We’ve all found ourselves dreaming, at one time or another, about getting away from it all. How would it feel to just walk out of your desk job, say goodbye to the rainy northern skies and cold winters, and start a new life somewhere in the peaceful rural locales of southern Europe?
Well, the good news is that a number of trail-blazers have gone ahead and done just that. What’s more, they’ve written about their experiences to help feed your dreams.
We’ve put together our pick of the top five books about getting away from it all and escaping to Southern Europe. A word of warning though: an oft-reported side effect of reading these books is a sudden urge to sell up and head to the nearest port or airport without so much as a backward glance. You have been warned…
“Only snobs kiss once, I was told. I now pay close attention to the movement of the female head. If it stops swivelling after two kisses, I am almost sure I’ve filled my quota, but I stay poised for a third lunge just in case the head should keep moving.”
This was the original ‘quit the rat race and move somewhere rural in Europe’ book. Published in 1989, Peter Mayle’s memoir recalls moving from London with his wife to a cottage in a remote part of Provence. The story revolves around the various escapades of this awkward Englishman as he tries to adapt to the local culture and climatic condition – a seminal story-style that was used as a template by numerous other ‘good life abroad’ books in subsequent years.
A Year in Provence is told with a gentle self-deprecating humour, and will make you smile as you follow Peter Mayle and his wife through their comical capers in the lush countryside of one of France’s most beautiful regions. Indeed, you can almost smell the scent of lavender coming off the pages. Other books followed in the series.
“Each day had a tranquillity a timelessness about it so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of the night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.”
Okay, so perhaps A Year in Provence wasn’t the first book in our list to be written. My Family and Other Animals is Gerald Durrell’s recollection of the time his family moved to Corfu when he was a young boy. Taking place between 1935 and 1939, the story follows the young Gerald and his eccentric – nay, batty – family as they attempt to ‘escape the misery’ of the English weather and settle on a Greek island in the inter-war period.
Gerald, who grew up to be a famed naturalist, develops a passion for the wildlife and animals of Corfu, filling the family home with all manner of birds, mammals, lizards and insects. His elder brother, Lawrence, just wants to shoot everything, while his teenage sister seeks out romance among the locals, and his almost-penniless mother – well, she’s just trying to feed everyone and avoid having a nervous breakdown. My Family and Other Animals will have you longing for the soft summer breezes and pine forests of Corfu, and is immensely funny to boot.
“There was no stopping us now. We had running water, a heater, a cooker and a road. We were fast becoming slaves again to all the things we had come to this benighted spot to flee.”
The book that did for Spain what A Year in Provence did for France, Driving over Lemons follows the ex-Genesis drummer’s move to the most backward area of Spain he can find and – in an effort to reject the modern world – become a peasant sheep farmer. He and his wife buy a ruined farmhouse in a mountain valley and are only slightly perturbed to discover that it contains a resident old man as part of the deal.
Driving over Lemons follows the author and his long-suffering wife through his travails of becoming a shepherd and being accepted into the local community. It’s a very funny book and Stewart has a knack for making the idea of moving to rural Andalusia to work as a goat herder and living in an occupied ruin seem like the most natural thing in the world. You can almost smell the almond blossom and hear the tinkling of sheep bells as you turn the pages.
Humorous, touching and dramatic, The Factory of Light is a refreshing alternative to the current wave of ‘moving to the Med’ travelogues, from a skilled writer with a deep knowledge of, and concern for, his subject (Wanderlust)
Staying in Spain, the Factory of Light, by Michael Jacobs, tells the tale of the author’s move to a village in the olive-producing province of Jaen. Jacobs seems drawn to the village of Frailes, as if by some divine provenance, and ends up renting a room above the (very noisy) village nightclub – Discoteca Oh! – which is frequented by local drunks and nightie-wearing grannies dancing to Un Movimiento Sexi.
Jacobs discovers the village has a secret – a derelict Franco-era cinema that once hosted the glitterati of the Spanish film industry. He conceives the quixotic idea to bring the eponymous Factory of Light back to life, along with his new friend, an octogenarian man called ‘El Sereno’, whose mischievous nature puts the younger generations to shame. What follows is a remarkable story of rejuvenation, as Jacobs reanimates the sleepy down-on-its-luck village. Everyone thinking of moving to Spain should read this book.
“Splendid to arrive alone in a foreign country and feel the assault of difference. Here they are all along, busy with living; they don’t talk or look like me. The rhythm of their day is entirely different; I am foreign.”
What is it that draws Brits to Tuscany like moths to a flame? Perhaps it’s the glorious landscapes, the cuisine and fresh produce, the wine, and the famed softness of light that painters have sought out since the age of the Romantics. All of these factors feature in Frances Mayes’ autobiographical account of being freshly-divorced and buying an old ruined villa in this historic part of Italy.
Mayes, who was already a successful poet, cook and travel writer when she moved there, hits all the right notes with her heart-warming tale that is also a personal meditation on how it’s possible to live in a foreign culture, to love it and yet maintain respect for the fact that you are not of it. Far from being a fluffy jumping-on-the-bandwagon story, Mayes infuses her prose with such love for her subject that it’s impossible not to find her passion for Tuscany infective. The book was so popular it was made into a movie starring Diane Lane.
If reading the books in the above list doesn’t ignite a lust for a life among the olive groves and sleepy villages of the Med, then perhaps you’re better off just staying put. On the other hand, if you now have a burning desire to dive into a dusty ruin in an unpopulated corner of southern Europe with nothing but a few words of the local language, a head full of dreams and a heart full of enthusiasm … well, what are you waiting for?
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