James May searches for la dolce vita in new Amazon Prime Video travel series Our Man in Italy

Grand Tour presenter James May is living the good life as he embarks on a trip that takes him to almost every region of Italy. Gemma Dunn discovers what's in store.

James May: Our Man In Italy streams on Amazon Prime Video from Friday July 15.
James May: Our Man In Italy streams on Amazon Prime Video from Friday July 15. James May: Our Man In Italy streams on Amazon Prime Video from Friday July 15.

JAMES May is on a mission to discover "la dolce vita" in his latest travelogue.

Our Man In Italy, the successor to his debut Our Man In Japan, sees the Grand Tour presenter travel the length and breadth of the country, taking in its history, landscapes, traditions and more, in pursuit of "the sweet life".

"I've been there a lot, but when I looked at it, I realised that my Italy experience was quite patchy," May (59) says, having spent the afternoon indulging in fine Italian wine and nibbles.

"I've been to the north quite a lot; I've been to the lakes, I've been to Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna quite a bit. I've been to Turin and Milan, because of things I've done with car journalism in the past.

"But I've only been to Sicily once or maybe twice, then whole bits down in the 'toe' that I've never seen."

"I also went to Firenze when I went Interrailing at the age of 21, my first big sort of foreign trip," he recalls, smiling. "All of that came back to me when I went to those places, but other bits were a completely new experience."

His six-part journey - filmed over the course of three months last year for Amazon Prime Video - takes him from the Sicilian capital Palermo to the peaks of the Dolomites, as he explores the nation's culture (expect a starring theatre role), delicious food and even a touch of sport. Canoe polo, no less.

Were any of the activities his idea?

"Well, I said, 'I definitely want to go and do these things. I'd love to know more about this. These are the sorts of things I'm interested in', which tend to be quite gentle, contemplative things, arts and craft and maybe wine or something like that," he muses.

"So I put those forward and everybody says, 'Yes, James, we can do those', but then they (the producers) go off and find a load of other things that they think I should try which I wouldn't have thought of."

But, he follows: "I definitely have limits. Anything involving heights or falling off things is a no - I'm getting old, so I don't like sort of sudden shocks.

"I'm happy doing these like riding bicycles or flying along in aeroplanes, but I wouldn't jump out of an aeroplane. I would never do anything like a bungee jump. And I don't want to be hurled in a freezing cold pool in the Arctic. I might have done when I was a bit younger, but I'm too old. You have to accept it."

May is thankful, then, that his adventure contains milder exploits, from trying Zampogna (bagpipes, to you and me) made out of a goat's hide, to some much-needed respite on the Amalfi coast, and a spot of art, science and alchemy in Florence.

Did the peaceful cuppa in Turin have him thinking of home?

"It's the longest I've ever been away, I realised, because I've never lived abroad or anything like that," notes May, having resided in London for years.

"I mean, it does come with a few problems, like I didn't see (my partner) Sarah - well, she came out to join me for five days in the middle, but on the whole I didn't see her - and then there's rather mundane things like a large pile of admin and a very long list of small niggling jobs at home to return to.

"So it would be nice if you could do it in three bursts, but we couldn't do that because we daren't come home during Covid because there was a risk that we wouldn't be allowed back out - that would have really ruined everything."

The original plan was to decamp to America for the second series, "but that was messed up by Covid protocols and visa complications, and all that stuff that went on", he says.

"So to some extent we went to Italy because we knew we could definitely do it. But it wasn't a distress job; we always intended to go to, I think we just imagined that we would do a few other things further afield and then come back to Europe.

"But I don't think it really matters, to be honest," reasons May. "I don't think people will watch it and think, 'Oh, he's only gone to Italy', as long as you're finding interesting stuff to look at and keeping people mildly amused."

And he certainly is - even if lockdown had him contemplating retirement. "I used to say to some of my friends during the pandemic, and this is partly related to the age I've got to, 'I think I may have retired but I simply haven't realised yet. Nobody has told me, and nobody has given me a gold carriage clock or anything'. But that turned out not to be true," he says chuckling.

"I haven't quite retired, but it felt like it; it was almost like a dress rehearsal for retirement. After I had done the Oh Cook! show and written the book, I didn't really do any work, so I was wandering around the house looking for jobs to do and spending quite a lot of time thinking about what to cook for supper."

There's little time for that now, with May recently spotted filming Grand Tour in Poland alongside long-standing co-stars Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond.

Between this and the travelogue, he's got quite the dream set-up.

"I could say it's incredibly hard work and it's much more stressful than it looks, but that would be dishonest and it's great. I love it," he responds.

As for finding la dolce vita: "To be honest, I think it's a bit of a red herring. Everybody has a different set of national priorities, if you like, and to me it seems that the Italian ones are particularly pronounced, and there are things that they just don't worry about," he explains.

"It's like they don't worry about the volcano - you could worry about it, but what's the point? Have the glass of wine.

"It isn't as simple as that," he quickly follows. "It's not that the Italians just eat pasta and drink wine and don't think about anything else, but it's almost as if they understand not to struggle too hard and not to grasp too much.

"Italians are quite happy to take it one pace back and appreciate the soul and the beauty of really very simple human pursuits - like the card game we had, like the little cappuccino in the street cafe," May adds.

"Somehow they make it have more significance, more weight. I think we could (learn a thing or two) from all nations, but we could learn very nice things from the Italians."

:: James May: Our Man In Italy launches on Amazon Prime Video on Friday July 15.