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We were delighted to see that the famous British chef Rick Stein chose Bologna for one of his weekend breaks as it is one of our favourite Italian cities. Of course Marche has its share of beautiful small cities like Ascoli Piceno, Fermo, Macerata and Urbino, each with historic architecture, magnificent squares, fascinating galleries, world class opera etc., but none of them have that big city cosmopolitan buzz.

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Boasting Europe’s oldest university Bologna is a beautiful historic city and the still thriving student population ensures that it has a vibrant feel. At weekends the city centre is closed to traffic accommodating  street food, street entertainment  and street art. The shops and markets prove that this is a city that loves its food, the freshest and finest ingredients are all beautifully displayed in the maze of narrow streets which make up the historic centre. Its nickname (one of many) may be Bologna the Fat but you cannot say that about the majority of the population, clearly in moderation top quality and fresh food make for stylish healthy living.

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Always ready to jump in for an adventure

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Hattie was the dog you expected to live for ever. As long as she was breathing her trademark curved plume of a tail would wag and her face seemed fixed in a happy smile. So we couldn’t believe it when just a week ago on her regular daily walk she fell victim to barbaric poison put down to kill foxes.

 

 

We know nothing of Hattie’s pedigree, the black and white markings and those soft pert ears which flopped over so endearingly, as well as her gentle disposition, suggested Border Collie. Though her size, feisty temperament and determination – particularly for digging in the wrong places – made us think she had some terrier in her, maybe Jack Russell.

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Showing off her trademark tail

As a 5 month cat and dogsold pup she soon got the measure of young Balzo making him pursue her in loops up and down walls until he lay exhausted. A huge fan of nuts she would take the fallen walnuts up to our apartment and cracking open the shell, leaving all of the detritus on Balzo’s bed. Though in later years when the big farm dogs would turn on blind Balzo she wouldn’t hesitate to defend him, chasing off the attackers and snapping at their legs. Now she lies alongside her old friend.

Less instinctively gregarious than Balzo, Hattie was a more loyal dog, and whilst happy to chat to the guests would return to us. After lunch it was almost impossible to sit on the sofa before she had jumped onto one of our laps for her afternoon cuddle. Though she did soon learn that guests mean scraps and she was often sat near the garden tables not actually scrounging but making it plain that if anything came her way it wouldn’t be wasted. Barbeques became a favourite of hers and if more than one was grilling she would run back and forth checking when the coals would be ready and a surplus sausage might go her way.

Wary at first of Jakes they soon bonded and Hattie enjoyed company on those longer walks which had been too much for Balzo in later years. Right up to the end she ran around with the agility of a goat and the speed of a greyhound, exhausting the young dog.

 

It wasn’t possible to look at Hattie and not smile, her cheeky face always looked so happy, now we have to rely on memories to make us smile. Luckily, like so many of our guests, we have plenty of those.

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It’s the end of the season at Casal dei Fichi and, as usual, we have finished it off by running our gourmet breaks. This time of year we run our long weekends where we meet people from the airport and escort them to a selection of our favourite venues in Marche. This year we were delighted to run 3 weekends all for people who have been before or their friends who they brought with them. To demonstrate that they didn’t just get lucky on their previous visit we have been busy researching new restaurants, vineyards, cultural venues and cookery classes.


A popular evening is when Emanuelle from MyMarca comes to Casal dei Fichi to talk about some of the typical Marche produce which he brings with local wines to accompany it. And there’s good news for those who haven’t been able to visit Marche to try these delicacies for themselves, as well as those who have been and would like to taste a bit of Italian sunshine over the winter months. Just visit MyMarca’s online “emporium” where you will find a great range of local Marche food and wines as well as designer items which will they will ship for surprisingly reasonable prices.



As well as some of the delicious Peccorino cheeses and regional salamis like Ciauoscolo or a Porchetta of rolled pork they stock some great wines including our old favourite Umani-Ronchi and newer discoveries like Fattoria le Terrazze or Sant Isodoro.



So if you want some genuine Marche products at Christmas,  a slightly different gift or wines at a fraction of high street prices check them out.



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CRASH!! jake 2



As I sit down to write this a bowl comes tumbling off the coffee table. A small price to pay for having a new puppy at Casal dei Fichi.



Although we went to the pound with the intention of re-homing a sad abandoned dog that would struggle to find a new owner we realised that the restrictions imposed by our business make taking on a dog with an unknown, and potentially troubled history meant that it wasn’t really possible.



Not that there wasn’t plenty of competition, like Mao the lame young retriever who had a paw caught in a hunter’s trap. In a country where dogs are often badly treated it was heartening to see that the nearby pound in Tolentino is clean and the dogs are well cared for with decent runs and caring staff and volunteers.



Since we couldn’t take all 200 home we settled on one. A 4 month old, predominantly border collie, with maybe a bit of spaniel. It is amazing how quickly he has settled in, sleeping all night in the spare bathroom, adapting almost immediately to the outdoor toilet routine, friendly with guests and curious, but gentle with the cats. Hattie is coming to terms with him but she makes it clear who is in charge. It looks as if he is going to fit in very well at Casal dei Fichi, another dog who has landed on his paws.



And as for the other 199 that we left behind, inspired by our friends Di and Ron, we hope to get involved with the pound and help out there so we can check on their progress. There was another black and white pup who we very nearly took as well, hopefully when we return she will have found a good home, if not she may be coming to rejoin her old mate Jake.



Now – where are my shoes???

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la torre



2015 is shaping up to be a record breaking hot and dry summer here in Marche and now that we are well and truly into August everyone is heading to the coast. One of our favourite ways to get away from it all is to head to sea in a boat. There are various options but, for us, by far the best is the elegant launch operated by La Torre Restaurant.



It has become a highlight of our summers and last week we took it out for the second time this year. Just sit back and sip Prosecco as the skipper navigates the beautiful Conero coastline, one of the most scenic stretches of the Adriatic, past secluded beaches, historic fishermen’s caves and  a Napoleonic fort. Then, while you swim in the crystal clear waters he lays the table for a 4 course lunch or dinner, prepared by the restaurant and always a delicious treat whether it is the default seafood, veggie or meat option.



The beaches may be busy but, for a day, you can live like the other half!



 

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If you saw Lorraine Bowen on Britain’s Got Talent recently you are unlikely to have forgotten her.

 

There was no mistaking Lorraine’s quirky individual style on the small screen but to us she is most at home in more intimate venues where she readily interacts with the audience. We are lucky enough to have seen Lorraine perform several times over the last 20 years, including some very cosy spaces, like our dining room and a tent in our front garden.

 

Lorraine arrived as a surprise for Ian’s 40th birthday party, but the plan of performing in our small garden was thwarted by a summer storm so she set up her ironing board in our tiny London terraced house and gave her all in the humid heat.

 

The tent was actually a marquee here in Italy. We flew Lorraine out to entertain at our civil partnership, everybody loved her and it’s true to say that Francavilla d’Ete has never seen anything like it. Years ago we started collaborating on a song, we’ll let you know if it ever materialises.

 

It’s a shame that Lorraine didn’t go on to win but she was awarded the Golden Buzzer by David Walliams and catapulted into the semi-final. We really hope that the publicity has boosted her career. We always look out in case she’s performing when we are in London, you can never get enough crumble (or spinach!)

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It is hard to imagine Casal dei Fichi without Balzo, he has been with us since the very start. An abandoned, mistreated and frightened adolescent dog, he responded well to love and affection and took to life on the building site, running out of top floor windows and trotting confidently around the scaffolding, no amount of noise or demolition seemed to bother him in the least. By the time the building work was finished it was hard to believe that this friendly sociable pet was once a cowering snarling animal who whimpered at the sight of a broom.



Balzo loved nothing better than to just be with people, the younger the company the happier he was. Opinion was divided as to whether he was a Belgian or German Shepherd, either way the Italian is a Pastorale which defined Balzo perfectly. He always wanted to take care of people, he would seek children out and make himself their protector.



His blindness was progressive, and as his eyesight failed he built the most amazing mental maps so that it was almost impossible to tell that he could not see, he could navigate perfectly and still look you endearingly in the eye with his head slightly cocked. Cruelly his hearing then gradually faded, though his incredible sense of smell meant that he always knew exactly what was going on. One of his missions was to protect people from the swimming pool, more than a few times he fell in as he thundered its length escorting the swimmers up and down.



Only last summer he would seek out groups of children in a game of hide and seek and it seems impossible to think that we will never again hear young voices calling out Balzo, Balzo.



An avid proselytiser for the canine community so many people, nervous at first, on seeing a large dog would be worn down by his gentle persistence, sitting undemandingly at their feet. Many times we have heard the sentiment “I never liked dogs, until I met Balzo.”



 

As he grew older it became more obvious that he had been born with a hip missing, a congenital fault in whatever breed he was but although he slowed down he never stopped, the half landing becoming his favourite spot, where he knew that every time someone passed on the stairs he would get a chin rub or an ear tickle. And apart from a small patch on his chin he never went grey or lost his handsome looks.



So , following a stroke a week ago, and despite his characteristically stubborn fight for recovery, it was with heavy hearts that we realised that he was never again going to have a life worth living and this morning asked the vet to do the kindest thing.



We have been so touched by the many messages we have received, it is moving to know that all over the world people have shed a tear for Balzo. Please keep sending us any photos that you have either post them here, on facebook, or by email.



Your messages are a wonderful support , but for a long time there will be a big Balzo shaped hole in the middle of Casal dei Fichi.



If you would like to say Goodbye to Balzo, or post a photo, just click on the title line – or here

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This week’s momentous ruling from the US Supreme Court reminds us that although Italy has far too many positive qualities to list, it still has plenty of opportunities to improve.



Now that the US constitution guarantees the right to same sex marriage, Italy’s lethargic government is once again proven as having much catching up to do with the rest of the civilised world. In a country where the sole purpose of government seems to provide obstacles; be it to business, transport or education, we are reminded again that happiness and respect are other ambitions it seeks to impede.



Luckily the reactionary attitude of successive legislatures is not reflected in the population. Our experiences are that everyone we meet is always hugely supportive, when we had been here just a few weeks an octogenarian neighbour asked us where our wives or even girlfriends were. Amazed when we replied we had none she asked “But who does your cooking and cleaning?” 10 years on she still waves cheerfully every time we drive past her house. Just like everyone else she is very happy to have us here and accepts us as the people we are.



Tonight our local vineyard Murola has an evening to celebrate its rosé wines, with a naturally pink theme. We shall go, and raise a glass of their delicious sparkling Jole agli Stati Uniti!



PS – We hope that you are enjoying our Blogs, if you would like to comment click on the title line – or here – we’d love to know what you think.

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OK, so we can all try to take photos of the views from Casal dei Fichi, with varying results. But the brave come armed with sketch pads, watercolours and easels. Drawing and painting are skills that neither of us are blessed with, so we are always amazed when someone produces a piece of work either showing, or inspired by, the panorama from Casal dei Fichi. Some of our proudest possessions are paintings or sketches given to us by our guests.



Jane first arrived at Casal dei Fichi having driven all the way from Wales, we instantly understood her generous nature when she produced a goody bag of baked beans and other hard to find foodstuffs here in Italy which she thought we’d appreciate. Very soon we also got her lively personality and great sense of humour, never ameliorated to placate the embarrassment of student son or his girlfriend. To travel (harmoniously)  in a group like that takes a special type of person and Holly, Sam and Jane all share both a friendly considerate disposition and an artistic bent; photographic, musical or artistic.



A trained artist, Jane’s eye was captivated by the visions that Marche offers so we were thrilled when she agreed to produce a portfolio for us to display and to offer our guests the opportunity to buy a painting of Marche to take home with them. Here are some of the pictures on display at Casal dei Fichi. We’d be delighted if our guests want to take a piece of Jane’s work home, though (secretly) we’d be equally pleased if those images stay here for us to enjoy every time we climb the stairs.



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These shots were taken before the paintings were beautifully framed, Jane uses the same framer as Kyffin Williams did, maybe one day she will be equally famous.



You can reach Jane at Jane-barnes@hotmail.co.uk, as well as the art on display here at Casal dei Fichi she will undertake commissions. She is also putting a website together, in the meantime you can learn more about her here.

 

 

 

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For many arriving in Marche their first thought is – “it’s even more beautiful than the pictures”. When guests say it about Casal dei Fichi then, of course, it’s a huge compliment but it made us realise that maybe our photos could be better. So when professional photographer Katy Donaldson offered her services we bit cheeky katyher hand off. Well we would have except that one handed photography is career restricting.

It’s hardly surprising that Katy and her family have a holiday home close to us, Marche is a photographer’s dream. The gorgeous countryside makes it hard to take a bad shot but to really portray its depth and beauty is the sign of a true pro.

Combining an interior shot with those views through the windows is incredibly difficult for mere mortals to achieve, especially when the sun is shining. So when Katy arrived with her friend and design guru Philippa, we were slightly disappointed that it was a beautiful sunny day though it did mean that Katy could get straight to work capturing the pool in the early morning light.

 

Never having done a photo shoot before we had simply no idea how much work is involved and by the evening we were physically exhausted from plumping cushions, picking flowers, moving sofas there, no there, no there. Katy’s meticulous eye, “take that notice board down, I don’t like that bowl, lose this clutter, find a bar of soap that doesn’t look like butter, call that straight???…” kept us busy for 10 hours. We did stop for lunch of course, this is Italy after all. As we moved on we left each perfectly cleaned apartment looking like a bombsite.

 

But Katy’s alpha precision and Philippa’s great sense of colour, co-ordination and style, as well as humour, have created beautiful images and made it all rewarding.

 

We are absolutely delighted with the results and now look forward to hearing our guest say “WOW! – it really is as beautiful as the photographs.”CDF-9314 comp