Saturday, 27 June 2009

Too sarcastic for my own good

As I was adding the blog entries from our holiday in Italy, something made me a little uneasy and it's been niggling away at the back of my mind for the last few days. So I thought I'd just set the record straight... I do NOT find Stavros Flatley funny. I was being (too) sarcastic (for my own good). There, I've said it.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Homeward bound

Our final day, and the first time we’ve been leaving the house before midday as we have to check out by 10am. I hope the next guests at Scopeto enjoy it as much as we did. Along with the 3 beers we’ve left in the fridge and the 2 lemon ice lollies, with the oh so yummy liquorice sticks, in the freezer. It’s our first properly grey day, which we’re very happy about as it would be even harder to wave goodbye to the house and pool if it were blazing sunshine.

We head back up to Bologna via a different route from the way we came down. This way takes us near to Florence and we consider stopping in or near Florence for some lunch. The problem is the map we have is crap. It was the one we got with the hire-car and so has very little detail. We take, not unreasonably, the exit from the motorway signed Firenze. But by the time we’re driving higher and higher into the hills we guess that we’re not heading into Florence.

We’re eventually forced to ditch the idea of lunch in Florence if we want to get to the airport in time for our flight, so we continue up the motorway towards Bologna. As it turns out our last meal in Italy is in the equivalent of a RoadChef. Bummer.

A warm glow

Poolside in the morning and early afternoon. It’s been really nice to have the contrast between the mornings sunbathing and relaxing in the pool and the afternoons exploring the local towns. This afternoon we ventured over to Perugia, I guess around 30-40 miles South East. Parking is in an underground carpark and you take a series of escalators to emerge above ground via some kind of museum. Weird.

Perugia is a very pretty town with much more going on than Citta di Castello (which isn’t difficult). Very picturesque historic buildings and churches. We sit down for a beer and a diet coke in a pavement café, Café di Perugia. It’s too early to get dinner in Perugia so we decide to drive on to Assisi, about another 15 miles. We had already thought we would do this as I had read in the guide book that the sunset is particularly impressive in Assisi because the town becomes bathed in a warm glow because of the pink tinge to the stone built buildings.

As we approach Assisi, it is very imposing perched on the side of the hill. We arrive at 18.45. I know this because just as we walk to the entrance of the Basilica de San Francesco it closes. Instead we walk through the town and pick up some little gifts for the children (painted wooden letters, L, R and F). A little furher on and we arrive at one of the main squares and choose a restaurant that has a terrace overlooking the piazza. The surroundings are beautiful. Like a film-set. As the sun sets the wall of the building opposite is bathed in a warm glow just like the guide book promised.

After dinner, we walk back to the car through the town along the side streets. We agree that it is quite a magical place that we’d love to wander around more if we had the time. Maybe we’ll come back here one day.

By the time we get home, it’s around 10.30pm. I’d promised myself I’d have one more swim in the pool and I convince Rachie to join me. It’s cold, but a swim under the stars rounds off another magical day.

Thursday, 18 June 2009


This morning, as you might guess, was spent by the pool. The weather returned to clear blue skies and hot sunshine so sunbathing was the obvious choice.

I wasn’t really being moved by Rosie Swale Pope’s book about her run around the world, though I do think what she did is deeply inspiring and I will finish the book when we get home. Instead I ventured up into the second bedroom that is above ours through a trapdoor in the ceiling to browse the books left by the owners (or former guests?). I picked up three: Mysticism and Logic, a collection of essays by Bertrand Russell; How to Talk Dirty and Influence People, Lenny Bruce’s autobiography; and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.

The easiest and shortest read was going to be JLS so I began with that. Also it seemed potentially the most appropriate given where my mind is at right now having just last week handed in my notice at work. Although I have no doubts that it is the right decision (perhaps no doubts is too strong), at times I am filled with anxious thoughts that perhaps I shouldn’t be leaving. I shouldn’t give up what is a perfectly good job. JLS is a spiritual parable (is parable the right word?) about a seagull who wants to learn how to fly. Not just fly in the way that every other seagull flies, in order to get food, but to really fly at amazing speeds. The other members of his flock tell him that he should forget thoughts of discovering the limits of his flying capabilities and do what everyone else is doing. This he tries for a short while but soon realizes that he has to go back to his flying practice. Without that his life has no purpose. He is soon labeled an outcast from his flock. The second and third parts of the story take things to a more spiritual realm but it all makes sense to me. The story is about learning to fly, and then flying. Living. In the front of the book is an inscription dated 6th May 1975: “To Johnnie, Fly high or fly low. Fly a long distance or fly a short one. But please fly. As I know you can. David”.

After lunch we sunbathe some more before heading out north east to Citta di Castello about 10 miles away. This town is supposed to be the local town that the owners of Scopeto like the best. And today is market day so it should be thriving. When we get there, there is no sign of the market. In fact it took us a good walk round the historic town before we even found a scattering of shops. Not sure why this is the owners’ favourite. Maybe it does come alive when the market is there or during other local festivals. We enjoy a coffee and a coke before driving back to have a lovely dinner at home involving pasta, local sausage, mushrooms, garlic and tomatoes. A bottle of wine and wide-reaching conversation about life and the point of it all takes us to bedtime.

[Er, I didn't take the photo of the seagull flying... like you needed telling.]

Happy Birthday to me!

I seem to be a little fixated with the fact that I’m going to be 40 next year. As I turn 39, today is the first day of my 40th year on this planet. Even while I was still 38 I was saying I’ll be 40 next year if people asked me how old I was.

Rachel cooked me a full English (or should that be Italian) breakfast: Sausage, pancetta, eggs and mushrooms. Then I opened my card from Rachel (a birthday moo) and my remaining presents as I’d opened some before we came away. Two CDs (Flight of the Conchords and Eels), Seven Pounds DVD, and a complicated looking game called Ingenious! It was also really nice to get text messages from my parents, my sister Sally, and Emma a friend from my PhD days. My best present though was waking up in an Umbrian farmhouse with Rachie next to me and glorious blue skies out the window.

Another morning sunbathing, but this time we had decided we’d head out around lunchtime to drive over to Montepulciano, where our favourite red wine comes from. Turns out we’d timed it well as a little cloud came over making it just a little cooler. Conchords and Eels made it a short drive over into Tuscany, though the road over to Cortona is torturous. Another half hour drive past Cortona brought to the hillside town of Montepulciano.

As with Cortona, the roads are steep to walk up but the town is not big so it’s not too taxing. Even better that is cooler due to the cloud. We buy some nice red wine for Sandra and Keith to say thank you for looking after Freya for the week (although from the texts we’ve been receiving it sounds like they’ve all been having a great time). We also buy ourselves a cheaper bottle along with some sundried tomato, pecorino and salami sauce which is almost the same price. But we’d tasted it on the Italian bread at the front of the shop and agree we should buy some before we know how much it costs. It does taste good though. We also buy a little wooden toy as a present for Freya.

We hadn’t really had any lunch and decide we’d like to have dinner in Montepulciano but it is now 5pm and Italian restaurants tend not to open till around 7. We walk back up the hill to Café Polliziano (probably spelt wrong) as we’d walked past earlier and it looked nice and had views out across the Tuscan countryside. We kind of hoped it would be open and serving food. It was open but the only food it was serving was cake. So we have a coffee and share a piece of lemon meringue pie Italian style. Delicious.

We then decide to drive back over towards Lake Trasimeno to Castigliano Del Lago, another small town overlooking the lake. By now the cloud has drifted away and it’s another beautiful evening. A quick look round the few shops there, and a present for Lauren, before settling on the nicest looking restaurant in town which has a terrace under some trees and a view towards the lake. Another fantastic meal (well, it is my birthday). The meatballs were the best I’ve ever tasted!

If the remaining 364 days of my 40th year are as good as this one then I’ll be a happy boy.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Busy doing nothin’

An even lazier day today if that were possible. Again the morning and afternoon by/in the pool. I finished my Goats book, Rachel finished her Death in Tuscany book. She’s now reading about the Goats. I didn’t fancy the Death in Tuscany book but did try Frances Mayes’ Bella Tuscany, her follow-up to Under the Tuscan Sun, but didn’t take to it. Even though we are surrounded by the countryside she eloquently describes I’m just not interested. As I scan through I stop to read the odd few pages that mention somewhere we’ve been (i.e., Cortona) or plan to go (i.e., Montepulciano) but other than that I don’t thnk I’m her target audience. I’ve started Just a Little Run Around the World by Rosie Swale Pope. It’s a book about her 'little' run around the world, something she decided to do to raise awareness about cancer screening after her husband died of prostate cancer.

Late afternoon we jump in the car to nip down to the shop (emphasis on the shop) in San Leo Bastia to get some bread. Didn’t have much there so continued the 5 miles or so down the road to Trestina the nearest town where there is a Spar, or should I say EuroSpar. (This reminds me of the weekend of my brother’s 40th birthday last summer which a group of us spent at a collection of cottages in Anglesey. Someone asked if there was a shop nearby. “There’s a Spar just down the road,” someone else suggested. To which one of the girls present responded, “oh really, is there a spa here?” only to be immediately told, “not the kind of spa you’re thinking of luv”.)

No bread in the Eurospar either but we did pick up some more essentials (i.e., beer, wine, and stuff for breakfast). We quickly tried another supermarket down the road, where we heard an English couple doing a shop. Aren’t English accents abroad just so grating? Again no bread but we did get some lemon ice lollies for the drive back. Very refreshing, but the stick of liquorice as the stick rather than a wooden lolly stick thew me little. Why would you want to eat liquorice after being refreshed with a lemon ice lolly? It’s political correctness gone mad!

Back home for pasta with Feta cheese, basil, and lemon (no liquorice) and a bottle of wine. We spent our first bit of time in the beautiful living room that has views over the valley. Rachel had bought me Man on Wire on DVD for my birthday (tomorrow!) and so we watched it on the enormous TV. An excellent film of an amazing story of tight-rope walker Phillipe Petit who walked on a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center shortly after it was built in 1974. All the more poignant after what happened in 2001.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The road to nowhere

Another morning and afternoon lazing in the sun by the pool. Me reading Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (birthday present from Rachie), Rachel reading A Death in Tuscany. Every so often it gets so hot you just have to dive in to the pool to cool off. It’s a hard life.

Again around 4-ish we head out in the car, this time with a view to taking the gravel road over the hill opposite us towards Lake Trasimeno. We were warned by Marianne and Andrew the day before that it would be twisty and bumpy (which it was) but it apparently cut out a 20 minute drive along this valley and back along the next so it seemed worth it.

“The only place you can go wrong,” Andrew had warned, “is where the road forks and it looks like the road continues straight ahead. But you need to bear right.”

“Just keep to the right,” Marianne had added.

We duly arrived at a fork in the road towards the top of the hill. The main road (using the word “main” and the word “road” loosely here) did look as though it continued straight ahead over the hill and down the other side. But there was a track to the right that continued up the hill. Rachel and I agreed, as we replayed Andrew’s advice in our heads, that we should bear right and continue up the hill. And so we followed the single track road through the trees that was even more bumpy and twisty. And we followed. And we followed. Until… we came across a lorry that was coming the other way! If there was one thing I wasn’t expecting to encounter along this isolated track through the forest, it was a lorry coming the other way. Somehow it managed to get past us. And we thought that the lorry must be coming from somewhere so this road must lead somewhere. And so we followed. And we followed.

Eventually we passed through an open gate. We could make out the word “privat” on the sign next to the gate. But still we continued. We’d come too far to simply turn around. Until we came to another signed that said something to the effect of “No entry to unauthorized personnel”. At this point we considered that we must have come the wrong way. We didn’t fancy carrying along the road only to be stopped by a landowner carrying a shotgun yelling the Italian equivalent of “Get orf moi land!”

Our detour meant we arrived a little later in Tuoro than we might have. Not much there. The town itself was about a mile from the edge of the lake. At the lake’s edge there was a campsite (which reminded us both of childhood camping holidays) and a manmade beach. Not much else. We considered heading back home to have some dinner back at the house, calling in to a supermarket on the way to pick up some essentials (i.e., beer). But before doing so we thought we’d look at Passignano, another small town 5 km along the edge of the lake from Tuoro. Passignano had much more going for it that Tuoro. Although it wasn’t at all busy you could see it would be more attractive to tourists with it being right at the edge of the lake, and having a number of bars and restaurants. We parked the car next to an Alimentari (grocery store) and so were able to do get our shopping (i.e., beer) before having a wander around the town.

We called home to see how Freya was. We couldn’t really hear but picked up that she had been swimming for an hour and a half and was having a lovely time. A text sent by Sandra later that evening confirmed this and added that they had gone out for dinner and Freya had had fish and a crème brulee (presumably as a main course and dessert, not mixed together in the same pot… though I wouldn’t put it past her). We, too, decided to eat out, and found a lovely trattoria hidden down a back street.

The drive home was somewhat less treacherous.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

This is the life

Wrote yesterday’s diary entry early this morning sat out on the upper balcony overlooking the hills. A cloudless sky. A croissant for breakfast and then 10 minutes meditation. Wanting to do more meditation this week to kickstart me in to meditating when we get back home.

Down to the pool for a morning’s sunbathing and a swim. Rachel even went topless for the first time ever!

“Hello team!” called an Englishman’s voice from above us. “Is everybody decent?”

“I am”, I called back. Dripping wet, I walked up the steps to meet Andrew who, with his wife Marianne, are caretakers for Scopeto. I’m guessing they are probably in their 60's and discover they moved out to Umbria a little over 20 years ago to a house the renovated just down the road. Their friendly dog, Oscar, takes a rest in the shade as Andrew and Marianne make sure we’re settling in.

“Everything OK?” Andrew asks.

“Fantastic. The place is beautiful!” I reply, "I think I've heard Rachel say 'this is the life' about five times this morning already". Andrew and Marianne proceed to suggest places we could visit during our stay such as the lake (Lake Trasimeno) which is just over the hill opposite us, a great local wine-tasting place, the town of Citta del Castello, and of course Cortona which is about half an hour’s drive over the hills along the valley. Cortona is a hillside town just over the county border in Tuscany made famous by the books Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany by Frances Mayes in which she recounts her experiences of renovating a Tuscan farmhouse and how she falls in love with the surrounding area. The book was made into a film and much of the location filming was done in Cortona.

“The irony is,” Marianne tells us, “Frances Mayes has now moved over the county border from Tuscany to Umbria to get away from the American tourists that descend on Cortona! American tourists that come to visit the town she describes she fell in love with in her books.” Ironic indeed. Andrew and Marianne bid us farewell and wish us an enjoyable stay. I don’t think that will be hard.

A few more hours sunbathing and swimming, broken only by a home-made lunch of Italian meats, mozarella, baguette, and a rocket salad with oil and balsamic. And an ice-cold beer. Eventually, around 4-ish, we decide we would take a short drive down to the nearest village, San Leo Bastia, to see if the shop was open and just see what was down there. The shop was closed, and so we drove a little further along the road to find a café open but again no shop. Now we were out, we thought we’d take a little drive further along the road to explore a little. Before long we were driving along the high and windy road that would take us over the Tuscan border toward Cortona.

Cortona is, as Marianne described, very beautiful but full of tourists. Not in an overly bad way compared to say Spain but I imagine it is the one town around here that attracts the tourists. It is a fairly small Etruscan walled town set on the hillside with fantastic views across Tuscany. We weren't able to take any photographs of Cortona as we'd left the camera at home (listen to me, I'm calling it 'home' already) thinking we were only popping out to the shop.

There are a few shops there to browse and a number of restaurants and trattoria and so we decided to kick around till 7pm, which is when the restaurants tend to begin serving dinner and eat there. An excellent meal at La Locunda overlooking Piazza della Republica as the birds darted around above our heads. Rachel even reserved the table in Italian. Show-off.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Under the Umbrian Sun

When Sandra and Keith, Rachel’s parents, asked if they could take Freya on holiday for a week this year, it wasn’t long before Rachel was poring through holiday brochures and browsing the web looking for places to go. Not, you understand, places to take Freya. No, no no. Rachel was looking for places we could go. Without Freya.

And so it is that we are sat outside Scopeto, a glorious stone-built cottage tucked away in the Umbrian hills. Rachel’s internet searches have really come up trumps this time. A week of relaxation should be pretty easy here, with only the sounds of birds, and the occasional lizard to distract you. Our own private pool catches the sun* all day, there are three different terraces on which to sunbathe, and the view across what feels like our own private valley is a delight.

It will be our longest time away from Freya. She is spending the week with her grandparents in a cottage in Northumbria. They are joined by Alice, the 17-year old daughter of friends Lynn and Ron. I’ve got a feeling that Alice is going to become Freya’s new best friend. On the flight from Gatwick to Bologna, we seemed to be the only couple who weren’t accompanied by a young child or two, which initially made us miss Freya even more but by the time we were waiting in line at Bologna airport to collect our hire-car, we were simply grateful we weren’t one of the couples having to chase after and/or manhandle a fractious toddler who was getting bored/hungry/tired etc.

The convertible (“cabrio”) Mini that Rachel had hired for the week didn’t materialize. We had imagined ourselves cruising down the Italian highways with the top down with the sun on our heads and the wind in our hair.

“No cabrio” the surly man behind the Eurpocar desk informed us, “I can offer you CinqueCento”. I looked to Rachel, “that’s one of those crappy little Fiats isn’t it?”. Rachel was already letting Signor Surly that she wasn’t best pleased with being offered a CinqueCento when she had booked and paid for a cabrio. None of the other car-hire companies had cabrios either but the one next door did at least offer us an Alfa Romeo which has to be better than a CinqueCento, so we cancelled the Europcar booking and went with the Alfa Romeo.

A few hours later, after a drive through some beautiful countryside, we arrived at Scopeto. Nearest village San Leo Bastia, nearest town Trestina. We’re about half an hour away from Cortona. It’s beautiful.

*Note for readers in the UK. The “sun” is a large firey ball in the sky that sits behind that grey blanket we call cloud. In other countries, it is seen on more than one or two afternoons of the year.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Yesterday was quite an auspicious day. At least it was for me. I finally decided to hand my notice in at the University where I have been employed for the last 10 years! Back in January, I indicated that I was contemplating taking a career break, but after much deliberation (including several sessions with an occupational health counsellor!) I realised that it was time to move on. Anyway, I'd have to apply for a career break and I was told it would be unlikely to be approved by the head honcho, so I thought I'd bite the bullet and give my notice.


Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Comic genius

I think I might have had a sense of humour bypass without realising it. Last weekend I caught the result of Britain's Got Talent having managed to skilfully avoid the whole thing until that point. It wasn't so much the shock defeat for Susan Boyle that caught my attention, rather the phenomenon that is Stavros Flatley. YouTube won't let me embed the better quality clips of their Final act (which you can view here), so apologies for the poor quality of the clip:

Each time I watch this clip, my sides ache with pain as I guffaw at the sheer comedy genius that this father and son display with their moves in time to the Riverdance music. You read that right folks, they dance to the Riverdance music! And they're a fat father and son! It's funnier than a whole weekend of The Vicar of Dibley crammed into a minute and a half.