It turns out that he is not Italian after all. He is German and his name is Stefan. He is living with his young wife, Ingrid, and their two small sons, in his father’s house. They are trying to start a ‘Walking in Tuscany’ business. It has not gone well this summer, and he is working at the hotel to supplement their income.
‘About 30 years ago,” he says, “my father and two of his friends, Jurgen and Margarethe, bought into this valley. They bought part of a massive old Tuscan farmhouse in need of repair, and a small freestanding house above. Our family took the freestanding house, and Jurgen and Margarethe turned their section of the big house into two separate dwelling units -there were already two local families living in the back section.
Last year my father had a stroke, and he will never return to this valley. I would love to buy our house, but have five brothers and sisters to pay out and could never afford to do it. Shortly after my father’s stroke, Margarethe’s closest Italian friend died, and she feels that she can no longer come here from Germany. Now Jurgen has said that if his dear friends are not to be here, he has no wish to come back either.’
By this time we have bumped our way to the bottom of the hill, crossed a dormant stream and are making our way back up the valley on the other side. Stefan’s house is clearly visible above us, a pretty stone building with old terracotta tiles on the roof. ‘I can’t take you into my house right now.’ he says, ‘Ingrid and the boys are in Germany and I have not washed the dishes.’
The road curves round again, and then down through an avenue of tall Cyprus trees. As the line of trees ends, an old stone building of enormous proportions comes into view. It’s rather like a double-storied shoe-box. Tiles seem to be slipping off the back roof, and black electrical wires lie around like spaghetti.
There appears to be some sort of building in progress, but no-one is around. To the right is a higgledy-piggeldy array of washing, scratching hens, abandoned vehicles and a skinny old dog on a chain. Liam and I glance at one another dubiously. Stefan parks the car, and attempts to explain the configuration.
‘Originally it was one enormous house,’ he says. ‘Now it has been divided into four sections. Think of it in terms of the compass – of north, south, east and west. We’ve parked on the northern side.’ He points, ‘This north-eastern section belongs to Marcello and Martina. They live and work in Florence and come here every week-end.’ We follow the track down the western side. The road narrows to almost path-like status. There’s a front door with a tatty old curtain hanging in front of it, and an old man sitting on a white plastic chair in a white vest and plaid carpet slippers.
His face breaks into a grin when he sees Stefan. ‘Buorngiorno, come stai?’ he says. “Good morning, how are you?”
‘There’s absolutely no English spoken here,’ says Stefan as he translates for us. ‘Old Cosimo’s family have lived here for years. He was once the Head Porter on the Florence Railway.’
‘Si, si’ nods Cosimo proudly, ‘Yes, yes! I have the certificate on my wall, in my house.’
‘These days the only member of the family working on the land is Cosimo’s son-in-law, Pasquale. He too was a porter on the Florence railway, but he is blind in one eye, and has had to take early retirement … now the other eye is going. Dove e?’ asks Stefan. ‘Where is he?’ ‘He’s up in the top olive groves,’ says Cosimo ‘working on his tractor.’
We walk on down to the section owned by Margarethe. It faces east, but there’s a small terrace and a door on the south side. Stefan has the key, and in we go. It is enormous and pretty dark. No-one seems to have been there for ages and I feel just as if I have turned back a page and entered the rest of Miss Havisham’s house.
Good stuff is all around me, full of cobwebs … persian rugs on stone floors, leather armchairs pulled up to a fire, ashes still in the grate, and ancient musical spinnet across the corner. There is a cavernous dining-room, a kitchen to the right and what could be an entire apartment with steps leading down to a cellar. Upstairs there are at least four bedrooms, with beautiful old wooden cupboards and chests of drawers, huge wrought iron beds and interesting books, mostly German. Even higher there is a huge studio – the only room with any significant light. There is no real outlook, apart from the patio and the place is daunting.
‘The thick walls and narrow windows keep the heat out in summer,’ says Stefan, ‘Tuscans don’t mind having no view. They live with it all around them all day, and prefer their houses well insulated. These old houses are all listed, and planning is strict. You would never get permission to open up any exterior wall in this valley.’ We leave via the front door, through lovely glass and iron, and drop down stone steps to …