crowds, confetti, costumes…….it’s carnevale!

It is carnival time in Viareggio! For 4 consecutive weekends, starting on 27th January and an additional procession on Shrove Tuesday, huge floats have been parading along the seafront in a 2km circuit. Floats and papier machè effigies inspired by political events, or well known personalities and often allegorical, are preceded by masked dancers. With no barriers or restrictions, the crowd (and particularly those in fancy dress) become just as much a part of the moving scene as the floats themselves.

We were no exception. Yesterday, after 3 years of building works or weather preventing us from attending, we finally had our first carnevale experience (minus the fancy dress!). We shuffled along with what must have been thousands of others, flitting from one side of the circuit to the other as passing floats took our fancy. Each one pumped out music so loud that we felt the vibrations deep within us. Confetti was thrown with carefree abandon down from the floats or by other revellers, that by the end, the road was carpeted in tiny specks of paper. Quite fitting, I suppose, given the construction material.

It is definitely an event to be seen, but as I sat on the train, brushing bits of confetti out of my hair, with the music still ringing in my ears, I was grateful for the space and quiet of the carriage. I must be getting old!


not for the faint hearted

With a forecast of a bright, clear and sunny day, we decided to put on our walking boots and head to the coast for a different type of walk. We had heard of some steps that lead down to a hidden cove, along the coast from Portovenere. Following a shady, flat trail in amongst pine trees and chestnuts, and alongside patches of terraces cultivated with vines, we arrived at a steep and perilous ‘staircase’ that carved its way down the cliff face: the Monesteroli Steps.

With no hand rails and at times a sheer drop, we carefully placed our feet on man-made steps (apparently over 2000 of them), stopping every now and then to look at the spectacular views. We passed a cluster of holiday homes, some barely a two up two down, clinging to the cliff in various states of repair. Not surprisingly, they were all shut up for the winter.

Unfortunately, an earlier landslide prevented us from reaching the sea, and although we scrambled over loose rocks and shale, a sudden shower of stones nearby reminded us that landslides can happen at any time and persuaded us to turn back.

Of course, for every down, there’s an up and trust me, 2000 steps of uneven tread and height, is a long climb.

We stopped for lunch at a conveniently placed and long since abandoned holiday home that we had passed on the way down. We sat on a wall in the sunshine, with the sound of the sea below us and ate our picnic lunch. A much needed rest before tackling the rest of the steps. All in all, from start to finish, including stops for photographic opportunities, a short lunch and breath-catching moments, we took 3.5 hours. But we were in no hurry. To be out in short sleeves in January on the craggy Ligurian cliffs, enjoying the stunning views and passing only a handful of people to interrupt our thoughts, was not something that needed to be rushed.

On the way home, we passed an electronic sign outside a farmacia, flashing 23 degrees. 23 degrees on 23rd January. You can’t complain about that!


Back in September, when we held our aperitivo evening, a group of our friends bought us two lemon plants, already laden with unripe fruit. We’ve nurtured them carefully and even brought them into the house at the first sign of frost. We have been rewarded:

There’s something very satisfying about picking a lemon from your own tree, just when you need it.

not strictly ballroom

Every summer, when the round of feste and sagre begin again, I stare longingly at the people on the makeshift dance floor and am desperate to join in. The problem is that despite almost 4 years, on and off, of Ballroom and Latin lessons in the UK, what I see bears little resemblance to anything we have previously learnt. If I want to get out there, we need to learn ballo liscio, Italian style.

Last night, we took our first steps: a two hour non-stop class, covering tango, waltz, a dance that just about everyone does at every festa (I didn’t catch the name) and, interestingly, our first introduction to a mazurka. In addition to these, Italian ballroom also includes the Viennese waltz and foxtrot, again though we are told, Italian versions. Ballo liscio does not include Latin much to M’s relief! Our well known ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ steps are only taught here for competitions, but there’s no point in learning something we can’t then inflict on the unsuspecting public. So, it’s a case of forgetting everything we know (in M’s case, already done) and starting again. Well, perhaps not quite everything; when I showed the instructor our 18 step waltz pattern (at his request, I might add), he went on to teach it to the rest of the class! This was the only group teaching that took place all evening.

Like most things here, the 9:00pm class did not start on time. There were 6 other couples, all of different abilities and the instructors (ex-champions) walked around, adjusting, checking and correcting each individual couple based on their level, a completely different and refreshing approach to the classes we were used to in the UK. At 11:30pm, after a fun but full-on two hours, we were ready to take off our dancing shoes, sign up and pay for our next month in advance, and head home, with a waltz still playing in our heads.

winter veg

My attempts at growing our winter veg supply have not been very successful. The deer ate the pumpkin, the fennel was the wrong kind and the heat destroyed the cavolo nero. Our hurriedly purchased right fennel along with some replacement cavolo nero means we might just save face with the neighbours. The parsnip seeds, planted late and a bit of a shot in the dark in a country where many people don’t even recognise the Italian name for them (pastinaca), didn’t even germinate and left a gap on the Christmas dinner plate. In addition to growing pencil thin salsify (there’s a lot to be said for thinning out properly),

what looked like a promising crop of celeriac turned out to be nothing more than some healthy foliage with not a single bulb in sight. Too much heat and too little water? Who knows, but now all our hopes are on the last chance cardoons.

100 presepi

There’s nothing like looking at some nativity scenes to get you in the mood for Christmas. Yesterday, we looked at one hundred in a village not too far from us. Warmed by some roast chestnuts and vin brulee ordered through someone’s kitchen window, we followed the arrows fixed on walls and gates that directed us to the presepi. Houses, staircases, stables, front courtyards and gardens all displayed the nativity scene. Some were homemade, some were shop bought, all were made from different materials. Here’s a few to get you in the mood too:

Buon natale!

rainy days and mondays

This year, the summer was exceptional. Nearly four months without rain and an intense, unrelenting sun that caused rivers to almost dry up, worry over the grape harvest, fruit trees to suffer and grass so scorched it was almost brittle to the touch. Even the mixed success of the olive harvest was also attributed to the lack of water.

While we revelled in hot days and an extended summer, we knew deep down that it was not wholly a good thing and that we would be paying for it later; it was only a matter of time. Yesterday, that day came. Continuous driving rain with winds of what felt like gale-force strength sent it beating against our windows all day and all night. It had actually started the evening before and steadily grew in intensity. We rescued our glass topped garden table just in time while the wind whipped the rest of the furniture around the terrace. For the first time in a long time, we could hear the gushing water in the soakaway under our house. Our orto has turned into a swamp and the water in the well is now seeping out at ground level. Elsewhere, shutters have been ripped open, a telegraph pole blown almost sideways and fallen trees have created obstacles in the roads.

Today we go to check on the river. The trickling stream in the middle of the river bed that we have got so used to seeing, has now become a raging torrent, spreading across the banks and racing towards the sea at a speed we have never witnessed before. It is good to see the river so full in one sense, but the volume of water in so short a time is frightening. I can’t help wondering if further along its path, it has not been so well contained. We hear talk of a bridge nearby that is at risk of collapse; we know this can happen. A year before we moved here a bridge on the main road was washed away after a similar level of rainfall, albeit over a longer period. Then, a build up of roots, trees and other debris in the river, jammed against the bridge, creating a dam that when it broke, took the bridge with it. It is hard to imagine the force of water that is required to move something so solid.

We are now having two days of respite before another two of wind and rain. We will be battening down the hatches once more and all eyes will be on that bridge.