You can’t afford to stay home

That evening, there was a full moon riding high over the Chianti Hills, and the vines beside our villa were casting long shadows on the stony earth. But overnight we heard rain, and when we awoke to a soft, sunny spring...

That evening, there was a full moon riding high over the Chianti Hills, and the vines beside our villa were casting long shadows on the stony earth. But overnight we heard rain, and when we awoke to a soft, sunny spring morning, there was snow atop the mountains across the valley on the far side of the Arno. American tanks fought along this valley in 1944, driving at Florence, where the Germans blew all the bridges over the river except the Ponte Vecchio.

It was spring break, and we’d taken the kids and gone to Italy, flying Canadian into Rome, picking up a Fiat wagon at Fiumicino Airport, and circling the city on the raccordo to pop out the other side onto the ancient road to Tivoli for a couple of days before our two weeks at the Tuscan villa began. Our hotel was once a defensive tower over the town ’round 600 AD.

Tivoli, some 30 kilometres east of Rome, has been a holiday town for 2,000 years at least, being situated at the first place the hot, flat Roman plain rises to cooling altitudes. Hadrian’s vast villa is here, and the Renaissance Villa d’Este with its celebrated fountains. We decided to hang out there rather than face the insanity of Roman gridlock twice in 48 hours, before heading north on the autostrada on a Saturday morning for Tuscany. On the way, turning 150 kilometres per hour, BMWs and Mercedes with skis on the roof were passing us at 200.

We had discovered the wine-and-olive-oil-producing estate, the Tenuta Lupinari, in a catalogue of private homes and short-term rental villas on agricultural properties all over Tuscany. Here, crumbling farm workers’ dwellings have been rebuilt into groupings of airy stone villas with beamed and tiled ceilings identical to those of the 13th century palaces in nearby Siena. The estate owners plonk a swimming pool in the middle of a vineyard, and tourists book in to the housekeeping units for a week or more at two or three hundred bucks Canadian a day.

From the estate, a dirt road led to a narrow, meandering paved track through the olive groves and vinyards, to a two-lane highway, and soon the town of Bucine. It had a tiny supermarket, two greengrocers, a restaurant, a tennis club and a bar with terrific gelato that the kids lobbied to stop for every time through. We never found the bakery that was rumoured to exist. In France, there is a fabulous patisserie every 500 yards right across the country. But in Tuscany, bread that looks like a semi-deflated, shrink-wrapped rugby ball is sold as an afterthought from bins in food stores and supermarkets. These rugby balls have different names, but all look and taste the same. On the highway outside town was a restaurant called The Orient Express where wonderful take-out pizzas were five bucks Canadian.

The elegant Roman lady who owned the estate told Cheryl about a factory outlet just off the autostrada, some 20 minutes away. One morning, on our way to Florence, we found it. Sort of like a floor of Holt Renfrew lost in a dusty, dreary industrial park. Prada and Miu Miu at half price. It was teeming with spiky-haired guys of indeterminate sexual preference, and ladies who might be slightly over-the-hill rich man’s playthings, reduced at last to bargain-hunting. Every 45 minutes, a tour bus pulled in to disgorge a new horde of Japanese tourists, as the previous horde emerged from the emporium, staggering under the weight of their shopping bags.

In March, you’re leading the tourist season by maybe a month. We wandered about medieval San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Arezzo and Lucca virtually alone in the silent, sun-dappled streets. In Pisa, we found a parking spot a block away from The Leaning Tower. Even in Siena, there were tables free in every café in the Piazza del Campo at lunch. Now they’ve closed the centres of the old cities to cars, parking is admittedly challenging in Florence, but the line-up for the Uffizi and The David were only 20 minutes, and a lot of that was local school kids on tour with their teachers.

There’s some striking photographic nudity in the street front window displays in chic Italian shops. Even though you’ve just run your kids past 13,897 tits and bums and cherubic penises at the Uffizi, it startles your stateside sensibilities. Also surprising was how really tiny those old Fiat 500s you used to see in Toronto actually were. Roughly the size of a shopping cart. I had an insane urge to buy one and bring it home in the luggage just for fun. Also amazing are the Mercedes-engineered Smart urban vehicles you now see on Italian streets. Wild! So’s the price of gasoline. About a buck seventy a litre. But good wine is ‘way less than 20 bucks.

We spent numerous days in both Siena and Florence. The former is perhaps more physically enchanting, the latter indescribably rich in art and history. We’d announce we were heading for Florence today, and Jonathan, Michelle and Madeline in the back seat would begin chanting SEE-EN-AH! SEE-EN-AH! until told to lay off or lose gelato when we got there. While we cooked dinners at the villa, the kids would flick on the 300-channel satellite TV. Their favourite nightly show Name That Tune. In German.

Our last lunch in Florence was at a one-knife-and-fork Michelin-rated spot called Latini. The streets outside were deserted, but the place was packed with locals. We wedged ourselves through the door into the tiny waiting area at the bar, and said Buon giorno. Siamo in cinque. The owner said Got a table for you in a couple minutes. You like a glass of wine and some cheese?

Every table had a litre-and-a-half bottle of Chianti, open. Serve yourself, 13 bucks the bottle. We chose to upgrade to a bottle of vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Three bottles of mineral water con gaz. Three plates of wonderful gnocchi. Half a grilled chicken. A huge, butter-tender filet mignon. Three orders of fries. Fava beans in tomato sauce. Two vino santos and biscotti for dessert. A couple of cappuccinos, just for the heck of it. The bill was under a hundred Canadian dollars. Listen, you can’t afford to stay home!

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to blow off steam, and as a thinly disguised lure to attract clients who may imagine working with him could be a productive and amusing experience. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.

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