|Arghhh! MORE vole damage.
We then stopped off in the main square in Pescia to visit the Erborista - a shop full of lotions and potions and all things herbal. We were after a bottle of castor oil and, though doubtful as to whether we were in the right place to find one, we were pleased when the shop assistant reached under the counter and brought one out for us. The recipe for this form of vole deterrent is a delightful concoction of castor oil, dish washing detergent, cayenne pepper and water. With nothing to lose, we thought we might as well try both forms of deterrent!
After getting back from our mini shopping trip it was time to shower and change as Hugh and Donna had very generously offered to take us out for dinner. We decided to take them to Da Carla restaurant in Sorana as it's one of the prettier spots around here - not that we could really have gone wrong with any of our local eateries, but Da Carla always seems to offer a nice ambience and attractive surroundings. We had a lovely evening, great food and great company, and came home feeling full of good food and good spirit.
Tuesday of course was more work for us both - today, Stuart headed up to Vellano for a morning's work with David, while I manned my desk. After lunch, we both strapped on the strimmers and headed up the terraces. While we would usually steer away from the use of power tools while we have guests downstairs, we knew that Hugh and Donna were amenable and Donna, who is no stranger to the strimmer herself back at home in Wales, even said the sound of the engines was music to her ears. We duly finished off the month's strimming above the house, with Stuart and the louder of the two strimmers taking the very topmost terraces, while I did those closer to the house.
Strimming done, we turned our attentions to the quieter tasks in the orto - earthing up the potatoes that were shooting up out of the tyres they'd been planted in, erecting more canes for the beans, and general plant-tending.
We finished the day with a couple of drinks with Hugh and Donna on their patio for a change - it was nice to have a different perspective on things and sit in a different spot from normal, with a slightly different view.
Wednesday saw our weekly Italian lesson with Johnny, this time at David's house in Vellano (Sarah still being away). For the first time, we decided to leave Reggie to roam free, with the front door open and access to the garden. Of course we'd checked with Hugh and Donna first, to make sure that they didn't mind, and to make sure that they didn't have plans to go out, and they were happy to keep an eye out and have him for company. In fact, they said he seemed far more relaxed when out in the garden with them (behind their respective fences, of course) than when we'd left him in the house briefly a couple of days previously when he'd barked at various noises obviously not being aware that it was just his friends below.
The rest of the day was pretty mundane - office work, household chores, etc. - although we did have one new experience. Stuart harvested the garlic scapes - the shoots the plant sends up with the intention of putting out a flower. The idea is that you take these off before the plant has a chance to flower... and we had read that the scapes are delicious to eat. We found one particular recipe for garlic scape pesto, which Stuart rustled up while I was working. Well. It was delicious... but WOW talk about potent!!! Apparently it mellows with time in the freezer, so we have boxed it all up and put it in the freezer. If no mellowing happens then at least we know we will be vampire-free for a while!!
|Vampires beware: garlic scape pesto.
For me, Thursday was a pretty intense day of work at the computer interrupted just for the hour and half's lesson with Samantha before getting back to the work again. Stuart, meanwhile, busied himself with more pointing of the garden wall, attempting to do some more securing of the chicken enclosure but getting dive bombed (and stung) by our bees who weren't too happy about him being in the proximity of their hive!
We spent a lovely evening on Thursday once again on Hugh and Donna's patio, under their pergola. It was their last night with us, so it felt appropriate to share a drink or two, and Donna and I rustled up a pasta dish for us all to share as well. It was a balmy evening, only turning cooler after dark, and we whiled the night away with great company, lots of laughs and probably a little more wine than was wise to drink on a school night!
|Good wine, good food, great company.
On Friday morning it was time to say a fond farewell to Hugh and Donna at the end of their 11-day stay here with us. It's been great having them here and they really seemed to have enjoyed our little spot on our hill, barely even leaving the lawn outside the apartment - what better compliment for us than guests who simply don't want/need to go out exploring because they like it here so much?! Of course, the 10 days of warm summer sunshine helped with that! We were sad to wave them off, but it was nice to know that, rather than returning straight home, they had another couple of weeks' holiday in France to look forward to - and they left with promises of coming back to see us again next year.
After that, Friday became the normal end-of-week routine, with office work for me, work on the veg beds for Stuart, and the weekly supermarket shopping trip. The day was nicely rounded off with a trip up the valley first to spend an hour with David at his house before taking him on to Paul & Veronica's for a couple of drinks before all of us heading up to Macchino for a lovely meal at the restaurant there. Paul & Veronica had just got back from a trek across the alps following the ancient pilgrim route the Via Francigena, so it was great to hear all about how they had got on, as well as catch up with them before they headed back to the UK.
Saturday started out with the promise of another hot day to come - even at 8am it was warm enough for shorts and a t-shirt, and as we took Reggie for a run around the woods at around 9am it was already verging on too hot for that sort of activity for anyone, let alone a thickly-furred dog.
After our weekly stop off at Amanda's shop to collect bread, it was back to the house to get down to work for an hour or so before lunch. I duly got out the strimmer and started attempting to tame the terraces below the house. While we'd done some strimming while Hugh and Donna were with us, as we knew they didn't mind the distant sound of a four-stroke engine, the strimming of the terraces below the house would be more than we could ask anyone to put up with while trying to relax on the lawn above, so we had put the job off until we were between visitors. As it was, the four stroke strimmer suffered a bit of trigger damage (loss of a spring), so I had to switch to the noisier, heavier, more cumbersome two-stroke strimmer. Meanwhile, Stuart busied himself in the orto, weeding veg beds, harvesting and putting up bamboo cane supports for the beans and tomatoes.
|100 garlic bulbs. Pulled early to save as many as possible from the tunnelling beast! Final score, Smiths: 100 Voles: 47.
|Ha! Take that, voles.
|Today's harvest: chard, rocket, spinach and garlic.
After about an hour of working my way up the long, steep, uneven bank that runs from the lawn level to the first of the terraces below the house, I have to admit to feeling mightily relieved when the strimmer finally ran out of fuel, signalling time to stop for lunch. I trudged back to the house, relieved my back and shoulders of the weight of the engine, rolled up my long trousers and released my feet from my hot, heavy boots and socks.
We had a lovely lunch of salad, anchovies, bread and - a real treat - a bottle of Jaipur ale from the Thornbridge brewery, which had cost us the shocking sum of €9 from the restaurant the night before. A shocking price, given that we usually spend less than €1.80 on a litre of wine, but it was well worth it for a special treat, and we savoured the flavour.
|Worth every cent for a special treat.
After lunch, it was back to the graft, and I immediately regretted having taken off my work boots when I reached for my socks and boots and found them both soaking wet and slightly cold. Yeuucch. I steeled myself to apply mind over matter and stuck my feet back into the damp socks and boots, and within minutes I'd forgotten how revolting it had felt.
I duly returned to the strimming, making my way down the edges of the veg terraces and to the bottom terrace while Stuart made more progress in the orto, but after about another hour, I was starting to flag - the two-stroke engine is much heavier to lug around than the four-stroke that I'm used to using, and in the heat it was all getting a bit wearing. So, after a stop for a drink of water, Stuart offered to swap jobs with me, and he took on the strimming baton while I finished off weeding and tidying in the orto.
We finally called it a day some time around 5:30pm and, after showering, we sat under the pergola in the still scorching heat of the sun, marvelling at how hot it still felt at gone 6pm, before heading in to finish our day's work by making batches of blanched home-grown spinach for the freezer, and a large batch of home-grown rocket pesto for dinner, with the remainder going in the freezer.
|Home grown spinach for the freezer.
|(I know it looks identical to the garlic scape one, but this is a milder rocket pesto.)
After our hard day's grafting in the heat on Saturday, we woke up feeling a little weary on Sunday morning - especially once we (quickly) realised the temperature was going to equal, if not exceed, Saturday's temperatures. We therefore took it slowly at the start of the day: a run around the woods with Reggie before the sunshine got too hot to handle, before heading out for a cappuccino and pastry at our favourite coffee spot: the bar at Da Sandrino.
The little bar that is attached to the very popular Da Sandrino restaurant first opens up at Easter time, with phased opening times. At first it is only open on Sundays, then it opens up for the whole weekend and then - from 2 June, we are told - it opens up for the whole week (with the exception of the restaurant and its staff's day off on Tuesday), all the way through until late summer, after which it closes for the winter. It's a shame it isn't open year-round, but easy to understand why - all the seating is outdoors either outside the front of the cafe, on the roadside, or in the pretty garden area adjacent to it. Anyway, for us, this is our favourite coffee spot - tranquil, pretty, outdoorsy and with great coffee and good pastries.
Having enjoyed our morning coffee, we didn't quite feel ready to head home and be faced with chores, so we decided to take the scenic route home around the valley. On the spur of the moment, as we were approaching the very next restaurant, Da Carla, we decided to stop and call in for our second coffee of the morning - we felt the need for an extra caffeine boost and had never stopped here for coffee before, so we sat and read the paper in the new outdoor seating area there.
Two coffees down, it was time to head home, so we took the pretty road around the valley and back to the house.
First priority was to re-fill the water tanks that feed the watering system for the veg garden. These collect rain water from the roof of the house, but after several weeks with next to no rain, they were running on empty - time to reluctantly fill the tanks from the mains water. Costly, but at least we've had a good few weeks' worth of free water for the veg garden, and now we just have to hope for the odd day or two of rain over the summer to help keep things topped up.
While Stuart played around with hosepipes and connectors, I went down to the orto to sow a couple more trays of lettuce and chard - two types of each - and to plant out the borlotti beans that were fast outgrowing the module units in which they had been planted.
|Borlotti beans in.
By the time I'd finished I felt as if I'd been in the shower - working in the orto in the searing hot sunshine feels like being on the surface of the sun, with the black ground cover absorbing the heat and making everything feel even hotter.
Just as I'd made it back up to the house, Reggie kicked off a volley of barking. Puzzled I asked Stuart what was wrong and he explained that Paul & Kathy had just rung the buzzer! Sure enough, a couple of minutes later the car pulled up and Paul, Kathy, their friend Simon and their neighbour Kelly appeared, bearing a plate of cakes fresh from the pasticceria in town. They had spent the morning looking around the monthly antiques/bric-a-brac market and were calling in on their way home. We spent a very welcome hour or so catching up with them all over a cold drink before they headed back up the valley to Castelvecchio.
By this time it was lunchtime, so we stopped for a beetroot carpaccio salad (home grown beetroots) with a side of cheese and a glass of wine, and over lunch we decided that we would officially declare the rest of the day a holiday (hence the glass of wine).
|Pretty in pink - home grown beetroot carpaccio.
What do you do on holiday in Tuscany? You go sightseeing and go and find an old mediaeval tower to climb, of course!
We had decided to head out towards the Montalbano hills that lie to the south east of us, about 30km west of Florence. We headed for the small town of Larciano, from where we pointed the car towards the hills to see what we could find.
First, we found Larciano. That is, Larciano Castello. We had thought we were already in Larciano, so when we headed out of the town up a winding road and then saw signs for 'Larciano Centro', we thought it must be a mistake - perhaps the sign had been turned around, or perhaps the road was just going to take us back on ourselves and we were going to end up where we'd started out. But it soon became clear that 'Larciano Centro' referred to the delightful little hamlet of Castello above the main town.
We parked the car and started to wander through the deserted streets of the little hamlet. Deserted no doubt because it was 30C and only a fool (mad dogs and Englishmen) would venture out unless strictly necessary.
We wended our way to the tower at the top of the town, where we stumbled across a museum modestly hidden away down some steps. It was manned by a lady who seemed to be whiling away the afternoon waiting for someone to visit - although it seemed highly unlikely that she would be seeing anybody else that day! We asked if we could go in and she hurried us down the steps to the lovely cool subterranean room that housed the museum exhibits.
The museum showcased a range of fascinating archaeological finds, from Etruscan to Roman to mediaeval, all of which had come from the immediately surrounding area. Unusually for a museum in this region, all of the descriptions were provided in both Italian and English, and very good English at that. We were very impressed for such a tiny, hidden-away museum. We thanked the lady and were about to leave, when she asked us if we were interested in going up the tower. Well... it's been a while since we did a Tuscan tower, so of course we said yes!
As she unlocked the door and switched the light on, I wondered what I'd let myself in for, looking at the wooden open tread steps and wishing I'd got something more secure on my feet than a pair of flip flops! Nevertheless, we set off, going up, and up, and up. At least we didn't have the added complication of any other visitors to negotiate on the stairs! As is often the way with these towers, the final climb was up more of a ladder, and we had to slide the door open above our heads to climb out onto the top.
The views from the top were stunning and we felt privileged to be in such a stunning spot and all alone - the feeling marred only slightly by the anxiety of knowing we had yet to make our way back down the stairs, inappropriate footwear and all.
|I didn't quite get the camera angle right (because I was too busy worrying about falling down the stair well) but you could see daylight through those holes in the floorboards... that the ladder was resting on.
Nevertheless, the climb back down was significantly easier than the way up (mainly because the open tread wasn't visible) and we were soon back at the bottom, thanking the curator once again and planning the next stop on our mini-tour.
Next up on our sightseeing tour was the next mediaeval village in the area, Cecina. Pretty. And tiny.
Having completed the tour of this village in about 10 minutes, we hopped back in the car and drove to the next one... Montevettolini. This village had a bit more going for it (there was even an enoteca - wine bar - in the main square, although at 5pm on a Sunday it was closed, which you might think was a good thing, other than for the fact that by this stage we were both gasping for just a drink of water), and there was plenty of interest, even though the streets were deserted.
|Check out the scaffold on that!