An Artist's Paradise
Okay, here's the deal: I'll tell you everything on one condition -- you don't come here. If every Tom, Dick and Rudy turned up it would spoil the mystique of this place. When you come here you step into another world.
This is the wonderfully over-emotional world of Italian artists. We're high in the Tuscan hills just north of Pisa. Getting here's been an achievement in itself; the windy road's so steep in places you think the car's going to flip over backwards and roll back down to the bottom. No wonder they give you a free drink as soon as you arrive. Peralta was first discovered by the famous Italian sculptress Fiore de Henriquez. No, I'd not heard of her either, but don't tell anyone. We're back in the 60's when she was working in a studio nearby.
She saw these buildings and just one day took a walk up here and found Peralta completely abandoned, except for two families who were still here. The other five houses were completely left to go to seed. She just started to ask if anyone knew who the owners were and slowly started buying all of them.
This is Ron de Cambio, the odd job man who looks after the place now it's been restored and rebuilt. He sounds like a Brooklyn cabbie: he probably was but Peralta is where his heart is now.
All around us are hills and valleys, vineyards and olive groves. It's breathtaking. And just as beautiful is the accommodation. We're in a three-story house that's about 800 years old. It's full of fine furniture and works of art by Fiore's friends, even I recognized some of the names. The paintings all have lovey-dovey artist-speak messages on them. You know, things like: "To Fiore, you have shown me ze meaning of life. You are a true friend." Her statues are everywhere. Our dining room has got so many busts in it you feel like setting an extra place at the table. From the front balcony I can see a statue of JFK in the window of the house next door; it looks like he's having a conversation with Emperor Hirohito. A likeness of the Queen Mother sits on our back porch. I love it. It appeals to the hidden artsy-fartsy side of me. I find myself playing classical guitar for the first time in years.
But then my wife, your clinical mathematician type, brings me down to earth with a bump. She's spotted an excessive lump of clay up the queen mother's right nostril. Her Majesty clearly needs to blow her nose. For the rest of the fortnight we can't pass without curtseying and tittering.
Our neighbors are from London; Susan and Mark are on their honeymoon. Susan's a professional sculptress. Moved by the atmosphere of the place, she can't stop herself. She bags some clay and tools from Fiore, measures her husband's face up with a set of calipers and sets to work creating a bust. It's so lifelike it's spooky seeing him stand beside it.
I really want to see the elusive Fiore herself. I keep looking out for her without success...until day five of the holiday. I catch sight of a tall elderly woman in an outrageous orange-colored man's suit. The trousers are held up with broad white braces. She's packing bags to leave and smoking the biggest cigar you've ever seen. Suddenly she looks up at me on the balcony. She waves her hand flamboyantly above her head and shouts in a deep, hoarse voice: "Have a lovely stay!" And in a puff of cigar smoke, she's gone.
What's nice about this place is that it's so laid-back -- you help yourself at the bar during the day. If you want there's a communal meal twice a week. The biggest and best villas cost around $800 a week in high season. There's a small pool, dishwashers in the villas and flats and nearby, some fantastic local restaurants with eccentric bad tempered waiters -- amazing food and laughably cheap bills. You're close to the historic towns of Pisa and Lucca and to the beach resort of Viareggio where Puccini hung out. It seems we arty types have always been drawn to this area.
From Peralta in Tuscany, this is Martin Stott for The Savvy Traveler.
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