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Italy: The Intangible Perfection Of An Idle Summer

14th October 2015

Anthropologists speak of the 'transhumance', the seasonal movements of nomadic shepherds. Few of us now travel with our livestock but the need to shift ground is fundamental: recreational travel is, science will one day confirm, the survival of a very basic instinct. It certainly is with me.

I recently performed my annual transhumance to a neglected part of Chianti, Italy, although these things are relativo. Here, a pair of delightful Maremmano sheepdogs, the ancient cane de pastore, damagingly chewed my new Tim Parks. I had packed his Literary Tour of Italy to give my spectacular idleness a faint gloss of erudition, a project nulllifed by the dogs' appetites.

I have never made much distinction between work and play, thinking the notion of 'holiday' a bit lowbrow, but there are nonetheless periods when you are indubitably doing nothing. This was one of them. I spent a lot of time musing about what exactly we love about Italy.

The area south of Florence has awful weather. The Arno valley is a crucible for Biblical thunderstorms. And Florence can be a forbidding and calculating place, as you might expect of a city created by bankers.

 Where Michelangelo broke his nose. Picture: Shutterstock


Even the most sophisticated Florentines sometimes neglect charm: in the glorious Brancacci Chapel, Pietro Torrigiani thumped Michelangelo and broke his nose when he thought he was being upstaged in his art. So much, then, for Renaissance serenity. And if you had serenity, when precisely would it degenerate into tedium?

I ask myself this every time I see the gracious girl behind the counter at the local pasticceria. Like that character in an Elena Ferrante novel, she will never leave the shop. Her mating options are contained in a very shallow gene pool. I think frustration is everywhere.

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Take the local winery which offers a 'wine experience'. The real experience is a broken chest-freezer in the vineyard, a derelict back-hoe loader in the white road and a plump, sweaty contadino offering a few broken supermercato biscuits with the tasting. But his rosato is shockingly delicious, even if its infantile label with a pink rose would discredit Proctor & Gamble. You forgive.

We drove back to Milan in the worst weather I have ever seen, so the extravagantly revamped Gallia Hotel was very welcome. It is superlatively comfortable and reassuringly expensive.

 Luxury lodgings in Milan are welcome. Picture: Shutterstock


Then there were awful delays at Linate because Gatwick had weather as bad as Florence's, so it was a relief eventually to be back on the train to Victoria. And then, thinking home is as ugly as the back of a fridge, you remember. The solemn beauty of the Borgo San Jacopo at dusk after a shower, the mesmerically well-mannered order of the Tuscan landscape, the local butcher's sublime sausages, espresso as good as you have ever tasted served in a hellish AutoGrill.

Already I am wondering how soon we can go back. Whatever it is I love about Italy is experienced as a sense of loss felt near Balham as much as a presence felt near Impruneta. Something is missing. So, I am exactly the same as the girl in the pasticceria.

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This article was written by Stephen Bayley from The Independent and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.