14 June 2021

It’s a joy, each morning, opening the windows and breathing in the perfume of roses and pinks and general late-spring freshness. But there’s an element of dread too. I brace as I open each shutter. Somewhere out there, I know, lies carnage. 

I was blaming porcupines for the piles of precious green parts of plant mixed with stones and soil strewn across the grass in various points around the garden. But lately I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not just bulb-munching porcupines that are out to get me: it’s a diabolical plot between them and the boar. There’s a real battle of wits going on here.

“And porcupines don’t even belong here,” a friend said to me, trying to sound sympathetic. “The Romans imported them from Africa.” 

They are so much not in the Italian animal vernacular: so exotic-looking. We surprise them often as we drive down our lane, clacking along in front of the car for long distances before making up their minds which verge to veer towards. Once, way over near San Casciano dei Bagni, I spied six of them scuttling along the side of a quiet road – two parents and four waddling, flip-flopping babies in a neat line. 

Now, furious I may be with porcupines, but it seems a bit harsh to blame the ancients for the devastation in my flower beds. Especially as it seems the Romans aren’t responsible at all. According to this scholarly study, there were probably prehistoric native porcupines, once upon a long long time ago, but they were frozen (or something) into extinction. It looks like the ones we have now were imported from north Africa, but much more recently, probably on a whim, in the 16th century perhaps. Bad call chaps: you don’t want pets who do this.

Yet in fact it’s only the quills which set them apart. They’re just big rodents really. They’ve been protected in Italy since the 1970s, despite the fact that they’re rated LC (least concern) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Protected status didn’t use to prevent them from ending up on the table: I remember old people telling me years ago that you have to pack them in mud, put them in a big pizza oven, then crack open the baked mud at which point the quills will fall away to reveal a perfectly cooked animal. Bleugh. It’s a while since I’ve heard anyone boast of their istrice-cooking skills.

While porcupines go for the bulbs of my beautiful dark purple-blue iris, the boar have other favourites. They’ll scatter any pesky plant that comes between them and the bulbs of Muscari spp, a taste, I should add, that they share with much of the population of southern Italy for whom lampascioni – the bulbs of Muscari comosum – are a traditional speciality. What they’re digging up in my garden is mostly Muscari armeniacum (grape hyacinth), some of which I planted in the past but which have popped up here there and everywhere over the years. So out come my dahlias and my liatris, turned topsy-turvy in heaps of dirt and stone just as they’re ready to flower, abandoned by boar with their minds on just one thing.

Elsewhere, something has devoured swathes of the snake’s head iris (Iris tuberosa) bulbs which grow wild all over the southern side of the house. I would have thought this was porcupines but honestly, can you dig such deep holes and chuck such large stones about when you’re sporting a coat as weighty as theirs? I’m in two minds. And I’m flailing about desperately trying to calm my ire by finding silver linings.

Whatever is working on the Iris tuberosa certainly did a good job of turning over the tough, hard, rocky soil along there – a definite aid to weeding between the large Rosa Guizzo Rosso (Barni) which are too much of a challenge for them to haul out in their feeding frenzy… so far. And of course the occasional discarded tell-tale calling-card quill always comes in handy. I’ve discovered that a poke about with a quill is the very best thing for reactivating those tiny holes in my garden watering system when they get all glugged up with chalk and other desposits. Small comforts.


This is the spring of broom (Cytisus scoparius), the warm sultry smell of which is everywhere. We are drunk with it by the time we’re half way up the lane: Fabio our neighbour has given up all pretence of keeping his land manicured which is fantastic for nature though not so great for our car’s paintwork. And it was a spring of wonderful asparagus though I have now called a moratorium on that, to give the plants a break after six weeks of over-indulgence on our part. I notice there is some debate as to whether you stop picking asparagus on the feast of St Anthony of Padua (13 June) or of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June). But each year is different. I just stop when I’ve had enough. The next crop looking like it’s going to out-perform all other years is sweet corn, which is almost always a disappointment in my vegetable garden, though I do persist. 

Figures from the last available tax year (2019) have emerged  to show that Umbrians are poorer than the Italian average. Actually, that’s not news really because they always are, though driving around the region certainly wouldn’t fill you with pity for the poverty-stricken locals. On the contrary.

Are Umbrians really poorer, or better at manipulating tax returns? Do we have better accountants (the answer to which is a resounding no, in my experience)? Do we lie (again, another no, at least in small the part of it I know well)? So perhaps Umbrians are just better at bella figura – they know how to put on a good show in the face of adversity. Città della Pieve is in a respectable position in the top half of the chart – which sounds kind of right.


I am half-vaccinated now and sufficient days have gone by for some kind of resistance to have kicked in. Whatever odd algorhythms decide these things depatched me off to far-flung Tuoro on the other side of Lake Trasimeno for a 9.35 appointment on a Sunday morning. Which seemed a little harsh.

The thing that has struck me since Italy started vaccinating is how almost unanimously vaccinat-ees tell tales of amazement not only about the efficiency of vaccination centres but by the sheer niceness of everyone involved. Which, seeing we’re talking about Italian doctors, is just plain weird.

Italian doctors – especially the male ones of a certain age – are famously some of the most unpleasant, grumpy, least empathetic people to walk the earth. It’s pretty rare to hear anything but complaints about them. On the rare occasions I’ve had to have anything to do with them (I choose my GPs carefully, and they’re always women) I’ve had a very strong feeling that I’m an inconvenience in their surgeries and the sooner I leave the better. But not the vaccinators: they’re a different race… though also, to a large extent, of a different age which not only helps but gives one hope for a better future.

For my less-than-a-minute ritual I was ushered into a room with one sweet silent girl who did the jab and two completely adorable young men joking and joshing and generally turning my painfully early Sunday morning start into a jolly game. Ok, it was the beginning of the day and they might not have been so jovial towards evening. But they more than confirmed what I’d been told.

Umbria is a ‘white’ zone now, which is good of course, but scary at times too. More and more people are taking advantage of the fact that masks aren’t obligatory outdoors unless you’re in a situation where you can’t avoid being in close contact with others. Unmasked people anywhere public unnerve me. 

Our beloved curfew has been lifted, opening the floodgates for guests who never leave. We were at a dinner party in Montepulciano a couple of weeks ago, before the curfew was removed. Wine and conversation removed all concept of time. When we left, just after 11pm, we drove along near-deserted roads with our hearts in our mouths, feeling clandestine and expecting retribution. It didn’t come, and we arrived home feeling oddly exhilarated.

I’m told by people in cities that the marvels of emptiness which we were so lucky to experience are fast disappearing. We nipped up to Florence ten days ago. Mid-week it was still superbly rattly. Poor Venice has already witnessed its first cruise ship arrival, as I wrote in this article, and crowds are fast filling its calli and campi. It worries me that we’re moving forward far too fast. Then I wonder: am I crazy? Fast? After all these months? Still, there’s plenty of scope for things going pear-shaped again.

18 May 2021

For the past couple of weeks there has been a slight parallel-universe feel to news from the top. Powers-that-be in Rome have been ordering regions to open vaccinations up to over-40s. And over-30s. And why not over-20s too while you’re at it. Here in Umbria, 60s and above are wondering whether perhaps everyone has forgotten them.

In a gloriously offhand comment to local press last week one regional councillor explained why Umbria’s vaccination drive was still stuck on its Very Old People. “We have far more old people here because they live better and longer. We’ve had to go the extra mile to take care of our over-80s.” 

So is Umbria older? Well… yes, it seems. But not oldest. I’m drawing blanks looking for regional over-80s tables. But Umbria’s concentration of over-65s (25.8% of the population according to Statista’s 2020 figures) places it third among Italian regions behind Liguria and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

I’m wondering though whether Umbria’s interpretation of ‘caregiver’ – who are also entitled to vaccination alongside the recipients of their caring – might not be rather looser than elsewhere. Because although anyone born between 1952 and 1961 has been palmed off with – as of yesterday morning – the chance to ‘pre-book’ (which basically means putting your name on a list then waiting to be called up when they get round to it), Umbria ranks second in Italy for vaccinating over-30s, third for over-40s and fourth for over-20s – or so says this local rag quoting Il Sole-24 Ore. So we’re stealing a march on the rest of the country? At this stage of the proceedings, it’s a bit of a flimsy record.

In the mean time, the country opens up… despite large unvaccinated swathes. I find it quite angst-provoking. I hope this thing doesn’t backfire.

Things I will miss when we get over this: 

  • masks. I’m so fond of my mask – as a winter nose-warmer; as the thing which keeps other people’s germs away from me; because when infuriating bugs do all in their power to get up my nose while I’m digging in the garden there’s generally a mask handy that I can grab to foil them; because when we’re all wearing them I can pretend not to recognise people I don’t particularly want to talk to.
  • the curfew. We’re opening up but – at least for a few more days – we all have to be tucked up in our own homes by 10pm. We’re now at the that delicious stage where you can invite up to four people into your home for dinner. But at a comfortably early time of evening – how comfortable is determined by the length of their trip home – guests are getting their coats, and you’re planning the rest of the evening’s viewing and/or reading.
  • people bringing us stuff. Already the sweet boys who deliver delicious bread of a Sunday morning have intimated that if we’d like to go and pick it up in distant Paciano, they’d be relieved to be spared the trip. Will Beppe keep bringing us his amazing ricotta? Will we be able to summon meals from Domenico at Il Poderaccio?
  • having a perfectly valid excuse to be a hermit.
  • having to share wonderful places with other people. We’ve experienced empty Venice. Next week we’ll find out what Florence looks like without the hordes. Last week, on the other hand, we had the Trevi fountain to ourselves… give or take an eastern European model and a very red dress.

I was in the city to work on a garden. L engineered a stay at The Hoxton Rome – newly opened and raring for reviews. The hotel was fun, which is I think the way they’d like it to be seen: I described it as a grown-up Generator but perhaps that was reductive. Its rooms are stylish, and really want to be your kind of thing. Public spaces are striving to be the place to be – your external office/meeting area/hangout. For many people, I’m sure they will be.

But being in that hotel – or even a hotel – wasn’t the special thing about being in the city. The special thing was the unique privilege of savouring the city itself at this time in history.

We decided to walk from the hotel’s Salario-zone location to the Capitoline – a brisk 40-minute walk through the northern inner suburbs, then through the northern part of the centro storico. The pattern was: mediumly bustling life in that outer zone (just as I had found the previous day in Monteverde Vecchio where my garden work took me); then, the more centrale, the more devoid of people it became – the entirely glorious opposite of ‘normal’ Rome. 

‘Normal’ Rome is pushy and ill-tempered. It’s beautiful of course – breathtakingly so. But it makes you feel hot and/or flustered, even when you can’t blame the weather. It smells unhealthy. You feel like the city makes you aggressive. You feel like over-wrought Romans would push you under a passing bus to get by.

In pandemic Rome the Romans that aren’t WFH in the sticks look almost relaxed at café tables. (Café tables? Romans gulp their caffè at the counter! With that habit banned under Covid rules, they’re learning new, calmer skills.) When you’re not in a pressure cooker, there’s more time to look about, to take in the superb emptiness of it all. There’s time, too, to wish that it could always be much more like that.

At the Campidoglio, we saw the Torlonia Marbles exhibition. It is extraordinary. The Torlonia family has had that collection of ancient marble statues (plus one magnificent bronze) gathering dust in their Tiber-side cellar in Rome’s Trastevere district for many many generations while branches of the family have squabbled over who owns what, and – perhaps – sold off bits and pieces of it and smuggled them out of the country to settle outstanding debts. (We both had a brief glimpse into the Torlonia world at Villa Albani a couple of years ago; L, on the other hand, recently visited the Trastevere deposit which is also described in a recent BBC report).

The exhibition is an incredible promenade through ancient Rome, displayed publicly for – I think – the first time. The show was in doubt until the last minute as a couple of T-principi fell out over who should be pulling which strings. As it was, the well-spaced visitors (numbers are, of course, very limited) were mainly Roman, and quite a lot of them more than old enough to have been thorougly vaccinated some time ago – elderly Romans making the very best of their remarkably gentler city.

I had a couple of busy days at Pieve Suites recently which felt stimulating in parts and panicky in others. It seems so long since I’ve had guests! The odd requests have begun again too. One character wanted the whole place for three months; then wanted one suite for six weeks; and then fled – very graciously and apologetically – when I quoted him a very discounted price for one suite for one month. Had he not checked the tariffe page of my website? The same question goes for the man who was very keen on having a “very discreet and private” suite for one night: he would arrive that same evening and his lady friend would turn up the following day at 11am after which they’d need the room until about 6pm. Ummm, I explained: check-out is by noon. So how much is two nights? No apology here, just stunned silence: clearly his lady friend the “dottoressa” wasn’t worth the price of a two-night stay. Does my website emanate an air of maison de passe? I don’t think so.

Look carefully: there are dozens of boar of many sizes down there