1 August 2019

Eight weeks with no rain to mention then boom! 56mm last Saturday in a show of pyrotechnics the like of which I hadn’t seen for a long time. We went to bed around midnight with the bottom field (beautifully mown, I should mention) illuminated with bright-as-day flashes. I awoke at 3am to check my phone (two elderly ladies staying in Pieve Suites had been coming home late from a concert: I was panicking – rather belatedly – that they might have been sending me frantic messages as they were washed away in a downpour: they hadn’t) and the light show was still going on.

Pieve Suites has been busy for the past six weeks. It’s beginning to feel like a business. I’m still not the world’s best salesperson, I admit. But – thankfully – others step in where I neglect to tread and slowly, slowly I feel I’m getting somewhere. Word of mouth continues to be my most successful platform: bookings sites provide very little of my business. And I’m very happy that it’s panning out that way, because I end up, on the whole, with great guests/clients. And that makes it all worth while.

0801KWill the fact that I’m now on The Telegraph’s travel pages change this? So far, all I’m getting out of that bit of publicity is emails containing very dubious offers of sexual favours that could be provided on my premises should I so wish. It’s funny: I’ve done so many of those reviews for Venetian hotels in the Telegraph and often wondered whether it made any difference whatsoever to a hotel’s trade. I shall now find out.

I love how people visiting Città della Pieve for the first time ask me questions that I no longer put to myself, and make me ponder the place I live.

One grown-up son of a lovely American family wanted to know whether you ever really learn how to order in restaurants.
He told me that when they’d placed their order, the waiter told them that they’d asked for far too much and would never eat it. “No waiter would ever tell you that back home!” But… hats off to the waiter.

That was an unusual one.

The question that I get most often – and which I find most intriguing – is: “but what do people do here? How do they make a living?”

Well yes. How do they?

0801HOne time I was asked that question, I was sitting with the inquisitive guests at the Café degli Artisti. And so I was able to identify many of the passersby by their trade. “Builder, builder, Rita the dry cleaner, digger operator, notary, bloke from the supermarket.” Not that I know everyone in town and what they do. But it’s a small town, and you tend to be pretty familiar with a lot of people.

What I don’t know are any people who are unemployed. I guess this is by virtue of the kind of people I tend to know. Unemployment in Umbria in Q1 this year stood at 10.4% (against 9.2% in the same period of 2018 and 10.4% nationally). Youth unemployment was 31.1% (against 30.8% in 2018 and 33.2% nationally).

At some point in the last 12 months I saw a banner headline on a poster outside the newspaper shop saying CdP went against the trend, with higher employment rates than other places in Umbria. Can I find that article? Of course I can’t. But I have to say I know more people in Rome worried about their offspring’s lack of employment than I do around here. For what that’s worth…

0801LAlso, I’ve never met anyone who works anywhere except within a small radius of CdP. There are people whose jobs take them to Castiglione del Lago, and Tavernelle, and Chiusi. But I’ve never even met anyone, for example, who commutes to Perugia which is our nearest large-ish city. Everyone I know whose job I can pinpoint is local.

So, I ask myself, is there a size/type of town that is to some degree self-sustaining? Do we provide each other with sufficient call for shops/builders/dry cleaners/opticians/digger operators/accountants/florists etc (the list could go on and on and on) to make this a fairly circular economy?

Sure, we keep couriers (locally based couriers of course) silly-busy buzzing up and down our lane bringing parcels from large on-line retailers which we should really be shunning. But our food shopping is done in the immediate vicinity, and our little supermarkets (tiny offshoots of large national brands) often have big boxes of produce from local growers. (Admittedly vendors come from outside CdP for our Saturday market, but they’ve all been setting up their stalls here on a weekly basis for so long that they’re practically part of the scenery.) I can’t recall ever seeing a non-local construction company’s logo on any signs outside any building sites.

I need to find some useful sociology/anthropology/economics student who’s looking for a topic for her/his thesis. I’d love to know how much of our economy remains entre nous.

The other pressing question I’m asked is “why does this town feel different from other country towns?” and the answer to that one is: young people.

0801MSo many towns around here are supremely lovely. But dead. We’re not.

So why don’t young people move away from here? I don’t think it’s because there’s more work for them here than elsewhere. I certainly don’t think it’s because they’re more entrepreneurial and are making livelihoods for themselves in exciting innovative ways… though of course there are those who do. I don’t think they’re more mammone (mummy’s boys) or less adventurous than elsewhere. But I do think that the very strong terziere structure (which I wrote about here) helps to give them reasons (or excuses) to hang about. Not only is there the cameraderie aspect, but the active performance thing counts too.

I was thinking about this at a party we went to recently where the flame spitters of Castello turned up to do a performance. How many towns boast their own fire eaters, available for any occasion? Then there are the drummers and the archers and the flag throwers, all skills requiring hours of dedication (the war drums have started now: the thumping drifts down to us from town every afternoon) and considerable team work. They’re all things that give shape and routine to life in a small town, things you might miss if you drifted away.


Since the rain we’ve gone back to hot hot days and lovely nights, unlike the sweaty nights before the weather broke. Quite frankly, once I’m asleep I’m asleep, hot or not, but L was so restless in the fug that one night we even took advantage of one empty room air-conditioned room at Pieve Suites.

0801JIt’s the kind of dry hot now where I find myself doing silly things, like digging in the vegetable garden for hours on end, hardly aware that my shirt is soaking and my face a distressing shade of puce. In this odd year when we went from spring (March/April) to sting-in-the-tail winter washout (May) to scorching (June 1 on) everything is topsy turvy. Or it is for me. I got nothing planted early because I was working too hard. I got nothing planted in May because the ground was sodden. By the time I put anything in the ground in June it was already so hot that plants were shutting down in alarm and doing that high-summer stalling thing.

So far we’ve consumed some cherry tomatoes, a handful of runner beans, a few cucumbers, some peppers which have been tasty but not at all fleshy. The garlic – now curing in the chicken house – looked good and copious. The rest: meh.

Will we have a magnificent September-October growing season? Perhaps a slightly cooler August will help speed things along? I hope my plants can hang about until conditions are better, to give me the abundance I need to squirrel away in the freezer and jars for the rest of the year. I’d hate not to feel just a little bit auto-sufficiente.

What has come along in a rather satisfying way (mostly by dint of huge amounts of hand watering by me) is my reorganized bit of garden beyond the concimaia. I wrote about this here and here. Gosh, was it as late as April when I did that earth-moving? How slow I am to get things done! Getting a watering system (for the plants, not the grass: I don’t irrigate any of my grass, on principle) is proving extra-slow too. I reckon it will be well into autumn before I finally drag the blokes who have promised to revamp my whole Heath Robinsonesque ‘system’ down here.

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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