Category: Torri

Lupi New Year

The Italian village of Torri is divided into three areas, corresponding roughly to the interconnected blocks of dwellings that lie each side of the bridge. Our apartment is in one of these, known as Lupi.

The unprepossessing concrete bridge, a replacement for an ancient stone one that the retreating German army destroyed at the end of the last war, is in some ways the centrepiece of the village, a focal point when we look out of the window. The bridge spans the river Bevera that rises miles away in the French Maritime Alps and dives down the steep valley past the villages of Olivetta and Collabassa. Here it passes under an ancient stone bridge, wide enough only for a handcart, but for most of its course, the river is contained at the bottom of a steep sided valley where it has cut its way down to the bare white limestone rock. The valley is so steep that the only way to cultivate the land is to build terraces and stone retaining walls, these being scattered all about the hillsides. For most of the year the river drifts lazily through a dry landscape, pausing in clear rock pools then wandering its way downstream. But there is evidence here of a different sort of river which also passes this way because each side of the river there is an exposed band of white rock, swept clean of vegetation, loose rock and soil. Nothing stops here long enough to put down roots because this is the river’s own expansion zone; this is the flood line.

Throughout the time we have been staying in Torri the river has languished in the bottom of its bed showing not the slightest inclination to rise up and show us what it can do. Then, just a few days before Christmas all this changed. The same cold breath being felt in the UK was expanding right across Europe and in a somewhat milder form, even down here close to the Mediterranean. Our temperatures dropped below freezing for several days, snow fell on the mountain tops and in Torri the usual group of river-watchers gave up leaning on the wall and retreated to their homes.

Then there was a sudden change. In the space of 12 hours the northerly wind first dropped calm then re-started from the south. This wind, originating in Morocco on the African continent. brought a warm rain to the Ligurian Alps, melting the ground and any snow lying on it. When the river started to rise, the rain still fell and in Torri’s narrow valley the water had nowhere to go, nowhere to expand to. Suddenly the trickle became a flood and the flood became a torrent.

On Christmas Eve the afternoon dragged on as the rain continued to fall. Every building dripped water, every tributary stream boiled and hissed. The River Bevera changed to a pale brown as the level rose. In the space of less than half an hour mid way through the evening the level rose 12 inches to cover a lower bridge support and it then begin to lap across the car parking area which normally lies more than 6 feet above the river. Anxious car owners had already moved their cars up and away from danger and they watched from above as the flood inched its way over the gravel surface until the whole area was covered.

It pounded and roared all through the evening but some time in the early hours the rain stopped falling so by morning the river level was already falling. Down it went, just as fast as it rose, and finally three days later the water under our bridge has become clear so we can see the fish swimming about again. How they survived the torrent is a mystery they keep to themselves.

All that remains now is for us to organise a trip to the beach at Ventimiglia where the wood swept downstream in the floods has washed up, so we can stock up our log stack in the cellar.
Happy New Year everyone!

Christmas in Italy

For the first time in our lives we are spending Christmas abroad, in a country where the season is celebrated but where we can expect the customs to be different from those we have grown up with. We are also living in a small isolated village, pretty far removed from many of the commercial pressures which have taken over this season elsewhere, and in a home that is not ours, one we must give back in a few months time. We find it strangely difficult to grasp the fact that 25th December is just around the corner as many of the familiar markers are missing – the crowds in the streets, the mad media build-up or the shops hung with flickering decorations. We reluctantly admit that our Christmas here could end up being just another day, one we will spend in the delightful company of my brother Graham and his partner, Anna, but possibly devoid of any mystery.

One of the unexplained mysteries of Christmas is the one about Father Christmas and the chimney. Somehow I can appreciate how he might be able to slide gracefully down a chimney, an activity in which he has the force of gravity on his side even if the traditional view of him is of a plumpish sort of individual. But what about his subsequent ascent. How can anyone seriously be expected to believe that he could climb nimbly back up a narrow, sooty pipe unaided, especially after imbibing the mince pies and sherry left for him by the generous family down below.

Well here in Italy there is no such mystery. They have completely overcome the problem because nobody expects him even to try the chimney (which also neatly solves the problem of modern houses which don’t have them anyway). What happens here is that they expect him to come in over the balcony and in through a window and to help him in this, many householders will rig up a convenient rope ladder for him to climb. They even put lights on the ladder so he can find it in the dark.

Whilst I was out on a stroll the other day, a few miles down the road in the village of Serro, I happened to glance up just as Santa was nipping into someone’s house to leave some presents. The chances of catching him ‘on the job’, so to speak, must be very slim so I am rightly proud of this picture. The poor man had clearly started early and was working overtime, delivering in daylight, so rather than embarrass him I left him to it and walked on.

To be fair though, although the village of Torri prefers the low-key approach, a short drive away along the coast (and across the border into France) lies Menton, a place where too many Christmas lights is still not enough. As dusk the coast road becomes a dripping sea of white, lights trailing from every lamp post, draped across the road in huge suspended banners and wrapped around the trunk of every palm tree, all blinking and oscillating randomly. The new kid on the block here is the light emitting diode or LED. Small and relatively indestructible these tiny devices can be wired together in ways never before possible, an opportunity for the designers to come up with many new ways to surprise and dazzle us. And all of this is achieved using less electricity than ever before, unless of course you use far more lights than you did before when the eco- argument rapidly breaks down.

Amongst this sea of white the sodium street lights appear yellow and where an old tungsten bulb still glows it appears tired and tawdry. The new white is LED white, like the washing powder advert says, whiter than white. Before this white came along we thought we knew what colour white light was but put the two together and anyone can see the difference. Is this the end, I wonder, or is there another even whiter white out there somewhere.

Wounded knee mountain

Back in Torri and eager to be walking up mountains again, as soon as we could Kate and I strapped on our walking shoes and were off up the valley to Collabassa. Taking the easier, right-hand path up, we returned by the much trickier, low-level route down beside the River Bevera. This has rocks worn smooth by generations of Italian feet, rocks which when dew-moistened become as slippery as wet soap.

But even knowing this and taking great care stepping cautiously downwards, the mountain managed to catch us out anyway. On a particularly steep section, Kate stepped delicately onto a sizable rock which promptly shattered underfoot, imparting a sharp twist to her left knee. Being a few metres ahead I heard the stone crack and fall but could see nothing of Kate until I took a few steps up again. Somehow, on a mountainside covered with sharp, spiky shrubs, she had dropped onto a soft spot and was lying full length on her back as if she had decided a spot of sunbathing was in order. All was not well, however, and the rest of our journey home had to be taken slowly and carefully, Kate being in some discomfort as the knee swelling increased. She must now endure a regime of RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation – with some assistance from a piece of aluminium tubing and lump of olive wood, swiftly fashioned by me into a very attractive crutch for Kate to prop herself up on.

Many years ago I was in the final week’s training for a fell-running event of some importance in which I was teamed up with an equally fit friend. I remember stepping off a low wall into long grass in which a rock was hiding, waiting for me to put weight on it so that it could do a sideward shift, twisting my ankle and throwing me onto my back on the ground. Just in that tiny fraction of a second all my hopes of competing the following week evaporated leaving me hobbling around for the next few weeks. My friend had great difficulty accepting the situation and urged me to go ahead notwithstanding my swollen ankle but I knew that it would be too weak to use for running around mountains. Kate must now accept that even when the swelling in her knee has subsided, full strength will take a bit longer to achieve and the rough paths we have been walking on around here are out of bounds for a while.

Having walked extensively in Britain I try to put my finger on what is so different here. I suppose the main thing is the dryness of the land, the absence of running water other than deep within shaded gullies or valley bottoms. Anywhere in the UK it is impossible to venture far into the mountains without encountering water seeping across your path and in winter wet feet are a given for any serious walking. This area of Italy is not barren, far from it, but everything living is geared to survive on far less moisture. Much of this comes from condensation, only rarely from rain. There is evidence, however, that when heavy rain does occur it can do immense damage to the landscape. Deeply cut scars of run-off channels are mostly hidden beneath the undergrowth but it takes little imagination to visualise powerful flows quickly building up carrying rock and vegetation debris downwards at speed.

Down in the village of Torri, part of the river bed only a metre or so above the normal water level has been levelled for use as a rough car park. For most of the year this presents no problems but when the rain arrives and the river goes brown, the locals begin to get nervous. Nobody wants to see their car being carried away by a flooded river. As a result, the inhabitants of Torri are also avid river watchers and most times of the day one or more can be seen passing the day leaning on the low wall beside the bridge, gazing over at the fish swimming lazily in the clear pools below. Happily in recent years the river level has risen dangerously only a couple of times, none since we have been here.

Death and breasts in Lyon

Visitors to Lyon cannot avoid spotting the Basilique, a church/cathedral which dominates the largest hill overlooking the city. To climb the hill on foot is a challenge worthy of a saint but for us the crowds inside took away much of the beauty of the modern frescoed interior. It lies in the old quarter of the city whose narrow twisting streets were filled with tourists, mostly French it seemed, but all of whom seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the day.

Elsewhere dotted around the city are less remarkable but somehow intriguing statues which on careful study revealed some sort of a theme, something I just couldn’t put my finger on at the time.

Meanwhile back at the home of our hosts, Guy and Noëlle a deadly drama was being played out. A lone turtledove, one of many who share the garden with the hens, the tractors and the various assorted bits of machinery, was in full flight trying to avoid becoming dinner for a hawk, a kestrel we think. Diving towards a dark hole in its effort to escape, the dove failed to detect the window glass and with its hunter being so close behind, sadly both birds impacted with shocking thuds. The window glass survived intact but both birds fell to the ground instantly dead. Remarkably the bodies were almost unmarked externally, both birds’ eyes closed and wings folded as if asleep. Inside the house the noise of the double blows had been loud and shocking, frightening until the explanation became clear and then exciting, something so rare and bizarre had occurred that required the birds’ bodies to be posed for photos and emailed to relations abroad. Readers of this blog are saved this.

Not far away from the village of St Bernard, where we were staying, Adolf Hitler’s car rests peacefully amongst an intriguing museum collection of vehicles – cars, motorbikes and cycles going back to the dawn of the transport age. Weighing in at over four tonnes with all its armour plating, one of the toughened windows of this car bore the marks of bullets apparently fired from the gun of a German soldier. It was not immediately clear whether this was from an assassination attempt or some sort of a test of the strength of the glass but nonetheless there was a dark presence to this exhibit, somehow out of step with its surroundings. It was not there solely as a car but also as a reminder, I felt, of France’s past.

Maybe the same could be said of the Papamobile, as used by the late Pope John-Paul when he went on his holidays. Unlike with Hitler’s car, Kate was prepared to stand proudly next to this one. Of all the exhibits at this motor museum, however, our favourite of all was the ‘Tue Belle-Mere’, a three-wheel motorised tricycle designed with an open basket right up front for the mother-in-law to sit in whilst her loving relatives drove safely from behind. For those not fluent in French, ‘Tue Belle-Mere’ roughly translates as ‘mother-in-law killer’.

Regrettably our sojourn in Lyon came to an end this week and we are now back ‘home’ in Torri. The 3-hour delay on our journey back showed that even French railways can be less than perfect at times but none of this really mattered as we were warm and comfortable, the sun shone for us and we had been heavily pre-loaded with pieces of a delicious savoury tart cooked by Noëlle. We arrived back to a cooler Torri, the air feeling damp in the evening as the dew falls. This, so we have discovered, is typical of the place, something the locals refer to as ‘umido’ meaning damp, but which is really little more than moisture condensing out of the warmer air as it is cooled by the river in the valley bottom. We console ourselves that the shortest day of the year is almost with us and after this the sun will arrive earlier each day in our bedroom window.

This little eye-catcher turned more than a few heads in Ventimiglia yesterday, an off-roader with real Italian country style. Is this possibly the equivalent of the Range Rover 4×4 urban runabout seen in UK cities? I find it Interesting to speculate which of the two vehicles is the first to make it into the Lyon motor museum.

To Lyon

Saturday – Winter is here and we are learning what this means here on the Italian Riviera. This is not winter as we know it but fortunately it is more or less what we were led to expect otherwise we would not have left so much of our winter wardrobe back in Britain. Here in Torri it is rarely windy, the sun may only peep over the mountains for a few hours in the middle of the day but it warms what it touches, and during the course of our visit we have seen little rain, one day at most. We are told that his lack of rain (so far) is unusual but we are grateful to the weather gods for this. Frost is not impossible here but it must be uncommon or else the beautifully tiled roof terraces would have succumbed long ago.

My French vocabulary continues to improve. Recently added are the words for shovel, screwdriver, pickaxe, cement-mixer and pine-cone. This last word causes us much confusion as the French equivalent, ‘pomme de pin’ translates literally into English as ‘pineapple’, which is not the same thing at all. Translate this word back into French and you get ‘ananas’, at which point you have a very puzzled Frenchman on your hands and a difficult explanation to cope with. Until coming here I had successfully lived through nearly 60 years without needing to be competent in a language other than the one I learnt as a child. Now I have learnt that there is no better way to learn another language than to place yourself in the same position as that young child; surround yourself with voices you have to understand in order to survive. When I help Guy to load his trailer with all his various tools, the fresh vegetables and goodness knows what else he plans to take back to his home in Lyon, it will be another dip into the French language pool. Specialised words like rotavator, chain-saw and drill bit, to say nothing of towing bracket and jockey-wheel, just never came up during my language studies in school – I can’t imagine why.

Sunday – So much for the lack of rain. The journey to Lyon prompted the worst downpour we have experienced yet and proved to be a nightmare of a drive, the roads being awash for much of the time and visibility reduced. Back in Torri we have heard that the river has risen somewhat but it was so low anyway that this is unlikely to cause any harm.
Now in France (hence the Lyon coats of arms) my language challenge continues. Today’s word is ‘noix’ which is French for nut and and also for walnut. This is confusing as it could be interpreted that all nuts are species of walnut but like many things we just have to live with the dilemma and soldier on.

Monday – It all happens in the village of St Bernard. Guy’s chickens found their way into his woodpile, a place they found more comfortable than their own house and this morning he has been rummaging about seeking the eggs they left there. Hens are not blessed with much intelligence, it seems.
A short drive away from us is the Beaujolais wine-growing region, a necessary place for us to visit so that Guy could replenish his wine cellar. After the second wine-tasting my language skills had improved considerably and I was having no trouble at all understanding every aspect of the business of growing grapes.
From a nearby hillside we looked down on a brown landscape devoted entirely to growing grape vines, these now being absent of leaves and in the process of being pruned back to blackened stumps. It seems impossible that these twisted twigs grow enough branch and fruit each year to satisfy the growers, but obviously they do.
Tuesday – The Beaujolais region is perhaps less well-known for its tiny airport. As a former helicopter pilot himself, Guy has a dream that one day he will have his own parked in the drive of his house and it is perhaps only his pension and his wife, Noëlle, that prevent this. But an invitation from a friend to view his own recently purchased helicopter was not something to be missed.
Regrettably my spoken French vocabulary again failed me when the mechanic currently working on this machine began to speak, explaining at some speed in technical terms the various aspects of the complex systems which, one hopes, will keep this beast in the air. My own role was to appear interested without appearing dim, something at which I have become quite adept.

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