Sunday 26 August 2018

Hot on the heels...

As regular readers will undoubtedly have noticed, keeping up with the blog is becoming an ever more difficult challenge for us! When we first started the blog when we first moved here, everything we did was new to us and newsworthy, and it was easy to write about our lives on a daily basis. Nowadays, four and a quarter years later, a lot less of what we do is new, or of considerable interest, or hasn't been written about before on previous occasions. We also have daily pressures of work, and in recent weeks we have had visitors and a tremendous heat to contend with. All of which is, shall we say, not very conducive to writing. We attempt to stay more or less on track in our blogging, not least because it provides us with a valuable record of the work we have done, the different jobs we do on the land in the different seasons, and of course a nice way of keeping in touch with friends and family afar. You will have to forgive us, though, for the increasingly sporadic nature of the publications!

So, catching up from where we left off last time, the tail end of the visit from Sheila and Ben saw a visit to Pistoia, where Stuart took them to the fascinating Pistoia Underground museum, some last-minute catching of sun rays for Ben, and some more Reggie-Ben bonding time - the two of them really do make a great pair of friends.

Sheila and Ben left towards the end of the week, and our incumbent guests, David & Carol, left a couple of days after that - but not before we'd spent a very enjoyable leisurely morning chatting and drinking coffee with them on our patio. The departure of this set of guests was the only one this year in which we've had a same-day turnaround, with new guests arriving that evening, so after an early lunch we swung into action to turn the apartment round ready for new visitors - this time a French couple, who arrived in the early evening.

We always make sure that we are around to "manage" Reggie when guests first arrive, as he can be particuarly vocal when there are new faces downstairs. We thought we had done a fairly good job of things, and our guests were happily enjoying a peaceful evening under the guest pergola... until we had our next visit from our resident boar.

At around 10:30pm, Reggie started kicking off and making a lot of noise looking up towards the terraces. This in itself is nothing unusual as he often hears/sees/smells deer passing through, which usually make a fairly swift exit after being barked at by him. This time, though, I heard a distinct rustling sound quite close to the house, and on shining the torch up the terraces (which is usually a futile exercise), was stunned to see an enormous wild boar staring back at me from about 3 terraces above the house. I called Stuart to come quickly and have a look - not that "quickly" was really necessary as these beasts don't seem to be startled by anything much and it didn't move, just stared back at us then carried on what it was doing.

A beast.

The size of an elephant.
We stood and watched it for a while, Reggie all the time barking in excitement and deep frustration at not being able to get to it, we took a couple of photos, and as we were watching it by torchlight, all of a sudden we saw a streak of black and grey zooming across the terraces - somehow, Reggie had managed to force his way out through a gap in the gate (the frame of which has warped over time, so despite be latched closed, there was a small gap at the bottom) and was now tearing across the terraces towards the beast of a boar. Knowing all too well how dangerous boar are for dogs, we started screaming at him to come back, flung open the gate and headed up towards both beasties ourselves. The boar of course, wasn't the slightest bit scared by Reggie, and it kept charging back at him - we were terrified for him, as he could so easily have been hurt, or worse - it was at least 3 times as big/heavy as him. Stuart and I chased after them both across the terraces (in the pitch black with just one torch) and screamed our heads off at Reggie to come back (come to think of it, the screaming might only have been me). Thankfully, in the end the pig decided to make a retreat and Reggie, exhausted, decided to abandon the chase, so we were able to grab him by the collar and drag him back down to the house. My legs were still shaking from it all when I went to bed! Not the quiet, peaceful start we had hoped for our guests' first evening with us!

This episode only served to underline how important the fencing of the terraces project is for us - we are still awaiting materials (the company that supplies the materials to the builders' merchant is still on summer holidays until the start of next week, but as soon as they reopen, our order will go in).

After the noisy dramas of Saturday night, we were reluctant to go out on Sunday, leaving Reggie home alone while guests were still in, enjoying a quiet first day of their holidays. However, we had commited to (and really wanted to) go to a commemoration afternoon up in the village of San Quirico, marking the 74th anniversary of the San Quirico massacre - a tragic episode during the second world war when, in retaliation for the shooting of two German soldiers by partisans, the village was set alight and 20 civilians were rounded up and shot by German officers.

We met a small group of people in the main square of the village, along with our friends Danilo, who is a walking guide (and was to be the guide for a short walk around the village), and Massimo, who has just produced a book about the event. After a bit of a wait we then set off on the short walk, in which we were taken to the house in which, on the fateful night, a dinner took place involving 6 people, 4 of whom were German soldiers. We then followed the route that two of the soldiers took after having been called upon at the house and asked for assistance. It was somewhere between the two houses that the two Germans were shot. The tour was fascinating - we had commentary from both Danilo and a historian who is an expert in the WWII history of our valley, and while it was at times a little difficult to keep up with all the twists and turns of the story (the complication being that there are now accounts of events from survivors/witnesses that don't corroborate the 'official' report), we were pleased to manage to understand most of it.

At the end of the short walk, we returned to the village square, where a procession set off - including the Mayor of Pescia, representatives of the Red Cross, the misericordia, and other local organisations - to the area just outside the village cemetery, which was set out ready for a commemorative mass to be held. We stayed through about half of the mass before deciding that we really ought to head back home to check that Reggie wasn't making too much noise and our guests weren't wondering what crazy noisy sort of place they had booked for the week! We needn't have worried, though, as all was quiet when we got home.

And then it was time for the working week - this time of year is busy for me with my Virus Bulletin work, and Stuart spent some time up the valley this week, helping out with some jobs that need doing at the house of an acquaintance just outside San Quirico. We each taught an English lesson this week - although, with our village Circolo closed to give its owners (managers) Emanuele and Betti a much deserved holiday, our lessons had to be held at our house. It was a bit of an experiment finding out how Reggie would react - my lesson with Michela went well, as Stuart took Reggie outside with him and all was nice and quiet. Stuart's lesson with Emanuele was a little more difficult though, as Reggie was _very_ upset about the arrival (and entry into the house) of a complete stranger (and a male one at that). Unfortunately I was out at the supermarket for the first half hour of their lesson, so for the first half hour Stuart and Emanuele battled to hear each other over the sound of barking outside the front door. Once I got back home I was able to sit in the garden with Reggie and keep him more or less quiet for the rest of the time - so, with a bit of a team effort, we managed!

We spent a delightful hour or so having a pre-dinner drink with our French guests on Friday evening - we had held back a little over the course of the week, whereas we would usually invite our guests to join us for a drink and a chance to meet Reggie, we had been unsure of the correct protocol given the (apparent) language barrier, and had left them to their own devices, in (relative) peace. It turned out, though, that their English was excellent and it was an absolute pleasure to get to know them a little better - we were thankful to know that they had had a good week and really enjoyed both the apartment and the area.

There's not much else to report from the rest of the week/fortnight - this evening we will be heading up the valley to Sorana for their annual Sorana bean festival. The Sorana bean is a much prized delicacy: basically a white cannelini bean with a very thin and easily digestible skin. These beans are grown only in a small area over a few hectares along the Pescia River (the land having been drained by the Medici between the 16th and 17th centuries), with the local farmers passing down the seeds through the generations for centuries. The bean has PGI (Protected Geographical Identification) status, meaning that "Sorana beans" can only come from this small area. Anyway, following the harvest of beans each year a festival is held in the village to celebrate the harvest, raise money for the local voluntary ambulance station, and taste the newly harvested beans - all of which is a good enough excuse for us to go and meet up with our friends for a couple of hours.

Our one sunflower this year - but bright and cheery as ever.

I'm the king of the castle?

Our little fig tree has been more productive this year than ever before.

Good boy treats.

Saturday 25 August 2018

Melting...a poor excuse for such a delayed blog.

If, in our last update, things were really starting to feel like full-on summer, this time round we are in a permanent state of melting. Each day we find ourselves counting down the hours until the sun goes down when things will feel a little more comfortable, and spending most of the day hiding indoors away from the glaring heat of the sun. First thing in the morning and late in the evening the weather is nothing short of perfect, but from about 10am until the sun disappears behind the hill opposite us at 8pm, it's almost too much to bear - perfect for holiday makers, of course, but a struggle for those of us with every-day chores to get on with.

Going back a couple of weeks now, the weather was just bearable enough to get out and finish the last of the strimming (this time below the house) and to cut a lot of acacia saplings (that were threatening to turn the lowermost terraces into mini acacia forests).

We also spent a few hours walking the upper terraces along with a tape measure and a notepad and pencil, in order to measure up for fencing.

The jobs on let's call it our "long-range" to-do list have always included fencing in the terraces to keep wild animals at bay (or limit their ease of access). It's a large area and a job we know will be labour intensive, but keeping the boar and the deer off the terraces has always been the plan - especially as we hope to plant up more fruit trees.

In recent weeks the fencing job has risen to the top of our priorities. You might recall the demise of our poor little apple tree that we reported in our last update (at the hand/hooves/snout of a wild boar - which we had caught on camera in the car parking area a few days previously). Well, a few mornings later, I got up at the crack of dawn to let a restless Florence out, opened the front door, and both she and I did a double-take (and she did an about-turn and ran straight back in the house) as we were faced with a great big boar standing just 3 terraces up from the house. I was as startled as I was when we made eye contact, it did a little snort and scurried... all of two feet. I clapped my hands to try and scare it away, but it just moved about another two feet before digging at the ground, right in front of me. It finally sauntered off nonchalantly into the trees.

It was amazing to see a boar at such close range, but also quite worrying to know that it’s still roaming around on the terraces so close to the house - from the points of view of damage to the terraces, Reggie’s safety, and Reggie’s overnight barking activity.

In all, we will need about 300m of fencing (and posts). We will need to dig it into the ground to the best of our abilities (not always easy in our stony/tree-stumpy ground) in order to prevent digging under it, so we know that it will be A LOT of work. 

Frateschi only had 6 fence posts (of the type we want) in stock when Stuart went down to ask about materials, and we are now in the August holiday period where most businesses (including the builder's merchant) are closed for a couple of weeks, so we plan to put an order in for the materials as soon as they reopen, and embark on the job when we have the materials and (we hope) some slightly less punishing weather.

Friday evening that week we were invited up to Vellano for dinner with David and Sarah, a courgette themed dinner we warned, it being the courgette and tomato glut time of year, which requires your effort and inventiveness to deal with fully...a lovely evening was had, started with courgette martinis too! Not forgetting the lunar eclipse, which we think we would have missed from our own house due to the hill to the south of us.

Saturday after lunch, feeling rather lacking in motivation we eventually decided to take tools around to the old quarry area to clear what is a pretty flat and level space of maybe 5x5 metres constructed quite some years ago we believe to aid the mules and quarry workers extracting the precious sandstone for sale which back then would have used a now lost mule track that follows the little river down to the Pescia river below us and just outside Pietrabuona.

The reasoning other than it being cool in the dense woods and near the cooling effects of the river water below, was that when we have our Pilates girls over in early September it could be a nice shady hideaway for Pilates sessions. Having cleared the floor area we decided to leave the trees currently growing on that patch of land as obviously they afford the much prized shade.

The following day, the hottest day of the year so far (40C), we had to clean the holiday house that we are managing for an acquaintance, Tom, in his absence as he had guests arriving the very next day. Dusting, vacuuming and cleaning bathrooms and toilets with the washing machine, the tumble dryer and the iron on, isn't really how we would plan to spend the hottest day of the year if given the choice, but between us we managed to get it done in a little over 3.5 hours...with just enough time to get back to our own house and for Stuart to head to Pisa to collect our own guests (Sheila and Ben) while I did another whip round of cleaning back at home.

[switching blog writer to Stuart...]

Monday morning I treated mum and Ben to breakfast at Vanity, Ben announcing that he really doesn't eat much breakfast and certainly not sweet things, soon realised why our favourite coffee bar was just that, inhaling his sfoglia pastry in record time, as he did on each of his subsequent visits. We then left the car at a 'gommista' in Pescia for a much needed new pair of front tyres, which left us just enough time for a walk into town, a second coffee, a hair cut for Ben and walk back to collect the car before lunchtime closure, not your average idea of holiday activities, but life here is rarely average and it's our life here that we share with visitors.

The reason for the visit to the gommista.

A flat tyre and a rodent inhabitant (not the reason for the flat tyre).

Tuesday was the celebration of Helen having completed a full 46 years on this spherical rock of ours,  that's 16,790 orbits around the sun, quite an achievement...but nothing like my own recent achievement (in my modest opinion) of keeping a secret from her for something approaching three months!

Back in May I whisked mum and her friend Yvonne up to Castelvecchio to see our friend Kelly's amazing wall mural in her house, while there I took it upon myself to acquire a print that Helen passed favourable comment on when we were there together for the mural unveiling earlier in the year. This print I'd kept under the bed until this morning and was very well received, but I digress as this was not the surprise in question.

The surprise in question was a hand knitted 'maglia' that I'd had made by the wife of Nerone, those that own the local restaurant in Pietrabuona.

It was one of the occasions I had been to collect a couple of pizzas for dinner back in Spring I saw that Franca (Mrs Nerone) was knitting a type of poncho for want of a better word, for the waitress that works there, I commented on how nice it was and that it was exactly the kind of thing my wife would wear, what could possibly be a better compliment I thought. Ten minutes later as I left with pizza, I had done so having asked for one for Helen's birthday some months later in August.

What followed were various trips to Pescia to buy wool, return wool as there was insufficient, buy a different colour of wool as they didn't have enough of the original colour, the smuggling of a jumper of Helen's to the restaurant for sizing purposes, the failed smuggling of it back into the house and lies to cover up it's presence in the boot of the car, the taking of Helen to collect pizza partway through the project for the purpose of sizing in person by the keen eye of Franca and then returning the excess wool after completion. As we approached the big day I decided what better way to present said gift than to book a table for dinner and then Franca could present her masterpiece herself.

Yet another secret to keep to myself!

I had invited our friends to join in the fun, created a secret WhatsApp group to make arrangements and booked a table for fifteen people!

Almost daily I put my foot in it but somehow managed to get the birthday girl to the restaurant with both secrets in tact! And after only a thump in the arm once she realized what I'd done behind her back, we settled into a very enjoyable and Italian paced evening among good friends and being as we often are, the last table to leave! 

Thursday evening we headed up to Vellano, it was Midway through the summer grilled meat festival in the village at the Circolo at which David, Sarah and Donatella rank among the forty odd helpers that make the evenings possible for the often in excess of 250 people that turn up each evening.

This particular evening the aforementioned helpers had booked off to partake in the salt cod which was only on offer two nights of the entire 11, so we all descended onto a large table for the evening, Donatella with her three guests, us with mum and Ben, David and Sarah and Paul and Kathy.

It was another fun evening on a balmy summers night topped off with an amazing band called 'the talking ties' a talented group of three musicians with a guest singer for the evening, playing a huge selection of swing style songs, some familiar some not, some in English some in Italian, and they all seemed able to sing and play each other's instruments as the took turns to dance among the public, some of whom seemed to have arrived as followers of the band and accomplished dancers...I was transfixed for the entire two hours of them playing until we left around midnight, at which point the band were still in full swing! 

Along with the local folky band Manolo Strimpelli, whom we've seen twice, I would go out specifically to see the talking ties' again in future.

The fun continued unabated Friday, well once Helen had got a solid shift of work under her belt that morning, we all piled into the car and headed over to Vinci, a third or even fourth visit for Helen and me but the first for mum and Ben.

After a short wait in the ticket queue we headed to the main museum but stopping for a light lunch in the bar at the foot of the tower right in the centre of the old part of town, a tourist trap of course but reasonable food and good prices all the same.

After we toured the museum with it's many working scale models we climbed the tower, something included in the ticket price but something up until now Helen and I hadn't done before, due to the time of year we've visited.

It was a typically Italian tower experience, narrow winding stairs with only the larger corner steps suitable for passing places but as always the views make the climb worthwhile, not to mention the stuff breeze we found up there on an otherwise sweltering summer day.

We got home early evening with an hour to make ourselves presentable before heading down to our Circolo to meet Paul and Kathy for the Greek fundraising dinner Emanuele and Betty had organised in aid of the huge forest fires around Athens that has devastated the country this summer.

It being a lovely warm greek themed evening, we were all sat outside under the sky rather than their covered patio and were served by Alessandro, his girlfriend and their friend Faliero, the three teens that make up part of the furniture down at the Circolo, they had either decided or been coerced to try their hands at helping out by waiting tables, and a fine job they did too.

It all made for a nice relaxed evening, we ate well and we ate plenty of garlic in various forms, and after the last few nights, it was thankfully a comparatively light meal.

Saturday was mum's birthday, it was all happening in August! Although having a change of guests in the apartment, celebrations were on hold until lunch and after we had cleaned downstairs.

Helen and I rose early to do the cleaning so that mum wouldn't have to lift even a duster on her special day and as such had finished and closed the doors by one o'clock, just in time to head out for a birthday lunch at Da Carla's in the cooler part of the valley.

We had been told that the workers lunch was available on Saturday, it wasn't, but what was, was the 'tourist menu' which was a workers lunch in steroids! A bewildering choice of pasta dishes and main courses to choose from...having had the menu repeated twice to aid translation we ordered and settled into a very enjoyable feed in their large covered garden, very relaxing and just the right amount of food, all of it delicious and for a very respectable €15 per head including wine.

That paved the way for a lazy afternoon while waiting for our next set of guests to arrive...this time all the way from Edinburgh.

We finished off the weekend without any restaurants or festas, started with our usual trip to Vanity for breakfast, picked up a few items at the supermarket then went to Sandrinos bar for a couple of drinks and a slice of pizza by way of lunch under the shade of one of their large umbrellas.

Back home I whisked away a couple of hours with yet more shed organising and tidying, Helen built the last two sets of shelving and now have the three sheds in very good order, all that remains is to rehang the doors on new heavier weight hinges and plug all the rodent entry points to avoid any more mess and damage.

Our terraces browning in the summer sun in the background

I honestly haven't been digging!

Finally some proof that the mushroom spawn is 'running' and colonising the logs

The culprit!

We can now buy fizzy wine in bulk in Pescia!

Relaxing on the new garden armchairs

Ben, Veronica, David & Sarah.

Mara & Samantha.

The new 'poncho' no longer a secret

Steeling ourselves for the tower

Rhino beetle in the garden

Reggie with his new mate

Star Wars collectables killed an hour

A theme throughout the holiday, Ben won 6 of the 7 games

Getting ready for some star gazing

Buddies forever!

The countryside around Vinci

A poor shot of the eclipse