Tus­can dream

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

will crown a hill­top, while oth­ers run along dusty coun­try roads with ge­o­met­ri­cal pre­ci­sion. We in­spect faded fres­coes in an­cient churches and dine in flow­er­filled pi­az­zas. Strict build­ing laws mean that this part of Tus­cany looks much as it did hun­dreds of years ago. When for­eign­ers (mostly English) buy aban­doned farm­houses, they must re­store them to their orig­i­nal ap­pear­ance. Even the same bricks must be used.

‘‘ We wait un­til a de­serted farm­house has to­tally col­lapsed and then go and pinch the bricks, which we can then use,’’ says a res­i­dent English­woman. ‘‘ Tus­cany is now very over­priced,’’ says Bird.

One day we drive to Orvi­eto in Um­bria to visit one of Italy’s great­est cathe­drals. It dates from the 13th cen­tury and the bril­liant fres­coes in the chapels are gen­er­ally ac­knowl­edged to be the in­spi­ra­tion for Michelan­gelo’s Last Judg­ment . We put coins in the box to il­lu­mi­nate the awe­some Res­ur­rec­tion of the Dead . Hun­dreds of fig­ures ap­pear to be strug­gling to get out of hell. ‘‘ Fa­cilis de­scen­sus Averno ,’’ says the re­tired judge stand­ing be­side me. The de­scent to hell is easy; com­ing back is a hard task. It is a per­fect mo­ment to be quot­ing Vir­gil.

Some days we book Bird to do the driv­ing and he takes us to some of his favourite and lesser-known places. (Even he is beginning to com­plain about the num­ber of tourists who flock to Pienza and Mon­tepul­ciano.) One of his sur­prises for us is Civita di Bag­nore­gio: it’s best we see it be­fore more of it falls away. It is perched on top of a hill 438m above sea level and can be reached only by a long and very steep walk­way. Over the years, en­tire sec­tions of the vil­lage have been swal­lowed up as they dropped off in land­slides and now only the cen­tral and most an­cient part is left.

Be­sides nat­u­ral dis­as­ters such as earth­quakes, there have been man-made ones. In 1944, Ger­man troops blew up the ma­sonry bridge that was the only con­nec­tion be­tween Civita and the rest of the world. The bridge was re­built in 1964; without it the main way of get­ting there was by don­key. But be­fore the bridge could be in­au­gu­rated, an­other land­slide caused it to col­lapse. Arche­ol­o­gists and en­gi­neers are still try­ing to shore up the dy­ing town. The climb up the walk­way is worth­while and there is a bar at the point of ar­rival for those who are puffed.

Bird doesn’t join us on the walk-in. He is still re­cov­er­ing from a phone call from an Amer­i­can who an­nounced he was com­ing to Rome and wanted Bird to show him three things. ‘‘ And one of those would be the Vat­i­can?’’ sug­gested Bird. ‘‘ No, no, it’s a man’s name,’’ said the Amer­i­can. ‘‘ St Peter’s?’’ of­fered Bird. ‘‘ That’s right,’’ said the Amer­i­can. The sec­ond place was where you get pho­tographed with the glad­i­a­tors. Ah, the Colos­seum. The third was the Hard Rock Cafe. By the time the Amer­i­can ar­rived in Rome, Bird had flown. www.lafoce.com www.tus­can­events.com

Green oa­sis: Mon­tauto, a re­stored farm­house on the La Foce es­tate in Tus­cany, and now a villa for hire set in a beau­ti­ful gar­den

All set for break­fast: Fon­tal­gozzo, a hand­some hol­i­day villa on La Foce

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