Wednesday 31 December 2014

Buon anno!

Today started out with the chilly animal rounds once again. This time I remembered to take my camera out with me to take a few pictures of the frozen water bowls:

Not much swimming to be done in there.

Chunks of ice.

It took a good few whacks with the hammer to break through this stuff.

There was a pretty frost this morning too.

'Water' bowl.

Even the water butt was frozen.

After I'd smashed the ice for the geese, I went and got my bike and turbo trainer out for what felt like (and was) the first time in ages (too long). For various reasons - mainly logistical - I'd given the exercise regime a rest for a couple of weeks and over the last couple of days I had found myself really starting to miss it. Well, perhaps not missing the actual exercising itself, but certainly missing that feeling of satisfaction of knowing I've done something towards keeping my body fit and healthy, not to mention burning a few calories. It'll be a while before I manage to burn off all of our Christmas calories, and perhaps even longer until I start to feel toned again, but I was happy to make a start. And what a start it was! I sat on my bike wearing an exercise top, a long-sleeved base layer, a fleece and a tracksuit top, as well as gloves and winter leggings. Thankfully I soon warmed up enough to take off both the tracksuit top and the fleece, but the gloves and the long-sleeved top remained firmly on for the whole 45 minutes.

Exercise done, I went in to shower and change. I turned on the taps in the bathroom and the pipes started making very loud, very odd (and new) noises. When I turned on the shower, the water sputtered out, the pressure behaving very oddly and - most unusually - I actually felt hot water in the shower (as opposed to 'just warm'). The same thing happened with the tap in the kitchen - the water pressure seemed very low and there were lots of gurgling noises. It didn't take too long to work out that there must be ice in the pipes. Well, if a hot shower is one of the consequences of having ice in the pipes then I'm not going to complain (I'm choosing not to think about the other, less positive possible consequences)!

Stuart slept in until 10am, after which he got up and had breakfast while I washed up, then we headed for Pescia to take Reggie (who seemed to have a large excess of energy this morning) for a short walk and do a dash to the supermarket.

As we left the house, snow flakes began floating through the air again, and it looked grey and covered in cloud up the valley - we guessed that they would be getting another dose of snow. We drove into town and parked the car at the bins just along the road from Chris and Sue's, then started walking away from town, along the quiet road that runs along the side of the river. We had barely gone a couple of hundred yards before both Stuart and I wished we could turn straight back - the wind was bitterly cold, and there was no sunshine on our side of the river to warm us up. Nevertheless, we ploughed on, Reggie joyfully sniffing through the leaves, jumping up at the walls to see if he could peep his nose over and get a better view, and criss-crossing the road in his enthusiasm. Our enthusiasm for being out in the cold air was a little less than boundless though, so we made it a short walk (we were planning to take him out again this afternoon anyway) and hurried back to the shelter of the car.

Looking back down the river towards Pescia.

Chilly man and dog.

We didn't get much further than this before the cold got too much and we turned around.

Next stop was Esselunga - which proved to be as busy as it had been on 23rd December. Presumably this means that Italians have the same mentality as Brits do, and the threat of a bank holiday sends everyone into panic shopping mode. Or perhaps it was simply that everyone else had done exactly the same as we had, and had put off going back out to the shops after Christmas for as long as possible, and today was the first time that everyone's fridges and cupboards had run out of morsels to offer.

Despite being so busy, the shopping trip itself wasn't too traumatic, and we were soon back in the car and heading back up the hill, more snowflakes coming down as we neared the house.

Once home our two priorities were to light a fire and to make a dessert for tonight's festivities with the Phillipses. While Stuart collected firewood and built a fire, I started whipping up cream and creating a zuccotto - a creamy, cakey frozen Italian dessert that originates from the Florence area. We've actually made zuccotto several times before (Kerys and Ben even helped us make it on one occasion when we still lived in Abingdon), on each of which occasions it has turned out really well and been really delicious, so we hoped that our previous experiences would stand us in good stead! The first hurdle on making this dessert in its homeland was trying to find double cream in the supermarket. The supermarket offers one type of cream (panna). None of this single cream/double cream/whipping cream/extra thick double cream/clotted cream malarky that you get in Tesco/Waitrose/Sainsburys! Thankfully, the cream whipped up into soft peaks nice and easily, and after that it was all pretty plain sailing. The zuccotto went into the freezer just a little later than planned, so now it's a case of fingers crossed until it's time to serve.

After that, we had a quick lunch followed by a hot cocoa with a dash of home made chestnut brandy next to the fire.

Roaring fire.

This evening we have been invited to the Phillipses for new year festivities, and the invite has once again been extended to Reggie. We are hoping that Reggie will behave himself - he has been pushing the boundaries for the last couple of days, and we suspect he may be entering his adolescence. It's a good job he's so sweet and loving as without those loving moments to make up for the mischievous ones he might well be on a train back to Puglia!!

"What?! I didn't do anything! It was the cats... honest."

We plan to take a toothbrush and pyjamas to the Phillipses tonight, as they have kindly offered us a bed for the night so that we don't have to worry about driving back up the hill in the early hours of the morning - so, as long as Reggie behaves himself, it should be a fun and relaxing evening for us all.

We will of course report on the festivities - and on how the zuccotto turns out - in due course, but please bear with us if we don't get a new year's day blog post out straight away!

All that remains is for us both to wish everyone a very happy new year. Thank you for being with us (virtually) this year - here's hoping for an exciting, happy and healthy 2015 for everyone.

Buon Anno a Tutti!

Helen & Stuart

Tuesday 30 December 2014

The chill continues

Today started even chillier than yesterday, although this time once I'd done the usual animal rounds, I was prepared for the additional task of breaking the ice on the geese's water bowl and swimming pool. It took a good few whacks with the hammer, the ice was a good 2 inches thick.

We were due at Andrea's office at 9am this morning, so at 8.35am I went to give Stuart another nudge - he seemed very sleepy this morning, which probably was the sign of things to come.

Once we'd wrapped ourselves up warm and packed Reggie in the car, we drove into Pescia and made it to Andrea's for just after 9am. He was already there with both the engineer and the geologist, so we were ushered into the office to sit at the big table with them all. We were passed document after document to sign. It has struck me on recent visits to Andrea's that, while it is my name (only) on all of the bills that we are having to pay, there have been several official documents that only Stuart has had to sign - as if it is he who is in charge of things. That in itself doesn't bother me, but it does slightly irk me that I only seem to be included for the payments!!

Talking of payments, several more were discussed that we will have to make in the near future - a hefty one to the engineer, an even heftier one to the comune as some form of property tax on the new extension (if it goes ahead), and so on. I found it all rather distressing as we seem to be totting up a pretty significant sum before we've even thought about actually doing anything constructive.

After we'd bade our farewells to Andrea (the geologist and the engineer had already said their goodbyes), we got Reggie out of the car and took him for a bracing walk up and down the river. While Pescia itself has no snow, the view of the mountains (or hills as some might prefer to classify them) from the town centre is a very snowy one indeed. I kicked myself for not having brought a camera out with us.

Walk done, we were all glad to get back to the warmth of the car and drive home.

Once home, Stuart's well-being seemed to nosedive and before I knew it, he had taken himself to bed - it seemed that, right then, he simply couldn't face any more of the day. I tried my best to busy myself with taking Reggie to the apartment to check the dehumidifier, taking Reggie along the drive to check for post (I was thrilled to find parcels from my sister and my friend Louise, as well as a couple more Christmas cards - less thrilled about the credit card bill and the telephone bill [which is still in the previous occupants' name and we are still paying for services we have said we don't want], but I suppose you can't have it all!), plus taking a phone call from the courier who was about to deliver another parcel, and taking Reggie along the drive again to wait for him to arrive at the gates.

View from our gates.

Stuart eventually re-surfaced at about 2.30pm, three hours after having gone to bed. He seemed a little better for it, so that was something at least. We then opened up the parcels - a lovely abstract image based on the colours of our wedding day (hmm, not explained very well, but it's beautiful!) from Louise, some gorgeous cards designed and beautifully written by my nephew and nieces (which brought tears to my eyes) and some lovely presents from my sister.

After a little while spent tinkering about with our listing on the holiday lettings website, time ticked on to almost 4pm and Stuart had promised Antonio - his supplier of Stihl power tools - that he/we would go to his shop at 4pm today to collect our new hedge trimmers.

We quickly got the cats in, and decided to take Reggie along for the ride, and headed right out of our drive, uphill towards Vellano and the tiny village of Macchino beyond it. We hadn't driven very far before we noticed snow still lying around - all of the snow from our part of the valley had long since thawed (even if things had re-frozen overnight). By the time we were leaving Vellano, the snow piled up by the sides of the road was quite voluminous. The road itself was clear, it had clearly been ploughed and gritted, although there was one spot in particular where a sheet of ice covered the entire road - right on a hairpin bend! We cautiously made our way up to Macchino, where the snow must have been almost several inches deep, and called in at Antonio's shop.

Antonio quickly welcomed us and told us that the hedge trimmers were over the road in his house, so we moved the car to his snowy drive and followed him into his garage. He gave us (well, Stuart anyway, I don't think that women are expected to be using petrol-powered tools) a full demonstration of the shiny new hedge trimmers, before taking us into his house for the payment. We met his son, Marcello, who spoke very good English (he must have been maybe 10 or 11 years old) and then sat down at his kitchen table, looking out the window at the incredible view. We remarked what a beautiful view it was (mountains, valleys and all with the most beautiful wintry sunset), and Antonio told us that you can even see the sea from there!

While he did his calculations and wrote out an invoice for us, Antonio fed us slices of his wife's delicious home-made ricotta tart. I haven't until now had many dealings with Antonio, beyond the odd 'ciao' here and there, but I came away from today's longer encounter with a very warm feeling towards him. He truly seems to be a generous and friendly man and, as Stuart has mentioned here before, he likes to practise his English. As such, he was as patient with us and our poor Italian as anyone could be, and between the three of us we strung together part-English, part-Italian sentences and got along famously.

After we'd waved goodbye to Antonio and Marcello, we headed back down the hill, the views looking absolutely breathtaking, with snow dusted hills, a burning red sun and pink skies.

New toy...

...and this one is allowed to be mine!

Once home, it was time to put the geese away and huddle around the wood burner. We demolished yet another enormous stack of wood today - so tomorrow could be a day of wood chopping and maybe even taking the new hedge trimmers for a spin!

Monday 29 December 2014

Feeling the chill

When the cats (well Lucca, to be more accurate) started scratching at the bottom of the bed asking for their breakfast this cold, cold morning, closely followed by Reggie starting up his whining song from downstairs, I dearly wished that they had been blessed with opposable thumbs and could open up their own packets of food, take themselves out for toilet trips and even open up the goose house. But, since evolution hadn't sped forward overnight, there was nothing else for it than to jump out of bed and pull on as many clothes as I could lay my hands on as quickly as possible. This was made slightly more difficult by the fact that Florence was happily snuggled up on the pile of clothes I had discarded before climbing into bed last night, so I frantically scoured the room for alternatives and ended up wearing a gym top and fleece together with Stuart's jogging bottoms and fluffy pink and orange socks (lovely and warm, courtesy of my generous friend Mary) - a very attractive ensemble.

After feeding the cats, taking Reggie to the garden and feeding him, I headed to see the geese. I opened up their house and was about to make my way out of their enclosure when the thought suddenly crossed my mind to check their water bowl. Although most of the snow and ice had disappeared, it was incredibly cold and the ground was as hard as rock. Sure enough, on inspecting both their water bowl and their swimming pool I found both frozen solid. A hard tap with the plastic pooper scooper we use for clearing the muck out of their house did nothing - the ice was a good inch thick. I hurried back to the house to see if I could find something more effective. A quick look in the man-cave-come-office-cave came up trumps and I was soon heading back outside with a hammer from Stuart's toolbox. After a good few whacks I managed to break the surface of both drinking water and swimming pool, and made a mental note to always do an ice check in the mornings when it's cold!

Ice breaking done with, it was time for a quick shower and even quicker breakfast before heading into town first to the bank, then Andrea's. Reggie waited patiently in the car while we popped into the bank (as much as you can 'pop quickly' into anywhere that has a one-in-one-out sealed fingerprint recognition pod as an entrance) and saw smiley Gianguido at the counter, where we asked to withdraw a not inconsiderable sum of money in order to pay Andrea. That was all quite straightforward, although we almost spent the rest of the morning in the bank waiting to get out as there was suddenly a stream of people coming in through the fingerprint pod.

Next, we drove to Andrea's, where he showed us the geologist's report (and furnished us with our very own copy, showing all sorts of figures and measurements and geological maps and diagrams) and got us to sign yet more plans for submission to the comune. Since we are now just a couple of days away from the end of the year, and still no decision has yet been made as to whether or not the region will extend the special dispensation for extending houses by 20% in 2015 (the lack of quick decision making is nothing unusual, according to Andrea), the plans for our extension must be submitted to the comune by this Wednesday in order to ensure they fall within 2014 - while the special dispensation is still in place. He then presented us with no fewer than four bills that we needed to pay at the post office and return to him with proof of payment, and asked us if we could also come back again tomorrow at 9am to sign yet more forms and plans once the engineer had sent him some more information.

We bade a quick 'ciao' to Andrea and headed straight for the post office. At least it wouldn't be as busy at it had been the last time I went in there to pay one of Andrea's bills before Christmas... or so I thought. Just as before, the place was heaving and the crazy deli-counter-style ticket system seemed to defy all logic, but after a wait of around 15 minutes, our turn finally came and we handed over our bundle of bills. Once the lady had relieved us of the €290-odd that the bills totted up to, we headed back to Andrea's and while Stuart popped the receipts in to him, I went to get Reggie out of the car.

The day didn't yet feel any warmer, so we buttoned up our coats and headed towards the river to give Reggie's legs a stretch. We included a quick circuit of town in order to pick up some more cat biscuits, then went straight back to the car for some warmth.

By the time we got home it was nearing 12pm and we both felt hungry and since we were due to go out this afternoon, we decided on an early lunch: turkey sandwiches! Yes, despite not having cooked a traditional Christmas lunch, and therefore not having the traditional leftover turkey pieces, we did find some turkey escalopes in the freezer, which we had cooked last night. There was still a scraping of cranberry sauce left in the jar that Paul and Marie had brought with them, so we ate delicious turkey and cranberry sandwiches.

Not long after lunch, just as I was wondering how long I could cope in the unheated house - which we were about to abandon the animals in for the afternoon - Alex and Donatella (whom we were planning to visit) put the suggestion to us that we postpone meeting up until next week, when temperatures are due to be warmer, so that we could both keep our fire going through the afternoon (well, it would be a case of lighting it first!) and avoid having to drive up the potentially slippery roads further up the valley. After some consideration we thanked them for the suggestion and decided that it would be sensible and more comfortable for the whole household if we did indeed postpone. Once that decision had been made, there was no time to waste - Stuart headed straight to the woodpile to collect yet more basketfuls of wood (we are going through the woodpile like wood is going out of fashion - more chopping and collecting for us next week I think!) and to get a fire going.

Before long, the fire was roaring into life and the house started to feel more comfortable. It never really reached more than 14C in the bedroom/bathroom/office, but the living room was at least cosy and comfortable.

To make the most of the afternoon, we then brought both of our PCs into the warmth of the living room, sat opposite each other at the dining room table behind our respective PCs (it was just like being in the office again - except Stuart wasn't quite so willing to talk about Strictly Come Dancing as Allison used to be) and set about doing some work on our website and setting up a profile for ourselves on the Owners Direct holiday rentals website. Surprisingly time-consuming stuff, but by 6.30pm we were ready to down tools, cook some dinner and finally settle on the sofa with a glass of wine and the crackling fire to keep the cold at bay.

Mini explorations and excavations

It was another slow day for us today - we're making a conscious effort to make the most of the winter break to recharge our batteries. Nevertheless, we were both up early to see to the animals, after which I went to collect more firewood from the wood pile so that we could get the fire going nice and early. The snow/hail/rain had frozen overnight, making the garden steps and path as far as the wood plie quite treacherous, but as the sun came out during the day it all thawed through fairly quickly.

After a morning of reading books, sitting by the fire and occasionally taking Reggie into the garden, we headed out for a mini exploration. We took Reggie on his lead and first headed up the drive to climb up the old donkey track with GPS (to mark our coordinates), mapped outline of our land and camera phone in hand. When we reached the top of the donkey track, where there is an electricity pilon, I had to do a double take. When I had scrambled up the track with Mum, just two months ago, we could barely see the base of the pilon and we'd had to pick our way slowly and carefully through thick swathes of prickly acacia. However, now that the acacia has dropped its leaves things look very different and you could almost call the area a small clearing.

Reggie would have been lost in amongst acacias a couple of months ago!

All the way up the donkey track we came across large areas of churned up earth - which we could only assume were the excavations of families of wild boar. In places it looked like a herd of wild elephants had passed through, never mind wild boar.

Churned up earth.

Elephant excavations?

After our trek to the top of the donkey track, we turned back towards the house, and carried on beyond it, onto the path that heads off into the woods in the other direction. We carefully picked our way along the path that becomes quite precipitous in places (which was somewhat alarming when trying to hold an excitable puppy on a lead in one hand) towards the remains of the old quarry - a fascinating collection of old walls and stones. We've no idea what sort of structure the walls formed, but they are extensive, very well defined and well made. We also caught glimpses down to the stream/river in the bottom of the gulley - the Rio dell'Asino, which marks the border of our land.

The river in the gulley.

Within the walls of the old quarry/building.
After that, we headed back to the house to tend to the fire. The day was bright and sunny, and while we were out tramping about in the afternoon's sunshine we'd got quite warm, but we knew that temperatures would plummet again as soon as the sun dipped behind the hill so it was important to keep the fire going.

We spent the rest of the afternoon much as we'd spent the morning - relaxing by the fire with books, a bit of tv... oh and a snifter of our own home-made chestnut rum. If that didn't warm the cockles of our hearts nothing would!!!

The chestnut rum tasted a lot better than it looks!
Knowing that we had to meet Andrea, the geometra, at 10am in the morning - and that we would have to fit in a trip to the bank before that, we retired to bed for a relatively early night.

Sunday 28 December 2014

A slow day and a snow day

I was treated to another lie-in this morning, when Stuart went to attend to all the animal duties. He came back to bed for a short doze until we were both woken by Reggie's second toilet alarm call of the day. By this time it was 8.30am, so we both got out of bed, attended to Reggie's needs and waited for Paul and Marie to appear. They had been packing up their car and preparing to set off on their long journey back to Lichfield.

Bang on schedule, Paul, Marie and Nero came to say their farewells at 9am - they were heading first for a trolley dash around the local supermarket before starting the journey towards France, with an overnight stop planned in Reims. We had all been watching weather updates overnight and knew that they were almost guaranteed to encounter snow and wintry weather on their trek, so we waved them off hoping they would have a safe and uneventful journey.

As we headed back into the warmth of the house, a few tiny spots of cold, cold rain were falling. The forecast suggested that the rain would get heavier as the day drew on so, after a warming bowl of porridge, we pulled on our warm clothes and jumped in the car to take Reggie into town for a walk by the river.

The weather was bitterly cold and the rain showers were icy, so after a run or two up and down the river we hurried back to the car and drove home. It wasn't long after we got in that we noticed white blobs falling past the window. On closer inspection, the floaty white missiles did indeed prove to be enormous snow flakes. We finally had our first glimpse of Italian snow!

The snow got steadily heavier and after a while it even began to settle on the lawn, the roof of the rubbish shed and on the terraces above. Reggie was a little unsure as to what to make of it all and it was the first time we've seen him stand at the doorway and refuse to go out any further! With a little coaxing he came out though, and tore around the garden snuffling his nose in the cold wet white stuff.

The snow continued for a couple of hours before turning back into icy cold rain, then hail, and we even had thunder and lightning for good measure - somewhat alarmingly, the biggest flash of lightning and overhead clap of thunder came just as we were cautiously picking our way back down the slippery terrace after putting the geese away.

With chilly temperatures outside, we did nothing more but hunker down for the rest of the afternoon and evening with the fire blazing, only venturing outside on a couple of occasions for a slippy, slidey stagger down the garden steps with Reggie for his toilet duties. The forecast for the next 5 days is for bright, cold weather with sub-zero nights and only just above freezing during the day. We're thankful that (thanks to the help we've had from Chris) we've mastered the art of keeping the house warm with the wood burner!!

Saturday 27 December 2014

Montecarlo or Bust on Boxing day

Boxing day started at a leisurely pace here at numero 182. I was afforded the luxury of a lie-in after Stuart took it upon himself to get up for the cats, dog and geese, and we both had an extra snooze after that as Stuart left Reggie sitting quietly on the sofa by himself while he came back to bed for another hour's sleep. We were amazed by how quiet and well behaved the little pup was all on his own, and can only conclude that he too must have dozed off for another hour or so - still tired from all the excitement of Christmas day.

Once we were all up, I made a start on the piles and piles of washing up from the previous day's festivities then made a pan of porridge. It was the first porridge we'd had since being here and it tasted delicious.

Paul, Marie and Nero joined us a little after 11.30 and, after Stuart and Paul had finished the mountain of washing up (although I started it pre-porridge making, I had barely made a dent in it), we gathered dogs and coats and set off for an afternoon in Montecarlo.

The weather was beautiful - crystal clear, bright blue skies and warm sunshine - although decidedly chilly in the shade. This meant that the views today were simply stunning in all directions - a good day to visit Montecarlo, which sits atop a hill in the middle of the plains and offers views for miles around.

Bright and clear.

Boxing day view from numero 182.

By the time we arrived there it was getting on for 1.15pm. This being our first Christmas in Italy, we had no idea what the local folk get up to and whether Boxing Day would be busy or quiet, whether shops would be open or closed, and whether we would be likely to find anywhere to serve us a drink or some food.

By the looks of things, most shops and bars remain closed on Boxing day - which, of course is simply St Stephen's day (San Stefano) here. We saw many more people out and about today than we had done on Christmas day itself - families out walking and kids playing with new toys etc., which is just the way it should be (none of this rushing off to the shops for sales shopping). Anyway, although more than half of the shops and bars in Montecarlo were shut for the holidays, there were a couple of places open, including the pizzeria that Stuart had visited with Rob and Lee a couple of months ago. This place has a lovely sunny outdoor terrace that we thought would be just warm enough for us to sit at with the dogs, so Stuart went in just to make sure they really were open. He was told that we were welcome to go in and sit inside for lunch and so were the dogs!

This sounded even better - we weren't sure how Reggie would behave on his first trip to a restaurant, but it wasn't busy and we were willing to give it a whirl. We therefore all traipsed into the lovely sunny room which has windows all across the front wall to make the most of the panoramic views. Dogs settled under the table, we got on with the business of ordering some carafes of wine, plates of antipasti and pizzas and enjoyed the most delicious boxing day lunch.

The sunshine was so bright streaming in through the windows that we had to ask for the blinds to be lowered a little as we were all overheating - who would have thought we would be complaining about it being too hot and sunny on December 26th?!

After we'd filled ourselves to stuffing point once again, we headed out into the cool fresh air to walk a circuit of the town, admire the views and stretch the dogs' legs before driving back to our own little hill.

The rest of the afternoon was spent chatting, packing (for Paul and Marie) and relaxing, and before we knew it, it was getting on for dinner time. Not wanting to face cooking again (or, more to the point, not wanting to create more piles of washing up), we settled on a dinner of nuts, cheese, cured meat and pickles followed by more panetone and panforte. It was another lovely evening - and indeed the whole day was lovely - with great company. None of us can quite believe that Paul, Marie and Nero have come to the end of their stay here and will be heading homewards tomorrow. They've been such great company and the perfect Christmas guests, we'll all miss them!