I think of Italy in much the same way, and as often, as I think about sunshine, style, wine and sex. In fact, when I think about Italy, all these things blur into a delicious whole. And thinking about Italy means thinking about Tuscany. Here is a civilisation made of money which subsequently dedicated itself, with real commitment and impressive results, to beauty and pleasure. No wonder Tuscany has become an idyll.
Then, one day last week, I saw five German-registered motorhomes, as big as circus trailers, following each other down the little road from Montalcino to Buonconvento. And they were immediately followed by an Italian-registered Morgan. There was no other traffic, so the symbolism was acute. Visitors in search of benediction: the Germans in pursuit of cultivated delights not available in Osnabruck; the Italian attaching a bit of Anglophiliac social promotion to countryside that is a beautified farmyard. But can the Tuscan idyll survive an autumnal audit?
There are several versions of Tuscany. First, glorious and gloomy Florence in the north. The ultimate in urbanity, it has been estimated that in the late 19th century about a quarter of the city's entire population was English, taking tea behind nets through pursed lips. There is the flat, coastal Maremma with its cattle. Or the primped, self-conscious and too nearly perfect Chianti towns. I was in the Val d'Orcia, the southern part of Tuscany which bumps into Lazio and Umbria.
In mid-winter the weather in this part of Italy can be difficult. The houses and settlements are mostly on high ground: Montalcino, home of the magnificent Brunello wines, is, for example, nearly 600 metres above sea level. It snows and gets cold, but October can be summery, if unpredictably so. One day it was 26C, so we ate outside in shorts and short sleeves. The black shadows of the cypresses made dramatic patterns on scorched grass, but then, with a disturbing suddenness, a violent squall blew up. Our parasol was torn out of its base and crashed into me and my plate of fritto Toscano. "There is," our Florentine friend explained, "a lot of energy in the atmosphere." And, as soon as it appeared, the squall disappeared and the hot sunshine returned. This dramatic weather was a reminder that, highly cultivated as Tuscany might be, it's still influenced by elemental forces that frightened the Etruscans.
The Val d'Orcia is tougher and more spare than the refined north. It is less green; the landscape can be bleakly forbidding and the Crete Senesi (the "Sienese clay" hills) often described as lunar, but then again it can also be heartbreakingly beautiful. The earth is difficult white clay, yet produces fragrant white truffles. It's an official "natural park", and an encounter with a grumpy cinghiale (wild boar) is an everyday possibility. If you have seen photographs of a lonely oak silhouetted against gently rolling, parched hillsides, or car ads with swooping tracking shots up sinuous cypress-lined tracks leading to an austerely handsome villa... they were taken here.
What we have in the Val d'Orcia is the beginning of an invented and carefully managed landscape. The area was settled in the 14th and 15th centuries by the Sienese, who built its farms. A Pope created the whole town of Pienza as an "ideal city" project. Dramatic fortresses such as the Rocca in Radicofani were built at the highest points to defend prosperous farms from marauding bandits. Fields were enclosed. In every direction is the sense of design. The picture is admirably illustrated in Ambrogio Lorenzetti's allegorical frescos about good and bad government in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico. Life following art or art following life? It's always a close call in these parts.
And in the Val d'Orcia you find the historical source of the Tuscan idyll: La Foce. This 15th-century hostel in 3,000 acres of scrub-oak was discovered by the Anglo-American writer Iris Origo one similarly stormy October day in 1923. She described a storm, similar to ours, which passed through the "alien and inhuman landscape".
"It is a wide valley but in those days offered no green welcome, nor promise of fertile fields," she said. Nor was La Foce exactly "the beautiful villa I hoped for". Instead, it was a gloomy place with unwaxed brick floors, Victorian coloured glass in the windows and shabby pitch-pine woodwork. Plumbing, electricity and phone lines were not present, but ancient ghosts, renaissance, even Etruscan, were. So Origo set about making improvements.
From Florence, she imported the architect and garden-designer Cecil Pinsent who had worked for Bernard Berenson at the notorious Villa I Tatti. Pinsent remodelled the house and created a superb formal garden with box hedges, lemon trees and lavender. You can debate whether it was sensitive restoration or inspired invention, but to the standard of managed perfection achieved at La Foce, every subsequent Tuscan rental villa, every art-directed magazine shoot, has aspired.
What do you do in this strange and isolated, but beautiful, part of the world in autumn? You walk the white roads and travel the paths that Romans knew. There is truffle hunting, the early morning search for the elusive and fragrant fungus. This grubby and futile activity briefly connects the curious urban visitor with the rhythms of pagan life. Great Tuscan art and architecture is mostly to the north, but you have the abbey at Monte Oliveto Maggiore with its magnificent refettorio that's worth a detour. And in Montepulciano you find Sangallo's church of San Biagio, a sketch for St Peter's in Rome.
There are restaurants, although not many remarkable ones. I was musing on this over lunch in the salone of La Foce, a lucky guest of Iris Origo's elegant daughter, Benedetta Isidori. We ate a bollito of beef fillet with a salsa verde so moreish, it served as a vegetable course in its own right. Of course, there was a Vino Nobile to drink. Drinking it, I pondered how this entire area is really one vast, historic exercise in imaginative design.
First, the Sienese created an epochal landscape from unpromising stuff. Then the Anglo-American circle of Origo socialised it. Now, as golf courses appear where Guelphs and Ghibellines once scrapped, interior designers are laying claim to ownership of entire territories and their real estate prospects. Only on leaving the Val d'Orcia travelling south to Rome do you appreciate the area's beauty and how artificial it is. Down the Autostrada del Sole, things deteriorate much faster than the traffic. The Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport is a worse shock. Cruel, perhaps, that the most famous Tuscan of them all should be associated with all that's gross and repulsive in modern life.
But in this paradox is the essence of the Tuscan idyll and all the perplexing, but beguiling, contradictions it contains. And the heart of the Tuscan idyll is the Val d'Orcia: isolated, contrived, re-invented and nowadays very expensive, it is surely the most beautiful place on earth. Certainly, the best designed.
Val d’Orcia can be reached from Perugia on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com); Pisa on British Airways (0844 493 0787 ba.com), Ryanair, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com); Florence on Meridiana (0871 423 3711; meridiana.it) and CityJet (0871 66 33 777; cityjet.com); or Rome, on a wide variety of airlines.
Staying there and visiting there
La Foce’s gardens (00 39 057 869 101; lafoce.com) are open every Wednesday throughout the year. Villas on the estate are available, with prices starting at €550 (£435) per week. Double rooms at La Foce’s B&B start at €120 per night.
Italian State Tourist Office: 020-7408 1254; italiantouristboard.co.uk
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