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Dreaming of Tuscany by SJV
2018/01/25  |  By:   |  Features  |  

I’m not what you’d call well-travelled.   I didn’t gap year, don’t own walking boots and the idea of back packaging brings me out in hives.  I’ve lived, loosely speaking, in North, South, East AND West London but get utterly lost the minute I’m outside the M25 and couldn’t imagine living anywhere that wasn’t within, at most, a 10 minutes’ walk of the tube.

That’s not to say I haven’t been places.  Sure.  Amongst other trips, I’m lucky enough to have seen the Grand Canyon, the sunset over Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the sun rise behind the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh and the biggest, lightest, most breath-taking sky over Il de Re. I’ve travelled State Route 1 down the Big Sur, sat on top of the Acropolis in Athens, boat tripped around all but 3 of the Greek islands, and hopped on the Eurostar to have lunch in Paris and Brussels and Bruges and Lille. I honeymooned in Lake Garda and celebrated my first wedding anniversary in New York. I’ve tried and failed to find the northern lights in Iceland, whales in Canada and the Loch Ness monster sitting amongst the ruins of Urquhart castle. I’ve marvelled at the wonder of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and partied like a crazy person in Ibiza more times than the drugs allow me to remember.  I’ve eaten couscous in a Bedouin tent high in the Atlas Mountains, the very best seafood overlooking the Red Sea and a hot dog whilst watching muscle boys pump iron at Muscle Beach.  I’ve drank the strongest coffee of my life at Café Central in Vienna and the thickest hot chocolate at Café Al Bicerin in Turin, hell, I’ve even skipped down the steps into the Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg  singing Do Re Mi at the top of my voice.

But I’ve not been to Rome or Giza or St Petersburg.  I’ve not seen the Red Rose City of Petra, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, or the Christ Redeemer.  And I really do want to.  Before I die.

But right now, thanks to Santa Montefiore, all I want to do is book myself into Mamma Agata’s Cookery School for a week and stay in a Castello in Tuscany – and I’ll tell you why.

I was lucky enough to read the first draft of Santa’s newest novel – The Temptation of Gracie – back in August last year, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.  I personally think it is Santa’s best novel yet – unashamedly romantic, with a leading lady you are going to absolutely fall in love with and root for right up until the very last page and beyond.  It’s a tale of love, life and family, spanning some 60 years, mainly set in and around a cookery school housed in a beautiful castle in Tuscany. We first meet our heroine, Gracie Burton, aged 69, reading an article  in a magazine whilst having her hair done in the little town of Badley Compton. She reads about the widowed Count Tancredi Bassanelli, owner of the Castello Montefosco that sits high on top of a hill in Tuscany, with uninterrupted views of  the Italian countrywide all the way down to the sea, and how he has opened the doors of his castle to paying guests who wish to learn how to cook authentic Italian food…

‘The castle was everything an Italian castello should be: harmoniously proportioned with a crenelated roof, tall shuttered windows set beneath half-moon pediments, sandstone faded to a pale grey-yellow by centuries of burning summer sun and bitter winter winds. It dominated the crest of the hill like a grand old king, rising majestically out of the cluster of medieval houses that had grown up around it in a forest of stone.  Gracie closed her eyes and inhaled. She could already smell the wild thyme and rosemary, the honeysuckle and jasmine, the luxurious gardenia, dewy grass and aromatic pine. She could hear the gentle chirruping of crickets and see the velvet sky twinkling with a thousand stars like a vast canopy of diamonds spread out over the Tuscan hills.  Her chest flooded with longing, a longing that she hadn’t felt in years, deep in her heart.  It frightened her, this feeling, because she had forgotten what to do with it.  She had forgotten what it felt like to be young, to be in love, to be reckless, adventurous and brave. She had forgotten how to live. She had stuffed herself into a shell and remained there, hidden and safe, for decades. Now this photograph had forced her out like a cork from a bottle and all the fizz was coming with it and she didn’t know what to do, except to go to Tuscany, as soon as possible.’ 

I want to tell you more; about the members of the Badley Ladies’ Book Club and the self-proclaimed queen of Badley Compton – Flappy Scott-Booth.  I want to tell you about Carina and Anastasia, about Uncle Hans and Rutger, the art, Mamma Bernadetta, Illaria and the food,  Rex, Wendy, Tiff and Brigitte, Alex, Lauren and Madeline – but more than that, I want to tell you about Tuscany.  About how Santa took me there, showed me its beauty, its colours, its sounds, its smells, the warmth of the evening sun on the milky-tea coloured Tuscan stone walls of the castle and how the walls of the buildings glowed rose gold in the early evening light.   The olive groves and the pink oleander around the Villa Gaviota, the avenue of cypress trees, the red geraniums and enormous terracotta pots of purple bougainvillea, the butcher’s, the bakery and the church of Maria Maddelena.  The lavender.  How the crops that turned gold in August sparkled in the mid-day sun. The thirteenth century tower and chapel.  The specks of dust caught in the shafts of light coming through the shutters… like tiny, dancing fireflies.

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The Temptation of Gracie took my breath away.  The love story at the heart of the novel took my breath away.  And the Tuscany Santa showed me took my breath away.  Bellissimo. I’m off to google Mamma Agata, see you there?

IMG_2121 (3)To celebrate the forthcoming publication of The Temptation of Gracie – which will be out in all good bookshops on 12th July – I’ve got three very special proof and Italian treat bundles to giveaway.  To enter the #WIN drop me an email (bookminx@simonandschuster.co.uk) and tell me where in Italy the book is set.  First three correct answers out of the hat at 12noon on 6th March will receive a very special limited edition hardback proof and a gorgeous Lina Stores Italian food gift tin.

 

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