Yesterday I was gazing out my window at the the hill opposite, the gutters overflowing in a downpour and instantly I was thrust back in time, remembering a hilltop village in Tuscany during a thunderstorm. Lying below this mediaeval town was the village of Sansepolcro where I’d stayed for a week with my husband, enjoying the sun, the food, the ambience and the art. I also remembered I’d written a short travel piece after returning home and searched my files to find it. Great – I had my next blog.
Not Just Any Old Town
Kerry and I were off on a bus to Sansepolcro, away from Chianti, and its luscious grapes. This looks a bit ‘ordinary’ I thought, noticing more houses covering the slopes. And just as my spirits plummeted we hurtled around the side of a vast, dry-stone wall, with an exquisite mediaeval village protruding from the top. “Happy now?” my husband jibed. As we rounded the hill the pointed bell-towers of the Gothic church and Romanesque cathedral of Sansepolcro were clearly visible across the valley. In minutes we arrived at the old walls of the town.
We located Casa Mila on Via della Firenzuola, its ochre face slap-bang against umber and sienna neighbours. But Casa Mila held a secret that the rest could only envy, for its central passage opened onto a courtyard garden: flowerbeds framing a soft square of grass, mottled by the shadows of a large magnolia. A lusty crimson rose captured my attention; its heady perfume hung on the air. “What a fabulous fragrance,” I said to Val the owner. “I haven’t smelled a rose like that in years.”
“It was one of the reasons Colin and I chose here,” she said, “gardens this size, are as scarce as hens’ teeth.”
The couple had upped stakes in New Zealand ten years earlier, after Colin declared he was ‘off to paint in Italy for the rest of his life’. After two years of ‘looking around’ they bought Casa Mila and renovated the 12thcentury home with a guest market in mind. The Giardino apartment was where Kerry and I were idyllically placed. Tall, green-painted shutters kept the sun from the dining area and the moon from the bedroom. Cool tiled floors soothed our soon-to-be walk-worn feet and the perfume of one cut rose filled the entire space.
“Who’s that singing?” I asked my husband as a tenor voice vibrated across the yard.
I laughed. The voice was clear and perfectly pitched, floating down from an open window.
“Would you like an outdoor umbrella?” Colin asked, as he passed our opened doors. And we helped him hoist open the large green canvas over the long wooden table. “Feel free to use the garden,” he said. “And if you want anything, I’ll be in my studio.” He pointed to a lean-to, which, oddly, was attached to the back of the neighbouring house. I could see artists’ accoutrements through the small panes of glass.
While I fossicked in my bag for a sketchpad, Kerry picked up his book. I sketched brick pots tucked in a corner and a white frangipani creeper clinging to the wall. Higgledy-piggledy patches of brick were laid bare beneath layers of flaking plaster and ochre and umber paint, so I drew all that too, interrupted only by the wafts of opera and simmering tomato sauce. When the smell of fresh basil and pomadoro became too much to bear, we packed up our things and hit the road for the all-important evening stroll and the very necessary reconnoitre around the local supermarket.
Bells clanged high above our heads, announcing mass at six pm, as they would do again at nine in the morning. Scooters vroomed past us on narrow lanes. Sensibly cars were refused passage. We walked to the end of Corso – the main promenade and shopping street – joining many families taking a passeggiatain the mild evening air. Older couples held hands, or an elbow, while licking gelato in a cone. Young women sauntered, wearing tops that accented summer-browned cleavages and pelmet-like skirts exposing long legs. Beads jangled. Sandals flapped.
We dined superbly on fresh ravioli grande filled with spinach, walnut and ricotta and enjoyed a fine Chianti wine – purchased from the equivalent of our Pak and Save. So, although we found pizzerias, bars and cafes dotted around the town, we chose to eat all week al fresco in the garden.
One morning, with the aim of viewing Piero della Francesca’s art in Museo Civico, we forced ourselves away from the Casa Mila and walked in the direction of Piazza Torre di Berta(the town square).
The shops enticed us with their exquisite displays of locally made lace, jewellery and linens. And then there were the shoe shops, with pyramids of fancy jandals for sale. In one store I stretched a naked foot towards a pair encrusted with turquoise-coloured stones. “Aaahhh!” I yelled, and again, louder. The shop assistant’s eyes bulged with alarm. “Cramp,” I grimaced, massaging my big toe, not having a scrap of Italian I could use to explain my behaviour. “Aaahhh!” And away the damned thing went, my big toe jammed downwards, while the four ‘normal’ toes flicked in the opposite direction.
“Oh, el crampo,” the young woman said, doing a pantomime of her own, standing on one foot and shaking the other. “And do the Hokey Tokey,” I was compelled to shout, but refrained, and ‘turned about’ on now blessedly un-cramped toes and departed the shop with new shoes.
Off we went a second time, but because of the heat, stopped to sit in the town’s compact public gardens and swigged back a cold juice. We found ourselves next to the great artist’s statue (not surprisingly, as he was born in Sansepolcro and rates as its most famous son) and watched a dozen sparrows pick dispiritedly in the dust.
If it was hot outside the museum, it was stifling in, and not a sign of an air-conditioner anywhere. Interestingly, Francesca’s works appeared not to have suffered from this lack of archival attention and seemed in a better state than the sweaty mortals looking on. While Kerry and I liked The Resurrection, San Guiliano,and San Lodovico, it was the gold-adorned polyptych Pollittica della Misericordia we spent most time rhapsodising over.
We talked later, of the trail (to see more of Piero della Francesca’s work in outlying regions), which we could have gone on, if only time allowed. But to tell the truth, we were loath to venture far from Sansepolcro. Val had other ideas.
She insisted that we visit Anghiari, the hilltop town we had spotted from the bus, (perhaps she was worried we weren’t seeing enough of the ‘real’ Italy). From the top of the town we walked down steep streets that wrapped around the hill under a sky the colour of squids’ ink. Thunder lowed in the distance. The rain took some time coming but when it did it dropped from above like a dam released, sending all five tourists running for cover beneath the stone archway straddling the street. As we huddled damply, lightening spiked the sky, and a little girl dropped leaf-boats into the overflowing gutter. Like the nursery rhyme, the sun came out again, and we made our way to a tiny bar on the town’s parapet. As I supped coffee looking out to the spires of Sansepolcro I was in the mind to shift countries myself.
Local places of interest – Caprese (30mins) birthplace of Michelangelo; Montecasale (5mins) 9thcentury monastery; refuge of St.Francis; Monterchi(20mins) fresco of the Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca; Montone (30mins) restored hilltown; La Verna (I hour) Monastery founded by St. Francis.
Further afield – Florence (2hours); Siena(2 hours); Perugia (I hour); Arezzo (I hour); Cortona (1 hour); Gubbio (1 hour), Assisi (1hour).