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Room With a View

A dear friend of mine flew across the Atlantic Ocean last night to begin her summer in Italy. Tonight, she is in Siena.

Nope, not jealous.

No, really! (I’m thinking the more often I repeat that mantra, the sooner I’ll believe it.)

What’s great about having friends who like to travel is that you’re never short of travelling companions. And what I love about this particular friend is how comfortable we both feel at inviting ourselves along when the other is making travel plans. Case in point: when I told her last summer that I had arranged a week-long home exchange in New York City, and then asked her what she was doing the third week of August, she didn’t hesitate.

“It looks like I’m spending the third week of August in New York,” she said.

I’ve never spent a summer in Italy (someday!), but I once spent a week in Siena. I invited myself to visit this same friend (do we see a pattern here?) while she was studying art through the University of Toronto’s Summer Program in Siena.

After spending a sleepless night on a train from Vienna to Florence and a hot day wandering Florence feeling slightly ill, I boarded the bus to Siena and promptly fell asleep. When I woke, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The Tuscan countryside I was looking at through my window was more beautiful than I ever imagined it could be.

I waited for my friend on the steps of the Basilica of San Domenico, which, back in those days, was where the buses from Florence dropped you off. I was far too early, but I happily spent the next few hours relaxing and people-watching in the shade of the cathedral.

My friend showed up at the hour we agreed to meet, and in no time at all we had deposited my bag in her room and were seated at an outside table of the nearest trattoria, sharing a bottle of Chianti and digging into two heaping plates of pasta, Tuscan style. Italian teenagers whizzed by us on scooters. Through the course of the evening, my friend’s classmates, one after the other, joined us at our table. It was the best arrival I’ve ever experienced in a foreign city.

This photo was the view from her room in the student residence of the University of Siena. Can you imagine waking up to that vista every morning for five weeks? I sure can.

Siena Room View

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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.

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.