Have you ever thought about packing up, leaving your life as you know it, and moving to Italy? Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun, did just that when she and her husband Ed purchased a villa in the hilltop Tuscan town of Cortona, resulting in a bestselling book and movie! Frances recently joined Kathy in filming the Dream of Italy: Tuscan Sun Special for PBS. Host Kathy McCabe visited with Frances again at her iconic home Bramasole, to talk specifically about the challenges and rewards of the growing trend of moving to Italy.
Transcript with Show Notes Embedded:
Kathy McCabe: So how easy is it to make Italian friends?
Frances Mayes: See you in the piazza. That’s it.
Kathy: You go to the piazza!
Frances: Yes. Yesterday I was there and there was a young woman with her baby and we all ended up holding the baby.
Kathy: Cooing.. that’s very Italian.
Frances: You just…you meet people in the shops. Everywhere you go, you meet a lot of people.
Kathy: This is Kathy McCabe. Welcome to the Dream of Italy Podcast. You know me from the PBS travel series, Dream of Italy. And the award-winning website and publication. Join me as we explore the sights and sound of Bell’Italia. From the canals of Venice to the piazzas of Puglia. From the fashion houses of Milan– Ciao Bella! … to the vineyards of Tuscany. Hop on! It’s going to be a great ride. Andiamo.
Kathy: I’m so thrilled to be back here at Bramasole!
Frances: Thank you for coming back. I’m glad to see you.
Kathy: Glad to see you. We filmed our Dream of Italy, Tuscan Sun Special here. We’ve talked already on the first podcast, the first stream of Italy podcast that’s out and on this podcast we’re going to talk about how people can make their own dream. Come true. This kind of dream.
Frances: Oh, that’s easy.
Kathy: But first I’d love to tell you about our valued sponsors for this podcast. Discover Rosapepe Retreats. Feel Italy and feel great when you travel to Campagna with our friends Susan and Jerry. You’ll stay at their family hotel. They have some ancient hot springs down there.
Frances: Oh wonderful.
Kathy: Take cooking classes with the baroness, taste regional wines at hidden vineyards. Find out more at Rosapepe Retreats. Our other sponsor for this podcast is Misto Lino. They offer fine European bedding and high quality Italian ceramics. Some of them would look great in Bramasole. Family run for more than 25 years, the owners work closely with artisans from the hilltowns of Tuscany to produce beautiful, handcrafted custom designed pieces. Visit mistolino.com and save 10% with the code DREAMOFITALY.
Frances: That’s a great shop, I’ve been there.
Kathy: You have?
Frances: Yes, it’s lovely.
Kathy: They love you.
Frances: Oh wonderful.
Kathy: It’s synchronicity. Always. Always. So what I’d love to start with Frances is how your dream of Italy has evolved over these years.
Frances: It has become reality more than dream. It was dream at first because I rented a property here in this area kind of by chance and fell in love with it and started coming here every summer and then finally bought a house. And now I’ve lived here longer than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. So it’s definitely a reality. But you know, some days in early June when it’s so paradisical you can’t help but think you’re in a dream.
Kathy: Today. Today. It was raining all of May, we’re here in June filming this.
Frances: Yes. Everything’s popping out. I’ve never seen so many wild flowers. It’s just beautiful.
Kathy: I’m actually getting chills. And I think this is why people want to make this move. So what would the first step be for someone they’ve been to Italy, they love it. What should, how should they start this process?
Frances: I think spending a lot of time here before you do anything drastic. The best thing of course is learning the language as much as you can. A little bit of Italian goes along way, but you do have to study if you want to ever get to that perfect subjunctive and things like that. So spending a lot of time here just trying to figure out if it’s really the right place for you and not just an idea.
Kathy: So talking about language — we have talked about this before, I think yours is much better than mine, but I struggle with it — What have you done that’s helped the most to learn Italian?
Frances: Restoring the house was kind of breakthrough because we were working along with everyone else. And so we picked up a lot of local dialect and of course took courses. My husband went to the University of Perugia for Stranieri. We went to Dante Aligheri in Florence and in Siena. So studying along the way and then just the best thing is picking it up in the piazza.
Kathy: Ah, we’ll talk about that. So your latest book is, See You in the Piazza.
Frances: Yes. See you in the Piazza. It’s a wonderful, wonderful title because that is what you do in Italy. You see everyone in the piazza and you see your worst enemy and your best friend and your dentist and everyone.
Kathy: The drama of Italy takes place in the piazza.
Frances: Yes it does. It’s the big living room.
Kathy: Well, what’s been fascinating when we’ve talked as you traveled all over Italy for this book and your forthcoming, Always Italy.
Kathy: So did you, I knew you did find other places you really liked. Do you have places that you would recommend people check out?
Frances: Oh, so many. So many…
Kathy: Give me your top three.
Frances: I felt unfaithful to Cortona because I found so many places that would be absolutely wonderful to live in. I loved the north of Italy and I didn’t really expect to. Trento is kind of an ideal town.
Kathy: I need to get there.
Frances: I loved — That’s in the North — way South, the small town of Cicli is just one of the most beautiful towns in the universe.
Kathy: What region is that in?
Frances: South, south, south Sicily.
Kathy: Ah, okay. I’ve not been.
Frances: It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s on the cover of my book actually.
Kathy: That’s the piazza that’s in the picture.
Frances: Yeah. I unexpectedly fell in love with Milano, another place I didn’t truly warm to the idea of.
Kathy: Why though?
Frances: I thought it was big and crowded, industrial and business and business and banks. It’s changed so much since I was there 20 years ago. It’s just a new place. So many open spaces, so much to do. The whole design seems exciting. Oh, it’s just wonderful. A whole gateway to that north, Piemonte, Lombardia.
Kathy: Love it. I love it up there. And Piemonte especially. I think I can live in Alba, or one of the small towns. And I think we’ve talked before about Torino, I think is a great city.
Frances: Yes. I’m just about to go there for a week. I love it so much.
Kathy: Yeah. What is it that you love?
Frances: It’s beautiful. It’s regal. The city is full of arcaded streets and a lot of museums. I think there are 44 museums. So there’s just intense cultural life. The restaurants, like just best food in the world. Oh really so many things to love about Torino. One of the largest markets in Europe. You just need a kitchen when you’re there. Cause the food up there, the produce is so perfect. So variable. It’s really great to go to the market.
Kathy: So you’ve probably seen a lot of ex-pats come and go in Cortona. Was it popular for ex-pats when you moved here.
Frances: No, there were very few. There were a few and they were writers. One of them was Germaine Greer.
Frances: She lived, she was leaving just kind of as we arrived. But the writer and Anne Cornelison…
Frances: And Muriel Spark lived nearby, the translator William Weaver. There were a lot of writers, a little cluster of them but they’re all gone. And now there are a good many ex-pats around. I’d say 50 houses are occupied by Americans. Mostly Americans, but some English, some French, a few Australians.
Kathy: It’s nice to have that international mix.
Frances: It is, it is. And everyone who stays here really loves it. They want to contribute to the town. They want to participate in things. They’re not just here to, you know, sit back and have wine tastings. Although that’s fun too.
Kathy: I that’s really important, and you’ve shared before, you have to do something when you’re here.
Frances: Yes. I think if you don’t find that you love gardening or writing or volunteering for something or pursuing some particular interest, I mean you can’t just, you know, be a tourist forever. You have to live here and that is the great joy. If you take to country pleasures, it’s a country place. It’s not an exciting city. But as in all the very small towns and villages in Italy, each one has an amazing cultural life. There are photography workshops in Cortona, there are concerts, there are lectures. It’s like a midsize American city, at least.
Kathy: Do you recommend people look for a town that’s this size that has a little bit more, or I guess anywhere you go, you can be within 45 minutes of a town like..
Frances: Yes, the trains connect you so easily all over. It just depends on what you like. Some people want to be right in the middle of the Florence or Rome or Milano or Torino. Some people want to be in a city, a lot of buzz, a lot of excitement. But I like the country pleasures. I love my garden. I love walking on the Roman roads. Just depends on what you want.
Kathy: So how easy is it to make Italian friends.
Frances: See you in the Piazza? That’s it.
Kathy: You go to the piazza!
Frances: Yeah. Yes. Yesterday I was there and there was a young woman with her baby and we all ended up holding the baby.
Kathy: Cooing… That’s very Italian.
Frances: You meet people in the shops everywhere you go, you meet a lot of people and there’s kind of a nice mix between the foreigners and the local people. And I really enjoy that. We have a book club. Four different nationalities in the book club. So that’s fun. There’s a whole lot of social life. There’s a lot of cooking and entertaining, a lot of beautiful table settings and visiting harmonica players and fun things. A social life is intense. It’s intense.
Kathy: So you have to go back to the States to rest.
Frances: Yes. I think meeting people is not the problem. It’s more like how do I get anything done? Because there’s so much to do.
Kathy: And what about this dual life you have? So I know there are advantages to not moving here completely. There’s tax issues and it can be difficult to get a Visa or to be a citizen.
Frances: Yes, you have to go through the step process before you can stay here full time. It’s a permesso di soggiorno and then there’s another level and another level you finally get your permanent status. But there’s some bureaucracy to deal with. That is not too bad. We have a permanent status, we are residents. But if you stay more than 180 days you could be subject to Italian taxes and just depends on whether you want to get involved with a lot of complication with taxes.
Kathy: They’re quite high and then if you’re an American, you’re taxed no matter where you live. So that’s like a double tax so that’s..
Frances: No, you don’t get a double taxed.
Kathy: Oh no? No?
Frances: I don’t know how it works. But there’s no double, you can deduct the taxes.
Kathy: See? That’s why I’m talking to you. So have you found the bureaucracy to be too difficult or..
Frances: I find it vastly overstated.
Kathy: Oh really?
Frances: Things work so well here. I know, I know.
Kathy: That’s a revelation right here.
Frances: It’s so much easier than trying to get anything done in San Francisco. Really. I mean we don’t have much bureaucracy in North Carolina where I live now, but here you have to do permits for your house renovation and they take time. But it’s just a process. No, we don’t really find that there’s that much bureaucracy. If you’re living in the center of Rome and you’re trying to get a telephone, I hear that it can be a problem. And I can only speak for northern Italy where things are quite organized.
Kathy: Right. Right.
Frances: We have amazing recycling here, for instance. Much more sophisticated than we have in the United States where we live.
Kathy: Do you have to take your garbage somewhere? Or do they come and pick it up?
Frances: They come and pick it up. We have to take ours because if we leave out the wild boar get it.
Kathy: So that’s another hazard. People don’t think of.
Kathy: They think they’re going to preserve this garden or this vineyard and it’s going to be easy to grow things, but it’s actually quite challenging.
Frances: Wild boar are fierce and they’re plentiful. We had to fence our whole property to protect our garden because they get in and they tear up everything. They can do enormous damage overnight.
Kathy: So it’s not the bureaucracy, it’s the boar.
Frances: It’s the boar.
Kathy: So Francis of course people read about the restoration of Bramasole and Under the Tuscan Sun. Would you do it all again?
Frances: We keep doing it. Oh, houses are never finished with you. You might be finished with them but they’re not finished with you. The restoration was really fun. I loved it. And we’ve done a lot of big projects since then. We’ve restored a second house, although we’ve always kept Brahmasole. But it’s a way into the community. You learn about all the people who are working for you and their families and it’s just one of those kind of secret benefits to moving here, is that with your team you really learn a lot about the community and also it’s just a magnificent sense to be restoring something to the patrimony.
Frances: You’re here. That house is going to be here long after you are, it was long here before.
Frances: So you feel this great satisfaction with returning it to its splendid life.
Kathy: Does it end up costing twice as much?
Frances: Oh, of course. But the satisfaction is enormous because the workers here are skilled, beautiful craftsman, and they really know what they’re doing, particularly the stonemasons. They can just cut and shape that stone like it’s butter and you can’t believe the skill they have, the artistry they bring to their work and their enjoyment of it. So that part is really a great satisfaction. Not only are you fixing this place back up again, but you’re doing something beautiful to it. It’s the satisfaction of working with these amazing people.
Kathy: It sounds very romantic.
Frances: It is.
Kathy: Thus under the Tuscan Sun. So a few months back I was lucky enough to be here to film our Tuscan Sun special. So it’s a Dream of Italy Tuscan Sun Special.
Frances: Yes, we had fun didn’t we? We had a great time.
Kathy: We did have fun! So we cooked with Silvia, we met Sebastian, and the jewelry. We we were in a medieval parade. What were some of your favorites?
Frances: That was my favorite when we got in that costume room and tried on all these medieval robes and dresses, and then marched down the street behind the band. That was fun.
Kathy : It was incredible. And you said in all of the years you’ve lived here, you’ve never done anything like that.
Frances: No, I hadn’t. That was new. Another high point to me was cooking with Silvia Baracchi and watching you flop that pasta around on that rolling pin. So amazing. You picked it up so quickly.
Kathy: I learned, that’s the one thing I’ve learned in doing this TV show, we usually make pasta in nearly every episode. So I’ve perfected that. I also think it’s genetic. I had an Italian grandmother.
Frances: It must be.
Kathy: And she was really good with the dough, so it was wonderful. I saw Silvia last night in town at Bottega Barracchi, which is where we were at the wine, dine, shine. So everyone’s really connected in Cortona. Any advice for people when they see this special and they want to come to Cortona? Some general advice about visiting here.
Frances: Oh, take long walks all over town, up into the residential section at the top. It’s intact, medieval settlement with old cloisters and small churches. Go to the wine dinners on Thursday night. We’re lucky here because all the restaurants in Cortona are good. So it’s not only just this great thing once a week with the wine dinners. It’s every night.
Kathy: That’s what Ed said in the show. And so far I’ve found that to be true, being here again this week and trying some other restaurants.
Frances: We’re really lucky. The other real highlight of Cortona is the art.
Kathy: Yes. And we saw a little bit of that.
Frances: We have the Etruscan Museum and the Diocesian Museum and there’s a beautiful signorelli hidden in this tiny church, San Niccolo at the top of Cortona.
Kathy: So it’s worth getting off of via Nazionale and going up.
Frances: Yes. Up, up, up. All the women in Cortona have great legs because of it.
Kathy: It’s true. It’s true. It’s a great place to, you know, have a nice dinner and then work it off.
Frances: Yeah, definitely. Also, we have this long park at the end of town. That’s something, I don’t know of another Tuscan hilltown that has that. And it’s a great gift to the people of Cortona because these stony old towns have no trees. So here’s this long beautiful park. You can just take a long quiet stroll and just meet a few of your neighbors or your friends and a few stray cats. Otherwise it’s just solitude. There’s a tennis court at the end of the walk. So that’s a real plus for Cortona. We’re really lucky to have this beautiful park.
Kathy: Well, thank you again for sharing Cortona with me in this special. Can’t wait for everyone to see it. And tell me a little bit more about the two books that you have. The two travel books because Italy is much more than even Cortona.
Frances: See You in the Piazza is my foray into very little known places in Italy. It was a great adventure. I think I went to 80 different small towns and some medium sized towns.
Kathy: How long did that take you?
Frances: We were traveling about a year and a half. And then as soon as I finished that I started this book called Always Italy with National Geographic and it’ll be coming out in March. And it’s all 20 regions of Italy. So now I think, am I beginning to know this country a little bit?
Kathy: Just now, right?
Frances: Now I’ve been to all 20.
Kathy: I have two left. Just by happenstance, I have not been to Le Marche and I have not been to Friuli. So..
Frances: Oh wonderful.
Kathy: I need to make it a trip.
Frances: Both just beautiful treasures. Very different. I mean Friuli is the white wine country. And Trieste, which most people don’t even think of as part of Italy and it’s magnificent.
Kathy: So years ago I went to this travel writing class at Book Passage, which you know, in Corte Madera.
Kathy: And Jan Morris was there.
Frances: Oh wonderful.
Kathy: And I read the book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere and I guess I’ve been saving up Trieste.
Kathy: Because that book was exquisite.
Frances: It is. I wrote about it in Always Italy.
Frances: It’s a treasure. Jane Morris’ book about Venice is also really wonderful. She just brings that history of Venice alive.
Kathy: Do you have any other books to recommend to people?
Frances: I love the Blue Guide series. It’s the best guide, thorough lots of context. So I always have those with me. I like the Touring Club of Italy guides as well, although they’re in Italian. But I like to seek out, when I go to an area, the writer of that place.
Frances: Like Svevo in Trieste, Calvino along the Tuscan coast, Natalia Ginzburg in Torino, Cesare Pavese. All the great writers are very rooted in their place. So you get to know a place in a different way when you see it through a writer’s eyes.
Kathy: Absolutely. And thank you for letting us see Cortona and Italy through your eyes.
Frances: It’s a pleasure.
You can get more information on Frances’ books at FrancesMayesBooks.com and you can see our special on your local public television station. It will be airing or repeating for years. And if you’d like to get a free guide to do the things that we did in the show, it’s called the Tuscan Sun Travel Guide, you can go to DreamofItaly.com. So I’d like to thank our sponsors again who made this podcast possible Rosapepe Retreats. You can walk with the ancient philosophers and discover why the Roman emperors, chose Campagna for their retreats and escapes, enjoy healing thermal waters, vistas, mouthwatering cuisine. You can book your trip at Rosapepe Retreats. And also Misto Lino, offering the finest in luxury European bedding and high quality Italian ceramics. Family run for more than 25 years, they work with artisans and hilltowns like Cortona to produce these beautiful custom designed pieces. If you visit Misto Lino you can save 10% with the code DREAMOFITALY. Alright, so we’ll see you in the piazza.
Frances: Yes, that’ll be great.
Kathy: Thank you again.
Frances: Thank you Kathy.
Kathy: If you haven’t yet, be sure to subscribe to the Dream of Italy Podcast on Apple Podcasts. And leave us a review. For more about all of our podcast episodes, and to give us feedback on what you would like to hear in the future, visit dreamofitaly.com/podcast. And for all things Dream of Italy, the award-winning travel publication, membership website, TV show and travel-planning service, visit dreamofitaly.com. Ciao!