Tuesday, June 20, 2017


I am writing this on a parapet, not of the old wall that used to surround the town of P—, but the walkway that was built to enjoy and have access to the surrounding hills. P— was rebuilt by a pope in the 1400s as the first ideal Renaissance town, using humanist urban planning principles. No wall. Instead, weaving, small streets with 2-3 story buildings facing one another, with strange iron cow figurines set into the buildings’ window grates, a piazza with town hall facing the Church and a b&b for visiting officials. It’s a hill top town, so the views from all edges are extraordinary, but it doesn’t have the same shut in feeling that many hilltop towns have. It wasn’t built as a fortress, but instead as a retreat from Rome, its side streets trailing away to spectacular views over the same territory that the English Patient’s Tuscany Monastery scenes were shot in. Others were shot in this town’s square. The town was copied, over and over, for its Renaissance design, wherever the principles were applied. Now it is festooned in geraniums and other potted flowers, shade from the buildings and wind from the valley.

I took the bus here from my more walled in town, where I’m staying for four nights. I have had a dream of living amongst olive trees and silver gold grasses, swallows, swifts, grape vines and jasmine, a view of blond fields and cypresses, for decades now. The luxury palace I am in has a small room not on the price list, overlooking the valley and across from the kitchen. Romana charges 30 euros a night for it instead of 300. It includes a giant breakfast of jamon, eggs, local peccorino and mango juice. Espresso. Creme-filled croissants. Chats with the cook. A back balcony off the kitchen where I paint. I never thought I would be lucky enough to do this. 

Italy is extraordinary. I think if I weren’t so strongly medicated, I would be in tears over the beauty much of the day. Black cypresses. Pale olive trees. Blond grasses. Poppies. Wildflowers of every kind. All the fruit trees on their way. The apricots ready. Vineyards, siena brick, pink stone, roses. I’ve loved so many places. Right now the bartender where I’ve set up is singing along to The Lumineers and Paco Ibanez. He’s lived in England, Spain, Morocco, Milan. He came back here, found the best location ever, and opened a bar in the caverns of a 15th century building with no cars allowed within blocks. The cicadas start up in the cypresses opposite. People drift by. I tell them with my eyes that this is the best orange, fennel and olive salad I’ve had in my life. 

One of the reasons I’ve never become a travel writer is because I don’t want to let the world know about the best places I’ve been. This blog with its small readership is harmless. But the thought of letting thousands of readers know, not about Tuscany, as it’s been fully discovered, but about some of the smaller places I’ve been, well, it's heart breaking. One of globalization’s particularly winsome traits. And still, despite the parade of tourists walking down the town’s main street, and every street I’ve been to in Florence and Siena, I haven’t met an impatient Italian. People are courteous, relaxed, well-fed. They look like they’re enjoying their lives. Amongst them, the pinch-faced, suspicious Canadians and annoyed Americans stand out like sore thumbs. Like we do almost anywhere except in our home country. What is the secret to being so gently friendly and not looking at every fellow creature as a potential threat or entity to buy? 

Doing the dishes, I think. I help Emma, the cook, in the morning because I’m so grateful for such luxury at such low cost. And not looking at everything as a potential commodity or investment. The Tyee wrote recently that the trouble with Vancouver’s real estate is that properties have been made into a part of the investment market, instead of a basic thing that all people need. When you make a basic need into a commodity, you create a schism between the rich and the poor, and you decimate the middle class. Here, the bartender could still afford to come back to his hometown and open a bar, despite it being in one of the most famous, most loved and most beautiful places on earth. The air itself is perfumed. Name a place on the southwest coast of Canada that gets less than 200 days of rain a year where you could do still that.