“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink”, begins Cathy’s diary entry, protagonist of Dodie Smith’s love story set in a remote medieval castle in 1930’s England – my favourite childhood novel and source of my ultimate dream to reside in a similarly grand abode. I’d be as poor as a mouse, there wouldn’t have to be heating, elaborate furniture, or much food. Oh, but to live in a castle!
And two weeks ago, to a castle, I thus went. That is, to the beautifully restored medieval Castello Potentino, in Tuscany.
I’m not writing from a kitchen sink. But our bathtub resembles a sort of industrial one which would be perfect for soaking dogs. And there isn’t heating in this quarter, just a stove which we take it in turns to stock up and I occasionally crouch in front of whilst poking bits of wood around, trying to look like I know something – anything – about keeping fires going.
Despite being restored with the comfort of paying guests in mind, there will forever be downsides to living in a medieval castle: limited entry points via steep ramparts, drafts, and isolation. But it gives one cause to pronounce, romantically, “ah, yes, that would be one of the disadvantages of living in a medieval castle!! Hahaha”. Which, to my mind, makes up for nights shivering under five blankets and limited access to Internet.
Sadly, this won’t be a permanent life-move. I arranged to stay via the organisation wwoof (http://www.wwoof.org) – which links individuals willing to work on organic farms to hosts who get help in exchange for accomodation, food and ideas. Like most of Europe, much of Italy was under snow at the start of February. And when I arrived there were still stubborn blocks of ice on the ground. But the thaw had begun.
Having been snowed in for weeks, there was a dangerous shortage of logs and so us wwoofers (that is: Margaret, 25 from Michigan, Molly, 22, from Tenessee; and I) spent the first few days assisting Uran (head farmer) in chopping logs for firewood and stacking them aesthetically.
Then we moved down to the stream-cut woods and looked on, alarmed, as Uran selected trees to fell and attempted (mostly successfully) not to aim them in our direction. After which we would scurry after him, chucking the chopped wood down the slope to make drying piles – fairly characteristic of the sort of mundane, yet strangely enjoyable labour one tends to get assigned as a wwoofer.
Once our stack was deemed successfully abundant, we moved into the vineyards for a couple of days of rock-shifting. Not little pebbles. But great boulders, whose corners would glint deceptively through the soft soil, before you began to dig a bit beneath the surface to discover the monster of a rock you had uncovered (though secretly wished you never had) and would have to heave out and roll to the borders.
Luckily, we soon moved on to more pleasant labour: de-vesting the wire-lined rows in the vineyards of their dead vines…at times a wonderful position from which to enjoy the emerging Spring sunshine and picture-perfect Tuscan landscape – but only before a scheeming vine, mid-devest, would somehow manage to whip round and strike you back in the face – just in case you’d forgotten you were supposed to be working.
But don’t pity me the hard work. It really was enjoyable, in the midst of stunning scenery and good company; and worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Roman city life. As well as only taking up six hours of a day, Monday-Friday.
Much of the rest of the time was spent playing cards, being doused with wine by Sally (our fairytale host) or marvelling at her splendid wardrobe of vintage clothing and collection of photo-portraits she has made over the years, hearing about her adventures amongst Native American tribes, trying to gain the friendship of the Great Dane Minerva, huddling round fires, watching films, attempting to write e-mails in the sub-zero office temperatures, and helping in the kitchen.
We ate gloriously, in line with Charlotte’s tastes for traditional local fair: cinghiale, pasta ceci (chickpeas), pizza, minestra, tagliatelle con zucchini pesto – and were treated to a bread-baking lesson by the lovely Evelina. The specifics of the menu are a bit hazy because we drank so much of the castle’s exquisite wine along with every meal (which has ruined me forever – especially since they sell it in Edinburgh, so no more settling for Tesco chardonnay for £4.99).
Staring into the stuffed skin of a wild boar or lighting a tall silver candlestick, the precious objects adorning the castle’s interior conjured up a magical history. It once hosted Saint Catherine of Siena. And has passed through the hands of many aristocratic Italian families, as well as a Medici household and a Swiss gentleman, before being bought by the Greene family who, though remaining proud of their English identity, have restored it in a style loyal to its heritage.
Many such castles and villas in Tuscany have been saved from disrepair by the investment of foreign (often American and English) romantics. Which has been vital for the preservation of these historical monuments.
But I couldn’t help but think there should have been an eccentric Italian duke prancing around in culottes somewhere. Or any local Italian even, someone long-attached to the place and its past.
Thus, the experience was less medieval queens and princes and more nineteenth century British Grand Tour – which wasn’t the spirit in which I had come to Italy.
So I suppose I’ll be returning to Rome to start my second semester after all. To the heated, central, disorderly apartment I love to live in.