On holiday in Umbria, we rented a place from a film director.
Umbria is different to Tuscany.
Tuscany is the renaissance part of Italy.
It’s Florence, and the Medicis, Michelangelo, Machiavelli.
Rows of beautifully neat cypress trees, well kept roads, the signs of people with money everywhere.
Umbria isn’t like that.
Umbria isn’t the renaissance, it’s medieval, it’s raw.
Little hilltop fortified towns and villages everywhere.
Tractors driving along the roads full of pot holes.
The locals bringing their plastic tables and chairs out onto the roadside.
To sit and drink wine, and chat and watch the sunset.
The place we stayed at was on top of a hill.
It was rebuilt from the ruins of an 11th century castle.
The actual top of the hill still had some of the original walls, overgrown and returned to nature.
But the house we stayed in was rebuilt from the remains of the dilapidated buildings, whatever walls were left standing.
There was nothing else up there, and it was a very tall hill.
To get to the top you had to drive up about about a mile of the worst road surface imaginable.
It was what Umbrians call ‘white road’.
Which just means rutted and pitted dirt track full of lumps of gravel and rock.
The car sliding all over the place with a steep drop to one side.
When you finally get to the top there’s a stunning 360 degree view all round.
About a mile below you can see the valley, sometimes shrouded in cloud like a huge lake.
We were so high we were looking down on the birds flying in the valley below.
And in amongst the ruins on the hillside are props from the director’s movies.
Huge stone gargoyles, that could be from “Baron Munchhaussen’, or ‘Brazil’, or ‘The Twelve Monkeys’.
Massive great things that looked like they belonged on the side of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Eerily looming out of the wild vegetation that’s grown over them.
Of course, if you knock on them they’re actually fibreglass.
And somehow that adds to the eccentricity of the place.
The strange mix between the ancient, and someone’s imagination.
It adds vibrancy to the overriding feeling of living in history.
At night you can feel the ghosts of hundreds of years walking around you.
The medieval world didn’t go away.
It just got reshaped, and carried on.
You feel you’re walking over the same dried, parched stubble that sandaled feet have trodden on for centuries.
Hearing the village bells ringing out the time from the valley below, just the way they would have.
The sense of being in history is overwhelming, on a mountaintop literally overlooking it.
Just before we left, on the last day, we read the guest book.
This is left for people who’ve stayed to record their comments.
The previous people to stay were very disappointed.
They said, “Yes it’s an amazing house but it’s ruined by the drive up every day. Can’t something be done about the road?”
They went on to say, “The lack of shade around the pool spoiled the whole experience for the children. Why can’t there be large umbrellas, instead of having to sit under the trees?”
They continued, “The insects are awful, we have to sit indoors with the windows shut.”
Now here’s a thing.
We experienced all those things, but we experienced them from the other side.
To us it was part of the adventure.
Sure the road is a drag, but that’s how people have had to get to top of the mountain for centuries.
If you make a tarmac road it will certainly make it a bit more comfortable.
It will also kill a little bit of the romance.
It will become as easily accessible as everywhere else.
Sure you could have giant sun umbrellas instead of shading under the trees.
But it will also make it just a little bit more like any posh hotel.
Why not have a waiter bringing you drinks by the pool?
And I don’t know what you do about the flies.
They’ve probably been there even longer than the Umbrians.
If you get rid of all that aren’t you getting rid of part of the history of the place?
Sure you need some of life’s conveniences.
But every time you modernise something you lose something old.
I was talking to my wife about it.
She’s an art director, and she said we have similar creative problems with clients all the time.
It’s the same with any idea.
When does solving the practical problems kill the magic?
When does it stop being an improvement and actually just make it more like everything else?
When does it take away everything you loved about it in the first place?
You like it because it’s different.
And the first thing you want to do is change what makes it different.
Fix it up and improve it.
So that it becomes more like everything else.
And it stops being different.
For creative people it’s always a tough call.
Where do you draw the line?
Some changes are reasonable and will make your idea better.
And some changes just kill the magic.
How do you know when to stop?