16 October 2019

It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that the answer to a newspaper headline that ends in a question mark is almost always “no”. This holds especially true in the very small local press. This headline is a case in point: Città della Pieve, red alert – is the water tower inside the covered market collapsing?

The resounding “er… no” that came from town council engineers no time at all later came as little surprise.

The whole article is a gem of an example of something that should never have been published, even on the website of a publication as humble as Chiusi-based Prima Pagina. The gist: in a rare idle moment a market stall holder – presumably the genial, cheese-purveying, pork-pie-hat-wearing Fausto – glanced over towards the water tank and happened to notice that the upright nearest him was slightly out of plumb and just a little chipped around the edges. A Prima Pagina scribbler must have been passing by at that moment, so Fausto (or whoever) took advantage of this bit of serendipity to share his observations.

Hold the front page!

“Some people will no doubt accuse us of alarming people needlessly,” the piece begins. Yes indeed, they certainly will. “The stall holder says he is there every week and has never noticed this state of affairs before.” He’s usually overwhelmed by baying cheese-buyers: should we be surprised?

If the water tank collapsed “it would be a drama. There’d be fatalities and injuries because there are people in the covered market, there’s a bar across the street, the main road is right outside and residents live nearby… We all saw what happened in Genoa to a structure on the verge of collapse.”

Now, I’m as concerned for the continued well being of my fellow pievesi as anyone, but I still feel it’s a bit of a stretch to compare one small-town water tank to Genoa’s towering Morandi bridge which killed 43 people when it plunged so tragically into the valley below in 2018. And I truly feel that one phonecall to the town council might have caused far fewer palpitations among the populace than five hundred words of scare-mongering purple prose.

It’s perfectly normal, the official reply explained patiently, for a structure supporting a great weight to be slightly splayed at the bottom to better distribute the pressure from above. All is as it has always been.

What I did find interesting in the Prima Pagina provocation however was one little snippet of a fact that I really hadn’t realised before. I knew that the venue of our covered market-plus-brilliantly concealed water cistern was the deconsacrated church of Sant’Anna degli Scolopi. And that the Scolopi (Piarists) are an order dedicated to giving an education to poor children. (Who knew that the reputation of the order suffered early set-backs because the Inquisition had doubts about its founder’s friendship with the ‘heretic’ Galileo… and because one 17th-century leading light was known to have a penchant for young boys, plus ça change?) But I wasn’t aware that the water tank had been inside the building since 1936.

Just a couple of weekends ago, architect friends visiting from the UK had us musing on how on earth that massive tank got in there, ingeniously inserted into the high round drum of the church (such a sensible use for a church, and far less aesthetically disheartening than an ugly utilitarian structure blighting the town skyline). Presumably it was constructed and welded in situ because there’s no other way. Now I’m kind of wondering: have they cleaned it out since 1936? A question mark I know, but let’s hope the answer to this one is yes.

My favourite excuse for my Pieve Suites  being rather less than full (though it is, I should say, still ticking over slowly but nicely, and getting more noticed all the time) is that it’s not so much a low-profile three-guestroom structure I’m selling; it’s more that I’m having to spread the word about a little-known town and an overlooked region. Umbria? Umbria? Is that in Tuscany?

So imagine my surprise when I bearded Roberto Wirth (owner not only of Rome’s classic five-star luxury Hotel Hassler but also, as of a few months ago, of our much humbler Hotel Vannucci) in his hotel-den a couple of weeks ago only to hear him launching immediately into the same lament.

Umbria? Umbria? Some people ask if that’s in Tuscany. The better informed ones look worried and mutter “earthquakes”. How on earth do I sell this?

If this scion of a generations-old hotelier family, with a PR machine of vast proportions at his beck and call, is flummoxed by the idea of selling Umbria, and Città della Pieve in particular, perhaps my excuses are just a little bit justified.

It’s an on-going mystery why Wirth bought this smart-but-ordinary four-star in a town which is absolutely not on the radar for jet-setting Hassler-type guests. Talking to him, I got the impression he was as bemused as the rest of us. I have heard endless variations on the theme of what he’s going to make it into. Will the current 30 rooms become a handful of luxury suites servicing a high-class cooking school? Will it remain much as it is, with a few extra curlicues to justify pushing prices higher?

Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch the fall-out for CdP. The Vannucci is, after all, the only nice-ish, large-ish structure in town providing hotel accommodation for visitors to events and on busy holiday weekends. Make it extra-luxe and – while Pieve Suites might benefit – CdP loses infrastructure vital for any serious tourism strategy.

There’s also the (small) worry that Wirth might actually succeed: that CdP might really become one of those inexplicable small-town meccas which lose their souls to hordes of tourists bent on getting to the Next Place without really knowing what they’re doing there. And the industry is always on the look-out for the Next Place.

This may be my vivid imagination running away with me. We don’t have San Gimignano’s towers, Cortona’s Under The Tuscan Sun (bleugh) associations, Todi’s gothic cathedral, Pitigliano’s magnificent beetling tufo walls. But as traveller numbers swell and available Next Places dwindle, some enterprising travel PR might decide to make a case for Perugino’s  birth town, with a tenuous connection to Machiavelli hovering around its Rocca and some minor but quite charming Etruscan remains in a church crypt.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve met more people than I generally do (okay, I’m talking single figures but still…) seriously considering a move to this area. What they like about it – kind of ironically, given that they were all Anglo – is the genuine-ness, the fact that there’s a feeling of real Italian life going on, without that crushing let-down of running away from home only to find yourself surrounded by other ex-pats. Don’t sit in the Café degli Artisti for too long on a sunny weekend morning, I warned some: you might begin to think otherwise.

But they are, as I’ve said ad infinitum, correct. Real life really is quietly going on here in this rather overlooked, utterly beautiful corner of the world. And however complicated that makes it for me to sell my accommodation business, long may it stay that way.

Autumn continues ludicrously warm and blue. After a couple of (uncharacteristic) cloudy days our solar panels failed to heat our water to piping, so I switched the water heater back on again yesterday. Last year I switched it back on in mid-September. Thank you climate change.

We have used these lovely days for jaunts – to the Maremma coast, to Venice, to a very arty gathering in Chianti.

The first, with aforementioned UK friends, started life as a cycling holiday but relative chasms in cycling proficiency (and probably quite a lot of negativity from me) meant that time spent in the saddle was limited and anodyne – a very pleasant pedal along the Tombolo della Feniglia plus a bit of roaming around the hinterland in a long search for a brilliant trattoria which turned out to be not so much a rural treat as slap bang on the Aurelia highway with trucks screeching by.

We finally visited Niki de San Phalle’s loopy and really (I found – others disagreed) rather soulless Giardino dei Tarocchi. But most wonderfully, we had a key to let ourselves through a gate straight from the house Lee had borrowed from a colleague-friend into the Lago di Burano nature reserve where we walked past the flamingo-festooned lagoon to a beach where we were the only living beings for as far as the eye could see and, I’d bet, quite a lot further. In the moment, I was merely lapping up the wonder; with hindsight, I have to admit to a bit of a gloat when I thought of the oily, sweaty summer crush on much of that coast. The advantages of autumn. The water was warm: water temperatures always lag behind, and the air temperature was still high anyway. For we inhabitants of a land-locked region, it was pure bliss.

Venice on the other hand was a big splashy party for the inauguration of the new St Regis. We were trying to calculate how often we’ve been to Venice. Surely over 100 times – maybe many more. But with all the city’s problems and my grouses about it, it never fails to make my heart soar. This is still more true when your movements are all by cushy water taxi, and your visit to St Mark’s basilica is at 10pm when all the tourists have magically cleared out.

And the artsy, winey Chianti Saturday? The Castello di Ama is a winery I’m always happy to return to. Such a beautiful spot. And with a collection of contemporary art which is challenging and organic and even if my words- (and gardens-) focussed brain often grapples with the works with mixed outcomes, I always find that (perhaps egged on by the setting) the grappling is worth while. This event was a presentation of the latest addition to the collection, a pendant red string among towering stainless steel wine vats by Miroslaw Balka. I’m still mulling that one.


About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden and landscape designer, working throughout central Italy and beyond. I have lived in Italy for over 35 years – first in Rome but now in Città della Pieve, Umbria, where I have restored my country home and transformed a medieval townhouse into three rental suites. To relax, I tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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2 Responses to 16 October 2019

  1. LESLEY says:

    A really fascinating read as usual especially re Vanucci. Need to try and work out some arrangements with you for next year. Believe it or not I have broken my foot again so around for a while longer so lets meet up.

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