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