Monday, 11 December 2017

Gridlock

We went to Thaxted yesterday to celebrate Sascha’s birthday with Brother Edward, Nathan’s sister, Sam and her little dog, Gini, who went down particularly well with the parents. I’ve long since felt it might be good for them to have a dog, and yesterday made me almost convinced of this fact. My dad in particular looked like a twenty year-old playing with her!

We had one of my Mum’s “cold collations” which went down very well whilst watching Strictly. For the record, I am still supporting Debbie McGee, who I think is just fabulous.

I took hand made chocolates from Tuscany with me and the European-style advent candles that Tammy had introduced me to in Florence.

It got colder and colder as the evening drew on. We were sitting in front of a fabulous open fire, so didn’t feel it until we left the house when our car’s thermometer informed us that it was actually minus 3 degrees, which rose to about minus 1 by the time we’d reached Highgate.

I woke up this morning to discover snow everywhere. Everywhere. I have seldom seen so much snow in London. Of course my initial reaction was one of great excitement. I love it when it snows...

...And snow is always very exciting when you don’t have anywhere to be. You can go for a walk in the woods and sit looking out of the window at cars skidding out of control on the road underneath, feeling snug and smug!

Sadly, I had a quizzing job to do today in Winchmore Hill, a suburb in outer London. It didn’t occur to me that Haringey Council would have neglected to grit the roads. I left the house in something of a blizzard and instantly realised that there was more of an issue than I’d originally thought.

The car was covered top to toe in three inches of snow to the extent that I couldn’t see any metal, just a big white blob. As I tried to find the door handle, a little girl on the other side of the road asked her grandfather what I was doing. “He’s trying to find his car,” said the Grandad!

I managed to clear the windscreen, and made the nutty decision to open the windows to clear the snow from them, which instantly backfired as heaps of the stuff piled onto the back seat.

Within a minute of leaving home, I’d ground to a halt in the middle of Muswell Hill road, surrounded by cars in varying degrees of trouble. Wheel-spinning, sliding, skidding. A row of busses had been abandoned. People were out of their vehicles, scratching their heads, telling other drivers not to bother going any further. One came up to me and told me I’d never make it up to Muswell Hill.

I instantly panicked and called Nathan, who came down, took to the wheel and suggested we snake our way via backroads to Finchley and down to the North Circular, which was utterly gridlocked. I was astounded to discover that they hadn’t even bothered to grit that road.

We chugged along, bumper to bumper, and turned off just before Palmer’s Green, which was when things started getting really hairy. Cars were spinning out of control all over the place and stopping suddenly in the middle of the road. And then, half way up a hill somewhere near Southgate, it was our car’s turn to break down. We got stuck on a patch of ice with the wheels spinning. I got out and tried to push, but there was no moving the car.

People are very good. Within five minutes we were surrounded by passers by, all trying to help. At one point, three people were using umbrellas from our boot to try to chip away at the ice under the car wheels, whilst someone else was trying to put black bin liners under the wheels in an attempt to give us some traction. But it was hopeless...

In the end, I had to phone the person who’d booked me to run the quiz, to ask if she or someone she knew had a 4 by 4 that could pick us up. Fortunately her husband did, and, ten minutes later, he came to our rescue and took us to Winchmore Hill.

The quiz and party went well. Nathan was able to step in as my assistant, which I was most grateful about, but we spent quite a lot of it panicking about how we were going to get home. All the tubes, buses and overground trains were down. One of the guests arrived at the party and said the Uber she’d taken there had crashed!

As it happened, the whether warmed up a little bit through the early evening, and, by the time we were done, a very grumpy Uber driver was able to take us back to our car. The journey home was a little hairy, but nothing like as terrifying as the journey over

We got back at about 7pm, much relieved to finally be home, telling ourselves to always remind ourselves in future not to try to drive anywhere in a snow storm like that!!

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Old friends

St Pancras train station really is the one you want to arrive at if you’re coming to London for the first time. It’s a Pandora’s Box of delights. When I arrived there yesterday from Sheffield, there was a great big spinning propellor hanging from the ceiling and a thirty-foot high Christmas tree covered in beautiful flowers which people were staring up at with great joy in their faces.

I went to sleep last night with the knowledge that Coventry had been awarded the next city of culture status, which I’m obviously rather pleased about. Harry Hill has tweeted (tongue-in-cheek) to say that the decision was obviously something to do with his fond micky-taking of Coventry Market: The Musical!

Joking aside, what’s clear to me is that the city has very bad PR. I was with a group of people last night who rolled their eyes to heaven at the thought of it becoming the city of culture. One of them, a travel writer, said “how am I going to be able to find 800 words to write about that dump?” And actually, a city which is misunderstood like that is a perfect choice for the award. Cities with fabulous tourism and cultural institutions don’t need the honour. The multicultural nature of Coventry coupled with its young population and the relative affordability of its housing means it’s a city with a great deal of cultural potential.

Nathan’s sister, Sam, is staying with us at the moment, but as soon as she arrived yesterday afternoon, I was pretty much out of the door to head into central London to meet a very old school friend, Angela, who, barring a quick hello at the Albert Hall on the premiere of my Nene composition, I haven’t seen for twenty five years. And as if this wasn’t enough, to make me feel really old, she revealed that her daughter was playing viola in the youth orchestra and that she has a son who is 21!

Speaking of the Albert Hall gig, I had the most charming card through the post today which came from the kids at Higham Ferrers junior school. There was a lovely picture of them all in their Nene T-shirts, sitting outside the Albert Hall and, inside, they’d all written messages calling me a legend and thanking me for writing a song they could sing at the Albert Hall. It was really very touching. Bizarrely, their teacher, whom I got chatting to during one of the rehearsals, comes from Northampton and went to Roade School, which is where Fiona went. A little bit of “oh do you know such and such” revealed that she was best friends with the older sister of a very close friend of mine from music school, and a few seconds later we realised we’d attended the Northampton balloon festival together when I was 17. To add to the rolling ball of coincidence, she said she thought she still had a photograph she’d taken that day, which she sent to me in the card. And there I was; mop of floppy curly hair, 90s style jacket with weirdly sloping shoulders, pyjamas instead of trousers, clutching a vintage 1960s camera. I look a lot older than 17. My friend looks like my son. I realised with horror that Angela, whom I met yesterday evening, would have expected me to still be the lad in that photo.

As it happened, when I arrived in the restaurant, I was greeted by another school friend, Adrian. We were firm friends, probably best friends, for a period in the late 80s and it was astounding to see him after all those years. My first comment was that seeing him was like seeing a ghost. I instantly backed up this somewhat odd remark by asking if he’d always spoken with such a strong Northamptonshire accent. I bet he wondered why he bothered to turn up!

We caught up on twenty five years the way that you’re forced to in these circumstances. Headlines only. Work. Kids. Relationship status. He works in health and safety for the London fire brigade. He told me harrowing stories about Grenfell.

Angela was on good form as well. The three of us pulled every name we could out of our memory banks and shared whatever knowledge we had. Some of the people were dead, including, I was sorry to hear, a lovely lass we used to know called Ruth Turner who played the clarinet. One of my former rugby team mates had flipped out and murdered his girlfriend. Some were divorced. Many were moving back to Rushden after roaming the world a little. We shared hazy memories. We talked about the shooting at my school. We ate lovely Mediterranean food. I realised that that I’d only kept in touch with two people from my school and that both of them were called Tammy.

A lovely, nostalgic evening.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Sheffield

I woke up yesterday morning and was instantly greeted by the most hideous, dirty, sickly light. I hate to be one of those Italiaphiles who goes on about the glorious light in Tuscany, but I found it utterly inspiring and reinvigorating. I literally leapt out of bed to start working on the Nene piece. It was just so miserable to pull back the curtains and have all that new energy slapped back in my face by the sound of heavy London traffic and that grim, deathly light.

I worked through the morning, finally getting the sense that I’ve broken the back on the new version of Nene, before jumping on a train to Sheffield to assist on a quiz at Hallam University where there were actually three teams from the BBC, including people I knew, which was very lovely.

The journey up was a fantastic opportunity to write, and a chance to stare out of the window at highly familiar Midlands scenery. The trip from St Pancras to Sheffield takes you through Wellingborough and Kettering, and, for some time, snakes along the banks of the Nene. There’s many a childhood stomping ground in those there parts! 

A young man from Leicester with verbal diarrhoea was boring the pants off the poor girl sitting next to him. The talking literally didn’t stop from the moment he boarded the train to the moment he got off, by which point I’d managed to subconsciously filter out all sounds in the pitch at which he was speaking!

He was replaced by a man in his thirties who was wearing a suit and having very important-sounding business conversations on the telephone. At one stage he hastily opened his traveling bag to pull out an iPad and I was somewhat amazed, and quite impressed to see that the bag was full of fairly kinky leather gear!

I checked into the Premier Inn, which, in Sheffield, doesn’t have rooms with baths, a fact which made me somewhat anxious. One of my great joys when it comes to staying away from home is having a nice long bath after a busy day before watching telly in bed with a nice cup of tea. If the room doesn’t have a kettle, a telly or a bath, I become intensely emotional!

I was also asked to state my nationality as I arrived and sign a document to say I was telling the truth. It’s apparently not the most unusual thing to be asked when checking into a British hotel, but it was a first time for me and I found the question hugely intrusive, especially when the woman behind the counter told me that the hotel “works closely with the immigration department.” I’m just not sure I’m interested in any hotel working with anyone to build up a profile about their guests, particularly guests, like me, who already have Premier Inn accounts which are responsible for sending God knows how much junk. Not cool. I appreciate that we live in troubling times, but I don’t think asking everyone their nationality is going to stop terrorism, or immigration problems. Those with something to hide will simply lie.

And whilst I’m standing on my soap box, I’m not sure I understand my train guard’s almost obsessive announcements telling us to “be aware of any suspicious activity” before encouraging us to “remember the three s’s: see it, say it, sorted.” A phrase which doesn’t even make sense.

It was freezing cold in Sheffield and it snowed during the night. I was somewhat relieved to wake up to bright sunshine however, which has made me feel a little better about being back in Blighty! The snow on the peaks around Chesterfield was delightful.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Lucca by night

We drove up into the hills just above Lucca last night to a little Trattoria which was recommended by the guy that runs our B and B. It turns out that Monday and Tuesday nights are the quiet ones in Italy, and most of the places we wanted to visit were sadly closed. This one, he assured us, was always open! 

It’s quite scary travelling along the winding country lanes at night time, knowing there are deathly drops around every hairpin bend. Wildlife is also somewhat unpredictable in those parts, which is something we experienced when a deer rushed out in front of us, narrowly avoiding becoming road kill under our hire car wheels!

The Trattoria was very charming and very much a place frequented by locals. It’s commonplace for large groups of men to eat together in these parts. The Italians don’t have the same binge-drinking mentality as Brits, and, in fact, they don’t seem to drink without eating, so guys come out of work, head to the local Trattoria, sit in a back room around a giant table, drinking cheap plonk whilst eating plate-loads of food.

The restaurant is situated on a little bend in the road, by a fast-running stream, next to the crumbling arches of an ancient viaduct. The whole corner is invitingly lit-up like a Hopper painting. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the cured hams dangling from the roof, or the pig carcass stretched over the bar, but the food was fabulously rustic and they didn’t seem at all freaked out by my being vegetarian. I had a very hearty minestrone soup followed by a mushroom pasta dish and loved every mouthful to the extent that I used a piece of bread to mop up every last drop. No one in Italy makes a big deal about produce being locally sourced. Everything which is served is locally sourced. If you live by the sea, your local restaurants will be full of fish. If you live in the mountains, they’ll be more meat-heavy. No one really bothers to cook with ingredients which they can’t get on their doorstep. That’s just how things are. If you want honey, wine, olive oil, vinegar, cured ham, tomatoes, mushrooms, truffles, bread, lemons, even chocolate, you’ll be given the stuff which the locals grow or make. It’s just really honest like that. No one needs the gimmick of writing “farm fresh Cornish free range sausages served on a rustic bed of Northamptonshire cottage loaf.”

I was somewhat amused to note that the house plonk was served on tap, like beer in a British pub.

After dinner, we drove down the hill into a freezing cold Lucca to stroll around the icy streets and soak in the atmosphere of the place after dark on a cloudless full-mooned night. Perhaps it’s different in summer or at the weekend, but the place was eerily empty. We encountered the odd couple, wandering back to their hotels, enjoying the elegant Christmas lights twinkling blue and white over the pavements and the charmingly tacky seasonal displays in all of the shop windows. My favourite window featured disco lights dancing on the surface of a load of ceramic pots and vases! The juxtaposition was delicious! 

We discovered what appeared to be the only bar open within the city centre and I had a cup of tea... “con latte fredda.” You have to be so specific here about asking for cold milk, or you’re given a weird, sweet, hot, foamy nonsense, which tastes utterly rank with tea. There’s always a great deal of eyebrow raising to endure, which only stops when you announce that you’re English, and (in their eyes) eccentric to the extent that all bets are off.

On Monday Tammy told me about the Torre Guinigi, a tower in Lucca with an oak tree on its roof, which I’d somehow managed to miss on our visit at the weekend. It sounded too good to miss, so I found it on a map and we went for a gander. Obviously it was way too late to actually climb up there. I have a vague memory of possibly going up there twenty years ago when I last visited the city, but if I did, no clear pictures of it have lodged themselves in my mind.

It’s certainly rather impressive from below. The streets in Lucca are so narrow, and the houses, in the main, are so high, that you don’t really see it until you’re right underneath. It’s one of those medieval skyscrapers which the Tuscans built with great alacrity, and, at 44.5 metres tall, the fact that there’s a tree on the top seems all the more remarkable! Heaven knows how it manages to grow up there and whether its appearance was by design or the result of some kind of freak natural occurrence.

They light it very well. From below, it takes on the appearance of a tall, thin corn dolly with hair made of cress!

This morning was our last in Tuscany. Michael is actually rather interested in buying a property out here, so we went to a couple of viewings, both of which were rather stunning. It’s such a treat to be able to visit houses which are both beautiful and affordable. Even I could probably get a mortgage for the properties we were looking at. Both had large rooms, two bedrooms, and outdoor terrace space. One was built in the 1960s and was full of original features, which, ten years ago, I might have turned my nose up at, but now I think they’re deeply stylish. The other, which was too much of project, I suspect, actually made me cry. It was in the medieval main square and covered two floors. It was utterly ramshackle, with bits of rooms all over the place, but the views looked onto the cobbled market place and out onto the mountains behind.

The absolute piece de resistance was the Veronese roof terrace, which sat right on the top of the building. The terrace has a roof and walls but no glass in the large windows. That’s apparently the style. I have seldom felt so attached to a space. I imagined having breakfast up there every morning. Or writing music up there.

We drove back to the airport at Pisa (which one of the cabin staff on the way over pronounced as “pizza”). You can see the beautiful dome of the cathedral and the iconic leaning tower from the motorway. Today they were sort of looming out of the mist, which made them all the more impressive. You can also see them very clearly from the air as the plane takes off. The tower is so familiar that it actually starts to look like a sort of film set. You can’t quite believe that it’s actually there.

I arrived back in London during rush hour, wondering quite why it is that I call this city my home. I could literally feel the anxiety levels rising as people repeatedly crashed into me and the tube carriage filled up with more and more angry, sweaty people.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Torrente Pescia

There’s a mad Bengali man in our B and B with weird staring eyes. He cooks us breakfast in the morning and stands by the cooker whilst we eat it, making us feel deeply uncomfortable. He never smiles. I think he’s suspicious of my vegetarianism. Sometimes his face suddenly appears at a window or in a doorway. He watches us, almost as though he wants to kill us.

We opted for breakfast in Pescia this morning, which may have triggered some wrath from our Bengali friend who probably felt a little snubbed. I think we’re the only people staying here, so he may have stood by the cooker for a long time. We went to the cafe where they squeeze orange juice in front of you and sat on one of their communal tables eating croissants.

I worked for about an hour before we set off for a little walk along the river bank. The river is somewhat romantically called “Il Torrente Pescia” (the Torrent of Pescia) and it cuts a fine swathe through the middle of the town. Various bridges, some pedestrian-only, link the two halves of the town together. I’m told the area was badly bombed in the Second World War. One assumes that the paper factories along the river were a legitimate target, or maybe that they were converted for other, more sinister, uses during the war. Whatever the case, the charming town square in Pescia mercifully avoided being bombed, but the buildings by the river weren’t so lucky. Their replacements are lacking in old-worldly charm.

It’s obviously a river which goes nuts in the spring when the snow melts on the nearby mountains. There’s a large area of flood plain covered in scrubby grass and a few hardy-looking trees, and this is where we were walking. At one point a bird flew past which must have been some sort of kingfisher. It was almost entirely turquoise. Its feathers literally shimmered in the sun.

The “other” side of Pescia is a little more ramshackle, but all the more charming for it. Back from the river, the buildings are ancient. Inviting little roof terraces perch shambolically on the sides and tops of houses which look like they might fall down any moment. The idea of sitting with a cup of tea in the morning, staring out at the Apennines is a rather lovely one!

The sun was setting and winter mists were descending on the valley below us when we returned to the B and B, so we took ourselves for a walk through the olive groves and around the little streams which are all part of this estate. The colours around here are majestic. The trees have not yet shed their leaves so there are plenty of autumnal colours. Many are still bearing fruit as well. There are both orange and lemon trees outside the house where we’re staying, with piles of windfalls on the ground. The olive trees are a silvery sage colour which intensifies and darkens as the sun lowers in the sky.

And what a fine sunset we had. A bank of cloud was sitting on the mountains to the west of us, and, as the sun vanished behind it everything became rather murky and still. There was open sky below the cloud, however, so we knew there would be one last, glorious hurrah as the sun dropped towards the horizon. We could see an arc of orange light slowly moving towards us, glinting in the windows of the buildings of Luca, and then suddenly the sun was with us again, fiery orange and warming our faces. Smoke from chimneys in the mountains behind us was whisked into the thermals and corkscrewed its way up the mountain in white ribbons. And just like that, it was dark again. The sun, nothing but a memory for another twelve hours, off to wake someone else up in the world.


Monday, 4 December 2017

Firenze

We’ve been in Florence all day today. It’s my first trip here for at least twenty years and I remembered very little. We weren’t really sight seeing. I was here to see my oldest friend in the world, Tammy. We met at the age of eleven and were inseparable all the way through secondary school. Because the two of us were behind the organisation of every inter-form competition or initiative, our friendship was seen as so important to the well-being of our class that, on the one occasion that we did fall out, the form tutor locked us in a room together and refused to allow us out until we were friends again!

It was so lovely to see her. I don’t think she’s changed to look at in all the years I’ve known her. She’s a true example of someone who decided to go out there and get life, and, in the process, beat the Northamptonshire malaise into a cocked hat. I was very moved to hear her saying today that she’d bought her seven-year old daughter, Evie, a little print which shows a baby bird sitting in a tree with a mummy bird on the ground underneath. The baby is saying “but Mummy, what if I fall?” to which the mother responds, “but darling, what if you FLY?!” Tammy wants her daughter to know that she can achieve anything in life. Tammy herself grew up in a little semi-detached house in Northamptonshire and now lives with a Ferrari engineer in Italy with two bi-lingual children. That’s what happens when you’re not afraid to look beyond the visible horizon.

The Duomo in Florence is one of the wonders of the world. It’s cream walls glow yellow in the Tuscan sun and it’s covered in the most ornate red and green geometric carvings. Of course it’s the giant dome which rightly attracts the most attention. I think it was only recently that they even worked out how they’d made it. Something to do with a false wooden wall within. I think they may have pedestrianised the roads around the cathedral in recent years because my memory of it was as beautiful building almost strangled by the cars speeding past. Or perhaps that’s another false memory...

It was rather lovely to arrive there today to find two men up a cherry picker, dressing an enormous Christmas tree. The Italians apparently don’t really start “doing” Christmas until the 8th of December which is apparently when Mary the Muv got fiddled with by some kind of angel, and if this crazy myth prevents the shops in Italy from playing carols at Hallowe’en, I’m massively in favour of it! But a three week gestation period? Come on! What was Jesus? A rabbit?

On Tammy’s advice we crossed over the iconic Ponte Vecchio (that’s the one lined with jewellery shops which gets name-checked in O Mio Babbino Caro) and walked up to a park on the north side of the city where the views are staggering. Whilst you’re in Florence itself, it’s impossible to get a sense of quite how beautiful those terracotta-tiled roofs can look. But standing on a hillside, looking down, you instantly become aware of how breathtaking they are. Seeing Florence from that hillside makes me understand why my mother cried when she saw the city for the first time.

We crossed the river and went for lunch in a fancy little cafe where plastic tubing was hanging from the roof in the style of some sort of trendy installation, which actually felt like the sitting underneath a deconstructed church organ. I briefly wondered if I would survive one of the pipes falling onto my head, and, after deciding I would, allowed myself to enjoy the pasta/Greek salad combination that all three of us opted for.


After eating we went to a shop which specialised in glassware. I got a little carried away and bought all manner of little trinkets, mostly for Christmas presents. I’ve always been quite a fan of colourful Italian glass.

We stumbled upon a Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce where all three of us, in an uncontrolled frenzy, bought large quantities of wooden and glass tat including a Christmas bauble in the shape of a tiny house, a glass angel and a fridge magnet which looked like a bumble bee. Tammy bought three packets of cheddar cheese from an English stall and I bought a pastry thing which was so dry it soaked up every inch of saliva in my mouth!

...We laughed as well. Tammy told Michael how, whenever she’s with me, within seconds she feels like a teenaged girl again, and I realised that I do exactly the same. Tammy was always a wonderfully receptive audience for my naughtiness and we have always laughed and laughed and laughed together. And then laughed a little more.

We snaked our way back through the big square where the replica of Michaelangelo’s David sits alongside all sorts of over-dramatic statues of people clubbing each other to death and things. We possibly should have taken more interest in the details. Maybe a trip to the Uffizi would have been appropriate, but actually I wanted to go to Tiger to buy more tat, largely because Tammy had bought an advent candle from there which I coveted. Walking around Tiger is such a strange experience, not dissimilar to Ikea. Once you enter, your only option is to keep going, passing all the weird little objects you never knew you needed so much.

Our magical trip ended with freshly squeezed orange juice in the glorious train station, which, “rebuilt” in 1934, is a quintessential and beautiful example of 1930s functional architecture. The Brits, of course, would have stripped out all the original features and replaced them with plastic and chip board, but the Italians have left all the original signage intact which is all in that wonderfully brutalist font which makes the train station a phenomenal deco time capsule which I would urge anyone to go and see.

As we bade our fond farewells to Tammy, we realised that a massive murmuration of starlings was happening in the sky above the station. And what a glorious sight that is. Genuinely one of the greatest gifts that nature can give. The patterns those birds created in the air, ebbing and flowing like coal dust in a lava lamp was awe-inspiring, particularly against a setting sun.

It was rather wonderful to be walking around Florence on a Monday in early December. The city was about as empty as you could ever expect it to be, and because the sun was shining, it was next to perfect. I remember the hoards of tourists during my last visit and fighting to get across the Ponte Vecchio. Like Cambridge, it’s a small city which struggles not to drown under the weight of its visitors. A rather plaintive piece of graffiti (in Italian) read, “the city is being stolen from us by tourists.” As Michael says, the interesting thing about graffiti is seeing the stuff that doesn’t get removed. For many years a star of David hanging from a noose was scrawled on a wall in the old Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, and, in the village down the road from our B and B here in Tuscany there are two giant swastikas. Why would villagers not have that removed? And it strikes me that this particular piece of graffiti has been left in Florence either because the authorities agree with the sentiment, or, because the sentiment itself is true, namely that the money generated by bus loads of tourists descending on the city isn’t filtering down to those who clean the streets.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

le dieci castella

I was awoken by the arhythmic sound of Sunday bells calling people across the region to mass. It was like a glorious piece of minimalism. Just as I thought I was on top of the rhythmic pattern the two bells were creating, it changed. Italian bells, of course, are randomly jangled, so I was never going to be able to predict what pattern was coming next, unlike, of course, the highly complex English bell ringing tradition, which you could argue was minimalism in its truest form.

We drove into the foothills outside Pescia to visit a couple of the fortified medieval villages which cling perilously to the mountains in these parts. They’re known as the “le dieci castella” on account of there being ten of them. We parked up just outside Pietra Buona and followed an ancient, extremely steep track up the hill towards Medicina. The immediate thing which struck us both was the silence. You simply cannot hear the sound of either traffic or planes. It’s actually exactly a year since I walked the river Nene, and one of the things that struck, and disappointed, me about that walk was the fact that, even on the fens, I was always accompanied by the distant roar of traffic. In this part of Tuscany, you can’t hear any of those mechanical noises. You hear bird song, the rustle of trees and the odd barking dog from somewhere across the valley, but that’s about it. Sound really does travel in these mountain communities to the extent that I suddenly understood why yodelling and Alpen horns were used to communicate back in the day. When bells ring in another one of the villages, you hear magical harmonics echoing all around you. Like a sort of otherworldly drone. The singing of the spheres. 

As we wound our way ever further up the hill, we started to notice giant birds of prey riding the thermals beneath us. It was all rather Mrs Tiggywinkle!

The footpath was a little eerie in places. Periodically we’d stumble across a disused hut or bothy and there were gun cartridges scattered everywhere. This is plainly a place where the locals like to hunt.

Medicina is tiny and somewhat creepy. It’s apparently where ill people in the area were traditionally brought, which, one assumes, means it’s seen more than its fair share of death. It full of twisting walk ways and tunnels barely tall enough to stand in. Great protection, one assumes, from both the angry summer sun, and marauding invaders. It’s delightfully downtrodden and has all the trimmings of being a “local place for local people.” The village smells strongly of wood smoke.

We sat on a wall for half an hour eating crisps and drinking water whilst a terribly friendly and ludicrously fluffy cat wriggled around our ankles.

We followed the official road back down the hill and were passed by a father-son duo riding a miniature petrol-powered truck who were off to pick olives. It seems a little late in the year to be doing that kind of work, but perhaps there’s a type of olive which is better after the first frost. I know there are grapes like that, and, I vaguely recall, a certain type of apple...

On the way down the hill we also saw a burned out car in an entirely burned out car port right next to someone’s house. There’s plainly a story there, but it’s one we can only guess at. 

We drove back into Pescia, in the hope that we’d be able to find a cafe for a spot of lunch. It was a bit of a fool’s errand on a Sunday in Italy, but we managed to find a rather charming little spot where a woman was sitting behind the counter crocheting bags out of thick, string-like yarn. I ordered a doughnut which was delicious. It turns out she’d made it herself. I was glad I told her how much I’d enjoyed it.

We then drove up to another one of the dieci castella. This one is called Vellano, and it is the largest of the siblings. It’s also a great deal more picturesque. The views from up there are astounding. Look due east and you’ll be treated to a series of entirely snow-covered mountains which looked almost superimposed against the powder blue sky. Chilling winds whistle through the town’s snickleways and there’s an intoxicating smell of sweet, sweet woodsmoke up there.

We drove further up the mountain, astonished by the car’s thermometer which plummeted from 14 degrees to 2 during a ten minute upward climb.

We ended up in Gorailo, which isn’t one of the hill towns. It’s not really a town. It’s merely a series of houses sitting on a very high ridge from where you can see as far as Florence and all the way to the sea, which was glowing bright orange in the setting sun. There was also snow on the ground up there, which felt a little exciting. It was too cold to hang around for long however, so we travelled back down to Vellano from where we watched the orange sun sinking beneath a mauve mountain.

The air in these parts is so fresh and clear. It makes me realise how dangerously polluted London is.