Books: A cooler place in the sun

This summer's harvest of Mediterranean memoirs by bronzed expats is heavier than ever. But plain tales of problems overcome outshine the cosy fantasies. Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes Bantam, pounds 15, 364pp; On the Spine of Italy by Harry Clifton Macmillan, pounds 9.99, 199ppEncore Provence by Peter Mayle Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.95, 195ppDriving over Lemons by Chris Stewart Sort of Books, pounds 6.99, 250pp

O for a beaker full of the warm south", as Keats put it. Mediterranean places have often inspired longing, lyricism, romance and abandonment in otherwise prosaic escapees from the grey lands of wet raincoats. It's something to do with the warmth, light, colour and the gentler pace of life experienced against a luxuriance of olive oil and red wine.

Frances Mayes is an American academic for whom lemons are "liquid sunshine" and sunflowers the "Hallelujah chorus of crops". Bella Tuscany, sequel to the bestselling Under the Tuscan Sun, meanders anecdotally and thoughtfully though a sabbatical spring and long summer via the occasional recipe for such dishes as caponata or lemon pie with roasted almonds.

This book is part travelogue and part intelligent reflection on the essential qualities of Italy and Italians. She describes the warm amiability of the odd little red brick Umbrian city, Citta della Pieve, for example. As well as Peruginos in the cathedral, the town boasts Etruscan sarcophagi. Large groups of men play cards in an arbour, a girl shouts up to a man in a picturesque jail, and monks stride about with shopping baskets.

Mayes and her partner Ed use their Tuscan home as a base from which to explore the glowing splendours of Venice. They go to volcanic and blisteringly hot Sicily, too, contemplating the Mafia as they do so. It's all in stark contrast to the sober chill of Minnesota whither, at one point, she and Ed are summoned from Tuscany to attend his mother's deathbed and funeral.

A rather different sort of couple are Harry Clifton and his wife, whose car-less year in a remote, high Appennine village, free of English newspapers and all taint of tourism, he movingly describes in On the Spine of Italy. Clifton doesn't view life through sunny spectacles of Mediterranean blue. He is very enlightening on, for example, the effect of the slackening of church control over the lives of Italians and tensions between the surface attractions of Italian life and its murkier undercurrents, such as pornography.

There's a lot of poverty in "our village", which he doesn't name. Most people have to scratch a living as best they can. The lucky few work part- time hours - with duties far from onerous - for full-time salaries as civil servants in the nearest town, Teramo. Then they return to the village in the afternoons to pursue their other interests - mink farming, in one case. Although there are many "miracles of efficient horticulture" in the village, its spirit, embodied by the volatile Silvio, is one of "taciturnity erupting into violence now and again".

The villagers eventually accept the Cliftons with grudging respect because they stay on through the bitter cold of winter, although the locals cannot imagine why Harry and Deirdre are there or what they're doing. Actually, their purpose is to write - away from the usual distractions of metropolitan life - in the shadow of the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone. There's a strong sense of humility and thirst to learn in Clifton's finely-written book. He's interested in everyone he meets, but never does this sensitive poet from Ireland joke at anyone else's expense.

The same unfortunately cannot be said for the veteran Mediterranean scribbler Peter Mayle. Encore Provence styles itself the third and last part of a trilogy - and let's hope it is because "encore" is certainly the operative word. We've read Mayle quipping about French drivers and his fictionalised accounts of gargantuan meals enough by now. This time, he even sinks to the device of the lengthy inset story (I met a man and this is what he said... ), so desperate is he to fill his pages when he hasn't actually got anything new to say.

How much more compelling is Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons. Stewart, a sheepshearer and former Genesis drummer, really did want to get away from it all - permanently. Conned by the disreputable former owner, he bought a remote farm which no one else would touch in Andalucia in southern Spain. There Stewart and his wife Ana breed sheep, grows things and share their valley life with Amanda the vegan ecologist, Antonia the Dutch sculptress, Rodrigo the philosophising goatherd and Janet the kindly, abrasive eccentric.

The Stewarts have a telephone now and there is a proper bridge over "their" river. But it wasn't always like that, as his incisively witty and often self-deprecating hand-to-mouth account makes graphically clear. When Stewart first took over river-girt El Valero, it had no water supply, electricity or access road.

So he had to start bridge building fast, both literally and figuratively. Domingo, the delightful neighbour who can do anything even if he hasn't done it before, organises the bridge. Later, when the bridge is flooded away, it is efficient Domingo who improvises a cable lift to transport people, commodities - and, once, a sick ibex - across the torrent.

The shimmering heat and flies of summer give way to the cold rains of winter, through all of which Stewart and Ana strive cheerfully to look after their animals - even the rogue dog Bonka, given to chasing and savaging sheep. In time they also raise their "Spanish" daughter Chloe, born protractedly in a Granada hospital. She now corrects her father's use of the subjunctive in Spanish.

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