Country Mouse/ City Mouse

Truth be told, I am very conflicted about my country mouse/ city mouse existence. I love big cities. I was so happy to be living in London last year, and since we’ve been back, I have been missing the energy of city life. There are days when I rage at being isolated in the country. I long to walk down a street, hear different languages, peer into windows, people watch.

But I am also deeply committed to living in the woods. We moved to the rural wilds of eastern Ontario 25 years ago to give our children a childhood filled with trees to climb, stars to count and newts to save. Every day I revel in the beauty of what I learn outside my door.

We were in Toronto this past week, visiting our son Xan for his birthday, when the big blizzard hit. There was no driving home so we spent a fabulous day visiting friends and trudging through the snowy streets. Going to St. Lawrence Market was a party in itself – there was a communal pride in being intrepid Canadians. We sipped spicy Korean soup and shared weather stories with others who had braved the storm for the sake of community and good food.

The next day was clear and bright and we drove away from the city, leaving the already brown, snow-clogged city streets. Snow in the city is annoying, but in the country it is transformative. It stays white and clean and makes everything look new and fresh. The snow reflects the sun, making everything brighter. In the country when there is a huge snowfall followed by a day of sunshine, we unfurl from our grumpy grey winter hibernation and soak up the extra strong rays. Winter on these days is the best time of year imaginable. I can’t imagine anywhere better.

Our house is on 78 acres of scrubby land, adjoining hundreds of sparsely populated acres of the same. On a snow-filled winter day, I can walk out the front door, strap on my cross-country skis and go to investigate the woods.

Amanda heading out for a ski
Heading out to ski

Lewis and I decided to explore together – he on snow shoes, me on skis. We’ve got a trail through the property that we keep open, but breaking through the snow is hard work. These are not groomed ski trails. I let Lewis go first.

We are not the only ones in the woods, of course. Observing animal tracks is one of the real bonuses of the woods in winter. In the woods you can follow stories. There are a lot of deer this year. We could see where they’d circled the juniper bushes for the deliciously fermented berries.

Deer trails and juniper bushes
Deer trails and juniper bushes

We found hollows where the deer had curled up in south facing exposures – resting places where they could get sun but still be protected from the wind.

A cozy deer bed
A cozy deer bed. The light is deceptive. That’s a hollow in the snow, not a mound. You can see tracks leading in and out.

It takes about a half an hour for us to get to the back end of our land, longer when we are breaking trail. Our property ends at an old rail bed that is now part of the Trans Canada Trail. Initiated in 1994, the TCT is the world’s longest muti-use network of recreational trails. 73% of the trail is now complete, comprising 16,800 kilometers of trail stretching across the country. It is scheduled for completion in 2017, in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Apparently, 80% of Canadians are within 30 minutes of the trail – which seems to me an impossible statistic. Does that mean 80% of Canadians could come walking, riding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, jogging, biking, or skiing past my “back door”? Perhaps I am not as isolated as I thought.

We have an old barn at the back of our property, right by the trail.

The old barn
The old barn

The barn is at least 100 years old, probably more like 150, as it was one of the first built by the previous owners of the land. They had a sawmill and a barn building business. It is a beautiful building, with huge ash beams of a size that is unknown now. I’ve used the occasional piece of barn board for artwork (“Fragments of the Leaves of Grass”). But it’s at the back of the property and not really useful to us as a barn. I’m ashamed to say we’ve let it fall into disrepair. With this last snowfall the roof finally caved in. It is now a statistic – one of Ontario’s beautiful ruins of agricultural days gone by. Too late to repair it, I can only hope the wood will find new life as reclaimed furniture or art.

But there is an animal trail coming out of the barn. Something canine, that is clearly living in there and has made a well-worn path. It is solitary, not grouped like the clustered deer tracks. While coyotes are common, the singularity and size of the path makes me wonder if it is a wolf. A lone wolf. Perhaps. I’m glad the barn can give it shelter.

Lewis and I find a fallen branch to dust off and sit on. I’ve brought us a little treat for our excursion – tiny glasses of port and a piece of Mexican chocolate. We leave drops and crumbs for hungry deer to find.

There is a beaver pond on our land, and we set off across it, well off the trail now.

setting off across the beaver pond
setting off across the beaver pond

The snow allows us to explore places that we can’t get to other times of year. We begin the trip back home. The afternoon sun streams through the cedar grove. The silence is deep and full.

It really doesn’t get much better.

The light through the cedar grove
The light through the cedar grove

A Grand Birthday Tour

I have a hard time with my birthday. It is in January, probably the worst month of the year. I am never sure how I should respond to everyone’s well wishes. I am usually pretty grumpy.

This year, I resolved to take things in hand and order up a perfect day. I made a request for a special meal to be shared with just a small few. I decided that the best birthday treat would be to spend a day reading by the fire and watching dinner being made.

Our son Lewis is living with us right now. He has worked as a cook in a number of restaurants. He loves to work with food, and spending a day cooking is his idea of heaven. So I asked him to make me a special birthday meal, with Tim as sommelier and assistant. I didn’t ask about what we were going to have. I just waited for it to unfold.

I stretched out in my oversized rocking chair by a cheery fire, reading Wuthering Heights – something to transport me out of 2013. As I read, Lewis prepped and I watched out of the corner of my eye as ingredients transmogrified.

A dinner requires good food and good company to make it work. I decided on a small guest list: My mother Laurie Lewis, a writer, who has a vested interest in my birthday and was just about to leave for Mexico; our friend Jack Hurd, a musician, who had just returned from hiking the Camino and was heading off for a month in Tuscany; and our friend Jan Irwin, a writer and director, who spent last March with us in Devon and is in the midst of contemplating her next trip. And of course Tim, my favourite writer, gourmand and travelling companion, who has shared the past 38 birthdays with me.

Our kitchen is in the centre of the house, and the cook is at centre stage.

Lewis prepping centre stage
Lewis prepping centre stage

The guests assembled and, after preliminary drinks by the fire, Lewis called us to the table.

#1

A tower of rounds of brown Kumato tomato and mozzarella, with finely sliced basil. Drizzled with blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic vinegar.

“A taste of summer,” said Lewis. And it was. The blood orange olive oil and chocolate balsamic elevated it to one of those very special summer days. It told us that this was not going to be an ordinary birthday dinner.

#2

Sushi rice with grated carrot, topped with a slice of avocado, red pepper and spears of tempura aubergine. With dollops of Wasabi, Thai sweet chili garlic sauce, and Cucumber relish with lime, Uma plum vinegar and red jalapeno.

2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears
2nd Course. A riot of colour and taste. Sushi rice, carrot, avocado, red pepper, aubergine spears

Presented on a bright blue and gold Japanese plate, the colours bounced energetically. There is a distinct lack of colour in our part of the world in January. The course gave us colour therapy and food therapy. The surprise hit was the cucumber relish, which was salty and tangy, with a zip of hot.

#3

Baby Portobello stuffed with chevrè, cream cheese and roasted garlic. On a bed of arugula with reduced balsamic.

Lewis explained that if you cook chevrè, you need to add cream cheese to it to keep it smooth. Otherwise it goes grainy. This was like a creamy pillow, the sweet roast garlic keeping you alert for more surprises.

#4

Homemade fettuccini with Oregon smoked salmon, with thin slices of Parma cheese and black truffle

4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese
4th Course, pasta, salmon, truffle, parma cheese

There is really nothing like homemade pasta. I had seen Lewis pressing dough through the pasta machine earlier in the day. He hung it out on a horizontally inverted broomstick to dry. I couldn’t wait to see what he was going to do with it. Turns out it was a kind of collaborative offering. Tim had been given a huge piece of smoked salmon from Oregon. Our son Xan had given us a few truffles for Christmas – I’ve never had thinly shaved truffle. Its musty nuttiness perfectly paired with the soft smoke of the salmon. Topped with thinly shaved Parma cheese, and served in pasta bowls from Positano, it was amazing.

#5

Seared filet of sirloin with Tamarillo on a bed of chicory with thinly sliced radish, drizzled with honey and horseradish vinaigrette.

I am a big fan of steak salad. This took it to a whole new level, playing the sweetness of the Tamarillo (like Passion fruit) with the bitter of the chicory and radish. The sweet honey danced with the horseradish, all supporting the succulence of the steak.

#6

Roast pork tenderloin with grapefruit glaze on a bed of sweet potato puree with curry and chipotle. Served with spears of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto.

6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto
6th Course. Sweet potato mash, pork loin roast, asparagus spears with procuitto

It’s amazing what a bit of smoky chipotle can do to a sweet potato mash. It lifts the tuber’s richness to a whole new place. The roast pork was incredibly tender and the combined tastes were buttery and dark. The asparagus counterbalanced with its bright colour, crisp snap, and salty zing of the prosciutto.

#7

Scone with honey glaze served with dollops of pear comfit, peach comfit and Devon cream.

“I don’t bake,” said Lewis, as he put a warm scone in front of each of us. What he meant was that he doesn’t bake cake. The soft, honey-sweet scone was “dessert” – plain and simple after a meal of complexity. The perfect dessert course. The tiny dollop of Devon cream a reminder of the rich green fields of the emerald Isle.

#8

Cheese plate. Featuring herbed Cheveè, St. Agur, Aged Gouda, Double Cream Rondoux, Shropshire Blue

Admittedly, this was probably overkill. But birthdays are about excess. I had asked for a cheese course which, when matched with port, is the best way to end a special meal.

The meal didn’t really end there, though. The food ended, but we sat for many more hours, talking, sharing secrets, hopes and dreams. With my mother and Jack just about to head off to other climes, we talked of travel past, and journeys to come.

Last year, our extraordinary year of travel, was one of the best of my life, and it’s been hard to come down. But with this birthday extravaganza, I realize that while I am not literally on the road any more, I can still go on a journey with travelling companions and cook Lewis as tour guide.

Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones
Happy fellow travellers Laurie Lewis, Jack Hurd, Amanda, Jan Irwin, Tim Wynne-Jones

Sparkles, Rights and Freedom

Cara Rowlands and Patrice Forbes in the tree decorating room
Cara Rowlands and Patrice Forbes in the tree decorating room

I’ve been spending the last week at the Ottawa City Hall, decorating for The Mayor’s Christmas Party. The Mayor’s Christmas Party is a huge annual event attracting 5000 – 6000 Ottawans to meet Santa, have their faces painted, nibble chocolate treats from Mrs. Claus, make crafts, skate on the rink, roast marshmellows and quaff endless cups of hot chocolate. It’s a big event and my friend Sarah Waghorn of Pukeko Design has the contract to design it.

I know Sarah from Ottawa theatre circles. Designing the Mayor’s Christmas Party is like doing a theatre show except that it’s a huge set filled with audience, workers, performers and thousands of details. We are working to a tight, inflexible deadline and everything has to follow an exact plan. Sarah has hired a team of us, mostly from the theatre community, to decorate and perform elfish duties on the day. Lewis Wynne-Jones has joined us so we really are a family team, a dedicated bunch who take pride in our work. We are under the domain of the Office of Protocol and happy to be their minions for the next seven days.

Who says the city doesn’t support the arts?

We met on the first day in a low section of the stone basement in City Hall. There was a long hallway containing at least 50 boxes of new ornaments for us to sort through. I squatted on the floor so as not to spend the day bent over, wearing a Pukeko apron and bright green gardening gloves. I was soon covered in sparkles from the coloured balls. We became a team immediately recognizable by our sparkly faces, sparkles that were embedded in our skin for the whole of the next week.

Lewis decorating the big tree
Lewis decorating the big tree

Our work hallway led to a tree storage room. A whole room filled with artificial Christmas trees. There was also a secure room accessible only by swipe key filled with all of the kinds of things needed for special events – shelves of Maple syrup (protocol gifts), vases, cake platters, tables cloths, signs, Halloween ornaments, Kahlua (?) and cranberry juice. There were boxes of miniature flags, one box for every country in the world it seems, except for China for which there were 8 boxes. It is in this secure room that we unpacked the special ornaments and exquisite fake cakes for the “set” of Mrs. Claus’ bakery.

We’re a great team and for the first while we swapped theatre gossip and family Christmas stories. We spent two days listening to carols before we gave up trying to connect our tasks to Christmas cheer. By day 3, we were spending hours in silence and small decisions (what colour next?), as we perfected each tree. Over the course of 4 days, we carried, fluffed and decorated 30 trees of varying sizes. My arms became shredded by plastic pine needles as I wove strands of lights and looped 200 coloured balls onto each tree.

After trees, we spent days affixing garland on bannisters, wrapping over 300 boxes for presents, changing the hangers on 50 large ornaments (gold cord is all wrong), changing the orientation of 200 ornaments (they don’t work hanging vertically, they should be horizontal), re-wiring garlands, setting out all of the trees and finding places to plug them in. It was backbreaking and leg exhausting as we crisscrossed the building and work on concrete floors.

Finished Big Tree
Finished Big Tree

I found myself in a contemplative mood and headed out on a lunch break, to clear my mind in the crisp December air. Beside City Hall is the Canadian Tribute to Human Rights, a monument that I have seen for years but never really looked at. Designed by Montreal artist Melvin Charney, the sculpture incorporates the first sentence of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights – Tous les êtres humains naissent libres et egaux en dignité et en droits.”  The words “Equality”, “Dignity” and “Rights” are repeated in English and French across the top of the monument. These words are then repeated on individual plaques in the 73 languages of Canada’s First Nations.

The Canadian Tribute to Human Rights was inspired by the Polish worker’s solidarity strikes in the 1980’s and is dedicated to the struggle for fundamental human rights and freedoms. Algonquin elder William Commanda ceremonially introduced it in 1990, followed by an official unveiling by the Dalai Lama. Since then, the monument has been the focal point for a wide range of demonstrations drawing awareness to human rights issues.

Canadian Tribute to Human Rights
Canadian Tribute to Human Rights

The monument sits on Algonquin land, as does City Hall. Before returning to work, I took a moment to walk through the simple and unadorned archway, grateful to have the freedom to do so, grateful to be working with a dedicated, sparkly team on a common, happy, goal.

San Silvestro in La Spezia

La Spezia is very much a working town, not geared for tourists. It isn’t glamourous, but it is very honest.

A typical street in La Spezia

It gave us a chance to glimpse into a “real” Italian city, filled with hard working families. And when San Silvestro (our New Year’s) rolled around, we got to experience it as La Spezians.

After a large feast at the villa, Xan, Lewis, Meghan and I got dressed up went down into the heart of the city to celebrate.

Lewis gets ready for New Year's

The whole city must have been there. There is a large pedestrian concourse through the centre of town and everyone – babies, children, teens, adults, grandparents –  was strolling up and down the streets to celebrate San Silvestro.

The first thing that hit us, almost literally, was the banging of firecrackers. All around us, constantly, unexpectedly, BANG! BANG, BANG, BANG!!! Children and youth were setting off firecrackers everywhere. Under cars, under people’s feet, even on top of the water in a fountain. Parents gave their kids lit firecrackers to throw! And everyone was laughing constantly at everyone jumping.

We learned to look around – if we saw some child rushing away from a corner, we’d rush away too, or risk a deafening explosion. Our collective adrenaline was pumping furiously.

But it wasn’t just firecrackers. People were setting off fireworks everywhere on the street. They were holding lit fireworks as shooting stars poured forth. We were covered in the smell of sulphur.

Pretty soon we got giggly and giddy. Like everyone else on the street, we  jumped whenever something exploded or shot out near us, and laughed.

And then there were the bunny ears. Young men, mostly, were buying and wearing headbands with bunny ears that were lit up in different colours.

Bunny ears on the streets of La Spezia

Bunny ears everywhere. A grand street carnival. There were merry-go-rounds and lights, and everyone eating gelato and crepes with Nutella and cream.

Stages were set up in each of the piazzas and at each there was a different type of band. We walked from piazza to piazza trying to decide where we wanted to be for the big countdown. Did we want to usher in 2012 with the Italian Klezmer band? Or with the outrageously dressed boy band singing a weird kind of gigolo Italian ska? Or with the dueling turntables, mixing oldie goldies, while boys in bunny ears and middle aged parents in ski jackets did a conga-line?

We decided on the flamboyant guys with a hodgepodge of retro costume bits — cape, frilly white shirt, long styled hair, red cummerbund, Paul Revere jacket, zebra pants. They were singing nothing that we recognized, loudly off key. We bought a bottle of Prosecco and four glasses – everyone on the street had bottles – and counted down with everyone else in La Spezia. As the new year broke, everyone around us was singing in Italian (maybe the national anthem?), and we mouthed along, made noise, drank our bubbly and agreed that it was definitely the most unique New Year’s we had ever had.

Lewis, Amanda, Xan & Meghan on the streets of La Spezia. Happy San Silvestro!

The Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre are 5 tiny villages that perch on the edge of the cliffs along the Ligurian coast. The name means five villages, not lands, and stems from medieval times. Cinque Terre comprises the towns of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare.

Historically subject to raiding by pirates from North Africa, the peaceful little villages are now protected by the Cinque Terre National Park authority. Declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1997, the villages are not accessible by car, but are linked by train and, in the summer, by regular boat service. There are also extensive hiking trails between the villages and through the surrounding hills.

Trains leave from La Spezia for Riomaggiore every half hour. The train ride itself is only 8 minutes long but the journey takes you from a busy, gritty working city to a magical fishing village of tiny shops and restaurants, carved into the cliffs.

Riomaggiore

We arrived in Riomaggiore on a gorgeous sunny day a few days after Christmas and set off to walk up the incredibly steep main road, finding churches and piazzas hidden away in the labyrinth of tiny streets. A recording of Placido Domingo was playing on a speaker in the street and we followed it into a tiny room, carved into the rock, filled with a massive nativity scene.

The Nativity Grotto

A whole village was reproduced, with figures fishing, shopping, washing clothes, all powered by water. It was the first of many nativity scenes that we have seen in Italy.

We decided to have lunch in La Grotto, a restaurant built into the cliff, with raw rock forming some of the walls. The village is known for its fish, so some of us decided to see what the local cuisine had to offer from the sea.

The harbour in Riomaggiore. A fish lover's paradise.

My mother Laurie and I ordered a specialty of the region called Ciupin’. “Cuipin’ di pesce fresco del golfo con pomodoro, pepe nero e romarino servitor con frette di pan tostato”. (Fresh fish from the Gulf with fresh tomatoes, pepper, rosemary sauce, served with toasted bread). We thought that it was a fish soup but when it arrived there was no real broth – just a massive amount of fish. Sea bass, sole, mussels, clams, scampi, 3 different parts of squid. All with heads and tails, each tasting unique, in the delicious sauce. It was a bit of work, but with the fabulous breads and local wine it was one of the most delicious meals I have had.

After lunch, we wended our way along the Via dell’Amore toward the next town, Manarola. In reading about the Cinque Terre, the walk is described as a hike, but I think it is better thought of as an exquisite promenade.

Momma Laurie hikes the Via Dell'Amore

It is a paved walkway along the cliff edge, festooned with tiny locks, left by lovers pledging their love together. It really is just about as romantic as you can get.

Lover's locks

We arrived in Manerola as the sun was beginning to set. We walked to the top of the town and stood in the piazza outside the church (built in 1388), watching the sunset.

Sunset in Manarola

Just above the town, in the terraced vineyards above the houses, was a massive nativity scene. Figures of the nativity and of every day working people were lit up as the darkness set in. Apparently these are the work of a local resident, who sets up many different religious scenes as a tribute to his father.

Nativity scene in the terraced vineyards of Manarola

There are over 200 figures illuminated by 12,000 lamps, making it the largest nativity scene in the world. The picture does not do them justice, unfortunately. It was a very memorable sight.

We were a bit too late in the day to go on the vineyard tour, but made up for that by buying several bottles of local wine. There are miles of grape vines on the hills above the towns and the terraced vineyards are one of the reasons for the World Heritage Site status. The sheer number of stone terraces is equivalent to the building of the Great Wall of China. We are happy to take home a sampling.

Two days later, Xan’s partner Meghan arrived from Canada, and we knew that we wanted to go back and visit the third town, Corniglia, with her. The last two towns, Vernzza and Monterosso al Mare are currently closed to tourists. There were deadly mudslides in October that have closed the towns, as well as the path between Corniglia and Manerola. But we were able to take the train to Corniglia and explore.

The main square in Corniglia

It is the tiniest of the villages (population about 240) and sits highest on the hills. It is not as often visited by tourists, because it is a bit more remote. But it was well worth the climb, or the cost of the shuttle that drives up to the hill top.

Corniglia has been famous for producing good wines since Roman days, and in the regular season there are tours and wine tasting bars. It was exquisitely quiet when we arrived, and much of the town was closed. We spent time in the sunshine in the main square, the Largo Taragio, centre of which spouts the old town well that used to bring in water from the hillside to the locals who lived without plumbing.

The Largo Taragio, with a memorial to the dead from WW1, and the old town well

In the Oratory of Santa Caterina on the Largo Taragio the nativity scene included a tiny pizzeria, with a man putting pizza into the oven. From the square we continued to climb higher to a small clearing and the Santa Maria Belvedere, the most stunning look out point to the sea.

Maddy & Tim looking out from Santa Maria Belvedere in Corniglia

It is a natural sun trap and a perfect picnic spot.

However, we didn’t bring picnics – we were there to sample local cuisine. We discovered the Enoteca Il Pirun, a wine bar and tiny restaurant that served us an amazing meal of pastas. Tim & I shared a plate of acciughe sotto limone (anchovies marinated in lemon and olive oil) that was one of the highlights of our visit. Sweet and lemony – we were eating fish caught directly outside the village with lemons grown on the trees in the village and olive oil made from olives grown on the surrounding terraces. How could it be better? We all shared around our different plates of pastas with mussels, clams, pesto and rolled away from the table late in the afternoon to take the 3-minute train ride to Manerola. From Manerola we walked into the sunset of Via Dell’Amore toward Riomaggiore. A couple of new lovers locks were added to the collection.

Xan & Meghan on the Via Dell'Amore

We’ve only scratched the surface of Cinque Terre. There was so much to take in and we were overwhelmed by the outrageous beauty. We are already making plans to come back to visit the last two towns, to hike the high paths through the vineyards, and to perhaps pick up a few more bottles of local wine.

Sut set on the Via Dell'Amore

Portovenere

Portovenere is on a promontory that juts into the western edge of the Gulf of La Spezia. A 30-minute bus ride from the city of La Spezia, the roads snake along the coast to take you from the work-a-day world of La Spezia to a resort and fishing town of startling beauty.

Portovenere

A piazza runs the length of the town, with restaurants spilling out into the sunshine. Fishing boats bob on the docks and ferry people over to the island of Palmaria, directly across from the town. It is a picture perfect Riviera town.

The Romans built an outpost here as a base en route from Gaul to Spain. The Byzantines, Lombards, the Genovese and Napoleon all passed through, leaving their marks. We walked around the piazza with our jaws dropped. It was our first experience of this kind of Mediterranean beauty.

Tim & Maddy walking by the docks

The path led upwards on cobbled steps to the Chiesa di San Pietro.

Chiesa di San Pietro

Traces of a Roman temple have been found here. The temple is thought to have been dedicated to Venus from which came the name “Portus Veneris” —  Porto Venere. Like most sacred places, successive generations have added and adapted according to needs, and so the Chiesa di San Pietro is a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. Built of white and black marble in the Gothic-Genoese style, it sits right on the edge of the water. A “back door” leads out to a small stone platform overlooking the bay. A perfect sun trap.

Mother Laurie Lewis behind Chiesa di San Pietro

The church sits on the edge of a large square with access to the Grotta Arpaia. The Grotta Arpaia opens out to the other side of the promontory and has steps walking down to the rocks below.

Grotta Arpaia

The Grotto is dedicated to the poet Byron. Byron and Shelly both spent a lot of time in Portovenere and in Lerici.  Byron made this grotto famous by swimming from here around the promontory and on across the bay to Lerici. Shelly was not so lucky, nor so adept at swimming. He drowned in the bay when his boat capsized, sailing from Lerici.

We explored the winding cobbled streets, with homes, shops and restaurants tucked into narrow alleyways and along steep stairs.

Narrow streets winding up the cliff

A labyrinth of walkways led us to the Chiesa di San Lorenzo, built in 1130. Tim & I were passing by on an upper level right beside the bells as they started to chime. We were almost deafened by the sound. But we were close enough to hear, well, really to feel, the harmonics of the two toned bells. An extraordinary experience.

Chiesa di San Lorenzo,

We walked higher, to the outer ramparts of the Castle, built in 1161. But rather than go in, Tim & I became distracted by a cemetery on the edge of the cliff below the castle. The cemetery has a few mausoleums, but the final resting places are mostly in marble walls facing the ocean. Apparently there is a rotational system – for the first generation after your death you get a fairly prominent position. Gradually, your remains are moved to one of the less accessible places. All in all, we think it is a lovely place to honour the memory of a loved one.

A beautiful final resting place

We ended the day thoughtfully, and happily bundled our family back to the villa for dinner.

Tim on the dock of Portovenere, Lerici in the distance across the bay

A sunny Christmas morning

Before coming to Italy, we warned ourselves that the end of December would be wintery and cold. We were prepared for grey rain, but decided that the weather didn’t really matter. We thought it would be fun just to be together, eating wonderful Italian food and drinking local wines.

What we had not expected were hot sunny days, breakfasts and lunches on the terrace and long walks on the hillsides. Christmas Day broke with a thunderously beautiful sunrise. Unbelievably, it was warm enough for us to have our Prosecco, bread, cheese and smoked salmon sitting out on the terrace overlooking the sea. Church bells chimed as we launched into our Panatone.

Breakfast on Christmas morning
Celebrating with Prosecco

The villa is right beside the AVG, “Antica Via del Golfo”, a centuries old trail that connects surrounding towns and villages. Walking down it, we can get to La Spezia in about 15 minutes. Walking up takes a lot longer, and is brutal on the thigh muscles. It is really steep. But when we are on the path we invariably meet someone much older than us walking comfortably, not breathlessly panting as we are. We’re always greeted by a cheery buon giorno, or buona sera. So walk up we do, as often as possible, if only to save face and justify the huge quantities of food we can not resist eating.

The AVG also gives a unique opportunity to hike up the mountain and explore remote villages with breathtaking views. The path crosses a zig zag road with hairpin turns, clearly beloved of Italian drivers. It is the kind of road that Italian movies make famous. But walking the path gives you time to explore and see the pace of other people’s lives.

A view from the AVG, with a view of the La Spezia Gulf

On Christmas morning we headed up, unsure of where it would take us but mostly just wanting an excuse to walk and talk in the sunshine. We walked higher and higher up the mountain, surrounded by a feeling of celebration and the joy of being alive. We may see each other all together only once a year, but we know how to reconnect quickly, on a mountain top.

Maddy, Xan, Lewis and Amanda. Christmas morning in Italy