Umbria’s known as ‘the green heart of Italy’, a region of mountains, vineyards, olive groves, sunflower fields and wild woodland punctuated by towns and cities. Each summer for seven years I was invited there to run writing courses and retreats on an estate in the Apennine Mountains.
Just as I began to write Under the Italian Sun, the UK went into lockdown. That year’s retreat, where I’d planned to write part of the book, was cancelled, and travel to Italy became only a wistful dream. If I’d planned a book set in a country I didn’t know I would have been tearing my hair! Some authors seem to be able to pull off writing about a place they’ve never visited but I like to go there, soak up the atmosphere, live the life and stoke my memory banks. Happily, I had the means to reawaken all those memories and sensory experiences as, having already set One Summer in Italy in Umbria a couple of years earlier, I had created a photo library of places and things typical to the region.
The several wine tastings I enjoyed on my visits proved great research for Under the Italian Sun. The smell of soil and vines in the sun and the contrasting cool, dusty interior of a winery came back to me, and that I’d chosen my favourite local wine, Orvieto Classico, at meals taken in the historic quarters of Orvieto and Perugia. A winemaker told me Orvieto Classico should be served at room temperature but I drank it chilled and hoped he forgave me.
My memory of my first time on the terrace at the estate is clear. Everyone in the group of arrivals stopped mid-sentence, gazing past the tubs of red geraniums and twining passionflower to drink in the view of mountains and valleys. Over the years, I saw those valleys green or gold, depending on the dryness of the summer, but the colours on the mountain slopes and peaks changed every hour - dark green, misty lavender, dull blue or grey; pin-sharp in the early morning or glowing pink and apricot at sunset. I transported that terrace and view into Under the Italian Sun to form part of Buena Vista, the property on a rocky plateau where Zia begins her search for her unknown father and uncoils the tangle of lies around the identity of her real mum.
This past year, I’ve envied Zia moving into the apartment at the side of Buena Vista but, at least, through her, I could relive waking to that view and breakfasting on the sun-warmed terrace. All I had left to do was rearrange the scenery. To the house I added Zia’s apartment and three holiday cottages, then I grew a vineyard in the valley below.
My body may have been in England while I wrote Under the Italian Sun but my head, and my heart, were in Umbria again.
My husband’s retirement coincided with lockdown. Instead of being elsewhere every weekday he converted the garage into a workshop and built a shed. With the gym closed it seemed the ideal time for me to clear the nearby tangle of shrubs, brambles and ivy. Raised stone flower(or weed)beds had been dismantled to make way so, over several weeks of glorious sunshine I used the stone to make a Mediterranean garden...