Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Under the Tuscan Sun: Looking for Bramasole



Like it or not, I am a total book and motion picture nerd.  Mix that with travel, and I become obsessed with having to see where that film was made, or to find out what was that one thing that drove someone to write a novel that would become a classic or a cult favorite.

Before we left for Italy, I shared on Facebook that I couldn't wait to see the villa that inspired author Frances Mayes to write the book "Under the Tuscan Sun".  I had not yet read the book but I saw the movie numerous times.  Now that I'm home, I am reading the book now.  It is simply delicious!  I just couldn't get enough of all that was Italian in the film.  And Diane Lane, . . . who wouldn't wish they could be her for a day?  I'd already been to a few major cities in Italy and made jaunts into country towns, but I hadn't yet made it to the idyllic hill town of Cortona, which was tops on my list of places to visit for our end-of-summer holiday.  I had to get to Cortona this year because the book "Under the Tuscan Sun" was celebrating 20 years since its publication in September 1996. The time was right to go back to Italy!


I was just getting over a three-day stomach flu when we left Assisi by car.  With my husband Gerry at the wheel, and friend Ed at his side as navigator, we made our way to Cortona. Daisie and I sat in the back seat enjoying the views along the way.  Total eye-candy, those views!
Cortona sits on top of a hill about 1,968 feet above sea level.  It is the highest town we visited on this trip. This dominant position over the valley offers a spectacular view from all over the town of the surrounding valley and even Lake Trasimeno.   Before beginning our search of Bramasole (pronounced  brah - mah - so - lay), we decided to take a look around the town for a place to have a very nice lunch.  We settled on the Ristorante al Cacciatore where I had a lovely pasta e fagioli soup, perfect for my settling tummy.  With full stomachs, we did our last-minute souvenir shopping, then we were off to find Bramasole, which means "yearning for the sun".  On the way back to the car, I passed an art gallery which featured a movie poster of the film on its glass door. Cortona is known for many things ancient, Etruscan and modern, but its citizens love the attention the book and film has brought to their town, and they're basking in all its glory.  
Before leaving town, we went to the tourist information office off the Piazza della Republikka.  I asked the concierge if given a choice, would she look for the house that was used in the "Under the Tuscan Sun" film, or look for the house that inspired the book. She said to skip the house used in the film.  It's ugly and there's nothing to see there.  Go to the real villa, she says.  Before leaving San Diego, I searched the internet.  Many "Under the Tuscan Sun" geeks said forget the real villa, go to the house from the movie. Others said otherwise. Well, just tell me how to get to both, and I'll decide when I'm in Cortona.  I choose to listen to the concierge, and she gives us a map of the town, and driving directions to the Bramasole.  She also said it's within walking distance but a portion of the trek is uphill.  I think, "no, thank you".  I just got my energy back from being sick.  I want my search to be easy. Driving there sounds better, and the map makes it seem easy.  But it really wasn't.  

Looking at the map, we follow the concierge's blue ink line from the parking lot, exiting the walled town, driving the road that hugs the ancient walls, and take that road all the way around and further up into the mountain.  At one point, Ed says to Gerry that he's driving into a one-way street so Gerry maneuvers a Y turn and gets back on the right road.  The concierge said if you pass the Eremo Le Celle, a sanctuary, you're going the right way. Follow the road up the hill and follow the signs to Hotel Cory's.  Pass it and stay left of the fork.  There is a small bar (cafe) at the apex of this fork. The road will take you downhill. Bramasole should be on our right.  You can't miss it, said the concierge.  It's a big pink house. Seekers say it's peachy pink.  I'll decide the color when I get there.

We end up at the stop sign and no where to go but right.  Ahead of us is the most gorgeous landscape you ever saw.  Vineyards, rolling hills, orchards, farmhouses, cypresses, villas.  It was so dreamy.  Okay, snap out of it.  We turned right and pulled into a parking lot in Torreone.  I approached an old man and asked, "Dove il Bramasole?".  He shrugs and raises both hands that say "What are you saying?".  So I repeat it in English.  Gerry approaches and does his best to communicate with hand gestures.  Daisie and I see a jogger approaching our direction and I wonder if it would be cool to stop him and ask for directions.  We decide it would not be okay to interrupt his rhythm because he was so focused on his running.  Then we see a couple walking the wide promenade.  It is lined with trees on both sides, and their walk is very leisurely.  As they get closer, we approach them.  I say to the woman, "Scusi, do you speak English?".  Please say yes.  Please say yes.  And the woman says, "Well, yes, I do." "Yes!  Thank you!", I say.  She laughed at us and said, "I know how you feel.  I've been there!".  

Meet Al and Kathy.  They're from Tampa, Florida and spend a few months in Cortona each year.  They had just flown in earlier that day and were out for an afternoon walk.  They own an apartment in the city center of Cortona which they rent out to tourists when they're not using it.  They set us straight on how to find the Bramasole, and that it's not far from where we're standing.  In fact, we can walk there from the parking lot.  Al says we would be interested to know that he shot the cover for Mayes' third book of the Tuscany series, "Every Day in Tuscany".  Get outta here!  I can't believe what I'm hearing!  He says he was taking digital photographs in the piazza years ago.  A stranger approached him and asked to see his photos.  Apparently, this stranger had ties to Mayes and the publishing world.  Before long, Al got a call from Mayes asking if he'd photograph the cover to her third book.  Wow, what are the chances of me meeting someone connected to one of my favorite authors?! This is wildly crazy, I'm thinking, and I am one starstruck, besotted woman.
In our conversation, Al continues with a story where Mayes had purchased a second home higher up in the mountains outside of Cortona in Monte Sant'Egidio.  Known as Fonte delle Foglie, the Font of Leaves, the secluded stone pile was first built in the 13th century by "hermits who followed Saint Francis of Assisi." Mayes added a second structure to the 3.7-acre compound, which now has four bedrooms, a writing room, and ample entertaining space.  This home was the subject of the book mentioned above, "Every Day in Tuscany". Mayes no longer owns the home due to the fact that thieves had ramsackled the home while she was away from the country.  She was heartbroken, and had felt watching over two homes was too much work.  I found a photo of the stone villa on Pinterest.  What a beauty!
Do you want o know what Al says next?  He says that he and Kathy are frequent visitors to Villa Bramasole when Frances (uh-oh, we're on first-name basis now) is in town. Unfortuntely, Frances won't be in Cortona for another couple of weeks.  Darn!  Our conversation lasted perhaps 20 minutes, but it's time I won't soon forget.  Before going our separate ways, Al said to look for the terraces.  He was around when laborers and artisans were cleaning up the terraces of the Bramasole.  Kathy said you can't miss it because of its pink color.  So off we went in our car, backtracked and as we turned the corner, there it was to our left - the most magnificent rustic house and terraced garden I have ever seen. It's easy to see how we missed the house at first. It's partly hidden by stone walls and trees, and I wasn't expecting the house to be so high up on the hill.  It truly is a special place, and it gives me goosebumps to know that it stands near a roman road, and that there's an portion of an Etruscan wall in her enormous, terraced back yard.
We exited the car and began taking photos like crazy.  I took note of all the little details of Frances' property that eventually made its mark in the film, like the shrine in the stone wall and the shuttered windows.  The color of the house was not pink or peach, or peachy-pink. The color seemed to change depending on the direction from which I was looking.  It was like the stucco had a faux finish.  It went from pink to peach to gold to orange.  Seeing the large amount of olive and fruit trees, and other plantings, I felt this villa was more of a farmhouse.  The Bramasole is famous for its olive oil which has won numerous international competitions. It was surreal being at the Bramasole.  I thank God I got well enough in time to have this experience.  Being there was most definitely the high point of my vacation.  









The celestial stars were aligned that day, and the gods that be said this was meant to happen.  Thank you, Frances, for taking me on this journey.  



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