Germaine Greer: Blame the English, blame the frost, but Tuscany is so over

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The Independent Online

Thirty years ago I went to Tuscany, to the very town where Frances Mayes, author of the bestselling Under the Tuscan Sun - released last week as a film - fetched up to live the good, the sybaritic life. I'd endured the best and worst that England had to offer (and failed to figure out which was which) and I wanted the opposite of sensory deprivation. I wanted velvet nights spangled with fireflies, dazzling days among fields of mixed grain deep in shady vines and the steely shimmer of olive groves, nightingales flitting from tree to tree by night and turtle doves cooing on the tiles by day.

Thirty years ago I went to Tuscany, to the very town where Frances Mayes, author of the bestselling Under the Tuscan Sun - released last week as a film - fetched up to live the good, the sybaritic life. I'd endured the best and worst that England had to offer (and failed to figure out which was which) and I wanted the opposite of sensory deprivation. I wanted velvet nights spangled with fireflies, dazzling days among fields of mixed grain deep in shady vines and the steely shimmer of olive groves, nightingales flitting from tree to tree by night and turtle doves cooing on the tiles by day.

I arrived after dark and went to bed by candlelight. At dawn, woken by a torrent of birdsong I staggered out on to the ballatoio (a bird's perch or more literally, the porch) into a mother-of-pearl morning. The ugly little house on the terraced hillside below the Cortona panorama swam in a huge gulf of crystalline air; the narrow terraces were a riot of blue-green wheatstalks, blood-red poppies and ultramarine cornflowers. Out of sight larks carolled; navy-blue swallows hurled past me with a singing of wings. In my travels in Italy I had seen such fields and dreamed of straying amid them drunk with dew, and here I was.

Below me the huge bestie bianche picked their way delicately along the fields, drawing the plough. Above me Marietta guernava le razze - which is to say, cared for her rabbits and hens and her pig. Marietta was famous for her defeatism; asked how many piglets her sow had farrowed she would say with a sigh: "Uno morto." Those of us in the know would say: "Poi?", meaning "And then?" and Marietta would say reluctantly, "Quindici vivi" (Fifteen living). Poor Marietta; she was eventually diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Disaster was her metier; when it struck she blossomed into the tragedy queen she was always meant to be.

A year or two later I bought a prettier little house in the Montanare di Cortona, between the medieval town and the border of Umbria. I loved that house so much that I have been able to survive the loss of it only by sternly forbidding myself to think about it, let alone write about it. But then it was lost long before I sold it. And that will remain for me the mystery of the sudden mad vogue for Tuscany.

What made Tuscany (and Provence for that matter) special, is over. The terraced fields are collapsing, brambles choke the woods. The beehives are empty, the dovecotes too. Frost killed many of the olives and the shortage of labour means that the rest are in the process of being grubbed out. Tourism is replacing subsistence agriculture and the man-made landscape that was its collective artwork. No apple-cheeked contadina will pass you driving her pig to graze on the chestnuts or acorns; her mother will not take you far into the woods looking for porcini or show you how to fire the big bread oven or collect the first green salads of spring.

If the huntsmen still come through the woods it is not stealthily like Don Cetullio, who used to whip off his surplice and leg it to the woods after morning mass, but in four-wheel-drives that they park on your piazze. In the absence of good sport they may shoot all the doves in your cote and carry off your chickens to boot.

When I came to the Cortonese, it was enough if you scrubbed your hands and face and put on a clean dress before going to the pizzeria; now the car park is full of the latest models, and the daughters of the contadini are made up to the nines, dressed in designer gear, their nails manicured and lacquered, their hair dyed, jelled and waxed.

There are no contadini now; everyone is the Italian version of BCBG (bon chic, bon genre). The hillsides are deserted except for the foreigners. The grand simplicity of the case coloniche has been compromised by colonnades and arcades, stabling, tennis courts and swimming pools, hedging and landscaping, so that those hardworking old houses all look like resorts.

I remember them when they were full of humanity. I remember Annunziata who was not made as other women and was told that unless surgeons removed her extra bit she would never have children. And she said: "As God made me, so shall I remain," accepting her intersexuality with complete calm.

I remember the brothers who all loved the same woman, who loved none of them, and all jumped in the well in the cortile of their farmhouse, one after the other. I remember Lisa who told me "Basilico é geloso; muore subito". Literally that says: "Basil is jealous; it dies at once"; figuratively it means that the herb was fearful and easily disheartened. I remember the stories they told of the Nazi occupation and the tragedy of the betrayal of the partisans at Pergo. I remember the simple dishes they taught me to make, coniglio in umido, zucca ripiena, insalata di pane, pappa al pomodoro, sanguinaccio. I still judge olive oil by their criteria and still blaspheme in cortonese schietto.

It was over long before I decided to go. Tourism and the European Union together destroyed the way of life which was for me the beauty of the Valdichiana. The cost of living rose as the way of life decayed, and somewhere along the line the fun went out of it; the graciousness, the sheer happiness and the passion ebbed away. I'm glad I was there then, but I'm not sorry I'm not there now.

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