I’m out in the garden by seven, after the scorching heat of the day. I’m bending over some weeds in the bee and butterfly garden when I hear the horses in the next valley start to whinny. Suddenly there is a huge clap of thunder, and lightning streaks across the sky. It is in the far hills over Lamole way and I doubt that it will get here, but I put the umbrellas down and tie them fast anyway.
More lightning and another clap of thunder. The dogs up at Sala start to bark. I glance up, puzzled. Sala is on the opposite side to the horses. The storm seems to be closing in, surrounding us. One or two huge raindrops land on my feet and the wind picks up in gusts. I go inside, start closing the windows downstairs.
Then all hell lets loose: the wind careers up the valley like a mad thing, and it looks as if a mean hungry dog has got hold of the olive trees in its teeth and is shaking them to bits. As I bolt the arched window in the sitting room closed I see a particular vicious gust trying to split our cypress in two.
I shoot upstairs to close my bedroom windows. The outer gauze netting is shut and there’s a cacophony of sound and a constant hammering as if a flock of woodpeckers are chopping down a tree. It’s the little swallows: about 20 of them are hammering and shrieking at the gauze. They’re wet and are being wind-battered. I go up to the window and tiny black eyes look back at me, unafraid.
‘Please please please let us in’ they are saying. ‘Sorry girls’ I say and shut the window. Still they don’t go away, but huddle into the sill seeking as best protection as they can get.
Downstairs the roof over the dining room and lounge has turned into a sieve. Rivulets of water are running down the connecting house wall, and more is flowing onto the floor. I fetch buckets and basins and place them in strategic places. Plop plop, it’s a different cacophony of sound: a concerto della tempesta. There’s more water running in through the front door and I fetch a bucket and start mopping.
Then it is all over. The sun comes out and a light drizzle lingers momentarily. I go outside: the upper terrace umbrella has been blown flat, and the swimming pool chairs have gone off down the garden for a stroll. Somehow the olives are still on the trees. Everything is glistening green and smells wonderful. From both sides of the big old house the neighbours come out.
‘Fantastico,’ chorus the two ancients, Cosimo and Enzio … ‘Both streams are running!’ Leila and Marzia wave their hands in the air. They smile at one another. ‘Una nuova parola per lei!’ … a new word for you. They are pointing to an enormous rainbow that seems to be holding the gleaming Tuscan vineyards and olive groves in a cupped hand. I gaze transfixed. The colours of the land and the sky seem to be bouncing back and forth off each other, just for the sheer joy of it.
‘ARCOBALENO! … Ora non dimenticar!’ Rainbow! … Now don’t you forget it!
London in Summer. Bright flowers in hanging baskets contrast magnificently with the old black street lamps on which they are so carefully placed. London’s parks, or ‘green lungs’ are ablaze with colour, and small gardens compete with one another for ‘best show.’ So it comes as no surprise to learn that London’s ‘city bees’ are said to produce more honey than anywhere else in the UK.
In the springtime, when we packed up our apiary in the grounds of a north London school, our bee hives were moved to whoever would take them. I took my two hives to my friend called Jars (yes, she sells honey jars). Jars has a double allotment plot in Highgate. To a South African these allotments seem really strange. Although the history of allotments goes way back, they really came into their own during World War 2, when they were part of a huge push to feed a starving and desperate city. Today they still serve a wonderful purpose – for in a city of about 9 million people you desperately need tranquil places of refuge. Jars had given me a key, and once through those huge wrought iron gates, well, another world awaits.
Jars and I had been digging over her potatoes. Once finished we moved towards the end of her allotment, where the apple trees are, and where a neat row of hives stood. My two hives were at the end. ‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘thank you again for taking in my refugees.’ ‘That’s a pleasure,’ she smiled, ‘after all, there’s plenty around for them to forage. You can keep them here as long as you like. Come to think of it … what are your plans for them?’
So I told her. I told her all about my dream that had so nearly come true. I told her how quite by chance we had stumbled on a small piece of paradise deep down a Tuscan valley. I told her how, at the last minute, the owner had felt honour bound to sell to a buyer that a local agent had found. ‘And apart from everything else,’ I said, ‘I really wanted to keep my bees there. I wanted to have a small apiary – just like yours, and I am still somehow rather stupidly holding onto that dream.’
We stood at the entrance to her hives, watching the bees fly in and out. Now bees do not like horses, or perfume, or watches, or mobile phones. And normally in this peaceful place I have my phone turned off. This time I had forgotten – and it rang.
‘Well ….’ said a familiar deep voice. ‘Do you still want a small place in Italy?’
Only one word came out of me. ‘Repeat?’
‘Jurgen has just phoned me from Pisa Airport’ said Liam. ‘He arrived in Greve three days ago, and was kept waiting until 9.30 last night before he even saw the sale contract, and he is not a happy chap. It appears that things were more complicated than he thought. The buyers are an extended family … grandparents, their daughters’ family with one young grand-daughter, and an older grand-daughter with a partner. As is common in large extended Italian families they wish to remain close and so they want to divide Jurgen’s house into three separate dwelling units. So they are applying for three separate mortgages … hence the delays.’
‘I could understand their difficulty with the different mortgages’ Jurgen had told Liam, ‘but when I heard that my lovely home was to be split into three – that finally made me come to a decision. The deal is off and if you would like it, then the house is yours.’
Three days later we flew to Pisa, having arranged to meet Jurgen at the Ristoro di Lamole. Once more we were sitting on the terrace watching the fading light dance through row of cypress trees. ‘Look, there he is Liam! ‘I said as the old car we had seen under the canvas came into view. Jurgen hopped out, a dapper man full of pent-up energy, and clearly one who likes to be in control. ‘This is going to be interesting,’ I thought, as Liam clearly likes to be in control as well. However our first meeting got off to a good start and as we headed back to our agriturismo (B&B) we felt pretty pleased.
We had found an agriturismo close to Greve, in the little hamlet of Lamole. It was called Poggio all’Olmo, and had wonderful views and a beautiful swimming pool. After an early morning swim we sat around the pool wondering if the sale would go smoothly. Already there had been some worrying glitches … for although the original agent had accepted that his deal was off and was happy to still receive some commission, the notare had proved tricky. First he had protested strongly that he would rather deal with the Italian buyers. Then, when he realised that Jurgen was not going to retract his decision, he had announced that he could not deal with foreign buyers as he does not speak English … and neither would he be able to find an English speaking notare in the area. In an area nicknamed ‘ChiantiSHIRE?? This seemed difficult to believe, and I was beginning to worry that as foreigners we would not be welcome.
‘Are you going to write about all this?’ Liam asked me. ‘You know, one of those books … the ‘find a wreck in a romantic foreign country, impulse buy it, have a terrible time fixing it, being cheated all the way and practically lose all your money. Then finally hey ho! At the end of the day a magic wand appears and all is fine in the state of paradise.’
I thought about that carefully, and in a way Liam was right. I cannot remember a time when I have not written, and yes, I had been writing a diary since the very first day we saw the house, and yes, I felt as if I could write there forever. I may even have thought about writing ‘that book’.
But somehow this ancient Tuscan farmhouse, halfway down a forgotten valley did not seem like that. I looked at Liam slowly and sombrely. ‘Liam,’ I said slowly, ‘In the beginning that is what I thought, and heaven knows I am sure that we will have our fill of trouble, with the title deeds, easements etc, enough to write an entire book … in fact a ‘best seller’ type of book. A book of double dealing, backtracking and backhanders … for heaven’s sake this is Italy we’re talking about!’
‘But quite frankly I think that it would do this incredible place an injustice.’
For already this big old stone house was not like that. Even for me, with my love of words, it had been difficult to describe. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it seemed that every time I went there the house appeared to be exerting its own influence. The minute we entered we seemed to lose all our city-stress, and even our sense of time. Look at old Cosimo and half-blind Pasquale, look at their peaceful happy natures. Something’s happening there. And very soon we are to get new neighbours. Who will they be? And, like me, will they too feel the influence of this house?
I took a deep breath. ‘No, Liam’ I said, ‘I want to write about people. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but living them out in the most privileged and beautiful surroundings imaginable. Ordinary people living under one big Tuscan roof, and within solid stone walls that have stood the test of time for over three hundred years. Now that’s what I want to do.’
And so, many months later, one cold and snowy winters’ day in February, we took possession of the keys, opened the gate and unlocked the door.
The next morning we breakfast on the terrace of our hotel. It’s my Dad’s birthday today, he is 86. We telephone him in faraway Cape Town; tell him about the excitement of yesterday. He sounds as thrilled as we are. ‘We are going to Castellina-in-Chianti nearby, to a swimming pool place, Dad’, I say, ‘We just hope that we can get permission to put in a pool. Then we will drive on to Siena for lunch.’
‘There’s a little café on the upper side of the Campo, on the left.’ he says, ‘Have a cappuccino for me.’
‘How do you know about that cafe?’ I ask him.
‘I was in the Campo on Armistice Day’ he replies.
I never knew that. He must have been about 27 years old. He has never spoken about the War. Only about me. ‘Don’t think that just because the War ended on 8 May 1945, we all went home,’ he would say. ‘I was part of the mopping up operations in Italy and stayed on for many months. Then, when I finally got back to your beautiful mother, why there you were in your cot! At first I couldn’t get used to you at all … just thought you were in the way …’
Liam and I have talked practically all night. Apparently the owner, Jurgen, is on holiday and Stefan had promised to try and track him down. Will Jurgen really contact us? Will it be today?
What are the plusses? The house is in perfect condition with nothing to do. Most of the furniture goes with it and an old car too. The views are great. It is one hour to Florence by bus. It is under an hour and a half to Pisa Airport. It is in a cul-de-sac and, importantly, it has not had a burglary for twenty years. From what I could see any burglar would practically have to drive over old Cosimo’s feet to get to our front door … his place on his plastic chair is as good a look-out as you can get. There you go! We would have ADT onsite in the guise of an ancient and curious nosey-parker!
What are the hitches? It is deep down the valley, not on top – but the views are pretty spectacular. Also, the access road is a shocker. Margarethe’s place, directly abutting, is for sale and who might we get as such a close neighbour? There is a division of the land directly in front, between Jurgen and Margarethe, so the slope on the downside would not be ours, but this land would be directly in front of us. Will the tight building restrictions mean that any form of swimming pool, other than a ‘portapool’ will be forbidden?
We head off for Castellina-in-Chianti and the ‘Big Blu’ pool company. The receptionist is friendly and helpful. ‘You need to go to the Municipal Office at Greve-in-Chianti’ she says. ‘Basically the minute you dig, you need approval. If you get approval then we do everything … we submit the plans and landscape the surrounds.’ Their brochure is stunning. I watch Liam discussing various pool options and he is in his element … we would have such fun!
There is a ring on Liam’s mobile phone. It is Stefan. He has got hold of Jurgen who said ‘Go through the agent’. The agent apparently has an Italian buyer, but there is no fixed agreement yet. Liam tells Stefan to go to the agent and tell him to firm his buyer up as there is another buyer willing to do a straight, clean deal.
Stefan wants us to come to the agent with him, but Liam says no. That will tempt the agent to play one buyer up against the other. Stefan goes off to the agent and rings us back: ‘The arrangement now is that Jurgen will ring the agent in two days’ time. Then either the agent’s buyer will formally meet with Jurgen to sign the compresso (the deal) or there is no sale.’
We then take a much needed ‘tourist break’ and do a 3 hour circuit from Castellina-in-Chianti … on to Radda … and then running up the SS69 to Figline and straight across through Lucolena to Greve-in-Chianti.
It is wonderful country, but a lot of it is wooded and I am glad to get back to the more open fields of Greve and Panzano. It’s 4pm, boiling hot, and we go down to Stefan again. The hammock is empty, but the black Alsatian runs out barking. We walk down to Jurgen’s house, waving to Pasquale on the way.
We sit on the steps in the shade and Stefan comes along. He was to show us his house today, but won’t as he has still not washed the dishes. I do not want to see it – it is also for sale, but only at the end of the summer, when he will have to leave. I feel so sorry for him. His work has not worked out and his wife is homesick for Germany. It is clear that he loves this place passionately. His house is a free standing house, set above the big old stone house, and another possibility, but oh! Hope! We trudge slowly back up the hill in the evening heat, chatting as we go …
Basically all now hangs on Jurgen, the agent and his buyer. There is not much we can do. In Greve and in Castellina, just to do our homework, we had looked at agencies selling properties in the area. In Greve Liam was cross, telling me that I was sullen, as I would not even look at what they had to offer … but it was rubbish at twice the price. We liked the agent in Castellina though, Daisy O’Molony from Ireland, but she offered us a two bed flat with a communal pool for a ridiculous price. Go to hell! I’m dreaming olive groves …
Once more we are sitting on a terrace, but this time at a restaurant high in the hills above Greve called Ristoro di Lamole. From where I am sitting the evening light seems to be having a game of hide and seek with the tall cypress trees – long thin finger-like rays reach out, bend a little, twist a bit around a branch, then suddenly pop out on the other side. All around there is silence, and I feel as if I am being slowly and deliciously hypnotised.
We do not get these long evenings in South Africa, and I wonder if my children, who are so far away across the world, could learn to love these clear demarcations of the seasons as much as I do …
Suddenly the silence is shattered by the shrill ring of the mobile phone. It is a phone call from Jurgen. We’re there! We have a ‘small place in Italy’! Jurgen has grown tired of the buyer introduced through the agent and has decided to drop them because of all the procrastination. He will fax Liam the plans tomorrow at our hotel in Florence, and from there move on to a mutual meeting – essential in Italian property transactions. He says that he is retired, and he can come to London, or we can meet him in Hamburg. Meanwhile he will ring Liam at 8am tomorrow to discuss immediate details.
Ristoro di Lamole’s meal is lovely – some sort of cheese and antipasti, the Chianti rabbit for me … will we need to return here annually? Drink champagne?