It's the home of art and the cradle of all the refinements; the place we go to simply be. So what is it about Tuscany that compels the British to consider it their own, private second Eden? It can't be the garden furniture, or can it?
Sun. A villa. Terracotta roofs. Pencil cypresses. Mozzarella di bufala. Extra-virgin olive oil. Ranks of grapevines. A prospect of square- roofed towers. Is that it? Is that what all the fuss is about?

You could say that Tuscany is full of other things. That it's stuffed to the gills with expensive shoe shops, noble statuary, roadside wineries, open-air cinemas and haunches of smoked ham clothed in smoky dust.

You could point at the high incidence of Renaissance paintings, plaster saints, zucchini, frescoes, nuns, tricolore pasta, Day-Glo cyclists, olive trees, leaning towers, old women, equicidal horse races, two-lane motorways, bridges, dogs, geranium mini-gardens, Madonnas and Davids, baptisteries, and tiramis ice-cream - and much of this would be true. But it still would not explain the big attraction Tuscany exerts on the imagination of the British, from Browning and the Sitwells to John Mortimer and the hapless Blairs.

What takes them there is, alarmingly, the feeling that the place is somehow theirs; as if they own the imaginative freehold.

"I felt, upon entering this world of refinement, as if I could have taken up my abode in it for ever," said William Beckford the Gothic novelist, on first encountering Florence. Even more typically, Matthew Arnold gazed at the Tuscan landscape and breathed "It was for this country that I was predestined".

In this (perfectly sophisticated) region of Italy, British people can fantasise about a simple life that is, somehow, their heritage - a life lived on the hillsides seen in Leonardo's paintings, eating simple food grown in the valley next door and lubricated by the fruit of the adjacent olive grove. As we sit dining alfresco on the lawn of our villa, grinding a ghost of black pepper over the insalata caprese and murmuring together, we are as much self-constructed figures in a landscape as are the apostles in Tintoretto's Last Supper.

We're not really peasants, of course. Good God, the very idea. But we appreciate the idea of peasant simplicity. We note approvingly that the weatherbeaten chaps cutting ziggurat steps out of this hillside are the same burly figures as the ones in the pages of Boccaccio and the Bible scenes of Donatello. We've read the stuff and we've seen the pictures, probably unlike the inhabitants of these villages. We appreciate the landscape qua landscape, while they merely live in the fields.

The spirit of EM Forster's characters, appreciating everything about Tuscany except its life and soul, is shamefully detectable still in our attitude to the place. We like to play at being aristocrats here, the big-shot lords of the falling hillsides, surveying the magical valleys of Florence and Lucca with fond familiarity. And that's why the classic British holiday in Tuscany has to involve a villa.

My travelling band of friends and children rented a villa from Italian Chapters - one that lay down a nasty goat-track outside Malmantile, a small (and mostly shut) village on the outskirts of Florence.

Just look at this house. It's enormous, fronted by a blank wall of darkened brickwork and an entry vestibule the size of a tennis-court. Inside, it's a cross between a luxurious monastery and an austere Scots-baronial hall. Severely whitewashed, it's furnished in dungeon chic: ancient mahogany cupboards, gloomy old paintings, huge, blackened grates bristling with firedogs and hung with chains. Three sofas form a grudging chill-out zone in the front hall. A noble severity looks down its nose at you, disapprovingly.

Well of course, you think, surveying this amazing place, this is just so me. Like Matthew Arnold, you feel as though you were meant to be here. Give it 24 hours, and the stone-flagged floors are strewn with snorkels, towels, magazines, cameras, tennis rackets, tubes of baby sunscreen, Wasp- Eez and Aloe Vera after-burn ointment.

Things take on a more human scale. The children are entranced by the warren of rooms - there's even an anchorite's cell, the size and shape of an economy Toblerone bar - and by the pool, the huge well in the garden and the villa cat that clambers intrepidly up the fir trees at night in search of tiny birds in their nests.

The adults, meanwhile, are entranced by a single image: a white plastic table and eight chairs overlooking the olive groves (with globe lamps and lights in the trees for later), where we dish up sliced tomatoes, taleggio cheese and prosciutto, and drizzle oil and chopped basil leaves over the salami and mozzarella, and crush nectarines and apricots and gorgeous, honeyed melon slices against our teeth, and drink far too much orvieto and pinot bianco; and it's a scene repeated day after day, because nobody can think of anything better than it.

There are, however, reminders for the smug British visitor, with his lordly pretensions and recently acquired knowledge of Fra Filippo Lippi, that this land is not his land, his gilded playground, after all.

One is the hornets, which tend to make nests in your wall. "Just one hornetto" sing the children, hopefully. Italian hornets are enormous, like wasps on steroids. They hang around your kitchen window, buzzing malevolently, the size of small helicopters, airborne samurai bristling with weapons. I understand that they can be killed with a mighty blow from an espadrille, but I couldn't swear I tried it.

Another is the terrible bread; real Tuscan bread is unsalted and invariably as hard as a ship's biscuit; you have to drive for miles to buy some focaccia in a supermercato.

A third is the experience of driving on Tuscan hills. As you flog your rented Opel Cavalier up gradients of one in three and worse, finding at the top of a virtually sheer incline that there's an even worse one hairpinning round to the right; when you've been in second gear for 20 minutes, then first gear for 10 minutes, and the wheels are slipping and sliding on the loose earth at the top of a mountain and the engine is groaning and straining like a behemoth in a torture chamber and you have no more gears to change into; when you're inching your way round a molto pericoloso unfenced corner on the outside edge of this Tuscan Matterhorn, swerving around just inches from a 900-ft drop to certain death on someone's terracotta roof, and a villager in a Fiat Panda passes you on the inside making hand-flapping "keep over" gestures - well, you have to concede that these mountainy chaps have learnt to be cool about their vertiginous backyard in a way you cannot share.

Even lordlings cannot lie in the pool all day, so you drive - to the walled town of San Gimignano with its 14 towers (all that are left of the 70 skyscrapers that led to its nickname "the medieval Manhattan") where you walk through the streets for hours, noting the high incidence of tourist-crap shops but also the gaggle of old ladies with nut-brown arms and pink cardigans who sit in chairs watching the visitors, as if scrutinising a rule-free spectator sport; you drive some way down the 50-mile Chianti trail from Florence to Siena on the SS.222 that takes in the main Chianti wine towns of Panzano, Greve and Castellina.

The towns are drenched in wine, with shops in every street, though you can also buy honey, lavender, cheese, oil and, in San Polo in Robbiano, irises, which are grown there in their millions. And, eventually, you drive to Florence.

Florence is a daunting place in summer, so monumental, so crowded, its artworks so full of deja vu, its colossal, perspective-baffling Duomo so ringed with queueing tourists, its outer roads so dismayingly wide, its central streets so crammed with shanty market stalls run by importunate Senegalese dudes selling fake Prada purses, that your reaction swings between claustrophobia and exasperation.

Florence doesn't feel as if it's ever going to be yours. It's not a place for solitary communion with Great Art. It's a place for the masses to consume in droves and herds. The same heaving crowd that stand admiring the twisty sublimity of Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women in the Piazza della Signoria can be found, five minutes later, watching a street artist draw a flattering likeness of a fat teenager from Laurel Canyon.

So many churches, so many shops, so much bijouterie, so much leather, such a population of statues and touch-it-for-luck monuments - basta! Your response is to find a quiet corner where you can ruminate in peace, such as the Piazza Santo Spirito on the south bank of the Arno.

In the square, where lots of trendy ragazzi are hanging out and talking urgently into mobile phones, you try the Caffe Ricchi, where they serve reviving portions of lasagne and fagioli salad. And there you find a perfect example of the creativity that Tuscany sometimes elicits from its visitors.

All over the walls of the back room are pictures of the Santo Spirito church which dominates the square - but the church itself has been transformed. Instead of its real-life blank and boring facade (by Brunelleschi) it's been given a makeover by a hundred artists, so that the facade now boasts fat human arms, a vast eye, a nave of disappearing pillars, a grove of trees and a jungle of writhing snakes.

Suddenly you feel close to the creative process, weighing up proportions and harmonies, seeing how it might have been possible to design this, to paint this, to imagine that.

Or else you find a little hideaway, when you're sick of being prodded by the fake-Prada salesmen or mugged by young girls. My best discovery was the perfume distillery in Via della Scala. Portentously entitled the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, it's a gorgeous place. The floor is a diamond pattern of marble flags; globe lamps illumine the vaulted ceiling; soft classical music plays somewhere beneath the curvy sofa - you could be in a high-class brothel.

But this is a holy place. It's where perfume has been made by Dominican monks since the 1220s. Where they made a special "Water for the Queen" for Catherine of Medici when she became Queen of France and the fragrance passed to Giovanni Feminis, who manufactured it and called it after his adopted German home town: eau de Cologne. Now they make 36 different eaux de Cologne, in the original workshop.

All over the shop, the perfumes are arrayed in retorts and glass jars, their colours synaesthetically full of aroma - whisky, lime, green chartreuse, grand marnier, straw-yellow burgundy. The bottles are labelled - essenza di muschio, estratto di violette, acqua di millefiori; but they offer curative potions too, especially Vinegar of the Seven Thieves, which is good for fainters.

And their own-brand Liquore Mediceo is attractively got up to resemble a bottle of Jack Daniels. Seven hundred years, you think, 700 years of monkish concentration went into this. If I rub it on my wrist, can I detect the reek of the cloister?

Private epiphanies over lunch; the smell of history in the afternoon. These things may not be in the brochure, but they're guaranteed in Tuscany. No wonder we can't keep our arty, inspiration-hunting, colonising hands off the place.

A week in a villa at Malmantile costs from pounds 1875-2985 and at le Bifore pounds 1525-2725 through Italian Chapters (0171-722 0722). The most convenient airport is Florence, but only Meridiana (0171-839 2222) flies there from the UK (twice-daily, from Gatwick). Pisa is a more popular gateway, with flights on Alitalia (0171-602 7111) and British Airways (0345 222111) from Gatwick, and on Ryanair (0541 569 569) from Stansted

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