This article is from the February 2005 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.
Many of us — myself included — are devoted fans of Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, In Tuscany, Bringing Tuscany Home: Sensuous Style From the Heart of Italy and more (all published by Broadway Books, except for the hardcover edition of Under the Tuscan Sun, which was published by Chronicle Books). Mayes’ books focus on the house she and her husband, Ed, bought near Cortona named Bramasole, but also include many musings on the region of Tuscany as well as Italian culture and history. The renovation and interior decoration of Bramasole have led to a new furniture line, At Home in Tuscany, featuring 85 pieces, now available at Drexel Heritage stores nationwide. I have long wanted to interview Mayes for the pages of Dream of Italy, but as our paths haven’t yet crossed, I asked Barrie Kerper, author of The Collected Traveler series, if she might be able to track Frances down since both writers are published by imprints of Random House.
DOI: I’ve heard rumors that you no longer live at now legendary Bramasole. Do you still live in the vicinity of Cortona?
FM: We live at Bramasole over half the year. The other property we bought is a 12th-century house built by the followers of St. Francis. We have done an historical restoration of the hermitage, which we will use as a retreat and as a place for our many guests.
DOI: As a travel writer, I am often asked to prepare itineraries for friends and colleagues planning to visit Tuscany. I suspect you are, too, but can you suggest a five- to seven-day itinerary for both first-time and repeat visitors to Tuscany?
FM: After Florence and Siena, just wander. Get lost, see where you end up, take unpaved roads. The most beautiful road I know is the tiny one leading to Montechiello. I love the Maremma area and the Mugello above Florence. Buy a guide to gardens and visit several because you also get to see the villas. A lunch with a fine bottle of Brunello in Montalcino, followed by vespers at Sant’Antimo will be unforgettable. Buying ceramics in the little towns around Montelupo is great fun, and so are the antique market in Arezzo on the first weekend of the month, and a weekend at Il Falconiere (39-0575-612679; www.ilfalconiere.it), a divine country inn outside Cortona. San Sepolcro and Anghiari are two of my favorite towns.
DOI: For readers who may not have visited Cortona yet, could you suggest a perfect day in a Tuscan town itinerary there?
FM: Ideally, visit on Saturday morning for Cortona’s small market. The town is only 2,500 people, within the walls, and the best thing to do on any day is to start at the top in the old residential district. Visit the churches of San Niccolo and San Cristoforo, wander down to the piazza and visit the Etruscan museum. Have lunch in the loggia (the old covered market) overlooking the Piazza della Republica, or if it is market day, try a porchetta panino, a pork sandwich cut from a whole roasted pig. The Duomo and the Diocesian Museum deserve a visit, especially for the sublime Fra Angelico Annunciation in the museum and the paintings by a local boy, Signorelli. The Etruscan tombs are nearby, as is the fantastic Thursday market in Camucia at the bottom of the hill. A walk along the parterre park and out along the Strada della Memoria, planted with cypresses to honor the World War I dead, leads by Bramasole, our house, and provides a look at the Etruscan city walls above our house. Dinner will be robust and good. All our restaurants and trattorie are wonderful.
DOI: I have in my archives an article you wrote for The New York Times travel section entitled “Wearing Out the Leather Looking at Shoes in Florence.” In it you note the Italians’ fixation on shoes, and admit to one of your own. Would you mind sharing the names of your favorite shoe stores throughout Tuscany?
FM: Too endless to answer. I buy a lot of my shoes at the Prada outlet, called Space, in Montevarchi. I like Ottino (Via Cerretani, 20/62r) for leather in Florence. Any street there is likely to have a great shoe shop — Fratelli Rosetti, Bruno Magli, Ferragamo. The La Badia shops are worth a look for sometimes good design at very reasonable prices.
DOI: When writing about the mirror you bought in Venice, you emphasize that it was so carefully wrapped it arrived without a crack, and that this shipment was a revelation because it convinced me that anything could be shipped. ‘Equally important for travelers to Tuscany who wish to purchase items they can’t carry on the plane is that – compared to U. S. prices – there’s no comparison,’ as you aptly note, and that ‘Europe, despite thousands of American dealers raiding every conceivable corner, still is full of affordable treasures. Shipping is worth the trouble.’ Can you provide the names of some reputable shippers?
FM: DHL and UPS and other lines can be contacted by store owners, all of whom know how to ship to the U.S. I’ve used Arezzo Sped for furniture. (See sidebar for more shipping details.)
DOI: Is Drexel Heritage doing well with your ‘At Home in Tuscany’ Collection? Is there a particular piece that seems to be most popular?
FM: It’s their most successful line in twenty years! I’m thrilled with the collection. Much of it is based on my own antiques. It’s a semi-custom line so there is a lot of choice in the finishes. The large armadio was designed from a photo of Bramasole’s front door. The Florentine ring bed from an old gate, the convent table from one I found in a hay barn. The line is personal for me and translates well to my desire to “bring Tuscany home.” The Bramasole Bed is most popular, partly because it is a fine reproduction of a 17th-century Tuscan bed and partly because it was featured in the movie The Princess Diaries. I have one in my guest room in California and one in a guest room in Tuscany.
DOI: For 2005, do you have a list of places to visit in Tuscany and/or in Italy that you haven’t yet been?
FM: We continue to explore the south of Italy, especially Naples, which we love. I want to go to more of the Italian islands.
DOI: For better or worse, most people know you only for your Tuscany books. Of your works of poetry and a novel, which one is your favorite? Or is there one that you’d be really happy to learn found a wider audience?
FM: My favorite book is always the one I’m working on at the moment. I am partial to my novel, Swan, which is set in the South where I grew up.
DOI: With the publication of Bringing Tuscany Home you have now completed a full circle, a collection of two memoirs and two illustrated books. Together, the books touch upon Tuscan (and Italian) history, personal experiences, food and wine, music, culture, art, gardening, and artisan traditions. Do you feel you have said all you want to say, written all you want to write about Tuscany? Or do you perhaps have an idea for an upcoming book?
FM: Italy is endless; I could write about it forever and it always would seem new to me. But now I am writing a travel narrative that takes place in eight countries. I’ve fallen hard for Portugal and Turkey.
Sidebar: Don’t Miss Cortona’s Ceramics
Readers who’ve been to Cortona may recall seeing the local ceramics bearing a daisy in green or brown on a yellow background. The best and oldest shop that offers these traditional pieces is Il Cocciaio, at Via Benedetti, 24 and Via Nazionale, 69. Some of these unique pieces are now offered in the U.S. through a unique partnership with Il Cocciaio and Prospero Winery, of California and Pleasantville, New York. Ceramic enthusiasts may contact Prospero at (914) 769-6870, 134 Marble Avenue, Pleasantville, NY 10570 about the bowls, carafes, planters, platters and cruets. Prices are reasonable, and Prospero also offers a few pieces in different, equally appealing patterns as well.
Sidebar: The Shipping News: Getting Your Purchases Back Home
Shoppers who wish to ship several items together, bought at different stores, may want to contact major carriers directly. Many have offices in Florence and Tuscany.
Florence location: Via delle Cupola, 245, open Monday through Friday, 08:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Another Florence location: Viale P. Togliatti 41, Sovigliana Vinci, open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Closed Saturday and Sunday.
UPS owns six Mail Boxes Etc. stores in Florence, and one that is highly recommended is at Via della Scala,13r, open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.. (39) 055 268173
(800) PICK-UPS; www.ups.com
FedEx has eight offices in Italy, all located on the outskirts of cities. Its Tuscan location is in Capalle, outside Florence, at Via Gobetti, 3. Open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (39) 022 188444
Virtual Bellhop (www.virtualbellhop.com) may be another option.
— Barrie Kerper