We have started this blog so you can follow our renovation project – it could go wrong, it could be brilliant. My mother tells me “be brave, jump in the puddles” well this time we might get really wet….we may even sink without trace. However, i’m a great believer that failure is not having a go and not succeeding, it is not even trying to have a go. So here we go, this is a story of the most beautiful sunsets, in an idillic setting, in a tumble down farm that doesn’t even belong to us yet.
The swimming pool is finished enough to swim and we have sunshine, so the first swims have taken place and guests have already told us they love it. In fact the Italian guests that left yesterday have already re-booked for easter. We have had more great guests, including our first family from czechoslovakia, they drove for 16 hours with 3 children, which is a remarkable feat by anyones book, they had an 8 years old autistic son with a passion for cement mixers, so we had to keep our eyes open incase we found cement somewhere we didn’t want it! We probably are one of the only pools in the area with a cement mixer, its become a bit of a feature of all our project stages. We need it because we still have some finishing off to do around the edges of the pool, some walls and more slabs to lay, Andy has lifted every one of the 288 slabs up to the pool for our builder to lay, which was a huge undertaking, no lifting machinery here! We also have the landscaping to complete, but what’s new with our project…..always landscaping to finish.
It is getting towards the end of the season, we still have guests booked through until October, but as the temperature cools down the numbers reduce. It’s a lovely time of year when vines are ladened with grapes ready to be harvested. It is still warm in the day but you almost need a sweater in the evening. Everywhere is a little quieter because children are starting to go back to school across Europe and the adult only holidays begin! We are lucky enough to have some friends coming to visit which is always great fun.
Andy and I have started to plan the next stage of our development the barn or ‘fienile’. We have the plans drawn up already but are trying to get everything priced so we know how much it will be. There are some grants around at the moment but we have to finish the barn by June 2022 to be eligible, so we are going to find another way. It’s an exciting next step but we also wonder when the heck it will all end, we feel exhausted by the never ending costs, planning, phoning contractors, waiting for people to do what they say they will. We have recently been contacted by some Germans and Dutch who are embarking on what we have, looking for advice, they are buying in the area. We try to be positive but realistic, because it is hard work with such a big project, especially went you don’t have endless funds. You have to work as a team, something Andy and I do well, you have to remember how far you have come, something I am better at reminding Andy of than he is and you have to look around at this beautiful, breathtaking place and realise just how fortunate we are.
It is that precious time of year in Italy when everyone goes on holiday! August holidays are pretty sacrosanct with businesses closing down for 2-3 weeks. Always over Ferragosto, a public holiday celebrated in Italy on August 15th – ‘Feriae Augusti’ was the festival of emperor Augustus, who designated a ‘day of rest’ for all the workers on 1st August. The Catholic Church moved the day to coincide with the Assumption of Mary, which is why it is now 15th August. Family and friends get together for lunch or dinner with food, music and laughter, it seems even more special this year given what covid 19 has done to the world.
We are very excited with the pool progress because as I type this the pool is filling with water, not enough to swim in yet which is a shame as its the hottest week of the year so far, currently 39 degrees! On Monday we have 4 tankers of water arriving and all the pool mechanics will be checked and serviced. The electrician is coming to sort out lights and sockets for things like the pool robot, so we are now making great strides.
We are so tantalisingly close, I think I am more excited than Andy is but then he is still having to move these beautiful slabs around, which weigh a ton! The builders have gone on holiday, there is still work to be done, stairs to put in, walls and more tiling to complete but we can see now how fabulous the area will be.
We have been full through August with really lovely guests, families and couples from Holland, Germany and Italy and some of the most generous of guests. Lots of great reviews, comments on how comfy our beds are, sensible feedback and suggestions on a few things we can improve in the apartments and everyone still loving the chocolate brownies! We have also had a few guests booking a return journey in a few months time, the golden prize for apartment owners. We never tire of hearing people sitting outside their apartments, when the sun goes down, with the cicadas rattling in the night air, hearing laughter and music and chatter. It is what the summers are all about and given the restrictions over the last 18 months, it is nice to feel like things are normal again and people are able to enjoy themselves.
We are hosting our own Ferragosto celebrations with some of our local friends, different nationalities, Italian, Swiss, Swedish and us Brits eating dinner, drinking wine and watching the sunset.
Where are the pool installers, have they disappeared because they have covid, have they got too much work on? It isn’t August so they can’t be on holiday! These are the things we are discussing today because just when we thought we were making good pool progress, the installers are way behind schedule, everything else has to wait, we are in pool limbo. Andy has to contact guests to let them know our on site pool won’t be ready in the next few weeks, it is disappointing for our guests and disappointing for us. We feel terrible, we are letting people down but everything should have been finished in April this year, it seemed ridiculous to think we would be delayed again! We have made progress since I last updated the blog, but not enough to fill the pool with water.
What we can say with confidence though is that the pool area will be amazing when it is finished. With the area cleared and flat it looks huge and we can now start to imagine the guests on their loungers, under their umbrellas and the pool party’s we can have. It is a bit surreal really, coming from the UK where the weather is unreliable and being in Tuscany, where the good weather is guaranteed, a pool is a brilliant thing to invest in but obviously something we have never had experience of!
Today is the first day we are fully booked, we have some Italians from Milan, Italians from Pisa and Germans who drove for 10 hours to get here, ready to relax. We love it when we have guests, the brownies have been made, the bread is being baked and the home made olive oil is being distributed liberally and the apricot jam I made is being devoured. Whilst the pool isn’t ready the gardens look really good, seeing everything through new guests eyes is really refreshing. The things we worry about don’t seem to worry them and those that have seen the progress over 5 years are really supportive and full of praise. Some of the guests were recommended by previous Italian guests which is a real stamp of approval, or maybe its the brownies!
One good thing has happened today, the electric company have been to see us and told us we can put the pylons that surround the house underground! It’s been 5 years of backwards and forwards, with yes and no to overground V underground. We now have a plan to put them along the roadside, we just have to get the final permissions and prices.
As I finish typing my final sentence you will never guess who has just turned up….the pool installers!!
The pool is progressing and as it is currently 30 degrees it can’t come soon enough for us. Lots of different stages all requiring co-ordination and falling to Andy to chase, resolve and sort. He does a brilliant job and copes with the stresses with varying degrees of success, for a person that likes things to move at 100 miles an hour!
I am a bit more relaxed about things but can afford to be when i’m busy working and everything is left for Andy. As I mentioned the warm summer weather has arrived already, a little earlier than normal but after all the variable weather it is a pleasant change. I have said in previous blogs though that working outside in the heat is a challenge and even though Andy and I say we will stop work at lunchtime (when all good Italians have lunch until 2pm) we often find ourselves still outside at 3pm, feeling broken, hot and bothered and vowing never to work in the sun again!
The pool is starting to look like a pool and as we have never been through this process before, we are learning all the complexities. The builder needs to work alongside the pool company, geometra, plumber, electrician and the digger man. Co-ordinating everyone is like herding cats and all of that is left to Andy, I just wander around taking pictures. Andy has been despondent and buoyant in equal measure, – when a day takes place with everyone arriving and on time and doing what they agreed its a good day. When no-one arrives, or when one person does and is dependent on another who has gone ‘MIA’ its frustrating and irritating. We are moving forwards though, most days we make progress, but it reminds us that no building project ever goes the way you had planned it too, even with built in contingency!
Bookings for the summer have come and gone, with the changing restrictions and travel off then on, people don’t want to take a chance on a far away holiday. We have a few summer bookings from intrepid friends and previous guests, but no-where near the number of bookings we normally have. For now though we remain hopeful, as do all the locals who rely on tourism in this region, that soon in the not too distant future, everything will go back to normal. Until then we will tend the gardens, finish the pool and hoover the cobwebs, so everything looks good when tourists do arrive.
The weather has been both rainy and sunny, consequently everything is growing like mad, where last week the grass was short this week, it is 3 ft tall…..well it feels that way when you look at it and have to keep cutting it! It’s rained so much that the pool work has slowed down, lots of equipment, tiles and panels arriving on site but no ‘installers’. That will change on Tuesday when this inclement weather ends and it will be lovely again. We are still on track for anyone following the blog who is visiting this summer, and we already have our order in for umbrellas and sunbeds, so everyone will have something to lie on and under. We also have new seating for our outside terrace, we have tried this already just the two of us, having lunch during a busy day working outside, but it won’t be fully christened until we have a table full of guests, eating, drinking and laughing.
One of the jobs we have just finished is the back of the house between the house and pool, the flower bed is taking shape and the plants are growing well. We also spent a few days wheelbarrowing and raking some lovely ‘ciottolo giallo’ onto the ground, a shady area that isn’t used but needs to look nice. We forget sometimes how much we have already accomplished, because there always seems to be so much more to do. When you compare what the back of the house was like in July last year, you can see how much work we have put in….and why we ache so much most of the time!
The flower beds look fantastic, one of the lovely things about living in this part of the world is that we get flowers blooming twice a year. The garden is an array of colours and for the first time since we moved in and started planting, the gardens are starting to look established. Many people who come and stay with us, particularly friends and family buy a plant for us and they are still going strong, we have Lisa’s bougainvillea, Wendy’s skimmia, Marilyn’s jasmine, Nesta’s rose, Chris & Benita’s hebes, Janet & Alan’s pennisetums, Susie and Tom’s roses. Having little parts of our lovely guests in the garden tells some of the story of this labour of love we have embarked on.
So lastly this is a little footnote in honour of our first ever guests, Julia and Robert. Sadly we heard this week that Robert had died very unexpectedly, gracious and kind, Robert and Julia spent their weeks holiday watering our new turf (you may remember the blog post!) as Andy and I were both back in the UK. Hopefully, in time we will see Julia and her family back at Podere dell’Alloro but in the meantime, that turf looks blooming marvellous, so a part of you both is always in Italy.
The diggers have arrived and we broke ground on the pool, after many years in the planning, lots of discussion and a number of final tweeks, Georgio arrived with his digger and started his 2 days of work. Within a few hours we hit our first snag, rock a meter beneath the surface, something we hadn’t planned for! This made two problems for us, firstly Georgio needed to go and get another digger (obviously a man can’t have too many diggers) and secondly this meant we couldn’t distribute all the soil across the olive grove, because it has too much rock in it.
This means a big pile of rock and soil needs relocating to where our carpark will be – not in the plan and not in the budget. However, Georgio also has a bobcat and says he can do it for a sensible price, something that doesn’t always happen in Italy. Georgio has joined our list of valued Italian contractors, reliable, honest and helpful. One of the other things he did was to move an olive tree rather than knock it down, something in my book makes him a complete superstar, although Andy did make the point we aren’t exactly short of olive trees.
The swimming pool hole and the ‘impianti’ hole have been completed after 2 days work, it looks vast and deep, so if any boar, badgers, deer or humans fall in we will have a devil of a job getting them out. It is so exciting to think that in a few months we and our guests will be swimming in this space (well fingers crossed anyway).
Over the next few weeks all the equipment, panels, supplies, concrete arrives so there will be much more to tell. We need to get a move on because we have started to get some much wanted some summer bookings, watch this space!
The last few weeks have flown by, the weather has been lovely and even though in Tuscany we are in the ‘red zone’ we have been able to progress our renovation work. We have completed pool plans and we have just signed off the final tweeks for the barn conversion. Those of you who have been involved in conversations with us about the barn will know that Andy wanted to turn the barn 180 degrees and I wanted to leave it as it is. We have since found out that as it is close to the road the foundations will be an additional cost, so I have agreed to go with Andy’s idea. However, now I have seen the plans from our new architect I’m quite excited. My original doubts have gone…….so Andy went through 2 years of ear ache for nothing, but then there is nothing new there!
Our new building team are fantastic to work with and as we are now living here and Andy is on site, we can be much more involved in the project. We have already found some great places to source, pool supplies, tiles, gravel, bathroom white goods, so we feel much more empowered than we did with our first ‘big build’.
Easter came and went with our Swedish guests, so as Andy says ‘it was already an improvement on last year ‘ when he was all alone. Food as normal was plentiful and I tried my hand at cinnamon buns in honour of our guests.
I have never seen 26 pastries disappear in the space of a day, but with 3 boys eating 3 or 4 each and giving some to our builder they did indeed disappear. We obviously helped out too, Andy just can’t seem to decide if he wants me over feeding him or not!
We have been working off the cinnamon buns though, next stages of tidying up everywhere and making it pretty is to dig out the soil at the back of the house and fill with gravel. Doing the same for my new ‘succulent plant area’ and clearing up the dust and soil from all our pathways. The weeding has been on an industrial scale and as I type this it is raining outside, so as soon as the sun comes out it will need weeding again. Andy and I have daily conversations about how stiff we are after all the work, my gauge is whether or not I can actually get my underwear on, whilst still standing in the mornings!
That is the update from this week, the coming weeks are going to be exciting as we start getting the pool dug out with a huge digger. Everyone gets excited about a digger, so expect a picture with lost of people standing around staring!
I am back in Italy, I flew home on the 18th March via Milan – Bergamo Airport as Pisa isn’t yet running flights. Andy picked me up and a 4 hour drive later we arrived back at home to glorious weather, we are very lucky to live in this beautiful part of #Tuscany. Nero cocked an eye of recognition and then went back to sleep, obviously Andy has missed me more than the cat.
Andy has had company too, some long-stay guests from Greece, a fabulous and intrepid Swedish family with 3 boys who Andy has been helping find a property in our lovely #Valdera region. Talk about decision making, by the time I arrived back they had put an offer in on a property, had it accepted and met with the geometra and architect about renovations. They hope to move by September so the boys can get into school. It has been a perfect welcome back, the apartments feel alive when we have guests and it also means I have other people to bake for, so Andy doesn’t complain i’m making him fat!
I have gone slightly mad with my baking, when you get back into your own kitchen you want to make everything you haven’t been able to. I can’t spend too much time baking though because as always there is work to be done.
Lots of exciting things have happened while I have been in the UK. The trees have been pruned and look healthy, the patches of ground I have weeded over and over are now turfed and neat and the planting at the back of the house is growing well.
We have also had our swimming pool permissions granted, so we can start in earnest getting everything in and working for the summer. Today we had a meeting onsite with the geometra, engineer, builder and pool company, it felt really exciting everyone chatting and gesturing like Italians do, me making coffee and cake and trying to work out what was being said. It is fair to say that my Italian language skills are not progressing, each time I get stuck in the UK, instead of practising I get lazy. I really need to do more because I do feel embarrassed by my language skills, saying I can understand most things but not being able to chat is reaching its limits! I must do better and it doesn’t help that Andy is brilliant at Italian.
Expect lots of pool updates in the coming weeks, we are also getting plans approved for our barn, we are inching towards a finished project but we still have lots of work to do. It is hard work but we love every minute of it, we definitely made the right decision embarking on this journey. To anyone else interested in moving to #Valdera in #Tuscany contact us if you need some guidance.
The blog has been quiet yet again because even though we eventually got back to Italy at New Year, in 6 days it was evident I needed to return to the UK or I would be lockdown in Italy away from my work. Working in a hospital although not a doctor or nurse, I need to be onsite to help all the teams who work with patients’. I have said before, it keeps the money coming in to pay for our project but oh this was never the plan when we started out in 2016! To spend all this time apart from Andy with covid raging on both sides of the channel, has been harder than all the anguish we have been through to get our Italian project off the ground. We have no idea how it will impact our summer bookings but no-one is daring to book just yet, so alternative work it must be. This means being apart from Andy again……that is 7 months out of the last 12!
You will see by the sunshine that while I am not there to appreciate it, spring has arrived at Podere dell’Alloro. The plants continue to thrive and bloom in the early spring weather, the rain has stopped and everything looks a little brighter because the sun has come out. The much fretted over garden has started to look established and we have pretty much worked out what works and what doesn’t. I feel sure there will be plenty of weeding for me to do when I return but i’m actually looking forward to that.
The plans for the pool are still awaiting approval, the commune has a backlog, apparently. Andy and I talk regularly about next steps and he is keeping everything moving forwards while i’m away, he’s doesn’t appreciate my long-distance project management….I can’t understand why!
Nero with his own brand of weirdness is keeping our spirits up, Andy sends a different picture almost everyday. I’m still so glad he came along because even though he says little, he makes the quiet and loneliness for Andy a bit more bearable. He sticks to Andy like glue and his current favourite place is Andy’s in-tray.
I have my fingers crossed for a return home on the 18th March just in time for Easter, I have been able to have my vaccine, something I am delighted about having worked in a hospital during the last year. So far I have avoided getting covid and as my sister said to me recently “make sure you don’t get it in the next 3 weeks”!! So with the next post I hope to update you on pool developments, landscaping developments and hopefully some bookings for this summer.
Coming home for Christmas seemed so simple – Andy would fly from Italy to the UK on the 18th December, we would spend the weekend with Lily and then would both fly home on the 21st December for Christmas and a rest. The UK government had other ideas, a sudden lockdown stopped our flights and the request by Europe for us to have a covid test before we flew made everything even more complicated. Luckily we have some wonderful friends Ken & Kira who let us stay in their flat in Cambridge, so we did have a place to stay over Christmas and we got to see more of Lily….. that was the upside.
We booked return flights to Italy for Sunday 27th December and to meet the new travel requirements we booked some a covid tests for the morning of 27th December with a promise of a 45-90 minute turnaround. The results didn’t appear and the flight was cancelled so what was our Plan B? With stress levels rising and lots of discussion our plans switched between driving back in the Nissan Micra we keep in the UK and getting the Eurostar and a train from Paris to Italy. After much ringing of hands we decided to get the train on the Monday morning from London, SURELY our test results would be back by then? We got an early train to London from Cambridge on Monday morning and arrived at St Pancras with no test results yet and tried and failed to blag our way onto the Eurostar – no test no travel! We booked into a Premier Inn at Kings Cross station deflated and pessimistic about every getting home. We changed our train to Tuesday morning hoping the test results would arrive by then and tweeting the company mercilessly to try to find out what the heck was going on.
Tuesday morning – still no test results so missed another train and re-booked for Wednesday. We booked another night in the hotel, relying on take away food and tinned alcohol! We booked more tests in London on the Tuesday walking around an empty grey city but trying to appreciate Borough Market which was open and serving coffee.
The new tests came through within 30 mins http://www.DocTap.co.uk thoroughly recommended! So we knew we had everything we needed to get on the Eurostar on the Wednesday morning, ironically our first test results were sent through at 9pm in the evening (53 hours late), so we had two lots of negative tests. Up early, through all the Eurostar checks we sat breathing a sigh of relief and feeling emotional about the prospect of going home, I hadn’t been home since the first week of November. The trip to Paris was quiet and with a nice breakfast inside us we started to feel excited. We arrived in Paris at lunchtime to a very busy station, got the packed underground train from one station to another and waited for the Paris – Turin part of our journey.
A busy train through France was gradually dropping off passengers, so when we went into Italy there were only a handful of us left. Temperature checks were done by the Italian guard and we continued to Turin arriving at 9pm at night. We walked on snowy streets the 20 mins from one connecting station to another and sat on a cold and deserted station waiting for our 10.55pm sleeper train to Pisa. Andy in his role as chief forager, managed to seek out one of the only hot sandwich bars open, for a tasty dinner. On board our nice warm sleeper with a cluster of other travellers, we chugged through the stations to Genova and then down to Pisa, we fell asleep about 30 minutes before we pulled into Pisa, typical! We arrived at Pisa station at 2.15am on NYE outside the curfew time of 10pm and traipsed with our suitcases to the airport another 20 minute walk away, worrying a. about if we would get stopped and fined and b. if we could get the car out of the airport carpark (Andy had left it when he thought he would be back in 2 days). In a divine Italian miracle whoever was on duty took pity on us and lifted the barrier for us to get out free of charge, so we drove home knackered and relieved and arrived home at about 3.30am, 10 days after we should have returned.
I awoke to my Xmas present from Andy, the bank at the back of the house planted up and beautifully finished! To say I am excited and happy is an understatement you may remember from previous blogs how i’ve been pondering how to fill such a huge and important space. It has saved me time and worry and imagination and will look fabulous in time for summer.
So for now I will leave it there, we are chilling for a few days before I go back to the UK for work, enjoying the peace and quiet and self-isolation. Hopefully 2021 will bring some normalcy to all our lives and enable us to see friends and family in Italy, dining together and laughing together. Happy New Year everyone.