Books at Bramasole

October 17th, 2012

Ciao to my blog friends!  Back at Bramasole, I am working on my memoir about growing up in the South, and the long return to it from California. I wrote my novel, SWAN, from my third floor study here as well. Odd to write about a place at great remove in time and place from my perch in Tuscany, but Bramasole always has been a peaceful and inspiring place to work. Works of memory need no locale and may even feel freer in detachment.

My study windows face south and east. Since both are usually open, butterflies can flit in one and out the other. Once, a bird zoomed through.

Thrilled with the idea of settling in here for a month of good work, I decided, before putting pen to paper, to record my waiting work space, and our books, which we roam through constantly.  My desk:

When the writer, Ann Cornelisen, to whom I dedicated Under the Tuscan Sun, left Italy for good. She gave me many pieces of furniture from her house in Cortona. I was especially honored with the gift of her bookcase. It still hold several of Ann’s books.  If you’ve never read her Torregreca or Women of the Shadows, please do. She was a rigorous, austere person, and a fine prose stylist. This bookcase holds mainly my books about places. The meandering vine around the room was painted by a local artist and includes Bramasole wild flowers, birds, and butterflies. I’m enamored with the old jewel-green demijohns that used to store home-made wine. Many have I found at dumpsters when we take out the trash. Sometimes they still have the straw covering but usually it’s so ratty that I cut it off. The bottles stand around in the garden and house. My friend Donatella has dozens around her garden.  The painting of Bramasole was given to me by a Hungarian reader of my books. The other drawing is of our stone sink by a friend who stayed here. The basket is full of other drawings and watercolors that strangers have left for me–sweet gifts. 

When looking at houses with real estate agents through the years, I’ve always noticed how many houses have no bookshelves. “Where are their books?” we’ve wondered. To me, books are the spirit’s furniture and without them a house is sad. When we moved in NC, I had a few second thoughts. Unpacking 150 boxes of them, taking the history to the sunporch, the poetry to the living room, the art here, the fiction there, I began to think I should weed out those I’ll never read again. But I did that the last time I moved and regretted it later. So, place of pride for the books!

Below, nonfiction in our bedroom. The shapes above are ex-votoes I’ve collected. I’ve tried to find every part of the body someone has prayed for, or has received grace from. Overall, I’d say most prayed for foot and leg problems. The photo is of Ed’s mother.

Next, poetry and reference bookcase. The medallion honors the millions of lizards who have crawled over the walls of our house, who have darted into the shady interior and out again:

Twin to the bookcase above, this one holds books by Italian authors and books about Italy. Both were made in a workshop in Sansepolcro, where Piero della Francesca lived and painted. It’s so important how the artisan traditions endure. We drew a design and three weeks later picked up these bookcases that have been such a joy for our home. I love bees; the medallion in the middle is a big bee, with a background landscape.

Above, some foreign editions of my books. The painting by Amy Lumpkin Bertocci shows a book of Ed’s poems lying open with wine spilled on it.

The art books, mostly, in the living room; this bookcase, too, was made to my design:

Here below, fiction, which keeps overflowing. Three friends here constantly swap books. We talk about a book club but never seem to be in the same place at the same time long enough to plan a meeting. The photographs are old Italian ones. I made an ancestors wall, an imagined family that might have lived at Bramasole. The photo on the lower right, however, is my daughter.


Cookbooks are stored in the cantina, once a rabbit hutch. When we restored the house, a horse stall (once a chapel) became the kitchen and the adjoining hutch became our life-saving storage room. The sideboard is the Arezzo Sideboard from my furniture collection, At Home in Tuscany with Drexel Heritage. It was the first antique we found to adapt to our collection. Too big for Bramasole’s small rooms, it’s wedged into the cantina and holds a pantry’s worth of supplies. The cookbooks mainly gather dust. Like the Tuscans, I’ve absorbed the traditional canon by now and usually improvise around it. Baking is different–you have to be somewhat exact to bake. Maybe that’s why  many Italians don’t do it. Like their ancestors, they rely on the town’s bakers for sweets. There are many delicious exceptions, of course, and we captured them in The Tuscan Sun Cookbook. Our house mascot, the boar in sunglasses, presides over the wine storage. The bit of flat woven basket on the right was made for drying figs and other fruit.


As you see, books strongly influence the way I put rooms together. I’m especially fond of making still life arrangements. Yes, books as objects, which can be objectionable to some –but I don’t adhere to that. I read them all!  And sometimes honor their presence by making them more visible.The painting on the left is one of the finest I’ve found at the antique markets, and I found the frame separately. Who is the artist? Does he deserve to be in a museum? I think so. The other gentleman simply looks upstanding and good, and I’m happy to greet him every day.



 Above, kid gloves, like ones I wore as a teen-ager in Georgia. Primitive religious paintings found in Spain and Italy, kitschy angel for Christmas, plus prayer cards picked up in churches. A rock I found on the beach in Turkey–a perfect full moon. And some favorite writers–among them Barry Hannah.

Speaking of books—I’ve read a few since I arrived. I especially enjoyed  A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively. She ties aspects of her family home and its possessions to the social changes in England in the past century. Very smart and original book. This is the only one I read on the iPad. I just know some night I’ll drift off and it will crash to the floor. Not a problems with paperbacks.

I was enchanted by The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a novel inspired by a Russian folk tale. Her evocation of the Alaskan wilderness is wondrous. I couldn’t put The Postmistress down. Sarah Blake writes of three women in the World War II era who experience colliding destinies. I liked the book very much, but I do wish, in all the darkness and death, that she’d at least allowed the postmistress’s lover to live. Some of my reading is directed by what books our guests leave behind when their suitcases are stuffed with Italian pottery and great new shoes. The Midwives by Chris Bohjalian was one of those. I was caught up in the birth descriptions and somewhat by the characters, but came down on the side of those who think a hospital is an all-around good choice, especially if your midwife doesn’t consult the weather report for extreme storms so you can’t get to the hospital. That was a snag for me and I lost sympathy.

Harrowing and unforgettable: A Train in Winter. A man visiting Cortona left it for me in the wine store, with a note saying I had to read it. I’d read and enjoyed Caroline Moorhead’s biographies before. This epic saga recounts the lives of French women resistance fighters, who for their minor crimes against the German occupation were shipped off to Auschwitz, then Ravensbrück. The grim, gruesome, inhuman details of their lives, the great friendships that sustained them, and the aftermath for the ones who survived make for tense and despairing reading, yes, but quite a profound experience.

Now I am reading Barry Unsworth’s Land of Marvels. He was a fine writer who lived a few valleys away in Umbria until his death last year. And my friend Melva just handed me The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund De Waal, so that’s next. I’d love to hear some recommendations from you!

Here’s my muse. She’s from an anonymous painting I bought at the Arezzo antique market, which takes place the first weekend of every month. I fantasize that she wants to read the book I am about to write.


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97 Responses to “Books at Bramasole”

  1. Lauren says:


    Oh I’m so glad you’re enjoying NC. I grew up in Durham and find that the Southern never does really leave the girl. One of these days I’ll take my notes about falling in love with Italy (and an Italian man) when I was an au pair on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and write a book 🙂

    Books I’m loving (and I second that comment above about re-reading yours constantly- not too many books I do that with- they strike just the right note next to a fire when I’m wanting to be cozy but not go out and see friends) right now:

    fiction: Dreamland (having just moved to NYC, this historical fiction is fascinating), the Paris Wife was beautiful, and I return to Midnight’s Children again too. Saturday by Ian McEwan.

    non fiction: The Way of the Happy Woman is a beautiful connection of life to the seasons.


    • Pat Fraley says:

      Please translate Bramasole for me. I love Tuscany -especially the acres and acres of sunflowers. Favorite city is Florence.

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Pat–Bramare is archaic Italian meaning to yearn for, and sole, of course, is sun–so something that yearns for the sun. And yes I do! Frances

  2. Emma says:

    When you said that you love bees, it made me immediate think of the Barberini family crest. When I studied in Rome I remember seeing the family crest decorating some of the most amazing area in and around the city. The correlation between art, construction and writting is a something to think about. It is rather a random thought but I thought that I would share it with you

  3. Anita says:

    So happy to see your blog. I’ve read all your books and love them. I tend to read them again if I run our of reading material. Your bookcases are lovely but how do you keep them from overflowing? That’s my problem.

    I looked through the posts in this thread and didn’t see these two Georgia authors mentioned – Olive Ann Burns and Ferrol Sams. If you haven’t read “Cold Sassy Tree” by Burns, I highly recommend it. Unfortunately it was her only finished work. Ferrol Sams has written eight books but I especially enjoyed his autobiographical books: “Run with the Horsemen,” “The Whisper of the River,” and “When All the World Was Young.”

    Enjoy your reading – whatever it may be.


  4. Josephine Alexander says:

    Francis, I have enjoyed your writing ever since I was given Under the Tuscan Sun at the SF Gift show to pass the time while waiting for clients, one of which was you who commented on our booth walls which were a Tuscan gold. Long ago you said ” I am restoring a house in Italy with walls like that”
    …………and the rest is history, as they say.
    I loved The Hare with Amber Eyes. From an artist’s standpoint it’s fascinating and as for the family history it was enlightening to read how it came, and went.

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Josephine–I am recommending that book to all my best-reader friends. I thought it was brilliant and profound. Thanks, Frances

  5. Susan says:

    Hello Frances! I am currently listening to A Year In The World (“we” are currently enjoying the food of Napoli) and my bookshelf contains a majority of your books. All of which inspired and continues to feed my dream to travel to Italy soon after my retirement the beginning of April 2014. I tried searching the blog and other sites, and am wondering if you might point me toward a site to help me explore the possiblities of what area to stay (we want to rent a self-catering apartment or villa), where to visit (and perhaps what to avoid). Any information would be deeply appreciated. Meanwhile, it looks like I have 10 more [Audio] delightful hours of “travel with you’ to enjoy!
    Cheers, Susan

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Susan, my recommendations are in my books. It’s hard to go wrong. I like staying in cities for short spurts and in the country for leisurely weeks. The area around Cortona seems ideal to me because you can day trip to so many places. Frances

  6. Margie says:

    So very glad to read about your many books and bookcases and to see your office where you write. At the end of April of this year, I was standing at in the road looking up at your beautiful house and wondering how the inside would look. Now I have an idea. Like many others, I have read (and re-read) your books and during my trip to Italy this year was fortunate enough to walk the road past your house. I even picked 4 cones from the trees beside the road to put in my memory bowl at home. I also fell in love with every jewel green demi-john I saw while there. When I read that you sometimes pick them from the garbage, my heart fluttered!! How wonderdous! Such a find! And I am also a southern girl from Alabama who has many bookshelves of books and has a few demi-johns in my home decorating (although not as nice as yours!) I think of us as kindred spirits. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and love of Italy with us, your readers.

  7. Joy Malley says:

    Ibegan reading your books afterseeing the film of ‘Under The Tuscan Sun’
    and have enjoyed them and re-read them time and again. I hope you enjoy the Hare with Amber Eyes, and I would like to recommend The Elegance of
    The Hedgehog but cannot recall the authoress’ name, do remember that she
    was French! Will look forward to reading your next………oy Ma

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Joy–I like Elegance of the Hedgehog too. The Hare with Amber Eyes goes on my all-time favorites list. This is so great for me to read all the book recs! Frances

  8. Scott says:

    Dear Frances: As I sit at my desk in my new ‘semi-retired’ state here in New Jersey, I glance at the walls of my office and see pictures I have framed and placed there after our trip to Tuscany just a few weeks ago. It was all part of the plan to retire–well, kind of: I’ll continue to work half time doing the things I love to do in an academic setting that I love–but I’ll now have time to do the other things I love to do, including travel. Heady stuff after working almost nonstop for the last 40 years.

    My wife and I spent two glorious weeks living under the Italianis and soaking up all their warmth and hospitality. (I have had relatives greet me with less enthusiasm than Ivan and his wonderful family did!) Visiting Italy was a first for me but etched in stone my love for travel and my love of Tuscany. It isn’t just about the beautiful setting–it really is ‘la dulce vita’ in every sense and to live there must be to embrace beauty on a daily basis.

    We returned from Italy to catch our breath only long enough to pack up again and wind up in the Bahamas four days later for our eldest son’s wedding on a beautiful beach. Between spending time with all three of our children (and each other, of course), having returned from sensory overload after two wonderful weeks in Italy, and then standing on a beautiful beach overlooking aqua-colored water and a bride and groom who had eyes only for one another, I realize just how fortunate I am.

    Love your books (obviously) and they mean even more when I can picture the places you’ve ‘painted’ for your readers for so long. (I have to laugh at your description about wonderful Domenica because it is spot on and captures her zest for life and her warmth! She refers to you as Signora Frances.)

    I look forward to reading your next book and cooking out of your cookbook. (My goal in semi-retiring is to make a new recipe for dinner each week and so far so good. I plan on making some Tuscan beans as part of this Friday’s dinner–and if my wife reads this: Act surprised!) Good luck in your writing! Reading your blog makes me feel like I’m back in Cortona, sipping a cappuccino and eating a cornetto at a cafe in the piazza. It doesn’t get any better than that! Best regards: Scott

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Scott, Sounds like a charmed semi-retirement! I will tell Ivan I heard from you. He jogs on our road every day. Best, Frances

  9. teamgloria says:


    Simply adored that piece you wrote for Nat Geo “A Lost Soul in Mexico” – transporting, beautiful, inspiring. as always.

    waving from soho, NYC

    _teamgloria xx

  10. MargaretMullins says:

    Frances, Loved this last blog entry- had everything I love to find- pictures of Bramasole especially inside (could almost feel the breeze thru those linen curtains and can imagine you sitting writing at your desk (look forward to your Southern memoir) and delighted to find titles of books that you recommend. I have discovered so many authors that I enjoy thru your blog. Penelope Lively is a good example- have read everything by her that I can find except the memoir that you mention which I will try to find. Another book (about her childhood in Egypt) is also very revealing-Jacaranda and Oleander-A Childhood Perceived. Enjoyed The Snow Child too and am reading the Postmistress now.
    Have a few recommendations of my own– Robert Goolrick’s new novel Heading out to Wonderful is full of the complex, tragic characters and unique writing style that he introduced in his first book, the bestseller-A Reliable Wife. His latest is set in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mts of VA in the 1940’s. Another Southern locale-this time in NC–is in Wiley Cash’s debut novel-A Land More Kind Than Home- as several town members, including a young boy, descibe the impact a fundamentalist preacher has on their lives. Both books ring true to their cultural settings with overtones of Greek Tragedy.
    The trees are glorious right now in Virginia and North Carolina. Is fall colorful in Tuscany now>?

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Margaret, I loved Jacaranda and Oleander, too. Thanks for the recs. I have read Wiley Cash’s novel. Right now, Tuscany is having its mini-Sandy moment–really nasty weather. This makes it easier to face leaving! Frances

  11. Jim Ireland says:

    I spent 21 days in Italy this summer and fell in love with the place, the food, art and scenery. We started with 3 days in Venice and then on to Pienza, Siena, Assisi, Amalfi and on and on. I’ve read two of your books since returning and have several others in the stack.

    I am a 66 year old retired bachelor who would love to buy a small farm house outside of Cortona but I wouldn’t know how and I understand they are very expensive. 🙁 Oh well, maybe in the next life.


    • Frances Mayes says:

      Jim, yes, usually expensive, but less so than five years ago. It’s easy to rent for a few months and find out if it’s really for you. I know lots of people who rent the same place for a few months every year. Google real estate agents and contact one who seems good. Frances

  12. Mark Scott says:

    Hi Frances,
    I have but thirty pages to the end of Under the Tuscan Sun. I began by reading the second book in the series and then the third and am now almost finished. It has been a great pleasure. I lived in Fiuggi for several months in 1972 and love Italy.

    Anyway you asked above for any books we might recommend and I am pleased you did because I wanted to ask if you had yet read, The City Of Falling Angels, by John Berendt. You really must. You won’t be able to put it down. I suspect you know about this book already, but if not, it is about Venice.

    Now at the risk of seeming nuts, but what the hell? I was reading about your fear of birds and have a suggestion you probably will ignore, but just in case. I have been doing past life regressions for many years now as a hobby and have found that people who have this phobia usually discover this way that their fear comes from their death after being left behind, wounded mortally, on a battlefield. The vultures attack the eyes first. I won’t go further, but you can imagine. So, you are now wondering why anyone would want to re-experience that memory. Of course they are not expecting it, but after, they seem to come to an understanding of their phobia and it tends to leave. Just something to consider.


    • Frances Mayes says:

      Mark! That is SO strange. I especially abhor vultures! Yes, I, too, liked Berendt’s book! Thanks–Frances

  13. Yvonne Wilson says:

    Frances, thank you so much for sharing your lovely life with us all! My husband and I are in love with Italy,and spend as much time as possible there, using Cortona as our home base. We try to be there at least every other year and feel like it is our second home. When I am not there I long for it and so try to find anything on the internet to connect me to what is happening there. Thank you for introducing Cortona to us and for keeping me updated on life in my hearts home! We have made some dear friends in Cortona and have fallen in love with Castiglion del Lago also. Each time we visit we must go to Venice and Assissi, and have now added Lake Como to the list having been there only twice. We will be back in Cortona for the month of May next year, staying at the same apartment just off of the piazza! Again, thank you for sharing your life with us and helping me to stay connected to the most beautiful place in the world!

  14. marie claude laurent says:

    I am very impressed to say “Hi Frances”

    I’m a retired French schoolteacher and I try to improve my English reading your nice books. I’m happy to have found your website: congratulations it’s at the top! I like very much Tuscany. We rented recently a beautiful BB in San Giminiano and visited also Firenze and Sienna. By discovering the countryside and its villages I often thought of you.
    Marie Claude

  15. Margaret says:

    Ciao Frances,

    Love your books, love your blog, love your bookcases(!) as made in Sansepolcro. We live just the other side of the Val di Chiana from you and I’m looking for not just more beautiful bookcases but also a made-to-measure hand painted credenza for my Tuscan kitchen. Would very much appreciate the name of the artisan who made your book cases please as this would save me having to drive up to Firenze. Oh and you are so right about houses in which there are no book. Remember what Cicero wrote: “A room without books is like a body without a soul”. So true. Very best wishes

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Margaret, the painted ones were made in the workshop right across from the Piero della Francesca museum in Sansepolcro–I think the man who made ours died but the shop continues. Enjoy fall in beautiful Montepulciano. Thanks!! Frances

  16. Ewa says:

    Dear Frances,
    In my first words I send You greetings from Poland. My message will be on a different topic than books:) But I love reading, by the way! From three years I dream to visit Tuscany and I think that this dream can come true in February 2013. I know that Cortona is Your home, so maybe You can tell me where can I find best place to stay. I looked through the websides but unfortunately I found nothing. I write to You in this case cause I’m really desperated.
    Thank You in advance for Your answer:)
    Ewa from Gdynia.

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Ewa–there are many choices but I don’t know what you want. There are simple B & B’s in town, and then there’s the luxe Il Falconiere outside town. For a medium-priced hotel, the San Luca is right in town, as is San Michele. Check the websites. For a house rental, check Classic Tuscan Homes. Surprised you found nothing–there are MANY options! Have fun–Frances

  17. Ewa says:

    Thank You, Frances, I’ll check it one more time with more patience;) E.

  18. Bert Bergen says:

    I hope it is ok to ask this question here. Do you ever speak at book clubs when you are back in Hillsborough, NC? I belong to a Durham book club with 10 wonderful women that would so enjoy meeting you. In December we meet to select our books for the upcoming year and I am going to suggest your book “Swan” which I really enjoyed. I realize this is very short notice but we meet next Monday 12/3 and I was hopping I could say there was a possibility that you might be available to meet with us. You could have your pick of any day of any month in 2013. We meet in the homes of our members. I realize this is a lot to request and that you may not be interested but I can guarantee some delicious snacks and a very enjoyable evening.

    • Frances Mayes says:

      Bert, thanks for asking me. I’m not yet sure when I will be going to Tuscany. We should be firming up our plans soon. I will be publishing a memoir about the South in mid-October and am sure to be here for a book tour. Could you get back in touch mid-year and maybe we can pin down a date then? Thanks–Frances

  19. Karen in AZ says:

    What a delight! I am reading the description of your study in the chapter Praying for the Queen of Hearts in Every Day in Tuscany and not only found your website, but these pictures of the very things I’m reading about! Thank you for sharing a bit of your world!

  20. Rick Pastor says:

    Ms. Mayes,

    My name is Rick and I am from Santa Cruz Ca. This is probably a story you have heard before.

    On a visit to Italy in Aug. and Sept. actually,I spent a few days in your lovely villiage of Cortona. I had the strangest sense of deja vu having read Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany and Every Day in Tuscany both just prior to and during my self-guided tour of the area. It was uncanny that I seemed to know a place so well having never been there before in my life.

    After checking in at the Hotel San Michele I bought a bunch of grapes from the market, sat on the steps in the Palazzo del Comune and just drank it all in. How familiar everything seemed having read your books! I walked through the shops and past the Piazza Garibaldi, through the park(they were preparing for the celebration of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary)past the tennis courts, and continued to stroll along the road until to my surprise I came to your house!I recognized it from the picture in Bella Tuscany. I hope you were not frightened by the stranger standing at your gate if you were at home. Although I am sure I was not the first to do so.

    That evening I joined the party in the park and had a wonderful steak dinner as was mentioned in your book. The next few days I explored the chapels and museums to get to know your Great Signorelli. Thank you for your beautiful and descriptive books and for inspiring me to visit your wonderful town. I hope to return someday.


  21. Kathy says:

    I’ve been thinking about the first photograph you posted on this blog, the picture of an open window inside Bramasole, with the white curtains billowing. I can’t stop thinking about it – it’s beautiful.

  22. Carolyn Benedetti says:

    Ciao Frances!
    I keep Under The Tuscan Sun by my bedside so when
    I need to go there it’s handy.
    What courage it must have taken to put your life savings
    into a dream. It encourages the rest of us.
    My husband and I are planning our trip to Italy encouraged
    by your book.
    Thank you for your generosity . Love the recipes.
    Carolyn Benedetti

  23. Anne McNeill says:

    Dear Frances
    I’m a 60ish Australian and a tragic Italophile, who has loved all your books, and was inspired after reading Under the Tuscan Sun, to start learning the Italian language. Doubt I’ll ever be anywhere near fluent, but I’m enjoying the journey and read all I can find about Italy and its culture. I’ve been fortunate to visit 3 times, most recently in June 2012, including Mantova (again inspired by your writing) and Venice (for the 3rd time), one of my most favourite places, and I have travelled quite a lot. I’m a horticulturist by profession and a lover of art and Italy has so much to offer as far as these pursuits are concerned, apart from her beautiful timeless scenery, wonderful people and fabulous food. I very much look forward to reading your next volume, whatever it’s content.
    Thank you for allowing me to comment.
    Anne McNeill
    Sydney, Australia

    • Hrutman says:

      Well, when the only thing similar about the movie and the book is the sentitg, it’s hard for me to like the movie! I wonder how Frances Mayes felt about it. Mycopy of Under the Tuscan Sun is marked and underlined and worn. It’s one of my favorites. I’ve had ramps at a restaurant before but haven’t made them myself. Delicate and oniony.

  24. Tanya Soens says:

    Ciao Frances,
    Amazing how many people you have touched with your words of your Italian journey, including myself. After seeing the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”, I had to read as much information behind the story. I found it was part biography, and part fiction. I bought the 3 books, Under the Tuscan Sun, Bella Tuscany, and Every Day in Tuscany. All hardback, and the sat on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I would pick them up and rub my hand over them, but life was to hectic to read. I was fortunate to travel to Rome, Florence and Assisi and swore to go back one day. Finally, May of 2011 I returned for 2 weeks. My travels didn’t get me to Cortona, but I plan to return for a 3rd trip in 2014. I just finish both “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Bella Tuscany”. I have “Every Day in Tuscany” waiting for me to pick up and begin. I found your website, and also find so many others who enjoy all you have given us. I just purchased your cookbook, and have the book that Ed and you published with photos by Bob Krist. I love flipping through the pages and connecting it with your stories.
    Thank you for sharing your journey. I would love to spend time in Italy and not be a straniero. You have proven that Italy something that each time you are there you peel back a layer and find a new experience.

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