Italy the slow(er) way

Mainly because of coming straight back from our first holiday abroad since Covid last September, and straight into a busy Durham Michaelmas term, it’s taken me a long time to get around to writing about our trip.  In the light of the fact we are increasingly squeamish about flying for climate reasons, we decided to try something a little different – Italy by train; LNER to London, Eurostar to Lille, a TGV to Lyon then Trenitalia to Milan, where we finally picked up a hire car. What could possibly go wrong?  In the event nothing did; the whole journey went like clockwork. The leg we were most concerned about was the initial (and most expensive) early train to London but it turned out to be clean and quiet and deposited us at King’s Cross in plenty of time to wander over to St Pancras for brunch, before catching the 11.04 Eurostar to Lille. Breaking the journey overnight in Lyon gave us a chance to stretch our legs properly and, more importantly, to relish being ‘abroad’ again.  Being warm enough to sit outside a restaurant well into the evening and enjoy a glass of wine and both sausages and stuffed intestine (Martyn, not me) was enough to remind us of the pleasures of European travel.

We hired a car in Milan to give us more freedom travelling around rural Tuscany and broke the journey south to Lago Trasimeno at an Agriturismo near the village of Busana in Emilia-Romagna. Whilst the initial drive down the Po valley was through very flat, dry-looking farmland, when we turned west into the Apennines the hillsides were lush and green and we were treated to heavy rain showers and a full rainbow. This area didn’t seem to have been hit by the heat and drought which caused so many problems elsewhere last summer.

My phone sat-nav chose this first drive to take us a ‘shorter’ route cross country on some very slow, twisty roads before we finally ended up completely off-piste on something that was clearly a walking track, not a road, so it was almost dark by the time we finally arrived at Agriturismo Rio Ricco.  Agriturismos are guest houses on working farms which provide decent accommodation and simple home-made meals with an emphasis on home grown and locally-sourced ingredients and we were not disappointed with the food, despite being the only guests.  We hadn’t realised how ‘out of season’ rural Italy would feel mid-September!  The short menu was hand written but the pasta was fresh, the ragu and mushroom-stuffed ravioli very tasty and the jug of red wine good.  The pan-fried scallops on the menu turned out to be escalopes of pork, though, so I was glad I’d ordered a salad. I suppose we should have worked out they were a little too far from the sea for scallops to be local!

Our first evening and night in Italy was punctuated by thunderstorms and lightning and the rain was still going strong at breakfast time, so the local walk we’d planned up to the farm’s summer pastures before heading south wasn’t to be.  However, I took advantage of an hour or so’s lull in the rain to go flower hunting in the meadow next to the farm and was blown away by the diversity there.  The meadow had clearly been cut for hay earlier in the summer and had a second flush of flowers but must have been a real feast for the senses earlier in the year. 

Even mid -September there were a wide range of summer herbs in flower:  Mallow, Wild basil, Rock-rose, Pale flax, Bird’s-foot trefoil, Meadow clary, Plantain, Chicory, Campions and Catch-flies, Red Bartsia, Mints, Saw-wort and Knapweed, Fleabanes, Agrimony, Toadflax, Vervain, Bedstraws, Scabious, Bellflowers and Spurges, amongst the easier to identify. Many are very familiar from the Magnesian Limestone flora of my some of my favourite Country Durham nature reserves.  Not surprising, perhaps as the Apennines started their life as sediments on the bottom of the ancient Tethys Sea. The autumn-flowering crocuses by the river were not so familiar from home.

As I entered the field, a deer bounded across it and into the trees. The sympathetic management of the meadow meant that, even to a complete novice like me, there was very obvious invertebrate biodiversity. Grasshoppers and crickets, crab spiders, ants and even an enormous praying mantis were easy to spot amongst the plants, even on a very damp morning.

Once I tore myself away from the meadow, we drove south towards Trasimeno, with a stop for lunch and a walk in the lovely walled town of Lucca, where we had a memorable holiday with the children nearly 20 years ago.

High (or low?) points of that mid-summer holiday included discovering that an 11 year old Rosie had packed no summer clothes but had 17 books in her suitcase, early morning bike rides around the city walls, Martyn playing football on the flat ground outside the walls in the mid-day heat with a five year old Harry and being exposed to hour after hour of Lana Del Rey on MTV (we had no television at home at the time).  This time we enjoyed a civilised lunch in the Cathedral courtyard, some lovely, modern stained glass in the Cathedral itself and a walk round part of the walls to break our journey south. 

Finally wrote this in London at the start of another Eurostar trip, this time to Amsterdam, to see the Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum.

Currently reading Cal Flynn’s wonderful and hopeful book, Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-human Landscape, about how nature can re-occupy the most un-promising spaces abandoned by humans.

In the garden the snowdrops are going over but the hellebores are still going strong and crocuses are providing pops of purple and yellow when the sun shines. 

I’ve been planting tomato and chilli pepper seeds, inspired to get back to growing more of our own food by another wonderful book – Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating, by Barbara Kingsolver.

We’ve been eating leeks from the allotment (without needing Therese Coffey’s prompting) and raspberry coulis made from last autumn’s frozen raspberries on our pancakes.


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