Date: 5 May 2016
Location: La Foce villa, Chiancino, Tuscany.
Now, it's time for Chapter III of the Italian adventure. Chapter I involved Paris and I navigating a drizzly dizzying Sicily. Chapter II featured my solo adventures in Napoli and Florence. Chapter III involves my friend Joey and her father's wedding out in the Tuscan countryside.
The setting was best described by Joey in her WhatsApp briefing message to me: 'Get off at Chuisi. Ask for La Foce Villa. It's huge. It's ridiculous. It's like an Agatha Christie novel.'
It really is.
And, its cast is diverse. There's Joey, my longtime friend who travels the world leading tour groups and wasting her plentiful charm on the most idiotic of boys. There's her father, the retired CEO about to move on to wife no. 4. There are his three mates and their wives, all affluent, all in their late fifties, healthily cynical about the wedding, and quite good fun. There's the bride to be, a wide-eyed Bambi, an Aussie-Persian nail artist. There's the bride's 19 year old daughter who thinks she's a Kardashian and her boyfriend, the gormless, manbun-toting law student whose main purpose appears to be to hold the Kardashian's handbag and take her Snapchats. There are the rest of the 'Kardashians', 20 or so caramel-skinned, ebony-haired Aussie-Persians of varying ages, in possession of varying levels of English and sporting varying levels of Instagram dependency. Finally, there are the bride's other guests, all of whom appear to be her nail clients and their partners.
And the setting? Just the most incredible Tuscan villa. Picture somewhere the Medici family may have summered. Then picture how their great great great grandchildren may have lovingly restored the place in 2016. That's La Foce Villa. Built in the 16th century in the hills of Sienna, it's spread over 3,500 acres of formal gardens and farmland, including a maze of clipped low hedges, a citrus grove and wisteria-hooded walks. I wander around barefoot on the manicured grass and wonder how anyone anyone could live their life without coming here. Second only to the snowy mountaintops of Canada, this certainly the most beautiful place I've ever seen.
I arrive at la villa around four in the afternoon on a Wednesday and the foyer is full of activity, all of which ceases as I walk through the tall front door into the lofty marble room. To my left is an arching stone staircase, to my right a fresco takes up two stories of wall. Ahead, ten sets of dark eyes fix upon me. Someone drops a compact which clatters loudly on the hard floor. My hair is awry, I'm lugging a beaten up little red suitcase and I'm sweaty.
“Hi everyone. I'm Joey's friend, Alex!”
There's silence and all seem to defer to their smallest member, a diminutive but curvy girl in her late teens. I haven't seen pictures, but I gather that this is The Daughter.
She gives me an imperious once over. Alright, I think, let's see you spend a week in Italy from a tiny hand luggage case's worth of clothes and cosmetics then spend the day whizzing through a Florentine gallery, legging it to the station over cobblestones, getting on the right Italian train, getting off in the right tiny Tuscan town and then negotiating in Italian with an Italian driver to get you to a villa for which you have no address on a 30 degree day not having eaten since breakfast and not look a little dishevelled.
“She's not here.”
Yoire going to have to give me a little more to go on, my raised eyebrows say.
“She's in the garden.”
A maid offers to show me to my room. With all the dignity I can muster, I follow her out. Finally I locate Joey. We exchange big hugs and kisses.
“Go get hot,” she encourages me, “we're leaving for dinner soon.”
A big bus has been organised to transport the thirty or so of us from the villa to the rehearsal dinner. The younger Kardashians are last to get on the bus and are in full regalia. Whilst, technically, the dress code for dinner is 'smart casual' the bride has exercised her bridal preogrative to show everyone up and attends in a floor length magenta silk ball gown with train. She looks absolutely stunning — and the 600 residents of the hilltop, cobblestoned town of Monticello where we have dinner have never seen anything like it. Her family members have gotten the memo and also turn up in gala wear. The groom's guests are, understandably, in smart casual — and bewildered.
Thankfully, Joey, who's already been here for a few days, had warned me.
“They'll dress up for anything. Breakfast is, like, semi formal. Bring dresses.”
Over a truly luscious — and delightfully truffle heavy — dinner at the tiny Osteria La Porto, I get to know fellow guests. Everyone is nice, but there are distinct cliques, and a sharp divide between the goom's guests and the bide's, a thrumming unease. It's a weird vibe and I can see now why Joey's been feeling anxious.
“Someone's going to get murdered this weekend,” I hiss over the truffled risotto. She nods, smirks knowingly and sips her Brunelo.
It's right before main course.
“What a wonderful place, what a wonderful night,” the groom's best friend, a sardonic intellectual banker type with little round glasses and a well-developed and very masochistic plan to solo circumnavigate the globe in a one man sailing ship in 2017, rises and toasts. “I'm sure we're all so looking forward to doing it again next year!” Silence. The bride and her coterie of female family members shoot dark daggers at him. There's palpable horror at the fact that someone has metoned the elephabnt in the room: if third time's the charm, what's a marriage number four?
“For their anniversary. Naturally!” he adds, a beat too late. Relieved laughter follows but the night doesn't quite recover from being struck so close to a truth and, mumbling about the big day tomorrow, all return the bus straight after dessert forks clatter back onto plates.
The next day dawns hot and stunning. Joey, who's to stand up with her dad (parent weddings are weird) is summoned early to have her hair and makeup done. I'm left to roam the villa and see if I can burn my Britishified fair skin in the gardens in the most beautiful surroundings in the entire world. The pool is in the shade of Cyprus trees this morning so I seek out the sun-soaked stone patio overlooking the formal hedge gardens and lounge there with sunglasses and as little else as possible on. At one stage a group on a guided tour of the extensive gardens is shown through the orchards below me. I hear snippets about the history of the villa float up and the looks on their upturned faces speak volumes: how do you get to actually stay here? Yeah, I'm asking myself the same.
Late afternoon, crispy like fish and chips, I meander in to see if Joey needs anything and then make myself wedding-appropriate. They've imported a hairdresser from London (why of course) and he's doing something lovely to Joey's mass of dark hair. It looks like a beautiful seamonster.
“Yeah,” she mutters, looking at me through the mirror. The room smells of crushed flower petals and heated hair. “You're sunburned!”
“Yeah. Do you need anything?”
“Prosecco! The bride's asked for prosecco but no one can find a caterer or…”
“On it,” I promise.
Ten minutes later I return, a uniformed caterer in tow brandishing two chilled hotties of bubbly.
“You legend! No one else could find any.”
I shrug. “A speciality.”
“I have a …. a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career,” she intones doing her best Liam Neeson.
“Exactly!” I laugh. “Am a prosecco seeking missile.”
Then the wedding kicks off: ceremony, drinks reception and appertivo on the sunny terrace, dinner by the pool and, when it finally darkens, dancing, general drunken revelry. Thank god I'd had 24 hours utterly alone to recharge my introvert batteries because this, this is like Tough Mudder for my social skills.
Everyone looks glittering and equisite. Joey makes a wonderful speech, Daughter makes a less wonderful and relatively self-indulgent one essentially congratulating her mother on producing such a great kid. The groom's guests exchange looks. The bride looks beautiful, but seems dazed and almost in tears for most of the evening — it's widely known that she's had doubts over the last few days. My dining companion and I polish off the first bottle of Pinot Grigio whilst she quietly ranks wives no. 1 – 4 on their intelligence, charm and goodness.
When it comes time for this bride to toss her bouquet it's a humiliating exercise: there are only five single girls amongst the 40 guests and I have to be physically pulled up to join Joey, Daughter and 2 Kardashians to the unforgiving refrains of Beyonce's Single Ladies. The bouquet lands at Joey's feet and there's a full beat before she neatly steps away from it. Daughter scrambles to grab it. It's hilariously awkward.
There's no mingling between the groom's guests and the bride's. The bride's family stay inside, prim and twitchy. We hang out outside with the naughty adult smokers and talk ridiculous things — Single Older Banker shrugs off his single status and declares that he now sees sexuality as having melded into one big 'blancmange' anyway whilst waving a cigarette, A Hilarious Wife tells me the wonderfully awful story of how she met her husband (it was her best friend's ex husband, now he's her husband and that's her ex-best friend) over too much wine. I play truth or dare with the 50 year olds. Then Joey and I discover that the poolside bar is fully stocked with spirits and its tenders most obliging. We drag the the younger and more impressionable Kardashians into doing shots of Jaeger with us and shrug off disapproving looks of their older relatives. We don't care. The night gets darker, drunker; stories and dares get wilder, truths come out.
The next day there's a body in the swimming pool.
Well, okay, no there wasn't, but it did feel that this was a classic murder mystery set up and one would have been appropriate. Instead, there were just a good many hangovers.