16 January 2019

Città della Pieve

It’s the end of an era. In town this morning the old signs were coming down from the façade of my bank and shiny new ones were going up. I loved the fact that it had remained – according to the signs at least – Banca dell’Umbria, an august institution dating from 1462 which died a very definitive death in 2005 when it was swallowed up by the Unicredit monster. Suspended between a disappeared past (outside) and a mediumly efficient present (inside), it seeemed like a happy metaphor for… something or other.

I have been walking. In the sense of stomping about the countryside. It’s something which was our default mode of getting the city out of our system for the 25 years that we lived in Rome. We’d go up to the Monti Lucretili or peaks further afield and spend whole days – sometimes weekends – trekking about. 

But here in the countryside, with walking opportunities all around us, L tends to hop on his bike at which point I retire to my garden and label that ‘exercise’ which I guess, in its way, it is. (In fact I’m reading all over the place now that half an hour of intense garden pottering just as good a workout as swimming, non-speedy cycling or jogging – though my back after a hard day of turning soil or heaving compost about might provide arguments against its health-giving benefits.)

Pulling on hiking boots and setting out right from our front door into our extraordinary unspoilt environs is a such a privilege. It was a friend who urged me to join her group with a local guide just before Christmas. She wanted to show me the ‘hippy village’, which turned out to be one of those CdP mysteries for which everyone has their own interpretation.

According to my friend, these were disaffected alternativi from Rome in the 1960-70s living an off-grid lifestyle deep in a far-flung Umbrian wood; until, that is, they became disaffected hippies and drifted back to the Big Smoke. According to the guide, it was a holiday village built by a local who ran into financial problems and the property was eventually engulfed into the drug rehabilitation centre over in that valley and left to disintegrate.

Whatever the truth, it’s a psychedelically weird and melancholy oasis in a lovely bit of woodland. 

I was amazed at the energy that walking gave me. So last weekend when L’s knee started playing up and cycling became agony, I got him out exploring paths with me. 

The idea was to make our way round to the other side of our valley, to where woodcutters have been driving us crazy with their whining chainsaws since well before Christmas. Every day, except Christmas Day; from shortly after six AM until sundown. It’s a bit of an upheaval in a valley so quiet that we even moan about loud birdsong when it disturbs our sleep of a morning.

So I have to keep reminding myself: it’s good for the forest to be husbanded like that. 

Umbria’s forests are impressive: the region isn’t called Italy’s Green Heart for nothing. Latest figures (from 2008, but hey) show that 46% and rising of the region’s territory is wooded, which is a whole lot more than the national average of 29%. And deciduous forests of native species (mostly oaks of various kinds and hornbeam) account for 87% of this. (It’s interesting, too, that ten years ago 80% of licensed woodcutters were Italian, of which 17% were over 64. Figures today, I’m pretty sure, would show a vast growth in the number of young eastern Europeans, by which I mean Macedonians who are, as far as I can see, the favoured manpower in our woods.) 

Surprising bamboo

What they’re doing across there is, I think, called compound coppicing in English (ceduo composto), leaving tall standards here and there. In this way, the stools (the age-old trunk-stumps and what lurks underground) will produce new growth alongside the standards. Varying ages of timber – with diseased plants and those anomalous species which have infiltrated the woods (like the very surprising stand of bamboo I happened across in the wildest, most remote bit of valley which we managed to scramble to) removed – make for a healthy woodland. I love the thought that, governati like this, the stools are basically immortal. There really is no limit to how long they may go on pushing out new timber. Trees are marvellous.

But our hopes of clambering in the newly tidied bit of the hillside came to nothing: the lengths of sizeable trunk were neatly stacked in mounds, but between the standards was an impenetrable mesh of smaller branches and twigs, blocking paths and preventing anything like freedom of movement. Also, we realised, our interlocking valleys are so confusing: this wasn’t the hillside we really wanted to walk along at all.

Instead we swung around to the next ridge and plunged down into the Tre Mulini valley, the one that stretches north-east from our house. Someone had been down there cutting back the undergrowth along the path, but it was piecemeal. There is, I’ve been told, a plan lodged in the town council for fixing up and marking all these old trails through the Ripavecchia-Tre Mulini woodlands. But there aren’t, as we know, the funds for such frivolities. Which is a shame, because the trails are an important part of local history. It was along these paths that the downtrodden share-cropping tenants of the big estates made their way from one farmhouse to another, and from those houses to town. Kids trudging to school. Farmers sharing equipment. Women bringing their washing to one spring or another. 

There are bits down in the valley which have been worked on extensively, and provided with more waymarks perhaps than needed: those bits that have been integrated into the Via Romea Germanica trail (see here and here), which follows the old pilgrim road from northern Germany to Rome. But there’s so much more to do. I’m rather ashamed that I’m so lacking in energy. I should be fighting for this. I guess.

The oddest forest folk: i mulai

A coda to my woodland musings. Discussing the valley with Elisa – the diminutive, wiry woman who brings us fuel for our wood-burning stoves and whose team of Macedonians regard her with a mix of awe and adoration – she told me the oddest forest folk of all were the mulai, the muleteers. Mostly very old, and living to all intents and purposes in quite another century, they are the ones who lead their mules deep into forests to retrieve timber cut down in places where not even the most manoeuvrable tractor can reach. I’ve never spotted them: I didn’t know such people still existed. The photo above is taken by Elisa. 

Collecting my Pieve Suites linen from the laundry down in Chiusi Scalo the other day, I noticed that the number of duvet covers coming back to me didn’t look right. The owner and I counted. And recounted. One was missing. He was upset. 

Not many people around here use duvets he said, looking flustered. It’s a bit of a northern thing, he pointed out. It’s just you and Ed Sheeran who send them to me. Maybe he has yours.

Had you asked me, I wouldn’t immediately have said I had much in common with Ed Sheeran, who has a house in a town not far away. But now I know that we are fatally linked by our laundry, and our use of duvets. Odd. In the end, it transpired that one duvet had been neatly ironed and folded inside another. Mystery solved. I can’t accuse Ed of having stolen my duvet cover.

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden and landscape designer, working throughout central Italy and beyond. I have lived in Italy for over 35 years – first in Rome but now in Città della Pieve, Umbria, where I have restored my country home and transformed a medieval townhouse into three rental suites. To relax, I tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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