake their unruly heads at the insistent, articulate, patterns of vintners.

This landscape of agriculture is what I awoke to the summer I turned fifteen. We were driving across Italy, east to west, taking in Tuscany. It was July and hot, in an epoca when air-conditioned cars were unheard of, and I, a teenager, practiced in the art of boredom, counted every minute of being stuck, sweating, in a car with adults. I lived in Italy, which meant Italy was no big deal. Except that Tuscany sprung me out of my posed malaise; I never intended to be willing. The hills were a roiling of blue-green, switching to fields of ochre, rising to gold leaves. Vineyards and orchards marched in columns that faded downhill, and rose again kilometers away. I stuck my face out the window and stayed in position for hours. As the Australian Gary Topping says of his encounter with Tuscany: “Even after years of traveling the world, I never knew…that scenery could make me cry.”

It is Tuscany’s scenery, her feast for the eyes which becomes an equivalent feast for the body, that is most reported in the travel media, thus perhaps most familiar. Open Travel & Leisure or Condé Nast Traveler to glorious pictures of restored stone farmhouses with pools. Tuscany is a laden table set before a terraced view. Tuscany is silence amidst an infinity of sage hills. Here you may learn the art of making chicken involtini or spinach gnocchi from a modern daughter of the venerable deMedici, as Stephen Hall did. Here you could lose your way on the unmarked web of countryside strade bianche, as did Susan Storm—frightened until she stopped for directions and found herself joining a local Tuscan meal. In fair or foul weather, there’s nothing wrong with falling in love with the land that feeds you. After all, history teaches us that no less than Pythagoras, Cicero, Plutarch and Pliny celebrated Tuscany’s truffles. David Yeadon reminds us that Julius Caesar favored his retreat near Lucca. What nourished him here as he labored to formalize the Empire’s structure? The Tuscan stone? The russet earth? The violet grapes? What lives here must harken to something central or dearly hopeful in us. Frances Mayes’ book Under the Tuscan Sun, about restoring her villa outside Cortona, became an international bestseller, as has her sequel Bella Tuscany. Why do we find ourselves here?

There are historical roots. Since Renaissance times, Tuscany has been an area of solid landowners, small and large. The local stone and brick farmhouses, known as case coloniche, have a staple structure: stables and food stores on the ground floor and lodgings overhead on the second floor. Standard are their large inelegant ceiling beams, wide functional marble sinks, and narrow bathrooms. These farms and fields were handed down and subdivided or expanded for over six hundred years. It was primarily World War II, with its wake of industrialization, that dramatically changed the face of a country that had always been largely agricultural. As work, and even capital investment opportunities, grew many Tuscans abandoned their old farmhouses, leaving them to the ravages of the seasons.

The scene was ripe. For centuries now, British and American readers had been savoring Tuscany through literature and the visual arts. From John Milton, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, the Trollopes, John Ruskin, Henry James, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth von Armin, E. M Forster, and D. H. Lawrence (this being the short list), Tuscany was an inherited image, the territory of the cultured mind. When, on hilltops and hillsides, disregarded farm properties went up for sale—with olive orchards, vineyards, and plum trees tossed in—the low asking prices far underestimated the vast dreams they would enclose. Decades later—and for those who cannot or do not want to buy—the dream can be rented. Those who savor it, still find it fresh.

And few stay tucked solely in Tuscany’s homes in the hills. “There’s something about entering a city for the first time through the pages of a book. The experience…becomes magnified—” writes Lucy McCauley about exploring Florence with Forster’s A Room With a View in hand. Linda Watanabe McFerrin plunges into Florence, instead, by absorbing lines from Dante’s Paradise Lost. And why not? Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was schooled by the gentlemen-poets of the nearby Tuscan towns before he rose to become Italy’s most famous poet. It is an updated version of his vernacular Italian that has earned Tuscan Italian the title of “purest” Italian. Of course, in other regions, this qualification is proudly disputed. The Tuscans wink, safe in their claim.

Whether the art leads to experience, or the experience of Tuscany awakens us to new art, in her cities one contends with the force of creativity. For centuries, Tuscany was an assembly of city-states warring for land, commercial power, and artists. Woolen textiles, the growth of banking, fine printing, tooled leather, necessary and luxury foodstuffs; these fueled the economies of Siena, Pisa, Florence and Lucca, but emergent capitalism is the least of what we remember. In her book Landscape in Italy, Lisa St Aubin de Teran bemuses: “Christ may have stopped at Eboli…but he was born in Tuscany and lived and died there. Most…great Renaissance paintings, the pictorial Bible of the world, were painted there, either on the spot, or by Tuscan painters who remembered their own homeland.” Vibrant guilds and visionary leaders, religious or worldly, spawned an artistic fervor that clasped, not only Christ, but his mother, Mary, the saints, angels, patrons, and biblical cohorts, creating a spiritual history, almost entirely Tuscan. Those who think God is Tuscan have some justification.

What a pictorial legacy. The burgeoning of perspective, soft tonalities and shades of color, the humanity to be found in face, limb and fabric—these glowed, shifted, transformed, in the hands of Giotto, Fra Lippi, Duccio, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Piero della Francesca, Uccello and others. In these pages, we too stand before their classic works, listening to Jason Epstein, Barbara Grizzuti-Harrison, Jan Morris or William Weaver remind us of what it is to enter life through a painting or a bronze, transfixed. The journey into Tuscany is a journey into and out of time; it is the past, it is the present.

For some writers in this collection, this landscape is neither a territory to be acquired, nor an art drawn by human hand; it is, instead, a bodily journey. Much as for St. Francis of Assisi, it is the pilgrimage that counts, and the small creatures that may harken to one on his way. Hikers, trekkers, and bikers uncover the roads least traveled in Tuscany. In fact, here Heidi Schuessler unveils a venerable history of Tuscan cowboys, or butteri. Is this why horse-riding trips through Tuscany are growing in number? And what about Siena’s Palio? That mad, nearly one thousand-year-old horse race, in the center of this modern city. The horses, representing contrade, almost are the city. Manfredi Piccolomini describes this with passion.

There are venerable travel writers’ names here and new ones, not all of whom am I able to reference in this introduction. There are luscious wine estates, tending Sangiovese, Malvasia, Canaiolo, and Trebbiano grapes, which I leave unmentioned. Though, within these pages, you will find accounts of their vendemmie. I might have told you about my experience harvesting olives; wherein, one person to a gnarled tree, you clamber up to hand-strip limbs, knocking olives into red nets below. Standing back, the scene is like the line-up of a cast in a musical, or the display of characters from Italo Calvino’s Baron of the Trees. In addition, some contend it is the quality of Tuscan light that contributed to the art of the Renaissance. Certainly poets have named it. Though I have not begun to exhaust the number of artists, Tuscan and foreign, who have laid claim to this landscape or its white-gold light.

Lastly, I am never able to forget, as is true for many an Allied soldier who, like William Zinsser, found himself here, got out alive, and lived to write about it—that these hills were raided and bombed, both when Italy was the enemy and when she had fallen away from the Axis triumvirate. Some ruins are attributable to those painful years. Hillside cemeteries columned in cypress trees record Italy’s war losses. Too, some farmhouses rashly, bravely, hid and saved partisans and Jews. When Tuscany is not the landscape of man-made bloodshed, it is sometimes the land ravaged by floods. Still, to a traveler, this layering, tragic and victorious, is symphonic. Tuscany is resonant and complex. Grievous/resplendent, verdant/ chalky, pure/invaded, invigorating/lucullan, stern/delectable, wild/ cultivated, ancient/renovated.

To this Rome-grown girl, “Tuscany” was one of many Italian exports, each one unequal, or incomparable, to the other. In William Weaver’s words; “…my Italian friends thought I was crazy… Only a crazy American…would want to spend good money bringing water and electricity and a telephone to a near-ruin…” Tuscany’s geography, of ruin and possibility, timeless and redemptive, is most specific. Her qualities are not true of all of Italy, though Tuscany lies at Italy’s center. My Italian friends argue that there are subtle differences in the shape of Tuscan hills, immediately discernible when crossing to the next region. Perhaps. Tuscans are known for their pride, a slightly arrogant sense of entitlement that they represent the highest status of linguistic and scenic “Italian-ness.” If the increasing numbers that flock to Tuscany means anything, they are right. But that’s okay because the Romans know there is only one Rome, the Milanese mistrust what isn’t Lombardian, and the Neapolitans are sure no one is cleverer than they.

My beloved zia used to say; Tutto il mondo e’ paese, All the world is a town. This book reports that we have arrived from our cities and towns, from different spots on the globe, to travel down rivers, up hills, into the museums, out into the countryside to become transformed, ready to hang the memory and the flesh of Tuscany in our hearts.

—Anne Calcagno Chicago, Illinois

Introduction — Anne Calcagno


Yearning for the Sun — Frances Mayes

The Crush — Ferenc Máté

Dreaming Florence — Jan Morris

This Side of Paradiso — Jason Epstein

In San Gimignano — Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

Siena Revisited — William Zinsser

A Tuscan Winter — Saul Bellow

Lost and Found on Monte Amiata — Susan Storm


Tuscany’s Wild, Wild West — Heidi Schuessler

At the Butcher’s — Ann Reavis

Trekking Chianti — John Flinn

Pomp and Intrigue at the Palio — Manfredi Piccolomini

Taking the Cure — Libby Lubin

If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Gnocchi — Stephen S. Hall

On Elba — Francine Russo

The Uffizi Can Wait, the Prada Outlet Can’t — Rick Marin

Lucca, the Unsung City — David Yeadon


Held Captive in a Room by the View — Paul Salsini

Resisting Florence — Lucy Mccauley

Tuscan Markets — Janis Cooke Newman

Sinalunga — Matthew Spender

Porca Miseria! — Richard C. Morais

The Hill Towns of Tuscany —Barbara Grizzuti Harrison

The Face of Love — Linda Watanabe Mcferrin

The Snake at Her Back Door — Sophia Kobacker

The Beautiful Machine of the World — Miranda Mowbray


Stolen Beauty — John Walsh

The Moody Traveler — Phillip Lopate

Salute for a Soldier — Alessandra Stanley


Legacy of Love — Joy Schaleben Lewis

Index of Contributors

Lost and Found on Monte Amiata

by Susan Storm

Travelers are cared for in the ancient mannerI’d wanted to see the changing colors of the chestnut trees on Monte Amiata before winter settled in. The day was as clear as the spring water gushing out of stone spouts, but close to the mountain the sky became a venomous gray and sheets of ice stung the windscreen. Finally, when the air was brittle with cold, it began to snow, and the white silence wrapped itself around us like a blanket. Birds stopped singing, frozen in fright. Insects were buried under the icy onslaught. All sound was swallowed by the curtain of white flakes.

Georgina cursed. I jumped out of the car, leaping like a child to catch frosty flakes on my tongue, my eyelashes, and my red-tipped nose.

The picture postcard chalets were sill-deep in snow, and in the monochromatic scene it was easy to be disoriented. We put chains on the wheels and crunched our way down under chestnut branches sagging with snow, passing snowplows whose drivers were a foggy blur behind the battling windshield wipers. When we finally reached the ski lodge at Monte Amiata’s base, we sat around a fire and drank glasses of steaming mocha.

The night was dark with snow. We took a wrong turn and, with no idea of where we were, landed up in a lane hedged on both sides with savage-looking thorn bushes. When I got out of the car, the cold knocked the breath out of me. I crunched toward the lights that streamed from the small windows of a stone house as the snow started falling with serious intent.

“Buona sera!” smiled the man who opened the door to my heavy knocking. “Come inside from the cold!” he said in Italian. The room was enormous, and warmed by a roaring fire where pumpkins ripened on the wooden mantlepiece. We shook off the snow and were immediately intoxicated by the array of aromas emitting from the kitchen.

His name, he said, was Marcello, and his wife was Francine. Would we stay for dinner, seeing that the car wouldn’t get us home in this weather? Their friends would be arriving shortly, they said, and they would be proud to introduce them to the lost strangers.

Soon the room was filled with people stomping off snow, exuberantly kissing each other on each cheek and one extra for luck, inquiring noisily about recent events, and applauding the steady stream of food emanating from the warm kitchen. Marcello opened several bottles of wine from the local vineyard and lovingly wiped cobwebby dust off with a silk scarf. He poured each of us a deep glass in absolution of the cold. All held its deep red hues to the light for admiration, tested its warm, briny aromas with each nostril, rolled its smoothness over their tongue.

We sat down to dinner, squashed shoulder to shoulder. If anyone had looked in, they would have thought it was the last supper. The large wooden table, that had celebrated many banquets, been the deciding factor around many family skirmishes, and had had enough loaves of bread kneaded on it to feed Hannibal’s army, creaked under the abundant weight of smoked loins of clove-studded pork, glazed and golden chickens, crusty warm loaves, sweet potatoes, bowls of linguini annointed with olive oil, a boiling caldron of osso buco and mushroom soup, plump pumpkins, ropes of salami, and skeins of pasta.

We ate the wild boar that had crashed through the bushes onto the road, compliments of the irate shotgun-wielding farmer from next door, accompanied of course, and I lost count of how often my glass was refilled.

That everyone was speaking an assortment of European languages didn’t matter to my English-trained ear: somehow in that environment I understood everything that was said. To my surprise, when asked questions in strange tongues, I replied in English. The room was warm and energetic with discussion—about the merits of the wines and the labor of the food, about the mysterious workings of politics and the new grandchildren; about the problems with wild cinghiale and fears of this early snow. This was hospitality extended as only the Italians know how. Georgina and I soon felt we’d known these people all our lives.

Marcello, with a film-star face and elegant clothes, tipped the last of his wine into his mouth and walked to the white baby grand piano in the corner of the room. He lifted the cover and still standing above the ivory keys, began to tinkle a few notes from an Italian opera. Candles burned around the room, and everyone’s faces glowed warm with food and ambiance.

He sat at the tapestry stool, trilled his fingers, and launched into a full rendition of “La Traviata.” Francine came and stood behind him, her hand resting gently on his shoulder. Then she began to sing in a voice that equaled nightingales, the notes rising and falling in practiced cadence. The room was quiet except for the magic of her voice and the piano, quiet as the falling snow as we all became immersed in our own, satiated contemplation.

We occasionally refilled our glasses, or broke more bread, or stoked the fire while “La Traviata” was sung to life. When I looked at the handsome Marcello in his elegantly crumpled linen pants, and watched his fingers fly across the keys, I wished there was a way of encapsulating pleasure.

Susan Storm is a widely published photojournalist working for Australian and international magazines and newspapers. Born in Prague, she grew up in South Africa and now lives in Australia. She has won many literary and photographic competitions, and now runs travel writing workshops.

James O’Reilly, president and co-publisher of Travelers’ Tales, wrote mystery serials before becoming a travel writer in the early 1980s. He’s visited more than forty countries, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, and hanging out the laundry with nuns in Florence. He travels extensively with his wife Wenda and their three daughters. They live in Palo Alto, California when they’re not in Leavenworth, Washington.

Born to traveler parents, Tara Austen Weaver crossed her first international border at five weeks of age. She has since lived in San Francisco, London, Vienna, high in the mountains of central Japan, and on a small island off the coast of western Canada. She first traveled to Italy as an art history student and lost her heart to Tuscany while sipping Chianti on the terrace of a friend’s villa at sunset, the music of Monteverdi playing in the background. She has traveled to thirty counties and been published in both the U.S. and Asia, most recently inPilgrimage: Adventures of the Spirit. When not dreaming of future travel, she works, plays, and writes near the beach, on the foggy side of San Francisco.