The No 7 bus takes only 15 minutes to climb the hairpin bends from Florence to the hilltop town of Fiesole, but when you arrive you are in a different world. The heat and bustle of the city are left behind and although the market square is busy, the Via Vecchia Fiesolana, a narrow lane between high walls a few yards away, is quiet and cool.
At number 12, the Villa San Gerolamo, is where John Lorne Campbell and Margaret Fay Shaw spent reviving Spring holidays most years in the last few decades of their long lives. Then it was then a pensione run by the Blue Nuns of the Piccola Compania di Maria, the Little Company of Mary.
You can understand why. The villa stands on the south slope of the hill and from its terraces and gardens there is a matchless view across gardens, orchards and private villas to the roofs of Florence, dominated by the distinctive terracotta dome of Brunelleschi’s cathedral, shimmering in the heat haze.
The villa offered simple rooms and wholesome meals taken at communal tables – all at very low prices. Although the order had been started in England, the house in Fiesole was mainly staffed by women from its convents in the west of Ireland. John enjoyed speaking in Irish gaelic with them.
It was a tranquil place to live and a perfect place to die, as John did in April 1996, a few months short of his 90th birthday. On the morning of the 25th he had been netting moths in the garden. The day was warm enough to have lunch outside, but at the start of the meal John interrupted Margaret to point out a butterfly. As he did so he slumped to the table, dying instantly from a heart attack.
Alas the nuns have left San Girolamo, a house they had occupied since 1889. Our visit found the villa gates locked. It appears the order had to sell the 50-room house and it is now in private hands. A Jaguar was parked in the driveway and a security camera stares down on those who peer through the gates.
The villa was still functioning as a guest house as late as 2005, according to one correspondent on Trip Advisor, who described it: “The building was grandiose,with great artefacts, surrounded by an unbelievable olive orchard, great walking paths, overlooking Florence, the dome, etc. Rooms were scarcely furnished, with bath, large, with great views of Florence. Splendid dining room, with a centre table for 12 or more, along with smaller tables; furniture, tableware, were all old and beautiful. Great meals! The rates were a small fraction of what you would pay elsewhere. Not to mention the uniqueness of the place, that can not be priced.”
The Blue Nuns saw their mission as providing spiritual healing, which Margaret always thought was also the special quality of Canna.