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.

Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette

film
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz