A Yorkshireman of a certain age who likes most genres of music and most makes of old car. Travel is a joy, not least to escape the British winter. Travel by bicycle is bliss and if I’m not lost in music then I’m lost in a daydream about a hot day, tens of miles to cover and the promise of a great campsite and a beer. I like to think I’m always learning and becoming wiser. On the latter point then evidence is in short supply.
View all posts by tonyives →
For the record I have stepped down as a trustee of the Moores Furniture Group Pension Scheme, as from June 2022. This was my second stint of over five years having originally served five years when I was a company director. My term of office expired and I chose not to seek re-election.
The trustees did ask the current Scheme members, whether retired or deferred, if they wished to be considered for the vacancy. No one came forward and a vacancy exists. That is a disappointment as it is a rewarding position and you can make a difference. It was interesting to understand the corporate finance world (that manages the Scheme funds), the technical requirements of running the Scheme, which were all well explained to a layman, and also deal with the company from the point of view of the thousand or so members.
Should any eligible member ever wish to step forward for the job I’m sure the current directors would be happy to entertain their candidature.
So I left the last blog hanging with the promise to write about the drama of my following Leeds United. For the last game of the season we needed to better the result of Burnley and, on paper, we had the more difficult fixture: they had Newcastle United at home and we had Brentford away. I decided I couldn’t bear to watch it live on Sky and started to wash the car during the game. Why watch the agony?
Anyway the Geordies (actually I expect it is mainly Frenchmen, various Africans and the odd Spaniard etc.) started to beat Burnley and I dared to sidle into the lounge and watch the Leeds game from behind the sofa through my fingers. The upshot was that Burnley lost and we won. Euphoria broke out in Acaster Malbis and the relief of not having to worry about Premiership survival could be parked until August when the trauma would start again. There is no cure.
It’s been a busy time since then. A couple of days was spent in Manchester stripping and painting a shed. This task was necessary for the upcoming wedding of the Favourite Youngest. It was the elimination of an eyesore in the garden (of the evening party after the wedding.) Two days stripping and painting a shed? Living the dream. Anyway the preparation was arduous and with some help from the fiancée and even the fiancé we got the shed to the state where we could paint it. The block of flats, it was sited behind, got a free overdue job done and I got takeaways, Tunnock biscuits and regular cups of tea.
After this it was down to North Wales to see my sister, Ann-Marie. She lives near Conwy. We did a couple of jobs at her home and had a trip out to the wonderful Secret Gardens near Menai Bridge on Anglesey. I’m not ordinarily wowed by gardens but it is sensational. You should visit it if you’re over that way.
Back to York I had three album reviews to submit to Country Music People. This month the three albums were dull affairs and listening to them and writing reviews a chore. If you like the album then scribing is a lot easier. I publish a fraction of the albums I review on my own site. If I’ve had to suffer them I see no reason why you should!
A flight to Limoges was booked for July. I’m taking the bicycle and will camp and ride back to Europort (Rotterdam) over a couple of weeks. That’ll be a fabulous opportunity to relax albeit with lots of pedalling.
This week it’s been up to Northumberland guiding. After the season I will put together a blog. (I think that if I did it now they’d sack me.) It starts with greeting the guests on Sunday night and continues through to Friday, albeit I was barracked 10 miles away and so I didn’t see them after Thursday night. The weather was sensational, the sights and walks superb and the guests good humoured, flexible, resilient and good company.
However there were the usual challenges with the week to keep the show on the road. The first was going on tour without my credit cards and no cash. I left these in York. Fortunately I had my phone and Apple watch with the banking Apps and they worked all week. Then there was the small matter of breaking my spectacle frames! A local Morrisons had some superglue for a repair to temporarily solve that. However, I woke up every morning, at around 5am, only to find my brain irretrievably switching on to start thinking about taxis arriving, tides to reach Holy Island, submitting menus to the guests to pre-select, the mobility of a couple of the guests on the walks etc. No further sleep happened those mornings. Just about most days were 13 to 14 hours long. So by Thursday night you start to feel zombiesque and hung over with tiredness. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, I don’t have to do it.
Gosh it’s been awhile and for a retired bloke who mainly paddles about there’s been a lot going on. Here’s the start of a catch up. In looking back through the last few weeks then I think we’ll start with the llamas!
The thought of visiting the Yorkshire Dales to walk with llamas and alpacas wouldn’t have been on my mind until February this year. However on a recce, for a holiday tour I’d be working on later in the year, I had cause to visit Nidderdale Llamas near Patelely Bridge to see their 100 plus llamas and alpacas.
What a delight these strange South American animals are. As part of Anna’s birthday celebrations we trooped up as a family to the farm to spend time being introduced to these quirky quadrupeds. The llamas have to be worked gently and work shifts with the public to minimise their stress. On our shift were a selection that were introduced and their personalities discussed and explained. After this we were paired with a beast that matched our personality and confidence and we went for a walk!
These gentle companions enthralled everyone; they were easy to lead. (I think they’d done it once or twice before!)
Katrina had a very slow animal. Apparently his handlers identified him as the equivalent of a troublesome teenager who had an attitude. Katrina urged him to walk faster and pulling did no good either. In her exasperation she broke into his native language, Spanish, to make him get a move on but to no avail. From here we departed for a lunch to a nearby restaurant to complete the birthday celebrations.
With Sophie and Harry’s wedding in August looming some serious beverage decisions needed to be made and ‘tasters’ gathered in Reddish to partake of the vine. We ‘blind tasted’ the selection. Hilariously the wine I liked least was the one I brought. I can’t repeat what I called it but I may never hear the last about that comment!
As part of her birthday gifts Anna got a new bike: an electric one. Yes, I know: I spoil her. It’s second hand but has been serviced and the wearing components replaced. We’d found it at a bike hire shop on the Monsal Trail near Bakewell in Derbyshire. It flies and when we first went out together I was well ‘off the back’ as Anna ploughed on without a backward glance.
Cycling is still the theme but this time in Mallorca. A long arranged trip for myself, Tim and Martin had been in the diary fro some time. Leaving Leeds Bradford on Jet2 with Tim was difficult, sadly another story of delays and very long queues. Despite being there nearly three hours early we still ended up having to jump up the long line for Security and were one of the last folk to get onto the aircraft.
As we waited and it was only 7.15 am my thoughts turned to lunch and I thought I’d have my tuna salad that Anna had specially prepared. Not the most logical breakfast, I grant you. The upshot was a difficult plastic container lid didn’t come off easily and most of the salad ended up on the floor. At this point I also discovered that we had sat in the wrong seats and leaving one awful mess we hopped across the aisle slightly relieved to be escaping the carnage on the carpet. Much to our surprise those three seats remained unoccupied for the flight and no one had the opportunity to grind it all into the carpet. However, not being all bad I did alert the cabin crew to the mess and that Tim was responsible.
Delays continued in waiting on a bus at Palma, where we met Martin. By early afternoon we had got to our splendid hotel in Puerto Pollensa and the holiday had started. For the four days we we cycled on the west of the island and up and down some very steep hills. It was terrific as Mallorca is road bike heaven.
We ate out most evenings and in line with our other obsessions we were able to watch English football and Leeds United’s inept performance against Chelsea. Relegation seemed inevitable. The next blog will address the emotions of it all.
Earle has recorded and released tributes to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and now he completes his ‘teachers’ with ten songs of his former friend and erstwhile employer, Jerry Jeff Walker. Earle played a concert celebrating Walker’s life and then took the Dukes to New York to record this album. Walker made a career purveying country outlaw music after starting out with the folk scene in New York. He eventually found his base in Texas. Whilst recording close up until his death in 2020 his main output was in the 70s. If his catalogue isn’t familiar to you then you’ll know his most commercially successful song: “Mr Bojangles”. This has been covered by everyone including Sammy Davis Jnr, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Robbie Williams.
With the Dukes Earle covers a selection of songs and does justice to Walker’s work providing a platform to his interesting lyrics and generally upbeat rhythms and melodies. There’s no dramatic reinterpretation and the Dukes play beautifully in the background and the attractive female harmonies provided by Eleanor Whitmore add sweetness to Earle’s occasionally grizzled tones. The album sets off with “Gettin’ By” where the message asserts that getting by is his stock in trade. The song has a driving rhythm with some heavy snare pounding, swooping fiddle, tasteful pedal steel and delightful harmonies.
In fact Earle gives full rein to the band and there are many fine solos from the band that colour all the interpretations. Walker had a curiosity for the working man and “Charlie Dunn” recalls a cobbler of enormous skill grafting in the back of a shop whilst the boss is ‘up front, countin’ his gold’. The curation of songs by Earle kept me engaged throughout and showcased Walker’s ear for a tune. The selection embraces some of Walker’s most rowdy songs such as “I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” to the delicate love song “Little Bird”. Melodies are obviously outlaw but there are some cajun flavours and the album finishes with the blues “Old Road” where Earle’s ragged harmonica gives it a raw edge.
It wasn’t a random pick of an artist Earle revered. Earle spent time with Walker as his ‘designated driver’. Earle was starting out learning his trade and playing whenever he got an opportunity. Walker was important as Earle learned his trade. Ultimately it’s an interesting spin of using ‘tribute’ as an excuse to produce a faithful covers album with the relative ease that entails compared to composing original compositions. However, ultimately, it does nothing to dimish Earle and adds to Jerry Jeff Walker’s memory.
Gauthier’s 2018 release Rifles & Rosary Beads was rightly nominated and won awards. It was a cathartic and powerful album where she collaborated with US military veterans and created songs that addressed their traumas from operating in war zones. By way of her having the skill set and empathy to undertake such a difficult project then her personal history has been difficult and the journey character forming. As a consequence her work is always a deep dive and reflects her life, its vicissitudes and more importantly coming out the other side.
Sonically this is a delightful listen with achingly beautiful melodies that compliment her lyrics. The arrangements and instrumentation, which include strings, are layered and sit behind her vocals. “How Could You Be Gone” has her literally disorientated as she attends a funeral in a fog of indecision and grief: it’s easy to relate to her distress. “Dark Enough To See The Stars”, a title she openly admits to having taken from a Martin Luther King quotation, has a crisp and clear vocal over an acoustic guitar and piano. She’s joined on harmonies by her partner Jaimee Harris. As their voices swoop and soar she looks to what those dearly departed friends, whether John Prine, David Olney or Nanci Griffiths, gave her during their lives to hold onto as a positive.
However there are also songs about love such as “Amsterdam” and “Fall Apart World” where she covers the quality of her partner and the joy and strength their bonds give her. “Thank God For You” has some strident piano. The tune and arrangement could be lifted from Randy Newman: no bad thing. Again her gratitude is set against the challenges she’s overcome of early abuse and drug dependency. She now has an unconditional love that gives her purpose and hope. Eventually a gospel organ joins the song; as we play out the only thing missing is an ‘Amen’.
I expected thoughtful lyrics about the human condition but probably not such a great sounding album. This is a very fine release.
So another Willie Nelson album. Apparently it’s his 92nd in a sixty year recording career, surely he’s got nothing new to say and he’s flagging? Not a bit of it, it’s an absolute triumph. Lyrically interesting (reflective and on occasion amusing) with thoughtful compositions. The band knows more is less and plays beautifully with a variety of paces and arrangements. We’re just left with the unanswerable question of how does he do it? He must be well past wondering if he’s still cutting it, however, most assuredly he is.
There are five joint compositions with his producer, Buddy Cannon, and like the remainder of the album these are all crafted. Whilst never maudlin “I Don’t Go To Funerals” is a humorous take on his eventual demise. He’s stating his disinterest in the Departure Lounge and if pressed on the subject he’s focusing on the welcome committee of country legends when he lands. “Don’t Touch Me There” is classic two step country. With a suppressed snare beat the pedal steel gives it a 1950 or 60s feel and Nelson picks some latino acoustic guitar runs. “Don’t touch me there / That’s where my heart lives / And it just ain’t fair /And if you care don’t touch me there”. My kind of country and a perfect two and a half minutes long.
The rest are compositions that fit him like a glove. Shawn Camp’s “A Beautiful Time” – “If I ever get home / I’ll still love the road / Still love the way it winds / Now when the last song’s been played / I’ll look back and say / I sure had a beautiful time”. You can see why it became the album’s title track. It’s a wistful vocal on a slow shuffle of a rhythm with piano underpinning the melody and a pedal steel providing delicious flashes of sentimentality. “Dusty Bottles” in its title alludes to a certain vintage. This time the fine wine is Nelson, he says “Lord, I miss bein’ young” but wisdom, judgement and memories are attributes he savours and they only come with wrinkles. It’s an acoustic ballad with some melancholy harmonica in the background as he adeptly picks on his guitar.
The two covers include Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song”. If ever there was a song for the older man this is the one: “I ache in the places where I used to play”. References to Hank Williams are also made for a country artist. Nelson’s cover never strays from the original and when you had perfection in the first place then why tinker. Legends are people who keep delivering year after year. Let’s hope there’s more to come. Peerless.
It seems a long time ago that I was packing my laptop, projector, extension cable and heading off to some dark village hall to talk about my bike ride across the USA. The ‘tour’ of all these village halls had started when I declared on BBC Radio York that I would happily talk about this expedition in return for a donation to York Carers Centre. So began a trip around the local outposts of the Yorkshire Countrywomen’s Association and Women’s Institute. There have been other groups but these are my main victims. I get booked up months in advance. Last week the Easingwold W.I. evening came around. Over 30 women quietly listened to my tale of a long bike ride that included tales of mountains, McDonalds, bears, camping, prairies and coal trains. After I finished I got a cup of tea, a cheque and then quietly packed away my gear.
I often get waylaid by old dears telling me about their own American adventures. On this night a lady in her 50’s stopped to thank me and talked about her husband’s similar exploits and vast number of bicycles. It was all in the past tense? Yes, he’d got a melanoma and it progressed quickly to his demise in months. She still seemed exhausted and devastated yet capable of reflection. My talk had been an insight into a man’s world of bicycles, obsessive planning, lists of things to pack, a desire for adventure (with stupid levels of excitement) about the unknown. It took her back to happier times.
My tour guiding tours require me to have an Outdoor First Aid certificate. The one in question required 16 hours of class. I found a course in the Peak District and circled the dates on the calendar for an April weekend. Tony doesn’t do blood, unconscious bodies or mouth to mouth resuscitation: it could have been a difficult experience. So in a scout hut in the small village of Youlgreave I turned up with ten other people who were either renewing their certificate or starting afresh. Most seemed to be tour guides although a couple mentioned ‘life skills’: I need to ask my eldest daughter what those are but I’d guess it was something acquired spending two days kissing a dummy in the countryside.
However, seriously… The course is focussed, full on and ultimately might help me save a life. CPR and mouth to mouth resuscitation part of the teaching but if you had a nearby defibrillator and an the ambulance turned up in minutes you’re still only looking at a 40% chance of survival and that’s after I’ve broken your ribs by pressing down 6cm on your chest 30 times consecutively before blowing twice into your mouth. Apparently the breath we exhale still has 40% oxygen in it. It was all hands on (in the building and then an afternoon doing it outside in a woodland) and repetitive for the process of assessing the casualty. This repeated assessment did drive it home and it was always with another course member. My unlucky partner/victim was a young bloke called Paddy who runs a gym in Meanwood. He knew it all and constructively appraised my shortcomings and helped me get better.
Preserving life is the number one aim. Maintaining airways and ensuring they cannot choke is the number one priority. Therefore you can move someone with a spinal injury if they’re going to choke to death. Let’s hope I don’t need to kneel beside someone in distress and utter the immortal words of “Hello I’m Tony, I’m a First Aider, can I help you?”
In less profound developments I realised an ambition. I saw a wallaby in real life not in a zoo or Australia but three miles from our house! Great nephew Ted needed entertaining and at a local agricultural college they have some curated wildlife in the grounds. I was disappointed on my time in Australia to have never seen the animals in the flesh and so this realised a bucket list item. This was alongside otters, meerkats, raccoons, marmosets, llamas, goats (!) and giant tortoises. I think I was more excited than Ted but that’s nine year olds for you!
I feel I should come clean. A lot of bluegrass is like lager to me. Always acceptable but seldom particularly memorable or varied. There, I’ve said it. However of late Billy Strings has caused a stir with his talent and less conventional background. This has enabled his music to be heard wider than the usual aficionados of roots music. Tuttle may have the difference to also make that major break out to a wider audience. She’s no newcomer; this is her third album. However rather than just showcasing her award winning musicianship on stringed acoustic instruments it’s her ear for a tune, thought provoking words and delightful vocals that captures you.
The title track was taken from a Tom Waits quote. He concludes that crooked trees survive and the other straight trees that get chopped down. That is, don’t follow the crowd. Tuttle’s also taken the road less well travelled and unique to herself. “Flatland Girl” has a vocal shared with Margot Price. Price has written about farming in the Mid West and they return to the subject with a lively tune and exquisite harmonies. “Dooley’s Farm” with Billy Strings has a little bit of outlaw sentiment, the farm’s a front for shifting cannabis. Returning to more predictable bluegrass topics Tuttle sings on “The River Knows” about murdering her one time errant lover. Her plaintive voice over a sparse acoustic guitar before strings arrive is spine tingling. It sounds like a very English folk song.
Old Crow Medicine Show join her on “Big Backyard” for a rollicking romp with a terrific chorus and harmonies. “Grass Valley” recalls her own introduction to bluegrass with her father at a festival, a sentimental gem. It’s inescapable that bluegrass isn’t a commercially successful genre for solo women artists. However, with her tongue firmly in her cheek she conjurs up some western swing and sings with Gillian Welch on “Side Saddle” that she wants to join the boys and be taken seriously. I think, for her, that battle has been won.
If you’ve been hesitant and assumed bluegrass was badly dressed bearded men playing acoustic string instruments (expertly) and usually singing about some ancient gruesome event involving a deep well, hard steel and an unrequited lover then take another look/listen. This mainly uplifting and joyous outing will be on a number of end of year lists and maybe mine.
Sonically this album swings from R&B funk, with sharp beats and psychotic lyrics, to more tender and reflective acoustic numbers. Cauthen seems a true maverick. His has been a been a turbulent journey including addiction and latterly reflection. However, he’s back from all that with high energy and a ‘bad ass’ attitude. He sports a Stetson and places himself in the world of country music. Given the other pretenders that inhabit this genre he’s maybe not a complete imposter but urban rock and shades of americana are more fitting. He’s ably supported by fellow Texans Jason Burt and Beau Bedford (The Texan Gentlemen). They create a variety of modern or traditional sounds and the arrangements are never overly fussy but just right for the message and sentiment.
“Country As Fuck” starts proceedings with a lyric bordering on doggerel and an irresistible dirty funk. (This needs to played at volume 11 on a busy sunny street in slow traffic with the windows down: mayhem.) Lyrically it seems to have been marinated in something illegal – “NASCAR, dive bar, fireworks, guitar / Riding mower, landowner, 83 Texoma / I was driving tractors before it got sexy / Real cowboys don’t rock to Kenny Chеsney.” Amen to that. As the words go on to say then it’s ‘country’ based on his own definition! The video promoting this is well worth a look. It’s a dynamic start. The album has four other terrific funk numbers “Caught Me at a Good Time”, “Country Clubbin’”, “Fuck You Money” and” Cut a Rug” with a clunky guitar signature on a loop that’s pure Glitter Band in its stomping rhythm.
When things calm down “’Til The Day I Die” and “Roll on Over” justify his self promoted soubriquet as ‘Velvet Voice’. They’re heartfelt love songs that give his voice a full workout. The choruses are anthemic and Lana Del Rey comes to mind as an inspiration for the arrangements. “Country Coming Down” has our man reflect on a life in the backwoods over an acoustic guitar backing. Such a stripped back tune shows that without the band and arrangements he can craft a winsome melody. It’s a fitting end to the high energy before it. It’s quite a ride and given the profanity it’s not going to make a lot of radio station play lists but I doubt he’ll care. Compulsory listening.
(Country Music People are running a 90s feature and asked the contributors to write up an album review from that decade. In truth I got interested in Country music in the noughties when we visited Florida seemingly annually with the children to mainly visit Disney. Country was on the TV and on the radio and it was a revelation to have such beautiful tuneful music in copious supply. I did literally return with armfuls of CD’s of Country music and I certainly bought all Trisha’s probably in one fell swoop on such a visit. Picking one album was tough but this one is a great place to start.)
The 90s was when I moved past the UK’s idea of country music, ie. Dolly, Glen, Kenny and Johnny and started to discover a whole new world of US country music. There were new stars for me to find such as Reba, Toby, Dwight and Garth. They were shipping millions of CD’s; why didn’t I know? I’d always liked a pop tune, a sentimental and interesting lyric and a tight band. If you added a voice to die for then Trisha Yearwood ticked every box. Today she’s still releasing albums but is also a TV chef. She has a voice that captivates me. Strong, expressive and possessing that magic that tells the story in a way that makes you believe she’s lived it.
Her debut sold two million copies and spawned a number one country chart single and three other subsequent Top 10 hits. The debut hit, “She’s In Love With The Boy”, gave me an insight into the rural ‘Merica of front porches, Chevy trucks, drive in movies, high school rings and daddies and mommas. Thirty years later the same tropes and stories circulate in any country pop record you hear. It painted a picture and one that I dreamt of and eventually did see at close hand.
To make a classic album you need the artist, songs, arrangements and production to be perfect. This has all of this. Garth Fundis’ superb production placed her voice central to the song. His credentials include Don Williams and Chris Whitley as well as several other Yearwood albums. With Matt Rollings’ prominent and seductive piano throughout we hear her beleaguered yet wordly wise take on life and love. It’s a voice that’s always in control and requires little other than the space for the artist to draw you in with her sumptuous tones. Magnificent.
The drive up to Castellina in Chianti was quite astonishing. We climbed and climbed through square miles of vines. The town isn’t very impressive by the standards of the others but had a number of restaurants. I pondered if this was to cater for the very wealthy residents who lived in local villas. An estate agent displayed properties of around €2 million. They were lovely abodes with pools and land attached and no doubt cellars full of roubles.
Next came San Gimgnano. This little town with its famous pillars was very easy on the eye.
For reasons hard to fathom it was busy with a lot of Germans and Austrians. We saw the centre but then wandered down some twisty lanes and found a bench near a small park for our picnic lunch. What is clear that is if you’re an expat with a few quid and fancy living in Tuscany then deciding where to buy would be a headache. There are so many stunning options.
Lastly we stopped off at Volterra. This town was attractive but quiet with few tourists. In fact it was a place we might have liked to have stayed. It had plenty of restaurants and walks. It was here I got a call from the car rental company telling I was late returning the car! I wasn’t. However it made me concerned about getting to their office for 5pm and so we left and gunned our little car to Pisa.
Anna had fortuitously booked a B&B very close to the airport and the car rental office. This made for an easy transfer.
After settling in we waked into Pisa to find the Leaning Tower. This proved to be quite tricky to find and there was much wandering about before the magnificent Tower and adjacent Duomo came into view. I was glad we’d sought them out despite the fading light. Pisa is very tatty and a bit run down, I was walking along with little expectation but it was stunning. I say this as if it were the first time. I’d seen it twice before and once ascended the spiral stairway. We were jiggered after our day in the car and this route march. In fact I clocked up 22,000 steps for the day.
Next morning we flew home.
In summary the driving was demanding and I felt I should have researched the places we visited prior to getting there to extract the most out of the visit. But in some ways this tour was mainly about bolting a couple of days on to the end of the trip after staying with Tony and Karen. The scenery and little towns are sumptuous and the Italian food and wine fabulous. I would recommend that you pick your time of the year to visit as the summer seems to be uncomfortably busy to sightsee.
Assisi was very busy with Italians. It was the weekend and there are worst places to trip out to. The town is beautiful and folk wandered up it’s steep main drag. The proliferation of souvenir shops was wearisome, in fact it is a feature of all these beauty spots. However, the town is immaculately kept and no doubt the car parking fees extracted by all these hillside attractions helped the upkeep.
I was harassed by one young man twice. I never gave him the time of day and the second time loudly told him to “leave me alone”. Clearly a hazard in a tourist spot. An unhappy incident but it made me wonder out of his target market and the hundreds here why I seemed worth tapping up?
Back in the car my target was Siena. It was some way off and we settled down to my music (played via Bluetooth off my phone) and the entertainment that Italian motorways offer. In fact the day before we’d played BBC Radio 5 Live and were able to listen to match commentary of Watford versus Leeds United. I like to escape many things from home on a foreign trip but I’m wired into the football and there is no escape. Beside the motorway there were many factories. I’m always impressed and sadden when this is the vista. Pleased that manufacturing is still evident but sorry that in the U.K. we’ve lost so much. I accept and voted for the politics that led to a lack of subsidy for these industries and as a buyer at Ford or Moores I actively moved business abroad in pursuit of lower prices, better designs and more reliable quality: I can’t really complain.
Siena brought with it a whole new world of pain prior to entry. The hilltop city prohibited tourist traffic, what to do with the car? After dropping off the luggage on a short term pass I was faced with parking at the bottom of the hill, say, two miles away or subsidising Siena into the next millennia by paying €35 overnight. Being the last of the big spenders I opted for Option B. I had been to Siena before with Anna in 1987 and then in 2002 with Jim on our bicycles. In 1987 it was on honeymoon and I have happy memories. Probably much to Anna’s disappointment 2002 also offers happy memories. We watched England vs Argentina in a bar where Beckham’s penalty settled matters.
Again Siena was sensational. Unlike Perugia someone cared for the buildings and the central square (Piazza Del Campo) was dramatic and stunning. The cathedral in its black and white marble was similarly imposing. The many side streets and parks were full of Sunday night strollers eating ice cream, looking in the shops or hanging out. A very typical Italian scene. How the Italians communicate is worth a mention. It can often hover between walking together closely and indulging in what appears to be a conspiratorial whisper or something far more animated that could be mistaken, by the less demonstrative British, as a lively loud argument with wild hand gesticulations.
Anna had booked an apartment that included a small outside yard and galley kitchen. After all the dining out it was a break to eat a few simple things we’d bought at a supermarket in the afternoon. It would have been super to drop anchor here for a day or two but the plan was to leave the next day. Soon we were barreling down the hill looking for another beautiful hill top town, Castellina in Chianti.
The Italians have a tolerance or nay… even affection for potholes. The road surfaces can be terrible. For a modern European country many of their roads, including motorways, are simply a disgrace. We crunch along doing our best to protect the car but many road chunks are missing and vigilance is not always successful. On one country lane the surface was so deformed it resembled a ski mogul field: it was astonishing.
There are no three lane motorways, only two lane. A roads as dual carriageways don’t exist. Single lane roads with bad surfaces, undulations or adverse cambers are common. You also may recollect when a bridge collapsed in Genoa killing 43 people in 2018: the Italians have got ‘previous’ on this type of thing. In the U.K. we’re blessed with much better quality, design and engineering.
Oh yes, and speed limits are discretionary.
First stop was Gubbio in Umbria. Another ancient hilltop town with dramatic buildings and vistas.
We drove on to check in at our night’s accommodation. The remarkable Castello Di Ramazzano.
Anna found this amazing £130/night establishment on the internet. The original castle dated back to the 12th Century and swapped hands many times until it fell into a ruinous state. After much investment the castle has been partially refurbished and has a suite of rooms and facilities for hosting grand weddings. Alongside this they offer bed and breakfast when not booked out. The costs of restoration must be mind boggling. Certain legal restriction were applied to its rebirth including no lift. There are 62 steps to carry your luggage up to your room! We did rattle around in it as the owner lives off site but in the morning we discovered three other guests.
However, after checking in we went to Perugia. Whilst it meets the ‘grand city built on a hill top’ specification with some dramatic ancients buildings it just had a lot going for it than other cities we visited. It was dirty, busy and rather uncared for. There was a lot of graffiti.
This seems even less acceptable on antique heavy wooden doors or ancient stone walls: a couple of local youth beheadings would end it immediately I suggest. We had a look round and then headed back to Ramazzano for a bite at a local restaurant. Maybe typically for Italians as we left at 9.10pm there were families turning up with dogs and young children! For us it was about returning to the castle to sleep like a king and queen.
(Anna fell over on the steps from the car park up to the castle. She wasn’t impaired by local vino but attempting to flee from a toad she saw on the steps. The countryside eh?)
There was happiness at breakfast as the Italians celebrated the victory of Ferrari in the Australian Formula One Grand Prix. The castle in bright sunlight still amazed yet it was time to go.
Down the narrow lane from the top we squeezed past cars and church goers attending worship. Many were clutching olive branches and Anna opined it was Palm Sunday. The church was nearly a mile up this steep hill and it had been there for a couple of centuries. I imagine getting to and from Sunday worship was a workout for the village before spontaneous combustion came to the rescue.
We were off to Assisi, a well known tourist spot and another place I’d reached by bicycle with the intrepid Jim.
In 2002 I cycled to Urbino all the way from Pisa, and back, with a work colleague, Jim. I recollect it was a windy and hilly ride but I can’t remember it being as demanding as it seemed in the car. With Anna urging caution I threw our little, under powered, French car up and down these precipitous hilly hairpin climbs. As always I had another car behind and it turned into a bit of a competition as I drove to drop him and he drove to hang on! Soon we’d left the Tuscany region and were in Marche.
Urbino doesn’t allow many cars in the city walls and we parked in an underground car park outside the city. (A great solution to the large number of cars and little space on these hilltops.) With some huffing and puffing we lugged our cases up to the hotel. Pleasingly, despite our early arrival, there’s no problem checking in. We unpacked and then strolled around the small city in the sunshine. The streets are narrow and seemingly untouched by modern redesign or construction over the centuries.
It must take a lot of money to maintain these buildings. The facades are so tall and their maintenance must be specialist. We look around the cathedral and also observe the many students who attend the university. Their smart dress is remarkable. Stylish and tasteful every one of them; such a contrast to York’s throngs. After a salad we take a siesta. This isn’t typical but after the walking and gardening of the previous days it was overdue!
Eventually grumbling stomachs lure us outside again. We’re out too early for dining and have 45 minutes to spare before our reservation. We find a bar and ask the barman for a glass of red and white. What does he recommend? He selects and they’re memorable. As is the way the drinks are served with snacks and forgetting our imminent meal we heartily get stuck in. We sat there like teenagers and perused our phones but soon it was time to dine.
Our small restaurant (Taverna degli Artisti), seemingly in a basement, is soon packed. As we take our seat a procession of American students file past to take their seats in an adjacent room; it’s surprising to hear English spoken. Like their Italian counterparts they’re smartly dressed and complement the neat, tidy and elegant walled city. We order our food, the waitress noting our earlier visit and booking has translated the menu into English, how thoughtful.
Our food is delicious and the portions are so appropriate that we have space for three courses.
In fact I thought I had ordered two courses but didn’t argue when it turned out to be three! Anna has a beer as she’s thirsty and I have a glass of red wine. There was no choice if you ordered a glass and my drink is a little sweet and cheap. On a close table there’s two smartly dressed businessmen.
The waitress approaches with menus but they have no interest in the detail and after much dialogue the waitress departs. A minute later the restaurant’s chef appears to greet both men warmly and no doubt resolve their demands. We look on and make a contribution to their evening – Anna passed across a city map for them to use. They solve a wobbling table by placing it beneath the offending leg and tell her “grazie mille”.
A short stroll back to the hotel helps the food settle and I take some more snaps of this beautiful place.
At breakfast we discover that Covid has meant self service is forbidden and we queue and wait to visit the buffet to then point (we don’t know the Italian for the food) and obtain our coffee, cereal etc. Close by at an adjacent table in Bill. He’s 72 and from Vancouver. He travels widely and has Italian heritage. He’s not religious but likes visiting churches. Italy is over endowed with sumptuous temples and he’s working his way around many of them. However there’s a hint of sadness about this solo traveller. He grumbles about the buses, trains and getting around. The vicissitudes of weekend timetables make his movement difficult and he complains of finding it physically hard going. He says he’s ‘a little down’ about it all and comments that talking to us is a lift. I think we can all agree that talking to Anna was the tonic and not me.
I pop out for some groceries and a couple of postcards to write and post. With this complete we pack and descend to the car park and steer our pocket rocket south. We pass Saturday lycra clad cyclists out for a spin; I know a man who would have liked to have joined them. Common throughout Italy is the national flag adorning many buildings; they’re very proud. In Britain many people, including the BBC, sneer if you fly the Union Jack or the Cross of St George: they need to get across here.
In daylight we surveyed the house in its setting. Gosh!
Our hosts had deemed that we were walkers; we were. The walks were their favourites. The Tuscan countryside was sublime. Small but steep hills with not another soul in sight. Often we’d crest a hill and another terrific vista would be before us in the Spring sunshine. Our layers peeled off as we ascended and the day warmed up. It was a true delight and we saw small villages often built on steep hillsides and many fields of olives. We chatted away merrily.
Back at the villa lunch was eaten outside after our first walk
One challenge of having a property abroad is the need to do gardening and/or DIY when you visit. Both Karen and Tony work full time back in Blighty and finding these chores to complete can be a burden. Tony’s ‘to do list’ included resolving a dodgy water pump that sounded very poorly, a dishwasher that wouldn’t switch on (that had worked perfectly until some local friend’s teenagers had used the property for a party) and wi-fi that had stopped working due to problems the provider had created. During the few days we were there he worked his way through these items and all were successfully resolved by ourselves, the plumber or a local handy man.
The latter was a German national called Markus who was fluent in several languages and whilst mainly a gardener had many practical talents that the various expats in the area relied on. When we met he had the new replacement internet router in his van and a plan to prune olive trees. This isn’t a job for a hacker like moi. The tree has to be shaped to enable better picking in the autumn as well as a reduction of too many branches. I’d like to think the Ives’ put their ‘backs to the wheel with a few tasks not least gathering up of branches from around the large garden and creating a bonfire. Such was the too’ing and fro’ing that I clocked up 11,000 steps in the process. Anna did this but also attempted to do some pruning.
As we worked through Tony’s repertoire of home made Italian staples we enjoyed homemade pizzas in the purpose built brick oven and delicious ravioli from homemade pasta. I took several photos as I have no talent and could only look on with envy and gratitude.
All this carbohydrate was vital as the second full day involved more walking. This jaunt took us past the plumber’s gaff. Tony was tempted to knock on the door and enquire as to his overdue scheduled visit? More exciting was the plumber’s private life. He was now partnered with an English project manager/estate agent, who had left her husband, and he his wife to live together. Maybe it could be the start of a racy boxset based on life in the Tuscan hills?
Karen kindly laundered our washing. EasyJet limit your luggage and due to the chilly but sunny weather we found ourselves repeatedly wearing the heavier items of our wardrobe and not the lighter ones we’d also brought. As time rolled by we were on our last night in their company and we went to Sansepolcro to a superb restaurant. Our waitress was nearly worth the visit as she practised her English on us with considerable volume and mirth. I shall never look at a dessert trolley in the same way again. Tony sadly for him, was driving and much of the mirth was left to the rest of us with Karen and myself doing irreparable harm to a very nice bottle of red he’d chosen.
Next morning as we rose and packed our bags there was a new voice downstairs as Tony and Karen greeted Markus. He was here to trim the olive trees and give advice on several matters. Happily and surprisingly he had a new broadband router. As Tony discussed olives I attempted to drag the internet into life. Eventually I got it close to working but was short of a code. Markus had it and the information was typed in.
We munched our toast, hugged and thanked our generous hosts and then pointed the Citroën toward Urbino.