Tuscany is one of the few places on earth where the brochures don’t look as nice as the actual scenery. Barbados is another. The Crane mansion overlooking the beach in Barbados is fabled to be a piece of heaven that fell to earth.
Tuscany is the other piece.
The weather turned windy and cool for our first night, which only added to the ambiance of the majestic villa we had rented. After all, why have a fireplace of you can’t have a glass of wine and snuggle up in front of it.
Well, one reason might be that the smoke blows back into the house when you go to start the fire if it’s windy out. Alberto didn’t tell us that.
After he met us at the train station (he even stood there holding a little sign with our name on it) he graciously offered to drive us to his villa in the hills of Tuscany. It was just a few miles outside of Florence, where he maintained his banking offices.
I didn’t know Italian customs, but it seemed to me a nice opening gesture, and a terrific way to meet and chat before we had to sit down and do business. Sam and Mattie had done well. Together, they looked at who I’d be meeting with, asked about good places to stay – owned by locals of course – and lo and behold; Albert the banker owned a rental villa.
And what a villa it was. It was even prettier than the pictures Sam sent me. It sat high on a hillside, and every way you looked was a picture perfect photo. To the east was an ancient walled city with five towers rising up from the plaster facades of the buildings. Bell towers, they played their tunes with reverence every hour until dark. To the north and south were other hills with other villas, each nicer than the next, the olive trees and rows of grapes made each one its own little paradise. And though they looked relatively close, they were all miles and miles away from each other.
I have never fallen in love with a place as fast as I did the watercolor-painted vistas of Tuscany. A piece of my heart was instantly drawn to it. I felt a connection, like sailors say about the sea, something unmeasurable and unique, but very much like home. To stand atop on one hill and gaze out over the valley to the next one, breathing in the clean, crisp air, was simply mesmerizing. I could have done it all day and been completely happy doing nothing else. It was refreshing in my soul.
My favorite part was the place on the estate that they had not yet restored. Out the side gate was a small, makeshift parking area by the dirt road that divided the villa from a large barn-looking structure. The old building was made of stone and stucco, and had been boarded up for a long time, but it stood there, alone on the Tuscan hillside, watching over the vineyards below, quietly and slowly decaying. It was easily five hundred years old – everything in Tuscany is five hundred years old. Hell, they consider a house as “new” until it’s three hundred years old.
But this was not new, not by a long shot. I walked up to it the first afternoon, just before dark, as the breeze picked up and put a chill in the air. The grass around it was tall, almost knee high in places, and one of the boarded windows banged open and shut with every cold gust of wind. It appeared almost haunted in that light, but it was a friendly old porch dog, and steady as a trail horse.
Neglected, abused and abandoned, it still stood, solid and still, calm against the wind, proof of what it had been and what it could be again. It was two stories tall, with tiny windows and massive doorways, like some kind of prop for a movie. The roof was sparse and the wooden doors and window covers had been patched and replaced so many times that none of them matched, and what was there was faded and rotting. Through a hole in a shutter I could see the large rustic rafters stretching across the roof, creating the ceiling of its grand dining hall or its welcoming ballroom. It might house farm equipment for the groundskeeper now, or maybe even become a hay barn, but with some love it could become a beautiful palace once again.
Looking at the two buildings side by side, as the winds kicked up dust from the dirt road that separated them, it was a study in contrasts. Old versus new, abandoned versus inhabited, unloved versus loved. Our villa had a manicured lawn and a long row of Italian cypress trees lining its driveway, but once upon a time it had looked like its dilapidated brother next door. And restoring a house such as this is a major act of love, make no mistake. It takes time and effort and it’s a lot of trouble. I remodeled our house once and it damn near killed me; I can’t imagine what efforts the folks who redid this had to go through. But maybe they had a better contractor than I did.
I loved just looking at the old building and dreaming of what it had been, and what it could be again one day. Who knows, maybe we would come back and stay in it some time.
Every time we walked out the side gate to go somewhere in our car, the five hundred year old structure greeted me, and every evening when we returned, it was there to welcome us home. It didn’t need lights or satellite TV or beds. It was just there, being itself, waiting for the day it would once again be properly loved.
It didn’t know I loved it already.