Wednesday 17 March 2010

Italian countryside

In my role as an Italian estate agent, realtor (well, somebody has to do it) I have the dubious privilege of driving hundreds of kilometres every week. A few of those hundreds are simply from home in Cortona to the office in Perugia, but the majority are spent driving the Italian countryside for appointments or showing clients properties for sale. But what diversity of countryside there is! I may have grown blasé about this, along with many other things I now take for granted after years living here, but every now and then you really notice it. Having spent my childhood and formative years in Cambridge and the South East, I was used to a more homogenous landscape. One area of the British countryside more or less roles into the next so, although it is all beautiful, there is very little to distinguish one place from another, other than the height of the nearest church spire. The patchwork quilt of arable fields and hedgerows that you see from the air as you descend into Stansted runs on for miles in every direction, broken only periodically by motorways or housing estates. You really need to head up North or to the beach to find anything remarkably different.

Round our way, however, the landscape changes as often as the frequencies on the radio when you are driving around. Anyone who has ever tried to listen to the radio in their car here will understand that no radio station lasts for more than a couple of songs before losing signal and lapsing back, inevitably, into the Vatican’s Radio Maria. In the Pergo valley east of Cortona we have a fairly classic Cortonese backdrop of high hills covered in oak and chestnut woods, olive groves on the lower slopes and arable in the flat of the valley. The same could be said of much of the hills and valleys lining the north side of the road from Cortona to Arezzo. Head around the back of Cortona and take the mountain road towards Citta’ di Castello however, and you come into a totally different landscape. Only twenty minutes drive, but you feel as if you have come to another country. Valleys with steep, tree-clad slopes, so deep you wonder what on earth lives at the bottom of them. Dense woodland all around, with the odd oasis of man made green lawns where someone has been brave enough to carve a place called home in the otherwise pristine wilderness.

There is a beautiful walk that we often take in the summer months, that passes over a saddle in the hill with a flat, wind beaten grassy area. From here on a clear day you can take in many different landscapes all in one go. To the south of you are Umbria and the whole of Lake Trasimeno, with its horseshoe of low, olive covered hills. To the west is Tuscany and Cortona with its high hills, overlooking the flatter, arable plains of the Val di Chiana. To the north is just an unbroken line of wooded hills, with little or no sign of civilisation. To the east on a clear day you take in dramatic snow-capped peaks and a far off glimpse of Marche. People often say they “prefer” the Tuscan landscape over the Umbrian, but really Tuscany offers one of the greatest diversities of countryside anywhere in Italy. This is partly due to the fact that, at a huge 23,000km2, Tuscany is the third largest Regione on the Italian mainland.

The bit that everyone envisages is undoubtedly the area of dolce, rolling hills known as the Creti Senesi, to the south and east of Siena. Probably the most photographed area of Italy, bar the leaning tower of Pisa, cypress trees and scattered farmhouses offer the only break in an otherwise serene and smoothly rolling landscape. It is so delicious you want to serve it up in great scoops like ice cream. Being mostly arable land, the colours change dramatically through the seasons, offering ample opportunities for the production and distribution of mass produced, second rate water colours. A short drive north into Chianti takes you into another world entirely, with deeper valleys, some covered in dense woods but mostly just row after row of vineyards, as you would expect. Every corner of Tuscany offers a different option. Alpine scenery and skiing in Abetone is only 100km from the umbrella pine forests and hot sands of the Tuscan coastline by Viareggio. The Val di Chiana is a vast, highly populated flood plain running roughly north-south between Arezzo and Chiusi. The Val d’Orcia on the other hand, just a few hills down, is a rolling and mostly empty landscape that looks as if somebody just took it off the moon. So, next time you are lucky enough to be here, get in the car and just drive and drive and drive…

Written by Paul Cleary

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