How Under the Tuscan Sun changed a small Italian town

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Author Frances Mayes still spends several months a year in Cortona. Photo: Will Garin
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Frances Mayes’ bestseller, which was later made into a film, was instrumental in putting the Tuscan town of Cortona on the map. She talks to Oonagh Stransky about life in the town ever since.

How much time do you spend in Cortona these days?

We come and go. We were just there for the olive harvest. All together, we’re there for about five months a year.

What are some special things you do while in Cortona?

Cortona has been an inspiring place to write and that’s my best activity there. In my third floor study, I’ve written nine books. In October, after the olives were pressed, I started a novel and managed to write 100 pages in a month. We recently remodeled our kitchen and so have new impetus to cook and have friends over.

The house restored by Frances Mayes, and the one on which Under the Tuscan Sun was based. Photo: Will Garin

What advice would you give a visitor coming to Cortona – what should they not miss?

I always take guests to the Camucia Thursday market. It’s astonishing, and a link to medieval markets. Whether the doors of the dead along via Dardano are for exiting the plague dead or not, they are fascinating to contemplate. Over everything, however, I’d say meet the people. Cortona is full of warm and hospitable people, and many of them run terrific restaurants!

Is there anything you would change about Cortona?

Of course. No place is perfect. But I’ll wait until asked for my grand schemes!

You've been a keen observer of Tuscany and Italy for a long time; while Cortona has remained a particularly "alive" town thanks to cultural initiatives and the presence of schools that help retain the populace (and thanks also to the success of your books), other towns have been less able to preserve this nature. What do you think Tuscany must do to maintain its sustainability?

For lovely places such as Castiglione del Lago, Lucignano, Città di Castello, even Arezzo, there’s a different world as far as tourism is concerned.

I’d think the best thing is to develop a town as a fantastic place for the residents to live: promote artisan crafts and products, create parks, clear the squares of cars, encourage good new businesses with tax breaks, observe strict zoning laws and architectural review, keep out trashy shops, no post signs in English, keep a lively weekly market, don't depend on tourism.

Small towns all over the world struggle to thrive when cities lure away so many talented people. But there’s a certain traveller who looks for places where there are not a lot of tourists, places that maintain their essential Italian nature.

I’m writing a book about just those towns -  my favourite 100 secret places in Italy. I began with some of the islands of the Venetian lagoon (Smithsonian Journeys, Winter, 2015.) I’m so looking forward to all the travel.

How has Cortona changed since you wrote Under the Tuscan Sun?

A major change for me is that I used to grab the International Herald Tribune [now called The International New York Times] for news and to call my family in America once a week. It was an occasion. Now, Cortona is like most places - totally hooked up to the rest of the world. I must say I liked the isolation and the intense sense that I was in a foreign place! I dislike seeing signs in English all over the place.

Would you write the book again today? Or how would the book differ if you wrote it today?

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Well, it couldn’t be the same book because the world is different. But not long ago I wrote Every Day in Tuscany, an update and a chronicle of daily pleasures. Under the Tuscan Sun was partly about the restoration of our house. We’ve been here so long now that we undertook another restoration, but I won’t be writing about it. I am pleased with it though; I feel that we’ve readied the house for its next hundred years.

What advice do you give women seeking to replicate your kind of "adventure”?

I recommend trying out living in a place for a few months. Make sure it’s really your place. Learning the language before you launch into a major restoration helps, something I learned the hard way.

Are there any books about contemporary Italy that you would recommend?

Can’t say I exactly enjoyed them, but I read the Saviano books. Like everyone else, I devoured the four Ferrante books. I don’t read much social science or political stuff.(Italian politics is almost as discouraging as American politics.) Some of my favorites through the years I’ve been here: Eco, Calvino, Pavese, Sciascia, Montale, Moravia, Pasolini, Levi, and the earlier novels of Ferrante.

By Oonagh Louise Stransky, a writer and translator:

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