7 & 10 July 2022

With no rain to speak of since the first half of April, we were expecting fireworks when it finally came. There was no hail, for which my ripening tomatoes thank the weather gods. In the end we had over 43mm. It came down hard and in a remarkably short time, accompanied by lightning flashes and rumbling round the valleys. And it took out our electricity line somewhere impervious where the repair men are clearly struggling to reach it. So I shall sit here in the gathering gloom until the battery on my computer runs out. And then I shall go to bed.

I’m hoping that this dousing will cool our roof. Our roof is well insulated of course but in the last couple of years I’ve been wondering quite how well. Does insulation become depleted? Or are our summers hotter and/or is our personal heat resistance waning? I don’t know what I’m saying ‘we’. Yes, I wouldn’t mind if it were a couple of degrees cooler up on the first floor but it’s certainly not giving me sleepless nights (what does?) Not so for poor L though who feels he’s being baked alive and is clamouring for air-con.

My objections to air-con are manifold. They’re ecological and financial and most of all they’re personal because I hate that worked-over air which dries my insides up and makes my head feel hollowed out. Also, I loath being cold.

As we debate the issue (over and over) I think of the winter – the hauling wood and the piling on sweaters – and I want the summer to go on for ever. Just as L is finding hot increasingly difficult, I’m struggling to cope with cold. Funny how extreme your rapport with climate can become.

We fled for three days, to Lake Como. For L it was work; for me it was escapism. (Would I be ungracious if I admitted that when I saw that expanse of water I instinctively wished it was the sea?)

Reason number one for the visit was an out-of-the-blue invitation to attend the 150th anniversary party for the Villa d’Este in Cernobbio – an honour extended to only a handful of journalists. There were hundreds of glamorous guests. There were strutting entertainers in fantastical and ever-changing costumes performing a role in the proceedings which was sometimes difficult to grasp. There was enough champagne to fill the hotel’s gratingly blue pool many times. There was lobster, and there were very young table companions with achingly expensive noses and pouty lips. And there were truly magnificent fireworks over the lake, illuminating an evening when forecast downpours happily never materialised.

I was excited to see the hotel’s famous garden and gosh, does it have fine bone structure. The double rills running down the axis from the temple of Hercules to the massive ‘mosaic house’ at the bottom are gloriously elegant, and the plane trees are just plain magnificent: you hug them as hard as you can and your arms are still only a quarter way round their massive trunks. But oh oh oh… the vast beds of red begonias. I’m writing that without even being certain that that is what was planted: I’ve kind of canceled it from my memory. But it’s definitely the spirit of the thing – a gardeners’ garden, planted with the kind of annual bedding plants which can be replaced several times a season but never ever evoke anything (in me) except mild despair.

It was all of a piece, mind you, with the hotel’s plush interior – an old world (not necessarily in a good way) extravaganza of thick-piled blue and gold patterned carpet and rococo reception rooms. All ultra-luxurious of course: just very very uninspired.

In Como town (elegant if a little cold, in the style of small northern towns) and in Verona, we stayed in new hotels of the Vista group: chic, classic-contemporary, very tasteful but – to return to my air-con dislike – painfully chilly. These places were lovely – don’t get me wrong – and tasteful in the extreme, with spas and restaurants and 24 hour reception staff. But they did leave me wondering: “has the *****L label become a little devalued?” Of course I’m aware that star ratings for Italian hotels are just a matter of box-ticking: rack up sufficient points (bathrobes, tick; uniformed staff, tick) and your stars accumulate accordingly. But it would be nice if the ‘luxe’ addition really meant something truly extraordinary. And these, though extremely pleasant, had nothing (except air-con) to make you gasp.

And then there was Villa Passalacqua in Montrasio where we didn’t stay but one day will, and where the garden was just sublime: an 18th-century design, carefully restored, running from villa on high right down to the lake waters along an intertwining double staircase. Each of the lateral levels has been adapted to something hotel-y to a greater or lesser degree: the orchard with cute fluffly hens in their decorative coop, the vegetable garden, the lovely rose garden with hydrangeas beneath immense magnolias, the pool terrace and the tennis courts. There’s some planting which I wouldn’t have done, though nothing at all offensive. There are some over-jolly fabrics which I might have avoided. But the overall impression is of immense attention to really eye-catching design with a purpose: the opposite, in fact, of Villa d’Este.

A (completely gratuitous) funny-face
spider eating a bee

(The advantage of sitting by the open window in the living room, typing in the dark, is the front-row view over a magnificent lightning show on the horizon. It’s flashing across the sky in the same bright orange which until half an hour ago was also tinging the piles of cloud over there.)

In Verona a client joined me by train and we headed into the wilderness of small and medium industry – Italy’s productive backbone – between there and Vicenza to look at stone. Margraf is a giant among stone wholesalers. And it’s where the marble for my client’s kitchen tops was (we hoped) lurking.

To – I think – the great annoyance both of the kitchen cabinet maker and of the marmista who will cut the worktops to fit, we insisted on going ourselves to select pieces of marble, despite the fact that neither of them could accompany us, to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t do under-the-counter deals and somehow leave them out of any business concluded. We had no intention of course of doing any such thing, but the whole trip had a slightly naughty schoolgirl feel to it nonetheless.

At Margraf they were dumbfounded: I’m not sure how often they find themselves with two strange women pounding about between the vast slabs. They trailed us around as we studied the marbles and granites and creamy gorgeous onyxes, clearly unsure quite how to handle us… until we optioned the four slabs which we’d already seen on line, had thought would be the ones for the project, and had seen right at the start of our warehouse visit. By the time we left they seemed to have rather warmed to us.


10 July

Time passes. The computer battery died. I made my way to bed with my head torch on… then woke up some time not long after midnight with all the lights in the house glaring at me. Well done Enel (electricity company) I thought, working through the night as is their wont to restore power to blacked-out residents.

(Just as well I was planning for long-term light loss and forced myself not to open the fridge door once: the downstairs circuit failed to turn itself back on. But the food in the freezer seems to come through unscathed.)

Our neighbour Ettore, whose house is nearest the fallen line, was less thrilled with Enel when I talked to him yesterday. I hadn’t realised that there was no way the line could be repaired after the storm: for the time being we’re limping along with a huge and – I’m told – very noisy generator which is keeping the neighbourhood alight. And the generator was plonked, without so much as a by-your-leave, on Ettore’s property, not far at all from Ettore’s house.

He is – understandably – livid. But there’s absolutely nothing he can do.

It’s a feature of every contract for the sale/purchase of properties with land attached that utilities companies – electricity, water, gas – enjoy a “servitù“, ie the right to plough across your fields and woods with whichever equipment they need to work on any infrastructure they see fit – to mend existing kit or install any other. Property owners have no right whatsoever to protest.

It’s a fine example of the good of the commonweal taking precedence over the rights of the individual and can even seem quite reasonable… until you find a noisy generator throbbing outside your living room window. In June 2003, two years after we bought this house, the Green Party backed a referendum on removing this servitù but nothing doing: insufficient people were interested in the topic and the referendum fell by the wayside because a quorum wasn’t reached. Now Ettore and his wife are experiencing the fallout first hand.

We’re all living with another result of no-quorum referendum burn-out: hunters. In 1990 and 1997 Italian voters were asked to stop hunters tramping across any property that took their fancy. They preferred, instead, to go to the beach (the referendums were held in June) and desert the ballot boxes. And so we live with the consequences through the winter. Perhaps we’re ready for another attempt.

There was more back-to-normal activity at the end of June when our Infiorata was finally up and running again. And normality too in the awarding of the ‘floweriest street in town’ plaque to Borgo di Giano, where my Pieve Suites is located. It took me a while to stick my head above the parapet and ask whether we had won: I was (and indeed am) less than pleased with my own attempt to make my front door particularly floral. Why is this? I mean… making beautiful outside spaces is – er – what I do. And I (modestly) think that Pieve Suites’ private garden out back above the walls is rather lovely. But somehow I have never turned my attention to what happens outside the front door.

By next year’s competition, my front door will be glorious, I promise. And I won’t have to worry that it might have been me who dashed the street’s chances. Though actually I have nothing to fear really. The wonderful ladies who keep the vicolo looking splendid are indefatigable despite me, and we have won every single time. It should really just be called the Borgo di Giano prize.


For no particular reason, I’m including this screenshot from our vital and hyper-active local FB group which is so beautifully pievese in its elegant mixture of official complaint, veiled threat and sheer seething fury that someone could do something so abject as steal a child’s bike. It slides in a rapid crescendo from elegant subjunctives to a grand finale of crude invective in a way that’s pure, unpunctuated, free-form CdP poetry. I just love it.

18 May 2022

Last weekend I shifted two cubic metres of growing medium. About three tonnes. By hand. Well, I mean by wheelbarrow but it had to be shovelled off the heap and into the wheelbarrow by hand, so I guess that counts.

It was a key stage in one of those exploits that you begin optimistically and very soon – when it’s just too late to turn back – think “why?!”

The soil in my vegetable garden has been a problem from the start. On one side it’s fine: not great, but fine. There’s rather more clay than I’d like, which of course means it tends towards glue (wet) or concrete (dry) but my additions of compost and mulch and various other healthy improvers over the years has turned it into something more or less workable. On the other side, every attempt to make it feasible has failed miserably. The plants that grow there do so grudgingly; the vegetables they produce are decidedly unimpressive.

And so I had the brilliant idea of (1) removing 30-40cm in the strips where I plant then (2) bringing in some really good soil to start all over again. What could possibly go wrong? Hah!

I spent weeks trying to find someone willing to remove the heavy, stony, intractable soil. When I did – and when they realised what they’d let themselves in for – they made their misery very obvious. I was busy. I went out. By the time I came back and they had disappeared, I realised that they’d more or less followed my instructions as they started out, only to lose interest/energy/the will to live as they moved along the row, digging out ever-narrower trenches which certainly didn’t correspond to the irrigation pipes which mark the planting areas. (They also chucked the unwanted soil in a very inconvenient place, but that’s another story.) Also, inexplicably, they dug even deeper than the generous depth which I’d suggested to them.

L named the resulting holes the Shallow Graves, and he had a point. They were more sinister criminal burial ground than intriguing Etruscan tomb. He said until I filled them in, he’d be behaving himself and watching his step.

Until I filled them in. Again: hah! These spaces were far too big for stuff in plastic bags. And anyway, I don’t like plastic bags and I don’t trust that stuff, even when it’s clearly marked “100% organic”. I asked garden contractor contacts but no one had much of an idea. Were they protecting their sources or did they really not know where to go? And anyway, would I have believed that the soil was truly free of chemical additives?

In the greenhouse my tomato seedlings were bursting out of their little pots, and still the Shallow Graves yawned. I really hadn’t thought this through.

Next idea: ask Giuseppe. This digger-wizard and staunch defender of the countryside can fix just about any problem: he’ll do it absolutely organically but he’ll do it in the most roundabout way possible. Through several days of back-and-forth we debated what I needed, while he told dark tales of how almost every soil supplier in the world was part of a great conspiracy to pass off polluted earth as clean dirt.  We even schlepped far away up hills and into the woods to visit friends of mine with a biomass/biogas plant on their property but for Giuseppe, using the waste products of this was definitely not going to work.

It took a visit to Giuseppe’s house (ostensibly to try his home-made balsamic vinegar, which passes through a series of ever-smaller wooden kegs over many years until the concentrated syrup can be drawn off from the tiniest of barrels) for him to admit that actually, he had exactly what I needed sitting outside his back door: his own rich mix of pozzolana (volcanic soil) and sawdust and manure and composted wood chips and other secret ingredients. Would he sell me some? He named his price: horribly expensive, he said. I pointed out that buying dubious stuff in plastic would have cost me more than twice as much. Impossible to get it to me: his new truck is too big to pass under the overhanging branches down our bumpy track. I called a builder with a suitably sized pickup.

And so my two cubic metres of growing medium was dumped outside the orto gate – just as L boarded a train to take him away for two weeks. And so the solitary shovelling fell to me. It must have done something for my muscle tone. And hopefully it will do even more good to my tomatoes, which are now burying their eager roots into clay-less, stone-less, ideal dirt.


So far this year has been one of anomalies and oddnesses. Rain? What’s that? Following hard on our dry, dry winter came a dry, dry spring. Every single month so far has pushed my averages down. Things should, you’d think, be suffering – and I’m sure that at some level they are – but they’re looking magnificently lush all the same and the fruit… oh the fruit! After last year’s 100% fruitless disaster, this year is just full of tiny promise getting larger by the day. We even have scores of incipient apricots on the two new little trees over beyond the chicken house. Apricots have always eluded me: will these trees turn my fortunes around?

That same late-frost disaster that did for my fruit last year also took out my wisteria. This year made up for it though. Now, as the spent blossom detaches itself from overwhelming cascades, it looks like it has been snowing outside the kitchen.

I have just gathered what I’ve decided is going to be my last bunch of asparagus and turned it into soup, to draw out the pleasure: as I’m home by myself at the moment the potful should last several meals. I’m eating artichokes and what remains of last winter’s chard and beet, and I’m watching anxiously as my pea plants creep up their wiggly sticks and produce promising flowers.

But the peas that are really threatening to take over the vegetable garden are not comestible: they’re sweet. How long have I been trying to make sweet peas grow in my garden? It’s a flower I adore, perhaps because it smells of my mother, who loved them. It’s only now that I’ve completely abandoned the uneven struggle, that they’ve decided this is their perfect natural habitat. Up they come quite spontaneously and in delightful abundance, swamping chard and spilling over the narrow paths. You can smell them from way down the drive.

May 1 brought an end to all kinds of Covid restrictions… and brought Covid right to my door. Not the door of our house, but to Pieve Suites: first, to the female half of a charming American couple who quite inexplicably caught it from friends they were travelling with (not staying with me) and failed to pass it on to her husband (in her presence 24 hours a day); then to the female half of a lovely Dutch couple who were frequent pre-Covid visitors to CdP and whose post-Covid return to our town marked a small victory for us all.

In the former case I had other guests arriving on her scheduled departure so really couldn’t extend her stay and welcome newcomers to a leper-house: she, with her friends, found a villa outside of town to rent and holed up there in glorious rural isolation until they were declared fit to fly home. In the latter, a local pharmacist offered very sound advice (once she had ascertained they were driving home, alone, in their own vehicle): “I haven’t seen you,” she said, “and you haven’t done a test. Get in your car and drive, and don’t stop until you reach your destination.” Which is what they did the very next morning.

It’s funny – and probably telling – that I never had to deal with a Covid emergency all the way through two years of pandemic. Only now, as we edge towards some kind of normal, are things hotting up.

As requirements fall away, oldish habits haven’t really been dying in our little town: on the whole most people seem to have some kind of face covering somewhere about their person, if only hanging from their wrists. On shop windows there are still signs kindly asking clients to cover up, and a vast majority of them still do.

On a warm day when I hadn’t stopped for lunch and decided that ice cream was probably a sufficiently balanced substitute for real food I stopped off in our gelateria and queued behind a father with his son, who must have been about six or seven. Both were masked. At a certain point the girl behind the counter handed the little boy a wafer. Quite spontaneously he stepped outside the door (casting a withering look towards his anxious father who was yelling “come back in here, don’t go outside”), removed his mask, ate his wafer, replaced his mask and returned inside the shop.

The mask-averse might flag this up as a sign of the worst kind of brainwashing. I see it as an example of how even small children can be taught that simple gestures aimed at keeping the collettività safe really aren’t anything to get hot under the collar about – requirements or no requirements.