Our correspondent Lucie Shelbourne describes the Autumn months in the Umbrian hills….
As Autumn unfolds her skirts over the Umbrian hills, I try to hinder her by pulling off the yellowing leaves from my pot plants, pushing away the reminder that summer’s lease is breathing its last. Memories of July and August and their devouring element, which instills a fervour that banishes rationality, leaving one victim to all sorts of ensuing emotions, begin to fade like dreams at the break of day. At dawn, gentle rain pitter-patters on the terracotta roof tiles, nudging me out of my slumber. A dog barks far off and the sound of an old Fiat engine, straining up the hill below my house, heralds the start of another day in the lives of the spear and distaff community of my domain.
In Monterchi, a weary-looking line of school students – deprived of sleep because of the previous night’s end of holiday celebrations – await the bus; their shoulders bearing heavy, multi-coloured rucksacks stuffed with this year’s scholastic publications, for which parents have forked out hefty sums. I drop off my daughter, who joins the queue, raising eyebrows with her purple hair – her signature for an aspiring wannabe pop star. Today is the start of her final year at the Istituto d’Arte di Sansepolcro in Tuscany.
The sun peeps through the evaporating clouds as I drive back to the house, causing the newly-ploughed fields to glisten where jays are pecking busily at their breakfast. The locals are getting ready for the grape harvest, la vendemia, depositing large plastic boxes at the ends of the rows of vines. Every fattoria chooses a different week to begin picking as the farmers all stick religiously to their own beliefs about when the grape is mature. They are also timing it with the weather forecast. We all seem to live in different micro-climates and this morning, the grapes in our valley have had a pleasant sprinkling from the cloud burst at day break, just enough to boost their final spurt. Of course, this is local wine.
At the height of summer, during a tremendous heat wave, we had sat under the towering lime trees on a small hillock in a lovely garden in northern Tuscany – guests of the Associate Director of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi Wine Producers, Giovanni Geddes Filicaja – drinking the most delectable varieties of wine from the cellar. More generous hosts would be hard to find. Some of the distinguished guests had been seated inside but later, with flushed faces in need of the cool evening air, they came out to join our ‘top table’ al fresco. The Frescobaldi is a prominent noble family that has been involved in the political, sociological and economic history of Tuscany since the Middle Ages. They supplied wine to Henry VIII, and surviving contracts in the family archives are signed by the English king.
Before dinner was served, I was introduced to a gentleman called Andrea Pichi Graziani who, I was told, had been given the contract for building a landing strip in Venice. I struggled in my mind for a moment to understand this properly, as surely there simply was no land in Venice for such a project. Then I realised that it was a grass runway for small private planes. If I felt like it I could board one of his microlights in Sansepolcro and fly to Venice. One conversation had everyone amused because Andrea crashed his microlight on the olive trees while inspecting a possible new airfield. Then a more serious topic arose: a warning about limiting the number of glasses of Chianti and saying no to the grappa when about to fly home again!