When Ruth McVey first traveled to Montisi in 1975 while on a break from teaching at the University of London, she never expected she would end up farming there. She was so delighted by the tiny Tuscan town that she just hoped "to have a nice house and a little garden" once she retired. But the two-story farmhouse she bought came with quite a bit of land. So now, at 70, she produces olive oil, tends a tiny orchard and keeps some sheep and goats.
People are drawn to Tuscany for its gentle pace, rolling hills and ancient vineyards. They come too for the ubiquitous art in the famous cities of Florence and Siena, as well as in such gems as Arezzo and Lucca. Retirees won't be playing much golf, but they may well sign up for classes to learn how to cook Italian-style, start a wine collection or try to paint like Giotto.
McVey's paradise is not the only Tuscan town that would appeal to retirees. Montepulciano is a terrific place to get away from it all without ending up in the middle of nowhere. Best known for its vino nobile, the town is perched on a hill just two hours from Rome. At Cantuccio's, for example, one can order a meal of local pasta (pici) with garlic or ragu, rabbit, vin santo and dessert--all for $20. There are more than 100 vineyards in the area; some, such as the Castello Banfi, are worth a visit just for the view of the countryside.
When McVey first settled in her village, most of her neighbors were "very authentic" elderly Tuscan peasants. Now her neighbors include people from New York City, Berlin and London (some have dubbed parts of the region "Chiantishire"). While the area "has lost a lot of its indigenous Tuscan character," McVey says, she is pleased that the newcomers have turned out to be "a very interesting group."
While most people can imagine affording a vacation in Tuscany, how many can manage to settle there? Certainly only the superrich can afford a big farmhouse with breathtaking views or a medieval castle with an inviting tower. Yet those with limited funds may find a decent apartment in a small town, such as Montalcino, for $300 a month.
Once one is settled in an apartment or house, life is quite manageable for foreigners, especially if they learn some Italian. Basic medical care is accessible and decent. A resident's visa is easy to obtain, although a visitor's visa may be fine for brief stays. Foreigners can e-mail those back home, as well as open a bank account for depositing U.S. checks.
So what's not to like? "Bad bureaucracy," says McVey. If you need to deal with building permits, driver's licenses, tax paying, there's always a long line and a second visit. "If you come here with an American attitude that you have to stick to the rules," says McVey, "you're probably going to have a nervous breakdown." A changed attitude, it seems, may not be a bad trade-off for peace, art and great pasta.
--Reported by Gregory Burke/Montisi