29 November 2019

1129GIt’s the penultimate day of November and my rainfall total for the month is 299mm. That’s the biggest monthly accumulation ever recorded by me. Which isn’t really saying hugely much because I only bothered to start adding up the monthly figures in 2016 but all the same – it’s a whole lot of water, and unquestionably more than the 94mm-odd which is our November average.

After our splendid October, November has been joy-sappingly drear. Only autumn colours – which arrived with the rain and have been superb… though it would be nice to have some sunny illumination to highlight them – have made the darkness bearable. They came on lightning quick, and I feared they would drop off the same way. But no, they’re clinging beautifully.

The ones that have surprised me are the mulberries by the front gate. They’re usually the harbingers of autumn, turning acid yellow and falling well before the others. But this year they’re just beginning to turn as the others begin to fall. What strange mix of moisture and daylight and temperature caused that surprise? Trees are nothing if not mysterious.

Last week, in a spirit (I hope) of curiosity rather than self-righteousness, we decided we’d go single-use-plastic-free for seven days. That was Sunday. We needed milk to brew up some home-made yoghurt (brownie points) but at the supermarket I was faced with a stark choice: milk in a plastic bottle, or milk in a plastic-lined tetrapak carton with a plastic screw-top lid. I opted for the latter (worst of two evils?) and vowed to begin my plastic-free week properly on Monday.

That was easy. We had a kitchen full of food. No need to go to the plastic-filled shops. Ok, the new liquidiser goblet we’d ordered arrived swathed in bubble wrap, but that wasn’t our fault, was it? We’d have to live with that. And, we were told, there was a local farmer who might sell us milk. True, it was sheep’s milk but that would probably be all right. Did we follow this up? No.

1129AOn Tuesday we needed bananas. When I got to the supermarket, other necessities presented themselves to me and I (rather ostentatiously) weighed, placed loose things in my basket and stuck the sticky price labels around the edge of the basket to present one by one at the till. Then after all my efforts I noticed that there were paper bags lurking beneath the piles of plastic ones. I could have used them. Not so cleverly virtuous then. The little plastic stickers on the apples identifying the producer irked me terribly when I noticed them at home.

On Wednesday I stopped by our favourite cheese shop in Chiusi Scalo to get some ricotta. Before I gathered my wits together the girl behind the counter had dropped it into a seal-able plastic tub. “I wanted it in paper!” I wailed, but she said it was pointless at that point because she’d just have to throw out the plastic container anyway.

And that’s when I gave up. Pathetic. Where are my principles?

In the market last Saturday, where the boys at my favourite produce stall tease me weekly when I demand that everything be tipped loose into my big bags (but do it nonetheless), Roberto decided to lecture me about how his plastic bags are made of corn starch and completely bio-degradable therefore I was being ridiculous. I pointed out that the raw materials had to be harvested and processed and transported then the finished product had to be transported and distributed and that in fact those so-called biodegradable bags really need to be industrially composted anyway.

“But I throw them in my fields. After a month or so they’ve more or less disappeared!”

So how many of those bags does he throw away each week? Maybe 20, maybe more? That’s 80 bags strewn round his fields in various states of decomposition at any given time. Leaving aside aesthetics, is that even practical? I don’t think so.

Of course long before I’d finished trying to explain this to him he had given me a despairing look and wandered off to another customer. Am I very boring? Perhaps there is an element of self-rightiousness here after all.

Driving down the lane one night a couple of weeks ago, we passed a beautiful little owl sitting on the slim trunk of a recently decapitated bush on the verge. I know nothing at all about owls but I’m going to guess it was a barn owl, with its gorgeous white moonface. It watched us with wide wondering eyes, unperturbed, as we rattled past.

“We could take it to Athens with us,” said B, partner of my daughter C. They were just about to move to Greece.
“Er, why?”
“You know, owls to Athens.”

B is Swiss. Something was clearly being lost in translation.

It is, apparently, the Swiss version of “taking coals to Newcastle”. But the Swiss, I have since found out, have simply purloined an ancient Greek saying. Athens is the city of the goddess of wisdom Athena/Minerva, and Athena’s symbol is an owl. Ancient Athenian coins were stamped with the picture of an owl. So taking more owls to the city was otiose, hence the saying.

It’s so much more beautiful than coals and Newcastle. I’m going to use it from now on.

And while we’re on the subject of the ancient Greeks.

I took a pile of L’s shirts to Rita’s funny old dry cleaning shop to iron.

“Where’s your daughter these days?” she asked. Rita likes to be informed of everybody’s movements.
“She’s moved to Athens.” Blank look. “Greece.”
“Oh, Greece!” Short silence. “Is it… dangerous?”
“No! Of course not!”
“But are they, at least, er, Europeans?”

Rita’s curiosity bumps up against a world view circumscribed by having rarely set foot outside CdP. She is genuinely, kindly fascinated by everything but not always sure what the right reaction is to the information she gleans. In this question, ‘Europeans’ falls somewhere between ‘Christian’ and ‘white’, or maybe a mixture of the two. I’m absolutely sure that Rita has no objection to people of other beliefs or colours; I’m convinced that she’d greet them in the same affably bumbling way that she greets everyone.

I pull myself up to my full height, which is about twice Rita’s (though she’s almost twice as wide as I am).

“Rita! The Greeks! the ancient Greeks! They’re the cornerstone of our European civilisation!” I tell her sternly.
Ah, sì! I greci. Antichi. Grandiosi!” she gasps, suddenly full of classical fervour.


Taking part in ‘sardine‘ protests in Perugia

This week a friend who speaks very little Italian asked me to go with her to Perugia’s Silvestrini hospital – a healthcare city on the outskirts of Perugia itself – for some urgent tests. We located the right department in the vast complex, took a number, then sat down and awaited out turn to talk to the women at the reception desk and were promptly accosted by an elderly man in a white coat (doctor? nurse? self-appointed busy body? impossible to say) who seemed dead set on telling us that we were doing everything wrong. Wrong place probably, but wrong paperwork definitely: there was an official prescription from the CdP doctor missing, and there was no way these tests could possibly be done.

Except. Hang on.

Off he bumbled, then returned to beckon us through to the microbiologist whose name was on the CdP doctor’s note. She shook her head and said, nope, wrong kind of request. I explained that my friend had no national health coverage and was aware that she’d have to pay for the tests. The microbiologist looked worried. No way.

Except. Hang on.

And so she led us back to the original desk and got the woman there to see what could be done. The elderly man weighed in. “You know you’ll have to pay. I mean, you’ll have to pay. Pay, you know? I hope you have private insurance. You have private insurance? Phew! Just as well!”

A bit of fiddling with a computer, a bit of concerned consulting with colleagues, and two minutes later: “that’ll be €5.20.”

Five euros, twenty cents. Everyone looked shell-shocked as we handed the money over. Having to charge someone the full price. Scandalous.

Italians moan about their healthcare system everywhere. They moan about our little CdP hospital which if you ask me performs miracles; and they moan about this labyrinthine hi-tech hospital-city on the outskirts of Perugia. But there’s a reason why Italy ranks so high in international healthcare comparisons (see here and here) and it becomes crystal clear when you need something, fast. Of course the all-purpose rule of ‘everything difficult, nothing impossible’ has to be applied here. You have to know how to work the system and run the gauntlet of catastrophism before emerging with what you want.

Even before we’d handed over the unthinkable sum, the microbiologist was back, waving a piece of paper with neatly printed analysis results. And so we exited to find the car in the immense carparks that surround the Silvestrini hospital-city. All of which are free. The moaners don’t know how lucky they are.

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Acqua alta, Venice. A photo essay

Between one exceptional tide and another, a casual visitor to Venice this week might not even notice the damage that water is doing to lives and livelihoods and property and morale. Because as always, Venetians have mobilised to keep things running, as far as is possible with burnt-out electrical appliances, and ruined goods and belongings drenched with sea water.

Acqua alta happens every year, true, but this week’s record highs have left Venetians feeling more helpless, more wounded, more furious and more frustrated than ever. Flood defences are a long-running saga with no end in sight; Mammon takes precedence over the safeguarding of the lagoon’s delicate ecological balance. The fabric and the soul of this extraordinary, unique city are being shaken to their core. Can we really not find a solution?

There are (short-term) ways to help.
The city council has set up a bank account for donations: Comune di Venezia-Emergenza acqua alta. Mark donations as ‘contribution for tide emergency’ IBAN: IT 24 T 03069 02117 100000 018767 BIC: BCITITMM
To help Venetians whose businesses have suffered, add goods from Venetian artisans and shops to your Christmas buying list. There are lots of #VeniceGiftGuide posts on Twitter, thanks to @DreamOfVenice
El Felze is an organisation grouping artisans who make gondolas and gondola parts. Their workshops tend to be at water level, which means that they suffered hugely in the exceptional high water. To help them get back on their feet, you can donate to Associazione El Felze IBAN IT90 P 05034 02070 000000100273 SWIFT BAPPIT21709 marking your payment “donazione per sostegno artigiani”.
There has been severe damage to the Carlo Scarpa-designed ground floor of the splendid Galleria Querini Stampalia. You can donate to the restoration fund here – IBAN: IT 76 O 010 0502 0000 0000 0032 500 (mark donation ‘Acqua Alta 12 novembre 2019) or donate through Paypal via their website.
Duri i Banchi/Love, together with Venessia, is collecting funds for Venetian families hit hard by the high water of the past few days. 100% of money donated will be distributed. You can donate through the Duri i Banchi website.
A GoFundMe page has been set up for Dal Nono Colussi, a long-running Venetian bakery/cake shop which has been hit hard in this week’s acqua alta.
Venice’s Ca’ Foscari university has also set up an emergency fund: you can find it here.
Manuscripts in the library of Venice’s (music) Conservatorio suffered serious water damage. They’re looking for expert restorers to help them salvage as much as possible.
The Giudecca studio of artist Claudia Corò was devastated by acqua alta. You can help her out here.
Many Venetian bookshops have been trying to selling flood-damaged books at reduced prices to move stock. The Siae (Italian publishers’ association) has set up a fund to help the stores get back on their feet.
Please message me about other initiatives/organisations which I can flag up.

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Quince jam

Each year the performance of my one quince tree is somewhere on a scale from ‘too many to know what to do with’ to ‘utterly overwhelming’. This year it’s off the scale. Every breath of wind brings an avalanche of dangerously firm golden fruit. So I’ve been flailing about in a desperate seach for things to do with my harvest.

Of course I’m making jelly and compote and my winter stalwart cotognata. But I’ve also been seeking inspiration on Levantine recipe sites, Cydonia oblonga being a very near-eastern fruit. The recipe below is an amalgam of several. 

Quinces – 4 kg
Sugar – 2 kg
Scented pelargonium (geranium) leaves – sprig
Lemons – 2
Cinnamon – to taste
Cloves – 5 or 6

Squeeze the juice of the two lemons into a large bowl, throw the lemon skins in there too, then add cold water – about eight mugs full. Now peel and core the fruit, throwing the pieces (quarters are easiest) into the bowl of lemon water as you go. 

When you’ve worked your way through the whole pile of fruit, transfer some of the lemon water into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and grate the quince pieces into this saucepan, using the larger holes of a regular grater. As the grated fruit mounts up, transfer more lemon water into the saucepan: the important thing is to keep both the chunks and the grated fruit covered so that oxidization doesn’t turn the quince brown.

When all the fruit and all the lemon water is in the saucepan (best to leave the lemon skins in the mix: the peel and membranes release extra pectin), add a 6-7cm length of cinnamon stick (or a teaspoon or so of powdered cinnamon), the cloves and the scented geranium leaves. There are many variations of these last: you really want one that is vaguely lemony or rosy, rather than smelling of menthol etc.

Slowly bring everything towards the boil, then add the sugar, stirring until it’s all dissolved. (Note that I like my jams very tart. You may wish to use anything up to 4 kg of sugar if you prefer something sweeter.) Now let the mix bubble away until it reaches gelling point (105°C/220°F at sea level; one degree less for every 100m above). This may be 90 minutes or two hours (less if you’ve used more sugar). If the heat is low, it will bubble for ages and you can get away with stirring from time to time; if it’s higher things move more quickly but you’ll need to stir it frequently, keeping a wire mesh splash guard between you and flying bits of scalding liquid, and remembering that explosive pockets of air may have formed under the fruity mush. If you don’t stir, it will turn to burnt toffee at the bottom of the pot.

Temperature is the best way to gauge when this jam is ready because the juice that appears to be swilling around the fruit pieces in rather too liquid a fashion when it’s hot really will set to a proper jam consistency as it cools. But you will also notice (a) that the bubbles rising look increasingly glue-ier, and (b) that the mix turns a glorious dark amber colour.

Ladle the hot jam into sterilised jars, put the lids on tightly and store in a dark cupboard until you need it. These quantities should produce about 3.5 kg of jam.

©Anne Hanley, 2019

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1 November 2019

Late yesterday evening L went down into the valley to rent a car. He’s off to Positano for work, and I need ours. “But this driving license ran out in August,” says the Avis man, “I can’t rent you a car!” And of course he shouldn’t have been driving our car all this time either. He has effectively been uninsured and very dangerous.

Resigned to a train ride and very difficult transfers on the Amalfi Coast’s hair-raising public transport once there, L leaves the office, then about-turns and goes back in. Could Anne rent the car? But L still couldn’t drive ours down to Positano. Was there any way….? No, unthinkable! But perhaps…? Public offices are closed for three days over the All Saints’ long weekend but wow, the ACI (Automobile Club d’Italia) office in Chiusi Scalo is open. And gosh, it just happens to be the afternoon when the medico legale is there doing check-ups for licenses.

The car rental guy runs him along, the medico legale asks a few health-related questions, pieces of paper are signed, a €90 fee changes hands and – hey presto! – in the space of less than an hour, as the whole of Italy is crawling towards holiday weekend lethargy, L manages to procure himself a temporary driving license which is sufficient for the car rental company. The real document will arrive by registered post on Tuesday. The efficiency is breath taking.

Italy’s like that. Ordinaria amministrazione can be a grindingly slow thing, of untold procrastination and byzantine infuriation. An emergency is a whole other kettle of fish. 

I remember reading how crowd management experts from all over the world descended on Rome in wonder to witness the miracle taking place after the death of Pope John Paul II. A city of three million residents suddenly had to house, feed, corral and deal with the waste of two million people who descended on the city to pay their respects. The operation was grandiose and massively successful.
And after the earthquake in central Italy in 2016, immense temporary well-laid-out towns with drainage and good water supplies went up almost overnight for the people forced to leave their homes – people who, in many cases are still waiting to rebuild the original homes because funding has fallen into a black hole of bureaucracy and very possibly, in some cases, graft.
Just a few weekends ago, as we walked along the Sentiero degli dei on the Amalfi Coast, we watched what looked like an S&R helicopter hovering over a stretch of path much further along, then swoop off. It all seemed too quick for anything more than a fly-by, but I was talking later to an American man who had been walking that bit of path at the time, who said he’d never seen anything like the way the operators had bundled up a woman who had damaged her leg falling on the path, then whisked her off to hospital. 

Granted, L neglecting to renew his driving license is no life-threatening emergency but his pressing need generated just the right sense of urgency. Everyone pulls together, people go out of their way, things get done. Fast. 

In popular mythology/stereotype it’s part of Italy’s easy charm, of course, that no one seems to feel pressured, that nothing needs to be done in haste, that every can can be kicked down the road until such time as suits. And there is a national tendency – a very positive one generally – to prioritise the good, enjoyable things in life over the kind of boring, pesky procedures which actually make the world run more smoothly. Moreover, Italian petty officials are quite often that type of person who feels their mission in life is to insert as many spokes into as many wheels as possible, just so that everyone feels their ‘power’. But when everything goes pear-shaped and you need help in a real bind, just hope you have an Italian nearby. They’ll by-pass every obstacle and break every rule to get what’s needed when it’s needed. And they’ll reach deep into remarkable hidden deposits of efficiency and accuracy.

A note on bureaucracy: I should also say that, helping an older British friend recently to get the UK documents needed to procure an Italian driving license and get herself signed up for the Italian health service reminded me just how intransigent bureaucracy elsewhere can be. With all my years of experience I’m pretty adept at wheedling my way around Italian officials… not always, but often enough to feel that if you know how to handle it, and you’re willing to park your frustration and exploit the human element, you can usually get what you need without too much fuss. 

To get one vital piece of paper relating to a UK pension I spent a total of over eight hours (literally) over several days listening to recorded messages from various not-joined-up British ministry departments where no one at all (when/if they finally answered) would help me out of my impasse… until I tried my Italian wiles on one kindly Scot and threatened to cry if he didn’t help me. In desperation and acute embarrassment, he did. In a round-about way.

In the health service office in Castiglione del Lago where we subsequently took the flimsy piece of paper, a very kindly, gangly middle-aged man tapped everything into his computer efficiently while at the same time confirming my suspicions that he still lived at home with his mother. It was after midday, and the phone rang. As he typed, receiver tucked between ear and shoulder, mamma bellowed the lunch menu at him, and he explained, in some detail, his bowel movements during the night and that morning. When we exited with all the necessary paperwork a very short time after, there was little we didn’t know about his inner workings.

The hunting season is under way and I have had my first run-in. Every year something the hunters do annoys me. All right, I admit – their very existence annoys me. But there’s usually one particularly upsetting incident. And this year I’ve already had it.

I was weeding out by the barbecue. A neighbour had kindly informed me that the usual gun-toting band was moving down the valley. I could hear them crashing and banging about anyway. Then suddenly, four or five deafening shots, smoke rising from the scrub about 15m from where I was standing and bits of oak leaf fluttering to the ground along the north side of the house. I nearly jumped out of my skin but more than scared, I was livid. 

I yelled louder than I knew I was capable of, telling them to come out because I wanted a word with them, but all the response I got was the sound of scuttling away through the undergrowth, then a long silence. Was the whole pack of them hoping I’d just be quiet and go away if they hid for long enough?

So I tried the carabinieri. Who told me that it wasn’t within their remit: I should call the forestale (which as far as I know is now part of the carabinieri). I called and I called. No answer. Is it possible that the forestale doesn’t work on Sunday? The day when hunters are out, shamelessly ignoring the no-shooting-within-100m-of-any-house rule? I called back to the carabinieri where I was told “I’d send a car if I could but I don’t have one here to send.” Just as well no one was being murdered.

I’ve been told – by someone I consider fairly well informed – that our police station gets its petrol money at the beginning of the week, so if you’re planning any crimes it’s better to commit them towards the end when they’re eeking out last dribbles, or have run out of fuel entirely. I may have fallen into that black hole.

So I stormed up the lane and angrily collared one of the hunter-outliers who rather pathetical said “well it wasn’t me: I’ve been here all the time” – badly missing my point that the whole bunch of them needed to rethink their manoeuvres.

Then I summoned up my scary shouting voice again – the one I didn’t know I had – and yelled down the valley that they really really really needed to show themselves because otherwise I was going – ha ha ha – to get the police round. More silence. Then slowly, slowly they started tramping up out of the woods. Some were carrying a small boar, one at each leg. A man who does odd garden jobs whom I’ve worked with in the past had obviously been delegated to calm down the mad foreign shouting woman. Over he came, all friendly and (I’m sure he thought) reassuring.

“Next time we’ll call you to warn you we’re coming.”

What? So I can barricade myself into my house? I don’t think that’s going to solve things, I told him. I want outliers all along my fields. If the first in line for a bullet is one of your own then, perhaps, you’ll think a little more carefully. Nervous tittering.

“Anyway, you weren’t in any danger. There was no one shooting there.” 

Sorry? Does that make me delusional or a liar?

“There can’t have been anyone there. We had no reason to be there. We’d never shoot that close to a house.” 

I saw the smoke rising from the shots.

“No, no, there was no one up here except my brother.”

Now, this man’s brother is known as a trigger-happy loose cannon, a one-man disaster zone. My life, I suddenly thought, may have been in serious danger. I tried my best withering look.

From that point on, one by one, they sidled over and failed to apologize. Each had his own explanation. 

“Oh, it must be those guys who shoot wood pigeons,” said one. Well apart from the fact that they shoot them in the evening I said, are you really telling me that wood pigeon hunters are so stupid that they go into dense woods at the same time as testosterone-fueled boar maniacs? That’s suicidal!

All the while I was hearing hushed conversations about the huge beast (it kept growing: two hundredweight, four hundredweight…) they’d shot down in the valley, and how on earth they were going to get it out. Chainsaw-like noises began. Were they butchering it in situ? It took a while to dawn on me: the serial idle chit-chat was a ruse to keep me busy, just in case I took exception to their throwing a rope around my oak tree to drag the monster boar out with their petrol-powered winch. They really do think they rule the place.

Interior ministry figures for 2017 (the most recent I can find) show that in Italy there were 738,602 people with hunting licenses, with numbers declining considerably year on year. Umbria accounted for 28,500 of these. Yet to keep these few infuriating souls happy we have to take our lives into our hands if we go for a country walk – or even if I decide to pull a few weeds – five days a week from September to February. Weekends are high-risk: you’re only really safe on no-hunting days, Tuesday and Friday. Is this reasonable? Can we not at least reclaim either Saturday or Sunday? It’s a strong – and heavily armed – lobby. I don’t see things getting much better until the steady decline in hunter numbers rids us of them altogether.

Last week I succumbed to curiosity – and a little bit of pride – and drove down to Rome to pick up my TCI (Touring Club Italiana) piece of paper for appearing in their 2020 hotels and restaurants guide.
It’s a funny old-fashioned guide, edited by funny old-fashioned people. The featured selection seems to depend on recommendations from travel writers who mention things to the editors en passant. Representing Città della Pieve, for example, are my Pieve Suites along with the Logge del Perugino which is a sad affair dealing mostly with well-nigh-invisible bus loads of Chinese tourists who arrive under the cover of darkness, depart under the cover of darkness, and almost never emerge from the property which is handily placed mid-way between their one day in Florence and their one day in Rome. No CdP restaurants. No other accommodation options. Which is flattering for me, of course, but not entirely a fair snapshot of what’s on offer in our rather well endowed little town.

I could easily have missed my slot in the guide: the emails that kept arriving, purporting to be from the TCI and asking for my details, looked less than authentic so I binned them. Then an Italian travel writer friend mentioned that she had very kindly put my name forward for inclusion. So I went for it.

The presentation of the 2020 guide was a huge bun-fight in a god-forsaken venue in northern Rome. It wasn’t until I arrived that it became clear that I (and many other new entries) had been kind of ambushed. There was a general presentation at 10am. Then certificates were being handed out much much later in the afternoon. In between we were all expected to appear to be enjoying ourselves at the severely under-stocked food stalls. I admit: I fled and went to Ikea to buy a new duvet.

When I returned, the place was bedlam. Hoteliers and restaurateurs who’d been through the process before knew to turn up only for the afternoon bit. There were entire families of beaming hotel owners, and bored-looking hipster F&B managers. Everyone had to be photographed. No one waited around much after grabbing their attestato.

I’m already getting phone calls, from which I have already formed a clear picture in my head of the model TCI guide reader. They’re people who can’t cope with anything as avant garde as, say, googling. They’re older and more querelous and generally in need of decisional babysitting. It will be interesting to see what effect it has on my bookings.

It’s trying its hardest to be seasonal-appropriately cold, but it’s not doing a very good job. Our 20°+ (70°F) days have gone. And there are grey clouds plus a little rain about. But my attempts to wear a woolly jacket when I go out all end with my ripping it off because I’m turning into a sweaty bundle. Our wood burners remain unlit.

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16 October 2019

It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that the answer to a newspaper headline that ends in a question mark is almost always “no”. This holds especially true in the very small local press. This headline is a case in point: Città della Pieve, red alert – is the water tower inside the covered market collapsing?

The resounding “er… no” that came from town council engineers no time at all later came as little surprise.

The whole article is a gem of an example of something that should never have been published, even on the website of a publication as humble as Chiusi-based Prima Pagina. The gist: in a rare idle moment a market stall holder – presumably the genial, cheese-purveying, pork-pie-hat-wearing Fausto – glanced over towards the water tank and happened to notice that the upright nearest him was slightly out of plumb and just a little chipped around the edges. A Prima Pagina scribbler must have been passing by at that moment, so Fausto (or whoever) took advantage of this bit of serendipity to share his observations.

Hold the front page!

“Some people will no doubt accuse us of alarming people needlessly,” the piece begins. Yes indeed, they certainly will. “The stall holder says he is there every week and has never noticed this state of affairs before.” He’s usually overwhelmed by baying cheese-buyers: should we be surprised?

If the water tank collapsed “it would be a drama. There’d be fatalities and injuries because there are people in the covered market, there’s a bar across the street, the main road is right outside and residents live nearby… We all saw what happened in Genoa to a structure on the verge of collapse.”

Now, I’m as concerned for the continued well being of my fellow pievesi as anyone, but I still feel it’s a bit of a stretch to compare one small-town water tank to Genoa’s towering Morandi bridge which killed 43 people when it plunged so tragically into the valley below in 2018. And I truly feel that one phonecall to the town council might have caused far fewer palpitations among the populace than five hundred words of scare-mongering purple prose.

It’s perfectly normal, the official reply explained patiently, for a structure supporting a great weight to be slightly splayed at the bottom to better distribute the pressure from above. All is as it has always been.

What I did find interesting in the Prima Pagina provocation however was one little snippet of a fact that I really hadn’t realised before. I knew that the venue of our covered market-plus-brilliantly concealed water cistern was the deconsacrated church of Sant’Anna degli Scolopi. And that the Scolopi (Piarists) are an order dedicated to giving an education to poor children. (Who knew that the reputation of the order suffered early set-backs because the Inquisition had doubts about its founder’s friendship with the ‘heretic’ Galileo… and because one 17th-century leading light was known to have a penchant for young boys, plus ça change?) But I wasn’t aware that the water tank had been inside the building since 1936.

Just a couple of weekends ago, architect friends visiting from the UK had us musing on how on earth that massive tank got in there, ingeniously inserted into the high round drum of the church (such a sensible use for a church, and far less aesthetically disheartening than an ugly utilitarian structure blighting the town skyline). Presumably it was constructed and welded in situ because there’s no other way. Now I’m kind of wondering: have they cleaned it out since 1936? A question mark I know, but let’s hope the answer to this one is yes.

My favourite excuse for my Pieve Suites  being rather less than full (though it is, I should say, still ticking over slowly but nicely, and getting more noticed all the time) is that it’s not so much a low-profile three-guestroom structure I’m selling; it’s more that I’m having to spread the word about a little-known town and an overlooked region. Umbria? Umbria? Is that in Tuscany?

So imagine my surprise when I bearded Roberto Wirth (owner not only of Rome’s classic five-star luxury Hotel Hassler but also, as of a few months ago, of our much humbler Hotel Vannucci) in his hotel-den a couple of weeks ago only to hear him launching immediately into the same lament.

Umbria? Umbria? Some people ask if that’s in Tuscany. The better informed ones look worried and mutter “earthquakes”. How on earth do I sell this?

If this scion of a generations-old hotelier family, with a PR machine of vast proportions at his beck and call, is flummoxed by the idea of selling Umbria, and Città della Pieve in particular, perhaps my excuses are just a little bit justified.

It’s an on-going mystery why Wirth bought this smart-but-ordinary four-star in a town which is absolutely not on the radar for jet-setting Hassler-type guests. Talking to him, I got the impression he was as bemused as the rest of us. I have heard endless variations on the theme of what he’s going to make it into. Will the current 30 rooms become a handful of luxury suites servicing a high-class cooking school? Will it remain much as it is, with a few extra curlicues to justify pushing prices higher?

Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch the fall-out for CdP. The Vannucci is, after all, the only nice-ish, large-ish structure in town providing hotel accommodation for visitors to events and on busy holiday weekends. Make it extra-luxe and – while Pieve Suites might benefit – CdP loses infrastructure vital for any serious tourism strategy.

There’s also the (small) worry that Wirth might actually succeed: that CdP might really become one of those inexplicable small-town meccas which lose their souls to hordes of tourists bent on getting to the Next Place without really knowing what they’re doing there. And the industry is always on the look-out for the Next Place.

This may be my vivid imagination running away with me. We don’t have San Gimignano’s towers, Cortona’s Under The Tuscan Sun (bleugh) associations, Todi’s gothic cathedral, Pitigliano’s magnificent beetling tufo walls. But as traveller numbers swell and available Next Places dwindle, some enterprising travel PR might decide to make a case for Perugino’s  birth town, with a tenuous connection to Machiavelli hovering around its Rocca and some minor but quite charming Etruscan remains in a church crypt.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve met more people than I generally do (okay, I’m talking single figures but still…) seriously considering a move to this area. What they like about it – kind of ironically, given that they were all Anglo – is the genuine-ness, the fact that there’s a feeling of real Italian life going on, without that crushing let-down of running away from home only to find yourself surrounded by other ex-pats. Don’t sit in the Café degli Artisti for too long on a sunny weekend morning, I warned some: you might begin to think otherwise.

But they are, as I’ve said ad infinitum, correct. Real life really is quietly going on here in this rather overlooked, utterly beautiful corner of the world. And however complicated that makes it for me to sell my accommodation business, long may it stay that way.

Autumn continues ludicrously warm and blue. After a couple of (uncharacteristic) cloudy days our solar panels failed to heat our water to piping, so I switched the water heater back on again yesterday. Last year I switched it back on in mid-September. Thank you climate change.

We have used these lovely days for jaunts – to the Maremma coast, to Venice, to a very arty gathering in Chianti.

The first, with aforementioned UK friends, started life as a cycling holiday but relative chasms in cycling proficiency (and probably quite a lot of negativity from me) meant that time spent in the saddle was limited and anodyne – a very pleasant pedal along the Tombolo della Feniglia plus a bit of roaming around the hinterland in a long search for a brilliant trattoria which turned out to be not so much a rural treat as slap bang on the Aurelia highway with trucks screeching by.

We finally visited Niki de San Phalle’s loopy and really (I found – others disagreed) rather soulless Giardino dei Tarocchi. But most wonderfully, we had a key to let ourselves through a gate straight from the house Lee had borrowed from a colleague-friend into the Lago di Burano nature reserve where we walked past the flamingo-festooned lagoon to a beach where we were the only living beings for as far as the eye could see and, I’d bet, quite a lot further. In the moment, I was merely lapping up the wonder; with hindsight, I have to admit to a bit of a gloat when I thought of the oily, sweaty summer crush on much of that coast. The advantages of autumn. The water was warm: water temperatures always lag behind, and the air temperature was still high anyway. For we inhabitants of a land-locked region, it was pure bliss.

Venice on the other hand was a big splashy party for the inauguration of the new St Regis. We were trying to calculate how often we’ve been to Venice. Surely over 100 times – maybe many more. But with all the city’s problems and my grouses about it, it never fails to make my heart soar. This is still more true when your movements are all by cushy water taxi, and your visit to St Mark’s basilica is at 10pm when all the tourists have magically cleared out.

And the artsy, winey Chianti Saturday? The Castello di Ama is a winery I’m always happy to return to. Such a beautiful spot. And with a collection of contemporary art which is challenging and organic and even if my words- (and gardens-) focussed brain often grapples with the works with mixed outcomes, I always find that (perhaps egged on by the setting) the grappling is worth while. This event was a presentation of the latest addition to the collection, a pendant red string among towering stainless steel wine vats by Miroslaw Balka. I’m still mulling that one.


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