Sunday 20 October 2019

Fame at last... well, kind of.

Our good friend Emanuele, who runs the Pietrabuona circolo, and who also happens to be a journalist for local newspapers, pitched an idea to his Editor for an article about... well, about an English couple who fell in love with the local area, moved here, got a dog, grew some vegetables... and set up a new website with the aim of highlighting the hidden gems of our valley and making it easier for visitors to the area to find them.

Do go and have a look at the website!

A special visit and a push forward

Having spent a week in the UK, the latter 6 days of which were spent in London, helping to run a conference of over 430 delegates, staying in a hotel room with a view of rooftops, tower blocks and the Heathrow flight path as well as and a close up view of Hammersmith Flyover, it was with a big sigh of relief that I returned to the natural beauty, peace and tranquility of our corner of Italy.

So much better!

No sooner had I finished unpacking my bags and turning around all my washing than it was time to head back to the airport once again, but this time for a much, much more enjoyable reason: to collect my Dad, who was coming for his second visit of the year.

Dad was already waiting for us when we arrived, so it was straight into the car and back to the valley in time for a barky reunion with Reggie and a spot of lunch under the pergola where we could all admire and appreciate the beautiful newly laid floor that Stuart had worked hard to complete (and keep secret from me) while I was away in the UK!

Beautiful pergola floor.

Over lunch Dad was keen to find out what jobs were on the list of things to do during his stay, so we pulled out the list and mulled over what things we might do first. Despite having got up before 4am for his early morning flight over, Dad was keen to get stuck in right away, so while Stuart headed off into Pescia to give an English lesson to his student, Dad and I spent a couple of hours on the relatively gentle task of starting to clear to appallingly overgrown veg beds.

A couple of hours was enough for the first day though, and when the sun dipped below the hill opposite and the temperature started to drop we declared it time to head in and think about dinner. Stuart was surprised to find out that we had been working while he was out - mistakenly having thought that Dad would want to take it easy on his first day!

After an early night for everyone, Reggie and I met up with Dad at 8.30 the next morning for Reggie's morning walk, scouting out the terraces for suitable fruit tree growing space as we did so.

After a morning coffee at our regular coffee bar we headed out in search of fruit trees, eventually ending up at a grower just off the road towards Chiesina. The owner of the nursery was friendly and helpful, helping us to pick out different fruit trees with different fruiting periods - our aim being to try and spread the harvest so that we are kept in fruit for longer period of the summer rather than everything all coming at once. We picked out 2 peach trees, 2 plum trees, an apricot, a pear and two grapes, and asked if we could set them aside and return to collect them later (without 3 people in the Panda!), which he was only too happy to do.

A rainbow in the nursery.
So Stuart dropped Dad and me back home and we made a start on digging holes for the trees while Stuart headed back to go and collect them.

More fruit trees.

Grape vines for the guest pergola.

The next job was the spreading of spurgho - a heavy mix of clay and gravel - onto the drive in an attempt to fill some of the holes where the surface of the drive has been washed away in all the heavy rains. Stuart had arranged for 4 cubic metres of the stuff to be delivered to our gates, so Dad and I set off with spades and shovels in hand while Stuart brought the tractor up. We then started a process of shovelling spurgho into the tractor bucket until it was full, then following the tractor slowly back down the drive, spreading the spurgho onto the drive as we went. Once we'd emptied the tractor, Stuart reversed it back over where we'd spread the spurgho to try to flatten it down, then we headed back to the pile at the gate to fill up the tractor once again. We continued like this until we were about two thirds down the drive, it had started to rain, and the light was starting to fade, at which point we decided to call it enough for one day.
4 cubic metres delivered
Filling the tractor.

Spreading on the drive.
The rain that started to fall while we were working on the drive continued overnight, along with some pretty stiff winds, and we were relieved to find the next morning that, rather than having been washed away, the stuff we had spread on the drive had set (as it is meant to) and stuck in place. Great stuff!

There followed a couple of days filled with planting the fruit trees, sourcing (from one of the local growers in the area) and planting 27 photinia shrubs at the back of the house with the aim of creating a beautiful green and red hedge to surround the area that, eventually, will become another seating area (nice and shady in the summer), and finishing off the laying of spurgho on the drive.

Planting the trees
27 photinia shrubs!
27 shrubs planted.

A fledgling photinia hedge.
After several days of work around the property, we had a break from the week's routine on Friday in the form of an excursion to stretch our legs. We knew that there was a footpath that runs from the village of San Quirico further up the valley, up along the ridge of the hills that we look out onto, and all the way into Pescia. We fancied the idea of finding this route and, knowing that our friend David had walked it (or at least a part of it) before, and that he was home alone with Sarah working away, we asked if he would join us. He was game, and so after an early lunch we met up, leaving our car at the end point of the walk in Pescia, and then transferring to David's car to take us to the start of the walk just outside San Quirico village.

The walk was enjoyable - the weather was perfect walking weather: dry, warm but not too hot, sunny at times, but with lots of shade from the trees we were walking among. The signpost at the start of the walk estimated a duration of four and a half hours. We set off at a good pace and at times it seemed as if we would finish the walk in half that time, but as the path wended its way around various ridges it became clear that it was, in fact, quite a long walk!

We lost count of the number of mushroom hunters we spotted in the woods - there would be a car abandoned on the side of the track, some rustling in the undergrowth, and a somewhat reluctant "buona sera" when we came across them.

While it was lovely walking through the trees there were times when we wished there were slightly fewer of them - we were high up on the ridge of the hillside and kept catching tantalising glimpses of the vista through the trees, the whole of our valley on one side and the whole of the Collodi/Villa Basilica valley on the other, but there was never a clear view of either!

Having started out just after 2pm, we marched onwards at a fast pace (a pace set by Dad!), finally dropping down from Monte a Pescia into Pescia itself a little after 6pm, having been walking for 4 hours and 20 minutes - almost exactly the time the signpost had suggested at the start! We estimated we had walked around 18km.

Nearly there...

With the end in sight - Pescia in the background.

Weary but satisfied, we climbed into our car, Stuart dropped Dad and me at our gates while he took David up to San Quirico to retrieve his car before both coming back to the house where I'd got dinner in the oven. We had an enjoyable meal - all the more satisfying for having earned it with our long walk - and a good evening with great company.

The following day Stuart and I were both a little weary from the long walk (we're out of practice!) but after a somewhat leisurely morning (coffee, a trip to Obi to buy an outdoor broom), we swung back into action and began the project of tidying the end of the drive. This included cutting down a small acacia tree that was covered in vines and hops and overhung the drive (particularly so when wet), strimming the grass in the quarry area and outside the gate, sweeping up the debris from the entrance to the driveway, covering the wood piles with sheets of plastic to keep them dry in case we need extra wood to supplement our woodpile this winter, and cutting some additional small trees and branches to put towards a pile to be chipped.

After a fairly active afternoon we all scrubbed ourselves up and headed out for dinner - a treat from Dad. We decided to go to Toti, one of our favourite restaurants for its slightly unusual offerings, its friendly atmosphere and its beautiful surroundings. The restaurant was packed, and although slightly on the slow side as a result, the food was excellent and a lovely evening was had.

Sunday's activities were more on the cultural side. We began the day with a visit to the paper museum in the village. Despite it being on our doorstep, Stuart and I had never visited the museum before, and this was our chance to do so - it was a special event organised by the group who run the museum, starting with a talk about the history of paper making in our area, followed by a demonstration of making paper by hand.

Poor Dad had to sit through 40 minutes or so of a presentation in Italian, but there were at least some slides to look at, and we were able to pass on some of the more interesting points to him afterwards. It was indeed an interesting talk for us, we learned a bit more about the paper mills that abound in our valley, and their illustrious history.

After the talk we all (a group of around 10 people from Pistoia, plus the three of us) headed upstairs where we were shown scale models of the workings of the old paper mill before being shown exactly how it was done - a perfectly watermarked folio of paper was made in front of our very eyes.

Working model of various machinery.

Frames for making paper, resting on the barrel of cotton solution.

The paper drying.

After an interesting morning at the paper mill, we had a spot of lunch before heading up the hill to Vellano for the annual chestnut festival. We had taken Mum and Dad to the chestnut festival on the day they arrived for their first visit to us here in Italy, so it was nice to remember those memories as we walked around the village again. We stopped for a chat with our friend Stefano the shepherd/cheese maker, sampled some of his cheeses and relieved him of some of his pecorino flavoured with cumin, some pepper covered pecorino, and some spicy chilli flavoured pecorino. We then headed up to the circolo where we said a quick hello to David and Donatella, who were busy working on the stall selling donuts, ate a couple of fritelle di castagne each (fried balls of sweet chestnut flour), watched the marching band and took in the atmosphere for a while, before heading back to the car and back home.

After having sampled the cheeses and the fritelle, we felt the need to do something active for the couple of hours we had left before darkness fell, so we changed into work clothes and boots and turned our attention to the chipping of the wood we had cut the previous day, the cutting up of some large olive tree roots that Stuart had cut out of the ground back in the spring, and collecting up all of the metal posts and the rope that made up the electric fence that surrounded the orto. With our idea of creating raised beds next year, the electric fence around the orto (which is too low to deter deer and really only intended to keep out porcupines/badges - although that didn't seem to be effective this year!) will serve no purpose. We had, however, identified an alternative use for the posts and the rope, so Dad and I went and collected them all up.

Monday brought us some work activity but with a change of scenery. With our Sarah working away, and not wanting to be using the chainsaw with nobody else around, David had asked if Stuart would be able to help him with cutting some wood from the woods at the bottom of their land. Stuart of course was happy to help, and Dad and I offered to go along as extra pairs of hands. So we set off up the hill, tools in the car and after a quick coffee the four of us headed down into the woods. David, Stuart and I busied ourselves with our chainsaws while Dad ferried the wood through the trees and up to a temporary wood pile. It was a humid day and before long we were all dripping in sweat. I soon ran out of trunks that were small enough for my chainsaw to get through, so switched to helping Dad with the moving of the wood, and after a couple of hours' work we had amassed a healthy looking pile of wood!

Cutting trees.

Removing ivy before moving the wood.

David very kindly then provided us with a tasty lunch - another meal that was all the more satisfying for having felt we had truly earned it!

Hot and sweaty and ready for sustenance!
After lunch we wended our way back down the hill - some may have jumped straight in the shower and had an easy afternoon of it, but not us! Despite having had such an active morning, Dad was still keen to do more, so we spent the rest of the afternoon having a bonfire and starting work on deer-proofing the fencing on the upper terraces. To do this, we attached the metal posts from the electric fence that had been around the orto to the fence posts that were already in situ. We then ran lengths of the rope (from the electric fence) between them to create what we hope will be enough of a visual deterrent. 

Tuesday 15th October was a special and poignant day, it being a year since we lost my dear Mum, who is deeply, deeply missed. Long before Dad arrived on this visit I had pondered the idea of taking a trip up to the mountains and in particular doing the same walk that Mum and Dad had done on their last visit to us together, to the peak of Penna di Lucchio just beyond the top of our valley. Mum had been so pleased to make it to the top of the peak, it seemed like a very fitting way to spend the day. It turned out that Dad had been mulling over the exact same idea. However, it turned out that the weather had very different ideas altogether.

With the exception of a bit of overnight rain, every other day of Dad's visit was dry and clear, but 15th October was the polar opposite. Knowing that the forecast was not good, we reluctantly decided that the mountains were not a good idea (especially with thunder in the forecast). Instead, I came up with the idea of doing a walk that we did with Mum and Dad on their first visit to us in 2014, starting from the suspension bridge over the Lima river. Dad agreed that that would be a better idea, given the weather, and so it was decided. It was only when I looked back at our blog to remind myself of the time we'd done the walk before that I realised we had done the walk exactly 3 years and 364 days previously - having done it on 16th October 2014 - which made it feel all the more appropriate and poignant.

With the forecast suggesting that the rain would worsen as the day drew on, we decided to set out early, with the aim of finishing the walk before lunch and stopping somewhere for lunch afterwards. So we set out at about 10am. As we drove up the hill and over the top, we found ourselves in thick, thick fog. The edges of the road were barely visible at times and I think we all held our breaths, desperately willing the fog to disperse. Thankfully, as we dropped back down the hill on the other side we emerged from the fog and by the time we reached the suspension bridge we were in the clear - and, for the time being at least, it was even dry.

We set out in the dry, retracing the steps we had taken almost 4 years ago to the day. As on the last occasion Dad strode fearlessly across the bridge that swings, bounces and oscillates 40m above the river below, while I tried to keep my jelly legs moving and concentrated on looking ahead and keeping going until I reached the end.

Fear vs. no fear.

Can you blame me for being afraid?

At a safe distance, bridge having been conquered.
The walk then took us for a longish stretch along the main road until we reached the village of Popiglio. Here, we picked up a path through the village before heading down out of the village towards the Ponte di Castruccio. We didn't have any need to consult maps this time, each of us remembering the route and remembering fondly the stops and photos with Mum we'd had along the way.

Sunshine through the clouds.
We stopped for photos on the Ponte di Castruccio, as we had done with Mum back in 2014. Her presence was profoundly missed.

Ponte di Castuccio

The rain started to fall when we were at about the halfway point on the walk, but to start off with it was light and not too much bother. After a while though, the rain started to fall in earnest and we were all relieved to be on the homeward stretch. While back in 2014 we had spent a considerable amount of time collecting enormous chestnuts from amongst the trees on this part of the walk, this time it was far too wet to delay our return and we strode on through the wet.

Mammiano Basso.
Walking in the rain.

We reached the car feeling pleased to have completed the walk - we agreed that, had we set out any later, we may well have been put off by the rain and not actually done the walk. We peeled off our sodden anoraks and jumped into the car and set off in search of somewhere to have some lunch.

The drive home took us through the village of Prataccio, where we spotted a restaurant that looked open (and indeed it was). So we installed ourselves in the dry (by this time the rain was hammering down and the wind had whipped up) and enjoyed a tasty meal, beginning with a toast to dear Mum before feasting on pasta (with garlic and chilli for Stuart and Dad, and with a mushroom sauce for me), followed by a main course, and Dad and Stuart also managed to find room for a pudding to finish.

We then wended our way through the pouring rain back over the tops and back down into our valley, where it seemed the rain had not been quite so bad. It turned out that the rain had merely yet to catch us up as, over a cup a cup of tea, we sat and watched as the trees swayed wildly around in the wind, the lighting flashed, the thunder crashed, and the rain hurled its way down. All very dramatic, and perhaps in a fitting way for the significance of the day.

As the afternoon drew to a close and the rain eased off and the thunder rumbled off into the distance, there was a truly magical moment when the entire valley glowed an amazing orange colour. A meteorological phenomenon for sure, but today of all days it felt very poignant and beautiful.

A magical glow after the storm.

The next day Dad and I discovered some more jobs to do - the excessive amount of rain that had fallen had softened the soil around a clump of acacia trees at the top of the terraces, causing one of them to lean over right across the path. Consequently the day's jobs started with cutting the tree down, cleaning it all up and stacking it at the top of the donkey track. Work then progressed with planting a new fig tree and 2 more fruit trees, and then a continuation of the work on the deer-proofing of the fence.

Leaning tree.
Deer-proof fencing work.

On the last day of Dad's visit to us, we decided to do something different again and, after a morning coffee and a stop to buy more fencing wire, we drove towards Lucca and to one of the many large and opulent villas that populate the countryside surrounding the city. This one, Villa Reale, was once lived in by Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Duchess of Lucca and the sister of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The grounds were beautiful and varied (rather more impressive than the house itself, we felt), and we spent a good while wandering round exploring all the different areas.

Villa Reale.

After a morning's sightseeing, it was back home for a quick lunch followed by more fencing for what was left of the afternoon. We didn't quite manage to finish the fencing, but made it a good three quarters of the way around, and with this being a job that hadn't even been on the to-do list at the start of Dad's visit, we are thrilled to have it almost all done!

Dad treated us to another dinner out on the last night of his visit, so we went to another of our favourite places, the pizzeria La Terrazza in Montecarlo, where we had the place to ourselves - although we were joined at our table by a particularly handsome and friendly ginger cat. Looking at the friendly cat, I couldn't help but think of Mum, her love of cats, and the pride she took in her own beautiful red hair.

Dad's visit was over all too soon, but what an incredible and non-stop 12 days it was. His enthusiastic work rate has helped push us forward hugely - we are more than pleased with the progress we've made in such a short period of time. Above all, it was a delight and a privilege to be able to spend such good quality time with Dad, and we are very much looking forward to his next visit.

Two-tailed pasha.

Ink cap mushrooms in the geranium pot.

Coral fungi in the leaf litter.

Octopus stinkhorn (Clathrus archeri) in the flowebed!