Wednesday, 7 September 2016

A Villa in Tuscany - Appendix

Knobs and Knockers of Firenze

I just had to include my collection of photos of the doors of Florence - enjoy!

A Villa in Tuscany Part 3

Dan in the driving seat
We drove to Florence! Well, Dan did the driving, Nathan navigated and I kept quiet in the back. Actually, once we'd cleared the dreaded hairpin bends in Castello - it was plain sailing. It took around an hour and a half and we arrived at the private parking garage early.

Pitti Palace
We were meeting Caterina - who was going to show us our Air BnB flat in the centre of Firenze. The chap at the garage just took our keys and told us to pay when we came back for the car in a couple of days. We found the building where the flat was and sat in a nearby outdoor café to wait for Caterina. We chose this particular café because it was a sweltering hot day and they had fans that also sprayed water over guests. We ordered some chilled wine and hoped that

Our Air BnB Apartment

Caterina had got my text asking her to meet us at the flat rather than the garage as we'd arranged.

When she didn't show by 2pm Nathan went back to the garage and found her there. She came back with him and then let us into the flat. It was in an incredible building right opposite the Pitti Palace - the former home of the Medici family. We were very impressed!

In Florence at last!
Our front door :-)
Once we settled in we set off to explore Florence. I had always wanted to come here - and it was even more beautiful than I had imagined. Gorgeous buildings everywhere you looked - and no modern buildings in sight.

We headed over to the Uffizi Gallery and bought tickets for early the next morning. We only had one full day in Florence and we wanted to make the most of it.

There was a carousel in one square and a guy playing guitar and singing English songs from Snow Patrol and Coldplay. We ate in another outdoor café in a popular square  where we saw the most hipster family - a chap with full suit with waistcoat and exquisite moustache, and his similarly attired wife and daughter. We felt rather underdressed.

The next day we got to the Uffizi in time for our slot and spent a few hours looking at the most amazing art - there was SO MUCH religious art and panels from many churches around the area. My favourite picture was the Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

Uffizi rooftop café
The pigeon appreciated the fountain

Enjoying a choco freddo :-)
There was a fantastic view through the galleries windows and from the rooftop café. I could have sat up there all day. The bells in Florence sound so wonderful. We wandered around the streets of Florence all afternoon just enjoying the sights and the atmosphere. When we saw the amazing ice cream shops we had to try some for ourselves.
Fab views from the roof terrace

Nathan really wanted to do the "Assassin's Creed Tour" as he has played the game and climbed most of the buildings in Florence. Sadly though, the people who ran it didn't do it on Sundays. We'll definitely come back again some day to do that!

The Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi

We wanted to see Michelangelo's David - which was at The Academy just outside the centre of town. We found there was a queue - but you could pre-book and pay a bit extra to get in at a fixed time.

We were glad we went - David as a magnificent sight - I hadn't realised he was so much bigger than life-sized.
David - with his sling shot

There was more religious panels from churches - and we watched an interesting film about how the triptychs we made. There was so much gold leaf!

While we walked around the streets again I was fascinated by all the different knobs and knockers they had on their doors. So many styles and designs. I took quite a few photos - have a look in the next section of his blog :-)

For our last evening in Florence we randomly chose a café called Il Porcospino - the hedgehog. We just sat down for cooling drinks first - then decided we'd stay for food. The waiters were funny and friendly. As we sat there with our first drink and they realised we were English (although Dan protested that he was Scottish - which is what they called him for the rest of the night!) - they asked us if we'd like some chips. We thought that they probably meant crisps so we said yes - but then they came out with a big plate of chips!

We felt we had to eat them. :-)

"Scottish" with Franco and Toni
When it came to our evening meal though we asked what they would recommend - and they suggested seafood pasta, the Osso Bucco and a cheese and pear pasta - so we each tried one of those. They were all delicious! The waiters were chatting all evening about football and other things. They knew a lot about English teams and even knew Stoke's last match score.
The funniest part of the night was when N and I got our mains and were offered some parmesan to put on top - but Dan wasn't. "What do I get?" he asked - "You're Scottish - you get a Mars bar!" I replied. As he looked down to see the moist towel he'd been given which looked exactly like a Mar bar wrapper. He nearly spat out is drink laughing :-)
Mars bar for Scottish :-)

Three of us at Porcospino

 It was a very fun night and we walked back to the flat and sat outside the Pitti Palace - where lots of people just gather and sit talking or looking at the stars. It was a really warm night and we just watched the people and admired the art sculptures.

Dan and me outside the Pitti Palace at midnight :-)

 So, the next day we had to pack up once more, pick up the car and find our way out of Florence through the narrow streets. Soon we were back on the motorway and en route for Pisa. We dropped off the car at the airport - where the car rental women didn't even glance at the scratches on the car! She just saw that we were on Super-Relaxed policy - and said she'd park the car for us.

We had one more night in Pisa - before getting up at 4am to get our flight back to Edinburgh.

It was a great holiday - full of contrasts - but with great company (and wine!) Thanks to Dan for suggesting it and inviting us along!
I really want to go back to Florence again!

A Villa in Tuscany - Part 2

After a couple of days in Pisa we picked up an Opel Corsa car from the airport and headed off for the tiny hilltop hamlet of Castello - which was to be our home for the next eight nights. There was a little altercation at the Hire Car place - Dan had chosen Gold Cars - a local company. He'd arranged insurance before he set off from home - but the chap from Gold Car wouldn't accept it. he wanted Dan to buy their "Super-Relaxed Insurance" instead. After an hour of wrangling  (including Dan ringing his UK insurance and them putting the phone down on him!)  he decided to go for the Gold Car one as well.

We were feeling a bit ripped off - but set off determined not to let it spoil our holiday. Nathan was navigating - with the help of the sat nav on his (new) phone while Dan drove carefully on the right side of the roads.

We had been warned that we must stop at the big Esselunga supermarket to stock up before we get to the villa. The note said that we wouldn't want to go back once we got there!? So, we did a big shop. In Italian supermarkets when choosing your fresh fruit and veg you have to put on a disposable glove and weigh and label your own produce before going to the till. The weighing scales had touch screens with pictures of the various fruits and veggies. It was good fun. In fact two Spanish ladies asked me how to do it - so I gave them a demo :-)

Once the shopping was loaded into the boot of our car we continued for the last 4 kilometres up a very winding road up to the villa. There was a steep drop on the one side of the narrow track and rocks on the other side, with signs warning that there were no safety fences. Then as we approached Castello there were two of the most terrifying hairpin bends I have ever seen. We got to the first and Nathan said to Dan - we have to go down there - pointing at the sharp angle - Dan said "You must be joking!" It required a three point turn manoeuvre to get round it. And there were two! When we finally reached the parking space for No. 13 I was shaking like a leaf! I dreaded ever having to go back down there. We resolved not to get in the car until we had to go home!

Scary! In fact we found a funny cartoon in the guest book - because everyone who'd been there made some comment about the road. One said his wife would need a blindfold if he were ever to have to drive her up there again!

Dan admiring the view from the terrace
However - the villa is just beautiful and in a stunning spot! It's beautifully decorated, with gorgeous furniture and pictures and a very well equipped kitchen, with Paul Rankin saucepans, We even have a washing machine. The best feature is the big terrace with fantastic views of the valley and village below.

We unpacked, got out some wine and drank in the view. Such peace and quiet. Another thing I loved about the villa is it is full of books! Every room has shelves of them. It's going to be a very relaxing break.

The next day we decided to stay in and laze around, enjoying the warmth the quiet and the books! Mike, the cheery owner of the villa came round to see if we needed anything or wanted to ask any questions. He lives just down the lane. he'd been inspecting his olive trees for flies. He brought his daughter Flora, 10, who was very happy to tell us how many "Roman miles" each nearby village was.
I did ask Mike about snakes - as it was mentioned in the guest information. He said it was mainly grass snakes - but there were a few adders - but if we got bitten we'd have half an hour to get to the local pharmacy to buy the antidote before we died. He was quite reassuring!

Our lovely terrace
The terrace was so beautiful we spent the day there - eating our meals and reading our books - in between staring at the gorgeous views. Dan was reading SPQR by Mary Beard, he was loving reading it in the Tuscan hills - brought everything to life! I grabbed The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater from the villa's bookshelves.  She is the actress who played James Herriot's wife in the early series of James Herriot - All Creatures Great and Small. She bought a dilapidated villa and olive grove in the South of France - which sounded so much like the area we were in. I learned a lot about olive cultivation and pressing from it - which was really interesting as we surrounded by olive trees.
Enjoying the terrace

Nathan was surprised when Dan told him that black olives are just green olives that had ripened - which was something I'd been reading about. You can harvest in November when they're green - to make oil or leave them to ripen until January to get the dark olives.

Sadly Nathan spent the first day working - but he was enjoying the lovely surroundings instead of the office! We had just entered Interference for a TIGA award - and the judges were due to play the game to test it out. It was quite stressful!

After a day or two he did relax and enjoyed the local wine and read his Matt Parker book - Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension. This lead to a few interesting discussions. Dan does modelling for Tesco - which made me think he wore cool suits on the catwalk - but actually means he's a mathematical modeller for Tesco Bank!
He and Nathan were trying to explain why mathematicians invent impossible shapes - like the Klein Bottle which they showed me in diagram form. Also why you can't prove parallel lines. Dan maintains that maths is an art not a science!

Strangely, later in the week I found a book upstairs called The Parrot Theorem by Denis Guedj - which was a fictionalised account of the history of maths - which was absolutely fascinating as it concentrated on the characters and their lives as well as their discoveries. I was understanding it all pretty well until they got to calculus! :-) N started reading it too - but didn't finish so we had to buy a copy when we got home!

At 3pm every afternoon we saw an eagle - and one day he brought the whole family. Apparently they like to ride the thermals over the valley when it is the hottest time of day.

The Church Tower
 The next day we decided to venture down the mule track to the village of Valdottavo below us. We took the instructions from the guest info - and set off down trough the olive trees. Soon we were in a chestnut wood, which was shady at least, carefully stepping down on the white stones dotted around. I guess these helped the mules keep their footing. It was quite steep and we came out onto a terrace where grapevine were heavy with small black grapes. Dan tried one - but from the expression on his face it must have been very sour!

Heading down to Valdottavo
It was Sunday and mass was being said in the church - so we walked down the High Street. Although Mike had warned us that we wouldn't be able to get much from the local shops, they wouldn't speak English and were closed on Sundays - we found this to be untrue! We bought wood-oven baked bread, home-made chocolate torte, plum tomatoes, meats and local wine. This was after we'd stopped at the Theatre Bar and had some iced water and looked at the Sunday papers. Unfortunately I broke a wine glass that was by the papers! We picked up the bits and took it indoors and I said "Scuse!" - and offered to pay for it - but the smiley woman behind the bar wouldn't let me!

The steps down to the village
Walking back up to the villa was much harder as it was now the hottest part of the day and it was all uphill! We did stop to look in the church as the service was now over. it was so cool and calm in there.

Dan strode up to No. 13 in his blue linen suit - he's much fitter than me! I was bright pink and sweating when I reached the top! Luckily the villa is very cool inside and we had chilled water in the fridge - so I soon recovered.

We shared to cooking every evening. We made Dan Nathan's famous "Tag Carb" and we did tuna steaks and green salads. Dan treated us to his chicken and pork escalopes cooked with wine and courgettes and mushrooms. Everything was accompanied by fresh salad, focaccia or ciabatta bread and lots of local white wine. We felt very healthy!
Only once did we give in to dessert and share a huge tiramisu from the supermarket!

Lunches consisted of huge slices of watermelon, fresh plum tomatoes, olives, mozzarella and breads with oil and balsamic. We did add crisps too as we were craving salt! Also, fresh peaches and plums
with a drizzle of honey.

We enjoyed leisurely lunches which often lasted until 4.30pm and sometimes didn't start cooking our evening meal until 9.30pm. Then we sat on the terrace looking at the constellations and talking about the universe. Dan said it has 11 dimensions - which is just mind-boggling to me. I can't imagine more than 4! We also discussed the moon landings, what era of time we would have liked to live in and what we would spend the money on if we won the lottery.

Nathan about to get "super-relaxed"
We also had to contend with two more trips to the supermarket - down the road of doom!! Dan was so brave in offering to drive each time - the first time we actually came of the tarmac track and grounded the car on the first hairpin bend, N had to get out of the passenger seat and I had to shuffle in the back over to the left - so that Dan could roll back a little and get us back on the road! Scary!!!

Dan also aiming for "super-relaxed"
He did it though :-) The next time we had a bit of an argument with a rock as we rounded the other hairpin bend. We were a little worried about the damage to the car - but when we got back to the villa we checked it online and Dan found a video about what happened if you had an accident and you were covered by the "super-relaxed insurance" - which was absolutely nothing! No paperwork, no payments - we were all good After that we were all super-relaxed and started on the demi-john of wine that we'd picked up from the supermarket for around £5.

The useful hoist
The villa also had a useful hoist and basket on the terrace - as we were up quite a few flights of steps from the road. This came in useful for lifting up the shopping (and heavy wine supplies) - although I think it was meant for logs - as it was by the log store down below. The lounge had a fab log burner for those winter months.

That evening the people at the villa below ours - who were locals - had some people over for dinner. It was light when they arrived and they ate outdoors just like we did. However, we were getting more and more stressed at the thought that they would have to go home down that scary road - IN THE DARK! We couldn't imagine how anyone could actually do that - as there were no street lights. We thought surely they must be staying the night. But, no! They all said their goodbyes around 11pm and they set off in their car back towards the hairpins of doom!

We were fully convinced that the next morning they'd be found upside down in the gorge - but we didn't hear any sirens or anything the next day.

As it was Wednesday by now we popped down the lane and through the olive grove to Mike's own villa. He said we could ask him anything before he went back to the UK until November. All the olives on the trees were hard and light green. When it comes time to harvest them the owners put nets underneath them and let them fall naturally when they're ready. They just shake the trees to se which are ready to fall.
Mike's Place

Mike and Flora were busy packing up for the trip back to England via France. As we walked down we saw a small villa for sale and Dan seemed very interested in the idea. He asked Mike - and he offered to call the number on the sign - but sadly there was no reply. He did give him details of a local estate agent though - said she'd be happy to drive him round and show him many properties.
(I think he should choose one on a better road :-)

Dan photographing the view
Tiny village
In the evenings we sometimes played games  we taught Dan how to play Sets - which he picked up really quickly and then started winning from his second game! The same thing happened when we played Dobble - a symbol-matching game. Then N made the mistake of asking him how many different symbols were needed if there were 55 cards and each card could only match one symbol with every other card.

Eagle on the roof!
We thought there'd be a really easy mathematical formula or equation that you could use to work it out - but it proved to be quite a head-scratcher. We gave p trying at midnight - as we were all so tired. When we came down to the terrace the next morning, Dan was already up and working it out again!
He did do it eventually - so we could relax again :-)

Another little jaunt we had was another suggested walk to a village on the other side of the hills. We were fortified by the promise of a cool drink in the one bar in this place when we got there. It wasn't so steep as the walk down to Valdottavo - so we set off along another mule track.

The only annoying thing about the whole stay here was the presence of so many hungry mosquitoes! For the first part of the week they only bit Nathan - so Dan and I were fine. But then the last couple of days and nights they really sent for us. it was fine as long as you didn't scratch the bites - but who can resist for long???!! Nathan discovered a great cure though - dip a metal spoon in hot water and hold it over the swelling bite. The heat breaks down the protein that the mozzie injected into you to keep your blood flowing - and this stops the itching. It's the protein that we are allergic to.

It did actually work - and we spent a few days saying "Excuse me, I'm just going in to spoon myself" :-)

So, after eight relaxing days and nights at No. 13 it was time to pack up, road up the car and brave the hairpin bends once more to drive to our next destination - Florence!
I'll leave you with a few pictures of inside the villa.
Tile above the bidet :-)

The Kitchen

Loved our bedroom door

Our bed with mosquito net!