Tuesday 27 June 2017

Fun in the sun?

After finally making it safely to Tuscany on Sunday, one day later than expected, Monday was the first full day of Sheila and Yvonne's holiday. It was a gentle start to the week with a trip into Pescia for a coffee in Franco's bar, where we introduced Yvonne to cappuccino ginseng, before leaving the ladies to entertain themselves in town while Stuart and I paid a visit to the bank to withdraw some money in order to pay the plumber for his work on the solar panel. It was my first time in the bank since the refurbishment had been completed - gone is the airlock/fingerprint reading security security system (much to my relief - it was always a trauma getting into the bank via the little pod that quite often would just kept saying "re-try", "re-try", "re-try", as you desperately positioned and repositioned your index finger on the fingerprint pad, before it eventually gave up and spat you back out on the pavement, as if it had somehow rejected you - all while other customers were (im)patiently waiting their turn to get in or out of the bank through the same chamber). Also gone are the protective screens in front of the bank tellers at their desks, all of which have been replaced with a somewhat bizarre (for a bank) set-up where there's a banquette that you, the customer, slide yourself into in a set-up reminiscent of booth seating in an American-style diner, to sit the other side of the bank teller's desk.

Anyway, we were pleased that when it came to our turn we were served by smiley Gianguido - and although he who talked over us to a woman in the queue about his daughter's school results during the whole crucial money counting process, we were soon leaving the bank with the appropriate amount of cash, along with a new cheque book.

We headed straight back up the hill to the house so that I could get on with my office work, and Stuart spent an hour or so working in the orto doing the necessary weeding, watering and harvesting that had been neglected over our busy weekend before heading back into Pescia to collect Sheila and Yvonne and bringing them back in time for lunch.

On returning to town to collect the ladies, he found them happily settled in at Bar Pulter with a spritz each. And why not?
It's not just vegetables in the orto! Cornflowers and calendula add some diversity and colour.

Not long after lunch there was a ring on the gate buzzer - it was the technician for the solar panel. We had been expecting both Anton (the plumber) and the technician at around 6pm, so were a little surprised by the early arrival, but no matter. Of course, the arrival of a tradesman sent Reggie into a frenzy of barking, which not only deafened everyone, but with the temperature in the mid 30s and the sunshine beating down, poor Reggie was running himself ragged. After about half an hour, the technician finished his tinkering with the control panel and was happy to sign things off and head home (or to his next job). Reggie, clearly unsettled, continued to bark for about another half an hour and had just calmed down again when Anton, the plumber himself, rang the buzzer to come in and collect his money. Poor Reggie! Thankfully Anton's stay was briefer than the technician's, and he didn't venture nearer the house than the car park, and once he had left, Reggie was able to relax and start to cool down a little.

Having originally planned to go out for a pre-dinner spritz at Da Carla, but realised that it wouldn't be open until a little later than we had imagined, we had been invited to go to Paul & Kathy's for a spritz instead. We happily accepted the offer, knowing that Sheila & Yvonne would enjoy seeing a bit more of the valley and Paul & Kathy's lovely little spot. Our friends were the perfect hosts as ever, and we spent a great couple of hours sipping drinks, snacking, chatting and laughing, before it was time to wend our way back down the hill and rustle up something by way of a light dinner to eat with our guests under the pergola as the day's heat gradually ebbed away.

Having the door open all evening lets in not just the cooler air but also a collection of moths.
... and dragonflies.
Tuesday morning started early with Stuart heading to the house in Pietrabuona to clean the pool and water the plants, and by the time he got home at 8:30am, it was time to take Sheila & Yvonne to the station in Pescia and see them safely onto a train heading to Florence.

He then spent the morning working on some shutter repairs for the holiday rental house that he and David do work at in Vellano, while I, of course, worked on my computer.

Come lunch time, there was a call from Yvonne and Sheila, asking for a pick-up from the station a little later -  punishing temperatures and scorching sunshine don't make for a relaxing time in any city, no matter how beautiful, and they felt ready to return to the fresher (if not particularly cooler) air of the countryside.

While the ladies spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from their trip to the city, Stuart and I carried on with our respective chores until early evening when we joined Sheila & Yvonne under the guest pergola for a pre-dinner drink. They had very kindly offered to take us out for a meal and fancied trying some local pizza. After realising our usual go-to places for pizza were closed on a Tuesday, we decided to head to Da Carla in Ponte di Sorana, which is a pretty restaurant with a nice large outdoor terrace and good food. As usual, we enjoyed a good meal and left the restaurant feeling as if we'd never need to eat again (and with a doggy bag of leftover pizza for Reggie).

Awaiting a feast.
Wednesday was a quieter day for everyone - Stuart started the day with a Reggie walk, during which Reggie seemed very interested in a hollow tree - whatever creature might have made its home in there might well have been rudely awakened by a large black sniffing nose:

What's in there?


Anyone home?

After that, Stuart spent the morning harvesting vegetables - beans, courgettes, lettuce and the first of our summer cabbages - which he then went and sold to Amanda in her shop, earning us a few pennies.

Small harvest.

After having made a trip to the plumber's merchant to buy various bits and connectors, he spent the afternoon attempting to assemble a hydraulic ram pump, following instructions on the internet. The next step now will be to test it out - although there's a whole load of piping that will be needed yet for it to do the job of bringing water from the stream to the water tanks!

What's that...?

.. It's a hydraulic ram pump. (Of course.)

We finished the day with drinks under the guest pergola, followed by lighting the barbecue for some tasty grilled vegetables, with which we made a couple of salads for dinner.

Cooking on wood.

A lovely evening for a barbecue.

On Thursday morning, Stuart and I were both up early but rather than me heading for my "gym" area as usual, I instead got in the car with Stuart and we both went up to the house in Pietrabuona to do a couple of hours of watering, weeding, dead-heading and cleaning the pool. It was a lovely cool morning but already warming up by the time we left at 8:30am.

A pool with a view.
After a couple of hours' work in the office for me, while Stuart took Sheila & Yvonne up to Vellano for a coffee at the Bistrot while he bought our weekly veg supplies from veg-man Luca, it was time to shut up shop at 11:30am as we had a sweet potato appointment to keep! Our friend Ruth, who was the organiser of the sustainable agriculture conference we went to in Umbria in March, had got in touch to say that she had found a supplier of sweet potato plants and to ask if we were interested in buying any. Of course, we had jumped at the chance - sweet potatoes are a rare find in supermarkets in Italy and for a while we'd been trying to work out how we could grow some (it's not quite as straightforward as it is with standard potatoes). Anyway, Ruth had taken delivery of a consignment of sweet potato plants on Wednesday and, not wanting to trust the precious cargo to a courier in this heat, wanted to arrange for us to collect them from her directly.

Ruth lives in Umbria, on the edge of Lake Trasimeno, so we had worked out that an approximate half-way point for meeting up would be Monteriggioni, in the Siena area. We'd decided to meet for lunch and to show Sheila and Yvonne around the pretty little village.

We arrived just 10 minutes later than planned and found Ruth already seated at a table at one of the restaurants in the pretty piazza. It was great to see Ruth again, albeit briefly, and we had a good catch-up over lunch before relieving her of the 24 sweet potato plants and waving her off on her way back home. The four of us stayed to have a little more of a wander around the village - the last time Stuart and I were there had been a couple of days before our wedding back in 2012 when we'd visited with Kerys and Ben.

By the time Stuart and I got back to the piazza after taking the plants from Ruth and leaving them in our car, Yvonne and Sheila were sheltering from the sunshine with an ice cream trying to cool down a bit and had run out of energy to do any more sightseeing here, so Stuart and I took a quick amble around the village for old times' sake before we all headed back to the relative cool of the car. 


These photos don't quite convey the heat!

Scorching sunshine.

Virtually empty piazza because everyone is in the shade!

Rather than heading straight home, since we were in the area, we decided to call in on another of our old favourite spots - Colle di Val d'Elsa. Stuart and I had spent many happy times in the pretty town of Colle and it is one of our favourite places in southern Tuscany. Once again though, when we opened the car doors we were hit by a wall of extreme, almost suffocating heat. We wandered slowly towards the centre of the town, but Yvonne & Sheila were well and truly cooked, so while they found a shady spot to sit and enjoy a bottle of cold water, Stuart and I did a lightning-quick circuit of the town, reliving old memories.

Pretty Colle di Val d'Elsa.

Seeking out the shade.

There's cold water in the fountain!

Colle covered alleyway.

Been here before!
It was then time to head home - to get the poor potato plants some water after having been in one car or another for most of the day - and to relax with a drink under the guest pergola and enjoy the temperature slowly creeping downwards.

Friday morning started with another trip into Pescia for Yvonne & Sheila for coffee and cake and an amble around the shops while Stuart went to buy compost and pots for the sweet potato plants. We'd planned a visit to Lucca in the afternoon so when it got to lunch time we all got in the car and headed for Toti, the lovely restaurant on the Lucchese road that does the best worker's lunch around: pasta, a main course with side dish, wine and coffee all for €11. Toti was heaving with diners, but there was enough room for us and we had a delicious meal - definitely one of the best restaurants in the area.

After lunch we headed on to Lucca, where we parked up and wandered the streets. Thankfully, most of the streets were shaded by the buildings either side, which took the edge off the heat a little bit, and we managed to take in the impressive Piazza Anfiteatro as well as a visit to the stunning San Michele church before wending our way back to the outskirts of the city to find somewhere to sit and have a cooling drink.

Roman arches on the outside of buildings in the Piazza Anfiteatro.

Chiesa di San Michele in Foro.

Lucca doorway.
After calling it a day in Lucca, we headed back to Pescia where we made a quick stop in Esselunga after having come up with the idea of lighting the barbecue once again to make some vegetable and chicken fajitas. We duly came home, lit the barbecue, watered all the plants, and relaxed under the pergola with a drink and a tasty dinner.

On Saturday morning you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the middle of autumn judging by the misty view across the valley. That is if it hadn't been for the fact that is was about 26C - more like the tropics!

Tropical rain forest. But without rain.
Despite the misty start, there was no rain to speak of, and it wasn't long before the sun had burned through the mist and was gently cooking everyone and everything once again. We started the day with a coffee and pastry at the Delice coffee bar in Alberghi before dropping Sheila and Yvonne in town to have a look around the market while Stuart and I headed home to do some work in the garden.

Most importantly, of course, we planted up the precious sweet potato plants, as well as doing various other weeding and tidying.

Tomatoes coming along.



A small forest of sunflowers.



Planting up the precious potatoes.

24 sweet potato plants!

While taking a bag of compost up to the composter, which sits just outside the chicken enclosure, the forest of greenery in the chicken enclosure caught my eye, so I went in to investigate and not only found tomatoes already forming on the forest of tomato plants that have sprung up in there, but also several squash plants and a magnificent pumpkin plant already plotting its escape through the fence! It made me wonder whether the effort of watering and weeding in the orto is even necessary if this is what can happen with no interaction at all!

Pumpkin - it's escaping!



Tomatoes in the forest,

"Chicken tomatoes".
After an afternoon's work in the garden, we showered and headed for Montecarlo in the early evening for aperitivi. We couldn't let Yvonne go home without having seen Montecarlo, and as it turned out we had timed the visit well - as we arrived we were slightly concerned by the large number of cars in the car park and along the road, but on arriving at the centre of the village we realised it was a wedding party. We sat ourselves down at a table at the restaurant that borders the small piazza in the town and sipped drinks while watching what seemed to be a very Italian wedding party - very smartly dressed guests, very chic, very handsome, very beautiful and a delightful distraction.

View from Montecarlo in the evening sun.
After stuffing ourselves with the snacks that came with the drinks in Montecarlo, our plans for dinner (dishes bought by Sheila &Yvonne from Amanda's shop) had fallen by the wayside by the time we got home, so we kept the food for the next day and instead picked at cheese and crackers while enjoying another lovely evening under the guest pergola.

Reggie and his cheese feeders.
Sunday came around quickly all of a sudden and it was time for our guests to leave us - but not before we'd taken them for one last round of coffees and pastries and been to the garden shop to buy a couple of colourful plants that we plan to plant in the guest area.

After the trip out for coffee, there was just time to come home to finish packing before it was time to head back out to Pisa and drop off Sheila & Yvonne at the airport. It had been a lovely week - happily, Sheila will be back again in a matter of weeks when she comes out in July with Kerys & Ben, but we also very much hope to welcome Yvonne here again at some point soon, we enjoyed her company and have a long list of places we didn't get around to showing her!

By the time we got back from the airport, it was time for a late lunch of seafood salad (part of the meal that had been planned but not eaten for Saturday night's dinner). We were both tired after a busy week, and toyed with the idea of spending the afternoon relaxing in front of the TV. Instead, we decided to build a new herb garden.

Horntail wood wasp on the fir tree near the house - this wasp lays eggs in the bark of dead or dying trees. A confirmation of our suspicion that this one will have to come down.
Herb garden step -1.

Herb garden step 0.

Herb garden step 1.

Step 2 - digging out the roots of the escalonia bush.

How on earth we got from "shall we spend the afternoon watching TV?" to this, I'm not quite sure.

Step 3

Step 4

Now all it needs is... a little more wall building and mortaring, filling with soil and then.. some herbs!
By the time we'd run out of steam on the herb garden project we had pretty much run out of steam full stop. Time for showers, dinner, and an early night in preparation for the next busy week!

Quality time with Florence.

Beautiful flowers bought for us from the market by Sheila & Yvonne.