When a Kennedy came to town

When a Kennedy came to town

Thu 04 May 2017 3:57 PM

Once a wild and foreboding place, Manciano is on its way to becoming southern Tuscany’s hottest postcode and the locals are anything but starstruck.

It all started with Caroline Kennedy.

The phone in a crumbling 12th-century fort at the top of a forgotten town rings. The ageing secretary puts down his cigar and paintbrush and grumbles as he walks towards his desk. Annoyed at the disturbance, he patches the call through to the assessor for tourism. (Disclaimer: the assessor for tourism also happens to be my husband, and this is not the beginning of a Montalbano novel, but an honest retelling.) Days from retirement, the town’s secretary Renzo came to work to finish his watercolours and scare away the tourists who rightly wondered why Manciano’s primary tourist attraction, its medieval fort, had been transformed into the bland post-war offices of the town council. Italy has a long history of appropriating its most beautiful buildings for government purposes, and Manciano is no different. But this particular tourist would not be shooed away. She was a Kennedy and she wanted to climb to the top of the watchtower, where the view mesmerizes in its infinite march through the Tuscan countryside to the seas of Corsica.

Footballer Gigi Buffon (R)

The locals were abuzz with the arrival of American royalty. My husband walked about town with a peacock’s panache beforehand and returned from her eminence’s visit as misery personified. It turns out the Kennedy was Meaghan Kennedy Townsend, the decidedly understated granddaughter of Robert Kennedy, who devoted her energy yelling at her husband to get her a bottle of water. Manciano’s first taste of celebrity was a colossal disappointment.

In the months that followed, the town brushed shoulders with numerous celebrities and the initial excitement transformed into brewing concern. The locals whispered of gentrification. Heading back to the piazza to chat to my favourite sounding boards, Manciano’s senior citizens, I sensed real fear.

“Our young people can’t afford a house as it is. With all these rich tourists and foreigners buying up the property, they’ll be forced to live with their parents forever,” says Mirko Alocci.

“What do they want with us anyway?” chimes in Fiorenzo Baldini. “We’re just a farmers’ town. We raise our sheep, make our cheese and plough our fields. There’s nothing fancy about us.”

Fiorenzo had a point. On any given day, you can spend an hour behind a tractor as it descends the winding road that leads to the next town and dead sheep have been unceremoniously dumped in our piazza more than once in a bloody protest against local wolves. But that is exactly what appeals to Romans, Milanesi, Brits and Germans alike. Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal have both included the Maremma in shows about discovering the undiscovered Tuscany. Michael Schumacher was a frequent visitor and Gillian Anderson, Alan Rickman and Sophia Loren all had or have houses in the area. Italian soccer legend Gianluigi Buffon even posed for a picture on a recent house hunt in Manciano. (Fun side note, he was standing in front of my house at
the time.)

Alessandra Galli is a local real estate agent and while she wouldn’t name names, she said a weak euro and slow housing market has attracted a lot of foreign buyers. “Too many taxes mean a lot of locals are selling, but their neighbours can’t afford to buy. Cue the out-of-towners. They have the money and they want their second home to be as far from the chaos of the city as possible…The Maremma is the perfect combination. The land’s cheap and it appeals to their desire to own a part of Tuscany that is still rural and underdeveloped. Foreigners are desperate for authenticity.”

From there, Alessandra says, it’s a domino effect. These celebrities, or pseudo-celebrities, tell their family and friends and soon everyone wants a slice of paradise. A couple of weeks ago, one very famous foreigner expressed an interest in some land just outside Manciano. He allegedly reneged on the deal because our incorruptible town planner refused to give him permission to make the stretch of road out front a private no-access zone. The celebrity was George Clooney. And while I couldn’t find a single shred of evidence to prove the story, I wholeheartedly believe the part about our town planner. He is impervious to flattery and wouldn’t know the difference between George Clooney and George Washington.

Back in the piazza, the locals were heartened by this story.

“Once upon a time, the Maremma was a hideout for bandits and the nobles wouldn’t come near our lands for fear of malaria,” says Valerio Marinaro. “We couldn’t afford to leave, so we made do with what we had and created an honest living. Now they want what was ours because it’s fashionable? The irony is gut retching.”

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