Cat-sitting in Tuscany

It started with an email from John, seeking, on short notice, a volunteer for a cat-six-pack minding stint at his house near Arezzo, the previous candidate having taken ill. I’d idly mentioned the opportunity to Lyn, who’d countered with ‘why not’? Why not indeed.

Well, the trip over was fine, until the Italian System of Complicating Everything moved into high gear. I flitted through customs in Milan Malpensa (its appellation, loosely translated as ‘bad thought’, is well-earned), went to the easily discovered ticket office, purchased a train ticket (it wasn’t) for the Milan express (it isn’t), which goes direct from the airport to Milan Centrale (it doesn’t) in just 50 minutes!

(I think Milan aeroporto has followed Paris CDG model – how can the city with bragging rights as the world’s centre of design have such a shitty airport decked out in garish veridian paint tiles?)



Down on the platform, I spotted what looked like ticket validation machines and, being a law-abiding person, asked the factotum nearby if I needed to validate my ticket. No, because yours is a bus ticket! However, he took pity on me and told me to get on the train, which left almost immediately. The factotum turned out to be the train’s ticket checker, so I was spared having to beg a second time.

After stopping at several stations, we arrived at Milan Nord station. Most of the passengers alighted, and some new ones jumped on board, so the English couple opposite and I stayed put. After a few minutes, my new friends asked the chap lounging on the platform when the train was leaving for Milan Centrale – no, this train is going to Malpensa! So we hightailed it off the train and I headed for the information counter for intelligence (!) as to how to get to Milan Centrale station. Translation: take the underground, it’s outside, downstairs. Good, but some extra information would help, like get a ticket from the machine (1 euro) and take the green line, direction XYZ. But never mind, I found my way there, and asked a Chinese woman if it was the right train – Si! It was 28C outside and 48C in the subway, and the Centrale metro station set a new benchmark in hellhole filth. The contrast on emerging into daylight and at the foot of the palatial, grey stone, doric-columned magnificence of the main train station was somewhat of a cultural shock. So was the queue for tickets. So I took the bull by the horns and bought a ticket on the ‘fast ticket’ machina, which worked a treat, although I was now on a later train than I would have liked, but no matter.

Arriving at Florence, I had 30 minutes to buy a ticket and get on the train to Montevarchi. Once again the queue at the bigleterria was ghastly, and the folks at the ‘fast ticket’ machines were frozen with stupidity, so I shelled out €4.20 at the magazine kiosk for a local ticket and went in search of the right platform, which was a challenge in itself. I rang John and asked for directions “train for Arezzo, platform 13 or 14, go right to the end of the train and that’ll put you at the exit in Montevarchi”. OK. The condition of the train was crummy, at best. Seated waiting for the departure, or the arrival of the resident axe murderer, I suddenly had a flash of insight – I was on the wrong train! This one took an hour to get to Montevarchi, and the right one took 35 minutes and left seven minutes later. So I scampered back down the platform and onto the train for Rome!

We pulled into Montevarchi at the same time as a cloudburst, but luckily John was waiting for me and we finally arrived at Posticcia Vecchia at 8.20pm, having slowed to let a doe and her fawn cross our path in the dusk. Leigh from Oz had arrived from Rome the previous day, on her way to Spoleto for a course in script writing, so it was a bit like old home week!

The house is high above a village (Pieve a Presciano), surrounded by pretty wooded hills, olive groves and vineyards. Sunday morning, John and I were chatting by the front door when an enormous and beautiful hare came bounding slowly up the dirt road toward the house, gave us a cursory glance and continued on down the hill, unperturbed.

Jeffrey Smart, his partner Ermes (Italian by birth, migrated to Oz when he was a child, and Jeffrey’s mate for the past 30 plus years), Serena (manager of Gargonza hotel) and a Wagner fan from Sydney were coming to lunch, so I offered to be commis to Teresa and we had a lovely morning’s fun in the kitchen.

The guests duly arrived at 2pm. Jeffrey looked like an unmade bed, wearing a tawdry print shirt open to the belt and his (apparently) signature red and white neckerchief. However, he was a singularly wonderful luncheon companion and he and Ermes squabbled incessantly in good humour. “I’ve been trying to teach Ermes how to cook meatloaf for 40 years, but he’s hopeless.” “Your meatloaf is disgusting Jeffrey, and looks like a dinosaur’s turd.”

Jeffery told a lovely tale of Lindsay Fox phoning him and offering him a million dollars to do a painting of his new trucks. Jeffrey refused. Lindsay was gobsmacked – “OK, so how much do you want then?” “No, I don’t do commissions for commercial purposes”. Lindsay finally got the message and responded “Well, you’re a silly c***, then”! There were lots of fun tales over an excellent lunch, until a massive cloudburst sent us all scurrying from the terrace and the guests in homeward direction.

Next morning Leigh and I were having tea on the terrace when we discovered that both our families had come from Tallangatta. She had grown up in Wodonga, but her mother ‘bolted’ with a North Melbourne footballer and moved to Chiltern when she was twelve, leaving Leigh, her sister and younger brother to be brought up by her father, who ran a ‘mixed business’ and loved a drink or several. To soften the blow of deserting her children, her mother gave the kids a pet lamb, which turned out to be a ram, called Curly. The kids used to play possum every night when their dad rolled in, usually singing “Let’s Twist Again”, but he was never violent, just cheerful with a skinful of booze. Curly would follow them to school, then head off to the meatworks holding pen to talk to his mates on death row. But one day he hung around too long and was loaded onto the truck headed off to the abattoir. The kids raced to their dad’s shop, and he made it to the abattoir to save Curly in the nick of time, who lived to a ripe old age and was finally pensioned off from the suburban block in Wodonga to a friend’s farm near Beechworth.

John, Leigh and I headed down to the village to dispose of the garbage and recyclables, then around to Jeffrey’s place to drop off some wine. The house (they’ve lived there for decades) is a large, balconied affair, which was originally part of the estate of the Duke of Tuscany (one of whom was Marie Antoinette’s brother) and has its own ghost, who wears the red breeches of the Austrian guard (they served the Dukes). Jeffrey’s studio is across the drive, and the other residents are six peacocks, four black pugs (ghastly smelly creatures) and a host of chickens that provide eggs to John and Teresa, among others.

After a trawl around the hillsides we headed off to Arezzo to get Leigh onto her train and to pick up Lyn, who was arriving from London via Bologna. The Italian train system put itself into mischief mood yet again, and despite having seen Leigh onto the right platform at the right time, she SMS-ed us shortly afterwards to say she was on the wrong train and fighting off a small bald Italian chap who seemed fixated by her cleavage!

Lyn fared better and arrived as expected. By the time we got back to Posticcia Vecchia, Edmee had phoned to say she was arriving at Montevarchi shortly, so I took the Jeep and, with Lyn checking for landmarks so we could find our way home, drove to Montevarchi and collected Edmee after only a couple of disasters getting waylaid by the Italian roadworks and signage gremlins. As we pulled into the station carpark, Edmee was waving happily and we both wondered how she knew it was us, not knowing what we’d be driving. The fact that we’d entered the carpark by the exit was apparently a dead giveaway!

True to form, the heavens opened with biblical ferocity, so getting out of Montevarchi in torrential rain was a bit challenging, but the sun was shining again by the time we turned off toward Pieve.

John and Teresa had booked us into a fine restaurant in the Chianti hills, so the drive near sunset was gorgeous. The meal was, however, very ordinary. The female chef’s husband is recovering from a heart attack, and her distraction showed in the food, which was not within a bull’s roar of deserving 1 Michelin star. The price was equally ghastly – the €400 tab savaged our dining kitty somewhat!

Tuesday morning I was up early to deliver John and Teresa to Montevachi station to catch their train to Rome Termini, where there are 500 robberies each day as folks struggle to make the connection between the inbound trains from regional Italy and the express to the Rome airport.

After a quick reconnoitre of the local supermarket (IperCoop), I headed back to the house. Jeffrey called around lunchtime to (belatedly) wish John and Teresa bon voyage and check the schedule of visitors for the next couple of weeks – “we’d like you to come to dinner, but we don’t want a whole mob of people”.

Then I set about making salsa (to flavour the crateload of corn chips that a client from the US had sent to John). I’d collected a loin of pork on the bone, along with other supplies, and after a relaxing day we tucked into roast pork with baby green beans roast potatoes thyme, all of which were delicious.

Next morning we set off on our Chianti tour, hooning down the valley to the start of the strada dei vino, and lucking into seeing some of the black harlots touting their wares beside the roadside with easy access into the bosco (woods) with their desperate clientele. Prostitution is legal in Italy, provided it’s not conducted from a building!

We stopped at Felsina, which recently won the accolade of best enoteca in Italy. It was very pleasant, and manned by two young lasses, one of whom was pale, freckled and unspeakably beautiful, until she raised her arm to reveal a sweaty armpit staining her pretty lavender shirt. Next, a quick stopover at one of the iconic Ricasoli, snaffling a couple of bottles of Albia rose to be going on with (which became our standard rose for the duration).

Hungry by now, after discarding the crowded town of Gaiole in Chianti, we stopped by Badia a Coltibuono for lunch on a terrace at the monastery, with fabulous views over the Valdarno (aka the valley of the Arno) – variously scoffing grilled sea bass with fried potatoes, tomato salad and a salad mixte, cannelloni with mushrooms, then lemon basil/mint melon sorbets and smoked apricot tart. The meal was delicious and the location gorgeous. Needless to say, we skipped the monastery and missed out on the co-located villa and winery, which is the home of Lorenza de’ Medici and her cooking school. Back at Posticcia Vecchia, I prepped tomato relish, using the gorgeous tomatoes grown by John’s local everyma, Irio, in the garden below the house.

Thursday, and we three headed off to Lucca after an early lunch. It’s a fair hike on the autostrada, and Lyn managed to shock Edmee by relating her ancient theory (conceived when she, en famille, travelled Europe for six months in ’87) that all Italian men drive with one arm languidly hanging out the driver’s window because they’re steering using both knees while wanking with their other hand! Made sense to me.

Lucca is a very well-heeled town and quite charming, abounding in private villas with large gardens behind high walls. An independent city-state untiI the nineteenth century, it harboured filthy rich silk merchants and associated ‘commerce’, and it gives the impression that, whilst not shunning touristicos, it really couldn’t care less whether they turned up or not. Puccini was born here and a bronze replica of him sits in a little square off the piazza that sports a wedding-cake monstrosity of a church. I spotted a couple of excellent handbags but didn’t succumb, mainly because the assistant in the shop advised me to go to their outlet shop just one exit off the autostrada from Montevarchi.

Because we were collecting Claire and her friend Antoinette, we decided to check out the charms of the local beach attraction, Marina del Pisa. So we zoomed down the motorway, having reserved a table at Da Gino restaurant. The crowds heading back from the Marina to Pisa were bumper-to-bumper, engaging in the usual Italian trick of passing on double lines or driving well over the centre line, so it was a bit or a hairy run. When we got to the Marina, it turned out to be a two kilometre stretch of near-tacky camping grounds, the usual drossy suspects of Pizzarias/gelati vendors – all sporting a patina of scruffiness – and a beach that resembled a horizontal quarry, littered with white rocks.

After a couple of passes and phone calls, we found our restaurant and settled into a lovely meal of spigola (European sea bass) with chips and salad, attended by a lovely Basil-like, middle-aged, cast-eyed, shy waiter who was beautifully courteous and terribly concerned that everything about our meal was tickety-boo, which it was. So we left him a handsome tip.

We collected Claire Antoinette, then, instead of taking the Fi-Pi-Li (Firenze/ Pisa/Livorno expressway), I took a wrong turning which meant stooging along the belvedere between Pisa and Lucca, which had fabulous views, and eventually arrived home at 12.30am. I was utterly cattled by this stage, having driven most of the day and half the night.

It was time to visit a market and get some decent fruit. Friday’s market was at Terranuova Bracciolini (instantly S’trined into ‘Terra Broccolini’). There were two fruit and veg. vendors selling the same rubbishy fruit that populates the supermarkets, and a hundred crappy clothes vendors, so we headed off to the handbag outlet, which didn’t disappoint, with all of us pocketing appropriate goodies.

Back at Posticcia Vecchia, Miles rang to say he and Annie would have to cancel out, as they’d caught their manager (of their Birregurra Providore store) with her hand in the till, so had fired her and would have to stay and mind the shop (literally). Julie (the manager) admitted she’s been nicking stuff – it was a chicken that brought her undone – but that she’s been under enormous stress as she’d just found out she’s pregnant, a slight difficulty in view of the fact that her husband had had a vasectomy three years prior!

After lunch I set about making the promised coconut cakes (cupcakes) for Jeffrey, and a couple of bottles of relish. I rang Ermes and told him I’d be dropping some stuff off, but there was no answer when we arrived, so I left prettily decorated cupcakes tomato relish on the table outside (probably for the local ants to devour).

(About a week later, I had a sudden flash of insight – Jeffrey had demanded coconut cakes – he actually meant lamingtons! Had he asked for Hairy Cakes, I would have understood immediately.)

Saturday was Assumption. Naturally everything was going to be closed, so Lyn and I trekked into Arezzo to do some shopping at Essalunga, the posh supermarket. It was total chaos, with half of Italy doing their long-weekend shopping. Our bill at the checkout took the biscuit in the expense stakes, at €250!

I’d rung Serena at Gargonza to arrange for a table for their ‘summer special’ lunch. Gargonza is a village-hotel. It all began with Count Robert Guicciardini placing an advertisement in the Sunday Times in 1972 to solicit help (i.e. money) to restore the village (basically abandoned) to its former glory in the form of a hotel consisting of each of the houses as guest apartments and the castello as the hotel centrepiece. It’s a stunning site, on its own hillock surrounded by pine forests, and hidden from view from any of the surrounding vantage points.

Lunch was a multi-course affair and excellent – smoked salmon/antipasti /pasta /grilled beef with roast potatoes and salad/panna cotta with berries/red and white wine/water/coffee, all-inclusive for €37pp. The Count’s quite beautiful son stopped by to make sure we were happy with everything, which we were.

Antoinette and Claire were leaving from Florence airport, so Sunday we set off to go across the hills via Radda then Greve in Chianti to lunch at Montefioralle at a little family restaurant with a terrace overlooking the vineyards. As usual, we underestimated the time it takes to motor over the interminable little roads at a maximum of 70kph, so arrived 20 minutes late, which only just saved our table from hovering invaders. Lovely salumi/proscuitto and antipasti for starters was followed by simple grilled meats, salad and rot-gut house wine. But it was pleasant enough, and enlivened by the action at a neighbouring table where the Nonna had exceeded her daily allowance somewhat and proceeded to guzzle Limoncello by the bucketload, simultaneously loudly berating her family with high good humour and definitely slurred lingo.

Nobody warned me that the Firenze airport is accessible via the Firenze Nord interchange, famous for sending Lyn me into the supermarket carpark in ’93 no matter which option we took. It’s now totally redesigned into a new form of bastardry, with disappearing signs including microscopic airport signs, and the airport itself changing its name with random ferocity and no warning whatsoever of where to dive off the carriageway. However, we disposed of our cargo in good time, and headed homeward without incident.

Monday was Edmee’s last day with us, so it was her choice re touristico destination. We settled on heading north to Poppi – a small hill town across the other side of the Arno valley, which proved to be very pretty and enhanced by the arrival of a serious thunderstorm and accompanying deluge. We had lunch opposite the castello, the usual meat spinach fried potatoes, but it was fine, and a damned sight cooler than Posticcia Vecchia.

Which brings me to the weather. Now I know Tuscany is supposed to be hot in summer, particularly August, and it is. Stinking. Constantly. No respite. No cool change. Maximum every day 35C+ (minimum 22C overnight). And that’s in the shade. In the sun it’s 46C. And there’s barely a restaurant that has air-conditioning. None of the houses (including this one) have air-conditioning either, and the portable numbers struggle constantly to cool the ambient temperature down to scalding. Air-conditioning is apparently environmentally unacceptable, contrary to the ubiquitous predilection for plastic-bottled water. The car would be a welcome retreat, with the air conditioner on full blast, except John’s Jeep overheats if it has to struggle up a meek hill, and hills tend to proliferate in this neck of the woods. Plus it gallops through diesel like there’s no tomorrow, at €70 each fill.

We took Edmee to Firenze airport, and made it with ease, having noused the ridiculous, circuitous, rut-ridden layout of the approach. Then Lyn and I headed into Florence for some retail therapy. We left the car at the Mercato Centrale carpark and proceeded above ground into stifling heat and the arms of a plethora of rampant shoddy-droppers. We ducked into the market in search of some fruit and vegetables, but of course most of the vendors were closed – not for lunch, but for August. There were plenty of people (tourists) in town though, and we headed for Paoli, where Karen the California girls and I had a lovely lunch the previous Spring. It would have been fine this time round, had it been air-conditioned and populated by un-surly waiters. But it wasn’t, and the Italian habit of not providing wine coolers didn’t improve matters, nor my demeanour. Warm rosata is not my favourite tipple.

My preferred shoe vendors offered little temptation, the post office staff provided a new benchmark of ineptitude, but we had a fine time back at the market, because the leather merchants were having lean pickings and were operating on the basis that any business is good business, so we happily engaged in some serious bargaining and fun bantering and between us came away with (perceived) bargains or several in the form of suede shirts, plus lambskin and leather travel bags.

The trusty GPS got us out of Florence in a flash and back to Montevachi.

We’d discovered a Mall near the Incisa exit (near the handbag shop), which is home to Loro Piana/Valentino/Ferragamo/Bottega Veneta/ Zegna/Tods to name a few, and all the shops were air-conditioned, which made for a comfortable afternoon’s retail therapy. But the high point of the day came on the motorway. Barrelling along at 120kph, I looked in the rear vision mirror and burst out laughing. I was about to be passed by a Fiat 500, scorching along at 140kph – brilliant!

We were planning to hit Deruta to do the grand tour of the ceramica establishments, so we figured we better check out Ceramiche Rampini (near Radda in Chianti) beforehand. So we toddled off, yet again going through the effort of locking all the shutters etc – a damned nuisance, but apparently required in idyllic Tuscany, where the local rustlers trawl around checking for absent and careless residents. In our case, old post-house’s architecture has some design peculiarities. First of all there’s the access, which is charming on first acquaintance. One leaves the main drag of tiny-town Pieve by means of a hairpin bend, immediately heading up on a 25 degree angle. The bitumen then flattens out for 100 metres, before turning into a ‘white road’ (as in unmade), then, after a couple of dicey turns, turns into a rutted goat-track and finally, up and down and around, one arrives – right outside the front door. Except it’s also the road to two other houses, plus the ne’er-do-well who harvests his wood from the bosco and turns up at any hour, but without fail whenever we stop to load/unload anything for more than one minute.

From the front door, one enters the kitchen – a long room of great charm and impossible design. It has a door in every corner and a large arch in the middle of one of the long walls, and a huge fireplace on the opposite wall that’s only suitable for filling with ‘stuff’. The window is above the kitchen bench, so in order to open/close the windows/ flyscreen/ shutters, one has to shimmy up onto the bench and twist around 180 degrees to effect whatever locking/unlocking is the order of the day. And the bench has a rectangle cut out of it, into which a chopping board (wooden) has been dropped, so cleaning it off is a real pain as crap gets caught under it and the board itself weighs a ton. There’s a marble worktop on the butcher’s block-type affair which sits between the fridge and the stove, then a long, wooden table that seats a dozen or so, with a huge dresser on the far wall, probably eight metres from the dishwasher at the other end of the room.

Then there’s the new Ilve stove with six burners, none of which will light first go, and none of which will stay alight on ‘low’, thanks to the churlish gas supply. And the small oven burns the arse out of everything. Short as I am, I still have to bend down to check which nob matches which burner/oven as their indicators are hidden under the hob overhang and don’t align with the positions of the burners. On the positive side, there’s the original, enormous bread oven (at least 2metres deep) but bench space demands that a host of cooking implements and the coffee machine sit in front of the iron door, so it’s a day’s work to use it (which we didn’t).

There are three bedrooms upstairs and one bathroom, which is up three stairs and has an plinth above it which enables anyone taller than 1.6m to crack their skull, then there’s a half-step in front of the dunny, which provides the multiple opportunity to trip into the loo, poke out an eye on the loo paper spike as you spin round to be seated, and graze an arm on the rough-plaster wall in the process. The lounge is a huge room with a large arched window providing a beautiful view of the valley, and an opportunity for hornets and mosquitoes to enter at will.

Downstairs, the big room at the bottom serves as an office, then there’s a large bedroom (probably 4M x 5M or more) but there’s not a stretch of wall against which to put a double bed, so it houses twin beds and a settee, and has its own bathroom, which is probably the most functional room in the house. And way downstairs, accessible from the outside stairs and passing by the fig tree, is another bedroom with en-suite bathroom.

Out of the front door and around the side, down the steps and into the lower garage, is the two-room cantina, in which everything is stored plus it houses the laundry. The cantina is not accessible from inside the house, which means one has to trek up and down and around and back. A door punched through from the inside staircase landing would save hours a day. One crosses the road to get to the upstairs terrace.

But there’s wild thyme growing everywhere, two fig trees, olive trees by the score, and the kitchen garden is full of lovely edible goodies, thanks to Irio, and the views along the valleys and woods are lovely, punctuated by the squawking of Jeffrey’s peacocks and Ermes’ sheep (Suffolks) in the valley below, 400m as the crow flies and a 10 minute drive by car.

Back to touring. We headed off to the Chianti Hills, which are quite gorgeous, trawled around taking photos, had an afternoon tipple in Radda and the Rampini studio, where there were lots of lovely ceramics, very pricey and several dogs, so we tootled back via the hardware store in Montevarchi for some citronella supplies and settled for a quiet dinner on the lower terrace, along with the wildlife and the cats.

Friday we stormed down the autostrada to Deruta. First we went to Grazia – almost an emporium – where I bought four pieces the previous year, but the bowls I thought I wanted were €60 apiece, so I decided I didn’t need them after all. It was past midday, and everything closes between 1pm and 3pm (of course), so we decided we’d check out another couple of places nearby before lunch. The second shop (Sberna) had no prices on anything, but some interesting stuff, and we were the only customers, so Franka, the owner/master painter’s daughter, helped us out and the prices were half those of Grazia, or less. So we bought tons of stuff and Christmas presents, to be shipped to Oz in due course. (Having spent €700 at Sberna, the thought entered my head that the €240 spend at Grazia was looking like a better option – shopper’s hindsight!)

Our assignment completed, we headed for Cortona for lunch – supposedly full of Americans walking in the footsteps of Frances what’s-her-name of “Under the Tuscan Sun” fame. Working on the usual theory of getting as close to the centro as possible before looking for a park, we lucked into a park in the shade just before the ‘pedestrian only’ centre and headed for the Il Loggiato restaurant which is sited above the piazza, with lovely views of the plebs roasting in the sun below. But we had a lovely breeze at our table and our grilled chicken with herbs, pork fillet in fennel sauce, potatoes roasted in olive oil, spinach with garlic, lemon sorbetto and a bottle or rose was a superb lunch with perfect, courteous service.

We ambled back to Pieve by minor roads through pretty countryside, which took forever, but it was a very pleasant afternoon nonetheless.

Next morning we zipped into Arezzo, checked out the gorgeous huge, sloping piazza, then wandered back down the main drag with visits to Busatti (the high-end furnishing fabric manufacturers) and Ingram, purveyor of lovely cotton shirts, which conveniently had a sale in progress. So Lyn picked up shirts for the men in her life and I picked up shirts for …me! While we were deciding, a family of Italians invaded, including the smelly pubescent daughter and son ran who riot in the shop, trying on every shirt that was two sizes too small. By now it was 1pm and the town shut down completely, as it was a local festa afternoon (of course).

As we had to pass Essalunga on the way home, we figured we’d top up with a couple of essentials, i.e. yoghurt and juice, so didn’t bother with getting a trolley (the one-euro in the slot type). Half-way around, Lyn spotted a half-price wine sale, including our favourite rose and some quaffable Sicilian whites at <€2/bottle, so we decided to stock up for the duration, which required an extra couple of baskets. At the checkout, we realised that getting the loot to the car would be problematic, so Lyn was despatched to bring forth a trolley. I loaded the first couple of bottles onto the checkout belt, whereupon the checkout chick engaged the belt, which lurched into action and threw both bottles floor-ward, smashing one. The Italian reaction to a crisis went into overdrive, with much screaming/ hand-waving/loud-speakering/advice and involvement of most of the customers and none of the staff and no action whatsoever. But it was all resolved in the space of half and hour and we parted on good terms, if a little red-faced on my part.

We’d found out by this stage that there were a couple of spas within easy reach, which offered attractive treatments and also day passes (10 euros) to their pools. Pity we didn’t know that from the start! So I rang to book treatments, but was told to ring back Sunday morning, so in the end we gave up and opted for a rest day catch up on washing/ironing and definitely not driving anywhere.

Monday we were headed for Umbertide (pronounced Oom-bear-t-dee, but Umber-Tide to us) lunch with Dibbs’ sister Jill and husband Aubrey. We figured we’d have time to get to Sansopolcro (Piero della Francesca’s home town) for a quick visit on the way, but as we approached saw a large billboard for Busatti and I immediately remembered that this is the fabric maker’s home town, so we headed for Anghiari instead, which is a stunningly beautiful hill town, built out upon a rocky ‘peninsula’. But of course, it was Monday morning, so the shop was closed. So it was off to Umbertide on the superstrada which runs parallel to the Rome autostrada but along the next valley and is superior in every sense – lovely scenery, good crops, excellent road, no tolls.

Aubrey had emailed that we were to wait by the beige-coloured bar just off the Umbertide exit, so we popped in to order a drink while we waited for him. Stumped for what to have at midday, I opted simply for ‘frizzante’ but forgot to add acqua, so the barman immediately poured two vino frizzante and demanded a total of 2 euros. It was delicious. All that time ordering Campari cough mixture and the like and here was simple bubbly at a super price. We followed Aubrey up hill and down dale and eventually up another goat track to a couple of buildings on a ridge, but with a lovely swimming pool! Who knew! And Jill tripped around the corner, accompanied by four dogs, all of whom instantly decided they needed to lie on my feet (which are always hot), adding to the already uncomfortable temperature of about 38C in the shade, under the umbrella, by the pool, with appropriate flying wildlife included in the price.

Lunch was lovely – assorted meats, perfect caponata, pickles and salad. Plus peperonata, but that was understandable, then lovely melon and some dryish cheese – all grand, despite Aubrey deciding our chilled wine and water should be left in the sun to warm up to simmering point. It was a fun afternoon, with lots of chatter and story-telling. Unfortunately I let drop that Peter had been ‘Dibblet’ to me ever since we met at uni in ’67, so Jill immediately decided that was an appropriate appellation for her brother (much to his chagrin, displayed in an miffy text message received the following day).

We headed back to Anghiari with a quick detour to the Ingram shirt factory shop that Lyn had spotted from the superstrada, but it was closed (what a surprise). But Busatti was open and I made off with a pile of fabric samples to check out against my home décor.

Just to complete the day, as we hooned back down the wooded hills towards Arezzo, we were treated to the hilarious sight of a working girl pocketing her fee as her client in lycra mounted his bicycle and tentatively wobbled off down the hill.

But the Pieve gods were not done with us yet. When we arrived home, the front door was bolted shut. It was dark by this time, so a small panic ensued (we’d locked all the shutters and doors from the inside, per usual), until Lyn managed to unlock the side door. So we stumbled over the cat litter boxes and of course the house was stifling, so we opened everything we could, but we couldn’t unbolt the front door from the inside. So I rang Teresa in Portugal and she gave me the instructions for finding the keys, behind the door, in the second room of the cantina. Irio had still been working when we left, and had locked up – completely! Normal order restored, we fed the cats and wolfed down a couple of G Ts (hold the tonic).

Jeffrey rang. We hadn’t heard from him since dropping off the tomato relish and coconut cakes ten days earlier (strange, I’d thought, but this was later explained by the fact that Teresa drops cakes off to him every other day, so he expects them as normal, in exchange for Ermes’ chooks’ eggs). However, he asked how many of us were in situ and I told him we were collecting Helen and Lynda in Florence that afternoon, whereupon he invited us all to dinner Wednesday night.

It was time to reconsider our transport options. I’d booked a car for pickup in Florence, and, as John had decided he’d had enough of Portugal and was coming home early, Lyn and I had decided that all four of us would drive to Pisa a day early so we could deliver Helen and Lynda to their plane and we two would spend the night at an airport hotel. So we left the Jeep at the station and headed into Florence by train. It was lunchtime, so we stopped of Da Sergio, right by the market, for an excellent simple lunch in what is a family trattoria (and it was air-conditioned). We picked up our car (an Alpha 147, with plenty of inherited dents), parked in the station car park and headed for an air-conditioned café to enjoy a glass of bubbles, excellent coffee granita, lots of sparkling water and whiled away a couple of hours until our guests arrived from Pisa (which, by the way, is a good little airport, sporting a train station integrated with the airport – a great improvement on Milan and even Bologna).

Wednesday the collective choice was for a slow day. Leaving Lynda to catch up on sleep, we headed for the organic agricultural co-op in the backblocks of Montevarchi – a lovely shop with excellent local vegetables and stainless steel tanks of wine (1€/litre, quality: quaffable), local cheeses and other goodies. Then to the little supermarket that we’d recently found in preference to the giant IperCoop. This little local one had its own butcher with excellent pork and poultry and the most delightful chap in the deli who insisted on giving us tastes of everything and then opening new packets of the best of everything for us – gorgonzola, taleggio, local salamis and other smallgoods in all their variants. Around the corner we checked out the excellent shoe shop to snaffle sandals for Helen and me (I’d been looking for same since we arrived, with no success). After a pleasant lunch, we had a game of Scrabble on the terrace (which I won).

I couldn’t quite remember what time Jeffrey had asked us to come for drinks, but Ermes had said 7.30pm, so we tarted up and headed down the hill, arriving at Chez Smart on time. There was silence from the house, and no response to our ‘Hellos’ but then we spotted our host strolling around the pool below, starkers. We decided to beat a hasty retreat for half an hour, so we skipped back to the village and I rang Ermes at 8pm – ‘what time are you expecting us?’ “NOWWW”, so back down and onto the covered balcony for prosecco, with Jeffrey respectably clothed by this time. After some fine chatter, we headed off to Capannole, the next village, to a huge restaurant with a lovely terrace.

Dinner was great fun, with both Jeffrey and Ermes being in high good humour and Jeffrey taking an instant shine to Lynda, who’s very easy on the eye and has just been through a very difficult divorce. (Lynda’s husband is supposedly the highest paid principal in the UK, and ran off with the French teacher after a long-standing affair. Lynda got the house, encumbered with a mortgage, and is left with a disposable income of £50/week. Ex-hubby froggie married a month ago in a blaze of glory and public display of money, which has helped neither Lynda’s recovery nor her self-esteem).

Some of the lovely stories included the following:

– Jeffrey knew Ben Chifley’s secretary well. The story goes that, although the general public thought he owned only one suit (blue with white pinstripes), he actually owned eight, all of them the same. That was because was he was a serial drunk, and regularly fouled himself, so the suits did a relay at the dry cleaners. Worse, he died ‘on the job’ with his mistress, who promptly rang the chauffeur, but as they were on the opposite side of the Harbour Bridge from where he lived, they had to pop him in the front seat, prop him up, and pretend he was asleep. Stopped at the toll point, the guard commented, “your passenger doesn’t look very well”. The driver managed “oh, he’s a little under the weather –”… but they got him home and ensconced in suitable dying position without further incident.

– Prince Phillip spent his assignment in Sydney during the early part of WW2, cutting a swathe through the female regiment of the social set. Jeffrey knew three of the ladies of grace and favour and all attested to his considerable charms.

– he made the mistake, when being introduced to Susan Renouf at a function, of asking “is it Mrs or Ms?” to be told in no uncertain terms “Lady, thank you”!

After dinner, we said our good-byes on the front steps of the restaurant, then sauntered off to our car and headed home. Well, not quite, I managed to miss the veer off towards Pieve and it wasn’t until we hit the outskirts of Ambra that I realised my mistake. But 20 minutes later we were back at the house, unharmed.

Thursday we took the autostrada south to Montepulchiano. Under the direction of my four navigators (i.e., the GPS, plus my three passengers) we managed to find ourselves in the cobbled centre of town, reserved for emergency vehicles. It was time to make a quick getaway, having been berated by the bemused locals, so I entertained the assorted company with a hilltop rendition of the Italian Job, powering through the tiny winding streets in an effort to get outa town fast!

Well, I WAS driving an Alfa! We’d seen enough – the town was full of tourists and associated tat, so we continued to Pienza, which Irio had recommended to us and which is a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Val d’Orcia. It was delightful – a lovely town with a gorgeous centre which was completely redesigned by its most famous resident, Pope Pius II, using the Florentine architect Rossellino to complete the Cathedral and Papal Palace and piazza in double quick time, and there’s a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside from the terrace atop the walls of the town. We chose a little trattoria off the main drag and enjoyed a lovely lunch of assorted salumi, wild rabbit, olives and pine nuts, grilled lamb (a rarity on menus, despite the fact that this is sheep country – all that pecorino has to come from fleecy inhabitants), salad mixte, sorbets and local wine.

There were thunderstorms on horizon, but that didn’t deter us from engaging in some retail shoe therapy. Next stop, Montalcino, which is Edmee’s favourite town in Tuscany. It’s understandable, as the drive across the ridges is the classic Tuscany of photos – rolling hills, with plenty of agriculture (sheep flocks in addition to the ubiquitous vines), parasol and pencil pines. And storms, with thunder and lightning, so we headed into a café, whereupon Lyn got locked in dunny, which took a few minutes to sort out! At last, we saw deer on the way home, but there’d been no rain at Pieve.

Overnight, the wild boars had dug up some rocks and several plants in the garden. Combined with the mosquitoes, stinging flies, hornets and scorpions, the wildlife in this neck of the woods is a bit wild for my taste. Irio turned up with a gift of a bottle of Vin Santo to help us on our way – he’s such a lovely man, even though our communication consisted of charades and Ital-ish. (We’d bought Irio an excellent bottle of Brunello de Montalcino, and also given Rosella a bottle of red of indeterminate provenance.)

Along with Rosella, we cleaned up house, put everything back in its place and headed off for Anghiari, dropping off the Jeep for John at Arezzo station. The intention was lunch at Anghiari but of course it was another ‘fete’ day so most of the restaurants were closed. We finally settled on a cantina and had a pleasant lunch of mixed salumi, cheese, salad (Helen finally got her spaghetti) and some house wine, all served by a bald, beady-eyed, queer-as-a coot chap with an extraordinarily churlish manner and Manuel-style vowels. For the afternoon opening (after 3.30) we headed for Busatti for Helen and Linda, which was good idea as the only person who ended up buying anything was me – a baby blue cashmere blanket, which the cats immediately commandeered.

The cumulo nimbus were gathering strength as we headed home, part of the way through new territory of lovely woods, then via a long valley littered with timber trucks, no doubt denuding the beautiful forest we’d just enjoyed. We’d just finished opening up the house when the storm struck with enormous thunder claps immediately overhead. Lynda had been looking out of the main upstairs window as the storm blew in and was blinded for several minutes after a lightning strike earthed directly in front of her. It was pretty hairy for a few minutes, with accompanying torrential rain – the first we’d seen at the house for 18 days.

In light of our imminent departure, we were having leftovers – zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and fresh herbs, chilled cauliflower soup, various meats/salumi/cheeses/salads. Lyn and I had snaffled some tomatoes to take to London so these were safely packed away in our baggage, plus some castagna honey (chestnut) and the spare bottle of gin.

John arrived at about 8.30pm, suitably dishevelled and narked due to the fact that the Portuguese gremlins had paid him back for all his insults by calling a strike at the Lisbon airport for three hours.

Saturday, and we were packed and ready to go, on schedule, by 10am. It was always going to be a tough ask to fit all of the assorted possessions in the car, in addition to we four, so Lyn was designated car-packer (there’s none better) and the Alpha was packed to the gunwales without causing excessive discomfort in the passenger department. Helen and Lynda were down in the cantina with John, who was filling cans with olive oil for us (small ones for London, 1L cans for Helen and Lynda to take home). So of course, in the couple of minutes the car was parked outside the front door, the mad woodsman turned up for a final test of my patience and tooted for me to get out of the way. I gesticulated crabbily at him (there was no way I was going to reverse down the dirt road with all that weight aboard), so he took the hint and turned into the cantina driveway so I could pass him. Thanks, Arsehole.

So goodbye to Sophie and Sparkles, Molly and Muffin, Nina and Carlotta, plus John, and we were on our way. We’d checked out the map and decided that lunch in the hills before Pisa would be a good option, so turned off about 30km before for the small town of Montopoli in Val d’Arno. The Albergo-restaurant that we were headed for was closed, as was a second option, a couple of kilometres out of town, so we retraced our steps and found a cantina which was open but without custom and preparing for a large evening party, but they decided to feed us. With the wine came a large bowl of stuffed, deep fried breaded olives, which smelled fantastic, then our meals arrived, all of which were excellent – pasta with lobster, risotto with asparagus and seafood sauce (make that large chunks of lovely seafood), risotto with mushrooms and peas, and salumi with rocket, plus the house wine, of course.

We deposited Helen and Lynda at the airport in good time and, in due course, found our ‘airport’ hotel (€83, half the rack rate), which was a good fifteen minutes away. It was modern, clean and spacious, with a free minibar (containing coke, orange juice and water). I went downstairs to order a fortifying G T but no-go – the bar only opens when the restaurant opens, and the restaurant doesn’t open on Saturdays! That explains the bargain rate!

So I asked our cheerless Luigi-of-all-trades where we could get a meal/drink and he directed me to drive down the road and around the corner. So after a relax and shower, we headed toward the promised pub, having checked out where to get petrol and the local supermarket, in case the promised meal didn’t eventuate.

It turned out to be a pink palace pizzeria, so we sat outdoors with a glass of frizzante while we decided whether we’d risk eating there. In the event it seemed fine (apart from one of my fillings disappearing with the gratis peanuts), and by this stage it was 7.30pm so we decided we might as well eat early, which was just as well, because the hoards of local families with kiddies, young couples with the females barely clothed and various chaps in underworld-striped suits offering drinks to the constabulary made for a busy evening. We started with proscuitto and melon. So we were each delivered a whole melon, wedged and draped with eight slices of proscuitto. With no need for anything more, sea bass with chips and salad arrived, the chips and salad being the high point, as the fish had not seen salt water for some time. Never mind, the litre of house wine washed the pain away, and we retired for an early-ish night.

Contrary to the no-show restaurant, the buffet breakfast was fine. But getting the car filled with diesel was no walk in the park, as all the en route filling stations (‘service’ doesn’t apply) were automated, with cash-only options. As we hadn’t filled the Alpha in five days, and it was still ¼ full, we had no idea how much it would take. Luckily, when we got to the airport filling station, the same applied, but there was a girl from one of the car hire companies there, so she used her corporate card to fill the alpha and we paid her in cash – €50, about a third of what it would have cost us to do the equivalent travel in the guzzling Jeep!

For a little airport, Pisa was absolutely jumping with people. Lyn was flying back with RyanAir, I was going with British Airways, so we toddled off in our separate directions to meet up again in London, where it was a welcome and cool 22C. Fantastico!

#Arezzo #Deruta #Florence #JeffreySmart #2009

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