Saturday 13 July 2019

Two extra pairs of hands make light (but hot) work

Back at the start of our adventure here in Tuscany, we were helped enormously with some of the major jobs we had to do on the land by three different sets of visitors arranged via the "HelpX" scheme - travellers who do volunteer work in exchange for accommodation and food. We had been tipped off about the usefulness of this scheme by our friend Sue, and each of the sets of visitors we had here helped us move forward with things enormously - as well as enriching our lives in other ways; all were great company and even taught us a thing or two.

So when former HelpX-ers Tess and Nick (the pair of New Zealanders who, back in November 2014, among other things, built Reggie's fence and gates around the garden, helped toilet train Reggie and even helped us name him) contacted us to say that they had some close friends who were travelling around Europe in a campervan (just as they themselves had done 4.5 years ago) and who were interested in doing some HelpX-style work in exchange for somewhere to stay, we couldn't help but agree to take them on, and we eagerly awaited the arrival of Kristen and Grant.

We wouldn't usually dream of seeking helpers to do physical outdoor work at this time of year, large projects being much better suited to the cooler autumn and winter months - but that's how things panned out so we decided that careful planning of what work we did and at what time of day we did it would be the way to manage things (I should say here that despite these guys coming to volunteer work, there's no way our consciences would have allowed us to sit back and watch them slave away on their own without us joining in too!). It was clear that a morning work schedule would be the way to go, avoiding the very hottest part of the day, but as for the project(s) to tackle with the extra help, that was a more difficult decision, and one that kept changing right up until the day before their arrival!

We had toyed with ideas including: getting the veg beds thoroughly weeded; finishing cutting, moving and stacking the last of the wood for the winter wood pile; clearing and building some steps down to the river at the edge of our land... but the job that forced its way to the top of the list, virtually shouting and waving at us, was putting in some new drainage channels across the car park and the end of the drive.

Our very first HelpX-er, Noah, helped Stuart put three drainage channels in at various strategic points along the drive back in October 2014 (you can read about it and see the photos here). These helped enormously by diverting rainwater away from the drive and down the side of the hill, thus leaving a lot more of the surface of the drive, well, on the drive, than would have been the case without them. A while later it was obvious that, while there was an improvement in the state of the drive, a lot of water was still building up and rushing down across the car park, so in 2017 Stuart and I then dug and constructed another, much longer channel across the drive. That too helped enormously, but it has gradually been becoming clear that another channel is really needed - in very heavy rain a veritable river builds up and gushes down across the car park and all the way down to the outside of the apartment, taking in (and soaking) a good chunk of the wood pile as it goes. The amount of detritus that was washed down the drive (and the amount of gravel from the drive that we found halfway down the hill) after last weekend's torrential rain was the unmistakable signal that "Project Drainage Channels (v3.0)" was what we should throw our extra labour at this week.

On the upper donkey track, the rain water had carved out a path that ran from the top of the track right to the bottom.

Kristen and Grant arrived in their trusty campervan just before lunchtime on Monday. Having spent the previous evening at an Elton John concert in Lucca (part of the Lucca Summer Music Festival), they confessed to feeling a little fragile, and since the heat of the day had already built up to furnace level and we didn't really feel like punishing ourselves too much either, we decided to put work plans on hold until the next morning, and instead, after lunch, spent an afternoon getting to know our guests and taking them on a brief tour of the property.

The scary campervan! - Reggie took an intense dislike to the camper and barked at it for 4 days in a row.

Turns out that Kristen and Grant are great company. Of course, we could have put money on that - knowing that they are close friends of Nick and Tess and knowing what great folk Nick and Tess are, and how much we enjoyed their company all those years ago. We had a very enjoyable evening (in fact the first of several during the week) chatting about our respective lives and adventures as well as putting the world to rights and pulling out our favourite soapboxes.

The next morning, it was full steam ahead. Except poor Grant had woken up feeling pretty rough and with a very sore throat. To his immense credit he rallied, and Kristen and Grant spent the morning first weeding and mulching the raspberry enclosure and then joining me and Stuart in starting to dig the first of the drainage channels.

Stuart and Grant headed off to Frateschi, first to buy the concrete channels, and then the bags of concrete we would need to complete the job, while Kristen and I picked and dug at the ground, trying to get the channel to the required depth and width.

It took Reggie a while to get used to Kristen and Grant, but he was happy to watch over the work from a safe distance.

By the end of day one (lunchtime) we had done the required digging and placed the concrete channels in the hole, with concreting to be done the following day.

During the afternoon, Stuart took Sheila into Pescia with him on some errands and then on to visit some friends of hers that just happened to be staying at a hotel in Montecatini Terme for the week (what are the chances?!), while I battled with heavy eyelids while trying to get on top of some office work, and our Kiwi helpers took the opportunity to catch up on sleep in a real bed, after 3 months of sleeping in a campervan.

The next morning the extra sleep seemed to have given Grant's immune system the boost it needed and while still not feeling 100%, he said he was feeling a lot better, so after breakfast together we all headed back out to the car park for round two of channel digging. This time, we dug a channel in which to place the large, enormously heavy old carved stone edging pieces that Stuart had brought back from a house in Castelvecchio where they were being thrown out last year. The plan is for these to form a neat and attractive edge to what will eventually (one day) be a tidy and shaded seating area around the back of the house. Clearly that day is still a long way off, but we've now at least made a start!

With the channel dug for the stone pieces and the concrete channel pieces concreted in and the hole back-filled, it was time to call it a day again. After a late lunch, we decided to all head into town to give Kristen and Grant a whistle-stop tour of Pescia, a chance to eat ice creams, and a taste of the delights of aperitivi - we stopped at Franco's bar in the main Piazza for a glass of prosecco and a generous plate of nibbles.

On the final working day of our guests' stay with us, the plan was to dig a much shorter channel but a little further up the drive. Stuart and Grant went off to Frateschi once again to get the materials while Kristen and I started the digging - soon finding that the stonier part of the driveway was full of very large rocks and stones and nowhere near as easy to dig as the first channel! Nevertheless we persisted, and by the time Stuart and Grant had finished maneuvering the stone edging pieces into place we had dug the required channel, and then it was a relatively quick case of mixing concrete and laying in the concrete blocks.

After showers all round and lunch, Stuart headed off up the valley with Sheila and our guests to give them a quick tour of the local area, while I once again battled the tiredness and the heat at my desk.

Unfortunately, by Thursday afternoon Kristen had begun to feel the same symptoms as Grant had suffered with earlier in the week, so it was another quiet afternoon of napping for them after returning from the trip around the valley.

Friday was a no-work day for Kristen and Grant as they would be leaving us and heading for new adventures. They took advantage of their last morning in a four-walled abode to do some last-minute washing, tidying and cleaning of the campervan, and planning where to head to next.

We waved goodbye to our new friends on Friday afternoon, having thoroughly enjoyed their company as well as feeling delighted with the progress made with their help. Without their help we would never have tackled this project at this time of year (it would have been autumn or even winter before we even considered doing it), and it would have taken us at least twice as long, if not more. So we are very pleased indeed with what we've achieved in less than a week!

Friday was also Sheila's last full day of her current stay with us, and at the end of the day she had offered to take us for aperitivi. Our regular spot for aperitivi was closed for holidays this week, so we put some thought into where to go. Didn't take us long to remember that we'd seen our friends Amanda and Alessio had advertised that they would be doing a cocktail/aperitivi evening at their restaurant that night. So the choice was obvious!

We arrived a little early at the restaurant, so sat at the bar with a delicious mojito made by Amanda while we awaited the arrival of Chiara, the cocktail lady. Chiara has invented a concept of ready-made cocktails using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, with a base of gin. There were six to choose from, all of which sounded delicious, and to go with each cocktail Alessio had conjured up a delicious finger food plate to match and complement the flavours.

Sheila and I both started with a lovely fresh-flavoured grapefruit-based cocktail - a flat collins - which was accompanied by an amazing dish of pieces of trout in the most incredibly fresh and zingy chill infused jelly. I quite literally cannot stop thinking about how delicious it was! Meanwhile, Stuart's choice of cocktail - a negroni - was equally flavourful and was accompanied by a delectable chicken liver pate. Other plates of food we tried included a DIY (in a fondue) pork tenderloin pieces with a grapefruit sauce; deep fried prawns with an incredible beetroot accompaniment, and delectable marinated mackerel pieces. Sheila and I also shared a strawberry-based gin sour before wobbling out of the bar feeling very content indeed!

Sadly for our friends, we were the only people who had come to the evening (at least at that time of the evening), but for us it made for a very enjoyable time as we sat at the bar and chatted with Amanda, Alessio and Chiara while sipping our drinks and tasting our treats - great drinks, great food and great company.

As I write this update, the Kiwi lurgy (or was it an Elton John lurgy?) has made its way round to Stuart - it seems to be a fast-moving and hard-hitting thing, so we keep our fingers crossed that Stuart will be able to shake it as quickly as Grant seemed to be able to, and that it doesn't spread to me or head back to England with Sheila. We have two days of relative down time now before the arrival on Tuesday of Stuart's daughter, Kerys, and her boyfriend Nick. It's certainly proving to be a busy summer!

Monday 8 July 2019

Feel the heat

It's been a while... in that time, it's been hot, indeed, it's been unbearably hot, we've had internet issues (yes, 5 years on we are still having issues, although now it's more to do with guests using up our allowance than to do with things not working as they should), and we've been busy entertaining visitors.

In what we now know has been declared the hottest June on record globally, we were affected by the heatwave across parts of Europe and have sweltered in heat ranging most days from 37C to 40C, and have struggled to sleep in a bedroom at 32C. We have relished the cooler evenings and dreaded the heat of the afternoons when performing a task as simple as hanging the washing out has caused us to come back to the house with rivers of sweat running down our faces. Showering before going out has been virtually pointless as within minutes of getting out of the shower and dressed the sweat is running again! We have even entertained fantasies of crowdfunding a summer home for ourselves in the cool of somewhere like Norway. This morning, however, the weather finally broke and as I write this, there are ear-shattering claps of thunder overhead and apocalyptic-style rain hammering down. It has been more than 4 weeks since we had any rain - it seems to be making up for it right now!

The sleeping situation had been semi-manageable for a while, but after three nights in a row of 32C heat in the bedroom and very little sleep, we decided something had to be done. We went on a shopping trip to Obi and Decathlon (both of which were wonderfully air conditioned and we did consider setting up camp for the day there), and bought some pieces of pine and a camping style gas hob. The pieces of pine we used to fashion some internal shutters for all the windows in the house. And the camping stove as a pop-up outdoor kitchen, to try and eliminate the extra heat of cooking from the house.

These stone-built Tuscan farm houses were, of course, built with hot summers in mind - the windows are all small, making it dark inside during the winter, but of course minimising the amount of direct sunlight that gets in during the height of the summer. Of course, when our house was built, there were external shutters at all the windows, and the traditional way to "operate" a house like this during the summer months is to close all the shutters and windows during the day, then fling them all open as soon as the sun goes down and the temperature drops. This way, the excessive heat of the day is kept out of the house, and the cooler evening air allowed in.

Unfortunately, the shutters on our house disappeared some time ago (prior to our arrival), and without even having curtains or blinds, there was nothing to stop the hot sun streaming into the house and heating it up like a furnace. The internal shutters, therefore (for the time being simply tacked to the window frame, but Stuart plans to put hinges on them during the winter so they can be opened and closed), were our first proper attempt at "working" with the house in the traditional way. It seems a bit drastic at times, with the house feeling a bit like a cave during the day, but over the course of a week religiously following the correct opening and closing regime, we have managed to bring the temperature of the bedroom down by 6 degrees. And that's without having to resort to electrical/technological solutions.

Outdoor cooking.
We even made a temporary seating area for ourselves - too uncomfortably hot to sit on our patio with the sun still baking down, we improvised by moving the sun loungers from the apartment garden to the car park, with a chopping block as a drinks table. Not quite the stunning view we'd been impressed by when we bought the house, but the relative cool of the shade underneath the pine trees more than made up for it!
We found a lovely shady area for a drink...

It's not quite the view we bought the house for, but the cool of the shade makes up for that tenfold!
But what about work on the land/property? Well, with Stuart having a gammy elbow and me having lots of office work to do AND the temperature being in the high 30s, there has been precious little progress made anywhere. A cause of much frustration and disappointment for us, but elbows must be rested, work must be done and, really, working in 36+ degrees is not very sustainable.

If you are of a delicate disposition, now is the time to look away while I explain poor Stuart's elbow. About 5 weeks ago, while we were at the circolo in the village on one of our English evenings, Stuart lent back in one of the plastic chairs there (think plastic garden furniture), which proceeded to collapse beneath him, delivering him to the floor in a heap. While nothing seemed to have been hurt at the time, the next morning his elbow was red, bruised and a little swollen. It then seemed to improve for a day or two, but over the coming weeks swelled up even more - a quick search of the internet indicated a case of bursitis brought on by the impact of the fall. Of course, the only real treatment for it is to rest, use plenty of ice and some anti-inflammatory gel. As a consequence, Stuart has been forced to remain out of action for the last 5 weeks - a short burst of hoeing in the veg beds a couple of weeks ago soon brought the swelling right back up again and proved beyond doubt that rest is absolutely necessary. In some ways, if it was going to happen at all, it has been good timing - with the weather so hot there isn't too much temptation to go out and do any work in any case, and the rest period has coincided with visitors coming, and with acting as a translator-come-estate-agent for our recent guests who wanted to look at property in the area. So Stuart has been busy, but not doing necessarily what he would have liked to be doing.

Normal elbow.

Poorly elbow.

Our visitors in recent weeks started with our/Stuart's Mum's friend Yvonne along with her friend Liz, who spent a week in the apartment and did some sightseeing in the area under their own steam. Next, we had apartment guests Norman and Karen, who have quickly become more like friends than mere visitor and with whom Stuart spent a lot of time touring around properties for sale in the area - an interesting pastime! Then we had a wonderful, but all-too-brief, 3-day visit from our dear friends Paul and Marie, culminating in a trip to Lucca to see Take That in concert as part of the Lucca Summer Music Festival. Currently, we have Sheila, Stuart's Mum, with us, and in the coming weeks we also have Kerys (Stuart's daughter) and her boyfriend Nick arriving. A veritable stream of visitors!

Pre-concert dinner.

Take That on stage

The Smiths and The Smiths.

With temperatures on the rise but prior to reaching their peak, I managed to get an entire cut of the grass on the upper terraces done. It took me 16 hours (2 hours after work for four days then 4 hours each day of the weekend) and it was a huge relief to finish it. Just a few weeks later and the weeds are already at waist height again though!!

Stuart also spent some time (pre-poorly-elbow) constructing an experimental raised vegetable bed. The destruction caused by the local wildlife in our orto has been unbearably frustrating and soul destroying - despite the electric fence that surrounds the veg beds, porcupines have now uprooted and eaten every single last potato that we planted (actually that Dad and I planted). On top of that, voles have eaten 85% of our fennel plants and about 60% of the onions. Feeling disillusioned, we have somewhat let the beds go - meaning they have filled with weeds. All a bit of a disaster. The idea of a raised bed is that 1. porcupines won't be able to reach it and 2. voles won't be able to tunnel into it. So Stuart has constructed the prototype raised bed using one of the industrial plastic containers like those we are using to collect rainwater from the roof. If this one works, the plan is to convert all the beds to raised beds next year and hopefully harvest more of the food for ourselves rather than feeding the local wildlife.

Prototype raised bed.

We did at least manage a semi decent garlic harvest.

Despite weeks of no rain, this mushroom popped up on the drive.

It stood quite tall!

Madonna lilies in the evening sun.

All the terraces cut.

Stunning evening view from the hamlet of Colle di San Martino.

What's been digging on our terraces?

Our first harvest of apricots! (plus a couple of early plums)

A fed up Reggie - it's too hot for dogs!

A happy pond.

A carpet of chestnut flowers blown by the wind.

The relief of the cooler evening air.

Plum harvest!
As we go into the next week, the forecast is for more of the unsettled weather - thunder storms and rain, and mercifully cooler temperatures, even plummeting to a cool 27C some days. No doubt the hot weather will be back, but in the meantime we will enjoy the respite!

A visit to Villa Torrigiani with Sheila.

Leaves burnt by the intense sun.

Lots of colour at this time of year.

A  pretty agricultural building in the grounds.

Enormous hydrangea flower heads.

It's not quite the belfry but there are bats!

Bat detail.

An old height chart for the villa's children.

Many wine barrels in the cool cantina.

No longer full of wine, sadly!