In the south of England, finding a ruin to renovate, or a plot of land to build on is the stuff of dreams and beyond the pockets of many. We have helped three British families find their “place in the sun” in our pocket of Tuscany. Call us lousy business people: they were all past guests in our Mulino – and now we’ve lost their bookings. (But gained friends, I hasten to add).
On all my recent walks along dusty tracks and old mule paths in the Apennines and beyond, I’ve seen more ruined houses than I can count. As I walk by and see ivy and old man’s beard strangling crumbling walls, exposing fire-places that family and friends used to sit around to keep vigil in the winter months – or shelves littered with mouse droppings – I wonder about all the folk who used to live there. Up on the hill above me is the village of Montebotolino, where nobody lives permanently anymore. A few of the houses have been done up for weekenders, but many more are reduced to piles of stones. It reminds me of a simple poem.
In “Il treno degli emigranti” by Gianni Rodari (1920-1980), a peasant travelling away from his village talks about the contents of his suitcase stowed above him in the luggage rack. Roughly translated, it goes like this:
“It’s not big or heavy. I’ve packed a little soil from my village so I don’t feel lonely on my journey… and a suit, a piece of bread and fruit and that is all. But I didn’t pack my heart. It wouldn’t fit. It didn’t want to leave to travel across the sea. It’s waiting, faithful as a dog, in the earth that no longer provides me with bread. I’ve left it in a tiny field, up there on high. But the train’s rushing past and I can’t see the field any longer…”
Who knows if the peasant ever returned? From the evidence of ruins I pass by, not many did. And now that the Italian State has imposed a tax on second homes, there are more and more country homes for sale, as owners cannot justify the payments. These simple dwellings, passed down within the family, since their ancestors left to find work in America, France, Germany or the industrial cities of Italy, are no longer viable. Once upon a time they might have been used for family holidays in August, but now it’s cheaper to go to a hotel for a week than pay these taxes.
The passing of a way of life is sad. But, there is cause for optimism too. Our friend, Piero Valentini, and his wife, Manuela, put on sumptuous lunches every Sunday, creating dishes from old recipes and based on products gleaned from the countryside. Diners flock for miles to savour this gargantuan, fifteen-course meal. And in a hamlet above our Mulino, the younger members of three farming families are diversifying, by resurrecting old traditions. We can buy hand-made cheeses and other dairy products, and jams made according to their grandmothers’ recipes. They are having to keep their livestock penned inside during the day because of wolves – but that’s a story for another day. For now, let’s just wish the youngsters well and support their efforts.