HE WORE a Union Jack T-shirt, tight denim jeans and Doc Martens. Not the usual Tuscany uniform. He lifted the lager to his lips and his tattoos came into view. I could just make out the words 'Mad Dog'. In English.

Had one of England's finest strayed a long way from his natural holiday habitat? No. He turned out to be Italian and not half as fierce as he perhaps imagined. The gold-rimmed spectacles rather undermined the skinhead image. So did his habit of giving an avuncular pat to the head of a small child who stopped to chat.

All the same, he looked an incongruous figure sitting outside a cafe in the narrow main street of Castagneto Carducci, one of those impossibly beautiful Tuscan towns clinging to a hillside of pines, olive groves and vineyards.

The poet Carducci apparently sought inspiration by wandering down a nearby avenue of cypresses which seems to go on for miles. His stern stone head glowers from its plinth positioned at the top of the street, just below the church spire.

As it chimed six, the butcher emerged from his shop across the road from the cafe, mopped his brow with a huge white handkerchief and moved his bench into the shade. Nearby, outside a florist's with very few flowers, sat three women who had long passed the first bloom of youth. All wore low-cut black dresses with gold belts and matching backless shoes.

The one in the middle, with the heavily made-up eyes and the ponytail, was a magnet for middle- aged men who stopped by to flirt. One kept leaning forward to dangle his medallion in front of her like a hypnotist.

She smoked incessantly. Indeed, she was still smoking when we saw her again, standing statuesque on the edge of the town square in the warm and velvety darkness of an August evening during the festival of Castagneto.

The square was packed with townspeople of all ages. We seemed to be the only outsiders, but we managed to squeeze on to the last row of wooden benches laid out in front of the stage.

Tonight's frenzied entertainment was vaguely reminiscent of Crackerjack, except the competitors were older. Most were in their teens or early twenties. At one point, couples had to dance around the stage in an elaborate version of musical chairs. The winners turned out to be the ones best able to push others out of the way.

The female half of this dynamic duo was revelling in the limelight. Just before taking part in the tug- of-war, she dramatically ripped off her blouse and tossed it away. There was a sharp intake of breath from the grizzled old man beside me who was obviously unaware that she was wearing a flesh-coloured sweater beneath it.

After another half-hour or so, we felt we'd had our fill of this kind of entertainment and slipped back to our base at Camping le Pianacce. It was only a mile or two away and quite walkable, but we lazily took the car. The campsite was giving us quite enough exercise.

The Italians subtitle this site 'Camping Climatico'. In other words, it is high and steep. Very steep. And our emplacement was on a ledge almost at the summit. Cars were allowed on to the site only to load and unload. For the rest of the time, you were expected to leave your vehicle in the car park and walk or, in our case, climb. There were times when I began to wonder whether we might have been better off renting an oxygen tent.

Instead we had an already- erected Canvas Holidays tent with self-contained bedrooms, electric lights, fridge, crockery and cutlery. This is not camping for Boy Scouts. But you still wonder why we all do it.

We abandon comfortable homes with fitted kitchens and burglar alarms to spend a fortnight in comparatively cramped conditions with little privacy, few gadgets and no security against theft.

All I can say is that in 10 years of camping in Europe, we have had nothing stolen from a tent. Nor have we met anyone who has, and we have met a lot of people over the years. This is a particularly sociable form of holiday.

Yobs are thin on the ground, almost non-existent, and children can roam in comparative safety. Noise can be a problem, but not at Camping le Pianacce. According to the brochure, we would be 'surrounded by the sound and smells of nature'.

There were certainly plenty of trees, which not only provided a heady scent but also good shade in the heat of the day. Crickets chirped incessantly and a cockerel crowed at any time of the day or night. Then there were the mice.

Every tent had its contingent. 'They're really quite sweet,' one of our neighbours informed us soon after arrival. My wife and daughters looked unconvinced. I told them their fears were completely illogical, that fieldmice were part of camping, that they were more frightened of us than we were of them. I even quoted Rabbie Burns on the subject. They still looked unconvinced.

The mouse count seemed to drop with altitude. They ceased to be a problem after I managed to get us moved to a pitch nearer ground level. We were also much closer to the shop as well as the swimming pool and adjoining restaurant, the twin jewels of the site.

Good robust Italian food was served on a terrace overlooking the pool. Dinner for the five of us cost about pounds 50. But Tuscany is not cheap. We soon got into the habit of making drinks last as long as possible. Ice-creams were at least pounds 1, but worth every penny. Petrol is particularly expensive and the return ferry fare for us to go to the isle of Elba set me back around pounds 70. What is more, Napoleon's house turned out to be closed by the time we got there.

Rail travel was much better value. To get to Florence, well over two hours away by road, cost just pounds 10 return. Children of 10 and under travel half-price.

I went with my youngest daughter, who insisted that I part with another fiver for the privilege of climbing 468 steps to the top of the cathedral. At every step the walls were smothered in graffiti, even those parts carrying notices in several languages asking visitors not to write on the wall. 'Elvis vive' I spotted at one point.

The view from the top of Brunelleschi's magnificent dome made the climb worthwhile, but Florence in August is not a place for the faint-hearted.

Nor is Siena on the day of the Palio, the famous horse race around the square which has been going on since at least 1310. I was glad I went alone, without having to worry about the sensibilities of daughters who love horses as much as they hate mice.

Siena looked deceptively close on the map, but the drive was long and arduous over winding mountain roads. I waited four hours in the heat of the Piazza del Campo for a race that was over in less than 90 seconds. Even then I could see only the striped caps of the riders for most of the circuit. Was it worth it?

Indeed it was. Never have I experienced a scene of such stunning colour and operatic intensity.

On the way back to the car, I had to pass through the narrow streets of the 'contrade' whose jockey had come second. Crowds were gathered outside the television shop, tearfully watching interminable action replays. Grown men wept copiously and clutched each other for support. Others sat in doorways staring into space or burying their heads in their hands.

The Palio is violent, cruel, dangerous and completely irrational. But it is not some piece of theme- park pageantry put on for the benefit of the tourists. Local rivalries burn as intensely at the end of the 20th century as they did at the beginning of the 14th. And for an outsider lucky enough to be there, the spectacle is deeply etched into the memory.

Getting there: We travelled at the most expensive time of year, flying from Stansted to Florence and hiring a car. Flights for five came to pounds 1,447, hire of a Volkswagen Golf pounds 363 for 14 days. To rent the tent for a fortnight was pounds 626 for us, but pounds 530 for two adults with two small children. Motorail would not have been much cheaper. Had we chosen a short ferry crossing, two overnight stops and 10 days at Castagneto, the total would have been pounds 900. Book a tent for next year at this year's prices before 31 October.

Campsite facilities: Shop, restaurant, swimming pool, tennis courts, children's playground. Washing machines are available. Showers are hot (most of the time). Further information: Canvas Holidays (0383 621000).

(Photograph omitted)

Comments