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2 August 2022

From the NS archive: The Tuscan holiday

26 July 1999: Chiantishire may be the New Labour idyll of choice. But it has protection rackets, tax avoidance and no minimum wage.

By Quentin Letts

The Tuscan countryside, with its cedar trees and air thick with the smell of goat’s cheese and focaccia, has always been a dream destination for the high achievers – including Tony Blair. In the summer of 1999, while the prime minister enjoyed his third consecutive holiday in the region, the journalist Quentin Letts questioned what was hiding in this paradise. Letts described a region unrecognisable from the oasis experienced by the English tourists in “their Ralph Lauren summer whites” – reporting on large-scale tax avoidance, the controlling Mafia, and an emerging pattern of dog poisonings. With the ongoing Kosovo war forcing the migration of over 10,000 people into Italy, many refugees were pushed into black-market jobs – which made up 20 per cent of the Italian workforce. Yet, as Letts reminded us, it was easy for the middle-class tourists to forget “about things such as the minimum wage and social justice”.


Ordinary Tuscans must think Tony Blair an odd sort of left-winger. Yes, it is gratifying that “Signor Toni”, the famous British prime minister (and a man who wears open-toed sandals better than most Inglesi), has chosen their province for the third year in succession for his summer holidays. But this statesman behind the high gates, with his walkie-talkie-toting security goons and his seemingly ever-present image advisers can he really be such a man of the people?

In one important way, Blair is similar to the thousands of other middle-class Britons who visit Tuscany every summer. For few of them see Tuscany for what it really is. In 1997 the Blairs stayed with Geoffrey Robinson at Il Mucchio. Last year they were entertained by Prince Girolamo Guicciardini Strozzi, chatelain of a stately pad at Cusona. The prince did the decent thing and moved into the stable block for the duration of his esteemed guests’ visit.

For this year‘s month-long sojourn, Toni and la bella Cherie have persuaded themselves to accept hospitality from a fellow tribune of the oppressed. Vannino Chiti, a local powerbroker and member of the Party of the Democratic Left, the PDS (Italy’s former communist party), has passed them the keys of the Villa del Gombo.

[see also: Tony Blair’s new centrist project shows he and his acolytes have learnt nothing]

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The Blairs’ Tuscan idyll, like that of the Chiantishire crowd, is no kiss-me-quick-hat cheapo package tour. The region attracts high achievers, professional types, telly people, lawyers and so forth. Oozing empathy and cultural sensitivity, they bumble through this dusty, underfunded region and declare themselves so at one with all things local. They hope their ankles are not too pasty-white and they master a few basic phrases of Italian, enough to order some still-warm bread from that dear little side-street bakery they patronise (in both senses of the word) every morning. Many drive to Tuscany in GB-stickered people-carriers and Mercedes estates stuffed with beach balls, lilos, jars of Marmite, bottles of kaolin and rolls of soft loo paper. From the moment they leave Dover, the adults dream of sun-dried tomatoes and drizzled olive oil, goat’s cheese and focaccia, as seen in all those colour supplements. Once they get there the adolescents go on strike and complain that the local pizza “isn’t up to Domino‘s standards”.

The British visitors do try so very hard to be part of the scene, and in one sense their approach is commendable, for at least they try, unlike the Dutch. As they trail through the alleys, they smile indulgently at the tramps and the one-eyed hunchbacks, the urchins with nits and the three-legged, mangy mongrels mating unsteadily in doorways. How authentic such scenes are. Just like something from Fellini.

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They take what they hope are discreet photographs with their new digital cameras (cost: a good week’s wages to an Albanian kitchen hand without an Italian work permit) and they marvel at the grandeur of the churches, the toll of their bells, the servility of the populace to the might of Rome. They quietly congratulate themselves on having found such an unspoilt little spot, albeit one that smells quite strongly of drains. My dears, it is all so marvellously ethnic.

Yet at the same time, the naivety of many British Tuscanophiles is irritating and depressing. They yearn to see so much but in truth they spot so little. Whole families live in those cute little houses, often in conditions that British social services would condemn as unfit for human habitation. In the lay-bys on those winding country lanes, Balkan Muslim children with groaning tummies wait for their parents to get back from grottily paid menial jobs in the same restaurants that, as the English visitors remark to themselves, are “so wonderfully cheap”. How easy it is, in this blessed country, to forget about things such as the minimum wage and social justice.

It may be called Chiantishire, but Tuscany, the real Tuscany, is no bucolic shire. It has chronic social problems, made all the worse by recent immigration from the Balkans. Welfare is patchy, environmentalism is dire, civic probity is dubious. And, oh yes, almost everyone smokes. A lot. By rights it should be more popular with libertarians than with right-on Islingtonians such as the Blairs and Chris Smith.

The landscape may be dotted with cedar trees, and the night air may whistle with crickets, but this is a poor place. The odd thing is that the north European visitors, usually people with such finely tuned social consciences, rarely seem to realise.

But among locals the left is strong in Tuscany hence the threats to mount protests at Blair‘s presence next week. It makes sense when you look beyond the tourist attractions and consider local living standards. During the Kosovo war there was much feeling against the Nato action, partly out of traditional anti-American feeling, partly because they realised that it would only increase the number of displaced people coming on to the black-market workforce, which currently accounts for just under 20 per cent of all jobs. To these people, Blair’s hawkishness looked more like sycophancy to Uncle Sam.

[see also: A flurry of alarm over Kosovo reveals underlying tensions]

Even those who are in jobs will not always pay much tax. Indeed, local levels of tax avoidance might recommend themselves to Michael Ashcroft. The only trouble with everyone adopting this Latin insouciance to the public revenue is that it leaves little in the pot for social payments to the disadvantaged. Instead those poor people have to grovel and scrape before the visiting social democrats from northern Europe. They have to work as maids in the morning and afternoon and as trinket saleswomen at night. Black-clad women have to peddle postcards and smile toothless grins. Bent-backed old men have to wobble back from work to their labourers‘ cottages on creaking bicycles. From the back seat of a Passat it looks tipico and engagingly simple. From the saddle of that bicycle it looks like plain hard toil.

Mafia heavies collect protection money from small businesses. The noisy scooters (Tuscany has 200,000 of these mechanical mosquitoes) that race up and down the streets may herald the next handbag snatching or some oikish shout to any good-looking woman unfortunate enough to be within gawping range.

Sir John Mortimer, who wrote the definitive Chiantishire book Summer’s Lease and who has been going to Tuscany since Blair was in short trousers, got into trouble there the other day. The great champagne socialist had reached for some loose lire to give to a beggar and a child in Florence when he realised that the waif was trying to half-inch his wallet. Happily, the knight won the tug-of-war, but it was evidence of how rough the place can be.

Through the haze of their smuggled Marlboros, many of the Tuscans laugh at the summering, lily-skinned English. They giggle at the English men in their linen trousers and panamas with faux old-school hatbands and at their wives, who drift about in floral prints, calling in in floaty voices for Hannah and Edward to “come out of the sun, children, and get ready for a trip to the duomo”. In their Ralph Lauren summer whites, the Alastairs and Amandas, Charlies and Tessas believe themselves in some pastoral idyll. They throw open their shutters in the morning and imagine themselves to be Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter in A Room with a View.

In Florence, outside the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio, conmen linger, seizing on lonely-looking prey to offer them overpriced guides and money-changing facilities. No doubt they have done so since the days of the grand tour. But these days they do so with a certain aggressiveness that, say old-timers, was never there before.

[see also: Dante in the dock: Why Florence wants to clear the poet’s name]

The once-glorious city has become a stifling, cacophonous tourist trap, a place where it is not only the beggars who try to rob you. So do the ice-cream vendors, the freelance map-sellers by the baptistery of San Giovanni and the slick quick-sketch artists who will draw you with the Ponte Vecchio in the background and charge you a Medici’s ransom.

Dame Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is another local who has learnt the hard way that Tuscany may not be quite the paradise she thought. Her dogs were poisoned by local hunters. It is a fate that has also befallen a dog owned by the journalist Alexander Chancellor.

Other British expats have been horrified by the locals’ apparent disregard for planning restrictions. Electricity pylons as high as 180ft have been marching across the precious landscape, like in those television advertisements in Britain at the time of the utility privatisations. The Brits call it environmental vandalism. The locals call it progress and a chance to be bribed.

The Sunday Times disclosed recently that Germaine Greer has given up on Tuscany (it is a blow the region may perhaps cope with) and that David Bowie and Sting have not been seen at their villas for a while. Murders in Florence are up a reported 40 per cent in a year, and muggings are now “once every ten minutes”. If only John Prescott could achieve that striking rate with London buses.

Smog is a new problem the result of tourist traffic, which has increased almost as fast as the influx of gypsies. Some of the Romanies are refugees from the latest Balkan troubles, while others have fled persecution in central Europe. Not that this is likely to trouble the Blairs. The Villa del Gombo, you see, is not the sort of place you will find in the pages of a Thomas Cook brochure, with symbols to indicate maid service and off-street parking. With its stilts and Fifties right angles, it is modernist in appearance Frank Lloyd Wright meets Latin builders but decidedly old-fashioned in terms of space and grandeur. It sits in the San Rossore estate, once owned by the grand dukes of Tuscany, and it offers the benefit, as property agents would say, of a 60,000-acre park, horse-drawn carriage rides and easy access to the sandy beach where St Peter once set foot. Nearby is the spot where Shelley gurgled his last.

Up in the distant mountains of Carrara, the hillsides yield marble and wonderful olive groves drop their precious bounty, shrouded by mist at morn, shimmering in a haze by noon. When you admire those mountains from afar you feel you could be in Shakespeare’s Illyria. And that’s about the strength of it a land of make-believe, of happy endings and false assumptions. No one can begrudge our prime minister a rest. His work schedule over the past few months has been gruelling. But is Tuscany really the right place?

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