Monday, March 24, 2014

Finding a place in Italy

A Small Place in Italy, Eric Newby

Eric Newby's books were one of my favorite discoveries in 2012 (and from my own TBR shelves to boot).  That year I read several accounts of his adventures, usually with his wife and long-suffering travel partner Wanda.  And then last year I completely neglected them, though I still had some of his books unread.  I was hunting around the TBR shelves the other day, unable at first to settle on anything, when I chose this one pretty much at random.  I'm glad I did, it did felt like meeting old friends again.

The opening chapter gives a quick overview of Eric Newby's experiences in Italy in World War II, where he was first a prisoner of war and then, after escaping, on the run for four months (a story told in greater detail in his book Love and War in the Apennines). His future wife Wanda was among those who helped him, as did the country people in the hills of the Parma region.  He and Wanda returned often to Italy, to visit his rescuers as well as her family in Slovenia (in a region annexed to Italy in the early 20th century).  They had always hoped to buy a house in Italy.  In 1967, they finally decided to do it, spurred in part by rising real estate prices.  They wanted to live in the north, along the Apennines, and the house they finally found was in northern Tuscany, near the Ligurian Coast (the handy map in the front of this book was helpful and instructive).  At the time, Newby was the travel editor of the Observer, so they could only visit during his holidays, generally in the spring and autumn.

Writing almost thirty years later, in 1994, Newby details the complicated process of buying a small two-story farmhouse, I Castagni (The Chestnuts), near a small village called Fosdinovo.  The house needed major repairs and upgrades, including adding a bathroom.  I thought that this was going to be the story of the house, and in fact I kept thinking that the title was "A Small House in Italy."  Though Newby devotes several chapters to the work done on the house, he is as always more interested in people, starting with their new neighbors, and in exploring their corner of Italy.  The Newbys are the first foreigners to settle in the area (Wanda likes to remind people that she grew up in Italy), and they are warmly welcomed.  They go everywhere they are invited, from the first day.  Arriving on Good Friday, they join the traditional procession through the village streets, ending with services in the parish church.  Each year they also join neighbors in the vendemmia, the harvesting of grapes for wine, in days of hard work in the autumn heat.

Newby makes frequent references to his war-time adventures, comparing and contrasting the lives of the local residents with what he experienced living among them in 1943-1944.  He finds some surprising overlaps, but over the twenty-five years that the Newbys own their house, they see more and more changes in the traditional ways.  The country-side becomes increasingly urbanized, with people moving out from the cities and with more outsiders like the Newbys themselves setting in Italy.

As usual Newby describes the food of the region in some detail.  He seems to have thought his readers would be unfamiliar with the basic dishes (though he cites Elizabeth David's Italian Food, published in 1963).  He takes care to explain what pesto is, as well as bruschetta and pecorino cheese (reading this did make me hungry).  He also discourses at some length on mushrooms, which grow wild in the forests around the area, the collecting of them and the cooking of them.  Local residents had to move quickly to stay ahead of professional funghi seekers from the cities, who often raided the best spots.

This was a quieter book than some of his others that I have read, though it does include an account of a tramp along the crinale, the main ridge of the Apennines, which sounded absolutely miserable (cold buffeting winds and rain blowing along alpine heights).  I enjoyed learning about the region as well as the neighborhood of I Castagni, and watching Eric and Wanda Newby find their place in it.  Like them, I was sorry to say good-bye, when they finally decided they had to sell the house.  I hope the people who live there now enjoy it as much as the Newbys did.


  1. Hahaha, it makes me sad to think that there was a time that people needed pesto explained. I love pesto so much. :p

    Why did they finally decide to sell the house? Too expensive to keep up, or they just got homesick?

  2. What amazes me is that he needs to explain pesto in 1994. I haven't read any of his writing - I wondered if he was a bit stuffy (I want to say Pommie Telegraph-reading Tory, but I don't know if that translates for you) for me, but now I see I have (again! AGAIN!) been Missing Out. And I do love books about Italy.

  3. Jenny, they had trouble finding someone to look after the place in between their visits - especially to take care of the vines. Making wine from their own grapes was a big part of the appeal of the house. I love pesto too, especially making my own.

    vicki, I get the gist :) I don't think he's stuffy at all, though there's a bit of harrumphing in this book (at the sorry state of trains in the UK, frex), but I thought that might be age-related (he was 75 when he wrote this). His World War II memoir is great - especially paired with Wanda's.

  4. This sounds like a delightful read. Will be a good one to look out for next, after the first Newby (On The Shores Of The Mediterranean) that I found from the recent book sales. :)

  5. michelle, I am still in awe of your book sale loot! I have On the Shores on my TBR stacks as well, and I think I'll be reading it soon.

  6. I *think* (as in from my memories) that the UK wouldn't have known what pesto was back then, or at the very least it's only become popular here in recent years. I like the sound of the book a lot.

  7. Charlie, thanks for stopping by. I've been trying to remember when I first learned about pesto - I know it was in the mid to late 1990s. It's so ubiquitous now that it's hard to remember.

  8. I'm so glad you posted this because I have an Eric Newby book on Italy that I am trying to get to as I am also trying to get to Italy this fall. I've heard good things about his books, and I like the flavor and details you provide--more than a guide book, more than a memoir.

  9. Jane, his books aren't typical guidebooks, but you learn a lot about the places he visits! I still have On the Shores of the Mediterranean to read, which has some chapters on Italy. Have fun planning your trip :)


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!