Tuscan Tales Chapter 2 – Into Tuscany

'some pretty houses down the track'
‘some pretty houses down the track’

It’s easy checking out of Pisa airport. We have a ‘Smart’ car, gold and snappy. We take the SS67 south of Pisa and turn off, planning to cut across the countryside to Greve-in-Chianti. Soon we are winding though the hills – beautiful Tuscan hills, dotted with vines and olives …

It’s not long before we reach our hotel. It’s lovely – set on top of the spine of a hill, overlooking another hilltop village. It’s isolated, with a lovely pool and gorgeous views from the terraces. It has those ‘flop up’ green shade–shutters that are so common in Italy. Tonight’s supper is in an old barn. It’s a buffet, and not very good, but the waiter makes up for it. He has a mischievous sense of humour and he and Liam tease about the choice of wine. ‘I want one that is good, but not expensive’ says Liam ‘but not so cheap that I get a headache in the morning.’ He laughs and promises to fetch exactly that. Lovely sense of humour I think, just like every Italian one meets.

The next morning breakfast is on the terrace, with fresh acacia honey. It’s a still and sunny morning with sparrows chirping everywhere. From where I sit I can see though the lime trees and under the branches to the vineyards rising steeply on the hill opposite. Postcard country. We plan to do a circuit from Greve-in-Chianti on to Radda-in-Chianti and back.

'a little wayside shrine ...'
‘a little wayside shrine …’

On one of the byroads there is a little wayside shrine and a dirt track running down the hill to the right. Some pretty houses run alongside the track, and I point them out to Liam. ‘I wonder what’s down that road.’ I say.

‘I don’t know – would you like to have a look?’ he says. We have slightly overshot the turnoff and he begins to reverse the Smart car. All of a sudden the little car falls straight off the side of the road and into a ditch. I hop out to direct him back onto the road. Just then a battered old kombi-van careers up and pulls off into the dirt road in a cloud of dust.

‘Are you in trouble? Can I help?’ calls a cheery voice. It’s the waiter from last night’s supper at the hotel.

‘No,’ I say, walking up to his car, ‘I think that we are alright and can get out of this ditch.’ Then I look at him and do something that I have never in my life done before. ‘Could you tell me what’s down this road?’ I say, ‘because we are looking for something to buy and I wonder if you might know of anything?’

I honestly do not know why I say this, because the truth is that we are not looking for something to buy. Maybe I am so bold because Liam is safely in the car, halfway down a ditch. For although Liam shares my love of Italy, he has long since had a horror of me finding some romantic ruin to restore in a foreign country, where neither of us speak the language. And even more to the point, he has always had strong socialist roots. ‘Liam’s hair shirt’ his family always teases. Liam does not feel that one should own anything excessive. We are a one-car family, do not fill the bath, and turn out the lights when we leave a room.

‘Well,’ my Italian waiter replies, ‘there are three places for sale. One belongs to my family and the other two to our great family friends. I have the keys to all of them, and would you like to have a look?’  I call out to Liam ‘Come and have a look’ I say vaguely, ‘we’ve been invited.’

We follow him down the stony track, past the two beautiful Tuscan houses I had seen from the top of the hill. The track gets rougher and rougher, and we leave our car at a pull-off and hop into his kombi. As we bump along, we hear his story …


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 1 – Beginnings

London in Spring. Outside my window the apple blossom has started, and the small courtyard is bursting with life. There’s a steady hum of the pressure hose as Liam washes the brickwork down. Then he’ll be busy with the clippers. He loves this tiny patch. ‘I’ve always thought Liam should be a farmer’ his mother would say. ‘Somewhere warm and sunny, bring out his love of wide open spaces, his South African roots.’

There’s not much for me to do in this tiny urban patch. I leave Liam to it and walk up the road to the local school, where my bees were. James, the school beekeeper, and I are packing up the empty hives, storing skeps, bee veils and frames ‘The demolition squad will be here by Monday, we need to get a move on’ James says. I look around, trying to imagine the bulldozers flattening our apiary to make way for new classrooms.

I’ve always kept bees, since about the age of sixteen. Ever since I stumbled across my grandfather’s hive, overgrown and forgotten in the veld near Cape Point.  Somehow, on this wild tip of Africa, they had managed to survive decades of neglect.  ‘Fierce bees those’ I smile as I remember how they once chased a cousin right into the sea …. clouds of bees around his head, and his trousers around his ankles.

James and I chat about it as we pack the final things away, about the difference between the African ‘killer bee’ and the more gentle European bee that we breed in London.  Right now we’ve been importing Italian queens for their docile nature. ‘Doesn’t make sense,’ I laugh,’ an Italian queen reminds me of some sort of diva … volatile and feisty.’ I’ll miss this apiary, and I’ll miss working with an expert bee-keeper too.

Back home there’s been a phone-call from Liam’s twin sister, Laura. ‘You know what Laura is like,’ he tells me. ‘They’re coming over from Sydney in July, and she is looking for an enforced rest for Jim before she allows him to put foot in the UK. Once here he will simply work non-stop.  She thinks Florence would be good and wants to know if we’ll join them.’

‘Better still’ I reply. ‘Can we take a few days before they arrive, just the two of us? We’ve both been working flat out and are pretty run down …’

‘I’ve no time to think of it. You arrange the place, book the flights and tell my secretary. If you can organise it all, I’ll do it’, he says.

I sit down at the kitchen table, with a large map of Italy in front of me.  My eyes glance to the north of Italy, to Aosta, where part of my mother’s family came from. My mother cannot remember the location, it is so far back in time now, and we have long since lost the language. But for my father this Italian connection is special.

‘Just look at your mother’ he would say ‘where-ever we are I have to build her a fountain, factor in a balustrade and find a workroom for her to sculpt in.’ Then he would look at my beautiful mother with her olive skin, jet black hair and cornflower blue eyes and say, ‘That’s her Italian blood coming out!’

My eyes move down the map, further south, to Florence, and nearby Prato. I’ve been reading Italian novels again. This time it is The Merchant of Prato. Daily life in a medieval city. It’s a fascinating account of a self-made man’s struggle to become rich and influential, and when he dies he bequeaths the lot to the city of Prato. Perhaps we will explore Prato as a result?

Florence - Tuscany - Italy
Florence – a perfect jewel of a city

And the hills around Florence, where I feel so strongly that I could live … from the very first time that I set eyes on this perfect jewel of a city. It has everything for me: history, religion, antiquity, culture and art. I don’t know about music? One could study and learn there forever … to say nothing about the language!

I pick up a pin, and run my finger in a straight line down from Florence. I stick the pin into the map. ‘Greve-in-Chianti’ comes up.  ‘Hotels near Greve-in-Chianti’ brings up several options on Google. One of them is set in countryside that could be part of a medieval frieze. It seems to be about 15 minutes’ drive from Greve. The receptionist speaks a little English and, yes, room number nine is available from Friday until Wednesday.  I’ve done it!


Next chapter: Into Tuscany …


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The Bravery of the Cape Bee – Part 2

Another trip to these incredible small, brave survivors clinging to life after the devastating Cape Town bushfires of 2015 …

If you sail into the City of Cape Town, dominating the landscape will be the majesty of Table Mountain.  But behind the famous ‘Table Top’ the scenery is equally spectacular. Here the mountain ranges in folds down towards the south, crossing deep ravines and skirting above the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In winter these ravines turn into spectacular waterfalls, rushing and tumbling headfirst towards the sea. In summer the mountain does not lose its greenness, but all is quiet and still under the heat of the African sun.

I was sitting on the terrace of the Vineyard Hotel having breakfast with my cousin Suzanne when she looked up at the mountain. “Funny,” she said, “looking at this spectacular sight it is hard to believe that, just a little further along this mountain range, it all is charred and blackened.” Last week’s ravaging fires were still uppermost in our minds.

“Yes,” I replied, “we have all heard the experts telling us how every fifteen years or so we need these veld fires – that the protea bushes need the heat for the seeds to regenerate, that the indigenous bulbs will soon spring up and that in eighteen months or so the entire mountain will look like a garden. But what about the ‘urban fringe’ – those people who lost their houses, and what about the little things – the tortoises, the snakes, the small insects, and so on?”

“What about your bees?” Suzanne asked. So I told her.

I told her how the previous week, the day after the fire, I had found a small nucleus of melted brood frames and dead bees. How I had lifted the congealed mess up and examined it closely, feeling utterly devastated for my once healthy, busy hive. Then, how I had almost unbelievably seen one whole and traumatised bee climb through the charred brood and into the sunlight. My only thought was that these tiny creatures had fought a long and brave battle against the heat – fanning their queen and protecting their last bit of honey around her. Then a few drops of honey dropped onto the sand and I was convinced. Where there was one bee there must be others. So I took a giant leap and re-hived the congealed mess, put the hive stand in tins of oil for the black ants, tied it down for the baboons and put a heavy rock on the top for the raging south-easter. Then I had to leave.

“Trouble is,” I said to Suzanne, “I am running out of time to get back there. I leave for London in a few days and I would give anything to have just one look, and to see what is happening.”

“I’m free until 4 this afternoon!” said Suzanne “Let’s go!”. I have always liked this cousin. It would take well over two hours to get there and back. I looked at her, put my car keys on the table, and said “You’re on.”

The drive down took us over mountains, through valleys and along the sea Most of area was charred and blackened, simply ravaged by the worst veld fire imaginable. We were silent as we drove, each immersed in thoughts of the suffering that it had brought with it. Community spirit in the Cape has been high. Someone I know even took his prized rugby tickets for an important game to the local fire station. There he offered them to the brave firemen who had fought day and night for seven days. Sadly, one of our most experienced helicopter pilots tragically lost his life when his helicopter malfunctioned and plunged earthwards while water-bombing the blaze.

“And here I am worrying about a bee.” I thought. It did seem out of proportion, but by this time we had arrived. It was a simply stunning day … one of these days that are few and far between … for on this battered tip of Africa winds can range from a 60 knot off-shore southeaster to a 60 knot on-shore northwester.  As we walked through the charred and desolate veld the still calm was almost eerie: the peace of today, and the raging crackle and power of last week, contrasting starkly in our minds.

Within sight of the hive we stopped short, not believing what we saw. There was huge activity around the hive. We walked closer – buzzy bees were everywhere, all around the hive. “Better kit up.” I said, and we walked back to the house. Kitted up in our bee suits we went closer.

Huge activity – bees coming and going through both entrances. What an incredible change from the last visit!

“I don’t like it.” I said to Suzanne, “These bees are too many, and too active”. I sat down to watch them, but could see no pollen on their legs – not that there was much around in the veld anyway. “I fear that these are other bees, ones that have found the hive’s honey and have come to rob.” I said. “Oh dear!” said Suzanne, “Well let’s go for a walk on the beach before we head back.”

“You go,” I said, “I’ll stay here a little longer”.

I settled back on my haunches and watched the movement in and out of the hive, trying to work out some sort of pattern. It was then that I noticed a bit of fighting.  Or did I? This particular brood box has two openings and a solid centre. I took my bee tool and slid it across the one opening and watched. Yes, more intense fighting was happening on the only entrance available … I thought, but was it just optimism on my part?

In one of my beekeeping books I remember reading that if you have robbers and a weakened swarm you need to close up half the entrance to give the bees a chance to concentrate their defence. Rather like an army that cannot fight effectively on two fronts.

I walked back to my store room. Once again I took a leap of faith – for was this my ever optimistic nature willing there to be bees in my hive ready to start again, or were these just wild robber bees trying to find feed as best they could?  I do not know, but once again it seemed worth a try. I found a piece of wood and two panel-pin nails and a hammer.

I walked back through the desolate veld and hammered half the entrance closed. “There you are bees” I said, “I have done the best that I can. If you are inside there, may the Cape winter be mild to you, may the winter bulbs spring up and feed you, and may your queen, new or old, be fertile and produce lots of tiny furry bees for the spring.”

Robber barricade securely in place.

“See you in September.” I whispered.


(Missed part 1?  Read it here …)

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