Farewell Renault, hello Fiat

On Saturday we returned our trusty Renault Megane Estate. Its 6 month lease was over and we couldn’t extend the term any further. It has been a fantastic car – reliable, spacious, comfortable, fast, economical, everything you could want. We returned it almost intact to the Renault Depot at Heathrow, just a couple of scrapes on one side resulting from trying to squeeze into a narrow driveway in Firenze.

We will miss its luggage capacity, its start/stop button (just like an Aston Martin) and the way its side mirrors folded in when parked. We won’t miss its cable gear shift which meant that second and fourth seemed to be in the same place, or the cacophony of beeping that greeted any parking manoeuvre thanks to the front and rear parking sensors.

So what car would you get as a replacement for a capacious, comfortable estate car? A Fiat 500 of course.

The irony that all through Italy we drove French cars and now in the UK we drive the quintessential Italian car is not lost on Jean and I. The irony that we have an estate cars worth of luggage and the 500 is about the size of a roller-skate is also not lost on us.

But it’s a Fiat and a really good one at that. It handles like a go-cart, it looks cute and it just makes you, well, smile.

It’s ours for the next two weeks or until Mr Avis wants it back again.

Note: The photo of our Fiat 500 was taken at Woburn Estate just before sunset. I quite like this shot.

Welcome to Woburn


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There are two villages close to Aspley Guise. One is Woburn Sands which boasts a population of around 2,000 people. The other is the much smaller village of Woburn which has, as its close neigbour, the Duke of Bedford’s estate … Continue reading

A weekend in Ipswich

Last weekend we went to Ipswich. It meant a drive of about an hour and a half across England to the eastern coast – well almost the coast as Ipswich is located on the estuary of the River Orwell.

Friends Sue and Ali are kiwis living and working in Ipswich. They came and stayed at Aspley Guise over Christmas and invited all the Aspley Guisers over for dinner and to stay the night.

They have a penthouse apartment on the Ipswich waterfront. Like many towns located on the water, the area around the port has undergone a rebirth in the last few years with new apartment blocks being built and the original waterfront buildings being renovated. There is a feeling of Auckland when you walk along the Ipswich waterfront. Leisure craft are moored alongside and a plethora of cafes and bars exist near the water.

On Saturday night Sue cooked a fine meal which, accompanied by a couple, a few, some, quite a lot of wine and beer, meant Sunday morning was a slow start. A walk along the waterfront was the ideal way to blow away the lingering hangovers.

It’s been a week of birthdays

The past week has seen two celebrations at Aspley Guise. Gill had a birthday and, quite rightly, became queen for a day, and dear old Daisy the dog had a birthday – her 15th.

Gill’s birthday involved champagne, a fantastic meal out at The Birch restaurant, presents from all over the world and a good old-fashioned hangover the next day.

Daisy’s birthday involved a cake with candles, doggie treats, presents from all the doggie shops we know of and a hangover the next day due to a late night when the whole team were visiting friends in Ispwich.

Daisy received a new winter coat from Jean and I which, unlike her current one, doesn’t need to removed by it pulling over her head (she bites anyone who tries to take off her current coat) and a new basket for her to sleep in from Gill, Andre, Josh and Jordan.

In dog years Daisy is, depending on the formula used, either 90 and 105. Not a bad effort for an old lady and she continues to battle on despite  her heart condition, poor vision and lack of hearing. The heart specialist in Italy described her as “il cane di miracolo” and she continues to defy the odds and lead a happy and relatively healthy life. The difference between now and a couple of years ago is that her pace of life is much slower.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Grooms for the girls

The girls usually have a haircut every 6 to 8 weeks. The last time they were groomed was in Siena at the end of October – 10 weeks ago. Jean had given them the occasional trim along the way but they were pretty shaggy so their first groom in the UK was quite extreme. Poppie survived relatively unscathed but poor old Daisy ended up with the Bichon equivalent of a number 1.

The only redeeming feature is that her coat will grow back – and in an English winter quite quickly we hope.

Eating out in Calais

Calais is not the greatest place on earth. In fact it’s somewhere that you pass through rather than stay. We stayed for two nights on our trip north from Italy in December because the girls needed to pass a vet check before entering the UK – a worm tablet and a dose of Frontline, €110 for that, merci.

We stayed in the old part of Calais and, as the weather was cold and wet, didn’t venture far from the hotel.

On the first night we asked the hotel receptionist where we could eat. She recommended a bistro down the road so all four of us went out for dinner. A few metres down the road we found Au Vieux Fourneau. A small and quaint bistro exuding French charm and on a cold wet night it looked very welcoming.

The service was that wonderfully aloof French style where you should feel grateful for being served – not a great start. But then there was the food.

It was really good. I mean really good.

To be honest it was not what we were expecting. We ordered from the set menu and received a complimentary “chef’s bite” to begin. Jean had a homemade terrine for her entree while I tried the fish pie. Mains were a Salmon Penne and a deconstructed Shepherds Pie. Desserts were the inevitable Creme Brulee and a very tasty Red Berry Crumble.

None of these bland descriptions come close to doing the dishes justice. This was French cuisine to a very high standard. Washed down with a half bottle of red and half bottle of white, it made for a very pleasant evening.

The girls behaved themselves sitting quietly under the table so all was well with the world. We were so impressed that we returned the next night and sampled more from the menu.

The cost for this three course meal? Look at the pictures and let us know what you think.

Something for big kids

Virgin Trains Pendolino train at Euston Station

On Tuesday we travelled to London to meet with recruitment consultants to gain an incite into the English employment market. We took the fast train from Milton Keynes to London Euston – 30 minutes non-stop.

When we arrived at Milton Keynes Central to catch the train we discovered that services were delayed due to a train breaking down earlier in the morning (half a world away but things don’t change) but even given the delay we still arrived in London with time to spare. Before the trip back to Milton Keynes I snapped a shot of the train – something for the rail boys (and girls) back in New Zealand.

Virgin introduced the Pendlino trains in 2002 and now operates 50 sets. The trains currently have a top speed of 125mph.

And now we turn 200

This is our 200th toscanakiwi post. When we started the blog it was to keep friends and family informed about our little adventure in Italy. But reading back over some of the last 200 entries I now realise it is also a collection of memories for Jean and I. It might be old age or just the passing of time but little things get forgotten and one adventure gets confused with another in our minds – but the blog is always there with the real story.

In September 2011, post number 100 was sent from our cottage in Tuscany. At that stage around 4,800 visitors had read the blog since it’s launch. As of today that figure has increased to 11,541.

A huge thank you to all our lovely readers. Your feedback is always welcome and knowing that our adventures are providing a little interest and entertainment is all that we can ask for.


Graeme and Jean

Return to Positano

Our time in Positano is but a distant memory but as we left Positano in early December we videotaped the drive around the main road, down to the village and back again. The plan was to show our lovely readers how narrow the roads were as well as some of the sights of the town.

It has taken a while to edit the footage but it is now as complete as it will ever be.

The trip is along the main road through Positano which runs to Amalfi one way and over the hill to Sorrento in the other. We then detour onto the one way road that winds down the hill to the Positano village and then climbs back up to the main road again.

Out and about in the village

There are a number of notable buildings in and around Aspley Guise. One worth mentioning is “The Rookery”. Although it is now a private home, during World War 2 this secluded Victorian mansion was the home of Australian Dennis Delmer. He was involved in “black ops” which included broadcasting radio propaganda and programmes to Germany which, among other things, suggested that Hitler had Jewish ancestry.

In fact there was much covert activity in and around Aspley Guise during the war with Bletchley Park, the home of the World War 2 Enigma code crackers, only a few minutes down the road.

Another notable house in the area is Aspley House. This is a splendid property set in grounds near the entrance to the village. It was built around 1650 and remains the largest house in the village.

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way …


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Today I wandered through Aspley Guise to the village church – St Boltolph’s. There has been a church on this site since 1223 with the current church tower built sometime between 1400 and 1650. For a small village church it … Continue reading

Making themselves at home

It’s easy to tell if the girls are feeling at home. The more couch they take up, the happier they are. Now we just need to figure out where the humans sit.

Photographic talk (warning – geek alert)

I have been asked by a reader (well not really, but I’m going to tell you anyway) what camera gear I have been using over the last few months to capture our travels in Italy and other places. For my last birthday I received a Nikon D7000 body which replaced my old but hugely competent Nikon D70.

This camera body is an amazing piece of kit. All the niggles I had with the D70 had been fixed or improved and the video capability and “live view” are a bonus. The operation with my existing lenses is seamless.

On the front of the camera I use a Nikkor 18-70 zoom lense, a Nikkor 80-200 zoom lense and a Sigma 10-20 wide-angle lense. For the times when carrying a full size DSLR is not convenient I have a Sony T500 point and shoot camera and, of course, my trusty iPhone.

My most useful accessory is a good solid tripod followed closely by a Nikon SB400 flash unit. This flash is Nikon’s smallest but it is ideal for situations the on-body flash can’t cope with. A good solid, waterproof camera bag is also a must – mine is an over shoulder Lowepro Stealth Reporter (where do they get these names from?) which holds a body and up to 4 lenses and accessories with ease.

All images are downloaded to my MacBook Pro and stored in Aperture. Any retouching is done in Photoshop.

I have two portable drives for backing up data – one for the Aperture vault and one for the rest of the data on my MacBook. A word of advice – back up your stuff. For us, the thought of losing the photos and attached memories we have collected on this trip because of a hard disk failure is not worth thinking about.