Tag: gelato

A Wet Florence and another Farewell (26 & 27/12/2021)

A Wet Florence and another Farewell (26 & 27/12/2021)

It was St. Stephen’s/Boxing Day, and I was tasked with driving to Florence. We had a mission: the ladies wanted to buy some gloves. I went with our usual idea of going the country route there, and parking in the Coop Carpark, and then going back via mostly the autostrada. I was thinking to myself “Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to be able to show Lily and Mark (Niamh’s sister and her husband) some of the wonderful countryside, in particular between Volterra and Montaione!” Three unfortunate things occurred, which somewhat spoiled the journey:

  1. The weather. It was foggy in Volterra, then we got further down to a corner of the Val d’Era where it was relatively clear, but the climb began again into more fog. Well…. dang! Then came the rain, which further reduced visibility. It’s a shame, as some of the countryside is beautiful – so reserve it for a sunnier day if you ever wish to explore.
  2. I was perhaps driving a little too quickly. Niamh and I are usually so used to both the road and having no people in the back seats, but about 20-25 minutes into the drive, I was informed that the ladies in the back were feeling queasy, so I had to slow down (sorry, ladies!).
  3. I joined a much busier road a little after we passed Montaione. I took a left onto the route, and saw a huge puddle in the road – a lane wide, which chunks of asphalt aroud the rim of it. I had no doubt that if I had driven into the puddle, I’d have probably hit a hidden pothole – a bad one. I swerved to avoid it, but didn’t properly notice a mini-cooper coming up behind me in the other lane. He was still a little away from me, but made a show of his anger by blasting me out of it with his horn. Almost a kilometer down the road at a roundabout, he blasted me again as we parted ways. I can never get over the fact that Italians are so chill, but put a good number of them behind a steering wheel they can turn into demons!

We got to the Coop carpark in the end, and from there hopped onto a tram into the centre. We were hungry, and somehow all had a simulataneous hankering for pizza, not having had any while Lily and Mark were with us. I tend to lean away from restaurants where the staff are selling seats outside the door, much preferring to let the food do the talking. However, we were ravenous, and the establishment into which we were being ushered had some pretty good reviews (Lorenzo di Medici), so in we went and had our pizzas. They were delicious! In fairness, the service was good and the staff friendly too.

It was damp when we got out, and getting damper. Fortunately, we dressed for the occasion! We wended our way towards the Duomo, passing a few landmarks on the way, both old and new.

On the outside of the Basilica, at its north-eastern an alternative presepe (nativity scene) had been set up, but instead of a stable, it was a medical facility where doctors and nurses working to exhaustion in surgical PPE. This was a wonderful mark of respect to them during these past couple of years when the pandemic had put us, and them in particular, to the sword.

This is not my photo – it belongs to Firenze Today.

We reached the Piazza del Duomo, and wandered about the front of the cathedral. We had never seen the presepe there, nor the Christmas Tree, so it we covered off visiting Florence in yet another season. You’ll see that the town was pretty busy!

We then wandered to the Piazza delle Signoria. The city still looked great in the rain, and there were no complaints about the weather. I’ve seen videos of Florence’s Christmas lights in the evening, and they look amazing, so some of the following photos don’t really do them justice.

On the way to the Ponte Vecchio, Lily pointed out a shop where they were selling what looked like artisanal gelato. I checked the window briefly, and saw that they were serving the creamy goodness from little sunken tins (I forget what they’re called). I hopped straight in, without checking the awning on the store. I’d made my order when I noticed that it was a well-known brand of coffee (and despite trawling the map, I’m having difficulty locating the brand), who just so happened to be selling gelato in their store ‘on the side’. Too proud to cancel my order, took a goodly sized cup of it away. It was ok – not really artisanal, but ok – but it was still ok gelato, right? Yay!

We wandered over the bridge, all the way over to Palazzo Pitti, and guess what? Well if you’ve been following these blogs for a while, you’ll be pleased(?) to know that we kept up our habit of not actually going in! One of these days, I swear!

We were happy walking around and exploring though. Staying on the Altr’Arno, we headed over to the Piazza Santa Spirito. We were overdue a coffee (me, a hot chocolate), and found a place with indoor seating (Café Cabiria), and were promptly greeted by a lady with a Dublin accent! The world is too small. She sounded pretty fluent when she was talking to Italian customers, and had been over here a while. We had a 20 minute pause for refreshment, to chat with the Irish lady and to use the facilities.

Once finished, we had one more errand before the trip back home: the ladies needed to buy some gloves at Martelli on Via Por Santa Maria. It was only a trip of a few hours, but we really wanted to limit the time we would be driving in the dark. Anyway, we re-crossed at the Ponte Santa Trinita and made our way there. The ladies went in. Mark and I waited outside. And waited. And we waited a little more, a little more impatiently. It began to rain again, so Mark waited across the road, by the awning of a fancy men’s shop while I stood outside Martelli.

Then I was accosted by one of those African doo-dad sellers. Listen, I agree that every person needs to make a living, but the hucksterism some of these guys pull-off really try my patience. It began well, and we fist-bumped and chatted for a minute. Then out of nowhere he held out his hand to shake. This is where you back off, or move on etc. What happens here is that they attempt to pull and bracelet over onto your wrist and get aggressive when you refuse to buy it. I refused the handshake and immediately moved away, despite some weak protestations from him. He wandered off, while I joined Mark on the other side of the road to wait some more.

The ladies certainly spent way more time in that shop than we did in th café… not much fun, I have to say, when it’s grey and drizzling. But we bucked-up (glove-buying was our #1 mission after all), and waited stoically. They came out eventually, mission accomplished and very happy – and even a little apologetic. Satisfied, we walked back towards the tram.

We had a couple of unscheduled stops on the way. First, we paused briefly at Piazza di Santa Trinita to admire the conical Christmas tree there.

The one thing I regret this trip (no, not not Palazzo Pitti!) is not going to check out the lights at Piazza delle Republica. I saw videos of them afterwards and they are spectacular! Anyway, we instead continued farther north, and stopped in the vestibule of the Strozzi Palace to check out Jeff Koons’ balloon bunny. We didn’t go into the exhibition proper, as it was beginning to get dark.

Time for one final touristy photo-op before we boarded the tram. Yet another visit to Florence with too much time spent outdoors. We really have to pop inside some of these landmarks!

Mark had to drive home in the dark and rain… not the most pleasant of drives, but we got through it! We didn’t head out that night, but instead we had antipasti bought at La Bottega and the market a couple of days previously. Then Lily made a wonderful risotto with the blue cheese and kale, topped by a parmesan crisp (we picked up everything for this at the market). It was absolutely delish. Below is a photo of an adulterated one: Niamh doesn’t like blue cheese.

Unfortunately, the next morning it was time for us to once again leave Volterra. At the time of writing this blog we haven’t been back yet since, but are looking forward to going some time in May. Our guests were staying another couple of nights on their own, so we were more than a little jealous – but we had to head home to get our booster shots, which was more important in the grand scheme of things.

It was actually quite a nice day in Pisa itself, and Mark and Lily joined Niamh and I for one last cup of something hot and a slice of cheap pizza before we headed into the airport for the flight home. It was at a circular kiosk outside. The coffee and pizza were ok, but the hot chocolate I almost spat out. I had taken one watery mouthful that was barely tepid and left it at that. In hindsight, I should have taken it back to complain, but at the time I didn’t want to end the holiday on a downer.

So, this wraps-up this series of blogs until some time in May. I will have another one or two in the offing, in particular about Volterra being Tuscany’s inaugural capital of culture, so keep an eye out for that!

I hope you enjoyed reading this and admiring Florence’s beauty, even in the rain. Please leave a like and a comment to let me know, and please ask any questions. I’d love to hear from you.

The Lovely Castiglione della Pescaia (15/10/2021)

The Lovely Castiglione della Pescaia (15/10/2021)

There’s a bit of write-y stuff in this one, but there are photos and a video below – I promise!

The town of Castiglione della Pescaia is one of those rare coastal places which has an old-town feel to it. This is because there was a profusion of dwellings settled nearby a large fortress, protecting them from potential raiders. The possibility of Saracen (and others) attacks was so high, that people tended to settle on hills inland, rather than risk slaughter. Perfectly understandable. Tuscan towns with an old-charm feel are incredibly rare in Tuscany, with many places with beaches having become more settled in post-war Europe. So, it’s always cool to find something that matches the tastes of the culture-vulture, the history-hound and the beach-baby. The foodie? Well… see below…

But first, bathroom remodelling! After our failed attempt to engage the builder, our appointment was properly set up for this morning. Our nice lady from Milianti (estate agents and property managers), Alice, arrived early, and although she’s young and slender she commented that climbing the 76 steps to our apartment whilst wearing a face-mask was tricky! A few minutes later, there was another ring at the door, and we let two gentlemen in: one was the builder, the other was an older man. This latter guy turned out to be the consulting geometra. What is a geometra? They are essentially internal building surveyors. One of their responsibilities is carrying out technical reviews of buildings for extensions and changes etc. We took them through the changes we want, with Alice translating all the way. All was tickety-boo.

Once gone, we headed out and took our 8 minute walk to the carpark, to our little stick-shift Fiat 500. Definitely one of our favourite rides we’ve rented since coming here. We stuck on Missus Google, and headed down SS68 towards Siena.

I don’t have any photos of the journey, because I was filming! You can catch the video towards the end of the blog. We decided to head the ‘country’ route, rather than along the coast. That made the journey very long, but it was interesting to see new towns appear on the signposts. I love to explore, so even new signposts alone sometimes give me an endorphin rush.

We passed tantalisingly close to Casole d’Elsa. We have visited it a few times (blogged about it once), and it’s a lovely little borgo, but we had a schedule! We blasted past it. Other highlights include also blasting past the Instagrammable Ponte della Pia. We didn’t stop. You can hear me squeal about it in the video below. We drove through the lovely Rosia, and shortly afterwards the 12 year-old in me was pleased by seeing signs for a town called ‘Orgia’ (literally ‘orgy’ in Italian). I imagine the property prices there are quite steep, but the people fit and healthy. Just outside Rosia, we were stopped for the third time this year, by a randomly parked police checkpoint. Once they found out we were tourists, they waved us on – but we found it prudent to carry identification documents with us at all times just in case. Just past Siena earlier in the year, they had us pulled over checking passports and licenses for a good 15 minutes.

When we were in the latter stages of the journey, on the multi-laned SS223, we flew past another hilltown. I checked my phone, and I’m pretty certain it was Civitella Marittima – one on my list to visit… but we ploughed-on!

If there’s one thing I really enjoyed about the journey, it was it showed us how hugely varied the countryside is in Tuscany. From the typical undulating hills and olive groves and vineyards, to winding valley roads with streams. Sometimes, yellow-golden, sometimes grass-green. Here and there farmhouses dotted throughout, with the occasional castello or hamlet crowning a lonely hilltop. It is beautiful land.

We knew we were getting close to the coast when we started seeing the coastal pines (I think they’re sometimes called Stone Pines) – tall trees topped with wide, flat foliage. They began to line to roads, once we left the highways.

I think that the journey took us a good two hours. Blame me… I just wanted to see more of the countryside. It took us 20 minutes less on the route home. Anyway, we got handy parking here, and had a quick stroll by the marina before heading up into the town itself.

It was close to lunchtime, so we just wanted to explore a little before having food. We strolled up the what we considered to be the main tourist drag, checking out some restaurants and a gelateria (for later!) on the way.

Now for some much-needed controversy. I have often considered my blog to be something of a hagiography of Italy, so a little criticism is overdue. For a while, I have been exploring the Italian coast on Google Maps (yes, I have a sickness). So far, I have gone from the French border, and have just past Naples. It takes a long time! Anyway – one of the chief observations I have made is that generally, restaurants in touristy coastal towns are poorer than you will find a little inland – especially those along promenades. There are, of course, exceptions – but many… hmmm… I would say most, would seem to rely on seasonal, transient trade. My chief point is: do your research on Tripadvisor, Google etc. before selecting a place to eat, if you have a definite preference of quality over location.

Despite the time of year, there were still a few restaurants still open. We went to Pane e Vino on Corso della Libertà. It was open and seemed to be getting favourable reviews. We were shown to our outdoor table and were attended very quickly and enthusiastically. We needed the bathroom, and apart from a little lighting issue, all was good – the bathroom was nice and clean. We had a little struggle with the menu, as we aren’t huge seafood fans – mostly whitefish, salmon and mussels – I sometimes eat tinned mackerel too. Although, one of the nicest things I have eaten – in fact the very first thing I ever ate in Volterra – was an amuse bouche in Del Duca, of which anchovies were a part. I also kept hearing how anchovies in Italy were way better than they are elsewhere. Anyway, we found stuff we thought would be interesting and ordered. The results were…. mixed. The ingredients were cooked well, and some of the ideas novel, but in the main, they just missed the mark – one in particular was frankly bizarre. I laud restaurants for trying to experiment, and I think these guys were trying to do that – so, hats off on that front. One thing that bugged me outright, was that I had wanted a fritto misto, but didn’t see it on the menu. Nonetheless, a couple of parties came in after us and were served plates of it. Grrr! Off-menu items annoy me. Anyway – back to what we *did* get:

The staff were lovely I have to say, and attentive, but we left in something of an unsatisfied daze. If you love seafood, good presentation and experimentation (and what looked like amazing fritti misti – grrr!) then this place could be for you. I have to stress again, that the cooking was good. And Niamh’s coffee was great too.

Once we were done eating, we decided to delay our gelato fix until we were done exploring the old fortress part of town. What a lovely place it was. And hilly. Also, cats – cats everywhere! On our way we passed by an Irish bar – Tinakilly Pub. At first I thought that was a bit of a spurious name, as Irish town/townland names often derive from an Irish name that actually means something. However, I see that there is a Tinakilly House Hotel just a little over an hour from us – so it’s the real deal! Tinakilly is derived from the Irish words ‘Ti’ (house), ‘na’ (of/of the) and ‘Coille’ (woods) – so ‘House of the Woods’. There you go – very interesting! Of course, having blown a paragraph on that, I now have to tell you that we didn’t go in.

We briefly and indadvertently walked outside town through a porta at the top end. Beyond it was a carpark and what looked like a school, plus a hint of the bay view to come.

Next, we returned back into the town, and found a church. It was nice and cool inside, but not as decorated as many you’d find. There was another cat guarding the door.

Upon leaving the church, we walked uphill past some lovely houses – passing by yet another cat – an enourmous fluffy lad, and then looked left. Wow. The view of the gently curving bay was amazing. I think you could also make out Monte Argentario farther along the horizon. The closer mountain I think is the Parco Rgionale della Maremma.

We walked over the hill to the other side of the village, and down to another porta in the fortress walls. We jostled for our space with some other tourists there to get our shot by it. There wasn’t much beyond that porta, so we headed all the way back town to the newer part of town. It was gelato time! We grabbed some yumminess from Bar Gelateria Angolo Gelato and sat on a bench around the corner in the shade.

We headed back to the car after our gelato and, driving past the cemetary we saw earlier behind the church, opted to go home via the more coastal route. It was a good bit quicker. I was too slow to grab a shot of Follonica and its bay as we crested a hill to look down upon it. It was a gorgeous sight. Follonica itself looks to be an interesting place to stop for a modern beach-city – I have read that it’s promenade is nice (remember the tip about restaurants, though!). We skirted around the outside of the town, through its more suburban areas, and shortly after there joined the multi-laned E80. We turned off just before Cecina, and headed through Saline di Volterra back to our home-from-home.

You can watch a video of that part of our day here:

I took a couple of shots of Volterra on our way back from the car to the apartment. I do this because all too often I only catch some shots during my morning walk when the light favours some scenes, but not others.

We weren’t quite done with the day yet, though.

We wanted some way to help celebrate my writing competition win (see last week’s blog), and it was going to be our last night for this trip. We decided pizza and beer was in order. We headed out later than usual and were very lucky to find La Mangiatoia still open – they closed shortly after we left. Many Italians eat very late when compared to the Irish – often at 21:00 or 22:00 – but La Mangiatoia looked like it was closing around the 22:00 mark. They looked a little worried when we ordered, but brightened up when we selected pizza – I presume we’d be told that a lot of the stuff was off the menu otherwise. I like their pizza – it’s second only to Pizzeria Ombra della Sera. The didn’t have any Moretti left, so we had one of their own beers. I wish I had taken a photo of it – it wasn’t bad at all!

Once done, we had a walk to the Piazza dei Priori, and then thought… No! We’re not done yet!

I wanted something sweet, but already had a gelato that day – so we went to Antica Velathri Café and had a couple of cocktails (ok, I had an amaro). But then I saw a homemade panacotta on their menu, with a variety of different sauces. I think I grabbed one with a chocolate sauce, or it might have been caramel… I do remember it being eye-rollingly delicious, though!

And then we were fit for our beds. Thanks for reading – I really hope you enjoyed it. Please leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!

To See a Friend in Florence (12/10/2022)

To See a Friend in Florence (12/10/2022)

I chose not to walk that morning, as I thought we’d have a full day of it in Florence. We still didn’t leave ’til mid-morning. There are two main routes to Florence – one takes you through the countryside for the first two-thirds of it, as you head through some wonderful rural scenery, and emerge on more modern roads somewhere between Gambassi Terme and Montaione. We took the other route, which, although shorter in terms of time (just), is a little bit more dull. If you haven’t driven it before, then it’s a fine route, but annoys anyway, because it takes you so far south so you can join the Florence-Siena Autostradale, before taking you all the way north again. At least it takes you past Colle di Val d’Elsa, which always impresses.

As usual, we parked by this Coop. It’s free parking there, and is just beside the tram station which will take you into the heart of Florence in 12-15 minutes. There’s more about it in the video later on in the blog.

This time was a little bit special for us, though: it would be the first time we had taken any form of public transport since we started working from home due to the pandemic – around mid-March 2020. It turns out we weren’t freaked out about it. It wasn’t packed, but there were a still goodly number of people on it, and everyone was adhering to the mask-wearing protocol. I regret I didn’t take any illustrative photos.

We got off at Alamanni (the station for Santa Maria Novella), and it was another 10 minute stroll to the Duomo. Once there, unless you actually work beside the thing, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed by it. We papped our little hearts out!

We noted for the first time that there were armed soldiers outside the bell tower. We neatly skirted around them, and headed to the back of the Duomo. From there, we wandered around some back streets, stopping in a quirky stationery shop, in which (of all things) we bought some Christmas tree baubles. We were hoping to come back in December, and get a little tree for the apartment, so these would do splendidly. Then onwards towards Piazza della Signoria.

We had a look around (we’ve been there before) the square, and then went inside the Palazzo Vecchio to see what could be seen. The courtyard is pretty impressive, and it’s such a huge building. We didn’t have the time to go on one of the tours, as we had a lunch date!

We did have time to check out the Ponte Vecchio. That and the riverside were both busy and beautiful!

It was almost time to meet my friend. We wandered back towards the square on back streets, bypassing it altogether and heading down a narrow lane to find the osteria: Vini e Vecchi Sapori. It’s tiny on the inside, and seemingly with no space for seating outside. It was also almost completely full, so I wondered if my friend had taken the booking correctly.

I should explain the ‘friend’ part. I had actually never met this guy face-to-face. For years, we had played World of Warcraft in the same guild together, and kind of had similar senses of humour. I had his number and so gave him a call. He assured me he was only minutes away, and, a man of his word, arrived soon after. By ‘eck was he tall! That’s the problem with online friends – they’re like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. But within seconds we had bumped elbows (me reaching up slightly), and all three of us were comfortable. He then entered the restaurant and began rattling in Italian – pretty much fluent, which raised an eyebrow. I didn’t know he could speak Italian. I had assumed that, yes although he worked in Florence, he did much of his work online, and chose to settle in a town in which English was spoken by many. It turns out he’d spent many of his formative years in Rome.

Anyway, the restaurant staff recognised him immediately and gave him an effusive welcome, in cajoling Italian. He confirmed the booking, and said that we could eat inside, but that they also had a part of the north-east corner of the Piazza della Signoria cordoned off for diners. It was such a nice day out that we decided to eat outside and people-watch.

We had lunch for almost two hours. Three full courses and a glass of wine. We just chatted about personal stuff, how we found Italy, what we were doing generally, how the pandemic had treated us, and so on. I skirted around my anxiety issue, as I didn’t want to bum everyone out – we were having a good time. Working-from-home inevitably cropped up, and he was adamant he was staying in Florence, even after his boss asked him to work in the London office. He pointed out to his boss that he himself was working in Spain! I lamented that we might not be able to work in Italy, as most employers didn’t want the hassle of having to register for tax in the various countries in which employees were thinking of settling. Even if that country was also in the EU. Not that we are thinking of settling, as our Italian isn’t up to snuff yet, but it’s good to have options. He pointed out that after his employer registered in a few countries, they realised they had the unexpected benefit of now being able to hire people at will within those countries – thereby expanding their market for a potential labour force exponentially. An interesting point.

The food was excellent, but sadly I didn’t take many photos. There were pastas, fried chicken and zucchini, boar stews and tiramisu.

You know you’ve eaten well, when you get up for a multi-course meal, and only feel comfortably full – and this is how we felt. My friend brought us to a bancomat (ATM), as we needed to grab some cash. He pointed out the opening times of the bank – it only opened for 45 minutes after a lunch break that day. Nice work if you can get it, I guess. We got what we needed and headed back towards the Arno for a stroll. He gave us little tidbits of information in his very English accent. I have to admit I was a little jealous of both his skill with Italian, as well as his height!

We headed over the Ponte Santa Trinita to the less touristy Oltrarno, where he promised us gelato that, while may not be the creamiest, was among the most flavoursome you can find in Florence. We struck a south-eastern route at a 5-road intersection and wandered down a narrow lane until we entered a lovely, almost hidden, piazza – so small it could have been called a piazzetta, where a couple of bars’ outdoor seating was stationed. At another end was our destination: Gelateria delle Passera.

We got ourselves some gelato (unsurprisingly), and it was here that my friend pointed out Zabaione for the first time to me. I’d never heard of it up to then, and now since Christmas has passed, I can’t stop hearing about it! It’s a sort of a thick, alcoholic eggnog – thick enough to be eaten rather than drunk – and also used to dunk biscuits into. Niamh got a scoop of that, and it tasted nice enough. To be honest, while Niamh liked the gelato, I thought it merely ‘good’. The portion sizes were certainly small for the money, but the flavours natural and fine. Not as good as L’Isola del Gusto, but maybe I am biased when it comes to my favourite Volterran gelateria. In fairness, the setting in which it was enjoyed was lovely.

Shortly after, we walked back to the Ponte Santa Trinita, and said goodbye to my friend. It was a merry meeting, and I’ve no doubt we’ll see each other again in Tuscany! He did recommend Palazzo Pitti to us. We chuckled and said we were all too unfamiliar with it. We have wandered in front on it several times, and for some reason or another have never either entered it, nor it’s wonderful Boboli Gardens. But we would rectify that this time! Oh yes!

But oh no – we didn’t.

Once again, we wandered outside, and looked at the remaining light of the day, and the queues outside and decided against it, preferring not to drive home in the dark. We took some snaps, and with a shrug of our shoulders, Niamh and I vowed to each other not to visit it again next time we’re in town!

We decided to cross the Arno at the Ponte Vecchio – photography ensued here too.

We walked back to the train station and got on the tram back to the Coop carpark. It was much busier, as we figured some people were heading home from work (office workers, maybe), or shopping. Everyone was still wearing masks. We took a seat near the front, and an older lady soon sat beside Niamh. She was looking through printed photos, but let the envelope holding spill the contents to the floor of the tram. Naturally, Niamh gave her a hand to gather them back together (Covid bedamned!), and was then caught up in a mostly 1-way conversation in staccato Italian about the older lady’s family, where they were from (Calabria – followed by an explanation of where Calabria was), what they did on holidays etc. It was a lovely encounter, but a shame our Italian wasn’t up to speed enough to reciprocate.

Here’s the video of our day:

The journey home wasn’t eventful, save that Niamh slowed down outside a Chinese/Japanese restaurant in Colle di Val d’Elsa to see if I could snap the opening times. We never ate there in the end, but maybe some other time.

Instead, with bellies still a little full, we had sandwiches from Sosta del Priore.

And that was the day that was! Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think in the comments section – I hope you enjoyed the read.

Dedication – In Memory of my Father
I would like to decicate this piece to my Dad, who recently passed away. The last couple of years of his life were rough, as he was coping with Vascular Dementia. He always loved reading these blogs, and more towards the end the vlogs I recorded in Italy. His eyes lit up whenever he saw the old Italian towns, and always had high praise for the beauty and architecture of the places I visited. He never got a chance to visit Florence, and would have loved to have seen David. But at least he got to Rome.

I will miss showing him how much I love Italy, and I will miss him too.

Our Return in October (09/10/2021)

Our Return in October (09/10/2021)

Time moved along, as it always does. I began to struggle a little more with work-based anxiety, and when I look back on it now (a little anxious/sad after having just come back after a Christmas visit), I see the fault really lay with me. My workload was not crippling, although it challenged me given my condition. I took on new things, and I am glad that I have been so well-managed throughout this stage of my life.

It must be remembered that when you are anxious, the quickest route to recovery lies through you. It look me ’til late November/early December to realise that (again!)… but… I’m projecting too far ahead.

In any event, Volterra proved, as always, a haven from my most of my symptoms. Oh, I always felt it lurking over my shoulder, but exercising my toolset always takes less effort when I’m back in Italy. I cannot rely on this, however. I should be the same no matter where I am or what I’m doing, more or less… Ireland or Italy, filiming/writing or watching the box, at home or exploring – it’s all the same in mindfulness.

Sorry about that! Back to the travel stuff!

We just went alone this time. The first thing we noticed: the airport was busier again this time, than when it was in early August.

I think I had sandwich for brunch at the airport. Hard to remember – it was a functional meal anyway, as it always is in most airports! We boarded without fuss – this time opting for zero checked-in luggage, to enable us to move through Pisa airport quickly. I had taken a note of what I had and didn’t have in my inventory in Volterra – so I didn’t have much to bring with me, outside of some slightly warmer clothes and, of course, my tech.

I got some snaps from the ‘plane – well, mostly alps…

Once off, we had a little bit of a wait, as immigration officers took our temperatures (electronically), and so with only 2 officials available, they could only release us slowly for identification, in order to adhere (somewhat) to social distancing guidelines. Once through, we skidaddled outside and headed to Sixt for our car. This time, we managed to fulfil a years’-long ambition of driving a Fiat 500!

It was a manual for a change, but the tech within it wasn’t bad, and we found it super-easy to bluetooth our phones so we could use CarPlay – fair play, Fiat. We sent the email to the Volterran Municipal Police that our resident’s parking permit would be associated with a new car registration for a week. Niamh did the honours once again (she always drives from the airport – I don’t think I’ve ever driven to/from the airport, as a matter of fact!).

Because we arrived a little while after lunch, no places were open for food. We did what any self-respecting visitor to Volterra should do: we had a walk (after having left our luggage in the apartment)!

We stopped off for refreshments at L’Antica Velathri Cafe and L’Isola del Gusto, before continuing on our way.

Later on that evening, after we’d been back to the apartment, we went downstairs to Porgi l’Altra Pancia. If you’ve read my blogs before (or are Italian), you will know that the name of the restaurant means ‘grow another belly’. Both the name and their food make me smile.

The food there was as delicious as always. To cap it off, they are also such lovely and welcoming people. After growing another belly, we took in the town at night.

If I recall correctly, it was the beginning of a dry, fine week for us – which was lucky as I think the weather was quite wet the previous week. I guess someone was smiling down on us!

And that’s it again for now. Please leave a like and a comment if you wish – questions and suggestions are also always welcome!

Crete Senesi and the Val d’Orcia (18/08/2021)

Crete Senesi and the Val d’Orcia (18/08/2021)

Hello again! A little warning that this blog will have a ton of photos.

As we knew we had a day-and-a-half in front of us, we didn’t go for a walk in the morning. Instead, we left early and drove the route to Siena, past the starkly lovely Colle val d’Elsa. Rather than take our usual exit to head to Siena, we motored past that and on into the Crete Senesi. This is an unofficial region of which you probably already have seen if you’ve seen postcards of Tuscany. Rolling hills and winding dirt roads abound, lined with Cypress – everything you’ve seen is true. Then there are other parts which seem almost lunar – it’s a remarkable place.

However, we didn’t stray off the main roads, as you risk damaging your car if you do. The result was that we really didn’t see the best of it. In fact, what we did we didn’t thrill us any more than the surrounding area of Volterra: the Val di Cecina, Val d’Era etc. I would be tempted to say that those areas are actually nicer! Anyway, I didn’t take photos of the journey, as I was filiming instead – you can find the movie of this day near the bottom of this blog. We did see several signs with kilometer indicates to Rome – you know you’re heading south in Tuscan when you see those!

After winding our way through several towns, we stopped at Buonconvento – at first in the large pay carpark outside the walls of the old town, thinking it was the free carpark. The free one is in a small triangular section just beside it, so we moved the car just in case and had a wander around the old town.

It was lunchtime, so we checked Google where to eat. We passed by a couple of places that looked ok, including a bit of an oddity I’d never seen in Italy before: choose your noodle, then choose your sauce – a bit like the prescriptive menus you get in Chinese places. We skipped that as I thought you should be guided towards the right pasta for the right sauce.

Instead, we went for one of Google’s highest-rated places. It was outside the town walls, and when we got there it seemed to be a simple bar with a small menu. I had high hopes. Unfortunately, the best thing about the experience were the kickass soft drinks which were made locally. Niamh had a cola, and I had a lemon. The pasta dish Niamh and I both had was so-so (some sort of zucchini sauce), but the dry, bunless burger my brother had with undercooked potatoes was a shocker, to be honest. What a shame. Anyway, with our tails between our legs, I suggested we had the time to visit Pienza, little knowing the route we’d travel through to get there. Things were about to get better. So, to sum up – definitely travel to Buonconvento, but if you want a decent lunch, maybe actually stick to the old town!

Originally, I had in my head that we’d just travel around the Crete Senesi, maybe driving to another town or off-road to some of the more photographed. But then we blew through Buonconvento so quickly, and I happened to see that Pienza wasn’t a million miles away. I suggested it and it was accepted! Yay!

What I didn’t realise was that our road to Pienza went past what is possibly the most photographed section of Tuscany. In fact, one of the most photographed countryside scenes in all of Italy: the Cypress Circle in the Val d’Orcia. The first of my regrets of the day happened here – that I didn’t have a drone. Here are the photos. One of them is one of the best landscape shots I have ever taken.

There were about a dozen or so vehicles there, and so it was a comfortable number of people by the relatively new mirror monument. We saw tractors ploughing the land, and I’m pretty sure it was purely for aesthetics: the whole of the Val d’Orcia is a UNESCO heritage site.

How I wish I’d had a drone! It’s a stunning place. We only stayed 20 minutes, as it was murderously hot, and we wanted to have a wander around Pienza.

We got back in the car, ignored the one-way system out of the carpark (which was ok, as everyone else was ignoring it too!), and headed towards Pienza. On to the second regret: we blew past San Quirico d’Orcia, and there was a ton of parking space available. Ah well – apologies, San Quirico – maybe next time!

We arrived at Pienza, and found some free parking about a 5 minute walk outside the walls to the old town and wandered inside.

Pienza is a bit mad. It’s gorgeous, but was one of the first towns to ever have been replanned from the bottom-up by Pope Pius II. Pienza was his home town, and he suddenly had both the resources and clout to order it’s total redesign. So understated was the initial estimate by the architect (’twas ever thus!), that the Pope congratulated him on lying so convincingly so that the town was built and now the envy of the region… and gave him a bonus!

The whole walled town is a UNESCO heritage site, and so here and there you will find pockets of loveliness – but it’s also awash with tourists. I would not call Pienza a true representation of a lived-in Tuscan hilltown. Volterra is a better mix of a tourist site, mixed with real Tuscan life. I know I’m biased, but it really happens to be true in this case.

With such a high degree of tourism, you always run the risk of getting sub-par food and drink within a town, unless you do a little research. We were melted by the time we got into Pienza, that the first thing we needed to do was get some gelato. We just headed to the first place that was open. The gelato was so-so, but at least it cooled us down.

We went for another wander once we had cooled down.

We had to cool down again, as well as rest our feet, but had difficulty finding a bar with suitable seating. I also remembered that the artist who produced one of our favourite paintings in our apartment had her studio here, so we Googled it and off we went.

We found her working on a piece and managed to interrupt her. She knew me from Instagram, so we had a chat (her English is good) and we had a look about her studio and found this little beauty.

She had to spray it to protect the paint, and we’d have to come back. She started and the chemical smell from the spray was overpowering, so I asked her to recommend a bar at which we could sit, and she directed us towards Idyllium. We grabbed a seat there and had refreshments. The bar runs parallel to the wall which overlooks most of the valley. A camera with a good optical zoom would be a strong recommendation here!

After we finished the drinks, we headed back to the artist’s studio to find that she’d knocked a good 30% off the price of the piece. You should check her stuff out. I just found out she’s (she being Isabella Bisa) opened up a shop selling her work in Volterra! Anyway, you can check her out in Pienza or on her website.

We headed home then, having picked up our bonus artwork. We went a different way home, and so missed San Quirico again. I think we drove between Foiano della Chiana and Lugignano – towns I will blog about later, as we visited them during our return trip in October.

It was a long drive home, and you can see some highlights of the day in this YouTube video.

By the time we got back to Volterra, we were both hungry and thirsty, and so stopped at L’Antica Velathri Cafe for apperitivi.

The carbs didn’t end there, as we stopped for pizza. We found it hugely difficult to get a table anywhere, but we were shown down the back in Alla Vecchia Maniera. Afterwards, I had an obligatory stop in L’Isola del Gusto for a refreshing lemon sorbet. Then screenwatching and bed. An exhausting but incredibly fun day.

Thanks for reading. Please leave a like and a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

A Little R and R

A Little R and R

After the previous day’s fun and excitement, we took things handy yesterday. There were still a couple of sights our guest hadn’t seen, so another explore was on the cards.

Niamh and our guest went out ahead of me, as it took me a loooong time to put together blog yesterday. I showered and headed out. I don’t often take shots of the town outside of early morning.

After a little walk – through tons of schoolchildren and their parents – Volterra is a lived-in town, and younger kids were being picked up from school – we went to Fornelli for lunch.  This was the first time we’d eaten there this journey.  It was expensive for lunch, but we knew it would be.  The food was fabulous, though.

Our guest had some pork which looked to have been sealed in the pan, then finished off in the oven, with potato, apple sauce and jus.  Niamh had a chicken salad, and I had a crisp lasagne, which looked more like a large oven-baked raviolo – it was stuffed witha white cinta senese (pork from a type of pig bred near Siena) sauce, and was amazing.

The ladies went on to do a bit of shopping, while I stopped off at L’Isola del Gusto to grab some gelato to have with the chocolate soufflés we were given when we completed the cooking course.  I then settled in to watch some screen for the afternoon – I should have been writing, but that’s me all over.

An hour later, I heard the sbandiertori drums roll up our street towards the main square.  I’d seen the show a good few times already this year, so I skipped it, but it was new to our guest.  Turns out there may have been heralding the arrival of classic Ferraris, which then remained parked in Piazza dei Priori.

Later in the afternoon, Niamh and I went out to get some petrol for the car, and stopped off at the CoOp for some food shopping.

That evening the ladies had cold cuts – I craved something even slightly oriental, and had Teriyaki quick noodles.  Sorry, not sorry.  We then had the soufleés.  They didn’t turn out well, due to oven issues… still it was the damn nicest chocolate sauce I’d ever had with that gelato!

More screen watching, followed by bed.  No walk this morning, as the sky-god looked angry.  It doesn’t look too bad now, but I really have to get some writing done.  We are going to Del Duca for lunch today, so I have that definitely to look forward to!

Lari and the Pasta Factory

Lari and the Pasta Factory

We have two guests with us for a short while, so we decided to take them to Lari. We had been there before, but the Martelli pasta factory tours were closed in August (when many Italians go on holiday). We wandered up to the carpark, only to see that they’d strung some brollies over Gramsci. Tonight is Volterra’s culture night (La Notte Rossa), where there are a ton of acts playing around the city, and many of the major attractions are open for free from 21:00 to 24:00. Why do they call it The Red Night? They light up the city with red lamps – like they do near Christmas. It will be a late night, but I’m looking forward to it. Below is a pic of one of our favourite restaurateurs, from La Terre di Mezzo – getting ready for the festivities.

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We went to Lari by way of La Sterza, and Terriciola.  Why Google Maps changed our route to take is through Terriciola, rather than go around it is a mystery.  We were rewarded with a different set of sights this time around, as we were driven through village after village, past vineyards and olive groves.  It was pretty cool… except maybe for the driver, who insisted we travel a different route going home!  The roads were quite narrow in parts and can’t have been fun to navigate.

We parked near the old town, with about a 250m walk uphill to the archway which leads into the main area.  It was a warm day, and the climb was understandably a little draining.  There was an organised tour group ahead of us, but we only had to wait about 15 minutes for the next opening.  This afforded us a mooch around the town for a bit, including a trip to a jewellers who could only give us a price for an 18-carat bracelet after he’d weighed it.  I’d never seen that before!  When the price was given, we excused ourselves and left.

A large group of people had gathered from Ireland (including a pair of people other than ourselves), Germany, the US, the Netherlands and Switzerland to go in.  The tour was only about 15 minutes long, but you got to go into the areas where pasta (specifically spaghetti here – the rest of the pastas are made in the castle in the middle of the town) is dried and cut – and you were given a small sample of pre-cut pasta.  Martelli pasta is cut with bronze dies, which give it a very rough texture.  As the pasta is only made from durum wheat and water, there isn’t a flavour difference, but the sauce sticks beautifully to the pasta in the pan during the final stages of cooking.

The dude that came out to deliver the tour (in English) was dressed in video-game racial stereotype overalls, but he knew his stuff and was friendly.  The main area was really warm… maybe 35-36 celsius, and I wondered how hot it could get in August-heat!

Afterwards, we had a lunch with Martelli pasta.  We had done so before in the same restaurant, but the only new dish was the one I got – maccheroni with a tuscan ragu.

Our guests were a little tired, so we forewent trips to other towns, and headed home – capturing some lovely scenery on the way.  We had an obligatory stop at the ‘O’ on the road just past Volterra, on the way to Siena.

Apologies… you can see reflections in some of the photos.  On the way back to apartment, we grabbed some gelati, because we could!  We pretty much stayed in for the rest of the day, except when I nipped out to grab a little shopping, and Niamh went out to get takeaway pizza for herself and the other ladies.  

I’ve ceased being a fan of pizza at night (acid stomach), and instead got something even more trashy, but strangely nice for a change – a fishburger.  The fish was flaky inside the rough crumb, so it wasn’t the worst thing at all – I might try the burger in the same place (Attutapizza) some other time.

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Afterwards, we watched Wine Country on Netflix, which was mis-labelled as a comedy.  Ah, I’m being unfair – it wasn’t a bad flick (although I left about 10 mins before the end).  The Napa Valley looks a bit like Tuscany, so that was a plus – and the characters in it were amiable enough.

Anyhoo, this morning I got up earlier than usual, and compounded by the fact that it is later in the year, the town was a little darker than usual.  I found a new part of the route (well… Niamh had gone that way before me), which made the walk a little more interesting.  I also captured a wide shot of Volterra’s buildings I’d never been able to capture before.  It almost looks like another town from that angle.

The guests are having a mooch about town today, so I will use some of this day to put a hole in my writing project.  I hope to stay out much of the night to capture as much as I can on La Notte Rossa too, so I’m really looking forward to that!

We are bringing one of the guests to the airport tomorrow mid-morning, but I hope to have a blog up before we go tomorrow.

Cheerio!

Shaking off a Stomach Bug

Shaking off a Stomach Bug

My stomach was acting up for much of yesterday, and so I didn’t have enough confidence to go far from the apartment until that evening.  I got a little better later on, and I had a couple of beers and the rest of Niamh’s ragu with spaghetti.  It gets better after a day, when the flavours are allowed meld.  

That evening we all went out for a walk, and our guest and I polished off an gelato from L’Isola del Gusto.  

Much of the day was spent screen-watching, although I did write 700-800 words yesterday, so yay!

Wow.  Nighttime shots on the iPhone are a bit on the crap side.

We heard back from the furniture store (at last), and they are going to deliver our wardrobe, TV cabinet and bedside lockers this Saturday.  I learned on my walk this morning that a motorbike rally will take place between Saline and Volterra this Saturday and Sunday, and so that road may be closed off for long portions.  The delivery van should be coming in the Pisa road, though.

So yeah, my tummy was trustworthy enough this morning to warrant a walk.  I went all the way around the walls again (about 4.5km), but took the anti-clockwise route out the gate closest to us.  It was invigorating!

Low-lying banks of cloud made islands of some of the hilltops again, and it never fails to impress.  The photos don’t do it justice.

No set plans today, but with my stomach seemingly behaving itself, we might take the car out and go somewhere!

Cheers!

The Psychiatric Hospital Exhibit

The Psychiatric Hospital Exhibit

We’re still settling into a lifestyle here, which borders on ‘normal’.  The threat of bad weather still looms and we’re a little wary of travelling at the moment.  At the time of writing this, it’s actually raining and I’ve had to skip my walk.

Anyway, we fluted about most of yesterday, but did go to that place which serves Neopolitan street food after we’d done a little shopping.  We both got a cuoppo fritto, which essentially a collection of fried, bite-sized snacks (mini-arancini, battered stuffed olives, tempura veg, cheese balls, stuffed croquettes).  It was actually pretty tasty!  They have other stuff there, like deep-fried hot-dog rolls, and fried pizzas.

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We settled in for the afternoon.  I had a short nap, and afterwards went out alone to the Ex Manicomio (abandoned psychiatric hospital) exhibition they had on in town (Niamh went on her own walk).  I’ve already written a little about the facility here.  As well as some general stuff on the hospital, they focused on one of the patients: Oreste Fernando Nannetti, also known as NOF4, who, using only a belt-buckle, wrote his personal exegesis on hospital walls, over hundreds of square meters.  There’s a brilliant article in English about him here.  It speaks of a man who must have been fabulously imaginitive and intelligent, but whose skills were harnessed in an incorrect and unjust way.

The exhibition was really well put together, and there was a sense of sadness as readings from letters (I think) to relatives were read over a PA, to piano accompaniment. There were some good, progressive years in the hospital, but when it was bad, it was very bad. These poor souls were stripped of everything that identified them as being a unique, self-actualised person and were homogenised into a system which kept them hidden from the outside world, including friends and family.

In particular there was a heart-breaking display of some letters which were posted by inmates to friends/family, but were intercepted by the institution and never actually sent to their destination. They did show some of the more progressive stuff, in particular where patients (inmates?) were able to express themselves through painting, drawing or sculpture.

Above this exhibition, there were a bundle of rooms containing donations of the works of early-to-mid 20th Century local artists, and a mini-exhibit of local Etruscan burial sites. More Etruscan ruins were found below the main exhibition wall. All-in-all, it was €6 extremely well-spent. The facility is beautiful and modern, and a credit to the townsfolk.

I hope I’m ok with posting all of these photos.  Signs only warned against flash photography, and the exhibition ends on November 1st, so I’m thinking reader won’t get a chance to visit, unless they are local, or are coming over to Volterra soon for a visit. 

Sadly, I don’t think I’ll get a chance to get a tour of the hospital itself.  I think tours are in Italian, and require a minimum of 8 persons.

They had some cool-looking books and t-shirts there.  Unfortunately, their largest size of XL over here is like an L slim-fit back home.  Basically, it would have been a belly-top on me!

I grabbed a nice cone from L’isola del Gusto, before heading back to the apartment, which was probably acting-out, given my issue with t-shirt sizes!

Later that evening, we continued to eat like teenagers, and fried up store-bought burgers and had some of Niamh’s patented rosemary fries.  They were really excellent, but today I am in need of some veggies.  I then went out for a brief walk, to see if I could locate a live band I could hear – they were playing some Dad-rock classics and didn’t sound too bad.  I’m pretty sure they were in Albergo Etruria, just across the road from us.  There seemed to be a cover-charge in, and I just wanted to mooch for a while.  I skipped it and went back home.

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Some parts of Volterra get spooky at night!

So, with my walk skipped, that’s me done for today.  I’d like to make a veg-heavy soup as I feel I’m missing the vitamins.  I’ll post the results tomorrow!

I’ve been told that tonight there’s a Tuscan-wide crossbow competition in the main square, so we’ll definitely go to that, once we’ve found out the time it starts.

Cheers!

A Haircut and Shopping before Ferragosto

A Haircut and Shopping before Ferragosto

I wandered out for a little in the morning to get my head shaved (“Posso avere un zero, per favore?”, along with the mime of a razor going over my head from front to back).  Sadly I don’t know the name of the business, but it was on the corner of Via dei Sarti and Via delle Prigioni.  He was an older gentleman, and a few other men were hanging around inside and gossiping incessantly with him.  Is this a normal thing in older barber’s in Italy?  Anyway, it was nice to see.  When getting my head shaved, sometimes I only spend 4-5 minutes in the chair, but this old pro took his time – he was methodical and exacting, and did a great job – I spent about 15 minutes in there.  I’m not too sure about outside the old town, but a headshave is €14-€15 – a bit more expensive than back home.  Once he was done, I mumbled “Sono molto bello ancora.”, and he had the good grace to smile at my attempt at humour, and, wonder-of-wonders, he didn’t wince when I handed over a €50 note to pay!

At around 14:15, thought, I grabbed a couple of sandwiches from La Sosta del Priore for lunch.  Elena (I think that’s her name) knows me by name now – so that’s good service.  I hope to return the favour and ensure I remember hers.  On holidays, I get so fixated with sitting down in restaurants to get something to eat, when some of the best stuff you can find is street-food, and so it was a long time before I tried this place.  Anyway, if you’re in the area and are peckish – give them a shot.  Their Tripadvisor score is 4.5 after nearly 1,000 reviews.  Anyway, I got a porchetta (roast stuffed pork) sandwich, with caramelised onions and pecorino. *Drool*

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When the shops re-opened in the afternoon, we realised we’d have to get the ingredients and makings for food for the next couple of days.  We knew that tomorrow (today, as of the publication of this!) was Ferragosto.  This holiday is celebrated on the 15th of August every year and conincides with the religious feast of the Assumption.  A great many Italians take the day off and spend it with friends and family.

As it falls on a Thursday this year, I suspect that many will also take the Friday off and make an extra-long weekend of it.  With this in mind, we headed out to get meat, condiments and veggies for meals.  We noted that the insurance office below us was taking advantage of an extra-long weekend, and it turns out so was our local greengrocer.  We headed up Via Gramsci to go to another one, passing the owner/manager of La Taverna della Terra di Mezzo (we’ll eat there again soon!), Roberto, was outside talking with friends.  He gave us a friendly wave and hello as we went past.  We found that one shut too, and so headed past Roberto who nodded and smiled at us again.  We had decided to look for chicken breast in the butchers, and were halfway back down Gramsci, when I suggested we just get everything in the Co-Op supermarket.  Our walk to the car, took us past Roberto yet again in a matter of a minute, who looked at us amusedly, saying “And one more time!”.  

We got almost everything we needed in the Co-Op for a beef ragú for one day, and chicken and veg stir-fry for another.  We have a residents parking permit, but it doesn’t guarantee you a spot.  We have ridden our luck a lot in our favoured car-park, and once again managed to grab the last place upon our return.  After a nice little struggle up those stairs to our apartment, we settled in for more relaxation.

That evening, I had a second go at making an all’olio, aglio e peperoncino dish, this time correctly using spaghetti.  Still a little undersalted, but better again than my last time.

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It was tasty enough – and is a nice and light pasta dish to have if you’re not ravenous!

Later on that evening I went on patrol to check out what was happening about town.  It was a lot quieter than it had been over the weekend!  There was something going on in the pinacoteca (art gallery), but I’m not sure what it was.  People were dressed-up a little and stopping to pick up a brochure at a table outside.  I moved along, and somehow ended up with gelato from L’Isola del Gusto… don’t know how it happened, but I wasn’t complaining!

This morning, I decided to see if I could walk fully around the walls of the old town, and I made it.  Some days, I struggle, some days I feel great… this was one of those latter days!  Here is my route (click it to view a larger version – walking clockwise, about 4.3km):

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Naturally, I took some shots along the way.

You can clearly see the Tyrrhenian on the horizon today – that’s over 30km away.

Today, being our first Ferragosto here, we have no idea what will happen, but expect that most businesses will be closed, and that the traffic will be cataclysmic around the town.  We couldn’t belive how busy it was on Pasquetta (Easter Monday), when we were over here for a couple of weeks in April.  Nonetheless, we’ll head out and about to see what’s what, and report back.

As we are collecting a guest tomorrow morning, we’ll have to tidy the house, empty some of the wardrobe in the guest room (we’ll have no wardrobe in the master room, until it gets delivered towards the end of the month).  Fun times.  It also means that there will likely be no blog tomorrow, but they will recommence on Saturday.

Ciao, and to anyone from Italy reading this: Buon Ferragosto!