Monday 2 December 2019

Not so Newing.

After a few days of 'normality' it was time to get the place ready for more visitors: we were expecting a third visit from Kathryn and Steve who, during previous visits, have helped (in 2017) with the olive harvest and (last year) helped us start the fencing around the terraces - they were hoping their visit this year would once again coincide with olive harvesting.

Sadly, mother nature had other plans: there was no olive harvest for us at all this year, due to an olive fly problem. Indeed, very few people locally have had a harvest and only the few that had used insecticides have had any fruit to pick and press this year. When I bumped into the owner of the olive mill last week he said that the little oil that was pressed this year was of poor quality and didn't have the low acidity required for it to be of extra virgin quality.

I've recently read a short report on the internet about an olive farm in France having success in controlling the olive fly, to some degree, by planting flea bane around their olive grove - the idea being that it is particularly attractive to predatory insects. I can see a project for the future! This year we had again used home-made fly traps consisting of plastic bottles with small holes drilled into the side filled with a cocktail of wine, vinegar and sugar, but clearly they have been of little help and since they catch not only olive fly, I think we'll be retiring them and let nature decide when we get olives.

I digress As well as the lack of olives to pick the weather forecast was dire for the duration of Kathryn and Steve's visit. On previous occasions we've been afforded such lovely weather that we've had tea breaks outside and even eaten lunch outdoors. As they left last time I remember saying that sooner or later the weather won't be so great on their visit... it is, after all, mid November.

What to do with friends on a rainy Tuscan day (or days)? Lunch was the first port of call and we took them out to the restaurant Toti, which always makes a 'bella figura' with anyone we take here, not only for the food served but also for the rustic romantic charm of the former wine cellar.

By the time we had arrived for lunch we had already decided to try and be productive despite the weather and to have a go at making something festive from our rather large collection of wine corks as a means of passing time. As such we left Cantina Toti and headed out on a shopping spree for crafting materials, as a gift cannot be made with a cork alone.

Kathryn gets to know the locals in Obi.

The house soon resembled Santa's workshop, minus the elves... (and it still looks no different now, we have to fight for space to eat these days amongst the corks, glue, spools of wire, coloured pompoms, sticky googly eyes and sparkly pipe cleaners) and the four of us swung into production of Christmas wreaths, reindeer and baubles.

In the end the weather was a little kinder to us than had been forecast and we managed to spend almost the entirety of one day and an afternoon the next working up on the terraces above the house.

Now fully fenced in, there are (or were before Kathryn and Steve arrived) 14-16 trees growing on the terraces that had planted themselves there some decades ago when the terraces were long lost to nature. Now that we've reclaimed these terraces, and want to replant into the empty spaces, there is the need to remove the large trees that cast shade on the olives.

Over the two part-days we had outside we managed to drop, chop and move onto the donkey track 6 fairly large acacia trees, happily without causing any collateral damage from the felling part of the process.

As a fitting end to Kathryn and Steve's stay we went for dinner, very kindly paid for by them. Steve had such good memories of eating at the restaurant in Macchino last year he had asked to go there again, Kathryn on the other hand thought it a wasted opportunity not to try somewhere new, so instead of Macchino we went to Mangiafuoco just outside Pescia, a spot we've frequented a couple of times already this year with both my mum and Yvonne and Mike, Helen's dad. We had a great evening and I think the choice of restaurant was a hit with our friends. 

Since Chief Crafter Kathryn left we have managed to keep up crafting momentum and are planning on trying to sell a few bits over the coming weeks - at our local circolo Emanuele has plans to organise another tasting evening (at which last year there was Danilo and Michela selling Italian fair trade products, a new business in Pescia which is made of a group of 20-somethings that have started farming and making wine in the Pescia area and Stefano with his cheese and chestnut flower, oh, and us, selling olive oil). Since we have been asked to attend again, but have no olive oil to offer, we're planning on trying to sell some of what we've made as inexpensive gifts. There is also a Christmas themed market in San Quirico next week, which we've made inquiries about and, weather permitting, we will try going there too.

The week following Steve and Kathryn's visit was dire as far as the weather was concerned, and except for the Wednesday, which was forecast to be sunny, the rest was a wet and windy washout.

On Wednesday we decided to give the chickens a clean out ready for winter - old sawdust out, new sawdust (from the workshop - the spoils of my work turning attempts so far) in, and replenish their indoor dust bath with ash from the log burners. I also decided to give some attention to their nest boxes in the hope that they might start laying indoors again - since spring they've been laying in the tight space between the house and earth beneath it, which is not ideal for collection reasons, especially as the ground is about to get much wetter and dirtier over winter.

In the spring I had tried to adapt their nest area so that the eggs would roll away as they are laid, as one of them had taken to smashing eggs and eating the shells. The second version of this involved a board placed in the nest area tilted towards the rear, which seemed fairly successful for the short time they used it before they all decided to lay outside.

Upon dismantling the nesting box and taking out this board I saw rat droppings beneath it! It took a while to work out how the rodent had been getting in. It seems it had been climbing onto the food bin at the back of their house and from there scaling the wall where they had gnawed through enough wood to make a space between the chicken wire and timber in the under roof venting to get in, climb down the inside and nest under where the chickens had been laying. The cause of them moving outside to lay? Quite possibly.

So after a bit of repair to the vent wire I decided a completely new nesting arrangement was needed to eliminate the small space for Mr Rat to nest in should it come back and gain entry again.

After a bit of Pinterest research, I combined a few of the ideas I'd seen and devised something using a set of plastic bins. These would also be much easier to clean should the egg breaker get back to her old tricks (the wooden egg collection area was getting quite disgusting from the caked on broken eggs).

As I type, a week or so later, Helen has just come in from collecting eggs and today all hens have laid in various of the nesting bins. Success! For the moment at least.

We also managed to find time to finish the final section of the deer proofing of the new fencing. In theory the only beastie now capable of getting into the olive grove/orchard is Mr Fox, who in theory won't do much damage.

This week, having been gifted a rare couple of dry days (I saw an Italian meme going around recently that likened November to the set of the movie Blade Runner as it hasn't stopped raining all month), we moved all of the wood we had cut with Kathryn and Steve from the top of the donkey track down to the quarry and stacked it there, where it will stay under cover until spring. As soon as we've stopped burning for the season (normally late April), we will start cutting, splitting and stacking it by the house for the following winter, giving it all summer to finish seasoning. 

We also put away our now rather sizeable collection of geraniums into the little 'orangery' for the winter as there is our first frost may be due this week, made a small Christmas tree from an old pallet which we sold to Amanda for use in the shop, and raked the entire 230 metres of driveway for the third time this year (it's only the first time I've helped on the raking front, the first two times Helen has raked it single-handedly) as the leaves were turning sludgy.

As December starts we hope the weather will miraculously turn and give us a dry and sunny month in which we can get outdoors and make progress - although if the first two days of the month are anything to go by, it seems we should temper our hopes and expectations.

Friday 15 November 2019

A long overdue visit - worth the wait!

Since moving to Italy, I have always dearly wanted my sister, Rachel, - as well as my brother-in-law, Andy, nephew, Joe, and nieces, Naomi and Hannah - to see and experience where we live and how we live our lives here. But as a family of 5 with hectic lives, getting here had always proved too difficult. Somehow, the loss of our dear Mum last year made this seem even more important - if there can be any positives to losing someone you love, perhaps it's bringing you even closer and strengthening the bonds with those you love who are still with you - so it was with great excitement that, thanks in no small part to some generous help from my lovely Dad, we managed to come up with a plan for the entire family of Penningtons to come and spend the October half term week here - squeezing the five of them into our home with only minor adjustments to the normal layout.

Despite a decidedly mixed forecast for the 9 days they would be staying with us, we were relieved that at least the start of their visit promised some good weather - and it was in shorts and t-shirts that we excitedly greeted their arrival.

A sight for sore eyes! So lovely to find these three (and their parents!) at the airport!

There was even some sunshine left at the end of the day when we got back from the airport.

And sunshine for the first morning of their holiday.

Breakfast al fresco!
It is rare these days for us to have visitors who haven't visited us before, so it felt a refreshing change to be able to plan activities for the week with ease, knowing that they hadn't already been anywhere or seen any of our area - a completely blank slate, if you will.

The sunshine and warm temperatures continued into the first day of their visit and, knowing that there was a chocolate festival happening in our favourite hilltop town of Montecarlo, and that it was likely that the fortress would be open to coincide with the festival, we decided to head there. 

The chocolate festival itself wasn't quite as interesting as it might have sounded to the kids - for those with refined tastes and deep pockets the artisan chocolates on sale at the various stalls would I'm sure have been delicious, but using up the week's spending money on expensive chocolates didn't seem like a great idea, so we simply walked around the pretty little town, admired the views, took in the scenes, and then made our way to the fortress.

It was a perfect day for Montecarlo - as you will see from the photos (for most of which I should thank Rach), the late autumn sunlight showed off the mediaeval town to its absolute best, and the views from the ramparts of the fortress were stunning.

Love these people!

The crowds gathered in the streets below for the chocolate festival.

As the sun began to drop and the town continued to fill with throngs of festival-goers, we decided to make an exit from the crowds and pay a quick visit to the Quercione or witches' oak on the outskirts of the town before heading home.

The tree - which became a national monument in 2012 (not that you would know it - frustratingly there is no information about it onsite whatsoever) - is more than 600 years old and provided inspiration for Carlo Lorenzini (aka Carlo Collodi) when writing the story of Pinocchio. The gang were suitably impressed with the enormous and unusually shaped tree, providing a nice end to the first day's sightseeing.

The witches' oak.

The second day of the Ps' visit was fine and dry, if a little cooler than the first. We knew they wanted to visit Lucca and, knowing that the enormous Lucca Comics festival was about to start, we decided we should get there before the city became overrun with cosplayers and comic fanatics.
Hazy, but a bright start to the day.
Lucca never disappoints, and it was easy to fill an entire day wandering the streets, visiting some of the churches, and dipping into the small but perfectly formed Domus Romana museum. We first visited the museum with Mum and Dad back in 2014 and enjoyed it so much we recommend it to everyone who visits us. The museum was opened in 2012 following the discovery of part of a Roman villa beneath the palazzo in which it is housed. Back in 2014 the curator told us of the frustration of the archaeologists and curators of the museum at having had to surrender all of their finds to the Italian authorities in Rome, and only having replicas to display to their visitors. It was with great interest and excitement therefore that on this occasion the curator told us that that very morning they had taken delivery of all of the original artefacts following a long and drawn out process of having had to apply to the authorities and fight to get them returned to the museum. They hadn't had time to put them all in the display cases yet, but the guide got a couple of pieces out to show us before hurriedly putting them safely back in their packaging. We were thrilled for the museum and delighted to have been there on the very day of return.

By the third day the weather had turned, but we togged up in slightly warmer clothes (for Stuart, Andy and the kids it was still shorts weather, but with long sleeved tops on hand) and headed out for Montecatini Alto. We drove to Montecatini, parked up and went to find the funicular that shuttles up and down the hill to the smaller, prettier, Montecatini Alto. Having been on the funicular before, Stuart and I opted to save some money and increase our step count by walking up the hill while the Ps made the journey on the little cable-operated railway. At first it seemed it would be an easy walk and it was a little while before we stopped to wave as the little train passed us. Soon after that, though, it became clear that we had slightly underestimated the steepness and length of the climb - fine if done at a leisurely pace, but with the knowledge that the Ps had already arrived at the top and would be waiting it was quite a fast-paced march and by the time we eventually came to the top of the track we were dripping in sweat despite the cooler weather!

We had a gentle stroll around the streets of the village, which thankfully was sufficiently interesting without its usual views - which today were obscured by cloud and mist rolling in. Despite the cloud and mist it was mild enough for an ice cream stop to refuel before all 7 of us set off on the walk back down the hill, once again at a fast pace but this time in an attempt to beat the rapidly approaching darkness!

The next day was similarly grey, cloudy and damp. We decided to have a slightly less hectic day and limited our excursions to our own valley, in the morning popping up to Vellano, calling in to see David and Sarah who gamefully welcomed us all into their home and supplied us with coffee and drinks, then stopping for a longer visit and walk around Castelvecchio and Pietrabuona (for the obligatory views back across the valley to our house!).

Vellano in the mist

Not such a great view this morning

Exploring the streets of Castelvecchio

The Romanesque church in Castelvecchio

Spot our house!


The lower part of Pietrabuona from Pietrabuona Castello

We also called in to see our Aussie friends James and Ludmila as they needed some help with their car - they were delighted to meet the family, plied us with drinks and snacks, and even the stray cat Marcello came and made friends with everyone.

Marcello wasn't shy to make new friends!

While on the subject of furry friends, we were incredibly proud of our boy Reggie - while a little nervous at the start, he relaxed with his new friends more quickly than we have ever seen him do before and was rewarded with tummy rubs from three different sets of hands, often all at the same time!

The next day was properly wet. We decided that a visit to the pretty town of Vinci and its Leonardo-themed museums would be the best option and we also hoped to be able to do the short walk from the town to the birthplace of Leonardo through the olive groves in order to stretch our legs a bit after several days of relative inactivity.

By the time we arrived it was raining and on the chilly side (compared to previous days), but we had come prepared and so we togged up with waterproofs and once we had bought our museum tickets we disregarded the advice of the lady in the ticket office (who suggested that since it was so wet and potentially slippery underfoot we should drive to the village of Anchiano rather than walking) and we strode out on the path from Vinci up to the hamlet of Anchiano. It wasn't long before we arrived at the museum somewhat damp but otherwise intact and in good spirits. We spent a little while there watching a short film about Leonardo that did little more than confuse us (not very informative, and rather odd) before heading back down the footpath to the town to visit the main museums showcasing the great man's inventions and his anatomical work. By the time we had finished touring the museums the light was fading as well as our appetite for information, feeling somewhat over-saturated from looking at display after display after display!

On Day 6 we were rewarded for having been patient during the damp, grey days with a bright and sunny day - the perfect day for a slightly longer walk. We had always planned to do the pretty and varied walk from Pescia to Collodi with the Ps, and this was the perfect day for it. There was no need for waterproofs today, and barely even the need for long sleeves.

The walk starts from a side street in Pescia then winds its way through olive groves over the hill before dropping down into Collodi on the other side. We had been hoping to surprise the Ps with the sight of the ostrich that lives in an enclosure next to the path as it emerges in Collodi, but today it was clearly feeling too shy.

We arrived in Collodi at lunchtime so found a restaurant where we had a spot of lunch before setting back off on our walk. We attempted to find a path that would take us back to Pescia on a slightly different track, to turn it into a circular walk, but in the end we weren't confident enough to be sure we had found the right path and with daylight hours now being limited, we decided to err on the side of caution and simply retrace our steps. This did mean that we arrived back in Pescia with enough daylight to do a quick tour of the town. Rach hadn't seen any of the town (Andy and the kids had seen a bit of it with Stuart while Rach and I went to do the supermarket shopping on the first day), so we walked around the main points of interest, visiting the cathedral, the church of San Francesco, the town hall and the main square before ending up in Bar Pulta for ice creams and refreshments.

November 1st, All Saints Day, is a public holiday in Italy and on Nov 1st and 2nd (All Souls Day) the tradition is to take flowers and visit the graves of departed loved ones. The cemetery in Collodi, therefore, was a riot of colour and the smell of lilies filled the air.

Villa Garzoni and Collodi Castello rising above it.

Following the day of lovely weather for our walk it was back to the wet stuff, with heavy rain on the menu. We had already earmarked the weekend for a visit to Pistoia because we knew there was a vintage car show being held in the city which we had a sneaking suspicion would be of interest to Joe! So after much indecision about what us girls could do while the boys looked at cars we decided that we would all head to Pistoia together, then Rach, Naomi, Hannah and I would wander around Pistoia armed with umbrellas and waterproofs before fitting in a visit to the Pistoia Underground museum that starts from the site of the city's old hospital and follows the course of the ancient Brana river that runs beneath the streets of the city. Unfortunately, the museum, which usually runs some of its tours in English, had so many bookings from Italians that weekend that all tours were to be run in Italian only, but there were printed handouts giving some information in English and I did my best to translate some of the important points of interest on the tour - I think (I hope!) the experience was still interesting for Rach and the girls.

By the time we had finished our museum tour, the boys had also finished their tour of ancient mechanics so we all met up in the main piazza to do a little more wandering before making our way back to the cars and home.

Carob, "grandparents' sweet".

Such a colourful display outside a grocer's shop.

Under the streets of Pistoia, following the course of the old river. The holes in the vaulted ceiling are where rubbish (used and therefore contaminated pottery) was thrown from the hospital into the water course.

Crockery used by the old hospital in mediaeval times. The black ones were for patients suffering with the plague or other seemingly incurable affliction and were single-patient-use and disposed of when the patient died.

The colourful facade of the 16th century hospital.

Town hall.

The final day of the Ps' visit was also forecast to be wet so it was another challenge for us trying to decide what to do. So many of the lovely places to visit here are outdoorsy that it can be hard to come up with rainy day activities. That, combined with the fact that we had just ticked over into the start of November and many of the places to visit in the area are only open during peak holiday season, which runs from the spring until the end of October.

Anyway, we did eventually find out that the impressive Villa Torrigiani and its gardens would be open - in fact, it was the last day of the season for them and from the very next day they would be closed until next spring! We've visited the villa's gardens on a number of occasions and know them to be very pretty, but we had never before ventured into the house, so this time we decided we would ask for the tour of the house as well and were rewarded with an interesting tour around the 7 rooms on the ground floor of the house, the upper floors being closed to the public due to the house still being used by its owners.

After the tour of the house we explored every corner of the gardens, spirits only mildly dampened by the rain, before heading home and spending the evening going out for a lovely meal at Nerone, our local restaurant and pizzeria in the village. A perfect way to draw the visit to a close.

Soggy sisters.

Double tummy rubs can't be bad!

It was with heavy hearts that we watched our visitors pack all their things away and then accompanied them to the airport. For me, it had been absolutely lovely having them to stay and it felt so very special being able to spend so much good quality time with them and to show them our little corner of Italy. Hopefully the flavour of Tuscany we were able to give them will be enough to lure them back again soon. In the meantime happy memories of a wonderful visit.