Tree-spotting in Tuscany

Chris Harvie finds that all in Tuscany is not as it seems

It is wonderful to be back in Tuscany and to wander under a star-speckled sky through streets unchanged in hundreds of years. Scattered on the pavements in front of arched wooden doorways are dozens of chequered tables where revelling diners, blissfully unconcerned for their safety, are enjoying traditional pasta dishes, pizza and Thai food?

Here, a sign, in Italian obviously, warns against swimming in a fountain strewn with coins, there above our heads, strung from ancient window to ancient window above the narrow alley, is a line of rugby jerseys and antipodean flags? We turn into the main piazza with its attractive street lamps and cobbles, more restaurants and face-painting and slot machines? Rounding the corner to the Teatro, it suddenly starts to rain.

There is an incongruous wailing of sirens on the night air. I am jerked back to reality. For where is our clear-skied tranquil scene? Inside Monte Casino. Where are we now in the rain? Outside Monte Casino.

But Johannesburg is only apparently Tuscan on selected street corners in the Northern Suburbs. And I don’t think Tuscany has those funny crow-like bent chimney vents that turn in the Highveld breeze either. Or quite the same level of security fencing. But then nor does it have the spectacular Highveld sunset over Midrand, as seen from the N1 South when you are not counting how many chevrons lie between you and the massive Cadillac SRX in front.

A message flashes up overhead, apparently in Bulgarian. FLOWNG TRAFC ON N1 BTWN OLFTSFTN & BUCCLCH INTCHG. The fact that the traffic was actually flowing is so surprising that we need to be warned in case we brake, out of habit, for a bottleneck that isn’t happening.

Another sign. FREEWAY UNDER CAMERA SURVEILLANCE. Are we in a special edition of Big Brother on Wheels?

I am suffering from sign fatigue. THE NEW NISSAN QASHQAI. TAKE TO THE STREETS. How the heck do you pronounce Qashqai? Do you need to be able to speak Xhosa? And how many different types of Nissan can there be? I am driving a hired Nissan Tiida in slime-green, complete with the handy little triangles they stick onto hire cars to identify your status as an easy hijack victim.

I have successfully negotiated the Long Tom Pass; I have made it through Dallistrumio, the new Tuscan metropolis that has sprung up where the sleepy settlement of Dullstroom used to be. Now I am going around Pretoria and heading for Rivonia, both of which, luckily, already have Italian names.

I rarely visit Johannesburg and I am impressed. There are so many trees compared with wind-swept Cape Town and sultry Durban, and there are walls everywhere in Johannesburg to prevent tree-jacking. I see a wall so high in Sandhurst, it would take rope ladders and grappling hooks just to get up and see what was arborial and worth pinching on the other side.

Rather like America, everything seems to be bigger and better in Gauteng. The province exudes a confidence that is contagious. Recession, what recession? New buildings are going up everywhere you look. New hotels and restaurants. New houses and roads. New gardens and flowerbeds, palm trees and groundcover.

I am sure the developers know what they are doing and that this extra capacity is needed. And I am sure we will not end up with a network of empty decaying roads, abandoned hotels, hollow Tuscan villages, forgotten trees and a serious financial crisis.

Let me get out of this confusing city and back to the veld before I lose myself entirely. Perhaps, though, before I head off, a few reflective moments of star-gazing, back amongst the indoor trees of Tuscany, might help me to find my way.