Wednesday 27 May 2015

Two day twister

Monday morning saw our lovely guests Diane and Ernest leave for the airport after a sixteen-day stay with us - a record that will take some beating! It was a sad moment for us - as it always is to witness the end of someone's holiday, and we'd really enjoyed having them around and socialising with them during their stay. As with many of our guests, we dearly hope they will come back to visit - so far, we've been incredibly lucky with our guests and it's genuinely been a privilege to meet them. Today's departures were no different, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Diane and Ernest left for the airport promptly on Monday morning, leaving me to turn the apartment around for our next arrivals who were due later the same day, It wasn't much of a turnaround though as the apartment had been left so clean that not a lot was needed from me and within an hour or so I was shutting the door and starting up the lawn mower.

That took me up until lunch time, after which I spent a couple of hours strimming to finish tidying the place up and improving the curb appeal, then headed for a much needed shower.

By the time I was clean and presentable it was almost four o'clock - when our friends the Richardsons were due to arrive. Bang on time (in fact slightly ahead of time), Ben, Virigina, Isabel and Erin rolled down the drive in their car, ready to stay with us for a couple of nights after having spent the best part of a week down near Arezzo for a family gathering.

It was really great to see them all - just over a year ago, they were kind enough to give us a roof over our heads and a bed to sleep in (not to mention feeding us delicious food) while we were homeless in between selling our house and driving over to Italy, and after having built up a fairly regular Friday evening get-together routine over the previous 12 months, we have missed their company over the last year. We were both struck by the changes we could see in the girls - when we left the UK, Erin wasn't even speaking, but now she's a confident little chatterbox like her older sister and a real delight (again, like her older sister).

We chatted for an hour or so over a beer before I headed into Pescia with the Richardsons to get pizza and ice cream for the girls while Helen stayed at the house with Reggie to welcome our new apartment guests. The Richardsons and I made a quick stop at Esselunga before heading home to put the girls to bed, and while Helen and I chatted with our new guests Sian and Simon (another really nice couple), Virginia cooked a delicious and uber-healthy dinner (the benefits of which were somewhat outweighed by the alcohol consumed over the course of the evening - after a year apart it was always bound to be a little enthusiastic this evening).

We all arose with Isabel's body clock the next day, so Helen and I speedily dressed and headed downstairs to deal with the animals before they could disturb Sian and Simon's peaceful sleep in the apartment below.

We coped well and slowly all arose and had breakfast out on the patio. Thankfully the weather was looking dry for the immediate future - which, sadly, was more than could be said for the Richardson family holiday that preceded it.

After breakfast, we all headed into Pescia to walk Reggie by the river. We parked at the bins near to Sue and Chris's and gradually made our way along the river until we crossed over to Lucky bar where we made a pit stop for toilets, ice cream, hot chocolates and so many cappuccinos that I wished I could have photographed the server's face each time he asked if we needed anything else.

With the time romping on for midday, and with small wet feet in the group courtesy of some enthusiastic paddling in the river, we headed back to the cars for a change of footwear before moving both cars to the Piazza near Franco's bar. Reggie once again refused to leave the car, so we left him in the safety of his crate with the rear door open where we could keep an eye on him(and vice versa) from the seating area outside Franco's.

We were relieved to find that Ben still loves his coffee - no change there.

We feasted on a superb lunch of breads, meats and cheeses (which included a three-milk cheese - goat's, sheep's and cow's - covered in fig jam and a delicious strong blue infused with fruits of the forest) before clambering back into the cars and heading for Lucca with a view to renting one of the ubiquitous four-wheeled bikes.

Once in Lucca, we managed to coax Reggie out of his crate without much effort, and all headed up to the wall. We walked around to the bike rental shop and it wasn't long before I'd handed over my ID card in exchange for a four wheeler into which the Richardsons climber before and heading up onto the wall for a couple of laps while Helen and I walked with Reggie.

A bicycle made for four.

Half an hour later the cycling family caught us up and we switched seating so that Ben and I could cycle the girls down to a large play park below, Helen and Virginia following closely behind with Reggie.

One thing I noticed today about Lucca, courtesy of operating a car-sized bike, is that there are a LOT of one-way streets combined with a general inclination to want you to circle around the inner city in an anti-clockwise direction. Needless to say, we arrived at the park quite some time after Helen, V and Reggie after having fought through crowds in narrow cobbled streets - all in the name of fun though, and soon enough Isabel and Erin were clambering over various climbing frames.

We finally called time on the day and headed back to the car to wend our way home - which we did, but not before Ben had helped me push our car around the underground car park so that Helen could bump start it. (Well, it wouldn't be the full experience if the car hadn't refused to start, would it?). When we did get home, Ben and V set to cooking dinner for the girls before their bath (yes, BATH - apparently our poor excuse for a water heater, which gave us nothing but tepid water over the winter can happily produce a bath in May as well as two showers?!!) while Helen and I nipped out for supplies for dinner. We then enjoyed a leisurely and somewhat alcohol fuelled evening safe in the knowledge that our guests downstairs had gone out for dinner at Da Carla near Sorana.

Tiredness got the better of all of us well before midnight, and we headed for bed. Everyone seemed to sleep well overnight - so well, in fact, that Helen and I lay in bed this morning not daring to get up for fear of waking the slumbering children - it was gone 7am before Isabel stirred, which seems to be something of a record. Once up, we all managed a breakfast together on the patio before the Richardsons sadly had to leave for the airport, shortly followed by me leaving for a day's strimming at Lanciole with Chris (extra labour for the day), and finally Sian and Simon checked out, heading to Pisa for a bit of sightseeing before their flight home, leaving Helen, Reggie and the cats all of a sudden alone.

We wish both the Richardsons and our guests Sian and Simon could have stayed longer but that's the way this particular cookie crumbled and it was weird to come home this evening (having yet again returned the car to the dealer) to find only Helen and the animals here.

Monday 25 May 2015

All about friends

Sunday was all about friends: preparing for a visit on Monday from our friends Virginia, Ben, Isabel and Erin; relaxing and enjoying delicious food with our friends Chris, Sue, Henry and Erik; and a nightcap with our new friends (I hope they won't mind us calling them that - we certainly became very fond of our guests Diane and Ernest, such good company and great guests) on their last night here.

First things first though: after breakfast we took Reggie for another run around along the cava track. Although we'd done the same walk yesterday, the difference was that today it was dry! Unfortunately it wasn't exactly dry underfoot, but Reggie enjoyed splashing through the puddles and thundering through the mud at top speed.

Walk done, it was time to whizz up a bean dip for later and then get to work on cleaning and tidying the house, putting fresh linen on the beds and attempting to make our house a little more presentable. By 2pm, we'd just about got on top of things so we sat down for a quick bit of bread and cheese to tide us over until later.

We then loaded Reggie, his bed, his bowls, the bean dip and some bottles of wine into the car before heading to Pescia. First stop was Esselunga to pick up some carrots for the dip, then it was round to Chris and Sue's for an afternoon of food, wine, laughter, and sunshine. Oh and barking.

Reggie gave everyone a bit of a bark when we first arrived (a bit on the rude side, seeing as it was their house and they live there), but soon settled down and even spent a while doing some clicker training with Henry. Chris and Sue's terrace is close to the edge of town, with beautiful views of the roofs and church towers of Pescia. It is also a wonderful spot for listening to the romantic sound of the ringing of the town's church bells calling people to church - if you like the sound of bells, that is. It turns out that Reggie is not a fan. Each time they struck up (it being a Sunday afternoon, this was not a one-off occurrence), Reggie struck up with his own volley of barking and wouldn't let up until they did. He also did a fair bit of snooping around the place and made himself very unpopular with the Phillips's neighbour, by barking at her as she stood on her own doorstep. That aside, he spent most of the afternoon being well behaved...

We started our afternoon with drinks and dips outside on the patio, retreated indoors for a brief interlude when some spots of rain started to fall, before later moving back outside and feasting on delicious honeyed chicken with potato salad and a heavenly tiramisu. Needless to say, both wine and conversation flowed freely and we had a lovely relaxing afternoon. Before we knew it, the light was starting to fade and, it being a school night, we stuck to our word and left the Phillipses to prepare for the week ahead while we headed back home to put the geese to bed in the near-dark.

After putting the geese away, we knocked on the door of the apartment - we'd seen Diane and Ernest on our way out earlier and we knew they wanted some advice on getting back to the airport in the morning, so we popped our heads in just to see how their day had been. Ever the gracious hosts (even though it should have been the other way around), they invited us in and offered us a glass of wine, and we spent another hour or so chatting with them before leaving them with a set of airport directions and promising to be up and about in time to see them off in the morning.

We finally took ourselves off to bed just before 11pm - not the early night we'd planned, but we'd had a busy but thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

Sunday 24 May 2015

We heard (about it) on the grapevine

After last night's late night, it was something of a struggle to heave myself out of bed at 7am this morning, but with Reggie's whining ramping up downstairs, there was little choice in the matter. By the time Stuart was stirring, I had started to wake up a little and was raring to go shopping (OK, that's an exaggeration - I just wanted to go, to get it over and done with).

So, rather later than usual, we headed into town and hit the supermarkets. The car parks in both shops were packed, and the shops themselves pretty heaving - it was only about 45 minutes later than we would usually go shopping on a Saturday, and we were shocked at the difference it seemed to make.

Once we'd done both shops and loaded the car, we drove back up the valley, making a stop at Da Nerone for what felt like a well deserved cappuccino on the way.

After unloading the car, we headed straight back out to take Reggie for a good run around at the cava. Just as we headed out again, the rain started pitter-pattering on the windscreen and got steadily heavier as we drove up the road. We had a damp walk at the cava, but Reggie didn't mind in the least and bounded around joyfully on the quiet track.

When we got home after our walk it was lunchtime, but it definitely wasn't an al fresco lunch day today. We sat indoors, and after lunch it took us quite some determination to muster up the enthusiasm to go out again - it was a grey, damp day and although it wasn't really cold, it was the sort of day that makes you want to light the fire, snuggle up on the sofa and watch a film. Nevertheless, come 3.30pm, we both pulled ourselves together, grabbed coats and shoes and got ready to head out. Reggie got a bone to keep him entertained for the afternoon and we headed for Montecarlo.

Montecarlo is the only real wine-producing area in our locality - and the wines are good. We'd learned a few months ago (through Rita, my Italian teacher) that every May, there is a wine festival in Montecarlo. The set-up is that you go to the town to pay your €8 fee, for which you get a map of the vineyards, a wine glass, a pen (for writing notes) and a form on which to collect stamps from each of the wineries you visit (there is a prize if you manage to get around all 14 of them over the two days of the event). There are also buses to bus people around the different vineyards. Each vineyard offers tastings of its wines, as well as local meats, cheeses, bread and olive oils.

We decided that we weren't going to take it too seriously and, since we had driven there, we gave the wine bus a miss and instead drove around just 4 of the 14 vineyards. Each one we visited had a different feel about it - the first was the most beautiful and inviting, the second was a little intimidating and unfriendly, the third the most friendly (we met a chap offering cured meats from his father's butchers shop, who as soon as we told him we lived in Pietrabuona gave us his phone number and invited us to go and dine with him!), and the fourth the most slick and professional. The wines were delicious and we could have happily walked away with bottles from each producer. In the end, we only bought two bottles from the first place we visited (at €5 per bottle, that's really pushing the boat out - more than twice the amount we usually pay for wine these days!), but there were some really stunning ones at all of them.

Wine nerd. Thankfully, everyone else had the same nosebag around their necks.

Tronchetti vineyard.

First stop, first purchase.

Fattoria Del Greppo - beautiful view from their infinity pool.


Last stop - Fattoria il Poggio

Did the dogs get to this size by eating titbits fed to them by sozzled wine tasters?

We thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon and were very pleased we'd made the effort to go out when it would have been so easy to stay put and veg out on the sofa. It was a real reminder of previous holidays in Tuscany and gave us a warm glow (not just the alcohol) to know that we live here. Whereas in the UK we might have spent a Saturday afternoon going to one of our favourite local country pubs, here we spent it touring around 4 vineyards (it could have been more had we been more dedicated) for less than the price of a single glass of wine back in the UK (which is handy, since we now bring in less than half of what we did back in the UK)!

We decided to call it a day after our 4th tasting and wended our way home, where, keeping in the spirit of things, we opened the box of wine we'd bought from Toti (the restaurant) last night and laid out a spread of cheese, bread (including some delicious breads that Diane and Ernest had bought for us from the bakery side of Franco's bar in town) and olives and settled down to a relaxing evening on the sofa. One of the best Saturdays we've had in a long while.

Saturday 23 May 2015

Where is May going?

The month romps on despite any protests of ours. It's now only a few days until the Richardson family arrive to spend a couple of nights with us - it seems like a lifetime ago since we made those plans, way back when we were still in England.

Thursday was a fairly unremarkable day, hence the lack of blog post: Helen worked all day in the office while I made a dash up the valley to spend the day cutting grass while there was an unexpected break in the damp weather. 

When I got home, we both headed into town to walk Reggie along the river, but this time along a stretch we've not tried before. We know that this part of the river is a regular walk for Donatella and Alex with their dog Ray, as it's a nice quiet stretch. Quiet was exactly how we found it - until the return leg when a woman approached with two dogs off the lead. One was clearly a big greyhound the other I couldn't tell you what it was, slightly smaller than Reggie, much skinnier, ginger and with pointy features. As this woman clearly wasn't going to put her dogs on the leash, we left Reggie off leash too. The greyhound came charging over to Reggie, and they chased each other briefly until the greyhound got a bit much for him - at which point the ginger dog came over all barks and the two of them hounded poor Reggie who ended up reversing into the river through the cover of reeds, barking at them both in the hopes they'd go away. It's the first time we've seen him put in his place - but even when we got control of the situation and walked our separate ways, Reggie couldn't help but take a look back with the fleeting thought of going back for some more.

After the excitement on the river, it was time to head home and start on dinner. We'd invited our guests, Diane and Ernest, up for dinner this evening to reciprocate the delicious meal they made for us last week. We didn't go in for anything complicated however: good old tomato bruschette and a roasted pepper and bean dip followed by garlic and thyme mushrooms in mascarpone with pasta and then some shop-bought torta della nonna for dessert. We enjoyed hearing about their discoveries over the last few days and made notes of many of the places they'd enjoyed - they are much better tourists than we have ever been, managing to stay out for entire days often into the evenings, and finding all sorts of things we've not seen. Indeed, they even found places of note in Montecatini Terme, a place we only ever mention when making a trip to the hardware store or pet shop - we really must try harder! We retired to bed after a very enjoyable evening at around half eleven, it was still a school night after all!

Friday saw a busy day, largely made up of shopping, which allowed me to tick a few things off my to-do list - so, despite not picking up any tools until almost five o'clock, the day felt like a huge success. After breakfast I headed into town to withdraw money from the bank in order to pay the geometra, bought a few items from the pharmacy, then headed over to Andrea's office to drop off his payment. Andrea wasn't in, but I gave the money to Alessia and asked her about yet another letter we've had from the Comune demanding we buy another €16 tax stamp for something or other. She kept the letter and told me that the Comune have already approved our plans (for the pergola, poly tunnel, solar panels, wooden shed and blocking up a door) and passed them on to the dreaded superintendent in Florence (I added the word 'dreaded' for effect). This seems like great news, but I can't help but feel that something is bound to crop up to knock us backwards again before this process is over - for now, though, we'll take the victory and stay optimistic.

From Andrea's office, I headed out to the agricultural supplier to buy some ground control fabric to make a start on covering the lower terraces. This is an idea that makes complete sense long-term, and I didn't want to attempt it after running all the irrigation pipe over the terraces, so it was a matter of now or never. I opted for now and bought 150m of the stuff, hoping this would go a long way towards covering the four terraces over which our vegetable beds are spread.

On an absolute roll, I headed over to Montecatini Terme - not to see any of the grand spa buildings or the beautiful park that Diane and Ernest had told us about, but to buy another pay-as-you go SIM card for Helen's mobile phone. It seems that we now have a reliable mobile signal at the house and since this provider (Lycamobile) only requires a top up every 12 months, it seemed like a good idea for us both to run a phone.

By the time I came back through town, the tyre garage was closed for lunch - sourcing some more used tyres to complete the steps in the terraces was the only thing I hadn't managed to tick off from today's list, but having done already more than I'd hoped for, I headed home for lunch happy with my progress.

We sat indoors today and ate a bowl of roasted pepper hummus before heading out to walk Reggie. Today, we took him down to San Lorenzo, figuring we'd give him a try there with Donatella's balance lead and continue to work on his car training. Neither were particularly successful today, Reggie having something of a relapse and lunging at 3 of the 4 cars that passed us, but nothing could faze us, it was Friday afternoon and we were staring the weekend in the face! After our walk, we made a quick trip back to Gaustapaglia, the irrigation specialist, just to see if I could get the connectors I needed for linking the water tanks together. I had assumed that I would need to order them on the internet and either pay for postage or else hope that our friend Chris, who is due to visit from the UK next month, would bring them over for me, but I thought it was worth a try here first, and bingo! I walked out of the shop with everything I needed. 

When we got home, Helen went indoors on my orders to lie down for an hour as a migraine was threatening so begrudgingly she sloped off to bed while I finally picked up some tools and made a start rolling out the ground fabric and cutting around everything growing. The task would have been easier prior to planting anything, but that way around we'd have long missed our planting window so it felt like a happy compromise and I was happy that the plants we do have in were still young, making the job that much easier. As 6.30pm approached, I'd finished 50m of the fabric - one third of what I'd bought - and it was clear that we'd be need quite a bit more of the stuff to finish the job.

I headed indoors to change at that point as we were going out for dinner with Alex, Donatella, David, Diane and Ernest to a restaurant called Toti. Alex and Dontella had told us about this place before, and months ago we'd said we'd try it together. Tonight, back by popular demand, the restaurant was putting on a vegan night. Being a vegan, Alex in particular was keen to support the evening. We were also intrigued to see the Italian take on meatless food, and our guests, who are non-meat eaters, needed little persuading to hop in the car with us for dinner and lend their support to the evening.

This is not a place you would stumble across on passing in the car - there is a small sign at the side of the main Lucca road urging you to turn left, but nothing more. We followed the sign for a few hundred metres and came upon a beautiful old building that we all remarked upon when we saw it - it turned out to be Toti. The restaurant is in the wine cellar of an old vineyard: the story goes that it's an old family concern but the wine production ceased years ago, with the place falling into a state of disrepair. Its latest owners (still from the same family) have taken the place on and are running the restaurant as a means of getting by while they get the vineyard up and running again. Vines have been planted (which will take a few years to bear fruit), and for now they buy in grapes from nearby Montecarlo and blend their own wines. Indeed, we walked away with a 10-litre box of red, for the princely sum of €2 per litre!

The dining room was beautiful, with a huge brick barrelled ceiling, stone walls and old wine barrels decorating the place. The photo here doesn't do it justice, but rest assured, future guests of ours will either be directed or dragged down there as a must! The restaurant's €10 weekday lunches are apparently the best around.

After a very enjoyable evening - which saw us almost first in at 7.30pm and almost last out at midnight - we paid our very reasonable €20 per head (for 4 courses, water, wine and coffee) and left for home.

We were pretty weary by the time we got home - we haven't stayed up that late in a long time! Nevertheless, we let Reggie out for half an hour before finally retiring to bed, Helen's alarm was set for half six again, as it always is on a Saturday, and we had shopping to do in the morning.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Rain vs irrigation

The weatherman(?) has forecast rain starting today and lasting for several days, and he (or she) certainly didn't get it wrong about today. With the exception of a short 10-minute blast mid-morning (just as Helen was dashing down to the apartment to reset the electricity, only to realise it was a power cut), it wasn't the fierce, barrel-filling type of rain but more of a general damp, showery sort of rain that makes it hard to decide whether to try and work outside or not (not that it stopped my ever determined wife from heading out at 6.30am with her bike).

Despite Reggie's barking, I drifted back to sleep again and didn't wake until Helen came back into the bedroom at 9am to see if I was still alive.

After breakfast, I left Helen in the office and headed out to an irrigation shop that Alex had told me about in Pescia. I've spent the last few days working out our options for locating the six water-collection tanks that we're now the proud owners of and the height above the first vegetable beds we need them to be in order for there to be sufficient pressure to run drip irrigation. After posting a query on the extremely useful Permies internet forum (thanks again, Alex, for pointing me in the right direction), I was given some useful information on PSI, amongst other things. Apparently, every foot of height gives you 0.44 PSI of pressure - not much, but if we can build a platform against the first bank in front of the house just low enough to catch the rain water from the four-inch pipe that is already disposing of the rain water from the front of the roof, then we will have about 12ft, or just over 5PSI or 0.35 bar, which is just just enough (in theory) to run a low-pressure gravity-fed system, so little wiggle room in the design.

Anyway, off I went to Gaustapaglia with a couple of diagrams, a list of what I thought I needed and my pressure calculations to see what happened. I was a little daunted by this particular task - completely technical in nature and it involved going into one of those hidden away places that only men dare to enter. I figured if all went pear-shaped I could run away in the direction of OBI to poke around at their over-priced offerings (although from what I'd seen, they were missing half of what I needed). Either way, I was expecting to need to supplement my acquisitions with some Internet purchases.

I was greeted by a friendly old chap who took my drawing and fired a lot of questions my way. He was clearly very knowledgeable about the subject of irrigation, and over the course of the next 20 minutes, during which he kept disappearing off and returning with the next part of the puzzle, we assembled a full order list of bits and pieces, all of which they had in stock - even the bits I was expecting to have to order. This was a triumph in many ways, not only was my Italian just about holding up to the task, but we were saving time on waiting for orders that couriers wouldn't deliver and saving postage from the UK. This made my day, and I left leaving them to collate the order for collection this afternoon.

I got home at 12.30pm, the exact time we were supposed to be arriving at Alex and Donatella's for lunch, so we raced up the valley and arrived just at the skies were trying to clear. This afforded us the opportunity to walk around their vegetable garden to see their progress - despite the huge setbacks they've had this year, they're already way ahead of us! It's inspiring to see what we might be able to achieve with some time and effort, although it's still hard to believe we'll have that kind of food available to us here from our terraces despite things starting to grow in our vegetable beds.

After a good look around, we headed indoors to find the dining room table laden with delectable delights: hummus, baba ganoush, farro salad, carrot salad, chickpea salad, olives, sliced garlic (which I forgot to try!!), pappa al pomodoro and lovely fresh bread. Right up our street. They'd really pulled out all the stops for us and I fear we've got into some kind of cooking battle now, in which I think we'll be waving the white flag of surrender very soon! 

We enjoyed a very relaxed four-hour lunch finished with delicious vegan ganache, strawberries and soya ice cream. We could have stayed longer, having only just got onto talking politics and philosophy by the time we had to leave, were it not for Reggie being at home in his crate and me needing to collect the irrigation.

After a dash through Pescia "rush hour" (pah!) and having a demo of the connections, I left with 120 metres of drip-line irrigation pipe with built-in emitters that will deliver up to 2 litres per hour, per emitter, spaced at 30 cm (the optimum for vegetable growing supposedly); 25 metres of hose to run down the terrace that will link all of the irrigation pipe together; a pile of T connectors each with a tap so that we can turn off individual beds if needed (apparently onions don't like too much water, who knew?); a low pressure timer to automate the whole process so that not only can we concentrate on other things of an evening but we can go away for a few days if we need/want to (did I mention we've booked a little three-day trip away to a farm in Tuscany with Reggie?); a filter to stop the irrigation pipe clogging; and some end caps. So, all being well, on Friday we should (I say that with probably far too much optimism than is sensible) have a working irrigation system that should mean we are running at maximum efficiency with regards to water usage and labour.

If that wasn't enough for one day, when I got home I picked up Helen (who had gone back to her computer to do a little more work) and Reggie and headed back into town for a walk along the track to San Lorenzo and back - a successful walk where he tried to attack far fewer passing cars than he simply watched go by. By the time we got home it was nearing 8pm so time to feed Reggie and the cats, write a blog, put the geese away and settle down for the evening.

Monday 18 May 2015

Melting Monday

Our dinner last night was very generously and very deliciously provided by our guests, Diane and Ernest, who invited us down for dinner. We joined them (Reggie included) at 7.30pm and sat out in the apartment garden in the balmy evening air and enjoyed a lovely vegetarian meal and great company. The main event of the meal was an enormous bowl of slowly, deliciously roasted veg served with couscous and rocket - right up our street. It was only an attempt at politeness that stopped us finishing the lot! We did, however, have seconds and even thirds, followed by a fruit salad and then chocolate, and washed it all down with plenty of wine! Before we knew it, 11pm was upon us and, it being a school night, Helen and I declined the offer of a coffee and retired to bed. We'd had a thoroughly enjoyable evening - Ernest and Diane are great company and kind and generous to boot -we feel extremely lucky to have such lovely guests.

Another clear blue sky greeted us this morning - if there's anything to banish the Monday blues and clear a cloudy brain, it's a blue sky!

After breakfast, Helen went to her office wearing three-quarter-length shorts. This time last year, despite warm weather outdoors, we were experimenting with lighting the wood burner in the office, and Helen was looking forward to our boxes of furniture arriving from the UK so that she could hug her hot water bottle, snuggle her feet into furry slippers and pile on some extra layers to keep warm in the office - but right now, we seem to be maintaining a steady and comfortable 20-21 degrees in all rooms of the house. We're not sure how much of this improvement can be attributed to the new front door and windows, how much can be attributed to the fact that we've heated the house properly over the winter, or indeed how much of it is simply that we've just become a little more acclimatised over the last 12 months - it's probably a combination of all three factors, but either way, we're in a much better place than we were 12 months ago!

But I digress. While Helen went to her office, I headed outside for a bit of work in the cooler part of the morning. Now that the apartment is not only ship shape but also inhabited, my focus has switched fully to the veg terraces. A number of jobs need to be done down there as soon as possible, namely: finishing digging over the last two vegetable beds, planting out more seedlings into these beds, covering the banks and ground with weed control fabric, sorting out the irrigation (which means finding a hose for the tanks, finding fittings to connect them together, and then all the associated drip-type hose to trail across the beds), not to mention finishing the tyre steps of which there is a flight and a half left to do (one of which is going to be a large headache as the bank is full of tree root). Common sense dictated that I should get the beds dug over first, so that's what I did. Initially, I disappeared off five terraces down to finish digging over what will be our squash and pumpkin bed - on which Helen had already done the majority of work last week.

With that done, I headed up to terrace number two to make a brand new bed, so my first job was to drag up a load of logs from terrace four to create an edge for the new bed before digging it all over. I was really wished we'd finished the steps, as by the time I'd lugged these tree trunks up the terraces I felt done in, lactic acid pumping in my legs and sweat dripping from my nose.

I headed indoors for half an hour to rehydrate and cool down a bit before a massive headache swamped me. I've always suffered with headaches more from overheating than from alcohol (genes maybe?) Either way, I could tell that a heavy one would be imminent if I didn't hide away in the cool dark house for a while.

Feeling refreshed, I went back out with a few extra tools and dug the new bed over, before using some kind of hoe to break up all the soil and then rake it over, removing the roots and weeds along the way. It was back-breaking and very sweaty work, but it was pretty much done by midday, at which point I once again retreated indoors to escape the 30C heat to cool down before making lunch. We enjoyed lunch under the patio umbrella today - the midday heat was punishing but it was accompanied by a lovely gentle breeze of the sort that could easily lull you to sleep if you felt so inclined (and had nothing better to do), so we decided to stretch lunch out a while with a pick-me-up coffee before heading back to work.

I tinkered around on the terraces for a couple of hours, waiting for Helen to finish her work for the day so that we could head out to walk Reggie and then go to the agraria to buy some ground control fabric. When Helen finally emerged into the daylight, I loaded Reggie into the car while we got our things together to leave... except we didn't leave did we?! The ******** car wouldn't start again!!

Poor Reggie had seemed so excited to be going for a walk, that we decided to head off on foot with him, walking up the road in the direction of Vellano, rather than our planned walk along the river in town. It's a good job he didn't understand that I had been promising him an ice cream in town after his walk!

Despite the fact we were without ice cream and walking along the road rather than the river, it was a pleasant walk, on which we ate small wild strawberries, found dozens of porcupine quills, spotted some pretty flowers (some type of orchid?) and made good progress with Reggie's car attacks, with him only lunging at five or six of the 15 or so that passed us.

When we got home, after drinking a gallon of water each (and making sure Reggie had plenty to drink and that he went and cooled down in the house), we decided a little work on the veg terraces was in order, so we both headed down there and planted out the squash and pumpkin as well as a load of tomato seedlings into the new beds before the sun finally beat us into submission at around 6pm. So while Helen spent 40 minutes watering all the veg, I called England and spoke to my mum and my kids. Kerys started her GCSE exams today - the first two of 18 ahead of her. She's been studying very hard (harder than I ever did), and we both hope she gets the results she deserves.

We eventually settled on the patio in the still very warm evening sun and podded fresh peas and broad beans for dinner, what bliss. When the temperature finally dropped it was time to head indoors to blog and finish dinner preparations. There's another sunny but slightly cooler day ahead tomorrow (you'll be pleased to hear we have rain coming in towards the end of the week), so I think a trip to Lanciole is on the cards for me tomorrow.

Sunday 17 May 2015

A weekend of extremes

The weekend has gone from a wet day yesterday to what must be the hottest day so far this year today - a real scorcher which kept getting hotter as the day wore on. By five in the afternoon, walking out of the house (which has maintained a steady 20°C) felt like walking into an oven! The weather app claims today's high to have been 25°C, which I think is conservative to say the least, but the app expects tomorrow to be almost 30°C!

But back to yesterday: the morning started cool with a bit of cloud, and as normal we were out supermarket shopping by half eight in the morning, Helen having already been up to exercise.
Before 10am we were driving back up the hill fully laden and stopping in the bar in the village for a quick cappuccino before going home to unload.

We emptied the car of one cargo and loaded it with another (the dog) to head up to the quarry track so that Reggie could have a good run around off the lead. With having not had the car available for most of the week, it's been a while since we managed to give Reggie a good run around off the lead, so he enjoyed the walk and stopped off for his usual bark at the small cascading stream along the way.

We got home just before midday and made a nice summery quinoa salad for our lunch, washed down with a glass of chilled white wine. Al fresco dining was off the menu today though, as the rain was threatening to make an appearance, so we made do with an indoor lunch. After clearing away the dishes we headed over to Montecatini Terme to do a little shopping - nothing exciting, just dog supplies and materials for constructing some new fly screens for our windows. If we keep getting temperatures like this we'll be cooking indoors of an evening if we can't let the cool night breeze blow through the house.

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful after that (I'm not sure the morning qualifies as eventful, but it's all we've got): we got home and made one of the five fly screens between us before settling down to an early dinner and a movie before retiring and looking forward to something resembling a Sunday lie-in.

The lie-in wasn't to be: the cats kicked off at half six - nothing unusual there, so I clambered out of bed and fed them as quietly as I could before climbing back under the covers and trying to get back to sleep to the sound of birdsong. As we'd had the window open all night for the first time in many months, I subsequently couldn't tell if I was listening to Reggie having a whine downstairs, or whether it was just birdsong. I lay there trying to discern dog from bird until Helen roused and confirmed it was indeed Reggie. I got up, let the cats out first and gave them time to reach safety, before letting Reggie out. He charged out, emptied his bladder and sniffed around where Lucca had been just moments ago, then came in for his breakfast in his new slo-bowl. We bought him the bowl, which is designed to slow down a dog's eating, yesterday and it seems to work (well, it now takes him roughly 1 minute 40 seconds to finish a meal, which is more than twice as long as it used to take him).

While I left Reggie trying to extract his breakfast from the bowl's maze with his tongue, I went back to bed, but by now Helen was awake and got up to keep an eye on the dog while I lay there drifting in out of consciousness to the sound of birds and barking for another hour.

Once we were both up we started our day with breakfast on the patio. The weather was truly beautiful this morning, already feeling hot before 9am - a complete contrast to yesterday - and we had a leisurely start with cereal, coffee, fruit juice and yoghurt on the patio before piling into the car with Reggie and heading Sorana-bound to try and walk a bit more of the track to the lost village of Lignana.

We drove as far up the CAI 54 walking route as possible before leaving the car at the roadside and heading up a gravel track where we passed dozens of beehives. You could hear the bees from many metres away, and see them swarming around the collection of hives. This wasn't the first depository of hives we would see today - it seems the apiarists are out in force at the moment, making use of the lovely, sweet-smelling acacia blossom while it lasts.

We walked the familiar track until the turn-off onto a narrow footpath signed Ligana then strode uphill for about 40 five minutes while it felt like someone was turning the heat up. Thankfully, the wood was quite dense so were afforded plenty of tree cover, but that didn't stop the profusion of sweat that drenched my t-shirt.

We eventually reached a point where the wood opened up a little, with stone strewn unnaturally around the place, and this was where we lost the footpath. We spent a good 15 minutes trying to find the continuation of the path while Reggie charged around the place with his tongue at full stretch out of the side of his mouth.

We eventually gave up, feeling quite frustrated as it seemed we both secretly wanted to make it all the way to Lignana today, but we quickly gave in knowing that today's walk would already be twice as long as anything Reggie has done so far, and we were aware of the fact that the temperature was making it harder going for all of us. Typically, just as we turned back, we spotted the path continuing on up the hill! We considered following it briefly but decided that a return to the car was probably for the best, Reggie having now drained his water bottle.

By the time we got back to the car it was getting on for midday and as we pulled up at the house the church bells chimed noon so it was straight to lunch for us all. Reggie's lunch was served up in another new purchase: a rubber ball with a small hole that he has to roll around to get the food out of. This was the second time he'd used this and so far so good - it keeps him engaged for quite some time as he pounces on it and rolls it around. Fortunately it seems too large for him to chew, so it may stay intact too.

Lunch was another leisurely affair, this time outdoors, after which we dressed in work clothes and set about making the remaining 4 fly screens as the temperature continued to climb.

By 4pm we had made and fitted all but one of the fly screens, having run out of mesh for the final one, so Helen took the hedge trimmers out onto the terraces for an hour while I started the blog in the cool indoors.

An hours later, my wife walked in looking like she'd showered fully clothed, and after slugging back a glass of water she headed for a shower - cold or not, she didn't care.

When she reappeared, we sat on the patio with a beer as the sun crept down in the sky but the temperature seemed to refuse to dip with it. At 5.30pm it was still scorching. Nothing a cold beer can't handle though, and while I finished this very post Helen went about dead-heading the irises that had gone over and were looking a little unsightly.

Friday 15 May 2015

Wet and BROKEN.

The weather forecast was spot on today, as it often seems to be, and this morning we were greeted by rain. Not that we're complaining, we've had a few scorching days over the last week and today's rain has saved us watering the veg, so every cloud has a silver lining (not that I can see the edge of this particular cloud as we are right in it)!

Our guests, Diane and Ernest, set off early this morning for a trip into Florence and had gone before I was even awake (Helen said they had left at around 7.30am). They were hoping the wetter weather would keep some of the tourists away, which I'm sure it would have done if the weather there was anything like the weather we have had here - hopefully not so wet that they couldn't enjoy the sights though, it's a fine balance.

The first job for me this morning was to cut my hair as it had gone way past presentable, and with its untidiness now even offending me, I hadn't dared ask how my wife was feeling about it. There was a genuine reason for the delay though, which was that my trusty old Remington clippers, which have been with me for more years than I can remember, had stopped cutting. They were basically now just a noisy comb. I had tried finding replacement blades but to no avail - the model was too old for anyone to stock them. So, with the weather wet today, I finally found time to try sharpening the blades on my 400 grit waterstone that I use for my cut throat razors. Alas, it seems that stainless steel does not capitulate to such fine grit, and for an hour the blades withstood almost all attempt to sharpen them. Not knowing the whereabouts of my coarser diamond stone, I decided to give in and finally buy a new pair of clippers so headed for the car.

Shortly after getting into the car I realised it was running on fumes so I headed first to the methane station to fill up. After the tank had been filled, I paid and thanked the pump attendant, turned the key in the ignition ... and yet again, the car wouldn't start. After trying for five minutes or so, the young attendant came over and asked if the battery was no good. I explained that the battery was new and that I didn't know what the problem was, but that the car would hopefully start in ten minutes or so. He then helped me push the car out of the way to sit and wait - but as we were pushing, we managed to gather a fair amount of speed, so I jumped in and bump started the car. I probably should have warned him but there wasn't time, and when I looked back to shout my thanks to him, his face was smiling and unscathed, so he obviously hadn't made contact with our rear doors, which was a relief.

I drove to the electrical shop, cursing the cowboys at the car dealership and working myself into a bit of a rage trying to decide how I could come out on top of this situation. My patience has now well and truly run out with them, I have no more 'benefit of the doubt' left as far as they are concerned!

After a quick visit to the electrical shop, from which I left with a €29 pair of clippers, I headed home and proceeded to cut my hair and even trimmed my beard while I was at it, before jumping into the shower to complete my transformation from cave man to human in time for lunch.

After lunch I headed down to the doctor's surgery in the village on my mountain bike. The rain had subsided for the time being, and having received an email yesterday afternoon from Remigio, the carpenter, asking if his guys could come and fit our new front door at 3pm (this came completely out of the blue - we'd almost forgotten we'd asked him to make a new door for us!), the window for getting there and back in time to get Reggie safely out of the carpenters' way and into his 'safe place' in the car was getting very tight. We worked out that if I cycled down to the doctor's, I could leave the car at Helen's disposal, so if the carpenters arrived while I was still out, she could get Reggie into the car and even come and meet me while the door was being fitted so that we could walk Reggie.

As it happened, there were only two other patients in front of me and the doctor was bang on time at 14:15, so I was out by 14:35 and had delivered a tub of our three-bean dip to Amanda for her to try before hopping on the bike for the ride home in good time.

It wasn't long, though, before I felt my right foot doing a familiar and unwelcome action on the pedal. It could only mean one thing - the same as had happened to my left pedal a few months back: it had unthreaded itself and cross-threaded the crack at the same time. I hopped off, hoping that I had done so soon enough not to cause any damage (far too optimistic) as this crank, having the three chain rings attached to it, would be more costly to replace - yet something else broken!

I soon saw Alex and Donatella drive past me in the opposite direction. They looked concerned to see me pushing a bike (always the sign of a problem), but I didn't see them again. Donatella called a little later on to see if I was OK - it turned out that when they passed me they were running late for the doctor and had no mobile signal in the village. Either way, there was little they could have done for me so I'm glad they didn't waste their time turning around to come back.

It was while I was pushing the bike home (uphill) that I had time to reflect on the number of things  that have broken since we've been here.

  • We had two broken locks by the time we gained entry to the house a year ago
  • Most of the window panes in the single-glazed windows were broken (now replaced with double-glazed windows, but we lived through most of the winter with the old ones)
  • The front door lock has been broken and coaxed back into functioning on more than one occasion (a problem we no longer have to worry about thankfully, because as I type the new door is being fitted)
  • The microwave has broken
  • The oven is broken (it lights, but won't stay alight)
  • The fridge door is broken
  • The flush unit on the toilet is broken
  • The roof window is broken and lets in water when it rains heavily
  • The small wood burner is kind of broken in that it's useless when it's really cold because of how poorly it's been fitted
  • The phone line is broken, again
  • The new Skype phone is broken and awaiting collection for the second time
  • The first strimmer we bought has broken and been repaired twice
  • The first hedge trimmers we bought have been repaired three times and are now broken beyond repair
  • The electric mower broke
  • The handle on the shovel is broken
  • The rake from England is broken
  • The car is most definitely broken
  • Both pedals on my mountain bike have broken
  • The main water heater in our bathroom isn't broken exactly but doesn't function very well in the winter months
  • The drive shaft on the new strimmer has broken twice, thanks to rubbish left in the undergrowth
  • The electric kettle has broken (and been replaced)
  • My hair clippers have broken
  • The electric toothbrush is more or less broken, limping along very pathetically
  • The satellite internet connection has been broken on many, many occasions.
There is more I could add to this list, I'm sure, (and I'm also sure there will be more to add to it in future), but you get the idea. So, if we didn't have enough to deal with over the last 12 months, our list of 'broken' has been enough to test our resolve (and people think we're 'lucky'!).
Having said all of this, we've survived, and believe that we must be over the worst now, although we know there is plenty still ahead to try us. We've yet to deal with a dreaded Italian tax return, not to mention finding some resolution to this car issue, which I'm sure is going to be a huge headache. Oh, and did I mention that the tractor we had settled on has been sold to someone else? A miscommunication down at Maionchi apparently. They have offered to find another for me, but for now, without an agricultural tax code it seems I won't get very far - so that job has moved further up my list. Before I can get to that though, I've got some serious catching up to do at Lanciole, after not having been able to get up there for several weeks in a row, whether because of having house guests or because of being without transport. The grass around here waits for no man at the moment!

Anyway, back to the story: when I got home, I manhandled the six water collection tanks from the car parking area onto the rubble pile known as the 'extension area', and just as I was finishing up doing that, the guys arrived to fit the new door. Helen brought a barking Reggie out through the garden and put him in his crate in the car - he seemed very happy to jump in, and we didn't hear another peep from him for the couple of hours that the door fitters were here.

We've had experience with these guys three times now - first they came to fit the replacement doors on the apartment, then to fit our replacement windows, and now to fit the new front door. They are always incredibly efficient and professional, and today was no exception. They left, just before 5pm, having removed the old door and fitted a beautifully hand-crafted chestnut wood and reinforced glass front door.

As they were trying to manoeuvre their truck around in the car park to turn around, I offered to move our car out the way and, since I'd managed to get the engine started, I left it running and suggested to Helen that we went out straight away to walk Reggie. So we quickly locked our new front door and headed into town in the rain.

We walked Reggie along the river a little way, then parked up in the square for a quick but much enjoyed end-of-the-week Aperol spritz in Bar Poulter before heading back up the hill towards home to start the evening and start our weekend.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Racing around

Today was always going to be a busy day, and it's turned out to be an eventful one indeed! Around 10 months ago, we found out that the Giro d'Italia, the Italian equivalent of the Tour de France, would be passing very close to us (stage 6 of the race starting from Montecatini Terme, just down the road). As keen cycling fans, we determined there and then that we would go and watch the race and we have been looking forward to it ever since.

At one point this week, it seemed likely that if we wanted to go and watch the race we would have to cycle there ourselves, as our car still languished in the garage, so we were pleased to get the car back yesterday evening, meaning we'd be able to drive there. Having rooted around on the internet trying to find any actual information on the route and the start time of the race (heaven knows why there is so little information available - it's almost as if they don't want any spectators, or perhaps it's a test of spectators' dedication with only the most persistent and dedicated being able to find out the details and turn up at the right time), I eventually stumbled across a schedule yesterday and found out that the start of the race would be roughly 1pm. Feeling pleased with myself, my bubble was soon burst when Stuart dropped the bombshell that he had just arranged between Donatella, her contact and Izmet (the guy with a truck), to finally pick up the long-awaited water tanks today... at 2pm.

I was crestfallen and resigned myself to waiting until next year to watch the cycling, but Stuart was not that easily deterred! He felt sure that we would be able to fit it all in, so the plan was to drive to Altopascio for around 12.30pm, watch the race, then hot-foot it back home in time to meet Donatella and Alex and go to arrange collection and delivery of the tanks.

So, this morning started with a bit of work, followed by a trip into town to walk Reggie. It felt like such a novelty to go out in our car - we'd been without it for a week, but it felt like longer. We decided that, to celebrate, we would drive into town, walk Reggie along the river, then treat ourselves to a coffee. We duly parked up at the top end of the square, opened up the boot... and Reggie refused point blank to budge. Poor Reggie doesn't like towns, cars, people, noise... and although we knew that we were right by the edge of the square and would be heading straight out of it towards safer river territory, Reggie clearly didn't, and he decided he felt safe and perfectly happy remaining in his crate in the car. He sat there and rested his chin on the edge of the crate, but no amount of coaxing would encourage him out. Having just bought a parking ticket, we decided that a quick change of plan was in order: we would have coffee first and then find a quieter spot to park up and walk.

We therefore went straight into Franco's bar for a cappuccino (the best in town, in my opinion), then got back into the car and drove to the bins near to Chris and Sue's house. Once here, in a quieter and very familiar spot, Reggie jumped straight out of the car as soon as we opened the door on his crate, and we had a nice walk along the quiet track that leads from there towards San Lorenzo.

As we neared San Lorenzo, we were surprised to see lots of brightly coloured vehicles in the car park - and quickly realised that one of the cycling teams must have spent the night there. Yesterday's stage of the race finished in Abetone, and with today's starting in Montecatini, San Lorenzo probably worked out as a good half-way stopover point. There were team cars, bikes, and the bus driver was busy polishing the windscreen of the team bus. That gave us a taste for what was to come, and we hurried back home looking forward to seeing the action.

Apparently the world's first Italian-Japanese team stayed overnight at San Lorenzo.

Since our guests, Diane and Ernest, had expressed an interest in watching the race as well, we decided that we would drive there in convoy, leaving the house at 12pm. So, after another quick session at my desk, it was time for a lightning fast sandwich and to head out the door.

We slowly made our way towards Altopascio, not really knowing exactly where to head - there was no signage, no ribbons, no balloons, no banners, nothing to suggest anything out of the ordinary would be happening. When we eventually got close to the town, we spotted that the road into the central part of the town had a small barrier across half of it, with an even smaller, more insignificant sign on it. On getting closer, we realised that the sign did indeed say (words to the effect of) 'road closed for Giro d'Italia', so we found somewhere to park and carried on on foot.

Thankfully, we didn't have far to go before we spotted some Carabinieri, municipal police, and a small crowd of people - we'd found the right place.

We only had to wait around 20 minutes before the motorbikes, police cars and team cars came streaming through, followed by the small leading group of two cyclists, and then hot on their heels came the peloton.

That's Alberto Contador in the pink jersey.

They whooshed by in a flash - but we managed to pick out Alberto Contador, thanks to him currently being in the pink jersey (the Giro's equivalent of the yellow jersey worn by the race leader), and it was all very exciting for cycling geeks like us (we even felt a little star struck). We were really pleased we'd made the effort to get there.

Once it was clear that the spectacle was over (when one of the official race cars screeched to a halt and a man jumped out, pulled down a 'road closed' sign then sped off again in hot pursuit of the rest of the race, it was quite clear that there was nothing more to see, and within seconds the crowd was dispersing and the road barriers being removed!), we headed back to our respective cars, with Diane and Ernest intending to head for Montecarlo while we hot-footed it back home for our tank collection.

We got in the car, told Diane to follow us, turned the key and... the CAR WOULDN'T START!!!! Yes, less than 24 hours after getting the car back from the mechanic, it was clear that this particular problem had definitely not been fixed. We weren't surprised, but we were exasperated. Ironically, we were only just a little way down the road from the garage, but with an appointment to keep, we didn't have time to call them out. Instead, Ernest and Diane gallantly offered to help push the car so that we could bump start it, so while I got into the driver's seat, Ernest, Diane and Stuart pushed with all their might to get the car rolling just enough to get the engine going. Talk about above and beyond the call of duty! Yet again, we were immensely grateful for having such generous and understanding people around us.

Once we got going, we headed towards Pescia, pointing Ernest and Diane in the direction of Montecarlo when we came to the right turning. We then hot-footed it to the meeting point for the tank collection, at one of the factories on the edge of town.

As planned, Izmet turned up with a couple of mates in a truck, and Alex and Donatella arrived shortly afterwards. Donatella spoke with her contact, Alessio, then Izmet and his mates got on with loading the tanks onto the back of the truck. We were all gob-smacked when we saw the truck come around the corner from the back of the factory with all six tanks loaded precariously on the back of the truck, secured with rope. We had all been expecting it to be a two-journey process and, looking at the tanks on the back of the van, I think all four of us were dubious as to whether they would make it up the hill and along our drive. Nevertheless, we set off up the road, us leading in our car, followed by Izmet in the truck, and Alex and Donatella after them.

Well, they made it down the drive in one piece (or six pieces), and once here, Izmet turned to Stuart and told him that he had rendered the outside of our house!

After unloading the tanks, Izmet and his mates left, and Alex and Donatella came in for a cold drink and a catch-up. We spent an enjoyable hour or so chatting, before Alex and Donatella headed home to take their dog, Ray, for a walk, I headed back to my office for a short spell and Stuart whizzed up some three-bean dip, having invited our guests up for a drink and nibbles this evening. Well, after having pushed our car for us on their holiday, a bit of three-bean dip is the least we can offer!!