Buon anno (happy New Year) and tanti auguri (best wishes) to everyone.
Christmas and the New Year are pretty busy round here as all the part-time residents are in town, arriving just before the holiday starts and staying until early in January. For us, Anna’s Christmas Eve party was the start, with sixteen guests, mainly Germans who we hadn’t previously met and a sprinkling of Italians we already knew. Anna is something of a local celebrity; she even features in a German book about living in Liguria. When it comes to throwing a bit of a do she has no peer.
The evening started outside around the bonfire I’d prepared earlier. I’d warned Anna it would only need ten minutes to become a roaring inferno, but not having the benefit of my years of pyromaniac expertise she lit it over half an hour before the first guests arrived, so there were only the three of us to appreciate its full glory before it settled into a large pile of hot embers. On the terrace a table was already loaded with sparkling wine and various comestibles and the guests, all of whom arrived on time, sat around the fire or stood in groups nibbling sausage rolls and chatting. Anna then produced a large pot of spicy prawn soup, after which we moved into the house for a fondue. From somewhere her rented house had disgorged complete sets of crockery, cutlery and glassware; on the table were three fondue sets and somehow we found sixteen chairs and crammed them all round the table in her small kitchen. Piles of cubed steak and pork were accompanied by half a dozen unfamiliar but exquisite sauces, wine and conversation flowed freely and we eventually packed up at around midnight.
Most of her other guests were old friends who were already accustomed to her style of entertainment. Rather dauntingly, these affairs have in the past always been at the house we now call our own. It’s a strange sensation, that people you’ve never met before know your house better than you do. Indeed, it’s Anna’s parties that have been in part responsible for some residents of Apricale coming here in the first place. When we meet people in and around the village, to describe where we live it’s often enough to say “The house of Anna, the German lady”; recognition is instant, often accompanied by expressions of appreciation that we have wound up in such a fine house with its long tradition of lavish entertainment. From which you may gather we’re likely find such precedent a hard act to follow.
After finishing at Anna’s a number of us drove down to the village to stand around the bonfire in the piazza for a while. Things there had been busier earlier; a small knot of people sat on chairs ringed upwind of the fire and the mayor was just starting to pack up tables from which wine had been served. Just as well really as we shouldn’t have driven down there anyway after all that booze. So after a while we headed off back home and finally turned in at about 1am after accepting an invitation to return the next evening and visit the village centre house of two of our new-found German friends.
Christmas Day dawned warm with brilliant sunshine. Once the turkey was nicely settled in the oven we went for our usual walk, a circuit that takes us up the road for a mile or so then heads off up a track to the top of the local hill before returning down a minor road back to the house. Between thirty minutes and an hour, depending on how fast you walk and if you meet anyone along the way. In this case, two of the previous night’s German guests were busy at work making alterations to their front gate as we passed, so we stopped to have a look at their house. They are in the process of finishing an extensive rebuild; the house is quite a lot smaller than ours but features a splendid new pagoda roof over one of the terraces, which immediately got us wondering if we can afford to do something similar here. We need to speak to the local builder. Further up the road we passed our Italian neighbour, sitting in the sunshine on a grassy bank next to a small pine tree he was trying to rescue from attack by some kind of beetle; picking away at the bark to locate the home of the insect into which to pour some noxious fluid. But with our turkey waiting in the oven we no time to stop for long so after a brief chat we carried on. I didn’t realize before that from the top of the hill you can see the sea; perhaps we’ve never taken a morning walk before, but there it was, a wedge of sparkling blue against the deeper blue of the sky.
What could be more perfect than sitting in the sunshine in tee-shirts to eat Christmas dinner? And without the need to buy a ticket to Australia. But there it was, Christmas Day, the warmest day so far in December, with just under an hour before the sun dived behind the hill, after which it instantly became too cool to continue outside. So with the sun still shining brightly on Monte Bignone opposite we dozed in front of the wood-burner with a film on the TV, after which it was time to meet our friends in the piazza. This time things were a little more lively; round the bonfire a guitarist was playing popular tunes and various people sang enthusiastically. If only we knew the tunes and the words.
After a coffee in the bar with Albrecht and Erika it was time to visit their house. Apricale has been described as not so much a village with many houses, more a house with many rooms. First of all there are no roads in any sense recognisable to English visitors, just cobbled passageways the width of a mule cart that wind up, down, around and even under the houses. Which themselves rarely have any individual existence; every house is connected to every other. Over the centuries the village has grown by a process of adding a new wall and then filling in the spaces with rooms, sometimes making the small concession of a narrow access. There’s a street that residents jokingly refer to as the ‘ring road’, which is special only in that it has two ends both of which arrive at the piazza. All the other roads are radial and mostly lead to people’s front doors. It’s impossible to guess what lies behind these doors; we’ve had a glimpse from time to time, usually when the builders are in for renovations, and there are some surprisingly large spaces behind those forbidding stone walls and crumbling doors.
Albrecht and Erica’s house is of quite another type, however. Most of the buildings are of four to six storeys, and an apartment might be one, two or three levels, with a living room on one and bedrooms on another. The medieval equivalent of a modern block of flats, perhaps. This one however is on six floors. Built against the rock face the house is maybe twelve feet wide and thirty or so long. Every ceiling is arched so it’s a little like being in the caves under Dover castle. Albrecht is an architect and the space has been imaginatively used, but you can’t get away from the essentially vertical nature of the place. Each floor is connected to the next by a spiral staircase taking up over half the width of the house; the entrance is at the top to the kitchen and sitting room and you gradually descend, as if into the bowels of the earth. This was evening, of course; every floor has a small balcony facing west across the valley down to Isolabona so it must be very bright during the day. So far they’ve excavated and furnished four of the six levels, with two more to go to reach the street on the lower side. In a couple of rooms the rockface is visible and has been made a feature, and in fact it’s more than sheer; the lower rooms are actually longer than the upper ones so the house is clinging to an overhanging rock. Most of the floors are done with immaculate Italian marble, which in a couple of places has cracks caused by the recent earth tremors. Nobody seems to worry too much about these things; after all, Apricale has been here for over a thousand years and hasn’t yet fallen off its rock.
People around here are passionate about the village and the area. I’ve never encountered this before – at least not at such intensity – and it’s initially quite surprising. Yes, of course it’s a beautiful area and Apricale is indeed special, but surely other parts of this coastline must be similarly blessed? Perhaps villages elsewhere generate a similar passion, here and in other countries; perhaps our drive for material success has made us forget how to love where we live. Whatever the truth, it’s surprising how many people came here for a quick visit and were instantly and permanently hooked by its charms. Be warned.
On Boxing Day there was a free concert in Bordighera at the English Church. Bordighera has a long association with the English, dating back to the latter half of the nineteenth century, when the Riviera was founded largely by English aristocrats and artists. Before then it was just a collection of fishing villages, the centre of a peasant lifestyle little changed in centuries. The English and other northern Europeans, newly wealthy on the back of the industrial revolution and the first people in history with the means to travel and the time to spend doing it, were attracted by the year-round sunshine and lack of any real winter, and by the proximity of this area to fashionable Paris. Bordighera was among the first of the new resorts, along with Sanremo and Nice, all of them still full of colonial architecture and English road names.
The concert was part of a season of events in and around the town; there’s always something going on throughout the year, even in mid-winter. There was a small orchestra and the choir we’d previously seen in Ventimiglia, and like that event this one was free. It was also packed, completely overflowing the limited seating. As before the music was largely devotional, featuring Mozart, Handel and Vivaldi, none of which was familiar to either of us uncultured plebs. I’m not suggesting this is typical evening entertainment; the programme also listed evenings of jazz and there had been a performance of the Nutcracker the week before. But Anna and her friends are more keen on the highbrow stuff than we are, and it was they who had drawn our attention to the event, showed us the way to the church and found somewhere to park. The orchestra and choir threw in a splendid rendering of “White Christmas” at the end, which lightened the evening, but in future we’ll probably try to find entertainment of a more popular nature.
New Year weekend arrived. Saturday started cloudy and cool so we donned pullovers for a hike into the village. By the time we got there the skies were starting to clear and the temperature was rising, making us regret carrying the extra clothing. It’s something of a problem we Brits aren’t really used to; back home the temperature is fairly consistent through the day and in winter the sun has little effect. But here, as soon as the sun appears the temperature rises sharply and it’s often difficult to know what to wear.
Just on the edge of town is this tree, leafless but loaded with large, soft orange fruit. But it’s not an orange; it’s a cachi. The French version is kaki and both are pronounced “kakky”. According to my dictionary the English name is “persimmon”, but although I’ve heard the name before I don’t think I’d ever seen one before arriving here. They’re quite common in the shops and quite difficult to describe. They’re the size of a large peach, with a smooth skin like a nectarine, flesh a bit like a lychee but meltingly soft and completely seedless. For some reason they make me think of oysters, maybe because of the slightly slimy feel to the flesh. But they’re very good to eat, and if this specimen is anything to go by I should look out for one for the garden. Free fruit is good at any time of year, but at Christmas is a real treat.
In the piazza the bonfire was still being carefully maintained, with the usual ring of people gathered around it but also a fair number tourists, judging by the number of cameras visible. We stopped for a coffee in the bar but didn’t wait around long as we’d borrowed Trixi from Anna (to be more accurate she’d attached herself to us in the hope of a walk and this time was not disappointed) and we wanted to get back to work in the garden.
It was a long and very hot walk back. I know we’re actually getting fitter and stronger but the climb out of the village is a killer with no respite, especially if you’re plodding along in sunshine wearing a heavy fleece. Anyone planning to stay with us who’s not up to skiing fitness should consider taking the car down, or be prepared for up to an hour of sweaty toil for the half-mile back. It’s also been observed that away from the coast fancy footwear is a waste of space; trainers or hiking shoes are much more sensible.
The New Year’s eve celebration in Apricale is held on December 30. This isn’t just to be perverse; it’s an acknowledgement of reality. In England, Guy Fawkes night is now an excuse for a fortnight’s orgy of firework displays, most of the intervening evenings being punctuated by teenagers letting of bangers all through each night, much to the distress of pets who have to be kept indoors for most of that period. (I’m straying – with no apologies – into Grumpy Old Man territory here.)
Similarly here. On December 31 the piazza is now taken over by a fairly small group of local families who provide their five-year-old tots with large bags of fireworks while they chat around the fire. The kids love it of course, and we’re told the fireworks themselves are specially designed to be safe, but after four or five hours of loud bangs echoing round the streets of the village most adults find it tiresome and irritating. Rather than set up for a battle that can’t be won, the council decided a few years ago to hold their celebration a day earlier and it’s now the tradition to turn out on the 30th. The bonfire was stacked high with olive trunks and around the fire trays of sausages and a pot of polenta were cooking. The organizers passed around the square handing out wine and food, a guitarist played and those who knew the tunes and words joined in. No firework display; if you want one of them the coastal towns are the place to go.
At midnight on the 31st we were at home, following the advice of Grumpy Old New Year and having nothing to do with the whole affair. In the silence of the night could be heard a distant rumble, a little like thunder, probably from Sanremo ten miles away. Maybe we’ll go down there next year, and maybe we won’t. I’m afraid it’s a sign of age that firework displays don’t really hold the magic they once did, and anyway you can see it all better on the telly without having to drive for miles and jostle the crowds.
On New Year’s Day there was a lunchtime reception – drinks and nibbles – at the house of Jean and Rita further up the road to Bajardo. Here were several of the people we’d first met at Anna’s Christmas Eve party, an English couple from Bajardo we’d only met a few days before and a Dutch lady who owns an agriturismo (farmhouse hostelry) a little further towards Bajardo. Her establishment is also a restaurant and we look forward to trying it out after it opens at Easter. We chatted to all and sundry and the inevitable subject of our house came up, as it often does without any help on our part. One of the German guests told us how they’d loved the parties here over the years and would all have liked to have bought the house when it came on the market last year, but either already had properties in the area or couldn’t afford it. This – as I said earlier – is spooky. Although there’s no way we can compete with Anna’s legacy it’s obvious we’ll need to give some serious thought to entertaining once the warm weather and long evenings arrive and we can do most of it outdoors. Any volunteers to come and help throw a summer bash?
As a final note, it seems we’re losing emails; several people have sent us messages that haven’t arrived. We don’t know if our Italian ISP is to blame or if they’ve been tagged as spam and removed before we see them. At least some – and it may be all – of the missing messages were sent from HotMail accounts; spam filters tend to view these as suspicious because so many spammers use false HotMail IDs. It’s difficult for me to go through the spam reports as I get a hundred or more a day, so if I haven’t replied to a message and you have a non-HotMail account could you send the message again from that?