In common with the Dordogne, Tuscany has, over the years, found favour with many English holidaymakers. While perhaps not quite as Anglicised as its French equivalent, this fact is acknowledged in the widespread renaming of Chiantishire, an area particularly favoured by Brits abroad. This, it seems to me, represents the best of reasons to find somewhere else and this is what we’ve done on several occasions in the mountainous Garfagnana area north of the ancient town of Lucca and, more recently, further south near (but not too near to) Sienna. The countryside changes delightfully around almost every bend in the sometimes alarming roads and the climate is comfortable (although Florence in high summer is best avoided).
Staying one summer just outside a village not too far from Sienna, I was struck by the way in which houses were scattered around and bedded in to the landscape rather than always being huddled together. They were reached by tracks whose length could sometimes be measured in kilometres but whose surface – in true Italian fashion – was often maintained to a standard one would expect to encounter on the local autostrada. In this particular area, the tracks were surfaced with white marble chippings – leftovers from local quarries. This had the effect of making them remarkably visible from a distance and I began to wonder if they connected up to an extent that the local roads did not. As we found out several abortive walks (and encounters with ferocious farm dogs) later, they didn’t but this harsh reality came too late for the idea that had already taken root that, in addition to the official roads neatly tarmac-ed and shown on maps, there was also an unofficial network of what I christened the “White Roads” by whose agency one could travel – clandestinely if neccessary – from place to place. The White Roads were of course of great antiquity and had traditionally been used by pilgrims, fugitives and anyone else whose cause or story was too romantic for a prosaic road. The more I sat under my shady tree, the more the concept and legends of the White Roads assembled themselves in my mind. Perhaps, one day, there may be more to be written.
What this contemplation showed me was how one can sometimes become unable to distinguish between fiction and factual reality. In many of Sebald’s works, one looses the certainty that what one is reading is either a work of fiction or a autobiographical narrative and may come to wonder where the boundaries beween these two forms actually lie, if indeed such boundaries exist at all. This in turn touches upon the nature of the individual’s concept of reality. Though no less real, is my external world actually quite different to yours or to what we collectively agree to be “true”? Is it perhaps the case that we each create individual and different realities that sometimes overlap and sometimes do not coincide much or at all? Are madmen simply those whose worlds fail to overlap with the consensus? If we really do create our own realities, are their actual worlds any less real than ours?
Pleasantly reflective ruminations under a shady tree with a hunk of ciabatta slathered with local gorgonzola and a bedewed bottle of Signor Moretti’s finest – what better way to pass a summer’s day?