chianti and cornflakes

By their Volvos shall you know them . . . As a new film spotlights Brits behaving badly in Tuscany

it's that time of year again. Holidaymakers of a certain class are shutting up their Hampstead homes, packing up their Volvos and heading for the burnished hills of Tuscany. Along with thousands of other English middle-class visitors (don't, please, call them tourists), they will lie around at their secluded villas for the summer weeks, soaking up a little culture and a great deal more cheap Chianti.

Languid, decorous and low-key: this is the perceived image of middle- class Brits abroad, nothing like those rather unpleasant types on the Costa del Sol. They're the ones who really give British holidaymakers a bad name. Or are they? If the latest offering from Bertolucci, a film called Stealing Beauty starring Jeremy Irons and Liv Tyler (due to be released here in August) is to be believed, the British in Tuscany are anything but civilised. It is the story of a privileged elite who spend the summer in a villa near Siena indulging in all-night parties, booze, sex and cocaine. Certain hedonistic scenes have already sent ripples of disapproval through the English community who live and holiday out there; some complain that the film's portrayal of their lifestyle will lower the tone of the exclusive and otherwise sedate colony.

Along with the Dordogne, Normandy and Provence, Tuscany (otherwise known as Chiantishire) is fast becoming a parody of what it means to be middle- class, English and abroad. Always searching for the essence of "real" Italy, France or wherever, this lot end up creating a culture virtually identical to the one they've left behind. Reports of camper-vans jamming country lanes, of English food and even newsletters (Tuscany has Chianti News) are all too familiar in parts of France, Italy and Spain. Sometimes it can seem too close to home, as one well-heeled traveller from north London discovered last summer. "The Dordogne is completely tedious. I just don't want to see cornflake packets and marmalade in every corner shop. We've got an Indian grocery around the corner - it's more foreign and authentic than any of the shops over there..."

Although the English are fond of establishing enclaves abroad, they can't bear to think that their patch has been invaded. Germaine Greer sold her home in Tuscany six years ago, complaining that the place was too British. Jennifer Cox of the Lonely Planet travel guides explains: "That's how independent travel works; a few will get off the beaten track, then people follow them. The next thing you know, you can't get down the beaten track because there are coaches parked both sides."

Much as middle-class Brits are drawn to established colonies, they love to think they've struck out on their own and discovered somewhere more secluded. Which is why areas around existing territories like the Dordogne and Tuscany are becoming popular. Umbria, with its slightly cheaper property, is now seen as a more exclusive alternative to Tuscany. Ex-journalist Don Brewster, 52, lives in Umbria and loves it because he never hears a British accent in his local trattoria. "The last place I wanted to be was in Chiantishire. I bought here because it's still untouched by expats," he says. "This place is dreamy. There's a nucleus of very arty types; painters and writers. And they're all Italian."

Don would probably be piqued to hear that he is just one of many English people who have moved to Umbria for the very same reason. Simon Ball, managing director of villa specialists Tuscany Now, says: "Umbria is full of the English - whole valleys of them. It's seen as more discreet and arty."

Meanwhile in France, Gascogne and the Lot, areas near the Dordogne, are popular for the same reason; the British feel they've somehow gone one better than the rest of the herd. There does seem to be a great deal of snobbery involved in hunting out and establishing the next English retreat. Often it's a case of following in the wake of the rich and famous. Cape Town is presently the dernier cri for well-to-do British types. Jennifer Cox says: "Mark Thatcher's over there trying to make it his home. It's 'the' place where people go because it's cosmopolitan and right on the edge of a big wine district, with lovely beaches."

If middle-class professionals are seduced by the faded elegance of France and Italy, their wealthier relatives enjoy the more exotic splendour of Barbados and Mustique in the Caribbean. Like Tuscany and the Dordogne, both contain a conspicuous slice of Surrey life. It's only the etiquette that varies. Barbados, often known as "Little England", has a distinctly colonial feel; only a certain class of person is welcome at the five-star Sandy Lane Hotel. When a lottery winner, Mark Gardiner, stayed there in January, some residents declared his group might be more at home at Butlin's.

Status and protocol are always the defining elements of the authentic British enclave. Which is why the Bertolucci film has caused a stir. As Jennifer Cox says: "It's implying that the people over there, who see themselves as cultivated and bohemian, have done nothing more than behave badly overseas. Not glamorous at all."

The travel writer Jill Crawshaw finds the whole scene highly amusing. "There is simply no doubt that, in Tuscany and the Dordogne, the English sit and get completely sloshed all day long. It's part of the mystique to say you know a certain little vineyard nearby."

Behind the veneer of middle-class respectability, Brits abroad just want to have fun. In this alone they have much in common with their compatriots in Benidorm - though they'd no doubt choke on their Orvieto if you dared to suggest as much. Jill Crawshaw agrees: "You don't get many of them looking at galleries and churches. They may pay lip service to the culture but they prefer to sit in their gardens with a lot of cheap booze."

WHO GOES WHERE AND WHY

FRANCE: There are more Brits in the Dordogne than anywhere else on the continent. In the summer months places like Bergerac, Perigueux and Sarlat (the heart of the Dordogne) are overrun with Guardian readers in people carriers. Neighbouring areas, the Lot Valley and Gascogne, are also popular. A long-time British resident says: "I did try to avoid the English at first, but it's impossible - you bump into them in every market and supermarket, they're everywhere."

They wear: M&S, espadrilles; Gap for Kids

They eat: magret de canard; confit They drink: Bergerac

Expense: i i

Celebrity presence: nil

Trend value: nil

CYPRUS: well-to-do Brits tend to congregate in the hills above Paphos which has its own international airport and a strip of good hotels. A strong expat presence; Gerald Durrell had his villa here. Expect to find seven choices of British cereal in the supermarkets. You can also tune into British radio and television. Genteel residents never stray to the down-market, Ayia Napa, end of the island. "It's full of army sergeant types drinking cans of lager," warns one discerning visitor.

They wear: twinsets and Calvin Klein - informal but smart

They eat: souvlaki and meze They drink: brandy sours

Expense: i i Celebrity presence: nil

Trend value: nil SOUTH AFRICA: Cape Town is the place to be for wealthy Brits; the jet set can't keep away. "Banker territory", sums up travel writer Jill Crawshaw. Plettenberg on the Garden Route also pulls a star-studded crowd: forget the Caribbean, if you're a name this is where it's at. Recent visitors have included: Duke of Edinburgh, Ridley Scott, Mark Thatcher, Michael Caine and Douglas Hurd.

They wear: diamante and denim jackets; designer T-shirts, shorts and long socks

They eat: biltong and barbeques They drink: SA chardonnay

Expense: i i i i Celebrity presence: i i i

Trend value: i i i

ITALY: Tuscany, or Chiantishire, is now a little over-crowded for the Brits who like to think they've been guarding a well-kept secret. "These are the sort of people who discovered olive oil long before Delia Smith introduced it to Sainsbury's. They have a horror of being stereotyped." Bumper-to-bumper Volvos and, as John Mortimer observes, "cornflakes and marmalade in little village shops". This is little Hampstead in Italy. Settlers include: Muriel Spark, Paul Smith, Lord Jenkins. Mortimer rents a property here but Germaine Greer sold hers six years ago.

They wear: Ghost and Nicole Farhi

They eat: bruschetta, pasta, truffles They drink: Montepulciano d'Abruzzo

Expense: i i i Celebrity presence: i i i

Trend Value: i i i PORTUGAL: Brits in Tuscany would no doubt look down their noses at the golf-playing fraternity who flock to the Algarve, on the southern coast. The biggest resort is Vale do Lobo, which has a choice of three golf courses. Not geared to a young trendy market, this area is more likely to be inhabited by golf fanatics from Dorking. Businessman Martin Brine, from south London, has been there 10 times but doesn't feel part of the Brit contingent. "The idea of Little England would put me off. I don't notice that at all. I do like the fact it's not too ostentatious."

They wear: Pringles and slacks

They eat: fresh sardines They drink: rose and port

Expense: i i i Celebrity presence: nil

Trend value: nil

SPAIN: Puerto Banus on the Costa del Sol has been described as the St Tropez of Spain. Stinking rich, this Brit yachting crowd hang out in the tiny harbour, dripping in designer labels. One unimpressed visitor commented: "The British like to think it's a hideaway but it isn't. It's the sort of place where a few of Barbara Windsor's exes might hang out."

They wear: glitz - Versace and Gucci sunglasses a must

They eat: langoustine and lobster They drink: Sancerre, champagne cocktails

Expense: i i i Celebrity presence: i i i

Trend value: i

MUSTIQUE: Tiny - only two square miles - and highly exclusive, Mustique is an exotic laid-back haunt (pioneered by Princess Margaret) for the idle rich and jet setting rock stars. Settlers include David Bowie and, of course, Mick and Jerry. John Paul Gaultier, Michael Caine and Robin Williams have also visited. So have Noel Gallagher and his girlfriend. As a casual visitor don't expect a look in - much of the island is private property. "It's certainly not the kind of place you get your camera out or start asking for autographs," said one PR snootily.

They wear: sarongs and cut-offs

They eat: red snapper, mango, English roast lunch (all houses have a cook and butler) They drink: rum punch at Basil's Bar on the beach

Expense: i i i i i Celebrity presence: i i i i i

Trend value: i i i

BARBADOS: The English settled here as early as 1627 and it shows. A Statue of Admiral Nelson stands in Bridgetown's Trafalgar Square and afternoon tea is served in most hotels. All the place names are uncannily familiar: Bath, Hastings and Worthing. There is the highly exclusive Sandy Lane five-star hotel and arty types love the Holders Season which includes opera, drama, theatre and sport. For added celebrity status, it's held at Holders House, home of Johnny Kidd - daddy of supermodel Jodie. Other visitors include: Joan Collins, Bob Monkhouse, Michael Winner and, of course, Jodie.

They wear: elegant casuals - no topless bathing, no shorts in bars after 7pm

They eat: flying fish, rice and peas They drink: Banks beer, rum sours

Expense: i i i i i Celebrity presence: i i i i

Trend value: i i i

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