Wednesday 21 March 2018

More of the wet stuff

There's really vanishingly little to report about the last week - in a word, it was wet, which meant we spent a lot of time indoors. The continuing rain caused another landslide at the end of the weekend, this time on the road that leads from Pietrabuona up to the village of Medicina, meaning that the road was closed for 12 hours while the security services worked to clear it and make it safe to pass (or safer) and the residents of the small row of houses beneath the road were evacuated overnight.

We occupied ourselves over the wet weekend by cleaning the house and by cooking a meal for our friends Paul & Kathy, with whom we spent a lovely evening on Saturday night, and on Sunday we took a drive out (in the rain) to explore some more of our area, this time reaching the small medieval town of San Miniato in the province of Pisa, about 40km south of Pescia. We were impressed with San Miniato's interesting architecture, pretty views and historic buildings and will definitely return - when the weather is nicer (and/or in November when the town hosts its annual truffle festival). As it was, we hurried around the small town in the cold rain and biting wind, snapped a few photographs and then dashed back to the warmth of the car - having only really left the house with the intention of going for a coffee in Pescia, we hadn't thought of gloves or scarves or proper winter coats!

So, a very short update this week, and just a handful of atmospheric photos:

Meanwhile, from the other side of the valley (photo taken by Mara).

This one likes to stay warm and dry.

And our flying visit to San Miniato:

The seminario vescovile (bishop's seminary).

The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and Jenesien.

The museum of sacred art.

The tower of Federico II (which was destroyed in 1944 and rebuilt in 1958).

(This blog post covers the dates 12-18 March 2018.)

Wednesday 14 March 2018

Brutal/dramatic nature

The overriding theme of the last week has been the brutality and drama of nature: dramatically wet weather, a huge landslide and some macabre finds in the woods.

To start, though, here are some pictures from the couple of windows of sunny weather that we were treated to during the week, brief as they were.

On Friday afternoon it was 17C and sunny.

It was hard to believe that a weekend of wall to wall rain was coming.

The garlic doesn't seems to mind the copious amounts of rain we've been having recently.

There was sunshine after the rain in Vellano.

Wild crocuses line the drive.
So, let's get onto the macabre. To start with, on Tuesday night we had fun and games with Reggie – something outside on the terraces had clearly upset him and despite it pouring with rain and it being past midnight (way past his usual bedtime), he was intent on running around the garden barking incessantly and absolutely did not want to come in. We had two failed attempts at getting him to bed – we went through his usual bedtime routine, put him in his room, and by the time we got upstairs he had started whining and barking from his bedroom – and in the end resorted to leaving him to sleep in the living room on the sofa. He settled quite quickly after that, which is more than could be said for either of us. With Reggie loose in the living room we had to shut Florence into our bedroom with us (she likes to roam the house at night time and we didn’t want her accidentally wandering into Reggie’s jaws, so she was on lockdown with us), meaning that we were subjected to being jumped on, sat on and slept on all night, and to top it all off the rain turned into a tremendous storm, with thunder, lightning and the loudest rain (and hail) you can imagine. Not a good night’s sleep!!

The following morning, we began to build a picture of what had been upsetting Reggie the previous night: when Stuart set off to take him for a walk, he ran straight off to the terraces immediately below the car park and returned with a dead fox in his mouth! Thankfully, he deposited it on the patio outside the front door and then went off for his walk, allowing me (once I'd got over the initial shock of looking outside the door to see a lifeless fox lying prostrate on the patio) to bag it up for disposal. It was all a bit of a mystery to us – either it had died of natural causes or it had been killed by something (we could only imagine a wolf ) that wasn't interested in eating it. Either way, We guessed that Reggie had heard/smelled/seen/sensed the presence of the fox (and its possible killer) the previous night, and that explained his extreme agitation.

Reggie's first find of the week.
The next morning, on setting out for his daily walk, Reggie once again headed straight off to the terraces below the house, this time to the edge of the orto, just beneath the poly tunnel, and came back bearing a deer leg which had been stripped to the bone bar the very bottom part and hoof. This really did seem like the work (and leftovers) of wolves, so we assumed that the fox may have been some form of collateral damage - perhaps it had got in the way of the wolves or dared to attempt to share some of their kill.

Over the next few days Reggie continued to make gruesome finds on his daily walks, and the tally currently stands at: 1x dead fox, 1x deer leg, 1x entire fox tail, 1x partial fox tail and 1x deer head. All within the last 7 days.

We are well aware of the fact that wolves are present in our valley, and we have found some evidence of deer kills on our land on two previous occasions, so it doesn't come as a complete surprise. What perhaps was a little more unexpected was the proximity to the house of Reggie's finds. Of course it's entirely possible that the pieces he found had been dispersed from a kill site elsewhere, moved by scavengers (indeed the latest find - the deer head - came from the woods further along the drive), but we will now be on the lookout for other tracks and traces and see what we find.

So, onto the dramatic side of nature: the weather. Save for the brief windows of sunshine shown in the photos at the start of this post, it was pretty much wet all week long, and roughly halfway through the week we became aware of the fact that the weather anticipated for Sat/Sun was so bad that a red weather alert had been issued for our area. In fact, by the time the weekend arrived the alert had been downgraded to "just" orange (weather alerts increase in severity from green, to yellow, to orange, to red), but we still expected some heavy downpours and a frustratingly unproductive weekend.

In the clouds.
Bored of being stuck indoors.
In the event, the rain was less Armageddon-like than we had been expecting – we've certainly had much harder rain in the past – but it was very much sustained, with no let-up, and clearly the volume of water that has fallen in recent weeks has had a cumulative and devastating effect: we were somewhat shocked when we stepped outside the front door on Sunday afternoon (to take Reggie out for a wet walk) to look up and see part of the hillside opposite us missing...

That wasn't there before.
What looks like a very muddy, very steep ski slope is, in fact, a landslide – which, thankfully, is on a slightly different aspect of the hillside from the house of our friends Mara & Franco (while the landslide is very close to their house – directly above and behind it – there is a gully/ravine in between their part of hill and the affected part).

When the cloud lifted we could see just how close the landslide is to the house that's positioned up on that part of the hill.
Thankfully, the house perched up on the hill up there is a little way back from the edge, but clearly part of the land in front of the house is in a perilous state, and we can't imagine how the inhabitants of the house must have felt when it happened - and how they continue to feel, especially with yet more rain forecast.

So, thanks to the rain we spent the weekend feeling utterly stir crazy, but we were (and are) thankful that stir crazy was the most extreme feeling we had to face.

Each time Reggie goes out into the garden to bark at things, Florence makes the most of the brief window of dog-free safety to come and sit by the fire. 

Reggie would like another crisp, please.
(This blog post covers the week 5-11 March 2018.)

Thursday 8 March 2018

Winter version 2.0

With the Italian version of the Beast from the East due to hit this week, and overnight temperatures of -8C forecast, like all good Boy Scouts/Girl Guides/seasoned countryside dwellers, we did everything we could to prepare to see us through the cold snap - we had 75 litres of water in Jerry cans ready for toilet flushing and 18 litres of drinking water in bottles ready for drinking/cooking in case the water pipes froze, and we left the bathroom tap running overnight to give us as good a chance as possible of avoiding frozen pipes.

Thankfully, we awoke to running water on Monday morning, which meant Helen could exercise safe in the knowledge she could shower afterwards. The temperatures had indeed gone below freezing but, as yet, not caused us any problems, the week was still young however.

At the end of January we had been starting to feel as if we were slowly edging our way out of winter, there were helibores on the roadsides, snowdrops in the woods and crocuses starting to appear, not to mention the abundance of mimosa flowers around and about, so the idea of it getting this cold at this point in the year hadn't really occurred to us - although after such a mild and wet start to the year it came as little surprise.

Up until Sunday evening I had been expecting to be working on Monday over at Mara and Franco's house (on their apartment project) along with a guy named Andrea, an expert in traditional building materials who Franco had asked to come and impart some of his knowledge to us. This guy comes from the north of Italy (Lombardy) and happened to be in our area running a course in natural plasters over in Livorno, so he'd said that, for a fee,h e would tag on an extra day onto his trip to come and see us before heading home.

But when Sunday came, despite me having boarded up the windows and made a temporary door in the apartment so that Franco and Mara could seal and heat the rooms in the work area, the plan fell through - the weather was simply going to be way too cold to use traditional lime putty-based plaster and Franco capitulated, letting Andrea return home to come back to us another time in the year, currently planned for April.

When I headed out into the morning to run some errands I was mightily relieved that there was no work today - the strong icy winds cut through you like knife, completely inhospitable weather and as I drive to Montecatini I wondered how on earth we as a species had inhabited the cold expanses of the Frozen North.

Having finally managed to remove the steel blades from our woodchipper, I was ready to take them, along with the hand axe I bought last year, to be sharped over at what according to Franco is the last place in the area offering blade sharpening services.

Thankfully, I was able to park within a couple of blocks of the 'coltelleria' knifery, as the weather seemed even more Arctic here than up on our hill. I handed over the items to the lady in the shop who had no concerns about the axe sharpening, but looked as if she hadn't seen chipper blades before. I explained that they were for chipping green branches, she scribbled down my number and said they'd be ready in a week.

I trotted back to the car, conceding that just a hoody was probably a little optimistic today and headed home to light the fire and make lunch.

I spent the afternoon working on websites in the toasty office environment, it was over 20 degrees in there that afternoon, which made for a comfortable few hours until we took Reggie out for a walk in the cold!

On Tuesday morning it was -6.5°C when Helen went out with Reggie and the house temperature had dropped to 15.8°c but the water in the house was still running - we had lost water to the apartment, and our toilet was making suspicious noises when refilling, but given that we had thought we would already be without water, we claimed it as a victory.

Frost inside glass bottles.

Wednesday was much the same as Tuesday - it was gloriously sunny but bitterly cold, the temperature reading -7.5C when we first got up. Feeling cold even in the sunshine is something we are have become completely unused to, so it was a strange feeling and we kept as much to the house as possible, feeding the log burners in both the living room and the office in order to wrestle the house up to a comfy temperature, reaching 17°C by lunchtime! Thankfully our tactic of leaving the bathroom tap running overnight seemed to have worked once again, and we still had running water in the house (although once again none in the apartment) - we thanked our lucky stars as we knew some of our friends in the valley hadn't been so fortunate and had been struggling without water since Monday.

A significant dumping of snow was forecast for Thursday, and the forecasters certainly didn't get it wrong this time. We awoke to a winter wonderland, with snow still falling. Reggie was delighted to get to play in the snow, Florence a lot less so - with the cold white stuff reaching her rather saggy undercarriage, it made her usual daily outing rather wet and uncomfortable and she soon retreated back into the warm and dry, I would say looking a little annoyed at the state of the outside world.

This was the biggest snowfall we've had since we moved here, and for the first time we were officially snowed in - while the roads looked clear, getting to the road was simply not an option - the 250m of our driveway was simply too slippery to negotiate, so there was no way we were going anywhere unless it was on foot.

We were happy to spend the day in the warmth of the house of course, especially when, come late morning, the snow turned to icy cold rain - deeply unpleasant.

Come Friday morning, all traces of snow had disappeared, washed away by the rain, and we were able to get out to do our weekly shopping as well as have our Italian lesson with Samantha in the afternoon (rescheduled from the previous day when she wouldn't have been able to reach the house safely in her car).

The rain that had washed the snow away continued into Saturday, and we spent the day listlessly trying to work out what we could usefully do with our time, eventually reaching the conclusion that there wasn't anything productive we could do in such filthy weather, and so we settled for spending the afternoon watching Harry Potter in Italian - a loose form of homework.

Sunday, on the other hand, was dry and bright, so we wasted no time in getting outside (after our morning coffee and pastry in Pescia, that is) and continuing our work on the tractor park. We felled a couple more trees, Helen stripped them of bark, dug a couple more holes and managed to erect the posts for the back edge of the frame as well as some cross pieces to hold everything stable. It's slow progress, but satisfying to know that everything we are doing is with material sourced from our own land.

We finished the week with an impromptu social evening - Mara had messaged us during the afternoon to ask if we'd like to go out with them for a pizza in the evening, so once we'd downed tools for the day we cleaned up and changed and met Mara and Franco at a spot just down the road where we jumped into their pickup and drove along the valley to the village of San Quirico. Turns out that the circolo (village club) in San Quirico also does pizzas - and very good ones at that. We had a really tasty meal, great pizzas, great company and a great way to draw the weekend to a close.

(This blog post covers the week 26 Feb - 2 March 2018.)