But first, the fun stuff.
Stuart and I were both up early on Saturday - that is to say, I was up with the cats at 6.30am, and Stuart surprised me by coming down the stairs fully dressed before 9.30am, the earliest I've seen him surface for a long while. After Stuart had finished a bowl of cereal, we harnessed Reggie up and the three of us hopped into the car to head out for a walk. We were planning a day's sightseeing a little further afield today, so wanted to give Reggie a nice walk before we went out.
We decided to head to Sorana for a change and duly parked up and headed through the tiny village and out the other side of it, emerging next to the cemetery onto the quiet road that winds slowly uphill. It was still before 10am, but the moment we got out of the car, we were hit by a wave of heat, and each time we stepped from shade into sunlight the heat zapped us again. We decided not to overdo things and only went a short way up the quiet, shady road before turning back again and heading back down to the car - it was enough to give Reggie a bit of exercise and there had been plenty of new smells for him to sniff, rustles in the leaves for him to pounce on and banks for him to attempt to scramble up (which is always a little awkward when he's on the lead!).
Since it was still fairly early and we knew that Kerys and Ben would still be making the most of their last holiday lie-ins, we decided to stop off at the little café next to the da Sandrino restaurant (run by the same people). Unlike the last time we stopped off here for a coffee (when we coincided with a group of cyclists stopping to refuel), the place was deserted, so instead of leaving Reggie in the car, we brought him out and picked a seat in the shady garden area next to the café.
After slurping our cappuccinos, it was time to head home and rouse the slumbering teenagers so that we could get out and about for the day.
On getting home we found Kerys already up and dressed, but it took Stuart to go and wake Ben and get him moving! It wasn't long, though, before all five of us were sufficiently awake and appropriately dressed to head out for the day, so we all piled into the car, leaving Reggie in the house with a chew and a large slice of bread to keep him occupied for a couple of minutes.
We headed to the Garfagnana valley - a lovely drive, with some really stunning scenery that's quite different from that of our little valley. We were heading for Bagni di Lucca, but our first stop was the beautiful Ponte della Maddalena just outside the village of Borgo a Mozzano. The bridge, which is also known as the Ponte del Diavolo (devil's bridge), is a breathtakingly beautiful example of mediaeval engineering, spanning the Serchio river with a simple elegance and the highest of arches (making for the steepest of climbs up to its apex). The water beneath the bridge was still and calm - or it would be had it not been teeming with shoals of fish!
We slogged our way to the apex of the bridge to admire the views before turning back (much to Kerys's relief, who was not enjoying the height of the bridge nor the depth of the water below) and getting back into the car.
Our next stop - and the main sightseeing stop of the day - was the colourful town of Bagni di Lucca, just a little further along the road. Bagni di Lucca is a tiny spa town, having been known for its thermal springs since the Etruscan days. This beautiful quiet little town, tucked far away up the Serchio valley, became a veritable social hot spot in the 19th century, being frequented by none other than Napoleon and his sister, Elisa Baciocchi, and becoming the summer residence of the British poets Bryon, Shelley, Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Further claims to fame for the town include having one of Europe's first casinos - where it is claimed that roulette was invented.
The town still retains an elegance and is dotted with impressive villas, the majority of which are rendered and painted, giving the town its colourful appearance. After wandering into the centre of town, we decided that our priority was to find somewhere to have some lunch - indeed, for Ben, it would be breakfast. We had planned to find a small, inexpensive snack bar and pop in for a slice of pizza or a sandwich, but when we reached the impressive Circolo dei Forestieri in its courtyard, we decided just to have a look and see what they were offering. Stuart and I had eaten here when we'd visited on holiday back in 2013, so we knew the food was excellent and the atmosphere was lovely - but we couldn't quite remember what sort of price range the restaurant fell into. After all, when we came as holiday-makers back in 2013, we had a very different sort of budget from the one we have now that we live here and now that we live on less than half the disposable income we used to!
Happily, the restaurant was offering a set menu for €11 which included a pasta course, a main course, drinks and coffee - and with hunger really starting to take hold, the decision was made and we went in. The Circolo dei Forestieri is literally the 'foreigners' club', and was where all the tourists of the late 19th/early 20th century would meet up. The building was reconstructed in 1924 (over an existing 18th century structure) and was a gambling venue until 1936. Today, it houses a lovely restaurant in a grand setting. It has a beautiful terrace overlooking the river (which is where Stuart and I sat to eat our meal in 2013), but this time the heat beat us back indoors and we sat, along with many other diners, in the opulent dining room.
We were soon tucking in to very generous portions of pasta/gnocchi for starters, followed by main courses of delicious grilled chicken for Sheila and Kerys, slices of turkey for Ben, a Ligurian fish stew for Stuart and a large mozzarella and tomato salad for me. We all agreed that the food was top notch and, along with the carafe of wine (mineral water for the kids) and the coffees, it was excellent value.
Feeling stuffed, we waddled out of the restaurant, strolled around a little more, before finding a bar selling ice cream where everyone apart from me tucked into scoops of ice cream. Don't think I was just being restrained though - I literally couldn't fit anything else in after our substantial lunch!
We eventually made it back to the car, which we were pleased to find had somehow managed to become the only car in the entire car park that was parked in the shade. We had one more stop planned before wending our way home though, so drove back down to the bottom of the village where we made everyone get out again so that we could show them the lower part of the village, point out the old casino, and allow them to experience the bizarre sensation of warm water coming out of a fountain in the wall. This would, of course, have been a more enjoyable experience on a cooler day, but nevertheless, Kerys and Ben were amazed by the natural heat of the water coming from the thermal spring.
Finally it was time to get back to the relative comfort of the car with its air conditioning and head home to rescue poor Reggie.
Once home, Kerys and Ben put the finishing touches to their bug hotels while us adults pottered around. At around 8pm, we had a visit from the Phillips family, who had called in to say goodbye to Sheila, Kerys and Ben. We had a lovely hour or so chatting with them before they headed home to cook some dinner, leaving the rest of us sitting outside in the relatively warm evening air - certainly warmer than some of the evenings we've had over the last fortnight. After having decided that none of us could possibly find room for any dinner after our enormous lunch, we ended up deciding to try a bit of the pear and plum chutney that Kerys and Sheila had made a couple of days previously. The chutney was delicious and between us we almost finished an entire jar, along with making a serious dent in the cheese!
We eventually all retired to bed at a semi-reasonable hour, knowing that it would be a truly early start for all in the morning.
And so it was that, come 6.30am it wasn't just me who got up to feed the cats and let Reggie out, but me, Stuart and Ben. Meanwhile, Sheila and Kerys had already been up and awake for a while downstairs in the apartment.
After quickly getting everything together, we had suitcases in the car and were heading off towards Florence by 7am. Once at the airport, we made sure everyone was safely checked in before heading to the café for a bleary-eyed coffee and then the dreaded moment could be put off no longer - it was time to say farewell and bon voyage. It's always hard to say goodbye to loved ones, and even more so when it comes at the end of a really enjoyable fortnight - it has been great having Sheila, Kerys and Ben with us these last two weeks and it has really underlined how much we miss having more regular contact with them - Kerys and Ben have always been great kids but they are now blossoming into two incredibly bright, charming, funny, and thoroughly decent young adults whose company we really, really enjoy. It was with a misty-eyed wave that we watched the three travellers disappear at the top of the staircase and we turned to make our way quietly back to Pescia.
Before getting home, we had the delights of the weekly supermarket shop to get through. Thankfully, with it still being only 9.30am and a Sunday morning at that, Esselunga was relatively quiet and we managed to get the shopping done fairly quickly and head home.
The house felt strangely quiet and deserted when we got back - I know we will very quickly readjust, and slot back into our normal routine (which in some respects we are longing to do), but for a while it did seem very strange without the additional people in tow.
Our first priority after unpacking the shopping was to take Reggie out for a walk - we decided to head to the cava track where we knew it would be shady and slightly cooler. There was also a good breeze today, which took the edge off the building heat. Reggie duly lolloped along, enjoying being off the lead and having more of a run around than he got yesterday. We reached the small reservoir which is our usual turn-around point, and were about to do an about turn when we heard footsteps coming through the woods. We held back, to let the other people go ahead of us, but soon realised that we recognised the other walkers - it was Vellano ex-pats Jim and Judy, who had been out walking since 7.30am and were making their way back to the village! After saying hello, we soon realised we were all heading in the same direction, so we joined them and the four of us walked back down to the road. Reggie gave them a good barking at when we first came across them, but once we'd freed him from his lead and he'd given them a good sniff, he seemed happy to run along beside the four of us as if he'd known them all along!
We left Jim and Judy at the road and trundled back down the hill in the car.
After an early lunch, we reluctantly decided that we ought to do something productive with the day, so changed into work clothes and gloves and while I walked up and down the drive cutting back brambles and acacias, Stuart turned his attention to the rubble pile at the side of the house, which is where we have finally decided we will make a permanent home for the 6 water collection tanks. After clearing away the weeds, Stuart started to scrape out the old mortar from the side wall, before using the pressure washer to clean it off - the next step will be to re-point the wall, before putting some concrete footings in the ground on which the tanks can sit...
Come 4pm though, we were both flagging - it had been an early start and indeed a busy couple of weeks - so we decided to call time on work, get ourselves showered and cleaned up and then head to the patio with a glass of wine and time to unwind and enjoy our beautiful surroundings.
It has been a lovely couple of weeks but tomorrow it will be back to more of a normal routine and back to the "day job" for Stuart - time for an early night in preparation for the week ahead.