Archive | May 2012

Armchair Traveller: Under the Tuscan Sun

Some twenty years ago, Frances Mayes bought an abandoned villa near Cortona, Italy. She and her husband spent three summers renovating it, and then she wrote a book. The travel memoir genre has never been the same since.

Published in 1996, Under the Tuscan Sun was on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over two and a half years. In 1998, I spent a week with a friend who was studying art in Siena for the summer. She was reading the book. All of her classmates were reading the book. Every bookstore I walked by that week had Under the Tuscan Sun on display in its window. In the aftermath of the book’s success (as well as that of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence a few years earlier), there’s been a rush to publish hundreds, if not thousands, of memoirs about ex-pats buying and restoring houses all along the Mediterranean. The saturation of the genre may be the reason for some of the criticism levied today against authors like Mayes and Mayle. The truth is: ex-pats were buying up property in southern Europe long before these two authors. They simply came up with the idea of writing about it ― and they did it brilliantly.

Mayes starts her book off as a love poem to Tuscany, and to the home described as “a house and the land it takes two oxen two days to plow” in the legal documents she and her husband signed upon purchase. She describes evenings “when the light turns that luminous gold I wish I could bottle and keep.” She includes recipes, and to show her growing interest in the cuisine of the region, she writes paragraphs such as these:

… cooking seems to take less time because the quality of the food is so fine that only the simplest preparations are called for. Zucchini has a real taste. Chard, sautéed with a little garlic, is amazing. Fruit does not come with stickers; vegetables are not waxed or irradiated, and the taste is truly different.

Under the Tuscan Sun has a little bit of everything: interior design, recipes, gardening, history, travelogue. If you’re looking for lots of detail on any one of those subjects, this is not the book for you. But if you think you might enjoy reading how an American poet and creative writing teacher fell in love with a crumbling villa in the middle of Tuscany, then this book is worth a read.

Recipe Box: Insalata Caprese

The food in Italy is one of the many reasons the country is so popular with tourists. But the reason Italian food tastes so good is because of the farm-to-table fresh ingredients so readily available over there. Try as I do, I can never quite replicate the flavours back home in my own kitchen.

However, I do keep trying.

In the summertime, I like to make Insalata Caprese (Caprese salad), which I often have for lunch when I’m in Italy. Tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and cheese never taste so good as they do in this salad, which takes its name from the island of Capri.

The type of cheese used in the salad, mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella), is made from the milk of the water buffalo. It is porcelain white, very moist, and slightly salty. Italian delis or fine cheese shops import it directly from Italy; in B.C.,  the cheese is available through a producer on Vancouver Island that makes it from their own herd of water buffalo. Bocconcini balls made from cow’s milk are a cheaper substitute and can be found in most grocery stores.

Once you’ve located a source for the cheese, all you need are the freshest tomatoes you can find, fresh basil, and a good quality extra virgin olive oil.

Buon appetito!

Insalata Caprese

vine-ripened tomatoes
buffalo mozzarella
fresh basil
extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper (optional)

1. Cut the tomatoes and the buffalo mozzarella into slices about 1/4 inch thick.
2. Tear the larger basil leaves in half.
3. Arrange the tomato, cheese, and basil on individual plates, alternating between green, white, and red (which just happen to be the colours of the Italian flag!).
4. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.

Reel Life: Roman Holiday

I don’t suppose there is anyone on the planet who hasn’t fallen a little in love with either Audrey Hepburn or Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday.

But … just in case … I thought I’d mention this lovely 1953 romantic comedy.

Roman Holiday was filmed entirely on location in Rome — a novelty at a time when most films were shot on studio lots in Hollywood. One of the most memorable scenes takes place at the Mouth of Truth. According to legend, if you told a lie with your hand in the mouth, it would be bitten off. While filming this scene, Gregory Peck decided to pull his hand up inside his sleeve as he was pulling it out of the mouth. Audrey Hepburn’s screams were the real deal, he said in interviews many years later, as she had no idea he would play such a trick on her.

The next time you’re in Rome, you can test the legend for yourself. The Mouth of Truth is located in the front portico of the Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin, a small church next to the Tiber. There’s always a long line of tourists waiting to have their photo taken with their hand in the mouth — a credit to the enduring popularity of Roman Holiday.

Me: I’ve been there, done that. My next goal is to find myself a Roman apartment to rent, identical to that of Gregory Peck’s character, Joe Bradley. Something tells me I’ll be searching for a very long time.

The Pantheon

On one of my trips to Rome, I arrived 24 hours before my friends so I could have a day to wander around on my own. First thing that first morning, I set out from my hotel, eager and excited to begin exploring. Within minutes, I stumbled around a corner into Piazza della Rotunda and found myself staring up at the Pantheon in complete awe.

At that moment, it hit me with a massive thump. I was in Rome. And Rome is really, really old.

I’ve done a fair bit of wandering around Europe, in countries like England, France, and the Netherlands, and I am always struck by the amount of history. Compared to Canada, there is an awful lot of it in Europe.

But Rome! I know I’m stating the obvious, but Rome is in a category all its own. It’s not just old ― it’s ancient.

The Pantheon was built by Marcus Agrippa in 27 BC as a temple to all the gods of Rome, was rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian about 150 years later, and has been used as a church since the seventh century. It’s awesome inside ― a perfect circle ― and contains the tombs of Victor Emmanuel II, first king of a united Italy, and Raphael, Renaissance artist, among many others. The only daylight to enter the structure is from the oculus at the top of the dome.

The inscription on the pediment reads “M. AGRIPPA. L. F. COS. TERTIUM. FECIT.” Later that same visit, one of my friends, a linguist, translated the Latin for us: “M Agrippa, son of Lucius, consul for the third time, built this.” She burst into laughter when she reached “built this.” Agrippa, mighty Roman general, was no different than the child who writes their name on the schoolwork they take home to Mom or Dad.

Now, every time I return to Rome, the first thing I do is revisit the Pantheon to remind myself of where I am and how awesome a place it is. I don’t ever want to lose that feeling.


Florence. Firenze. Birthplace of the Renaissance. Home of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and the Medicis. Site of Brunelleschi’s Dome and the Ponte Vecchio. A major stop on the Grand Tour of every young Englishman during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One of the most-visited European cities in this century.

Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

Florence is intense. And not just because of all that art and history. Its historical centre is small, easily covered on foot, and jam-packed with tourists.

The Arno from Piazzale Michelangelo

The key to enjoying Florence is to not resent the crowds ― everyone is there for the same reason you are. If you can, visit Florence in the off season.  And, if that’s not possible, get up early, and explore as much of the city’s piazzas and narrow streets before the rest of the world is up and about. You won’t regret it.

Copy of Michelangelo’s David in Piazza della Signoria

Reel Life: Stealing Beauty

I once watched a TV mini-series about Leonardo da Vinci with my mother when I was far too young to stay up so late. She sometimes let me do that — watch TV with her long after my younger siblings had been sent to bed — but only if she saw I was genuinely interested in what she was watching.

This time, I was. That mini-series planted the seed of my life-long interest in the art and history of Renaissance Italy.

I was also captivated by the landscape. “Where’s Tuscany?” I asked.

“Italy,” replied Mom.

I knew then that one day I would go to Italy. It was the first time I was motivated to travel by images I saw on-screen, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Every time I watch Stealing Beauty, I want to book myself on the next flight to Florence. Liv Tyler, in a break-out role, plays Lucy, a 19-year-old American visiting friends of her late mother. They live an idyllic life in a renovated farmhouse somewhere near Siena. Lucy has travelled to Tuscany to have her portrait done by the resident artist, although she suspects it’s really just an excuse for her father to send her to Italy for the summer.

Her mother’s friends have opened their home to all sorts of hangers-on: Jeremy Irons plays a dying playwright, Jean Marais a former art dealer gone senile, Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes — before they became Rachel Weisz and Joseph Fiennes — play the adult children of Sinéad Cusack’s character, the matriarch of the place. Her husband, played by Donal McCann, is the artist. When he explains why he has forsaken wet, damp, chilly Ireland for Tuscany, he says it’s all about the work, the “great tradition of art in these hills” — a homage to the artists of the Italian Renaissance if there ever was one.

All of the characters talk about Lucy — and her dead mother — behind her back. Lucy, however, is interested in only two things: reconnecting with the neighbour boy she fell in love with four summers earlier, and learning the identify of her real father. This last undertaking comes about because Lucy discovers a cryptic entry in her mother’s journals that hint at Lucy’s conception through a one-night affair one summer in Italy when her father was elsewhere.

Film critics didn’t think much of Stealing Beauty, particularly in comparison to some of Academy Award–winning director Bernardo Bertolucci’s other ground-breaking work (including Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor). I saw the film only a few months after my own mother’s death and first thought that’s why it resonated with me so loudly — in particular, a short scene involving an ambulance that caught me by surprise when it made me burst into tears in the middle of the dark theatre.

But every time I watch the film I am awestruck, so I think my enthusiasm for it is much more than simply being able to relate to the film’s portrayal of grief. Stealing Beauty is a film with an affecting but realistic screenplay, first-class acting, great music, seductive cinematography, and one of the most beautiful settings possible. In short: it’s a picture-postcard of Tuscany. If you want to find out how enchanting a summer in Italy can be, watch this film.

Through My Lens: Feed the Birds

I love the Italian word for “child” — bambino. And I love how the Italian language makes an ordinary pigeon sound so … well … unordinary with a word like piccione (say: pee-CHOH-nay).

We’re still in Piazza San Marco. Still people-watching.

Through My Lens: Venetian Waiter

Another piazza, another waiter. This time we’re in Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) in Venice. It’s a terrific spot for people-watching.

La Dolce Vita

My sister is getting married this month, and she and her soon-to-be husband are planning a honeymoon to Italy later this summer. I figure that’s as good a reason as any to focus this month’s posts on Italy. (As if I need an excuse to write about Italy.)

For my first post: a photo of what I consider to be the essence of la dolce vita (the sweet life): a piazza, a glass of vino, and an Italian waiter to serve you. I took this in Piazza della Rotonda on our last day in Rome, October 2007.