I started out to write this about my recent visit to the South of Italy with my sister, but as I sit here looking at my 10th century fortress and the autumnal tones appearing on the trees, I find it hard to write of anything but the beauty of my piece of Tuscany. Especially as I have only 2 more days to enjoy it before I leave for what is touted as being the worst winter in a century in the UK.

This place is utterly beautiful. Magnificent sunrises seen from my bed each morning over the blue hills in the distance, with a valley full of little villages some bigger, others smaller than my own, each with people who live, love and work here for long, long lives. Death notices are pasted on rubbish bins, town walls, sometimes even the places meant for them, within an hour of the person’s passing, always with an age, and mostly a good age. And I look to what brings a good age….and its good food and wine, fresh air and fresh water, exercise and a sense of community. When the church bells ring for Mass, people potter up to the church as much to greet their neighbours as to pray I expect. And it is this community I will miss when I head for Pisa airport in 2 days. My neighbour, Vittorio, with the best veggie garden in the village: Carlo and his fat beagle Eva, Anna who manages my house, Mary who lives down the hill and is becoming a dear friend and Toty who has taken ownership of jobs and notices things that need doing: sort of like a husband should, but he goes home to his wife Catarina and his grapes, which two weeks ago we picked – well what was left after the deer had eaten about a third of them. The workmen who restored this place 25 years ago are still working and the handsome and delightful Fiorenzo Castelli, the plumber (a bit like Mr Reece of the Garfagnana for those Ozzies who know what I mean) has just left with a big cheque and I have three fabulous new walk in showers.

But I digress….I still have two beautiful days here, two nights which I have planned alone at home and hopefully two lovely sunny days to sit on my terrace with a book and a glass of wine and a heart full of gratitude and love.

Two weeks ago I flew south. Meeting my sister in Bari we got into our car and immediately it was obvious we were in what the Italians have long called the Mezzogiorno. From Rome down Italy gets this name (there is even a southern newspaper claiming the name) because at mezzogiorno or midday one ceases work. The assumption is of course that they never work….and its almost true. Everything was different. Huge rubbish on the roadsides, empty towns, slow service, petrol stations with no diesel to be had and more. Little industry and failed car manufacture after WWII when Fiat tried and did not succeed to get the southerners to work. We found cities and towns where almost everything was closed, hardly a place to eat or get a coffee, masses of tourist rubbish awaiting purchasers, and car parks that were unattended and therefore free even though they displayed costs of parking. We also found a huge prison on the outskirts of Lecce as we were trying to find our hotel which in itself was a monumental aberration.

Lecce, the capital of Puglia, the heel of Italy, is an exquisite baroque town, made from golden sandstone which, when bathed in southern sunlight, was beyond beautiful. I’d left it to my sister to book a hotel…..and it was one of those awful places where sales teams meet for conferences: new, minimal and adorned with two illuminated blue plastic statues of ladies at the entrance! To be fair it did have parking, it was only 5 minutes drive from the town and it was clean but it also had a lit section of the bathroom in the bedroom that changed colour all night…blue, to pink, to purple to green, and it had no food other than packaged sandwiches and droopy salads in plastic boxes.

Lecce made up for it. Beautiful buildings, small and large, lots of churches, although the cathedral bathed in plastic and scaffolding, magnificent wrought iron balustrades, beautiful doors with lovely decorative knockers and a Vespa advertising a tattoo parlour. Wandering around the deserted streets one was grateful that it was not like Florence, jam packed and full of thieves at the best of times. One could immerse oneself in the architectural wonders, pillars, mantles, the juxtaposition of a bicycle casually left outside a magnificent carved doorway and streets filled with gnarled olives that had been there for a hundred years. Sadly so much was abandoned. Exquisite buildings left to rot because there is not enough money in the town, people have fled to work in the north, and inevitably, being the south, there must be some Mafioso activity that halts progress. Such a shame to see so many buildings vacant, and so many renovators’ opportunities – if only there was an opportunity someone would buy. It took our second visit on day two to find any shops open and surprisingly we found one of the best women’s clothing shops in Italy: full of very expensive and highly sought after brands.

Travelling along the coast heading south to the heel was lovely: along the seaside, stony fields of ancient olives, abandoned stone shepherd’s huts, and fruiterers selling different kinds of things from their 3 wheeled ‘Apes’ by the roadside: strange fruits, pomegranates, huge bunches of red chilli and masses of dried and pungent herbs. Our third night was at Otranto, surely a bubbling summer town but at the end of the season it was empty although pleasant and relaxed with our padrone bringing us lovely bottle of red and two glasses to our room, insisting on buying us coffee and a pastry for breakfast the following morning and giving me a pottery ashtray with the name of his restaurant painted on it in aqua and yellow. An old fortress, a harbour full of yachts, and some very picturesque alleyways worth photographing and then not much except a nice pizza for dinner.

The next day we followed the coastline to the very bottom of the heel at Marina de Leuca and it was a beautiful drive: blue sea, sunny skies and endless acres of olives doing their best in very stony ground. An extraordinary building, the Villa Sticchi, was the jewel in the crown, an ornate pile on a hill that looked like a mix of mogul and Moorish and, sadly, very needy of work. Around the Gulf of Taranto was an ancient Greek town called GallIpoli with its circular fortress that protected the city for centuries. Again a lovely old town of interesting cobbled streets, stunning architecture and totally run down.

Inland we visited the World Heritage site in Arcobello and its igloo shaped trulli – surely the most idiosyncratic habitations in Italy. Constructed of local limestone without mortar, they have a hole in the top which allows smoke to escape, and are a uniformly small size. If you want more living space, local custom dictates that you build another trulli or two and connect them, rather than build a larger one. Others are scattered around the countryside, some in need of restoration and others combined with beautiful sandstone constructions to provide lovely homes and tourist accommodation. No one knows why they were built like this and most are 200 years old or less.

Later we moved on to a town we visited in 2001 and loved. Trani, on the Adriatic coast above Bari, has a magnificent cathedral and wonderful old town centre. In 2001 we passed through and this time we walked and walked, mostly in the rain, to see this gorgeous place. It is a treasure and one of the highlights of our five days in the heel of Italy, especially the view from our ancient and rather tired ex monastery hotel of the plethora of expensive boats in the harbour. The motorway back south to Brindisi was boring, as was the city which has seen much better days. Our hotel, a sister to the Trani accommodation, was even more run down, with threadbare carpets, internet that barely worked and awful coffee at breakfast. The find however was a back street restaurant which served the most delicious seafood pizza known to man with a gorgeous bottle of southern red. It was worth it after all!

We could have avoided the early start to the airport (well except that we had to go to several distributors before we could fill up with diesel) as the pelting rain had everything in ‘casino’ – the Italian word for chaos. It had not rained since June. This was October and it was making up for lost time. Lots of early morning arrivals and subsequent departures anticipated. But nothing happened. Just lack of information, no notices, no announcements and no planes. And no chairs. We stood for the first 3 hours then cadged a bench for a time provided for passengers to put their stuff back together after security. I was not moving from it…and the only power point in the departures area where my mobile was safely being recharged. My sister eventually found her way to Bari for a flight to Venice and I got to Pisa 4 hours late and had to drive home in the dark and rain to a house filled with building dust and no showers. Ah the joy of travelling. The next day I heard that Alitalia had gone bust. How totally unsurprising!!

And so to my last days in Tuscany for the while. Friends, farewells, gifts of wine and flowers, payment of moneys owing, plans for work next year around the property and locking away all the stuff I don’t need in a wintry London. Everywhere the signs of battening down the hatches and autumn: chainsaws going, firewood being delivered, chestnuts being gathered, shots being fired at pheasants and birds, and guns being readied for the 1st November…All Souls Day…run piggie run….your summer is over…..there are licenses to kill being issued and mouths watering at the anticipation of wild boar salami and ragu over those hearty winter pasta dishes.

So Italy, my other home, farewell, arrivederci. I love being here. I love sharing this beauty with my friends and family. I love the timelessness of the place. And, as I have done for the past 24 years, on the morning of my departure, I will stand at the kitchen window and weep. Thank you. I love you. I will return when the party season is over in London.

Until next time, with heart.