Writer and poet Frances Mayes lives the kind of life most of us can only dream about. Wandering through Italy, she and her husband, Ed, came upon a villa in the Tuscan town of Cortona. They bought and restored the villa, an effort she chronicled in her deeply charming best-seller Under the Tuscan Sun, which was later made into a film starring Diane Lane. Subsequent books like Bella Tuscany, Every Day in Tuscany and The Tuscan Sun Cookbook turned her from a chronicler into an expert and eventually into a celebrity. There have been other books as well, but now there’s See You in the Piazza, a diary of her extended travels in her adopted homeland with her husband. It’s a road trip, a feast of small towns and villages of Italy, with lavish descriptions of meals eaten and wines tasted. In the hand of a lesser writer, it might not have worked so well. With Mayes at the helm, it’s a delightful ramble through parts of Italy that few of us have ever visited. The good news is that two decades on, she has not lost that sense of wonder and delight that informed her first Italian book. This one reads like a letter from a good friend, a literate one at that, on a delightful meander through off the beaten path Italy, venturing onto narrow roads and remote beaches. There are densely packed markets, unsung churches and small museums filled with minor masterpieces. It’s a book that should inspire many more road trips into the heart of rural Italy. I met Mayes nearly 20 years ago when she published Bella Tuscany and caught up with her recently when she was in North Carolina, her American home, on a book tour for See You in the Piazza.
Everett Potter: Frances, what I found wonderful about your book were the hidden towns and villages you went to and those places that were hiding in plain sight, such as Turin. What were some of your favorites?
Frances Mayes: I think Turin was probably the biggest surprise. Of course, I knew about it, and I had a friend who grew up there, and he always hated it, so I just took his point of view. But I decided to go there and it was absolutely astonishing. It’s the greenest city in Italy. I’d always thought of it as a polluted industrial city and it’s not. They’ve done a great job of transforming it. There are miles and miles and miles of green shaded streets. It’s beautiful, and you can see the Alps from there. There are wonderful arcaded streets. It just ticks every box of being a great city. When we first went there, I said to my husband, “Where is everybody?” There were very few tourists there. He said, “They’re all in Florence.” And I think that’s true. The best restaurants, really, I couldn’t believe how good the food was. I was drawn to it by the late Italian poet Cesare Pavese and it was one of those little miracles that I ended up staying in his house, which is now an inn. Sleeping in his bedroom was just so amazing.
Potter: Why do you think that history and culture have been so carefully and successfully preserved in Italy?
Mayes: It’s partly because Italy was so late in becoming a country. It was only unified in 1861. Of course, it never really unified. I think it’s because of all the little fragments that Italy was, like the Papal States, the Kingdom of Two Sicilys, the Bourbon Kings, the mountain villages cut off from each other and the kind of serfdom that existed. It’s because there were so many tiny worlds and they remained intact. They still never really unified and they’re still amazingly different, north to south. You go 40 miles and you’re into a different color stone, different pasta, different kind of art, different architecture. They’re kind of preserved in amber because they were so cut off from each other. If you lived in the Papal States, you could not leave without a passport. It’s like having a passport to go from here to Atlanta. And they could not get passports so easily.
Potter: There’s a sense that some Italian cities, such as Venice and even Florence, are so crowded from June through September that they’re almost not worth visiting during that time. Do you have any secrets for those who want to go but are unable to visit in shoulder seasons, or offseason?
Mayes: If you can’t go any other time I would still say “Go.” A friend of mine says he never notices the crowds in Venice because he looks up! Even in Venice, which is just horrific in July, you should get away from the tourist centers like Piazza San Marco and off into the neighborhoods and explore in a different way and it’s still well worth it. Get up early, walk very early, and you escape tons of people. Go out to the lesser known parts, like the Lagoon. There are not that many people out on islands like Torcello.
We’re just realizing what mass tourism is coming to and I think it can only get worse. Sure, if you want to see Rome, Florence, and Venice, go. But make some room for the small places, because they are still the authentic Italy. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. When we were down in Puglia, and going into these tiny towns, we rediscovered the spontaneity of travel, a feeling that we didn’t know what we would encounter.
Potter: What do you find are the biggest misconceptions that Americans have of Italy when they come for the first time?
Mayes: Americans are very proud of being Americans. I think they often assume that other places are so inferior. And often, they’re really shocked to find out that Italians really live well. They know how to live. They have the number one or two health care system in the world, universities are free. People come to visit us and we tell them what daily life is like. Children don’t just go into tailspins about getting into colleges. They can go. It’s free.
They assume that America is the best and I’ve found that daily life for most people in Italy seems to be on a higher level. They may not have as much money but they live better, They have better food, better restaurants, a better quality of time because built into the work life are so many holidays. They close down in the afternoons from 1 to 4:30 so they have the best part of the day to themselves. So they’re not as crazed as we are here.
Potter: Many of the smaller towns you visited, in Le Marche and Puglia, for example, are well off the beaten path. Is it possible to go without a command of the Italian language and still have a good time?
Mayes: Yes, it is. When I first went to Italy, very few people spoke English. Now it’s much more prevalent. Even in the tiny places. Even with a few words, you can easily get by.
Potter: Of the towns and villages that you visited in the course of this book, which ones really surprised you?
Mayes: I really loved all the little towns in Le Marche. I knew Le Marche pretty well because it’s right next to Tuscany. But we went over to Sant’ Angelo in Vado for the truffle festival and it was just so local and the food was just magnificent. The Marchigiani are extremely friendly people. People keep saying that it’s going to be the next Tuscany. I don’t think it is. It’s not that easy to get there. There are all these little jewel box towns, and the wines are so good, and so undervalued, so underappreciated. I loved Puglia too. So there’s a lot of undiscovered, untrammeled Italy out there. It was a pleasure to write about them and to go all those places I’ve been ever been before.
Potter: You’ve been in Italy for decades but did writing this book change the way you think and feel about the country?
Mayes: It did. In a way, I started feeling very adulterous towards Cortona, because there were so many places that I could have moved to. I loved Trento, I could live there in a heartbeat. Also Friuli, I adore Friuli. And Puglia. There are so many places that you could … Treviso! Oh, so charming. All these places, you could just go crazy