Fresh from an early morning dip in the clear calm sea at Viareggio, my cousin whisks me up to her home above Camaiore, where Henry Moore once lived.
This is Tuscany, under the Apuan Alps, from where sculptors have extracted their stones for ever......
And this is Tuscany, a large region of central Italy which ranges from the Tyrrhenian sea to the heights of the Apennines, from the riches of Florence to humble villages where the light of life is slowly dying as traditions fade and incomers invade.
This is rural Italy, where the house and garden merge quietly into the steep wooded slopes of surrounding hills. Outhouses serve as workshops,
Where an artist may work undisturbed,
Or as storerooms to hold the fuel for winter warmth.
A little way uphill there are the remains of the Castello di Montecastrese, a 12th century castle that was used to monitor traffic from and to Lucca on the Via Francigena.
The hills are dotted with tiny villages and isolated smallholdings, indicative both of the resilience of the local people and of some deep-rooted love of the natural environment.
The nearby town of Pietrasanta was frequented by Michelangelo in his search for the finest marbles (and where, allegedly, he assisted in the construction of the staircase within the Campanile). It is a town that is still dusty with the chippings from creative artists, and which, this summer, hosted a show by Jake and Dinos Chapman (The Blind Leading the Dead) [though I am not going to say you absolutely need to make the trip.....]
It's a three hour drive, or so, to the top of Monte Amiata (1,738 m or 5,702 ft) but I am still in Tuscany, a central Italian region covering 23,000 square kilometres (8,900 square miles.). Its summit is crowned with a 22m iron cross, first raised in 1900 at the behest of Pope Leo XIII to celebrate the Anno Santo. It was seriously damaged by the Germans in retreat in 1944, but rebuilt in three months by local people in 1946.
Looking south from the top you can see Lake Bolsena (20 kms away) and just make out the hills around Lake Vico beyond which is not far from where we used to live. On a clear day you can (I know; I have;) see the Dalmatian coast of Croatia to the east and Corsica to the west.
Close to the cross there is another monument. The Madonna degli Scout, a marble statue inaugurated in 1961, and frequently adorned with neckerchiefs and woggles....
The slopes of this sleeping giant are clothed in dense woods - beech trees up high and then chestnuts and pines lower down.
And at about 600m above sea level there are olives, and vines, where my 90-year-old friend Corrado used to farm, but where now his 50-year-old son, Giacomo, harrows the ground around his olives, to control the grass and allow rainwater to seep into the earth rather than run off.
It is over fifty years since my friends bought the remote farmhouse that Corrado was born in, and forty-seven since I first visited. It is a beautiful and tranquil place, nicely evoked by Eugenio Montale (1896 - 1981) in his poem Notizie dall’Amiata (News from Amiata)
There’s woodworm in the beams
and an odour of melon oozes
from the floor. The soft
smoke that ascends the valley
of elves and mushrooms to the transparent cone
of the summit fogs the windows,
and I write to you from here, from this table,
from this honeyed cell
of a sphere hurled through space....
It is barely touched by the modern world, though every year there are more twinkling lights in the view to the west after sunset.
It is a place to relax in the shade of a walnut tree with a book, or to walk the stony tracks amongst the field maples,
And the oaks,
And then, as the sun begins to slip away behind distant hills it will be time for a glass of local red wine, and perhaps something to eat, such as grilled fegatelli on an open fire, or Tuscan bread and sharp pecorino cheese.....
Have searched all over Tuscany and never found
What I found there, the heart of the light
Itself shelled and leaved, balancing
On filaments themselves falling.
Of this journey is to let the wind
Blow its dust all over your body,
To let it go on blowing, to step lightly, lightly
All the way through your ruins, and not to lose
Any sleep over the dead, who surely
Will bury their own, don't worry.
by Rabindranath Tagore