Monday 23 October 2017

That's what you call a holiday, is it?

It was that time of year again, a time we look forward to each year, a unique week in the calendar for us, when we welcome our great friends Allison and Q to our little part of Italy. For them, apparently, it's a 'holiday', but we'll let you be the judge of that after you've read the week's update.

We picked them up from Pisa airport on Saturday evening and made it home in good time for dinner and possibly more wine than was good for any of us - but the first nights are often somewhat overenthusiastic in nature, and we had a lot of catching up to do!

We awoke to a cool but clear morning on Sunday, with a trip out for coffee followed by some food shopping planned for the morning - at least that was the plan for Helen, Allison and me; Q meanwhile was keen to get his holiday underway and, having  squeezed into his lycra and oiled my trusty steed, he set off up the valley to reacquaint his legs with our hills and make the most of the weather.

We all arrived back at the house in time for a late lunch which we (Reggie included) enjoyed down on the guest patio under the welcome shade of the pergola, as by now the temperature was approaching 25C - which was to become the routine for the week.

After lunch we all (except Reggie) piled into our little Panda and headed off to Montecarlo in search of the annual chocolate and wine festival which we'd never visited before - with wine and chocolate on the menu it seemed like the perfect event and besides, it was in Montecarlo so what's the worst that could happen?!

We arrived to find a full car park already, it not even being 3pm yet, but the overflow car park in the field alongside was open, with about a dozen cars parked, so we lined ours up alongside those and walked the long path into the town centre.

Caption competition...

We walked along the quiet main street past some chocolate stalls, tasting a few pieces as we went by, and completed the small circuit of the town in half an hour while wondering where everyone was - it was like we had the place to ourselves, which made us a little reluctant to engage in 'free' tastings of anything in case we then felt obliged to buy something as virtually the ONLY customers around.

Artisan chocolate!
Empty streets.

It was on our second loop that we spotted a small sign on an archway that we'd missed the first time around: 'wine & chocolate tasting'.Of course, we headed straight in and found ourselves in a pleasant garden shaded by large pines at the back of the building where wine samples were being served by a pair of sommeliers. For the very respectable sum of €5 you could acquire a small plate of chocolate and two glasses of local wine - we, of course, indulged.

Wine, chocolate, sunshine, friends... what more could you ask for?

We passed a relaxing 45 mins or so, enjoying our glasses of wine and the surroundings, as the garden grew steadily busier around us and with on eye on the clock (I had guests arriving at the pool house around 5pm that day), we decided to head to the town's stunning fortress that was opening its doors that afternoon.

Here come the Italians!
Where did all those people come from?!

By this time, the streets outside were heaving and it was clear that we had picked a good time to arrive (more through luck than by design) - we guessed that most other locals must still have been eating their lunch while we had the streets of Montecarlo to ourselves, but now that they had finished, they were flooding into the town in droves to hoover up the chocolate and wine on offer.

The fortress was already busier than we'd ever seen it, but not so much that it made the walk around problematic, and it was a relief to be out of the way and high above the madding crowds as we looked down on them from the towers. As always, the tour of the fortress was a highlight of the visit to this beautiful little town up on its own hill in the plains of the Valdinievole.

After completing the tour of the fortress, we headed back to the house where I promptly kicked everyone out of the car and headed off to welcome a Dutch family at the pool house before returning  home in time for a pre-dinner drink or two.

After a very successful first attempt at cooking a dish called 'shakshuka' from the cookbook 'Plenty' by Yotam Ottolenghi (despite our best efforts, we didn't manage to better this dish all week, and Q was so enamoured with it that he left with the recipe), we all called it a night well before the witching hour, with plans to get the week started properly the next day.

Monday was forecast to be yet another glorious day of weather, which meant our holidaymakers could both get stuck into what they had come here on 'holiday' for: for Q, that was more cycling up steep gradients and overtaking cars coming back down, while for Allison it was working up a sweat on the terraces with Helen and me. A holiday? Maybe not by the standard of many, but we understand fully, as we ourselves are never happier than when working on the land somewhere, so who are we to deny Allison?

The first job of the week was to finish what I had started back in May: to bury panels of steel mesh 30cm into the ground all around the perimeter of the chicken enclosure in an attempt to stop any more foxes excavating their way to a chicken dinner.

Back in May, shortly after Mr (or Mrs) Fox had killed all of our chickens, I had started with the fence upgrade, but after completing just over half of it, finding the heat of upwards of 32C too hot and then being attacked by our bees who live very near by, I had literally thrown my tools down and run, and that's how things had stayed all summer, waiting for the weather to cool down.

As it was, in the the middle of October it was still too hot! 25 degrees again in the direct sunshine made for gruelling and back-breaking work, but Helen and Allison soldiered on for hours, digging channels and then burying the steel mesh, finishing up with Helen climbing into the chicken house for the delightful job of clearing out all the old sawdust and chicken manure, in readiness for new inhabitants. This was a big job to get done, and one we were very keen to do so that we could get some new chickens back in the house - a huge pat on the back for the girls today, and a well deserved Aperol spritz before dinner was the reward.

Digging channels and burying sheets of steel.

Ever wondered what it feels like to be a chicken in a chicken house?

Rarely has it ever been so clean.

That's the way out!

After another early night for all, it was out on the bike for Q on Tuesday morning while Helen, Allison and I went for a trip into Pescia to drink coffee and buy chickens.

We found Il Signore Perondi on particularly good form today, never before has he been so chatty with us. In fact, we must have chatted to him for 20 minutes or so, hearing all about his son's exploits in London and Southend and, rather embarrassingly, how he had stayed with a "dirty family" - he recalled with tears in his eyes how skinny his son was on his return to Italy ("skeletal"!) due to the fact that he couldn't bring himself to eat in such a filthy house. Hopefully he doesn't think that all British people are like that!

Eight hens and a cockerel - about 13 kilos of chickens.

We finally left Mr Perondi to his reminiscences and got back in time to empty the chickens into their new home before cleaning up for lunch down under the guest pergola, together with Q who had just made it back from his morning's cycling.

Ready for their new home.

The cockerel was first to inspect the new place before his hens ventured in.

So this is our home?
After lunch it was time to hit the upper terraces.

By the time last spring arrived, and with it the end of the burning season, we hadn't quite finished the reclamation of the upper left terraces. Let's say they were 80% finished, but that last 20% was the difference between them being cut with a cord on a strimmer and not at all, so over the course of the summer they had got a little unruly. The major push this week therefore, was to try and work towards finally taming this portion of the terracing once and for all.

It was another hot and sunny day with a gentle breeze - perfect weather for outdoor work if not a touch too warm still, but Helen and Allison slogged away with rakes, secateurs, hedge trimmers and pruning saws and had made a huge dent in the job by the end of the day - it looked like we may even finish this phase of work by the week's end!

Toiling on the terraces...

... in the late afternoon sun.

October is definitely the month for chestnuts!
At the end of the afternoon's work, we all scrubbed ourselves clean, changed into our civvies and all piled into the Panda to head into Pescia for aperitivi, at the request of our guests, at the cosy wine bar just off the square. After sharing a generous amount of nibbles and a couple of drinks in an otherwise empty wine bar we headed back to Pietrabuona to collect take-out pizzas from the local restaurant for dinner.
Aperitvi time in Pescia.
While waiting for the pizza to be cooked, the owner went and grabbed the local 'Quello Che C'e' magazine, a monthly mag which has a few articles on local issues, lots of event listings, but mainly consists of adverts for local businesses. He couldn't wait to show me his advert in the September issue with him front and centre with two ENORMOUS porcini mushrooms he had recently found in his secret location up towards Abetone. Apparently the two mushrooms weighed in at 3kg between them. Porcini are sold at €20 per kilo in the local supermarket!
The owner of the local restaurant with his latest Porcini finds, 3kg worth!
Wednesday was deemed a "day off" for all, so after Allison and Helen had done about an hour's worth (Allison rather more than an hour, having snuck up to the terraces early on) of tree cutting on the terraces we decided to head up the Garfagnana valley north of Lucca with an end destination of Bagni di Lucca. We started out with an excellent lunch at Cantina Toti, one of our favourite restaurants around, before heading northwards into the Garfagnana. It turned out to be a day of bridges, stopping off first at the spectacular Ponte della Maddalena, or Devil's Bridge, then finding the Ponte delle Catene (bridge of chains), a 19th century suspension bridge just outside Bagni di Lucca, and then of course making our way across the various bridges in the pretty little town itself. We ended our afternoon's sightseeing with an artisan ice cream before heading home, all under the same blue Tuscan skies we had been enjoying all week. It was really nice for Helen and me to have an excuse to down tools (of all sorts) for a day and soak up some of the surrounding countryside.

The always impressive 'devil's bridge'.

Sunlight hitting the Serchio river in the Garfagnana valley.

Happy holidaymakers and clean clothes all round.
The 'chain bridge'.

Mafia meddling in this part of the valley at the chain bridge.

Rapunzel has lost her locks in Bagni di Lucca!

Shadows of our former selves in Bagni di Lucca.

The Anglican church in Bagni di Lucca looks more north African.

Autumn well on its way now.

A type of holly bush with a wonderful smell!
On Thursday it was back to work as usual, Q once again disappeared off up into the foothills by pedal power, while the three of us went onto the upper terraces. Allison started the first terrace fire of the season while Helen cleared more on the two terraces below and I worked my way from the very top of the terraces down towards them, cutting off all shrub and tree stumps left behind since clearing started - a job we have been talking about for many months but only found the time to do this week having the extra pair of hands helping out.

More burning...

... and some tree stump cutting

By the end of the day, and after two simultaneous bonfires (Helen having started another one up after lunch), the terraces were looking amazing, and now 100% of our terracing will be maintainable by strimming - never again will they be lost to the growth of bramble of vine... or at least, not during our tenure.

Here comes the honey fungus.

A late dahlia made a show on a sunny day.
On Friday morning I was awoken by a call from Cristina, wife of Paolo at Frateschi - they had a courier there asking for directions to our house, but who was telling them that his truck was too big to get to our house. I therefore hopped in the car and dashed down the hill to go and collect what I knew would be the wall tiles for the kitchen.

After taking a few from the box and standing them in place, I couldn't help but make a start on the tiling, and by the end of the day had finished the kitchen splash-back (or back-splash as an American friend tells me they are called) except for the grouting. We are very pleased with the end result!

Tiles arrived, one week later than expected.

Ta dah! Just some grout now.
By the time I had finished cleaning up and putting tools away the majority of the day had vanished so I took Reggie up the terraces to see Helen and Allison who were just finishing their fire and clearing for the day and were ready to finish the week off with a meal out later that evening.

It was a two-bonfire day.

Glorious sunshine.

The wind-down Friday afternoon.
After having washed and brushed ourselves up, we arrived at the restaurant called 'Da Sandrino' near Sorana at 19:45, surprised to find that we were not the first in that evening (nor were we the first out!). We had a great meal, involving the obligatory wild boar stew for Q, a rare (in every sense of the word) steak for me, lamb for Allison and hand made spinach and ricotta ravioli for Helen, with the usual enormous antipasti starter beforehand and a pudding to finish - what a treat to end the week!

While finishing work on Friday afternoon, Allison had received a text message from BA, telling her that their flight for the next day had been cancelled. Q, having returned from an epic bike ride in which he went through Montecatini and over Montecatini Alto up to Marliana in the foothills and back again, was set the task of dealing with the cancellation, which was apparently due to adverse weather - fortunately, BA could read the weather so well that the airline knew that the flight just two hours later would have no such weather issues, and they were simply re-booked onto the later flight.

I tell you this as I think these unexpected couple of extra hours were just enough of an extension for Allison to ask to do some more work before going home from her 'holiday'. Who were we to say no, especially when the apocalypse was due to arrive the next day in the form of wind and rain? So we all changed out of our coffee/supermarket shopping clothes of that morning and set to work on widening the pathway to the apartment.

As you can see in the picture below, the fir tree on the end of the row is dead and therefore could become quite dangerous, and as we are coming to the end of the holiday season we are keen to get it taken down. After asking around, Donatella had brought her friend Alessio down from Vellano to look at the job - while he had no worries about doing the job, he said that he would need a wider pathway in order to get a cherry picker type truck down beneath the tree. With the tree cutting due to happen imminently, the job of widening the path was quite important to get done, and although we had talked about doing it with Allison this week, it had completely slipped my mind.

It was back breaking work moving the large heavy stone which formed the border to the left, especially the monolithic recovered stone lintels, but once the stone had gone we were able to dig down to make the path wider, lay ground fabric, put the stone back and rake the gravel around. All sounds quite quick and simple, doesn't it? Try telling that to our respective back muscles!

The existing pathway

...getting wider..

Enough for a cherry picker now!
Sadly, and despite the two extra hours, it was all too soon time to drop Allison and Q back to Pisa airport in the early evening after a lovely week of work, chatter, food, wine and sunshine, and after waving them off, we trundled home in time for a lazy dinner and a bit of TV before bed.

As promised, the rain arrived in flurries in the early hours of the morning, it sounded like there was a drummer playing a fast drum roll on the roof window from time to time such was the violence of it, but despite the forecast, the worst of it was over by late morning - which somewhat ruined our day!

A damp start to the day.

During spells of good weather, which are many and lengthy here, we often quietly look forward to a day of rain so that we can have a valid excuse to rest up for a day - so when on Sunday morning the rain stopped and the sun started peaking through, we felt somewhat let down by the forecast, we couldn't stay restful and felt we had to do something!

Darned sunshine!

With only an hour before midday we opted to go buy some bits from the shopping complex over at Montecatini, the only place open at this time and on a Sunday, and after loading the car with some tile grout, a length of skirting board and a bag full of  'work' socks, we headed home for lunch while pondering what to do with the afternoon now that il Signor Sole had pulled the rug from beneath us.

While I did some admin on my computer, Helen opted to spend an hour raking the drive in an attempt to clear the carpet of fallen chestnuts and leaves before they turn to a slippery mush.

Carpet of chestnuts.

No carpet of chestnuts.

Before long. Helen received a message from Sarah who said that, having worked the last two Sundays at the chestnut festival in Vellano (preparing and serving doughnuts, along with Donatella), she and David had decided to take this third and final day of the chestnut festivities to go as visitors, so we decided to invite ourselves along.

By the time we had abandoned the car at Dave and Sarah's house and walked half the way into the village, the clouds had come back over and the rain was spitting at us, so we were glad to arrive in the safety of the village before it got worse - which it did, but after a walk around the village we were safely inside the village club with a couple of bags of roasted chestnuts and a bottle of red wine to share.

Paul and Kathy later joined us for an hour on their way to collect friends from the airport and so did Donatella, who had escaped the doughnut counter under instruction of the boss of the festa to not only insist that David and Sarah attend the free dinner for the festa workers that evening (despite them not having worked this particular Sunday) but also to bring along their friends, us!

We were torn over whether or not to stay for the meal - we weren't bona fide festa workers, we had been out for a few hours already, Reggie and Florence were awaiting their own dinners, and I quite likely had a check-out to go and do at the pool house at 03:00am!!

As it was, the weather drew a slightly premature end to the festa and the dinner started early so we found ourselves heading upstairs to the dining room to eat dinner with the other 40-50 people that had been working at the event.

It was a simple affair but great fun and great food: salami, cheeses, as much pasta amatriciana as you could eat (I ingratiated myself with the boss by eating three plates of the stuff, but declined a fourth) and crostini.

I was fortunate to sit next to a new face I had not yet met and who runs a small paper mill, the nearest one to our house in fact, and who is a good friend (and practically a neighbour) of our neighbour Valerio. A thoroughly nice guy with an endless supply of wooden pallets and I have arranged to pop down to see him at work this week to say hello and see what he is up to down there, at a mill we thought nigh on empty until last night.

By the time we finally left the village club and headed back down the dark road to David and Sarah's to collect the car, the temperature felt as if it had plunged, and for the first time in a very long time we felt properly cold, shivering our way back down the road. After a quick goodbye, we hopped in the car and dashed down the road to make amends with our poor hungry Florence and Reggie before heading to bed to catch a couple of hours' sleep before that 2.30am wake-up call!