Category: Torri

Twelve months ago

Every so often Kate and I find ourselves posing the question to each other, "What were we doing this time last year?”, not for any deep or meaningful reason, but simply because in the two years or less since we both ceased gainful employment and began doing other things with our lives, even we are beginning to lose track of where we have been and what we have done. The answer to this question if posed at the present time is that we were mid way through six months of living in northern Italy, for me the longest period I have ever spent outside the UK and therefore an experience of some significance. What is rather strange, however, is that it takes no effort at all to remember our Italian sojourn because a number of rather bizarre happenings are combining to act as reminders for us, things that seem to be stretching the boundaries of coincidence considerably.

The apartment in which we were living, tucked away in the village of Torri at the end of an ‘interesting’ fifteen minute drive from the Italian Riviera town of Ventimiglia, was owned by native English speakers, a fact that became evident when we first glanced at the content of the bookshelves that would sustain us throughout the winter months. It would be no exaggeration, indeed a considerable understatement, to say that our lives were made more enjoyable through having such a library at our disposal. Many a rainy day did we spend in front of our log fire, reading our way through novel after novel, all of which were new to us and most very much to our taste. How could whoever placed these books there have known?

So here we are back in the UK, twelve months has elapsed, and a film based on the Stieg Larsson novel we read in Italy, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, is opening at cinemas across the country. It doesn’t stop there though. At least three of the books on our shelves were written by Henning Mankell whose creation, the Swedish detective Wallander, really got under our skins. So to see him come to life on television here in Britain has been a real treat, as well as taking us straight back to the fireside sofa in Italy. Then as if this wasn’t enough, when we recently heard the name Aurelio Zen this too immediately rang bells for us. Michael Dibdin’s novels featuring this Italian detective have an amazing feel to them, Italian life just oozes out of every word despite them being written in English by an Englishman. Having now watched the TV version we are not disappointed. It is almost as if whoever stocked those now far off bookshelves must have had an uncanny, even spooky, ability to see into the future. Surely this cannot just be coincidence.

The reminders of our Italian living do not, however, start or end on the bookshelves. Being ever conscious of our making best use of pension pounds (or Euros), it was not long before our daily and weekly shopping in Italy had introduced us to a new experience. We have my brother Graham to thank for our initiation to the place – he shops there regularly – and we did have our reservations at first but sooner or later we found we had caught the ‘Lidl’ bug. Now if you prefer to buy your foodstuffs with labels you recognise, Kelloggs for breakfast, Heinz for lunch, Cadbury’s for a snack, then a Lidl supermarket is not for you. The problem is not that they don’t sell any products you recognise (they do) but simply that the brands and labels are not those you will be used to. So for example you may find yourself buying ‘Crownfield’ corn flakes for breakfast, ‘Campo Largo’ is the brand for canned goods and if you are looking for a Mars Bar then you’ll need to find a sweet bearing the name, ‘Mister Choc – Choco Caramel’ which only reveals itself for what it really is when you bite into it. All this was part of the learning experience we went through when we first arrived in Italy so that by the time we left in April 2010, we had become thoroughly Lidl-ised, possibly even addicted.

Imagine our surprise when we first started exploring Yeovil after our arrival here in August last year when we found ourselves within easy walking distance of our own Lidl supermarket. This was like home from home for us and the reminders of our Italian life were everywhere we looked. But there was still one thing missing for us, one product that was a particular favourite of my brother Graham, and soon became ours too as thanks to his generosity a bowl full of these things always appeared before us at the end of our climb up to his Torri apartment. It was not until early December that our local Yeovil Lidl finally started to stock our favourite ‘Crusty Croc’ crisps, paprika flavour. Thanks Bro’ for introducing us to a snack that now takes our minds back twelve months with consummate ease.

Ensuite sink & shower

And what has been happening around the home whilst all this reminiscing has been taking place? Well, I am doing another apprenticeship in plumbing, connecting complex bits of copper together so that water can flow around the shower and the small sink we have squeezed in. Kate puts herself at great risk by holding the pipes together so that I can apply the blowtorch and solder them up; such bravery. She still has both eyebrows so things must be going reasonably OK.

Visitors

Our friends Rich and Gerry are the latest visitors to stay with us here in Torri and from the very first day they threw themselves into a punishing mountain walking regime, despite the threatening weather. Just like others who have visited us here, their legs sprung boldly into action up our steep mountain slopes before their over-stretched muscles shouted ‘stop!’ and we gave them time for recovery. Having the Ligurian mountain scenery so accessible for the last five months seems to have given us something of an edge in the lower limb fitness stakes when compared with most of our visitors, that and the 61 steps up to our apartment door, of course.

Our evenings with Rich & Gerry were occupied with playing a card game we were taught by our son Ben some weeks ago, a new one (to us) and one that now seems to have slipped permanently into the repertoire of our lives. Sadly the one-word English name by which this game is commonly known is so vulgar that I will avoid writing it here by loosely translating it into the French phrase – ‘Tête de Merde’ – in the hope that this will offend less. (Anyone interested in knowing the rules should follow this link.)

A few weeks later and I have reached a significant milestone, my 60th birthday. This time our visitors are my mother and George, her companion, and we were treated to meal out in the Italian style. To those used to the British way of eating a meal it may seem strange to be served a succession of tiny portions of different foodstuffs, one after the other, over a period of several hours, all nibbled along with pieces of bread and (of course) floated down with wine. There is far less mixing of tastes on the same plate as we might be used to in the UK, each mouthful being just a single tasting experience rather than a blend. ‘Meat and two veg’ it is not. At our meal each morsel arrived on a new plate (in lesser restaurants the same plate is re-used), was dressed with olive oil from a different region and was flavoured with marjoram or rosemary if the chef felt this was needed. Eating this way the diner is encouraged to focus on one single flavour and one texture before cleaning the palette (with wine of course) then being served the next. In Italy a meal is expected to be a social occasion which takes as long as it takes – no rush – and it ends when it seems right that it should.

The final dish was the fruit course and mine arrived with a blazing roman candle stuck in a strawberry, a nice touch and a very memorable end to the delicious birthday meal.

Encouraged to show our distinguished visitors more of the area we live in we popped into France to take in the noisy delights of the Menton Lemon Festival, complete with its fire-breathing, orange and lemon dragon and a parade of near-naked dancers. Then on another day we explored the back streets of Savona just along the Italian coast, a town which boasts a Sistine Chapel with a ceiling painted almost as artistically and dramatically as the more famous Roman one. Savona was the home of Pope Sixtus IV, one of the line that give their name to such chapels.

Kate and I are not great at being tourists and do not generally give sightseeing the priority many think it deserves. We generally prefer to shun the crowds and sneak away somewhere quiet where we can appreciate something nobody else would be remotely interested in – like a set of attractively curved roadside benches which would put at risk the toes of any occupants from passing traffic or else we just gaze at the colours of the mountain landscape we are in, generally dark green but for the next month or so splashed with bright yellow of mimosa flowers.

As spring starts to creep out from under its winter shell we begin to think of leaving this land behind us to return to the boat we left far away on the west coast of Scotland, to meeting up with the many friends we left behind there and to continuing our travels around Britain.

Sunlight and snow

After spending two weeks staying with friends near Lyon in France we have now returned to the apartment in northern Italy. Over the next few weeks we have visits here from friends and family to look forward to but already we are thinking about and making plans for when we return to the UK at the end of March.

It is warmer here than in Lyon but not warm enough yet to manage without some form of heating in the apartment. Our stock of logs for heating has dwindled but of course every day the sun rises higher in the sky giving us a little more warmth and soon will come the day when suddenly, between one day and the next, we will have an extra couple of hours sunshine up on our roof terrace. This is because the village lies to the north of a rounded hilltop which is just high enough to keep most of our village in shade through November, December and January. February, however, is the month when, depending on where in the village you live, the sun is high enough at midday to pass over the hill for the first time. Every inhabitant is affected; generally the higher above the ground you live, the sooner the sun will skim the hilltop and transform your life.

Some people take this very seriously and they mark on the calendar the exact day when the extra sunlight is due to arrive so they can be out of doors or up on the roof terrace to witness the event. To some it is a significant moment in the year, the day that some spring-like warmth, if not spring itself, begins to return.

Until that day arrives we take other pleasures where we can. One evening we saw this rather alarming fire in the western sky but took comfort in the knowledge that it was merely sun shining on cloud.

Out on the hills, some early signs of spring make a showing. There is a type of orchid that is quite common here and the sun brings them popping out of the ground underneath the olive trees where the ground is often fertilised; horse manure from the local equestrian centre is a favourite enrichment material.

Making such an early appearance does carry considerable risks, however, and this year many of those early flowers will by now have been well and truly clobbered. A sudden burst of north-westerly winds has brought cold air down from the Alps and, unusually for Torri, a layer of snow right down to the bottom of the valley with frost quickly following which puts a crust of ice on our world. Dependant upon who you speak to in the village this is either a once in four-year event or once in a 70-year lifetime. The village might nestle amongst mountains but the reality is we are only 80 metres above sea level and at this latitude snowfall is an extreme event, lying snow even more so.

Of course we know that a few degrees of frost pales into insignificance when compared with what those in the UK have put up with this winter but somehow we expected more warmth when we first decided to to live on the coast of the Mediterranean sea. It serves to indicate, perhaps, that weather is not necessary just a local phenomenon. We all live in the same atmosphere, after all.

The warmth returns

We like to remind ourselves, regularly, of where we might have been living and what we would have been doing had we not decided to spend the winter months here in Italy, the big ‘What if…..’ question.

On the TV set in our apartment we receive a limited selection of news broadcasts and despite being in Italy our satellite dish captures UK news, that is news targeted at people living on the British mainland. So we have been subjected to the bad weather, the snow, the frost and the ice all in a vicarious sort of way through the medium of the TV set. As a result we know something of what we would have been going through weather-wise if we had chosen to stay in the UK. We can see clearly that we would have had to suffer extremes of cold but we also recognise that we would have had the advantage so far as coping with the snow because we could have chosen when to go out, when to travel and when to stay in hibernation. Retirement does, after all, have its compensations.

The UK news media (or those we have access to) are finally, after weeks of single-track weather reporting, looking outside the UK for headlines. As it happens these are not difficult to find – when a large city in an impoverished country gets demolished by an earthquake the headlines tend to make themselves – but even without this tragic event, I doubt that news of the substantial thaw would have generated enough weather-related interest to get into the headlines.

In the village of Torri the focus seems different. Since just before Christmas the temperature has hovered just above or slightly below freezing point and the humidity rising from the river has imparted a bone-deep chill to anything exposed to it. The villagers who normally gather in the piazza had scuttled away into their homes, hiding away from the weather as much as they could – there is no pleasure in talking about cold weather. Now, just as in the UK, there is a sudden change and as the sun peeps over the mountains earlier each day we are reminded of where our warmth comes from. There is a sense of excitement in the air as the days lengthen. Leaning on the wall to gaze at the river once again becomes popular and even working up on mountain terraces among the olives now becomes pleasurable. Walking about we observe how the well-watered grass has covered any bare ground with a long green carpet. Soon, other signs of spring will be with us and just as we watched nature prepare for autumn and then winter we now look forward to the experience of a blooming re-birth. Winter is a short season here.

Some hardy specimens here never gave up at all, their battered flower heads evidence of their battle with the worst that nature could throw at them. Quite why they choose to expend so much precious energy in a winter-long display I cannot say but more than one species has stayed boldly in bloom all through December and now into January. Rosemary, the commonest of the wild-growing shrubs here, retains a battered flower array but there are others too, like a bright pink one, which Kate calls the ‘rubber glove plant’ as the petals resemble tiny surgical gloves.

There are berries too, which come in a variety of colours. The black ones here are produced by one of the least endearing plants we have found here. An invasive creeper, it is tough and well armed, both the stem and the leaf edges being lined with tiny sharp hooks which grab and tear at clothing and which will seize passing legs in an instant.

Then there are ‘fluff’ plants which have bunches of seeds each equipped with a strand of a white whispery material just waiting for a passing animal or a gust of wind to carry it away.

Very soon now we will be treated to a fantastic visual spectacle when the Mimosa flowers open. Today we caught the first glimpse of what is to come on a roadside tree in Torri. These trees are grown commercially here and the flowers sold for use in decorating festival floats and floral displays. There are orchards full of them, whole valleys covered with their fine green leaves and yellow flower sprays just about to burst into vibrant bloom for January is their month. They can wait no longer than this.

One final natural oddity is shown in this picture.
Our mountain vegetation is usually thorny or spiky and there is one shrub, a sort of broom, that grows long, sharp, spears with needle-like points.
This one grows beneath an olive tree and a ripe olive has fallen and skewered itself on one of the spikes.
Of course I could have set up this shot myself just for fun…. but I didn’t.

Spotting the unusual

I am intrigued by the strange and the bizarre and I’m sure I am not alone in deriving pleasure from spotting something completely ‘off the wall’ that others pass by or take for granted.
So it was with some satisfaction that I managed to spot and photograph the contents of this Ventimiglia shop which proudly displays a tap, a padlock, nuts, bolts and spanners all made entirely from chocolate. Inside I could have bought a chocolate paintbrush (used) or chosen from a range of other chocolate items – a drill, a hammer, a coffee mill, an ash tray complete with cigarettes (symbolic, this one – eat away your habit), even a sewing machine, all of which sit happily side by side with more conventional confectionery items. I didn’t spot the chocolate teapot but I’m sure it must have been in there somewhere. Our young friend Maartje, who is currently holidaying with us, was attracted to the shop and being a lover of sweet things she made a beeline for a rather tasty spanner which the shop’s owner kindly gift-wrapped for her. Maartje’s appetite, however, proved stronger than the wrapping and the spanner was consumed with gusto before we arrived back in Torri.

The chocolate has provided her with enough energy to tackle some of our higher mountain paths accompanied by our son Ben who is also on a visit, and more recently to go walking with our village’s only two donkeys. These are working animals who wander at will on tracks and roads around Torri but their owner felt that, it being Winter, they might have been missing their usual human company so he was happy for Maartje and Ben to take them on the track up the valley to Collabassa. One of the donkeys, quite by coincidence, is also named Benjamin.

And whilst on the subject of walking, and for those interested, Kate’s knee seems to be healing well and she is walking a little further (and higher) every day. She is still not quite up to the rougher paths so caution is still needed but our 61 steep steps up the apartment door are causing her less problems every day.

We came across another piece of bizarre-dom in San Remo, just along the coast from us and a substantial modern city within which lies the medieval ‘città vecchia’ or old quarter. Once fortified against marauding Saracens from the African continent, the place is a maze of alleys and steps dating back to the 11th century with a nearby tower that was also once part of the city’s defences. Growing beside the tower is a substantial palm tree which has become the home of the city’s entire pigeon population, their small bodies lined up side by side and weighing down the branches until they droop. Why these birds should have chosen this tree, amongst all the others, is a mystery and just why the sight of this struck me as strange I cannot say – maybe it has something to do with the juxtaposition of the exotic and the banal placed centre stage in a city so proud of its heritage.

I do need to conclude by saying that the bright sunshine evident in these photos should not lead to the conclusion that we are experiencing Mediterranean-like warmth here in northern Italy. The cold spell that is drowning Britain seems to be Europe-wide and the population of Torri is also experiencing an unnatural chill; the cold air just seems to drop to the valley bottom as soon as the sun disappears behind our surrounding mountain tops.
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