festa of the harvest

Not a harvest festival as we know it. This was all about harvesting wheat and was the first one of its kind held in our village. The festa started on Friday evening and finishes tonight. Yesterday evening, we invited our friends J & L for their first village festa experience. The organisers were obviously expecting a crowd. The tables and benches had been moved to the playing field and had increased in number. The stage and dance floor had been set up at the other end of the field, and the main attraction, a huge threshing machine (if that’s what you call it) lined one edge, along with a display of tractors from years gone by.

Almost on time, a crowd gathered in front of the machine as it started up ready for the demonstration. As diesel fumes headed our way, a young lad stood on top of a tractor load of wheat, wheat that had been especially grown for this occasion, and threw sheaf after sheaf onto a conveyor belt. In a matter of seconds, a bale was pushed out one end and grain poured into an urn at the other. It was very impressive to watch and strangely addictive!

It was then time to think about food (same might say the main attraction!). Being seasoned festa goers, we knew to get our order in early. As we waited for our food, the queue stretched our further and it became obvious that the organising committee had clearly underestimated the pull of a new festa. People rushed about setting up additional tables and benches and orders started to back up.

At 9:00pm, the band took to the stage and people gravitated towards the dance floor. I almost had my dancing debut when we spotted 3 couples from our dance class along with the dance instructor’s assistant. One of them spotted us too and came over to chat to us, as well as to try and persuade us to put into practice the few basic steps we have learnt so far. M was having none of it, citing his inappropriate footwear (flip flops) as a justifiable reason to decline. Having danced with the assistant in class, I thought he might be my best bet, but try as I might to catch his eye, he was just too far away and I wasn’t brave enough to walk over to him! Perhaps a lucky escape given I have not danced for 3 months and certainly not in public!

We were happy to watch others though, listen to the music and chat with friends and neighbours. At 11:30pm we headed home. I think we can safely say, the first festa della mietitura was a success and will no doubt be the first of many.


the patron saint of our village

Today is the festa of the patron saint of our village. Legend has it that he was the Bishop of Luni, murdered by bandits. On the spot where he was buried, an unusual flower grew, prompting his remains to be exhumed. His body was found to be intact with no signs of decomposition. The then present Bishop declared that his remains should be taken on an oxen-drawn cart and he would be buried wherever the oxen stopped. They stopped to drink from a water source, many kilometres from where they had set off. Exhausted from the journey they collapsed and died, and so indicated the place where the remains of the bishop should be buried (or something along those lines; it was a verbal account from our friend L and there’s always the chance something could have got lost in translation).

On this spot, a church was founded dedicated to the martyr bishop. The year was 728 making our church one of the oldest in the Lunigiana. Until last year, we had never been inside. It had been closed for 3 years due to earthquake damage and it is only open for mass; the rest of the time it is locked. Last year, a concert was held in the church and although we didn’t attend, we took the opportunity afterwards to enter for the first time. L was in the middle of explaining the legend of our village saint and we hovered nearby (this might explain my vagueness over certain details). He obviously holds a position of trust in the church and, sensing our interest, took some keys, unlocked a casket behind the altar and showed us the remains.

When the saint’s day falls on a Sunday, as it has today, the bones are taken out from behind the altar and carried in a procession around the village. Tonight, as dusk turned to darkness, we watched from our terrace. With a constant pealing of church bells, the priest led the way. We followed the movement of candles as the procession made its way along the route, decorated with red streamers, rosettes and beacons for the occasion, until the last of the followers had passed and we could no longer hear the prayers of the priest.

a double helping of figs

On the edge of the once-was vineyard that borders our land, sits a very large fig tree. While my fig tree sprawls and leans out over the orto and valuable growing space, this one is more tree-shaped and produces green figs as opposed to my purple ones. It seems this could be a bumper year for figs and both trees are weighed down by them. I have to wait until August/September for mine, but the figs on this neighbouring tree are ripe right now!

I wouldn’t normally pay so much attention to someone else’s imminent harvest but I happen to know the owner of this tree doesn’t like figs. Every year, he tells me to help myself but even though I’ve been eyeing them up for a few days now, I still can’t bring myself to pick them without his go-ahead.

There’s a shout from outside the dining room door: ‘Ragazzi, the figs are ready. Help yourselves’. My cue! I grab a bowl and M and we start to fill it. He’s not excited about the figs but I need him to reach the higher branches. I can’t resist eating one straight off the tree, still warm from the sun. Remembering the dehydrator, we pick a few more. The tree is bursting with them and our bowlful has hardly made a dent. I don’t want to seem greedy but I hate to see anything go to waste and it won’t be long before the birds and insects become aware of their ripeness. With many yet to ripen though, there are still plenty for others.

I set about halving my harvest and then the dehydrator does the rest.

48 hours later, the first dried figs of the season.


the wall

Three months ago, at the end of March, we started work on widening the lane. Then, for 3 continuous days we worked long past daylight hours and for 2 of those 3 days, in the rain. April, saw 3 continuous days of concreting, filling in the trench that our March work had created. May was another story; we only saw our builder for a total of 3 days the whole month, due to his competing priorities. As the summer approached and the temperatures increased, even with a 7:00am start, working a full day was out of the question. We were beginning to think this wall would never get built, a feeling that was reinforced when, for a couple of times in a row, the cement mixer broke forcing an early finish.

Today though, after a frustrating three months (what is it with the number 3??), in temperatures very different from those at the start of this project, we finally finished the wall.

Landscaping next (dates to be confirmed), to flatten the heaps of earth that our earlier excavations have left, then the final bit of concreting: our parking. Then, and only then, we might just get to drive down the lane and park alongside our house.

deer stalker

Last year, a couple of deer decided to make the immediate area around our house, their home. They were often spotted on the terraces in front of our house and on many occasions, we opened our windows in the morning to see at least one of them munching away under our walnut tree. Our rose bush outside the dining room door was very soon stripped bare but I forgave the deer this, as we got to see her up close in action. I was not so forgiving when our peas and broad beans also provided a tasty meal.

Our evenings were filled with their ‘barking’, letting us know they were near, even if we couldn’t see them and then all of a sudden, they disappeared. Or perhaps we just got so used to them, we stopped looking? Evidently though, they had offspring and for a while now, we have seen a fawn. She is a pretty thing, reddish brown in colour and not afraid to come visiting at any time of the day. After noticing a few tomato tops and the odd leaf here and there had been eaten, we spent yesterday morning hastily erecting deer defences. At half past two today, I went to check on our construction when M shouted out of the window: ‘the deer is on the vineyard, heading this way.’ I rushed up the orto steps and promptly startled the deer that had just walked onto our land and was standing by the olive trees. Off she raced while I went to grab the camera and track her down.

M adopted a high vantage point and scanned the area from our terrace and quickly spotted her on the land near the chicken shed. I quietly made my way over there but she was clearly camera shy and stayed hidden in the grasses.

I could hear M calling me so I gave up with her and went back. ‘There’s another’ he said, pointing at the vineyard, ‘and it’s got little antlers’. So, she has a brother. I gradually crept towards him and snapped away. Every now and then he would look up directly at me, but as long as I stayed still he seemed unfazed. Eventually, he had had his fill of the grass on the vineyard and went off towards the paddock and woods below.

They are both clearly bolder than their parents and I suspect (and secretly hope) their visits will continue. What it does mean though, is that we will have to think of a more permanent solution to our deer defences than our current hastily cobbled together netting and bamboo cane barricade. In reality, this will probably mean fencing off a section of the orto, with some sort of gated access. Not ideal as we will lose a little growing space but at least we will be able to protect what we do grow from our neighbourhood deer. Hopefully, this won’t discourage them from coming to visit every now and again.

did the earth move?

Today at 5:40am, there was an earthquake with a magnitude of 2.2 and a depth of 11km, just 7 km away from us.

We were having breakfast when we heard a noise, similar to a rumble of thunder, that lasted no more than a few seconds. It wasn’t followed by another and with a clear blue sky, there obviously wasn’t a storm brewing. There were no heavy lorries on the road above and it was far too early for tractors to be coming down our lane. Could it have been an earthquake, we wondered? What, if anything, do you hear, when an earthquake hits? Instinctively, I looked at the clock.

We continued with our breakfast and thoughts of the day ahead, but something niggled away in the back of my mind. For the past 2 years in June, there has been an earthquake in the area. Both were relatively minor and both we missed; both times we were out in the car and felt nothing. We only discovered them after the event, when neighbours asked if we had felt them and seemed surprised that we hadn’t.

I found an earthquake monitoring website and our suspicions were confirmed. Living in an earthquake zone, it was, in one sense, no surprise. But what was surprising and somewhat disconcerting was just the number of earthquakes that are happening all the time without our knowledge; another 3 across the country have been listed since the one that struck this morning. I also discovered that today is the 5th anniversary of the earthquake that hit the Lunigiana the year before we moved here. Churches and houses were damaged, some of which have only recently been repaired, and tent camps were set up in villages, ours included, for people too scared to sleep in their homes, as aftershocks continued for some time afterwards. I can only imagine their fear. I hope I only ever have to do just that.

from granite rocks to white pebble beaches

The arrivals hall of Pisa airport is relatively small. Other than people-watching (and there are plenty of opportunities for that), there is not much to entertain you whilst waiting for visiting family and friends. After 4 years, thanks to the continual videos that play above the arrival doors, M and I are well briefed in the wildlife you can find in the nearby nature reserve as well as being aware of the dangers of bringing fresh food into the country from outside the EU. To distract ourselves, we always find ourselves turning our attention to the huge advert on our right hand side for Acqua dell’Elba: handmade perfume from the Tuscan Archipelago. Every time we stare at the aquamarine water and the white, unblemished beach, we think: how beautiful, how restful, and how idyllic.

With M’s milestone birthday to celebrate, it was time to stop dreaming. We booked a ferry, a suite just 5 metres from the beach and with the cat and chickens under the care of my big sis and brother in law, we went to spend a few days in Elba. It was not our intention to just have a beach holiday but to explore some of the varied coastline. We chose a rugged part of the coast on the western side of the island: Sant’Andrea, with its small, sandy beach, incredibly clear turquoise sea, and a handful of sun beds and umbrellas (that admittedly took us by surprise). But it was the rock formations on the cliffs that had us most enthralled. Orthoclase crystals mixed into granite created the most dramatic landscape:

Patresi, on the other side of the headline, is a small cove covered in granite pebbles, with a lighthouse keeping watch high above. Rugged and almost deserted, it was just the sort of place we were hoping to find:

On the northern coast, close to Portoferraio, we found our own smaller version of the beach and clear water that enticed us here in the first place: Capo Bianco, a narrow beach full of white pebbles backed by small white cliffs. The crystal clear waters were too inviting for M to ignore. I was happy nestling in the pebbles with a good book. Obviously, at this time of year, it was not deserted and as we rolled out our beach towels, I glanced around at the mainly Italians around us, and realised just how underprepared we were: no beach umbrella, chairs, cool boxes, lilos, or beach gazebos, and certainly no dogs…

After a few hours, we left the professional sunbathers to it, and drove further around the coast, stopping at the many viewing points along the way.

There is no doubt about it. Elba is a beautiful island and although we were only there for a few days and saw only a fraction of it, we came away feeling rested and relaxed (there’s nothing like going to bed listening to the sound of the sea lapping on the shore) and knowing we would come back again.

Rome wasn’t built in a day…….

…………and neither was our wall. It’s been more of a mammoth task to get our builder back on the job than it has to actually build it, but after a period of drying for the concrete, a slight delay due to some unexpected requirements from one of the owners of the land (a brand new fence to replace the partial old rusty one and a wider opening for his tractor), and unstable weather, we have finally made a little progress.

M and I have power-washed stones, placed them at regular intervals along the wall within easy reach for the builder and even cut boulders down to more manageable sizes. After a very hot afternoon of working on his own with us, our builder decided that perhaps his trainees would be useful after all. Between them all, M included, in one day they have added another 12.5 metres to the 2.5 the three of us had managed last week. This time, I was relegated to tea making duties which suited me just fine!

(Funny how Tracy has managed to be in both these shots!)

So with the top section now complete, there’s just the other 35 metres to go. Unfortunately, we have now run out of money. Despite the comune’s agreement to pay for the materials, they have kept back half the amount until next year, even though the mayor promised us the full amount in one go. Now, we have another delay whilst our geometra goes back to the comune to see if there is any way we can have an advance on the funds.

The new wider lane, or autostrada as it has been named by a couple of the locals, is proving a hit with the man who drives the little blue tractor to his campo at the end of the lane. At least someone is getting the benefit, because, although we too could drive down it, our yet-to-be-finished parking is still covered in stones!