The “Sweetness of Doing Nothing” in the Hills of Florence
Forty years ago, long before Under the Tuscan Sun was a twinkle in Frances Mayes’ eye, my parents-in-law bought a 14th-century stone house on a woodsy Tuscan hillside just outside the city of Florence. The foundation of the house dates back to the Roman period and the jagged bits of stone wall found on the lower terrace, underlining a stretch of silver-hued olive trees, is Etruscan. To become owners of all this ancient history, they paid just $15,000—a steal even in 1972.
Now, each summer, my husband and I perch ourselves on the house’s upper terrace and gaze out at the valley below. Shimmering there in the heat is Florence. It thrills us that beneath the haze lies a trove of Renaissance treasures: Michelangelo’s David…Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome… Botticelli’s Venus, standing tall and tranquil on her scalloped sea shell.
In just 20 minutes we can be down there, wandering Florence’s delicious tangle of cobblestone streets, perhaps slipping into a trattoria for some pumpkin-porcini ravioli, or maybe knocking back an espresso Italian-style, standing up in a bar, before visiting these masterpieces.
Sometimes we do exactly that. But truth be told, we usually stay on the hillside. There’s something about Italy that compels us to distill life to its barest essence: good food, fresh air, and pleasurable company. As glorious as the Uffizi’s works of art are, it is equally glorious to spend the day tramping through the olive groves, eating sweet, sun-warmed figs straight from the tree, or reading under the shade of a grapevine-entwined pergola.
This is the true beauty of Tuscany—almost everything about it, from its golden landscape to its melodious language, begs you to slow down and enjoy the moment. If you’re rushing around, trying to cram in visits to its most beautiful towns—Siena, Lucca, Cortona—as if stuffing priceless treasures into a sack, you’re missing the point. Part of la dolce vita in Italy comes from la dolce far niente, “the sweetness of doing nothing.” The details of life are to be lingered over and savored, like a superb wine or meal.
As an American who grew up believing that productivity was next to godliness, sometimes I have a difficult time holding onto the sweetness of doing nothing. Thankfully, our Italian friends are quick to remind me. Last summer, while enjoying a glass of wine with our neighbor Jacopo, I remarked guiltily that I hadn’t gone further than the local supermarket for days. Jacopo laughed and swept his arm around the terrace, taking in the panoramic view of the valley, our kids splashing in the pool, the hot-pink sun sinking fast into a streak of wispy, purplish clouds. He asked, “Why would you?” Why, indeed.
When you adopt this Italian way of thinking, it’s clear that experiencing the sweet life in Tuscany doesn’t require spending a fortune. In the municipality of Bagno a Ripoli, where we stay, you can rent a charming two-bedroom stone house, with olive fields and a scenic view of the countryside, for $113 per night or $791 per week (see: Greatrentals.com). Nearby, in Pontassieve, you can rent a one-bedroom house with a pool and views of vineyards from $190 per night during high season (see: Flipkey.com). For a longer stay, consider a sweet-looking, ivy-covered farmhouse near the hilltop town of Vicchio, which offers large, double-guest rooms with fully-equipped kitchens, a communal pool, and a garden with sweeping views of the countryside for $1,303 per month (see: Longtermlettings.com).
You can also get a breathtaking, 300-square-meter (3,329-square-foot) ancient stone house in the Val di Sieve, a Florentine district known for its wine, for $2,100 to $2,400 per month, depending on the season. This sprawling property, which sleeps seven, is the classic Tuscan retreat, with panoramic hill views, a private garden dotted with olive, cypress, and pine trees, and a large shaded terrace that has a barbecue—an important feature since you can’t prepare bistecca fiorentina, Tuscany’s delicious answer to a T-bone steak, without one (see: Tuscanfeeling.com).
Speaking of food, you can eat elegantly in Tuscany for very little, thanks to the abundance of high-quality ingredients and the delectable simplicity of Italian cuisine. Over the summer I prepared a dinner for 12 that consisted of lemon pasta with red onions and fresh mint, salad, cheese, and figs with honey for dessert. The cost? About $45…including the wine.
If you interpret la dolce far niente as a reason to forego cooking, you can find great-value restaurants in Florence and its suburbs. A family favorite is Nuovo Ranch in Bagno a Ripoli, where main courses range from $10 to $18. The Florentine restaurant that has been my hands-down favorite for the past 14 years is Trattoria Mario, a hectic hole-in-the-wall on Via Rosina that’s open only for lunch. You’ll leave with a bursting belly and a dazed grin for about $16.
We’re lucky, of course, that we can embrace the sweetness of doing nothing in Italy every year. And if you, too, want a permanent connection to this part of Tuscany, a few good-value properties still exist. I found a divine two-bedroom apartment in a stone farmhouse with a swimming pool, 180-square-meter (1,937-square-foot) private garden, and panoramic views of the countryside near San Gimignano. It is going for €265,000, which, when I was researching this article, was $339,000. (By the time this issue went to print, that price was $337,000, thanks to the dollar’s strength against the euro.
These days, it’s worth following exchange rates if you’re looking at property in Europe. See: Casatuscany.com.) In the former Medici town of Fiesole, I found a 70-squaremeter (753-square-foot), two-bedroom apartment with a gorgeous, unobstructed view of the Florentine hills for $377,000. (See here.) If this is an investment you can afford to make—trust me—the rewards will resonate for generations to come.
Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. To get full access to all past and future articles and to receive the magazine in the mail or online each month, simply click on the below button to subscribe to International Living magazine at the special introductory price of $49. You will get instant access to the current issue of the magazine as well 10 years of back issues. As an added bonus, we will also send you a FREE report – How to Retire in Paradise on $30 a Day. (You can cancel your subscription at any time.)