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Sunday, 9 December 2007

A bit of history

It’s a really miserable day today and I have no particular indoor tasks that I can think of. So I’ve got a bit of time to talk about where we are and where we would like to be. I evidently have some readers, who haven’t met us yet, so for those of you who already know our story, please bear with me.

In the spring of 2004 we decided we had enough of life in England. I had worked 15 years in the wine trade, but with the high cost of simply surviving in Surrey / London we never really had more than a months salary on our bank account, and usually much less. The only positive was that with the property boom in the UK our house, which we had bought in 1995, had tripled in value. So rather than being occupied solely with working all the hours under the sun, being stuck for hours in commuter traffic and sleeping, without any tangible results, we decided to cash in our assets, buy a camper van and look for somewhere to live in Liguria.

Having paid off the mortgage and various other debts and with no immediate source of income, we had only a limited budget as to what we could afford. It had to be something we could move into more or less immediately before the winter and we wanted a plot of land, but that could wait. When we found this place in Ponzano Superiore we weren’t sure at first. It needed a lot of work and it consists of only 3 rooms, a large kitchen, a bedroom and a windowless storeroom. The place had character though, being part of an historic palazzo of the Marques of Remedi, it has spectacular views (on clear days we can see Elba 150km away), it had a roof, windows and running water and, most importantly, it was well within budget. It turned out to be the right decision. The location of the village couldn’t be better. It’s quiet and out of the way, but also conveniently located within 5 minutes of the motorway linking us to Pisa, Parma and Genoa. By car, public transport or bike it’s no more than ½ hour to the cities of La Spezia and Sarzana with all their amenities. And best of all there is a fantastic community spirit in the village. It’s a mixture of older farming folk, who have been here for generations and younger people moving away from the hustle and bustle of La Spezia. And all of them know how to have a great time. They don’t need much of an excuse to start a festa: to celebrate the patron saint, the local dish of scherpada (a kind of vegetable tart), generally the variety of the local cuisine, the homecoming of some American woman, whose ancestors left the village 150 years ago, a wood chopping competition or Italy winning the world cup.

There are free concerts, exhibitions and open-air food festivals taking place all summer, some even on the inner court of our palazzo. So you just have to stumble out of your door to join the merriment. People tell me “oh you lived in London, there is so much culture.” Well I couldn’t afford the culture in London, and whilst I might not get the Rolling Stones and the latest Picasso exhibition here, I take part in a lot more here than I ever did in London.

Once we moved in we put the word out that we were looking for a plot of land to grow our own food. It soon turned out that prime farming land around here is not cheap. We had various offers of plots around the village, that we could not really afford. They were mostly well looked after plots, planted predominantly with olives. After 6 months search we found our plot on the other side of the valley in Arcola. We had to compromise in various ways. It is almost 10 km away from our house. There is a short cut on foot or bike, but it involves descending from our village (300 metre altitude) to sea level and ascending on the other side to about 220 metres and vice versa of course). Secondly it was totally overgrown with brambles and bamboo and not touched for 5 years. And thirdly it is a steeply terraced plot, making it difficult to cultivate and impossible to keep any animals on there.

On the plus side, it has a great variety of all manner of mature fruit trees on it - a dozen olives, cherries, plums, apples, pears, figs, hazelnut, peach, apricot, chestnut, kaki, loquat (another new fruit to us, but delicious) – there was an old shed full of useful tools and it was within our budget. So now we commute most days across the valley, usually by car as we often have something to carry on the way there (compost bin, chainsaw, strimmer) or back (wood, veg), but sometimes on foot or bicycle. On the photo above you get a bit of an idea of the terrain. I am taking the photo from about the second terrace from the top, whilst Susan is standing 3 terraces below. There are in total some 16 terraces. As you can imagine it’s tiring just climbing down to the bottom and back up again, let alone doing some work as well and carrying stuff up and down! We started beating down the jungle by hand only and cleared most of it this way within a year. Only recently we invested in a strimmer and chainsaw, which lightens the load considerably. Slowly but surely we are winning the battle. As from next year I feel we will reach the full potential of the land.

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