Who would be a tour guide? If you have ever spent a summer in Florence, wincing at compatriots who argue in restaurants and make fatuous remarks in museums, you will have asked yourself this very question. In Too Much Tuscan Sun, Dario Castagno tells of encounters with tourists so strange, difficult and ignorant as to make you shudder. Tour guides and writers have this in common, that they must both be likeable enough for you to want to spend hours in their company. More than that, they must paint the world persuasively, so that you are content to see through their eyes. Castagno fits the bill, telling his stories with good nature, an eye for the grotesque and the panache of the genuine romantic. The book has a roll call of enthusiasts searching for sensory pleasure – wine lovers and collectors, as well as the typical clueless tourists. Unsurprisingly for an Italian commenting mainly on Americans, he is most amused by their attitudes about dress and food, in particular of those he calls ‘babs’: ‘when they do appear they’ll be dressed and made up as though they were performing on a trapeze the [outfit] they consider most suitable for a country tour is composed of skin-tight slacks with jungle cat patterns, glittery blouses, shoes with stiletto heels and a great number of giant baubles.’ The ignorance is sometimes eye stretching – from the man who was perplexed by the fact that he had not read in the news when Pompeii was buried beneath volcanic ash in the year ‘79, to the couple who are confused by the profusion of American restaurants in Italy. When Castagno starts to reply with a discourse on the rise of fast food, he is interrupted: ‘my wife isn’t referring to McDonald’s, but to all the pizzerias we’ve seen. You Italians really seem to go for our pizza.’More than a mere string of anecdotes, Too Much Tuscan Sun is held together by a double timeline. First, we are led through a year in Chi-anti, with vignettes of the monthly changes in the natural world. The prose in these descriptions is often profoundly purple (“At sunset the skies are aswarm with bats, and all night long the shrieks of owls curdle the blood”). In addition we follow the narrative of Castagno’s life from chubby infant (‘Mussolinian’ or ‘Churchillian’ depending on who is making the comparison) to rebellious teen, to successful guide. And with all that, he keeps up a constant stream of useful tips on the places of interest which make this book an ideal light read for the greenest tourists – as well as the reader who just wants a laugh at their expense.
Review copy kindly provided by Paperback Exchange, Via Dell’Oche, Firenze