La Foce

In the Times last Sunday there was an detailed article about La Foce, a vast estate at the southern edge of Tuscany, where my wife and I headed last summer. I had always wanted to visit the area, after reading Iris Origo’s The War in Val d'Orcia. There she describes her arrival with the Italian Count who owned the land, and together they developed the area, introducing new farming techniques to the peasant farmers who lived there, establishing a school for their children, and a health center.

We lived on a large farm in southern Tuscany—twelve miles from the station and five from the nearest village. The country is wild and lonely; the climate is harsh. Our house stands on a hillside, looking down over a wide and beautiful valley, beyond which rises Monte Amiata, wooded with chestnuts and beeches.”

During the Second World War, a great depression settled over all of Italy. Eventually the fighting reached La Foce, the German’s took over their home and other properties, it was difficult to find food for everyone, as refuges, children and the homeless began arriving. “And so, day after day, it goes on—an unending stream of human suffering. And it will yet be worse.”

The War in Val d’Orcia concludes as the American troops arrive along with a sense of hope as plans are made to restore the farmhouses and gardens that have been destroyed and begin replacing much of what had been looted by the Nazis.

Had you not read Origo’s book, none of this history would be sensed today. We lived in one of its beautifully furnished villas, where we had a view over the countryside in all directions. The villa consisted of several apartments on two levels around an open garden courtyard. The walls were covered with ivy, plants were everywhere. We were the only occupants of at least a dozen other apartments. It was quiet, peaceful, rather bucolic, once you got into the mood.

We visited the hill towns of Montepulciano, Pienza, San Quirico D’Orcia, Chuisi, and nearby Chianciano Terme, such melodious names. Also, Bagno Vignoni, where there is a thermal water spa in the heart of the village.

At night we drove somewhere for dinner. The driving was slow, curvy narrow roads, sometimes dirt or gravel. One must concentrate. What must it have been like when it rained? What must it have been like in the days of carriages and horse drawn wagons?

Often I thought about the history of the place, what it was like when Origo and the Count first came here, the remarkable step-by-step rebuilding of the vast acreage, educating the people who lived there, then, building the dams and reforesting the land. And then there was the War and I imagined what life was like then and what the Germans did to the place.

I asked my wife what did she like about being at La Foce. She replied: “First, the history that lets you imagine (a little) what life was like in the 30s and 40s. I kept thinking about the Origos building the estate, helping the peasants, putting in the water system with its reservoirs and wells. What an engineer Antonio Origo must have been. And then imagining the war, where the partisans might have been, up in the woods behind our Charentana [villa] And the Germans living there.

Our apartment was so spacious, and furnished with antiques. We had everything we needed. I especially loved looking out of the windows at the countryside, seeing the shadow of the ivy on the shutters, hearing the birds chirping away. The birds were nesting in the ivy! I liked the kitchen and being able to put meals together with fresh Italian ingredients. I had never peeled a salami before, always bought it sliced thin, but surprisingly, the thick slices from the one that Benedetta [our host] had left for us were quite delicious.

I loved having nothing to do during the day, being able to go and sit outside, draw the walls of Charentana. Their adobe colors glowed in the sunlight, complemented by the tile roof and the ivy and/or rose vines clinging to the walls. Everywhere I looked, I saw a picture.

And I splashed around in the pool, looking at Mount Amiata and the valley on one side, and a lovely wisteria arbor where, one day, we had eaten our picnic lunch. Then lying by the pool and feeling the warmth of the Tuscan sun and the fragrance of the yellow broom, blooming nearby. So often, throughout the time we spent in the valley, we came across areas where banks of flowers, sometimes jasmine, sometimes the broom, filled the air with the most marvelous sweetness.

Walking in the morning was also pleasant, seeing the red poppies in the fields and other wild flowers by the roadside. The early morning sunlight filtered through the poppy petals, creating shadows of design. I took many pictures!

Driving was a bit of a challenge, even for the passenger, since the roads were very curvy and narrow; approaching cars often speeded past with only inches to spare. But each curve brought a new visual delight from the round hay bales in the fields to banks of blooming wildflowers, pink ones that I initially thought were clover, but upon examination, turned out to be something else. There were so many wonderful sights in the Val d’Orcia, castles here and there, broad expanses of hilly farms, with rows of cypress marching up to lead to a house on the hilltop.

I also loved exploring the narrow streets of the hill towns and finding, occasionally, a puss preening itself in the sun in a window or on a door stoop. The little shops were fun to explore too, to see the Tuscan souvenirs, most hand-made or at least, I liked to think so. Locally made, anyway, not from China, although who knows.”