A BLOOD red sun sets over the rolling hills while the last echoes of a thunderstorm die away almost as quickly as it arrived. The evening song of the birds as they return to their nests in the ancient olive groves is the only other sound that can be heard.
It's not hard to see why Dame Muriel Spark, Scotland's most famous writer and poet, who died last weekend aged 88, made this idyllic corner of Tuscany her home for the last 30 years.
From her native Edinburgh, Spark had travelled the world, living in Zimbabwe and the United States before eventually settling in Italy just after her 50th birthday.
And it was here in a converted 13th century church in the medieval borgo (hamlet) of Oliveto San Giovanni, with only around 30 residents and a good 15 miles from the town of Arezzo, that she finally found the peace and tranquillity she had so longed for.
Surrounded by the natural beauty of the landscape and the warm and friendly welcome of the locals, Spark set about writing with a new found inspiration.
She wrote more than half a dozen books from her Tuscan hideaway including The Driver's Seat (1970), Not to Disturb (1971), The Hothouse by the East River (1973), The Abbess of Crewe (1974) and The Takeover (1976).
As one literary critic put it, they were the "novels of her prime", and although short, they were brilliantly written. They formed part of a 24-book body of work in the end, the most famous volume of which was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
A close friend of Spark's, parish priest Don Gualtiero Mazzesci, tells me: "Muriel had had a very troubled early life and I think she was happy to finally find somewhere to live that had everything she was looking for.
"Here she found peace and tranquillity and she was able to work without any interruptions and, most important for her, she found that her privacy was respected.
"Muriel said to me that she was able to concentrate here and she found the Italian way of life perfectly suited her.''
The place that Spark called home beside a converted church was also a stopping off point for pilgrims heading to Rome in the 15th century. Set in acres of olive groves and fruit orchards and reached by an unsurfaced road, it was tucked away with only a handful of locals knowing where to find it.
From the terrace, Spark had inspirational views of the Chiana river valley with Lake Trasimeno visible to the north and the snowcapped Mt Amiata to the south. If ever scenery was the inspiration for writing then this was surely the right place.
Don Mazzesci adds: "Muriel always told me how she found the solitude of where she lived very striking.
"But don't get me wrong, Muriel wasn't a recluse, she had plenty of friends and the local people adored her.
"She was especially fond of children - often I would take the children for walks into the countryside and we would go past Muriel's house. With all the noise from the children she would come out and wave and say hello and she was always happy to talk to them.
Perhaps it was the fact that she had had a bitter rift with her son Robin that motivated her. In 1998, a very public row broke out between Spark and Robin over claims in her memoirs that her mother was not Jewish. Robin, who had been brought up by Spark's parents and had become an orthodox Jew, angrily disputed the claims. The author showed little sympathy for her son and accused him of seeking publicity to further his career as an artist.
If this was a motivation, Don Mazzesci was not revealing: "There are some things which a priest cannot talk about."
BUT WHAT HE DID reveal was how deep-rooted Spark's religious faith was - she had converted to Catholicism in 1954.
When asked once why she had converted, Spark said: "The simple explanation is that I felt the Roman Catholic faith corresponded to what I had always known and believed; the more difficult explanation would involve the step-by-step building up of a conviction."
Don Mazzesci says: "I think her faith also helped her come to terms with her illness - she was never sad or depressed but always full of life right up until the end."
He is keen that I hear about Spark's generous nature during her life in the village. "I know of several people in the village that she helped out because they were having a tough time," he reveals. "She was ever so generous and always willing to help anyone out who was going through a tough time. She never expected anything in return. Even well into her eighties her mind was as sharp as ever."
During her time in Italy, Spark had lived with a fellow Scot, artist Penelope Jardine. They met while Spark briefly lived in Rome in an apartment just off the 'artists' quarter' of Campo di Fiori - now a popular tourist spot with pubs and clubs.
The two moved to Oliveto in 1980 and Spark swapped her chic Roman 'Dolce Vita' lifestyle of perfect hair, expensive jewellery and furs for a more rural one in Jardine's converted presbytery.
The house was, until 1939, the home of the local priest and even had a chapel next door dedicated to St John the Baptist. It was here that Spark would spend most of her time writing surrounded by her cats and dogs and looking out over the valley.
The only thing that troubled her were the hunters who would occasionally stray on to her land and disturb her solitude with their shotguns. Spark was no lover of hunting and famously once had a run-in with a group of them.
Locals fondly remember "la signora Muriel's" battle - neighbour Alva Salviette recalls how "Muriel was such a gentle person and would never say a cross word to anyone. The only time I saw her really angry was a few years ago when she had problems with the hunters who had left poisoned meatballs lying around which had been eaten by her dogs.
"She was furious and let everyone know, and the message obviously got through in the end because she never had any more problems.
"Up until the last few months you would always see Muriel pottering about - before she was really ill she would walk down to the church for Mass on Sunday mornings. Then as her health deteriorated, she would come down into the village by car - she didn't drive, Penelope did - and you would see her sitting in the front and she would give you a little wave.
"When she first moved in to the house, you would often see her at the shop in the village, talking to everybody. She told me once that she got ideas for characters in her books from locals."
Visitors to the house described how Spark was "less immaculately dressed" than before and how she would watch Italian TV soap operas from her bed.
And they also marvelled at how she would write her manuscripts - by hand in spiral bound notebooks imported from Edinburgh stationers James Thin.
Jardine, still very upset at the death of her close friend, fought back tears as she spoke of the woman she had shared her life with for the past 30 years.
"Everyone here loved her because she was so friendly and so warm - she loved life and really made the most of it.
"I think that was because of the fact that she had had such a terrible time for the first part of her life. She had a disastrous marriage, and for a time, when she was working in London, she was so poor she had holes in her shoes and didn't buy clothes for six years - and for someone like Muriel that was very hard."
Jardine tells me how Spark "adored living in Oliveto". "Time has really stood still here ever since we arrived," she adds.
Jardine also recalls how despite living in Italy, Spark did miss her native Scotland and at one time they even thought of returning there. "Muriel had travelled so much, but she did miss Scotland. She often talked about Edinburgh and growing up there. In fact at one point we even seriously considered moving back to Edinburgh, but it never happened."
Spark's attachment to Tuscany eventually led her to be awarded honorary citizenship at a ceremony in nearby Civitella di Chiana last September.
Speaking at the ceremony, Spark said: "The kindness and hospitality that I have been shown by the local people has been of great comfort to me. I have spent a considerable part of my life here amongst you and these last years have been the happiest of my life.
"For me it's wonderful to be hidden away here amongst these people. I am a British subject, but now I am a proud citizen of this Tuscan village."
Mayor Massimiliano Dindalini, who presided over that ceremony, recalls how Spark was a part of the community: "She really got into the lifestyle and I remember her telling me how she would pick the olives in her garden every year with the locals and then send them off to be crushed into oil. Every time I saw her she would wave and stop to talk to me - her Italian was excellent. The last few months we exchanged letters as I didn't get the chance to go and see her after the award ceremony last year."
Spark now lies in the graveyard at Oliveto with a marble gravestone marking her name, date of birth and death. Several floral tributes still lie beside the grave and a candle left there following her burial still burns brightly.
Perhaps one of the most fitting anecdotes comes from Italian journalist Enrico Groppali, who interviewed her for il Giornale newspaper. "When I met her she was well into her eighties, and even though she was on sticks she could still move around like lightening.
"She said to me: 'I'm almost 90 years old and I could die any day, but I am still working and writing because when you are ill with literature you die with a pen in your hand, of that there is no doubt.'"
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east