It’s easy checking out of Pisa airport. We have a ‘Smart’ car, gold and snappy. We take the SS67 south of Pisa and turn off, planning to cut across the countryside to Greve-in-Chianti. Soon we are winding though the hills – beautiful Tuscan hills, dotted with vines and olives …
It’s not long before we reach our hotel. It’s lovely – set on top of the spine of a hill, overlooking another hilltop village. It’s isolated, with a lovely pool and gorgeous views from the terraces. It has those ‘flop up’ green shade–shutters that are so common in Italy. Tonight’s supper is in an old barn. It’s a buffet, and not very good, but the waiter makes up for it. He has a mischievous sense of humour and he and Liam tease about the choice of wine. ‘I want one that is good, but not expensive’ says Liam ‘but not so cheap that I get a headache in the morning.’ He laughs and promises to fetch exactly that. Lovely sense of humour I think, just like every Italian one meets.
The next morning breakfast is on the terrace, with fresh acacia honey. It’s a still and sunny morning with sparrows chirping everywhere. From where I sit I can see though the lime trees and under the branches to the vineyards rising steeply on the hill opposite. Postcard country. We plan to do a circuit from Greve-in-Chianti on to Radda-in-Chianti and back.
On one of the byroads there is a little wayside shrine and a dirt track running down the hill to the right. Some pretty houses run alongside the track, and I point them out to Liam. ‘I wonder what’s down that road.’ I say.
‘I don’t know – would you like to have a look?’ he says. We have slightly overshot the turnoff and he begins to reverse the Smart car. All of a sudden the little car falls straight off the side of the road and into a ditch. I hop out to direct him back onto the road. Just then a battered old kombi-van careers up and pulls off into the dirt road in a cloud of dust.
‘Are you in trouble? Can I help?’ calls a cheery voice. It’s the waiter from last night’s supper at the hotel.
‘No,’ I say, walking up to his car, ‘I think that we are alright and can get out of this ditch.’ Then I look at him and do something that I have never in my life done before. ‘Could you tell me what’s down this road?’ I say, ‘because we are looking for something to buy and I wonder if you might know of anything?’
I honestly do not know why I say this, because the truth is that we are not looking for something to buy. Maybe I am so bold because Liam is safely in the car, halfway down a ditch. For although Liam shares my love of Italy, he has long since had a horror of me finding some romantic ruin to restore in a foreign country, where neither of us speak the language. And even more to the point, he has always had strong socialist roots. ‘Liam’s hair shirt’ his family always teases. Liam does not feel that one should own anything excessive. We are a one-car family, do not fill the bath, and turn out the lights when we leave a room.
‘Well,’ my Italian waiter replies, ‘there are three places for sale. One belongs to my family and the other two to our great family friends. I have the keys to all of them, and would you like to have a look?’ I call out to Liam ‘Come and have a look’ I say vaguely, ‘we’ve been invited.’
We follow him down the stony track, past the two beautiful Tuscan houses I had seen from the top of the hill. The track gets rougher and rougher, and we leave our car at a pull-off and hop into his kombi. As we bump along, we hear his story …