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.
Winter has hit us with a vengeance. After a relatively mild December, temperatures have now taken a drastic turn for the worse. With thick frosts and temperatures as low as -6 in our village (and even lower in the surrounding area), it is not surprising that, despite leaving a tap running over night, our water pipe froze again, leaving us without water for a day. Southern Italy has had it worse with heavy snow, closed airports and reported deaths due to the cold. With no sign of it easing within the next couple of weeks, we’ve even ordered an extra delivery of wood to be on the safe side.
It’s certainly not the weather to be working in rooms without heating but until now there has been no rush to connect the under floor heating pipes to the system and now we are so close to tiling the floors we have to wait. However, with the wardrobes ordered and due at the end of the month, we’ve finished the plastering in the dressing room along with almost all the electrics. The loft has also been fully insulated although it is still missing a door. The shower and bathroom floor have been waterproofed and today saw the start of the tiling in the shower itself until our builder was called away to the vet.
Last week, he lost his goats to wolves that jumped the enclosure and mauled all three. Today, less than a week later, he received a call to say that his dog had been attacked during broad daylight and bitten in the throat. The vet confirmed that it was carried out by wolves and was not the first he had dealt with in recent weeks. I can only assume that the severe cold is forcing the wolves to go further in their hunt for food and in desperation, to do so during the day. Having only recently read about these attacks in the newspaper, knowing someone that has had first hand experience of the attack and aftermath brings home the reality of living in close proximity to the habitat of wild animals.
We are keeping our fingers crossed for our builder’s dog.
Even the hunters have to clear up after themselves. Not too far from these bins we saw a group of hunters surrounding two skinned boars, hanging ready for butchering. Not a pleasant sight but one we have to accept living in this area.
Perhaps more worrying was a recent newspaper article reporting of how two deer and a wild boar had been attacked by wolves in the area. One of the deer was found on the edge of our village by local farmers. This is not the first report of wolves in the Lunigiana but obviously having them just outside our village is a little too close for comfort.
Our house is circled daily by house martins and swifts. They’ve been teasing me as they come tantalisingly close to the window but such is their speed, they are almost impossible to capture with a camera. After a lot of pictures of empty sky, a full memory card and a dead battery, I ended up with these (which unfortunately do not do them justice at all):
Today there were joined by this:
I think this looks like a buzzard but it seems to be bigger than our Pocket Book of Birds suggests it should be. Any ideas?
Today, stage 5 of the Giro d’Italia, Italy’s annual cycling race, passed through the Lunigiana and within 10 minutes of our village. Although we are not into cycling as a sport, we can’t help being drawn into it as every trip out in the car has us passing cyclists of all ages, in all their cycling club regalia, on at least one road of our journey. Whether alone or in a pack (the collective for a group of cyclists?), we always seem to approach them just as the road narrows which gives us plenty of time to admire their strength and stamina while waiting for the chance to overtake.
Too good an opportunity to miss, we left the house in plenty of time to find a good vantage point. We needn’t have worried; there was not exactly a huge turnout but there was enough of a crowd (plus two carabinieri, of course) to create an atmosphere. Sponsor cars, photographers, support vehicles and lots and lots of motorcycle police drove past until finally we saw the leading cyclists. After a 4 minute gap, the pack followed. Moments later, it was all over. The crowd dispersed, the road was open once again and the carabinieri removed their gloves as if to signal they were now off duty and headed towards the bar.
The hills of the Lunigiana are covered in chestnut woods. It is no surprise then, that chestnuts feature heavily in a number of dishes ranging from its flour in bread and cakes to flavouring honey (overpoweringly so in my opinion). Chestnuts appear on market stalls everywhere but I wonder who buys them given the abundance of windfalls on almost every road. We see foragers daily prising open the spiky shells and if our oven was more reliable, we too, would be doing the same to bring them home for roasting. I’ve yet to see chestnut roasters in the streets but maybe it’s just a bit too early for them now.
This weekend seems to herald the start of the celebrations for the chestnut, with sagre, feste and all kinds of events in many of the neighbouring villages and towns. Today, however, our village is hosting its first ever festa in celebration of the apple. The little blue tractor has been up and down the lane all week, with buckets full of green apples with red streaks, just like the ones on the tree at the edge of the vineyard which have been providing us with some tasty windfalls. These appear to be a locally grown variety and well worth celebrating.
The narrow street that leads the way to the church is decorated with apple-laden branches to point the way to the small piazza where the event is taking place. Handwritten signs list the menu which includes polenta, tripe, testaroli (a type of pancake usually dressed with pesto), sgabei, frittelle di baccala (salt cod in batter), sausages, and of course, frittelle di mele (apples in batter) and various apple tarts. Here, we also try for the first time, cian, another type of pancake made with chestnut flour and filled with ricotta cheese. It has an interesting taste, one we don’t need to rush to savour again but at least we have paid homage to both the chestnut and apple in one festa.
October signals the start of the hunting season. Fresh, dewy mornings turn into warm, sunny days interrupted with the sounds of sporadic gunshots. Men in camouflage attire gather in groups and head off into the woods around us. They are hunting wild boar. With each shot, we automatically turn our heads in the direction of the noise but there is no way we could spot anyone or anything. We have no idea how successful these hunters are; we have only seem them at the start, not at the end, and if the evidence on the orto yesterday is anything to go by, there is certainly at least one boar that’s survived around here.
It is also the season for picking porcini mushrooms, mushrooms that grow in woods where wild boar live and hunters hunt….
On this day in our village, a massacre took place. Two days before on 17th August, in the neighbouring village, Italian partisans attacked a German convoy of 16 soldiers, killing 14 and fatally wounding one other. In response to this, on 19th August, a detachment of German SS troops arrived in the area with 53 male prisoners. These were taken to the site of the partisan attack where they were hanged along the roadside using barbed wire and later shot.
At the same time, another group of soldiers rounded up civilians, predominantly women and children, at a farmhouse just outside the village, where a number of people were already seeking refuge. They were taken outside and machine-gunned at close range. There were 106 victims; a mother and daughter managed to escape before the executions took place, after which there was one survivor, a small girl who, although wounded, was hidden under the corpses of her parents.
The execution order for the prisoners was signed by the German SS major while lunching at the village’s only restaurant. This restaurant was run by R’s father who was forced at gunpoint to serve the major and his officers. His wife and 5 children were at the farmhouse and were victims of the massacre.
Every year on this date, there is memorial service. Having visited the village museum and the memorial at the farmhouse, we were already aware of the tragedy that took place in our village but this is the first time we have been here on this date. We join the procession from the piazza, following banner bearers from other villages that had also suffered at the hands of the Germans. A band plays a solemn tune as we head slowly out of the village to the memorial site. Next to the memorial which lists all the names and dates of births of all of the victims, the Last Post is played. It is incredibly moving. A mass follows and then speeches are given by a number of dignitaries. R, himself, also gives an emotional account of the events. As we look around us, we see small children, at the ages that many of the victims lost their lives, hanging onto parents’ hands with all innocence. We imagine that most people here lost members of their family on that day.
On the way back home, outside the now empty building that once was the restaurant, we stop to read a recently erected sign giving the memories of R and his brother on the effects of that day on their father and their family life. A poignant reminder of why these events should never be forgotten.