Wednesday 30 August 2017

Heat and drought

(This blog post covers the period 21-27 August 2017)

A sure sign of Stuart starting to feel a little less tired and “hypothyroidy” (if it’s not a word, it should be) is that, this week, he put in a couple of days working on tidying our orto. What with the extreme heat (which makes it fairly unpleasant to spend time down there, especially with the heat radiating back up at you from the black ground covering fabric), and disappointments due to damage from hail, damage from voles and damage from deer, the poor orto has been a little neglected of late. The hail, voles and deer have seen to significantly reducing our yields, and subsequently our enthusiasm – in fact, the growth of the weeds seems to have been in direct (reverse)proportion to the waning of our enthusiasm.

However, having an orto is a commitment and a responsibility, and there is always a nagging feeling of guilt when things aren’t being harvested or weeded or tended to as you know they really should. I was therefore delighted when Stuart headed down there this week to single-handedly manage, operate and carry out “project tidy-up”.


No weeds.


No weeds.

Harvests are definitely way down on where we expected them to be this year (we are now down to just 2 parsnip plants, for example, thanks to the vole population), but there was still a pleasing volume of fresh vegetable goodness that came up from the garden this week!

We should be OK for marigold seeds next year!

Squashes, potatoes, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines.


Summer cabbage
Beautiful beetroot!

We even managed to make use of a home-grown cabbage for a dinner we cooked (a Jamaican curry) for our Italian teacher, Johnny, and his girlfriend Giulia, along with our friends and fellow Italian students David & Sarah.

Jamaican night!

Despite the still intensely hot temperatures at the weekend, we forced ourselves to embrace some physical outdoor work – the temptation to avoid all forms of exertion and avoid the outdoors when the temperatures are this high is enormous, but with jobs on the to-do list stacking up thanks to the longevity of this summer’s heatwave, we felt we needed to start, well, making a start.

We therefore spent a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon and pretty much the whole day on Sunday cutting, splitting, chipping, moving and stacking wood for the winter as it’s now time to get all the wood under shelter so it can start drying out (as opposed to seasoning, which it has been doing while exposed to the elements) in time to be used in the winter.

Wood chipping for compost.

Splitting logs for the fire.

An empty section of woodpile.

A few logs added...

... a few more added.

More logs being moved down the drive.


...Not that we can quite imagine it ever being winter!

I know we’ve banged on about it quite a lot on the blog over recent weeks, but the intense heat and vanishingly low rainfall over both spring and summer this year really have taken their toll on the local landscape, both in terms of damage by drought and damage by forest fire.

While out and about on Saturday we spotted huge plumes of smoke billowing up from the hillside the far side of Montecatini. Later in the day we spotted a Canadair fire-fighting plane flying over our house, seemingly going from the site of the fire to the coast to scoop up a refill of water before returning to fight the flames.

We’ve since read that the fire – which was in the Montalbano hills – had burned over 100 hectares of woodland (mainly chestnut and robinia(false acacia), as well as some olive groves). An astonishing area of devastation.

The same article mentioned that, thanks to the drought situation, the basins of water built and dotted around the hillsides for the purpose of filling up the buckets of fire-fighting helicopters are pretty much all dry – and at the weekend firefighters were having to resort to scooping water from privately owned swimming pools (presumably after having asked the owners, or at least informed them!).

We’d only read the previous day that the province of Florence has suffered with 35 separate forest fire incidents this summer, the province of Lucca province with 24, the province of Grosetto with 29, but the province with the largest area of burned ground was that of Pisa, with 134 hectares. We assume that, following the fire in the Montalbano hills, our province, Pistoia, may well have overtaken that lead.

In terms of the drought, we amazingly do still have a trickle of water in the stream that borders our land – meanwhile, the situation in the centre of Pescia is quite astonishing. The wide bed of the river Pescia is completely dry – something we have never seen before.

Dry as a bone.

There is rain forecast for the coming weekend (and cooler temperatures next week – at last), but it will take a long and sustained period of rainfall to start to replenish the waterways and soak the ground sufficiently to lower the risk of fire. In recognition of the extreme situation, the annual ban on burning (prunings, garden waste etc.), which is usually in force between June and 31 August, has been extended, now not being due to be lifted until 15 September - a two week extension. Two weeks hardly seems as if it will be enough to make the situation any better, but we shall see what the next fortnight brings!

We rounded off the weekend with a visit to the annual Sorana bean festival with our friends Paul & Kathy. The Sorana bean has IGP status, meaning that it can only be produced in the small area immediately surrounding the village of Sorana. It is famed for its delicate flavour and its easily digestible skins, making it both allegedly flatulence-proof and suitable for those with gastro-intestinal problems. Each year, there is a festival to celebrate the harvest of the beans.

The village of Sorana was buzzing, and we enjoyed a couple of drinks with our friends, a tasting of the beans with grilled salt cod, and a leisurely wander around the tiny streets of the pretty village before leaving the residents to party on into the night.

The village of Sorana parties in celebration of the new season beans.

La bella luna - and the lights of Pietrabuona.

Tuesday 22 August 2017


(This post covers 14-20 August 2017)

This week has been heavily dominated by the effects of a misbehaving thyroid on the one hand, and a large pile of needy conference papers with a deadline looming on the other - meaning that Stuart has felt up to barely more than lying on the sofa, while I have had my head down and barely left the computer, so we haven't done much to do the proverbial writing home about.

Having said that, we have managed to squeeze out some highlights in an otherwise quiet week, namely an interesting evening spent with our friends Mara & Franco attending a talk on the Italian wolf and about a project that monitors the wolf population in our province, and a lovely visit, albeit a short one, from friends from the UK.

At the start of the week, Stuart managed to muster up enough energy to start moving the enormous pile of wood we split back in the late winter/early spring up to the wood pile, where it now needs to be moved so that it can go under cover and start drying out for the winter (it has been exposed to the elements for several months for seasoning - and now needs to be kept dry for burning). Unfortunately, the effort he put into moving the wood on Monday pretty much drained him of all energy for the next couple of days, so it was back to the sofa and a blood test to check thyroid activity.

All this wood (and more that's already gone) needs to get up to the wood pile.

Partway up the hill.

A little further.

Almost there.


The wolf talk we attended was fascinating. Not least because it was quite amazing to realise that despite being tired, we comfortably understood enough of the 2-hour presentation to feel engaged and interested throughout. That in itself was quite a revelation! The talk was given by a local lady who is involved in a research and monitoring project concentrating on the wolves of the Pistoia province. One thing that we hadn’t realised was that wolves have not been reintroduced into Italy, rather they have always been here and what is happening now is a natural dispersion and a natural increase in numbers that corresponds with a large population of ungulates (deer, wild boar, etc.). It is well documented locally that there are wolves in our area, a fact that poor Mara and Franco know only too well, having lost their pair of nano-sheep to the local wolf pack, and having caught several shots of them on camera. In fact, there is just one family unit in our area – the range that wolves cover is quite staggeringly large, so just one family unit covers an area that far exceeds the area of just our valley. The purpose of the talk really was to educate people about wolves and to underline that they are neither inherently "bad" nor "good", and to advise on some of the "do's and don'ts" concerning their welfare and that of the human and domestic animal population. The talk was well attended, although it didn't seem as if there were any of the local hunting crowd in attendance, which is perhaps the group the members of the research project would most like to target.

Wolf talk.

Back at home, something large seemed to have been taking a liking to our melons and squashes - not wolves, but a rodent with some sizeable teeth and enough muscle to have moved the (relatively)heavy fruits across the terrace.

Who's been eating our melons?..

... and our squashes?

Something with big teeth!

Come the end of the week, we did a quick turnaround of the apartment on Friday morning, and made up both the sofa bed and a camp bed in the living area in order to create enough sleeping space for a family of four - cosy, but hopefully comfortable!

Cosy but comfortable.

Our friends Kathryn and Steve along with teenage children Jasmin and Alex, arrived with us just before 8pm on Friday night, having driven from the Alps (well, originally having set off from Oxfordshire, but having spent a few nights camping in the Alps on the way down), with a week's holiday to go onto at a villa in the Garfagnana the following day.

It must have been 16 years since I last saw Kathryn (literally a lifetime ago, as Alex wasn't even born when I last saw her!) but she hadn't changed a bit, and from the moment the family arrived, it was non-stop chatting, laughter and a really lovely evening. With such little time here, we stayed up chatting with Kathryn and Steve until long after midnight (the youngsters having sensibly retired downstairs earlier), and could have gone on for longer had our bodies not told us that sleep was required!

The next morning, the Newings stayed with us until about 1pm, allowing us enough time for me to take Kathryn on a tour of the woods on my morning Reggie walk, and for all 7 of us (Reggie included) to head down to the river to inspect the hydraulic ram pump that had stopped working (Steve, being a plumber, was keen to have a look and had a couple of suggestions as to what might be the problem). All too soon, though, it was time for them to set off on the next leg of their journey and to the next, hopefully relaxing part of their holiday. We'd had such a lovely time with them, we were sorry to see them leave - we are hoping they will be back at some point!

We had SUCH a lovely time catching up with these lovely people. (Thank you Jasmin for the photo!)

The rest of the weekend was a bit of a comedown after such a lovely start - the tiredness kicked in for both of us this time, and we were left feeling, well, like this:

A bit worn out.

We did manage to do a couple of hours' of strimming on Sunday morning, the terraces having started to turn into jungles once again. We strapped our his n' hers strimmers to our backs and together we tackled the uppermost terraces and the ones below the polytunnel, leaving them satisfyingly tidy by the end of the 2.5-hour stint.

Sunday strimming.

Before strimming.

After strimming.
That was more than enough exertion for us for this weekend though, and we allowed ourselves the afternoon and evening off to watch films on TV and have an early night in the hopes of re-energising ourselves for the week ahead.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Treasure! (A little piece of history)

(This post covers 7-13 August 2017)

With our guests having departed at the weekend, it was back to something more like normality this week - but not before taking a day out in recognition of my birthday. Having been preoccupied with visitors for the whole of the preceding fortnight, we hadn't even considered what to do on my birthday until the day itself was upon us - after very little debate, we plumped for a visit to Pistoia and in particular a visit to the Pistoia Sotterranea (underground Pistoia) museum that some of our recent apartment guests had told us about.

Having missed out on the trip to Pistoia when our visitors were here, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the streets of the very pretty, historic, and amazingly quiet town - it has all the beauty of places like Lucca, but vanishingly few tourists.

We spent a couple of hours wandering around and stopping off for a lovely lunch at a bar in a small market square before we headed to the museum for the afternoon tour.

Time for lunch in this market square.

Fruit & veg.

More veg.

Carob. (My sister will fully understand that I resisted the urge to buy any.)

Birthday lunch - entirely vegan, and IPA to drink...

...And of course, with the best company!

An old cinema turned into a shopping arcade.

The underground tour starts beneath the old Ospedale del Ceppo (the "tree stump" hospital). The hospital was originally founded (and run by nuns and monks) in 1277 - and continued to function as a hospital (clearly with several extensions and additions) right up until 2013. The tour guide led us off initially down a long, deserted corridor, which had clearly been part of the more modern hospital until just a couple of years ago (there is now brand new hospital on the outskirts of the city, and the only part of the old hospital that remains in use is the dialysis centre, which is in a modern building surrounded by empty hospital wings). I must admit I found it slightly spooky walking around an abandoned hospital - and we hadn't even got to the old stuff yet!

Ospedale del Ceppo.

Ospedale del Ceppo. The frieze represents the seven works of mercy.

The frieze was painted by Santi Buglioni between 1523 and 1529 - with the exception of the last scene, which was done by Filippo Paladini in 1586.

Before we headed underground, we stopped off to visit the anatomical teaching room of the Filippo Pacini Medical School of Pistoia, where the Pistorienses gladii instrument was invented - the forerunner of the modern scalpel. The beautifully decorated little building, with the feeling of a small chapel, is the world's smallest anatomical amphitheatre, seating just 15 students along the tiny pews (complete with graffiti), with a marble slab in the middle where the cadaver would lie. Our guide also showed us a vice, explaining that when they examined the brain, the head would be cut off and placed in the vice. Quite gruesome!

Intimate teaching room.

Beautifully painted.

One student must have been bored in 1834!

Next, the tour dropped down into 'proper' underground tunnel system - where the temperature was blissfully several degrees cooler than above ground. The route follows the bed of the old Brana river, which used to flow underneath the old Ospedale del Ceppo. Indeed, in medieval times, those caring for the sick in the hospital above simply made holes, which can still be viewed in the vaults above, through which they would throw all the used crockery and other hospital waste into the stream below, much of which was discovered during the restoration project. Of course, the infected items floating off downstream wasn't such a great idea given that the city's wash house was just downstream - evidently many people who used the wash house became ill and ended up in the hospital themselves, particularly during the outbreak of the plague. Clearly this was in the days before disease, infection, and their transmission were properly understood.

Hospital crockery.

Mill wheel for olive oil production.

The one-hour tour under the buildings and streets of Pistoia was fascinating - although only 650m of the underground tunnel system is currently open, there is work to extend the part that is accessible to the public, so in the future there may be more interesting discoveries and things to see.

After the tour, we grabbed a much needed cold bottle of water and wended our way slowly back to the station where we'd left the car. A great birthday day out!

If Monday's trip to Pistoia had been fascinating from a historical point of view, there was much better yet to come.

Stuart decided to take the opportunity while I was still working at a desk in the bedroom (having not quite got around to moving back down the office yet) to scrape out the old mortar from between the ceiling tiles in the office, replace it with a silicon-based product, then re-paint. All in an effort to stop the frequent showers of sand/dust/stones that I (or anyone in that room) endure whenever someone walks through the bedroom above.

Ceiling in need of some TLC.

This is generally what happens when anyone walks across the floor of the bedroom above!

Joints re-filled.

Looking smart and painted.

It was while he was working away at the ceiling that he decided to pull off the rather ugly and badly fitted (and disintegrating) piece of wood that had been put up covering the old window lintel. It was as he did this, that he spotted a tiny, folded up piece of paper, stuffed into the original lintel.


On extracting the up piece of paper, he carefully unfolded it, to find what is, for us, the ultimate piece of treasure: a note written in 1774.


So far, the history of our house has been a complete mystery to us - we don't know anything about it, not even its age. While Stuart had some success finding the property on old maps at the local archive in Pescia a few weeks ago, he had been unable to go back any further than 1825 - we need to go to the archive in Lucca to go back further than that (which we still plan to do). However, the house is clearly old - and for that reason it has been something of a disappointment that in all our time toiling on the terraces we have not discovered anything more interesting than an old umbrella and some broken crockery (and lots and lots of modern rubbish). To find this note, therefore, was beyond exciting for us - something that is hand-written seems somehow so personal, even if the message itself isn't.

We have spent several hours trying to decipher both the 18th century hand writing and the language, and think we pretty much have the gist of what the note is about. It seems to be some sort of notice regarding the payment of a mill tax (tassa di macina) owed to Pietrabuona (probably a charge for using what would be a communal mill in the village to grind chestnut flour), also mentioning a "rate of retaliation", which we take to mean some form of interest rate, payable to the community of Pietrabuona. Frustratingly, we haven't been able to decipher every single word, but we're confident that we understand the general gist of it. So not a charming love letter, not a gruesome confession (thankfully!), but a mundane invoice of sorts. Nevertheless, we are thrilled at the discovery and feel that little bit more in touch with our house and its history.

We ended the week with a couple of lovely social events - on Friday evening we had been invited over to our good friends Mara and Franco's for grilled baccalĂ  (salt cod), along with the young German couple who were currently staying with them. Clara and Janos - both medical students - were lovely and very easy to get along with, and we spent a highly entertaining evening chatting, joking and laughing in a mixture of Italian and English (sadly no German!) and tucking into the delicious fish grilled by Franco on the wheelbarrow-come-barbecue.

Saturday saw us with our Italian friends and our new German friends once again, as we had all been invited to the celebration of mutual friends Claudia and Massimo's 25th wedding anniversary. The evening started with a very moving ceremony involving a combination of traditions that seemed to have a native American theme, continued with lots of eating and drinking, and finished up with some hilarious folk dancing (in fact, the teacher, who had been invited to come and give instruction, took it pretty seriously, but we all fell about in fits of giggles as we stepped the wrong way, struggled to hold onto our flip flops, bumped into our neighbours and generally exhausted ourselves with a combination of physical exertion and laughter).

Claudia and Massimo looking forward to the next 25 years.

Poliziotto Franco.

The chilli was pretty good!


...and more dancing.
Finally, we finished off the week with coffee with our friends Paul, Kathy and Sarah at the Da Sandrino bar on Sunday morning (David and Donatella both being busy with work), followed by a lovely impromptu pasta lunch in the sunshine back at David and Sarah's house when we dropped her off. A lovely relaxing way to finish the week.