Tuscany and Me

When I go to my friend Mary’s house for my annual visit, we often rent movies for our evenings. Both of us like to get up early and retire early, and we’re generally too lazy to go out after a long day of gardening, biking, hiking, beaching, shopping, and eating. (We try to cover all these bases every day, especially the eating.) Often Mary has a list of chores drawn up specially for my arrival, so those must be covered too. Last summer, lots of painting was involved.

I think Mary likes me to help get her started with things, as I appear intrepid about enterprises like painting. It’s easy to be fearless about painting someone else’s stuff. Last year we’d started my visit with a trip to Joshua Tree National Forest, because I had it in my mind that the desert would be a great place to view the Perseids. So when Mary announced that we must paint her Adirondack chairs, I thought, why not commemorate that great excursion?

As you can see from this little slice of her back yard, Mary is a proudly Unruly Gardener as well, although let’s face it: when you live in LA, you can throw a sandwich out the window and wake up the next morning with a peanut butter and jelly tree. Which is not to say that Mary doesn’t know her way around gardening. She does. She even worked as a professional gardener for a while years ago, until the skin on her hands went on strike. I’ve said it before: I learned to love gardening from her.

Mary has to be very careful about what she plants. A couple of years ago these geraniums made access to the garage very difficult. Last year a volunteer tomato plant blocked the door completely (but provided us with a bounty of deliciousness).

I envy things you can grow in a So Cal yard that I can’t have in a Cen Tex yard.

Bougainvillea. Bougainvillea everywhere. Purple, like Mary’s grand one that covers the alley fence. Pale orange, dark orange. Deep red (my personal favorite). To cover fences, trellises, walls, rooftops, cliffsides. Who cares that it is a treacherously thorn-wielding nutcase? Lots of beautiful things are difficult!

The Bird of Paradise was one of the first exotic things I ever loved about the southern California landscape, and I still love it. Never mind that this one very nearly made it through the corner of the house and into the living room, on an apparent mission to peck poor Mary to death in her sleep. “Invasive” is one of my favorite plant characteristics: if a plant wants to take over the world, what’s wrong with that? People haven’t done such a great job, after all.

[Pretend there is a scratch-and-sniff photograph
of night-blooming jasmine here.]
No photograph can do even remote justice to the unspeakable magic of night-blooming jasmine. It’s just an unassuming shrub with little flowers that wait until evening to fill the air with the most intoxicating, romantic, unforgettable scent ever. If you have never experienced it, go buy yourself a ticket to some place that has night-blooming jasmine. Now.
One of the great things in Mary’s back yard is her fig tree – decades old, grafted with old stock, and always heavy with figs when I make my August visit. Unfortunately, my vacation falls each year just before the figs explode into ripeness. However, that good tree almost always pushes a few ripe figs in my direction every day I’m there, even if it is early; and I sure do wish you could smell and taste one of those.

When our chores and playtimes are over, we are ready to do a whole lot of nothing for a couple of hours. Since Mary is a truly excellent cook, dining at her house is always better than eating out. So we stay home with wine and chocolate, and watch movies.

Sometimes we’ll be on Jane Austen kick, and watch as many dramatizations of her novels as we can lay our hands on, throwing in “The Jane Austen Book Club” for good measure. Sometimes we’ll have a foreign-film binge. Then there are the years when we need an infusion of Independent Women movies – this must be how “Under the Tuscan Sun” showed up.

Generally I try to avoid even fictional representations of What People Can Do With Significant Infusions of Cash, because as you have seen, I am prone to envy; and when you pair that with a tendency toward gluttony, it only leaves you five more cardinal sins for getting through the whole rest of the day. But Diane Lane rocked that fluffy movie for Mary and me, and we must confess to having watched it more than once.

(Mi dispiace. I must interrupt myself here to mention a book recommended to me by a friend when she found out I was about to make my first trip to Italy: Lisa St. Aubin de Teran’s A Valley in Italy. Just looking at this woman’s name should have prepared me for lines like, “The small castle in England from my previous marriage had been sold…” This sort of thing would ordinarily give me a case of the hives as bad as authors who insist upon using foreign phrases in their writings; but somehow St. A de T manages to portray her life with sufficient irony and self-deprecation for me to like her even if she did buy a villa in Tuscany with funds from having sold a castle.)

Sigh. Even if I can’t buy a place in Tuscany, I can at least visit one or two, and our travel agent picked us some marvels.

At the culmination of our epic bike ride from Siena, we stayed a few days at this little hilltop hotel oozing rustic charm and quintessentially Tuscan views from every spot on the grounds.

That’s our room in the top right corner. That window is the bathroom window, actually, from which one had to tolerate views like this:
That brown expanse is just another plowed field, ready to produce something great to eat. This hotel also has an agricultural component, producing grains like faro and oil from their own olives (who doesn’t?).

I’m not the only one here who finds lichen charming, am I?  (It must go back to my Irish side of the family.) But those views! The brief storm that heralded our arrival produced a beautiful next morning:

All that mist cleared quickly and the remainder of our visit saw sheer halcyon weather:

So many places to sit and listen to the birds, read a book, watch the clouds shift.

The swimming pool would have been my favorite place to be, but it was mid-May and quite cool to our Texas sensibilities. As far as I could discern, the only guests who went swimming while we were in residence had strong Scandinavian accents.

To be completely honest, this photo with the poppies in the foreground wasn’t taken while sitting around at the hotel. I took it while we were on a short bike tour of the less hilly roads in the general area. Over on the left, where you can’t see, there was a herd of goats being monitored by a senior white dog who came up to the road to bark at us as we rode by. It’s that kind of place.

It seems Italian hotel rates include breakfast (which in turn includes lots of desserts). The breakfast room at our little Tuscan retreat gave me insight into why people come back from a place like this and redecorate their kitchens.

Left to my own devices I would have spent my days doing absolutely nothing more strenuous than turning pages and taking pictures. However, fortunately Floyd was able to talk me into riding down to Buonconvento, which he’d checked out while looking for a bank to help him solve the lost debit card problem. At first I resisted, for reasons that should be obvious.

But there’s no avoiding the reality that Floyd always has the best ideas.

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