Saturday 24 October 2015

Work, rest and play (but without the rest)!

It has been another fun- and work-packed week for us here on our Italian hill. We've spent some lovely evenings chewing the fat with Allison and Q, and some very productive days working hard on our terraces. Q has enjoyed re-discovering the roads of the valley on his trusty steed (Stuart's road bike - which actually hasn't seen the outside world last time Q used it a year ago), making the rest of us all shake our heads in disbelief at his energy and stamina and at the fact that he cycles up enormous hills for fun - and then does it again.

Meanwhile, the rest of us haven't exactly been putting our feet up - we've cleared terraces, cleaned terraces (raking and burning what we'd cleared), chopped and split wood, and cut down trees.

Stuart finally got around to trying a new method of efficiently cutting the small branches of a tree ready for the fire, having seen the idea on YouTube. It proved to work amazingly well, taking around ten minutes to load the 'rack', and three minutes to cut it all - in fact, it took longer to pick the cut pieces all up than it did to load the rack and cut them, saving HUGE amounts of time and effort - a great success!

The loaded rack.

First cut done.

Second cut done.

Final cut done.

Allison has learned how to wield a wood-splitting axe, putting her new skills to use helping us split wood for next year's wood pile, has raked and cleared on the terraces, and has also demonstrated her pyromania tendencies, spending hours on end feeding a bonfire with bramble and wood clippings.

A beautiful morning for starting a fire...

... the fire.

Clearing new ground.

More clearing.

6ft brambles.

More burning.

We did give Allison and Q a day off the hard labour for good behaviour - on which they paid a visit to the beautiful city of Lucca while Stuart and I got down to some paid work, me at my computer and Stuart up the valley in Vellano.

Reggie very quickly warmed to his new friends and has enjoyed some lovely walks this week, even being treated to an ice cream after one of them.

Do dogs get brain freeze from eating ice cream too quickly?

Morning sunshine on our Sorana walk.

Breakfast, pre-dog walk.

Dog walkers!

It has been lovely to spend the week with Allison and Q, they're great company and so easy to have around and we'll miss them when they've gone back home. Hopefully they will be back here again before too long though, and in the meantime, it's all change on our hill, with the arrival of my Mum and Dad tomorrow!

Monday 19 October 2015

Preparing for chickens... and friends

Since returning from our washout of a mini-break, we have kept ourselves busy and have felt fired up about getting things done around here with a wave of renewed enthusiasm. Within hours of our return, Stuart had started tinkering with the re-modelled goose house (now to be a chicken house), and by Friday afternoon, the new chicken house was finished - complete with nesting boxes, roosting perches and easy access front doors for cleaning and feeding.

The remodelled front-opening shed, with feeder and roosting bars.

Nesting boxes for easy access at the back.

Ever adaptable veg crates, this time used as nesting boxes.
We now just need to finish reinforcing the perimeter fencing (when I say 'reinforcing', I mean making it taller and more fox-proof) and then we will be ready to get our chickens. We are both really excited about getting chickens - while the geese could be a pain (literally drawing blood on a number of occasions!), we do miss having additional 'farm'-type animals around, and having livestock makes us feel like we are really doing this small-holding thing properly. How long it will take chickens to start producing eggs will depend on what age of bird we are able to get at this time of year, but we don't mind waiting if that's what it takes (after all, it took the geese 4 months to start laying) - and once they do start laying, they should (in theory at least) be a lot more productive than the geese were, and by all accounts a lot more friendly and less aggressive!

Friday also saw me have a long overdue catch-up with the lovely Sue Phillips. What with me having been away in Prague for a week, then us having Louise to stay for a week, then going away on our mini-break, it felt like an age since I'd seen Sue, and I spent a lovely morning catching up with her over a couple of coffees and generally setting the world to rights.

I also had my next Italian lesson with Samantha on Friday afternoon - Samantha is lovely and very patient, and I have already learned things from her (some of them very basic) that I hadn't previously picked up on, but for me, every lesson is tinged with an overwhelming sense of failure and frustration - there is still SO much I don't know, don't understand, and it is clear that I am woefully lacking in vocabulary. After going through some basic grammar, we finish each lesson with some conversation so that I can practise speaking. It is at this point that I realise how little vocabulary I have stored in my head, which is very frustrating! From this week, though, I will be doubling up on my learning opportunities as both Stuart and I will be starting a new lesson, together with David and Sarah, with a teacher they already know, so we will see how that goes. As far as I'm concerned the more opportunities to learn the better!

Saturday saw us doing our usual weekend routine of dog walking, cappuccino drinking and supermarket shopping as well as cleaning the apartment to prepare for the arrival the next day of our friends Allison and Q. By the time we'd done all of that, we were surprised to find that there was still a good chunk of the afternoon left, so Stuart headed up the upper terraces to start another bonfire and do a little more clearing, while I occupied myself with bringing some cut logs down from the upper terraces to the wood chopping area then getting the splitting axe out and splitting the logs. These ones were fairly freshly cut logs though, so they have gone towards the beginnings of a woodpile for NEXT winter, as they need time to dry and season before they are ready to burn.

Sunday morning turned out to be something of a rush - after getting up at a fairly decent time, we headed out with Reggie for a dog walk. We decided to head for Sorana in the hopes of finding Sandrino's café open for a coffee and pastry for breakfast and were pleased to find that it was indeed open - and buzzing with locals. We each indulged in a coffee along with a deliciously unhealthy croissant filled with white chocolate (Stuart) and Nutella (me), before carrying on, zinging with caffeine and sugar, to the track a little way beyond the village where we walked Reggie. Reggie had a good run around off the lead, but we didn't have long as we suddenly realised how much time had ticked on and we had an airport run to do!

We headed home, put Reggie in the house and headed straight back out to the airport. We arrived at Pisa just as Allison and Q's plane was landing and only had a short wait for them to appear at the arrivals door. It was lovely to see them.

We brought them straight back to the house, where we caught up over a cup of coffee before cooking up some lunch (a fresh tomato and garlic pasta, with tomatoes fresh from the plants). Of course, Reggie barked at both Allison and Q when they arrived, but they followed the 'meeting-Reggie brief' to the letter, ignoring him, sitting down, and not making eye contact with him, and within a few short minutes he had stopped barking and was tentatively approaching each of them for a sniff, which soon progressed to a quick lick of the hand.

After lunch, we all changed into suitable dog walking clothes and Allison and Q completed the bonding process with Reggie by joining us in taking him for a walk (yes, TWO walks in one day - what a lucky puppy!). By the time we'd walked along the river and back, Reggie was as comfortable with Allison and Q as he is with all of his other friends around here, and he spent the evening happily sitting next to Q on the sofa and being fussed over by Allison. We finished the day with another roasted tomato, mozzarella and cima di rapa risotto (as the one we had with Louise last week had been so good), washed down with plenty of wine and accompanied by a good dose of chatting and catching up, before we all retired to bed looking forward to the week ahead.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Road trip / Reggie's first holiday

Back in early June, we were all set (and more than ready) for a short mini-break - as much as we love our home and our beautiful piece of Tuscany, we felt as if we needed a break from routine and a break from responsibilities and chores. We were devastated therefore when, thanks to a less than helpful garage, we were unable to go on our holiday because the garage failed to return our car to us in time. However, instead of cancelling our trip outright, the very kind owners of the accommodation we had booked allowed us to re-book our holiday with them for a different set of dates, and this week - four months later than expected - we finally got to have our short break on a quiet farm in the Siena region of southern Tuscany.

Day 1: Road trip

We woke up to a grey Monday morning, and spent a few hours packing and getting ourselves ready for the off. Come 12pm, we were all ready, put a slightly surprised Reggie into his usual sleeping crate, which was now in the boot of the car and set off on our road trip.

Since time was on our side (check in was from 4pm), we decided to take the longer, slower, more scenic route south and re-live old holiday trips, heading along the same roads we used to take when travelling down from Pisa to get to our old stomping ground in the Siena region. At first, we struggled to navigate our way across country, but eventually picked up the right road and recognised it almost immediately.

It wasn't long though, before we got stuck behind some slow trucks and the scenery became less familiar - perhaps it had been the excitement of arriving in different country and heading into the sunshine that always used to make us look at this road with affection, but today it seemed slow and tedious without much in the way of attractive scenery! That was until we reached Poggibonsi, at which point we turned off and were relieved to see much more familiar territory and beautiful scenery with it. Since we'd been travelling for a couple of hours and had yet to have any lunch we decided to head into one of our favourite towns for a break, and were soon pulling into the car parking Colle di Val d'Elsa.

Reggie had spent the journey thus far being incredibly patient sitting in his crate in the back of the car, but when he sensed that we were pulling into a car park surrounded by trees, bushes and grass, his whimpering started in earnest as he sensed the possibility of being allowed out to stretch his legs. He was so quick to jump out of his crate that we couldn't even get his lead on, but he simply ran around happily sniffing the bushes and emptying his bladder onto them before coming back to us to be clipped into his lead, after which we all walked up into the old part of the town, Colle Alto. We walked through the old town to find another familiar haunt: the bar/restaurant Mille Luci, which we have frequented on many a happy occasion in the past - the most recent of which being in the days immediately after our wedding back in 2012.

After asking if it would be OK to bring our "puppy" into the outdoor seating area, we were shown to a table and sat down. Reggie was very unsure at first, but soon settled down and was brought a bowl of water by the friendly waiting staff. The owner came out and was most surprised to find such a large "puppy". Perhaps at 15 months of age it's time we stopped referring to him as a puppy...

We had a lovely lunch of seafood salad and chicken salad washed down with some white wine and followed by a coffee, while Reggie sat quietly under the table (we won't mention the part where he spotted a cat and nearly brought the table and chairs crashing down around him as he lunged towards it, not realising he was tethered to the chair!). By the time we'd finished lunch it was almost 3.30pm and time to head on to our destination.

Once again we struggled a little with navigating our way to the right road, but eventually we found ourselves in very familiar territory: the very same road on which we travelled from Siena to reach San Lorenzo a Linari, the villa in which we stayed for our wedding week.

From there, we continued further south and the countryside really opened out into classic rolling Tuscan hills. We noticed how much more agriculture there is in this part of the region, with lots of freshly ploughed fields with very red soil and lots of flat arable land - a rarity in our part of Tuscany!

We eventually reached the turn-off for Tocchi, again recognising it, but this time from our very first holiday in Tuscany way back in the mists of time 12 years ago. After some way, we found the dirt track described in the directions for reaching the holidays apartment and made our way to the beautiful Podere Leccetro agriturismo. We we greeted by the lovely Giuliana, who showed us our spacious accommodation before leaving us to bring our bags and Reggie in from the car.

Reggie ran around the house excitedly, running up and down the stairs, sniffing every corner. It wasn't long before Francesco knocked on the door to say hello and bring us some wood for the fire. Francesco, who seems a lovely, gentle man, was barked at for his efforts, but didn't seem to mind. After he had left we decided to take Reggie for a walk around the grounds of the house on the lead. Both Guiliana and Francesco had invited us to let Reggie run around the garden, as the entire area is fenced in, but with 12, yes 12, cats in residence, we didn't want to risk it!

The grounds of the property are beautiful - very pretty and immaculately kept. The owners, Guiliana and Francesco, specialise in bee keeping (Francesco has 300 hives!) and restoring furniture. Guiliana told us that Francesco had been here for 30 years, since leaving agricultural college, and she moved here later, after retiring from her job in Florence. Stuart asked me whether walking around the beautiful gardens made me want to go home and tidy up our own offerings - when I immediately said "yes", he pointed out that that must make this a truly inspirational place!

After a thorough inspection of the grounds we retired indoors to light the fire - our first fire of the season (and burning someone else's wood to boot) - and settle down for an evening of relaxing.

Day 2: Familiar ground and rain.

After a relaxing evening with a bottle of wine, a simple meal of cured meats and cheeses, classical music on the CD player and a fire burning in the hearth, we retired to bed for a good night's sleep. Or so we thought.

Just as we were drifting off to sleep something must have startled Reggie in his unfamiliar surroundings and he let out a short but loud volley of barks from his crate downstairs. The house here is so quiet and echoey that his barks startled us back into full consciousness. Reggie was quickly and easily reassured and he settled back down to sleep straight away - we didn't hear another peep from him all night. Unfortunately, it seemed that Reggie was the only one who found it easy to get back to sleep! Stuart and I both struggled with overheating under the enormous quilt, I battled a headache that I'd been suffering with since early Monday morning, and we both had a restless night.

When daylight finally dawned, Reggie couldn't believe his luck when he was let out of his crate and allowed to bound upstairs and to jump onto the bed with us - he has never been allowed upstairs at home, as upstairs is cats-only territory. It must have seemed like Christmas to him! We eventually decided it was time to face the day and after letting Reggie into the garden to relieve himself (supervised on the leash of course, in case of meeting any cats), we got into the car to drive to San Rocco a Pilli.

As had been forecast, the weather was pretty bad - strong winds and heavy rain greeted us, but at least we had been expecting it. We parked the car in a side street in San Rocco a Pilli before making a dash through the rain to the main street and into a café for a cappuccino and croissant each as breakfast. We then made our way to the Coop to do some shopping. We know San Rocco a Pilli fairly well, and in particular the Coop, as this is the small town just around the corner from the San Lorenzo a Linari villa where we and our friends and family stayed for our wedding in 2012. It was strange to be in the town again - everything looked exactly the same, but we felt as if we were viewing it though new eyes now that we have spent more than a year living in Italy. The small bars and cafés that looked slightly intimidating to us back then now look quite normal and inviting to us, and while we thought of it as a quite unremarkable town back then, we now see it as a nice little place with good amenities.

Shopping done, it was straight back to the house, where we left the shopping in the car, pulled on wellie boots and waterproofs and got Reggie out of the car to finally stretch his legs. We walked from the property along the long driveway to the road and then into the tiny village of Tocchi. From there we followed the signs for Castello di Tocchi, an even smaller settlement about 1.5km from the village. The roads were quiet, so we allowed Reggie to run about - that was until we heard voices around the corner, at which point we thankfully called him to us to clip him into the leash: around the corner came 8 riders on horseback. I hate to think of what might have happened if Reggie had come across horse riders while running free! As it was, he seemed a little perplexed and sat quietly, while firmly held on the leash, to watch them go around the corner and off up another track. After that we decided to keep him on the leash for the rest of the walk.

Castello di Tocchi proved to be a beautiful arrangement of dwellings around a courtyard - and with the exception of one very well kept house it appeared to be entirely unoccupied.

Stuart and Reggie walk past the old communal bread oven in Castello di Tocchi.

It took us a moment to realise that the bark of this tree has been stripped for cork.


Having nosed around the pretty settlement we trudged our way back to the house - by his point the weather was warm enough for us to need to take our coats off and to wish we didn't have wellie boots super-heating our feet, but the wind was still strong and the skies grey and foreboding.

By the time we got back to the house and unpacked the shopping from the car it was lunchtime, so we sat down to a lunch of bread, cheese and dips. We had planned to spend a quiet afternoon reading books, listening to music etc., but in the end we spent an even quieter afternoon catching up on a little of the sleep we missed out on last night! We took Reggie up to the bedroom and shut him in with us in the hopes that he would be quieter and less distracted than if he were left to roam the house and spot cats from the windows - and he too settled down for a mid-afternoon snooze with us after his exciting morning.

After our power nap we did some of the reading etc. that we'd planned to do, before turning our attention to cooking some dinner: a ribollita (Italian stew of cavolo nero, potatoes, carrots and other veg) for tomorrow, and a polenta dish with mushrooms for this evening - both from the same Esselunga magazine as brought us Louise's chestnut cheesecake last week, so if they turn out to be half as good as her creation we will be pleased!

Day 3: Wet, wet, wet

After a somewhat improved but still not very restful night's sleep, we awoke to another grey day. By the time we'd eaten breakfast the rain had started, but with the weather not predicted to improve, we decided to head out regardless.

This morning we headed for the nearest sizeable town to us in the other direction, Monticiano. This little town also had significance for us as it was the first place we stayed on our first ever holiday to Italy! Today, the town was wet and grey, and I wondered if we would even be here in Italy if the weather had been like this for our first taste of Tuscany all those years ago! Of course, back then we were visiting in August and the weather was hot and sunny and showcased the stunning landscape in is best light. Today, there was not much landscape visible at all through the clouds and raindrops, and at one point we even felt as if we could have been in Oxfordshire on a damp day. We made our way through the town with Reggie in tow to try and find a footpath to the San Galgano Abbey, which we had seen signposted.

The path soon veered away from civilisation and into the countryside, at which point we were able to let Reggie off the lead and he ran about joyfully careering through the puddles having a wail of a time. The persistent rain, which by now had become heavier, didn't seem to bother him at all - in fact, I'm pretty sure that he has been the one to have got the most out of this mini-break.

After walking for quite a while, we sensed that we might have missed the turning for the abbey, which was only meant to have been 2km from the town. We were somewhat baffled by a 'helpful' signpost on the path showing a map of footpaths, but failing to show whereabouts on the map we were (there was a 'you at here' marked on the key to the map, yet no marker on the map itself!). Feeling very soggy, we decided to do an about turn and make our way slowly and soggily back to the car.

We drove straight back to the house where we towelled Reggie down, peeled off our sodden garments and changed into dry clothes before sitting down to lunch followed by an afternoon of reading and relaxing by the fire.  

The evening was spent in much the same way - we ate the ribollita that we'd made last night - which was delicious - read books and retired to bed early for a final attempt at a good night's sleep.

Day 4: Good to be home

Once again, it wasn't a good night's sleep - for me, the headache that I'd been battling with on and off all week kept me awake, while Stuart found his back aching, what a couple of old crocks!

I got up early to start gathering our belongings together and trying to tidy the place up a bit, and by 9.30am we were all ready to load the car, say farewell to the lovely kind owners of the property, and head off homeward bound.

Our first stop, was to be for a coffee and breakfast in San Rocco a Pilli. However, our actual first stop was to be pulled over on the outskirts of San Rocco a Pilli by the Carabinieri! This was our first experience of being pulled over for a check of documents - we know that it happens regularly in Italy, but this was the first time we'd come across it. Thankfully, we are now all fully legal on the car front, and after a quick chat with the friendly police officer - who spoke a little English to us, and who seemed very happy indeed with our documents - we were on our way.

Once again, we parked in the side street and dashed to the patisserie/café for coffee and pastries, before getting back to the car and finally setting off for home. Having learned from the journey here that the 'scenic' route was slow and tedious, we decided to use the autostrada all the way. Not only did it make for much quicker driving, but it afforded us our first view of Siena since 2012 as well!

Siena through the rain drops.
With the exception of a little incident where we missed the turn-off to the A11 motorway and accidentally started heading for Bologna, the return journey was much more straightforward and faster, and by 1pm we were coming into Pescia. By all accounts the weather here has been even worse than it was in the south of the region, with tales of flash flooding and power cuts. The river was in full force as we drove through town, and when we reached home we were amazed to find Stuart's industrial scale buckets full to the brim with rainwater.

On finally reaching home, we felt a sense of relief and well-being. It has been a tiring week - in different weather and under different circumstances (perhaps migraine-free?), I think it would have been a whole lot more relaxing, and I really can't overstate how lovely Podere Leccetro was, how much we warmed to its kind and gentle owners, and how much inspiration we took from the place. On getting back to our humble abode, the first thing we noticed was how messy our garden looks in comparison to the beautiful grounds of where we had home from! Nevertheless, it feels good to be home, and it feels good to know that being happy to be home must mean that we are in the right place.