Frances Mayes usually spends her springs in Cortona, at her famous Bramasole, the villa that is at the center of her bestselling book Under the Tuscan Sun and the dream it represents. Due to travel restrictions, of course, this spring is different: she’s at her home in North Carolina, where she says “when life gives you lemons, make limoncello, so I’m trying to reproduce my Cortona vegetable garden out here. But I’m missing Italy every day, and I can’t wait to get back.” The Florentine caught up with the author through an online chat about traveling, the love of Italy, writing, and how writing and travel go so well together.
Alexandra Korey: You’re a traveller at heart. How did you catch the travel bug?
Frances Mayes: I grew up way south in Georgia, in Fitzgerald, which is a town about the size of my desk here. My mother always wanted to travel; my father said that the family motto should be ‘packing and unpacking’. At that time, we didn’t go very far, only to the coast or the mountains in North Carolina, but I think I got the bug from my mother. I studied a lot of art history in college, and I took classes in Renaissance and medieval art and architecture. After studying Italian art, I couldn’t wait to take the first thing smoking on the runway. I came to Italy to see what I had studied: that was my main reason for going. I went to Bologna first, and one day I was sitting out under those beautiful arcades, and everyone was having coffee and laughing and smoking. And I said to my husband, “these people are having more fun than we are”. So that was a big revelation, and ever since then I’ve gone to Italy any possible time I can. I have a passion to see the rest of the world too, but it’s always Italy for me. It’s kind of heart’s needle; it’s the place I’ve lived longest. It’s home, and it’s particularly odd to be exiled from the place you consider home.
AMK: I don’t know if that was a slip of the tongue, or a deliberate insertion of the title of your book, Always Italy?
FM: That was a slip, but it is always Italy for me. It’s a country that will never ever exhaust my interests. I’ve been a million times, and I hope to go a million more. And I know that if I had five more lifetimes, I could never get to the bottom of Italy.
AMK: So in the bar in Bologna, when other people were having more fun – how did you learn to have fun the way they did?
FM: Well, I had always had fun wherever I was, it was just that I responded so much to the vivacity of Italian life. In a strange way it reminded me of the small southern town in which I grew up, where there’s such an intense spirit of hospitality and welcoming of the stranger. And the minute I bought my house and started to spend more time there, the more I noticed the parallels between Italy and the American south. Not only the intense heat in the summer, or people selling watermelons on the side of the road – but just that sense of the immediacy of life, and that it’s meant to be lived. That’s one of the things I admire most about Italians, if one can generalise: there’s a sense that life is for today, an inherent spontaneity. I really respond to that; it resonates with me.
AMK: Your most famous book is Under the Tuscan Sun, so we usually associate you with Tuscany, but this book, of course, is about all of Italy.
FM: It’s the first book I’ve done that’s had a lot of photographs. We [co-author Ondine Cohane and I] published it with National Geographic, and it was a pleasure to be able to do something different. Most of my books are memoir in tone, but this was like a whole different kind of project, because the blending of someone else’s voice, my voice, and the photos that are included made an exciting new project for me. I wanted it to be a history of Italy today: new architecture, new chefs, new, new, new. It was my first co-authored book, and Ondine and I had to make sure that we weren’t repeating or overlapping material.
AMK: How does it differ from See You in the Piazza, which was one of your first books to deal with all of Italy?
FM: That book was a precursor, in a way. I was in Puglia, with my husband, and we were loving the sense of discovery that came with all the out-of-the-way places there. We kept getting lost, because the GPS on our rented car wasn’t great, and it kept taking us through olive groves and things. But we stumbled on all these incredibly small towns, each with its own medieval bread or a particular kind of pasta. One had a little farmers’ market where I discovered a recipe for cooking hyacinth bulbs. This out-of-the-way discovery restored to me a sense of adventurous travel. I said, ‘Why don’t we just keep travelling like this?’ So See You in the Piazza is a compilation of new, lesser-known places to discover in Italy, and that made me realise that I wanted to see all of Italy. Very few Italians have been to all twenty regions, but having done that, I feel I deserve a merit badge of some kind. It was amazing to visit the places that I had put off, the places that I never really had a desire to go to. Calabria, for example – my Tuscan neighbours said it was un altro mondo, but what I learned was that every region is its own world. They have their own dialects, their own wines, pasta, archaeological sites, everything. And I kept thinking, why is Italy, which is so small – roughly the size of Arizona – why is it so diverse, from the Dolomites down to Sicily? It’s so many different worlds, and you could spend a lot more time than I have in each one. I love Friuli, and I found so many places in Trentino Alto-Adige where I could pack up and move tomorrow. They made me feel very disloyal to Tuscany.
AMK: There are so many cities that people just don’t really visit.
FM: I wonder, once this pandemic has simmered down, if people won’t think more about going to less crowded places. Genova, for example, is medieval, marvellous, extravagant. Most Italian museums have mostly Italian art, but up in Genova there’s art from all over Europe. People go in fear of Palermo and Naples, and they’re such incredible cities. I really love Parma, Trieste. I think the one that thrilled me the most was Turin, which I had always thought of as an industrial city. It’s in fact the greenest city in Italy, just beautiful. I went there because of Natalia Ginzburg and Cesare Pavese, two of my favourite Italian writers, and in fact I stayed in the B’n’B that was once Pavese’s house. I’ve been back four or five times since. People are planning trips now because they need something to look forward to, and a lot of people have had the trip of a lifetime cancelled. I would really urge looking into some of the less-visited cities.
Frances Mayes on travel in Italy, researching and writing
AMK: What’s your next destination?
FM: Last October I spent a beautiful week near Noto, and I’m dying to get back down to the south of Sicily. But earlier I mentioned Friuli, and I would love to go back there in autumn. The food has these influences that make it like no other food in the world: there’s a lot of game, a lot of foraging, a lot of mushrooms. I learned there that white wine is every bit as complex as red, which isn’t always obvious in Italy. One trip I would like to make is tracing the River Adige from its headwaters to the Adriatic, and I would love to follow one of St Francis’ peregrinations. I always want to spend time in Florence, of course, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We always look for The Florentine in Cortona!
AMK: What attracts you to a destination when you’re researching a trip?
FM: I think I just want to go everywhere in Italy. I don’t have any particular thing that draws me, other than the art and archaeology, which always interests me. When I see there’s an archaeological museum in a place, that then becomes a destination. I love the Italian beaches. I look for literary connections too. Down in Puglia I was drawn to Patience Grey, who wrote Honey From A Weed. I look for that kind of thing, like D. H. Lawrence, Lampedusa, Sciascia. Mainly, I want to see everything, every piazza. Piazza life is the best thing in Italy: each town still has its own living room, and everyone gathers there. It’s a deeply humanistic way to live.
AMK: And how you do really get inside these places?
FM: By being aware. Get to a place, start walking. That’s what I always do as soon as I reach a place: I take the longest walk I can, preferably early, when the town is just coming to life. I meet as many people as I can, research like crazy. I think mainly for me it’s just following my interests. I enter shops or enoteche and ask the person behind the counter: “If you were going out with your family for a really special dinner, where would you eat?”
AMK: How does writing change or condition the way that you experience a place?
FM: I’ve always been a big reader of writers about place, including the great southern writers. And for an obsessed traveller, who wants to be gone, gone, gone, there’s nothing more important than home. So that going out and coming back has been one of the organizing principles of my writing, always, and trying to figure out what makes this place this place, and no other place. What makes the people here the way they are; how does the landscape shape them? I’ve always felt that where you are, in a way, is who you are. Who would you be if you lived here? What would it be like to be at home here?
AMK: Here’s a question from our reader Sheila. “You used to teach poetry at San Francisco State University: have you ever thought about writing a book of poems about Italy?”
FM: Something weird happened to me when I moved to Italy. I had written seven books of poetry, and my whole teaching career was founded on teaching poetry. But when I got to Italy I started keeping this blue notebook, and I found that I was filling up the pages, and my lines didn’t want to break. I suddenly realised: “I’m writing prose. What’s happening?” Long story short, I started writing prose and I’ve never gone back to writing poetry. My husband’s a poet, he lives and breathes it. We read poetry all the time; I just don’t know how to write it anymore. Some rhythm in your brain controls your writing, and I don’t think you always have a say in how those rhythms change.
AMK: We have plenty of readers who can’t wait to come back to Italy soon. What can you recommend to help people feel a little closer to Tuscany and Florence?
FM: Reading, absolutely. Maybe researching and planning a trip, so that when you can go you’re poised to do it. Another really vital thing is cooking. Get in the kitchen and put together that little frittata for lunch. We have pasta for lunch every day. So many vineyards are doing virtual tastings online. I just hope that we all emerge a little bit better than when we went in. I think all of us wanted more time than we had in our everyday lives: now that we have it, we should make the most of it. I’m incredibly proud of how Italy has handled this crisis. Grace under pressure, that’s what Italy has shown.
Watch the video interview with Frances Mayes