The Emperor Has No Clothes

In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, a gullible Emperor is tricked into believing that a new suit woven by two weavers has threads so fine that they cannot be seen by anyone who is “too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality”. There is of course no thread or suit at all, but rather than appear ignorant the Emperor pretends he can see it and praises the new suit’s magnificence. Even when the Emperor stands in his “suit” (ie. naked) before his courtiers, no one is willing to admit they can’t see the fabric for fear of ridicule, or worse. When the Emperor parades his new clothes through town all the people pretend they can see them too, none of them wanting to be thought a fool. It is only when a young boy – too young to understand why it was necessary to lie – calls out “the Emperor is naked” that the townsfolk start to admit that the Emperor has no clothes. The Emperor finally realises he has been tricked, but he continues his procession through town rather than admit his gullibility.

This fable has been around since 1837, and it has become a standard metaphor for “anything that smacks of pretentiousness, pomposity, social hypocrisy, collective denial or hollow ostentatiousness” (Wikipedia). I recalled this childhood tale while driving through Tuscany on our first big sightseeing day in that area, as I couldn’t reconcile the famous region’s glowing global reputation with what I saw before me. Where were the endless vistas of misty hills, filled with vines and crops and olive groves? Where were the gorgeous and rustically run-down farmhouses framed by verdant fields? There were snippets of all these things, here and there, but they were interrupted all too often by some visual scar of modernity that abruptly shattered the view. It hit me with a rush, and on serious (and extensive) consideration I was forced to admit there is only one answer: Tuscany is not anywhere near as beautiful as it’s cracked up to be. The Emperor has no clothes.

I should clarify from the start that I am only critiquing the aesthetic appeal of Tuscany, not its food or wine or people. Like Kristen I found the food here excellent, the budget wines great value and the people very friendly. But its inability to meet up to expectations of appearance is a pretty big fail for a region that trades so heavily its idyllic reputation. The reality of Tuscany today is that significant parts of it are urban, especially the extensive conurbations around Florence and Pisa. And by urban I don’t mean pretty stone-built villages, I mean urban as in blocky, modern and unappealing. In the countryside many otherwise pleasant vistas are marred by high tension power lines, elevated expressways, train lines, factories or quarries, and the Italian tendency for putting enormous roundabouts at every major road intersection doesn’t help.

Tuscany has been romanticised in English literature since the 19th century, and particularly in the early 20th century by E.M. Forster and D.H. Lawrence. Forster’s A Room With A View was turned into a very popular movie in the 1980s, and as she’s mentioned previously it was that film that set Kristen’s heart towards visiting Tuscany when she first saw it in her teens. More recently there has been the book and film Under The Tuscan Sun, and numerous books have been written in recent decades about expatriates moving to the region to start a new life.

One of my favourites of this genre is The Hills of Tuscany by Ferenc Mate. I first read it more than a decade ago, and was captivated by his evocative descriptions of the land and its people that he discovered while searching for a Tuscan farmhouse and setting up a new life in Italy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I loved it so much that I’ve read it several times since when wanting to mentally escape to Italy, and I even brought it with me to read yet again on this year’s travels. I thought it would put me in the right frame of mind for our visit, and duly did read it a couple of months ago. Mate writes beautifully of the food, people, towns and countryside, and it’s easy to get swept away in his words.

And to be fair, we did see some beautiful parts of Tuscany on our big sweep of that first day. It’s clear that any enduring falsehood has to have some elements of truth about it to survive so long. From our campsite in the hills above Empoli we first headed south to the World Heritage Listed town of San Gimignano, and the hills immediately surrounding it are picture postcard perfection of the Tuscan dream. The town itself is delightful too, remaining charming and characterful despite being inundated by tourists. But the point is that it was only in the immediate surrounds of San Gimignano that the dream stayed alive. Literally a few hills away the vegetation turned to uninspiring scrub interspersed with occasional olive groves and farmhouses. We carried on to Volterra, an ancient town impressively positioned on a high hill with views to the horizon all around. But yet again the landscape nearby only had glimpses of prettiness, with ordinary scrubland being the norm. The roads we took around this area were marked on our map with green lines, supposedly indicating routes of particularly pleasing scenery, but for the most part we thought the views were simply green and not very scenic.

Our grand loop continued into Chianti, one of the most eulogised parts of Tuscany. While the towns were very nice the landscape was quite angular and again most views were fractured by roads, power lines or other blemishes. One of the main purposes of our trip that day, apart from seeing the area in the first place, was to scout out possible walking routes for the following days. We had purchased Lonely Planet’s guide to Hiking in Tuscany, and several of the most interesting routes were based around San Gimignano and Greve in Chianti. Our original intention was to spend up to a week in Tuscany with the main goal of spending most of those days walking through its beautiful vales. But the assessment of our scouting mission was frankly scathing: we didn’t think any of the walks were worth the effort, and though we ended up staying in Tuscany for about four days we spent most of that time hanging around the campsite deciding where else we could spend our precious days more enjoyably.

One of our main topics of conversation around that time was “why are we so different to everyone else?” Surely others must have been here and came to the same disappointing assessment as us? We considered whether we were simply being too harsh on the area, whether our extensive touring had jaded us to Tuscany’s charms because we’ve been to so many other beautiful areas of the world. But on reflection we decided the answer is “no”, it’s simply that Tuscany is not very beautiful! While there are pretty spots here and there, as noted above, it shouldn’t be so hard to find them in a region with this reputation. The fact is you have to travel through a lot of dross to get to the good bits, and that is not a feature of a desirable destination.

We gently voiced our opinions to some friends, and found surprisingly quick support for our point of view. Kristen’s brother Matt said he didn’t think much of Tuscany was very attractive, though he did highly rate pockets of the region such as Barga in the north (which we heartily agree with). Another friend was quite scathing in his review of Tuscany, and calling it “overrated” is a very polite way of phrasing his point of view. This support got us thinking, so I read more closely some of the texts I’d used prior to visiting Tuscany. I found a surprising degree of evidence supporting our negative assessment of the beauty of Tuscany, and from some surprising sources too.

Lonely Planet’s guide to hiking in Tuscany would, you would think, be full of glowing praise for the region. And while it is solidly positive about the area it does include the follow quotes:

Tuscany’s countryside is “less spectacular” than the cities of Florence and Siena … “the landscape here ranges from pretty pastoral to downright weird” … and that further south around San Gimignano the rolling hills of the region “could almost pass for rural France on a clear day, save for the Renaissance architecture and the odd stray Fiat 500” (p.193).

What’s that? Is it really saying that on a good day Tuscany just might look like rural France? Sounds like a glowing recommendation for Provence rather than an exhortation to explore Tuscany!

Even Ferenc Mate in The Hills of Tuscany tells an interesting tale, if you look closely enough. Much of the early section of the book is devoted to his search for the perfect Tuscan villa, and the numerous failed attempts he makes before finding The One. The reasons why some of the other properties aren’t up to scratch are illuminating (Chapter 7 is even entitled Houses of Horror):

A perfectly restored farmhouse in the foothills near Cortona fails because “less than a mile away, rfising from the bucolic Tuscan countryside, in the middle of that perfection, was a small hell in paradise. Poking its giant smokestack to the sky, with stainless steel bands that reflected the sun, was a giant fertiliser plant” (p.47)

Another house was passed because it had “a huge transmission tower bigger than Mr Eiffel’s right before its door” (p.60)

A third house was lovely, until from outside “there rose the steady roar of the hidden freeway below the hill” (p.61)

The fourth place was even better, with a beautiful house, fields and valley views. Until “the earth moved. The windows rattled and lamps jiggled and a jet sound shattered the air as if a bullet train were screaming under the garden at two hundred miles an hour. Which it was” (p.61)

His descriptions of the countryside are equally telling. While he and his wife eventually settle on what is apparently an especially beautiful part of Tuscany near Pienza (sadly we didn’t get to that area), he makes the following comments about some other parts of the region:

“The steep Chianti hills, much less soft and gentle than those near our cherished abbey, afforded only rarely the long, sea-of-hills vistas that we loved. Absent was that infinite, shimmering light that dissolves all matter before your eyes” (p.78)

Near Siena “the hills were mercilessly dry and empty here, then further south they steepened and there were only woods” (p.86)

In the Valdichiana valley “the olives, woods and vines gave way to vast fruit orchards and ploughed fields. Instead of hamlets there were enormous, blocky farmhouses made of brick” (p.45)

And these statements are from someone with an avowed love of Tuscany. It made me realise that the truth is out there, if you look hard enough. Perhaps if we came from an urbanised part of America, and hadn’t travelled much in the countryside anywhere, Tuscany’s flaws might be overlooked. But I don’t come from that sheltered upbringing, and so I agree entirely with Kristen view that Tuscany is trading on its romantic glories of the past that have little to do with today’s experience. On this trip we have travelled in summer through rural areas in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and now France, and all of them offer more appealing countrysides than Tuscany. Especially France, which has been a longtime love of mine that I’d let fall from mind in recent years. Kristen summed it up best when she saw rural France for the first time last week:

“All this time I’d been imagining visiting Tuscany, when in fact what I was really dreaming of was Provence!”

It’s time to say it loud and clear: the Emperor has no clothes.

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