Wednesday, 4 September 2013


Tuscany... even the word is a kind of dreamy homophone for ‘dusk and honey’ – and honey is near enough a decent simile for the light too. There’s something about the way the sun meets the earth there that lets you see ‘the shape of the day', as our wonderful host Claudia put it. But the light… it's the light that my Aunt had told me she couldn’t describe, and here I am, not describing it for her…

But first, Rome…

On my previous trip to Rome, the tour guide delighted in telling us that we’d arrived on the rainiest weekend for fifty years.  Everything was sticky and grey, and even the Trevi Fountain couldn’t make itself heard above the torrent. There was a certain romance watching rain douse the sides of the Colosseum but mostly it was a false start for me and Rome.

This time though, the sun is out, and twenty four hours of hot Roman holiday await. Katie and Eddie meet me off the train, already looking like accomplished locals, all shiny and brunette. We are borrowing a beautiful apartment for the night which is stuffed with Proust in Italian translation and shelves of orchestral vinyl. Our street is just by the Michelangelo-designed Porta Pia, a sixteenth-century gate in the city walls that was commissioned by Pius IV. It is a very important gate in Rome because it leads you to the street where you encounter the best ice cream of your life. For me this was mascarpone and latte in one scoop, pistachio in the other, a topping of freshly whipped and sweetened cream that tasted of nougat, and all presented in a crisp, waffle-textured cone that was filled to halfway with warm, melted dark chocolate.

The Trevi at dusk works its magic this time, though the mass of people make it feel like the entrance to a particularly lovely stop on the Metropolitana. Al fresco pizza, red wine and an early night. We’re up bright and early to beat the crowds to the Colosseum. You have to imagine the roar of the throng as you walk through the stone entrance. Inside is both partially constructed and pleasingly derelict. The audio guide is a good way to go about things, especially if you’re adept at reading between the lines…

The history of the Colosseum is also the story of the Empire itself. Current affairs were acted out in the amphitheatre like dramatised newscasts. When a whale beached up on the coast, a wooden whale was hastily built to be paraded around the stage. Before the astonished crowds it opened its mouth and out tumbled dozens of live bears. The subsequent fortunes of the Colosseum mirrored the changing Rome and all manner of bloodshed and worship, theatrics and morality plays,  squatters and gay cruisers (not on the audio guide), found a home inside its walls over the centuries. Preservation and audio guides seem a tame future in comparison.

On the train to Arezzo I start reading A Room With A View. It’s my first (and so far only) Forster, downloaded in a hurry to the Kindle, but it could not have been better chosen. Almost immediately the sensation of being in this part of Italy is there on the page (or rather, on the screen). From the station we drive through lush country and into the hills that border Tuscany and the oddly English-sounding Umbria. The first view of the house is a thrill and I’m already drafting some or other novel about an impossibly spoiled girl and her Italian summer of self-discovery.

In the morning I open the shutters to a fug of lavender and a little hornet bouncing off the window. His buzz gives way to a guitar being tuned somewhere which mingles with the hum of farm machinery from across the valley. Everything is like this – musical and hypnotic. It’s hard to remember ever being tetchy and cross back home. I am very lucky to be here.

Forster fever peaks on a day trip to Florence. We pass the ‘View’ of the title and the probable location of the pensione. I have already learned that our hosts and friends once stayed in the room in Paris where Forster worked on the novel.  Not only that but they are also a family from Tunbridge Wells, as in the novel, though infinitely less prickly of course. The tourists move in packs of forty and fifty through Florence, it is a difficult town to negotiate, but there is more ice cream and coffee to be had, and all the greatest Italians are in the ground somewhere and in the atmosphere.

On my morning run next day I meet a deer that rattles its antlers on the tree when it sees me. When I dive into the pool back at the house to cool off, there is a tiny frog doing lengths. I write the first draft of this piece on the terrace at the back of the house, looking down past the swimming pool and over the fields to the town of Montherci. There is a very precise little lizard poised inside my discarded sandal and the cicada that lives in the tree above has started its mechanical chirrup for the evening. When it goes dark we can see a firefly in the foliage, lonesome and hovering. It is the same colour as Venus, the brightest thing in the sky.

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