Some years ago young summer travellers to Scotland returned tanned on a late summer ferry from Dover to Calais. We were returning from a rainy Tuscan summer and looked at them enviously. One vivid memory was of a visit to Perugia. A host of umbrellas hurried along the streets and around the famous 13th-century fountain. Our wet and hungry children were rushed up the steep steps into the vast ‘Hall of the Lawyers’ on one side of the main square, built about the same time as the fountain. Across the valley you can see the basilica in Assisi dedicated to St. Francis. There the two proud cities fought many a battle over the control of their hinterland and of the trade routes from northern Europe to Rome and southern Italy.
This time we flew to Rome leaving parched Britain – no longer William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ – to travel north along the verdant Tiber to Tuscany where it rained in June. The stream below our land is still flowing, one of many that drain the hillsides between Cortona and Arezzo into the Chiana valley. Travellers assume that the Chiana is a river. Not so. In 1503 Leonardo da Vinci sat where I am writing to draw a map, which is also a sort of landscape, of the view from this house. His map is now in the Queen’s collection at Windsor.
After the rain in June it has been a typical Italian summer with blue skies and heat. Then, as we returned yesterday from visiting vineyards, a white cloud like a tall vanilla ice cream appeared above a mountain.
‘The weather’s changing,’ someone said. Soon afterwards a range of mountains behind us was veiled in grey. We watched, wondering which way the rain was moving. We need rain. Gentle rain, preferably at night, but above all not hail. The cloud was now a deeper grey and coming our way. Everyone jumped into the two cars and off we sped hoping to outpace the storm and bring in the washing before it reached our house. But it caught us at the bottom of a hill. We stopped and watched the raindrops harden into hail. I have never seen olive trees so laden or vines so heavy with grapes as this year – all for nothing? Hail can destroy a harvest. Then, as we passed Lake Trasimeno it suddenly stopped just above the battlefield where Hannibal, the Carthaginian led his army to fight the Romans in the first century of our era. The harvest is safe – for the moment.