While it’s true I had a mad crush on Rome, I confess I have found a new love. Tuscany. I am head over heels for region of Val d’Orcia. Truly, madly, deeply in love with La Foce estate.
Like many deep loves, it’s a complicated relationship. The place is stunningly beautiful. And if you are at all afraid of heights, as I am, terrifying to drive about. Poor Sweetie. As we motored along narrow winding tracks with steep drops, I alternated between sudden loud intakes of breath at the spectacular views and strings of cursing when the road seemed to narrow to a point where I wondered how we wouldn’t just drop off the edge to the valley below. Those who know me know that curses aren’t generally part of my vocabulary. Omigod, omigod, omigod, f***, f*** f***! Finally I just started to laugh and laugh and laugh.
We arrived at La Foce late in the afternoon in the middle of a thunderstorm. Tricky to find, we pulled into the estate’s villa courtyard which was crammed full of people and umbrellas, so many that they created a kind of canopy for us to reach the reception desk. They had come for one of the weekly tours of the gardens, some of the most beautiful in Europe, we were told. Sadly, we will not see them. The last tour was heading out and the next is after we leave.
We were given directions to the bed and breakfast part of the estate, La Palazzollo. Take the first left, down the road through the woods, pass the wall of cypress trees and the tiny cemetery, then take the first right. A dirt road down a steep hill to La Palazzollo. It took us a few minutes to figure out how to get in. We walked all around the building opening doors only to see what appeared to be storage space, formerly used to house animals. Then we discovered the stairs that took us up to the living quarters. The building is typical of a Tuscan farmhouse where the animals indeed occupied the ground floor with the family above.
Inside the living quarters, there is a beautiful common area with a huge fireplace and a bright kitchen. There are four bedrooms, only one of which was occupied when we arrived although another couple was scheduled to join us. I do believe we lucked out on our room. It’s the largest with three windows and it faces the most spectacular if daunting view of the Val d’Orcia and the Monte Amiata, a long dormant volcano. It’s difficult to describe the view and do it justice. Even photographs don’t adequately capture the expanse and the beauty.
La Foce is a vast estate in Tuscany that was purchased in the 1920’s by Iris and Antonio Origo, not long before Mussolini came to power. She was an American writer, he an Italian nobleman. When they arrived, they found the local peasants living in appalling conditions, illiterate and superstitious. The land had become barren, described as “a lunar landscape, pale and inhuman” by Iris in one of her diaries. The Origos were determined to improve things. They set up crop rotation, better water management with dams to prevent erosion, rebuilt the existing farms, planted grapevines and olive trees, build new roads and farms, increased the livestock, stopped the cutting of the woods, built schools and provided medical care.
While the Origos were improving the estate, they also built their own house and garden with the help of an English architect. By World War II, La Foce was a thriving and self-sustaining community but like all of Europe, the war took its toll. The estate had taken in a large number of refugee children whose homes in Turin and Genoa had been bombed. Not long after, the Germans took over La Foce as their headquarters. Iris and Antonio were forced to leave and together with the children, walked through the night and the woods to reach a nearby town where they were sheltered by friends. Iris wrote about their experiences in her book, “War in Val d’Oricia” which I picked up in the estate’s shop and am looking forward to reading.
“Some corpses lay, uncovered, by the roadside,” she wrote in the diary. “We had been warned to stick to the middle of the road, to avoid mines, and to keep spread out, so as not to attract the attention of Allied planes.”
That’s not to say the Origos didn’t benefit in some ways from the war and played a dangerous game of “wearing the black shirt of the Fascists by day and helping the partisans at night,” according to a local guide.
Interestingly, when the Origos purchased La Foce, there was a system in place known as the mezzadria. It was a system that allowed the landowner and tenants to share in the profits that came off the land. The landowner kept the farms in repair and supplied the money to purchase supplies and livestock while the tenant contributed the labour. When crops were harvested, they shared the profits equally. In bad years, the owner bore the losses, having greater resources on which to draw. A system that worked well but lasted only until the political struggles of the late 1950s and early ’60s. Many of the tenant farmers left to find work in the cities and the farmhouses gradually fell into disrepair.
The estate is still owned by the Origo family, shared by their two daughters, Benedetta and Donata, who both live on the estate. The daughters have turned 18 of the abandoned farmhouses into vacation homes. They are all beautiful, designed with an eye for preserving the estate’s rich and colourful past.
We are fortunate to be here and fortunate to have convivial house mates. We are sharing the Palazzollo with two other couples, one from Maryland and one from Michigan. Turns out we all read the same article about the estate in the New York Times which led us to this point of convergence. Fittingly, La Foce means “meeting place”. We are enjoying the lively conversation at breakfast and the stimulating discussion in the evenings when everyone has returned from their daily explorations and evening meals.
Sadly, this is our last day before we begin the trek home. We said our goodbyes to the couple from Maryland this morning. We and the couple from Michigan depart in the morning. I hope we return. I hope we stay longer.
Today, as I write, the day has once again turned grey and rainy and Monte Amiata is shrouded in mist. Sweetie and I are content to stay put. It’s easy to imagine another life here. One of peace and contentment, no city noise and stress. Just the sounds of frogs and other creatures out in the valley and the smell of lavender, rosemary and curry from the plants that surround the farmhouse.
Writes Benedetta, “The traveller, sitting on the low wall overlooking the valley, is struck by the grandeur of the landscape, by a feeling of eternity and peace, of continuity, of the freedom that comes from great open spaces. Independent spirits and dissenters have felt at home here for centuries.”
Perhaps that’s why I feel such an affinity. I can breathe here. I am in love.