A telephone call this lunchtime reminded me that the weather is un-seasonally warm.  I have been basking in temperatures reaching the high twenties to low thirties and it got me thinking back to the time when we first ‘moved into the house’

Well moving in is probably an over exaggeration, there was a part of the house that had been partly restored some thirty years previously, but never finished and never lived in.  With the enthusiasm of a new life we set about disposing of the rubbish, cleaning, and painting.  It snowed that March and was still bitterly cold, un-seasonally cold!  There was a rudimentary bathroom, I went and bought sanitary-ware from the DIY store and plumbed it in, found an old drain pipe and connected it all up, with no idea of where it all went!  There was a functioning electricity meter in the upper uninhabitable part of the house, so we ran cables down to our new ‘luxury pad’ stringing them round the walls like Christmas lights without the lights, a basic electricity supply, one power point in each room.

For heating and cooking there was an old wood burning stove found in an outhouse, cleaned up and hastily re-erected with a flue pipe leading into a chimney, that was our only means heating and cooking, the kitchen was a salvaged porcelain sink placed on an old dressing table which we cut the legs off.  For hot water, in keeping with our ecological ethos we bought a solar panel and kilometres of alkathene pipe.  We mounted the panel on the middle terrace above the collapsing garden wall and then moved some furniture in.  We had a living room, bedroom, shower-room and alcove with a guest bed, it was home, it was bliss!

The first morning we awoke with the dawn at six thirty am to see from our bed mist in the valley below and blue cloudless skies above, truly breath-taking.  We were happy, managed to entertain friends, cooking on the wood stove and remarking on our lives ‘camping with our own furniture!’, but there was one problem.  It soon became overcast and the solar panel did not work.  It got to the stage of boiling kettles both to wash plates and bodies, it was two weeks without sunshine, in the end we went to the terme San Casciano!

Today all is different, we have planted nearly 1000 plants, the garden is really taking shape, fruit trees showing signs of fruit, hedges screen the various terraces and divide the various spaces, lavender plants in profusion are bursting into new leaf,  Rosemary is in full bloom the purple and violets and blues covering the bankings, the Irises planted three years ago are for the first time in bud, and Harald’s figs are just forming.  The house has six glorious individual apartments, all with lavish bathrooms, underfloor heating, and WiFi,  the dining room created out of the former cow stalls is a large and elegant space, all is earthquake proofed, including the new annexe which has a room specifically for our biomass boiler and large hot water tank (1,500 litres) which today reached 80º only fuelled by the six vacuum sealed solar panels on the roof.  We have new pipes for the mains water, large tanks for the spring water used for the garden and flushing lavatories, and finally a three phase electricity supply, yes Bellaugello has come a long way….

In common with seemingly most of Europe yesterday was a bit wintry and cold, grey and miserable here near Gubbio in Umbria, Italy.  Made all the worse by a day without electricity.

It surprises me just how dependent we all have become on this invisible product.  Here, during the restoration at Bellaugello Gay Guesthouse we spent a great deal of time researching ecological solutions, and installing eco-sustainable systems.  As a result we have installed large rain-water holding tanks, re-connected the long abandoned spring and buried large water holding tanks for the water which we use for flushing lavatories, our washing machines, watering the garden, the cold shower for the Finnish Sauna and the swimming pool.

Our heating plant includes an installation of six vacuum sealed solar panels, which in the summer provide all of our domestic hot water, the surplus planned this summer to be sent to the swimming pool, whilst in the winter the solar panels help augment the temperature of the heating system.  Our main boiler, a big handsome powerful brute runs on pellets and wood which is cut locally.  All the Suites here at Bellaugello Gay Guest House have modern technology underfloor heating sooo cosy on the feet!

Many of the lightbulbs here are low energy (not that I really approve of or like them, or believe they are really ecological) and led lights, our refrigerators are all class A+ or better, however everything relies on electricity.

Here in Italy there are incentives and financing for the installation of photovoltaic panels for the production of electricity, however we have not yet gone down that road, I am not sure of their efficiencies and the financial outlay is extensive, and they look horrid, carbuncles on the roofs of the most beautiful country houses, and hectares of silica fields are not exactly picturesque, so they are currently something I am keen to avoid – my excuse is that I am waiting for the technology to improve.  A quote for photovoltaics for the spring water pump was €4,000.00, would have involved a large ugly aluminium and steel mounting pole and would have provided a perfect target for the local hunters with their rifles, and the pump requires only a few tens of watts!! Panels placed on mountings on the ground are an easy target for thieves, a couple of bolts and – they’re away….

So on tuesday the wind picked up and blew from the north east.  The  winds evidently swung the overhead electric cables which are festooned all over the valley here in Valdichiascio, and the power flashed on an off all day like a tacky Christmas tree.  Yesterday without warning the power went off at 08.15 and remained off all the day.

Ok so the house is ecological and we have solar and biomass heating…… It ALL requires electricity to function.  Everything here has a pump, yes everything, the solar panels, the boiler, the underfloor heating, the patent fireplace in my sitting room, the spring water requires to be pumped up 80 metres and 300 metres in distance, and without electricity nothing works!! No electricity on a sunny summer day and the solar panels reach above boiling point, jettisoning their precious treated fluids, no electricity in the winter means no recirculation of any pump, and no internet.

It can be romantic, yes I lit the fire in my bedroom lit some candles and snuggled down under the duvet, and caught up on some reading, but it was very odd without electricity, and I felt so isolated without the internet, I am an internet junkie, I love my life here in this beautiful corner of Umbria but I also love the contact with the outside world, emails, and skype keep me in touch, and news and comedy programmes keep me amused, and I do so like the odd rant on my blog, but it would be nice with electricity……

I want an iPhone 4.  Now I know they are not really very good, I know they have problems with their antenna and poor signal reception, I know that if you drop them they break, I know they look dreadful in a case, I know that in China you can buy an excellent copy for US$ 10.00, ‘cos I know they cost only $4.00 to make, I know I don’t need one but I want one…

My justification is that my current iPhone 3 is slow, the battery runs down quickly and if I move contract from Vodafone my current service provider to Tim the telecomitalia service I can save €8.00 per month.  The fact that if I move to Tim and just accept an ‘ordinary’ phone I could save even more does not figure in my argument..

So yesterday off I took myself to the Tim store.  Now it is not he first time that I have tried to get a new contract with Tim for the iPhone 4, the last time was prior to Christmas when I could not as the store did not have any iPhone 4s – I took this to be Christmas demand so decided to buy in January.  Yesterday in another Tim store in Gubbio – one recommended by a good friend I enquired about an iPhone 4 contract to be told that he did not have any stock of iPhone 4s and was not likely to get any for a further two weeks.  Innocently I asked “can I reserve one?”  “NO, you have to come into the store” so to get an iPhone 4 I have to trek daily for the next two or three weeks to Gubbio to enquire whether the Iphone 4 has arrived  I can’t reserve one…..

I was not in the best of moods yesterday so this incident did not help to raise my happiness levels.  It all started off with two ongoing issues, my website and my boiler.

1)  Before Christmas I asked my webdesigners to add some photographs to Bellaugello website, principally photographs of the Diva, Giardino and Specchio Suites.  Well finally, ‘cos they never seem to be in a rush or sense urgency we  spoke last week and I skpyed the photos and captions over to them.  A funny conversation ‘cos I had to repeat instructions several times.  Anyway yesterday when I checked the phots were still not on the site.  For guys enquiring about these suites I have to email them pics, how unprofessional is that???? incidentally this morning the photos are still not on the site… so battle will shortly recommence.

2)  My wood and pellet boiler.  This highly expensive piece of kit was installed last autumn and is supposed to heat the entire property.  Made by Gilles from Austria, it is not only costly – the Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Bugatti of boilers, it is supposed to work, but it does not.  It doesn’t get sufficiently hot enough and cuts out when it pleases-on a whim, so I have to spend my days hovering around the boiler house, it’s like wanting and iPhone 4.  Now Neither apparently do Gilles or their agent work.  Despite numerous SMS’s to the agent, and calls to Gilles, who reply with a recording in German and English ‘we are sorry we are on holiday until 09 january’ (2012 I think as that was the message again yesterday).  I cannot get through to them and their agent does not reply. I HATE the boiler.

Ok so next stop ACI – the Automobile Club of Italy.  Last August my UK driving licence was due to expire so I went as one does in Italy to ACI to sort the matter out.  They suggested that I transfer to an international European licence.  To do that they took €80.00 from me.  I had to get a medical examination!!!  another €30.00 plus one of those wretched Italian tx stamps Marca di Bollo €14.62  I queued at the hospital for the examination to be told finally the doctor had to leave and to come back tomorrow – 1 1/2 hours wasted.

On return the examination turned out to be very informal “Do you have a drink problem? Do you use drugs? Do you have a family history of Epilepsy? Can you read this?”  ecc..  “No, no, no yes”  Ok stamp stamp give us yer money and go back to the office to queue for the completed form.  Return to ACI give them the form.  Now to cut a very long and frustrating story short, in mid November I called in at ACI to establish the progress with the application.  I have been driving round with a piece of A4 carbon copy paper that substitutes as a driving licence – but not in Scotland when I wanted to rent a car for my Mother’s funeral, so of course I wanted my real driving licence back.  Now in November ACI tell me my UK licence has classes of vehicles that if I transfer I will no longer be entitled to drive – for no reason, “è Italia”.  Tension, but I have no option to accept.  Then last week I receive a call to come into the office, there is another problem.  The form signed by the doctor includes the classes of vehicle that Italy decides I can no longer drive with this new licence, so will I come into the office, pick up the form, return to the hospital, ask t he doctor to delete the classes then return to the office…… Aarrgggghh……

How is it that this country can be so very inefficient?  Last autumn my UK passport expired and I had to get the document renewed in Paris (‘cos that is where they are now renewed) I pulled the forms online, gave them to a friend visiting from Paris, who took them into the consulate one thursday in early October, and the courier turned up at my door the following tuesday with my shiny new UK passport, Is a passport not a more important document than a driving licence, do they not perform more rigorous checks, yet they can issue one in what must have been one working day yet Italy cannot issue a driving licence in six months…

I have an ongoing saga with ENEL the electricity supplier here in Italy.  Last July I filled in the application forms for an augmentation of my supply which quite frankly is measly and below tolerable standards.  I have to jiggle washing machines, water pumps, dishwashers and ovens, so that none are on at the same time to overload the supply.  Well my electrician helped me with the application, and constantly assured me that all was proceeding well.  Well in October when it was evident that ENEL had not commenced work replacing overhead cables I guessed something was wrong.  It transpires my electrician had not checked and had failed to fax (yes they use only fax here in Italy) a single document, one sheet of A4.  Lack of this document meant that ENEL had done NOTHING, and my application was back at the beginning of the queue once again.  Yesterday I tried calling the ENEL office – no reply haha what else should I have expected,?  Will I have my augmented supply by the end of this month, I dunno, lucky the sauna has a wood burning stove.  Aarrgghh….

Next I get home  the internet still was not working.  It had crashed, AGAIN  It has started to crash every day since a good chum asked me if I would recommend the service and I said “yes”.  As readers on my blog will know there was a big issue with serv – At this point my blog programme also crashed and saved the draft only this far Aaarrggh…..er speed from TelecomItalia, so I went to an internet provider who runs with an antenna system.  Now over the past few days the internet has been running very slow and cutting out.  I thought it was ‘cos they were doing work to upgrade the service which is always slow in the afternoons when presumably the kids come home from school and they together with their mums check their facebook or whatever, but no it CRASHED, and still was not working last night.  It is scary just how isolated I feel without the internet even if it only works at 500kps.  So for you it was lucky I could not blog last night, It would have been a very much angrier blog.

Friends of mine are going on holiday in February to Malaysia and China, I think I will ask them to bring me back and iPhone 4, anyone else want one??!!

Dawn heralded a lovely crisp frosty morning here in Umbria, Italy, and it is on mornings like these that I am so grateful to have installed underfloor heating here at Bellaugello Gay Guest House.  I potter about preparing breakfasts on the cotto flooring with no shoes, not even socks, it is an utter delight, as is knowing that our heating here is provided by a mix of wood, wood pellets, and solar energy, as green as can be achieved.

Out in the annexe our big shiny red and silver “Gilles” wood and pellet boiler is quietly humming away, the fragrant smell of woodsmoke hanging delicately in the air.  It always surprises me for such a powerful beast of a boiler just how quiet it is and how slowly the smoke exits from the copper chimney, as if reluctant to leave the warmth of the boiler!  Above, on the roof the “Kloben” vacuum sealed Solar Panels are already heating up.  Yesterday the snow did not lift at all from the panels, they were covered all day but still somehow they managed in the glorious sunshine to heat up to 27º quite remarkable.

Our initial capital outlay may have been high (to me sometimes seemingly stratospherically high!) but the paybacks are good and it is really is rewarding to be able to heat the house and provide hot water in this sustainable manner.  Next year the wood that will be burnt will come from timber cut on the estate here at Bellaugello, with the solar panels helping augment winter heating, and for eight months of the year providing all our domestic hot water needs, the surplus in the summer being fed to the swimming pool, it is a big step on the way to self-sufficiency whilst providing luxurious state of the art facilities, and yes as I blog my feet are toasty warm…..