In the foreward to amusing, insightful book, the author Dario Castagno writes that with so many books about Tuscany flooding market, “I humbly propose that it’s time for a genuine Tuscan to enter the fray”. Born in England of Italian parents, Dario’s family moved to Siena when he was seven years old. A tour guide in the area of the hill town of Siena for many years, Dario has many stories to tell, and a gently ironic comic style which charmed me from the start. One feels as though one were sitting opposite him in an open air vine-covered “trattoria”, drinking red wine and listening, fascinated, to story after story.
One of the delightful things about the book is that its chapters move through the months of the year, describing, with the delicacy of a nature writer the seasonal changes in the weather, the plants, and the wildlife. These descriptions provide a backdrop for his hilarious but affectionate accounts of some of the stranger clients he’s dealt with. As I chuckled through the first few chapters, I assumed that the whole narrative would be a continuation of these light, humorous annecdotes from Dario’s years as a guide.
Then Dario takes as back in time to his time as a young man in the 1970’s, when his hobby was exploring around the countryside on his small light blue Vespa, looking for the old abandoned farmhouses that were his delight. This was before it became popular among foreigners to buy up these old places and fix them up. Way out in the country, with no one living there, the old houses were great locations for the young Dario and his friends to party undisturbed on the weekends, and party they did!
One evening, while the author was sitting and listening to stories told by an elderly friend named Fosco, who owned favorite little local restaurant, he told the older man of his interest in the old abandoned places. Dario was invited by Fosco to go with him to visit his family’s one-time home; Fosco himself had not seen it for decades. Up a winding little country road they went, a road more like a track, almost impassible from ruts and overgrown with brush. They came upon a magnificent stone house, and Dario asked Fosco why the family no longer lived there.
It was then that he heard how difficult it was to wrest a living from a farm in Tuscany! The imposing size of these houses was not because the owners were rich, but because large extended families lived in them; new rooms were built on as children married and had children themselves. Chicken coops and stables were attached to the house. Everyone in the family, from children to old people, worked long hours, and it was a hard life.
When manufacturing began to increase in Italy, farmers left that difficult life in droves, and moved into the towns and the larger cities. The abandoned farmhouses, those same “villas” that foreigners have been clamoring purchase in recent years, sat vacant.
Well, Dario, I thought after reading the chapter about Fosco’s farmhouse, ‘You’ve shown me a way to look at Tuscany which is different than the other books on that region that I have read.’ I realized that amid all of the comic annecdotes, Dario had revealed some essential truths about his region, truths which brought me closer to understanding the “real Tuscany.”
The same was true for the section of the book which decribes Dario’s experiences as a member of his neighborhood “contrada”. Siena is known for the “contradas” the neighborhood associations which compete, each with its own horse and jockey, at the yearly “Palio”. This is the famous the horserace around the Campo, the large central plaza. Reading of all the goings-on within the “contrada” lets the reader in on another insider’s look at an important part of local society.
I realized how much I’d learned from this book, which at first seemed to be a jocular account of especially “memorable” tourists. Most of the books in English written about Tuscany are written by expats who have moved there, and are accounts of renovating houses, peopled with quaint local characters, Too Much Tuscan Sun is written by a local man. His Italian parents did not move to Siena until he was seven years old, but he became enmeshed in the daily life and society of that famous hill town.
Thanks Dario, for all the chuckles. And even more thanks for all the insights into Tuscan society and life. You are a writer who has the ability to make us, the readers, feel as though they are in Tuscany right along with him, listening to you talk. And that is the best kind of travel writer there is!