Monday 31 August 2015


This weekend was always going to be bittersweet, or maybe "sweetbitter" would be a better description. For me, there was the enormous relief of being free from my office work for a couple of days and actually being able to join in with the fun of our holiday makers and simply hang out with the family. We'd planned a sightseeing day on Saturday, which we were pretty confident Sheila and Kerys and Ben would really enjoy, so that was the 'sweet' part of the weekend to look forward to. The 'bitter' part was the looming knowledge that, come Sunday morning, we would have to wave farewell to our guests and return to a house that we knew would feel strange and empty without their presence.

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.

Saturday 29 August 2015

The family holiday - week two

This week started at a more sedentary pace and we were all allowed something of a lie in - all, that is, apart from Helen, of course, who had the day job to get back to, although the pouring rain that had started at 2am and was still pouring at 6am... and 7am had effectively closed the 'gym', affording her an extra half hour in bed.

Still struggling with my tiredness, I didn't surface until gone 11am, by which time Mom was already awake and had been for hours, so we sat around drinking tea until Kerys and Ben both surfaced, which wasn't too long after me.

Once breakfast/brunch was over, Mom, the kids and I headed into Pescia, the plan being to drop mum and Kerys at Giannino's department store for a bit of clothes shopping while Ben and I went to refuel the car and grab a few items from the supermarket.

That plan fell at the first hurdle when Giannino's was closed, so instead we dropped them into the piazza for a walk around. The piazza was also deserted - I'd failed to take into consideration that not only was it a Monday, it was a Monday, in August, at lunchtime.

Ben and I went off to do our chores and arranged to meet Mom and Kerys for coffee in the piazza afterwards, which we did and in new funky glass thermal-ware too:

After coffee, I dropped everyone back to the house for lunch while I headed with my book to the doctor's surgery to request a blood test for my thyroid hormone levels. I was later than usual arriving so was pleased to find only two other people waiting at this point, although a steady stream of people arrived after me, almost filling the waiting room by the time I left.

The doctor arrived and let out an audible sigh when he saw how full the room was, before trudging into his room. It wasn't long before the usual blood pressure test was done and I was leaving with my slip of paper to take to the Misericordia the next morning to have some blood extracted.

When I got home I finished off the last of the lunch that mum.and the kids had prepared while Ben and Reggien played on the lawn - they have become best play mates over the last week and Ben seems to enjoy nothing more than trying to teach him new tricks.

The afternoon passed by with Ben and me making the first of our new "bug hotels", which will hopefully attract ladybirds and lacewings (the first of which I spotted on our cupboard door last week) as the first baby step in our integrated pest management system in the veg garden.

While Ben and I played with tools, Mum and Kerys made countless pear crumbles using just some of the pears we had picked at the Phillips farm - most of which went into the freezer but we couldn't resist digging into one of them after dinner and before all cramming into the living room to watch American Sniper.

Tuesday was another slow start for everyone apart from Helen - with the weather turning up the heat again, we felt as if we were slowing in tandem so it wasn't until late morning that once again Mom, the kids and I headed into Pescia.

Yet again, Mom and Kerys's trip to Giannino's was foiled - today the shutters were up, but we'd left it so late this morning that by the time we arrived we were in the middle of lunchtime, so we gave up and headed into the Piazza for a drink and some pizza at the now favourite Bar Pulter.

After pizza we left the shade of the large umbrellas at Bar Pulter and crossed the square to the shade of those outside the new ice cream shop, which has only been open for a few months - a very modern Italian-style place with a limited selection of ice cream flavours (only 10 or so, and yet another gelateria WITHOUT mint flavour). They had better up their game as competition in town is heating up and there is no room for slackers in the ice cream game! What this place does have going for it though is the quality of their ice cream - it was genuinely home-made artisan gelato of the highest order.

As it was still some time until the end of the lunch break, we gave up on the idea of shopping and instead headed home. When we got home, we left Mom to cool down in the apartment, while the kids and I collected Helen and Reggie and headed off to the Cava track so that Reggie could expend some energy off lead.

On the way back we stopped for a quick drink in the Bistrot in Vellano and  a couple of games of table football. After being beaten by Ben (twice), I handed my position over to one of the African refugees staying there, who duly gave Ben a thrashing back - but Ben was pleased to have scored five goals against someone who was clearly a pro!

Evening was approaching by the time we got back to the house and we set about lighting the BBQ and firepit and preparing food to cook on them for dinner: steaks, sausage for Ben, vegetable kebabs, veggies in a griddle pan and BBQ'd potato slices - which worked spectacularly well. It was well into the evening by the time we were finally ready to eat, but it was well worth the wait.

After a couple of relatively sedentary, days Lucca (the city, not the cat) could wait no more, so I woke the kids up "early" (before 10am) and after a bit of breakfast, Mom, the kids and I headed into Lucca for a few hours.

We parked up and walked around quarter of the enormous Renaissance wall that encircles the city to a bike rental shop that offers 4-seater rickshaw-type bikes. We (or should I say the kids) had been hoping to have a go on such a bike after having been disappointed last year when there were none available when we visited on that occasion.

Luckily enough (partly due to our lunchtime arrival), there was one available - and not just any old 4-seater bike, but a brand new one that had only arrived that morning: we were the very first customers to have a go in or on it.

Once the bike had been given the once-over and its tyres had been were inflated we were off up onto the walls for a lap in the 'riscio'.

While the kids 'debated' who was the better driver, Mum and I kept our feet off the pedals in the rear seats and kept an eye on traffic while trying to enjoy the view at the rickshaw's sedentary pace, courtesy of its go-anywhere gearing.

Having completed a lap of the city's walls in under half an hour, we decided to drop into the city itself for the last half hour and amazingly managed not to scratch the bike's shiny new paintwork while negotiating the tight one-way systems!

After an hour's rickshawing there was nothing else for it but a refreshing drink the Piazza Anfiteatro - a beautiful spot, but one that costs for the privilege: €15 for a pint of beer, a coffee and two cokes! Certainly not Pescia prices!!

The exertion of the rickshaw and the heat of the day then saw us heading for the car and home to collect Helen and Reggie for a walk along the river in Pescia which we followed with a quick drink in (you guessed it) Bar Pulter. While there, the kids also snuck in a slice of pizza each as something of an appetizer before we headed home for dinner and an early night.

It was back to another sedentary day the following day, with little more planned for our guests and me than lunch at the Toti restaurant near Montecarlo. We'd tried to go for lunch at this restaurant last week knowing that the owner was back from his holiday in Sicily, but it appears he uses the week following his holiday to do a bit of work around the place so it wasn't until this week that he re-opened.

The place is an old vineyard wine cellar in full romantic dilapidated state - on the outside at least. I don't know why places like this look so much more beautiful and romantic when they are a little on the tired side than when brand spanking new in this context - is that just a foreigner's view? We can't resist the romantic charm of an old place slowly falling apart, although I suspect the Italians have a slightly different view of matters.

Anyway, the place inside is no wreck, it's a lovely cool place for a mid-summer meal complete with brick vaulted ceiling and old wine barrels that give off a slight odour of years of wine making.

Today being Thursday the only menu was the workers lunch, as is common around here: basically a fixed price two-course lunch with drinks for €10 per person, so we dined on plates of pasta, main courses of meat and side dishes, washed down with water, wine and coffee, what a bargain! The kids had room for a pudding at an extra €3 which was described as a 'vanilla tile with chocolate'.

With bellies full of food, we wobbled out to the car to head home to collect Helen and walk Reggie, has been this week's routine, of sorts.

The evening saw the kids making their own pizzas with salami and mozzarella while the grown ups had a potato salad to try and balance out the lunch (at least mine and Mom's) to some degree.

Third time lucky, and Mum and Kerys finally made it into Giannino's on Friday morning for a look around the sale rails while Ben and I went to a couple of agricultural merchants for some metal fence posts and a new pair of safety boots before parking up in the piazza and sitting down for a drink (you guessed it, at Bar Pulter) while we waited for the girls to come back. They were obviously having a good time as they were longer than the agreed hour of shopping time!

The weekend started for all of us after a late lunch at home and after I been back to the doctor with my latest round of blood test results. The doctor has declared that I need to increase my thyroid medication dosage. This actually came as something of a relief, as when I had collected and read the print-out of the results the day before (here in Italy it is the patient who is responsible for looking after all test results and medical notes), they all seemed fine to me - or at least each test result fell within what I know are the target ranges. However, the doctor took one look at the results and said that, while they were within the limits, they were not high enough - so fingers crossed, increasing my medication will be an easy fix to this latest round of debilitating tiredness which couldn't have come at much of a worse time, slap bang in the middle of the kids' summer holiday.

After lunch, the kids wanted to help with some chores ("fun" ones, that is), so we set them to work painting the water storage tanks we acquired some months back - the idea of painting them black is to reduce the amount of light that can get into the tanks and thus reduce the build up of algae in the stored water.

This involved removing two retaining bar from each cage so that the plastic tanks could be removed and painted. After helping with the first, I left Kerys and Ben to their own devices with tools and cans of spray paint while I tried to figure out a permanent home for the tanks and Helen, who had finally packed up her office for the week - went off up the driveway with the strimmer on her back.

With the 9 cans of spray paint exhausted (on just 3 tanks), the kids both set to work on building some more bug hotels. They beavered away, as did Mom cleaning in the apartment, and so did Helen with the strimmer - leaving me in something of a site manager type role. I couldn't quite find time to get into anything myself so stood by and helped when needed with the re-fitting of strimmer cord and helping screw together the bug hotels, etc.

By the time 7.30pm approached, we had three almost finished bug hotels, Ben having made one complete one earlier in the week. It was then time to see about getting some dinners, so we cleaned up and showered and got into the car on a mission to find our friend Mimmo and his legendary burgers and sausage sandwiches as a weekend treat.

We had something of a tough time finding Mimmo (Ben suggested this would make a good name for an animated movie about a fish...) as he has recently relocated from his old spot outside the train station in Pescia to a new spot somewhat further afield in Chiesina Uzzanese.

Luckily, Mimmo's wife Michelle had given us the heads up as to where exactly his new pitch was, although even armed with that information we very nearly didn't find him! After two attempts of driving through Chiesina Uzzanese and out the other side without sight of him, we were on the verge of throwing in the towel and going for pizza instead, but we regrouped and made one final attempt with the help of my phone's sat nav app, finally finding Mimmo and his van fully illuminated with a spread of table and chairs around his truck and candles on the tables.

After ordering our burgers and sausage sandwiches we sat down with drinks and waited for food to arrive, which it soon did along with a plate of hot chips as a gift from Mimmo - chips that we had to fight for before Ben hoovered the lot up with his voracious teenage appetite.

We were soon tucking into burgers and sausage sandwiches which were as tasty as ever, with every one of us saying how glad we were that we didn't give up trying to find him, and Mom declaring it was the best burger she had ever eaten.

As we headed back into Pescia we made a last-minute decision to stop for ice cream beside the river to soak up some late evening atmosphere before finally wending our way home for a quick glass of wine before bed just before the witching hour - as late a night as I've had for many days with my thyroid.

I forgot to mention that Mom and Kerys spent hours slaving over a hot pan to make us some pear and plum chutney from the Phillips' fruits!

So, the weekend has finally arrived, meaning Helen can join in with the fun rather than having to slave away in the office - and although she has managed to dodge some serious calories this week, I know that she would have been much happier joining in with our trips out!