Too Much Tuscan Sun (Confessions of a Chianti Tour Guide) by Dario Castagno
Anyone with a foot in two cultures and fluency in two languages is a lucky person. This describes Dario Castagno, author of “Too Much Tuscan Sun.” Born in England of Italian parents, his family moved to the Chianti region of Tuscany when Dario was ten years old. He worked in a winery for ten years and then decided to leverage his bicultural-bilingual background into a job that allowed him to continue to explore his beloved Tuscany. So he became a free-lance tour guide, showing Americans, mostly, around Tuscany. Judging from the life he describes in this memoir, he has succeeded with his objective, though at some cost to quality of life insofar as the people he ends up guiding.
This is an entertaining book, although a bit shallow. It is heavy on anecdotes about those tourists you hope you’ll never encounter, light on natural history, and with just enough historical and cultural vignettes to make it worth your while. There is so much to know about this fascinating region of Tuscany that we can’t expect Dario to tell all, nor to have the background to tell all in one short volume. As a first book, though, this is worth reading. We can hope that he’ll add more depth in future books.
Paola and I have been tourists or involved in tourism and travel for fun and education for about forty years. Mostly we’ve traveled with students and with ExperiencePlus! customers during those years or we’ve enjoyed our own experiential learning and travel opportunities. We’ve rarely dealt with diet-coke-swigging, pink-sweat-suit-clad, quarreling tourists whose primary interest is in shopping or pointing out that Italian food really isn’t up to quality!
So you’ll find the anecdotes about his “clients” amusing and entertaining until they become tiresome, at which point you’ll be delighted that you don’t have to travel with people like these!
Dario Castagno is no Gary Paul Nabhan (whose book, Songbirds, Truffles and Wolves (An American Naturalist in Italy) is one of my favorites about the natural environment in Italy). Indeed, Castagno is not a naturalist. Yet his book has an amateur naturalist premise insofar as he tries to set his scenes with chapters divided by month and by seasons of the year.
His “June” chapter begins, for example, with lists of wildflowers – roses, Spanish broom, poppies, chamomile, cornflowers and more. But he tells you next to nothing about these flowers. At least Nabhan gives us the naturalist’s perspective on imported plants and, when appropriate, the life cycles of those plants. Castagno misses an opportunity to talk about Tuscany as being in a transition zone from traditional Mediterranean vegetation to the sub-continental or mountain vegetation of the Apennine Mountains. And he writes about white acacia flowers (quite honestly, I’m familiar only with yellow acacia in Italy) without discussing at all the prized honey that acacia makes – prized among honey connoisseurs because of its low viscosity and easy digestibility.
The author does a better job with his cultural and historical vignettes. You get a real feel for the centuries-old rivalry between the Sienese and the Florentines. You can also appreciate his love and understanding for the Palio in Siena. His brief description of the basketball game to which he took two American customers in Siena (a game between Siena and Bologna) is a real eye-opener that sounds more like American hockey than basketball. And the antics of a teenager growing up in Tuscany, exploring abandoned farm houses on his motor bike, gives Dario Castagno some credibility.
The anecdotes about Dario Castagno’s customers are entertaining initially, tedious secondly, and downright depressing by the end. Can these people be real, you might ask? Do people really engage a guide for the day, then change their mind, rent a car to drive to Rome, then cancel it, rent it again, then cancel (three times in one instance?) Yes, these things happen. And yes, some of the people he describes never should have left home!
Credit is due, I believe, to Robert Rodi, the American author and customer of Dario Castagno for rendering this book into a readable and entertaining volume. Castagno first wrote the manuscript in Italian then translated it himself. Rodi re-translated the translation making this accessible to the general traveling public. (Hooray for Marvel comics, where Rodi got his start!)