Construction Update #8

This view is from the jetty under the castle and shows the villa just above the town center

This view is from the jetty under the castle and shows the villa just above the town center

This image was taken from the same spot as above with a zoom lens

This image was taken from the same spot as above with a zoom lens

I just returned from my most recent visit to Lerici.  These trips are all too brief, and are a whirlwind of meetings with local building trades and artisans.  While there is a lot of activity, it is difficult to document progress in pictures.  The apartment is now filled with material, including furniture and appliances wrapped in plastic.  The final painting and finishing is in progress.  I had hoped to see the kitchen finished, but unfortunately the granite counter has not been delivered.  Until the counter is in place the sink and cooktop remain in boxes.  While I was there the interior doors were installed and are stunning, they are solid chestnut wood.  The exterior walking surfaces are mostly complete, paved with a natural light-colored stone.  The shutters were delivered and installation will be complete in a few days.  Next up are railings, pillars, and gates.

Hand painted tiles and sink - I hope the giant squid is not too intimidating...

Hand painted tiles and sink - I hope the giant squid is not too intimidating...

Signor Pagani is completing the installation of the interior doors.  He is an old world craftsman working alone in a shop his father started using hand tools and techniques handed down to him.  These doors are constructed of solid chestnut wood.

Construction Update #7

Progress continues on the exterior - the port-A-potty adds a nice visual...

Progress continues on the exterior - the port-A-potty adds a nice visual...

I returned to Italy the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  Things are generally very quiet during the holiday season.  Since my last visit much of the exterior stonework is now complete, including stone added on the walkway surfaces.

The spaces behind the walls are being filled with top soil for garden planting.

The spaces behind the walls are being filled with top soil for garden planting.

Along one of the walkways, niches have been constructed to exhibit some antique sculptures from Asia collected by the developer (and future resident of the upper flat).  Accent lighting has also been installed along the pathways and is already operational.

Nearly completed walkway and stairs.

Nearly completed walkway and stairs.

One of three sculptures artfully displayed and lit at night.

One of three sculptures artfully displayed and lit at night.

The one trade working during the holiday period was the electricians.  While I was there, they completed the installation of the ceiling stereo speakers, ceiling fans, and webcam.  We selected a very high-resolution camera that will provide a great view via the internet (once the service is connected).

Haiku Ceiling fan with the latest technology built in.

Haiku Ceiling fan with the latest technology built in.

The next stage of construction will be the floor installation.  This should occur mid January, followed by the kitchen installation, and bath fixtures.  I also purchased a washier and dryer for the laundry room to be delivered by the end of January.

This marble design will be used in the dining/living room.

This marble design will be used in the dining/living room.

Construction Update #6

Construction is progressing, completion is expected this winter.

Entrance side, showing the main walkway up to parking and down to the town center

Entrance side, showing the main walkway up to parking and down to the town center

It's been about 3 months since my last visit.  From the photos it is easy to see many changes taking shape.  All the scaffolding has been removed, the stone work is taking center stage.  The material around the first level is new, while the stone on the garden walls and walkways was saved from the previous house on the site.  The sheer amount of stone work is amazing and will further enhance the natural setting that is evolving.

Most of the windows have now been installed.  These are the wonderful "tilt-turn" type, that can swing open or told back for easy ventilation.  The construction quality surpasses anything typically seen in the States.

I worked with the electricians to finalize the location of light fixtures and flush mounted stereo speakers.  The kitchen lights are recently introduced  hi-tech LED lights that have sensors to turn on, can be dimmed, and are adjustable from warn yellow to cool white - all controlled by touch pad or iPhone.  

The tile artisan began delivering his finished pieces and will supervise their installation.  He constantly surprises me with his added touches.  Some of the bathroom tiles will be three dimensional, I saw one of a fish that seems to be swimming out of the wall.

One minor frustration was the plumbing finishes.  With the construction delays, it seems that many of the bath fixtures I choose are now discontinued models.  I spent hours pouring over specs and designs to make sure the function and design will be simple, high quality, and very durable (I specified only German components, which I have been using in my home for the last decade after the originals proved inferior).

We also found a very comfortable couch that folds out into a queen sized bed.  It is on order, and will be ready for delivery mid January.

We received on piece of great news this trip.  Fiber optic cable arrived in Lerici last month.  Very shortly, reliable high speed internet will be a reality.

My next visit will be between Christmas and New Year.  

The garden walls and walkways are GETTING a stunning stone face

The garden walls and walkways are GETTING a stunning stone face

Olive Harvest November 2016

The olive trees at the Saletti farm were heavy with fruit in the warm Tuscan sun when we arrived at the very end of October.

Sorting out the leaves and twigs

Sorting out the leaves and twigs

The weather was picture perfect, not a cloud in the sky as we joined the extended Saletti family and their friends for the annual harvest.  The farm was alive with the activity of the migrant olive pickers.  They use vibrating giant comb-like rakes on long handles to coax the olives from the trees to cascade down onto long nets spread underneath.

Every few hours a truck from the coop arrives to transport the olives to the mill for pressing.  The dark green oil flows freely adding an intoxicating aroma as large jars are filled.

While we can say we "helped" with the harvest, our efforts were minor, compared to the rewards of all the bounty at this time of year.  At lunch we gathered around a very long table in the nearby town to enjoy fresh porcini mushrooms (zuppa di porcini), roasted wild boar (cinghiale), and chestnut cake (castagnaccio).

Four olive varieties ready for transport to the pressing mill.

Four olive varieties ready for transport to the pressing mill.

Construction Update #5

Salmon exterior color 

Salmon exterior color 

Good news, the new construction company is on fire (well not literally).  I had a quick visit to the site the first week of August, and it was a busy few days.  Work has progressed substantially even in the short time since the new crew joined the project.  I had a chance to see a nearly completed villa just delivered to the owner using this new company – and it had amazing quality and attention to finish details.

So what have they done?  The radiant heating system is now completed and the sub-floor cured.  Most of the electrical is complete, except for ceiling fixtures.  The exterior has been painted the final color, which you can see for yourself in the pictures.  The lower level is having a stone face applied; the detail is stunning.  This same stonework will be added to all the vertical surfaces of the walkway retaining walls.

We finalized the window and shutter order.  The owner of that supplier took us to see a home nearly finished with his windows.  The product is very high quality, like nothing I have seen in the U.S.  We met the owner of the house under construction; she is the skipper of Andrea Bocelli’s yacht.

I also met with the plumbers, kitchen designer, the carpenter for the bathroom cabinets, and ordered beds for the apartment.

What’s next?  Well, first everyone is on vacation for the two middle weeks of August.  In early September the sequence will be windows next, then finished floors, followed by the kitchen installation, plumbing and electrical.

I still need to choose interior doors and final paint color.

My readers might be interested to know about the structural engineering.  While the town dates back five or six hundred years, building methods are largely the same, but codes have changed.  In particular seismic standards.  While no major quakes have been recorded in Lerici, there is always the possibility.  To meet the new codes, the owners needed to drive 130 vertical pillars into the bed rock 33 feet and tie them into 2 horizontal beams 66 feet into the hillside.  If the area ever seriously shakes, this might be one of the few untouched structures in the town.

Exterior stone is being applied to the first level.

Exterior stone is being applied to the first level.

Construction Update #4

My latest visit to Italy was the first week of May.  Much has transpired since my last update, unfortunately without much construction progress.  The general contractor went out of business and made many commitments that were not fulfilled.  Suffice it to say that the process of ending his contract and selecting a new contractor took a number of months.  While that is disappointing, the good news is that a very reputable sub contractor completed the structural work and all work was inspected and completed properly.

I met the new construction manager and toured a few of his completed or nearly completed houses in the area.  His attention to detail is impeccable.  He had us visit his suppliers to again make many of the finishing selections.  Windows, floors, doors, and exterior electrical fixtures were the priority.

In three days much of the electrical rough-in work was completed and I was very impressed with the efficiency and professionalism of the electricians.

The new completion date is now set for late summer 2016.  I am optimistic that things are on track now.

For those curious about the features to be incorporated in the flat:

Security/Home Automation

The most sophisticated security and automation is being built in.  This includes parameter alarms, infrared detection, four external video cameras, Wi-Fi control for lights and environmental settings.  The system uses a smart home system known as Domotica and is controlled from a touch screen or iPhone app.

Bagno (bathroom)

I have specified all German plumbing fixtures, either Grohe or Hansgrohe (yes they are different companies, and I have tested their products in my home for the last 10 years).  My aim is for the most reliable, and functional products.  Most of us in North America don’t know much about bidets, but in Europe they are expected.  One bagno will have the latest technology to save space; the second bagno will have both a WC and bidet.  In case you are curious…

Ceiling Fans

While the apartment will have high efficiency heating and cooling systems, the temperate climate will make it unnecessary to turn the systems on most of the year.  New technology in ceiling fans will supplement environmental systems.  Big Ass Fans have amazing capabilities and self adjust for summer and winter modes.  They can be programed for specific needs in specific rooms – all controlled by iPhone.

Sound System

High fidelity speakers are to be installed throughout the flat.  Location and design of the system was performed by an expert audio engineer.



View from the water

View from the water

During my most recent visit to Italy (May 2016), I had one free day to go exploring.  Portovenere is known as the town that is like the sixth town of Cinque Terre.  It has all of the charm of the famous five towns, but it is more difficult to reach.  One can get there by car, bus, or boat (but not a train).  If your eyes are young, you can see it from Lerici and much of the year the boat to Cinque Terre stops in Portovenere.

There is a commanding fort and church high above the town.

The ancient Portus Veneris is believed to date back to at least the middle of the 1st century BC. It has been said that the name refers to a temple to the goddess Venus which was sited on the promontory where the church of Peter the Apostle now stands. In Roman times the city was essentially a fishing community.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Porto Venere became the base of the Byzantine fleet in the northern Tyrrhenian Sea, but was destroyed by the Lombards in 643 AD.  First indications of the existence of a castle date from 1113, and in 1161 the walls were erected.”  Wikipedia

Portovenere from the fort

Portovenere from the fort

Construction Update #3

I just returned from Lerici where construction is progressing, though much of the work is not obvious from the photos.  Now all of the electrical, gas, and water conduit is complete and sealed in the walls and floor.  The rough stucco has been applied to the interior walls.

The next step will be to install the water piping for the radiant heat and then pour the concrete that will seal the system in place.  This will need to cure for about a month before the final flooring can be installed, but this will not hinder other construction tasks.  These will include, installing windows and doors and the exterior stucco.

We visited the artisan who is working on bathroom and kitchen tile.  We also requested design and quotes from a local cabinetmaker to make interior doors and some built-in furniture for closets and the bathrooms.

Making Olive Oil

I arrived in Italy on October 31st – Halloween.  It seems the kids in Italy are adopting this holiday, though it is still a very new tradition.  I was much more interested in the next day, All Saints Day, a holiday in Italy and the height of the harvest.  The Saletti family has a farm in Tuscany, near Montalcino, which is planted mostly in olive trees (1500 at last count and more to be added).  They harvest the olives and produce olive oil for friends and family, using organic methods.  The oil is unfiltered and retains a spicy, robust flavor profile.

         The Saletti Farm                                                                        Olives Ready To Be Crushed

Romano On His Tractor                                        Gathering The Olives

I wish I could convey all the sights, sounds, flavors, and smells of this season.  So much is produced and consumed locally; the only way to appreciate it is to be there.  This is the season for chestnuts; made into bread, cakes, cookies, and pasta.  Wild boar is hunted in the fall and widely available.  Restaurants turn it into wonderful ragu or serve it roasted with herbs.  Porcini mushrooms fill local markets.  Zuppa Porcini, a local dish was perhaps my favorite, layers of soaked bread and mushrooms.  White truffles are also now in season, shaved over pasta.

Lunch For 17                                Zuppa di Porcini

I keep a restaurant journal, to find my way back to these hidden gems, seemingly frequented only by locals – at least during this season.

Construction Update #2

Construction is progressing, though the pictures do not appear significantly different.  In the U.S. the interiors of the walls to include plumbing and electrical rough-ins occur from the inside out.  In Italian construction, the walls are all built first and then they are cut out appropriately to place electrical conduit and pipes.

The location and selection of all the electrical components, plumbing, kitchen, and flooring is complete.  The marble widow sills and soon the windows will be installed.

Exterior walkways, stairs, and access are nearing completion.

Opera in Italy

Julia Farbstein plotting in her first role in Italy

Julia Farbstein plotting in her first role in Italy

One of the very first things that drew us to Italy was our love of opera.  We seem to have come full circle now.  Our first trip to Italy in 1990 began in Milan to see La Traviata, Rosemarie was six months pregnant with Jason at the time.  While opera does not appear to have become part of his DNA perhaps the magic was delayed.  The major reason for our trip this July was to see our daughter Julia in her first role as Fidalma in Il Matrimonio Segreto performed in Arezzo.

Excellent Pizza

Pizzeria La Gerla

Via Petriccioli, 4 Lerici

Pizza and Italy, the words are nearly synonymous.   Pizza is everywhere in all its various incarnations, but having visited the temples of dough in Naples I am cautious about seeking out pizza elsewhere.  Thus, the awards won by the chef in World Championship competitions intrigued me. 

“Claudio Marchini and Monica Russo, invite you to taste the "pizza Maury Gerla", winner of the World Championship 2006 for the classic pizza (sauce: velvety saffron, mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, shrimp in the Gulf of Poets wrapped in bacon Colonnata, chives, chili”

The pizza here is first rate (not quite Naples), the varieties offered are quite extensive.  I also recommend the Farinata, a kind of chickpea crepe, typical of Ligurian seacoast.


OK, not those kinds of knockers – and yes I have already heard all of the possible jokes since I first became intrigued by “Italian Knockers”.  When we first started wandering the old parts of Italian cities and the hill towns of Tuscany, you cannot miss the variety, intricacy, and imagination of the door decorations.

Soon I will have a door to decorate, so naturally I would like to find the perfect accent.  Thus begins the next odyssey.  Our most recent trip to Italy took us to the medieval town of Arezzo, southeast of Firenze.  In Arezzo, on the first weekend of every month, one of the largest antique markets is held.  One might think that it would be a simple matter to find a variety of doorknockers.  Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be widely available. 

The initial challenge was figuring out what they are called in Italian.  Sure we can make knocking motions while clucking our tongues.  We chanced upon a sympathetic antique dealer with enough English who explained there are a variety of terms that are used:

Picchiotto – Battaglio – Batacchio – Battente or Battuto Portone

Whatever they are called, I hope to find the perfect addition to our flat.  Here are a few pictures to give you a flavor of the variety.

Construction in Italy

Exterior of Villa Giulia under construction 26 April 2015

Exterior of Villa Giulia under construction 26 April 2015

I have become a student of construction methodiologies over the years.  I watched my current house being built over 25 years ago and have since managed three bathroom renovations.  In my current home, I can feel the back door slam when I am upstairs on the opposite side of the house.  We can clearly hear conversations outside the house through the walls late at night when it is quiet.

Over the years I have found myself wondering up to buildings being constructed in Europe to observe their methods and came away impressed with the solid construction and deliberate process that takes longer than what we are used to in the US.

Now, I have a front row seat.  The villa in Lerici is constructed with poured concrete floors, ceilings, and supports.  The walls - all the walls both interior and exterior are honey-combed bricks that will route electrical and plumbing through them and be finished with a concrete layer.

This construction is meant to last many hundreds of years!

Interior of Villa Giulia under construction 26 April 2015

Interior of Villa Giulia under construction 26 April 2015

The Kitchen Design

The kitchen has been the most time intensive and the place I have devoted the most energy.  I have some experience designing and thinking about cooking in the kitchen both here in the US and in Italy.  The kitchen designer is located in Genova and had indulged me through many proposals and changes.  My goal has always been to have a highly functional, near professional kitchen.  This requires lots of counter space and cabinet storage.  Here are some of the elements included:

·      Large double sink with garbage disposal (rare in Italy)

·      Built in microwave

·      High quality convection oven (it is a standard size for Italy, but smaller by US standards)      

·      Warming drawer that has a cold setting and is programmable

·      Quiet dishwasher

·      Five-burner gas cooktop

·      Double stacked cabinets to the ceiling (not easily reached, but plenty of storage)

This is a rough rendering of the kitchen

This is a rough rendering of the kitchen

What To Put On The Floors?

Huge blocks are sawed with multiple blades into slabs - this takes 8-10 hours

Huge blocks are sawed with multiple blades into slabs - this takes 8-10 hours

Ok, I say, “What are my choices?”  Well there is marble.  Marble? Really, marble?  That will be expensive.  Oh, no that is the least expensive material, Cararra is only 20 minutes away and there are many quarries and fabricators that ship all over the world.

Last week during my whirlwind trip to Lerici, we visited a friend of Giorgio’s who owns a quarry.  We were able to select the marble on-site and also see the process for cutting the blocks and then making the tiles.

For complete disclosure, I should review the entire floor situation.  First and foremost the floor will have radiant heat throughout.  This must be kept in mind when selecting materials.  I have chosen marble for the living/dining area and bathrooms (bagno).  The kitchen will have terra cotta tile. Reluctantly, I decided against marble, because it can stain easily with acids – like lemon, vinegar, and tomato.  Terra Cotta will be fitting as a natural historic material.  The bedrooms, (camera) will have natural bamboo floors. 

Slabs being cut into tiles

Slabs being cut into tiles

Tiles Italy Style

Some example tiles from the artist's studio

Some example tiles from the artist's studio

Tiles will be used in the bathrooms (bagno), and for the backsplash in the kitchen.  The exact design, type, and color scheme is still to be decided.  We are working with a local artisan who is a bit eccentric, but very talented.  I have no idea as to the costs until he provides an estimate, but if it is anywhere reasonable we will likely engage him. 

Gianpiero shows his work to Giorgio

Gianpiero shows his work to Giorgio

How Do You Get To Lerici From The US?

First of all where is Lerici?  It is located in the region of Liguria (one of Italy’s smallest) on the Mediterranean cost between Genova and Pisa.  Two nearby towns have train service, Sarzana and La Spezia, which is the larger and is a major departure point for Cinque Terre.

Airlines with direct service:

  United                          Delta                         American                    Alitalia                 Emirates

IAD to FCO                 JFK to FCO                JFK to MXP                JFK to FCO           JFK to MXP

EWR to VCE               JFK to MXP                ORD to FCO               JFK to MXP

EWR to MXP              JFK to PSA*                MIA to MXP               ORD to FCO

EWR to FCO               ATL to FCO                                                    MIA to FCO

ORD to FCO               ATL to MXP                                                    BOS to FCO

                                     DTW to FCO                                                   LAX to FCO                      

Direct service is not the best alternative (in my opinion), with the exception of summer service that Delta offers to Pisa*.  Rome is too far away to be convenient.  Milan is not too far if you are renting a car, but it is still an hour by train just to the main station in Milan.

Pisa and Genova are my favorite choices if you have a good connection through Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, London or other European gateways.

I have connected into Turin, Genova, Bologna, Florence, Milan, and Pisa.

Pisa is less than an hour by train, Genova about an hour+, the rest are about 2-3 hours to Genova and then change to La Spezia (Malpensa adds an hour to get to the main station in Milan).

Train Travel Times From La Spezia

Train travel is generally reliable, but can be confusing.  The really fast trains called Frecciabianca are reserved 1st and 2nd class and travel between the major cities of Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Bologna, and Naples.  InterCity trains are also reserved 1st and 2nd class that are the next level and are faster between larger towns.  The Regionale trains serve all the stops, are unreserved, and are generally slower and often late.

Genova - (Genoa) between 1 hour and 2 hours

Firenze - (Florence) about 2 hours via Pisa

Milan  - a little over 3 hours

Rome - between 3¼ and 4½ hours

Venezia - (Venice) between 4 ¼ and 5 hours via Milano

Pisa - about 1 hour

Lucca - about 1¼ hour via Viareggio

Parma - about 2 hours

Bologna - about 3 hours via Parma

Genova has two main train stations, Piazza Principe which is closer to the waterfront and has a shuttle bus to the airport and Brignole, which is closer to the shopping areas and old city.

Firenze Santa Maria Novella is the main train station in the center of the city.

Milano Centrale is the main station in Milano and connects to the metro as wall as the train to Malpensa airport.

Roma Termini is the main train station in Roma

Venezia has two train stations; Santa Lucia Train Station is the closest to the boat terminal.

Tips, tricks, and advice:

1.     Always validate your ticket BEFORE boarding the train.  There are small machines near all the tracks or near the ticket office.  You can be fined or arrested for tickets not validated.

2.     If you have a credit card with a chip, you can buy train tickets from the vending machines.  This is particularly handy if the ticket window is closed or there is a long line.

3.     There is a smart phone app called Prontotreno that is very useful for getting schedules, updates on departures, and even buying tickets.

4.     Many larger cities will have a daunting number of train stations, so know which station you want.  If you are not sure, just say Centrale (central).

Taking The Bus To/From La Spezia

There are two bus routes that serve Lerici from La Spezia, the L or S.  There is no difference except that one ends in Lerici and the other continues on to Sarzana.  The busses run about every 15 minutes during the day and stop just before midnight.  The trip is less than 30 minutes.

Tickets are available from vending machines, tabaccaio shops, and at the tourist office at the train station in La Spezia.

Tickets cost around 2 euros each, a bit cheaper if you buy a book of 10.

Tickets must be validated by punching them in the little yellow machines on the bus.  On almost every trip to Lerici, I have seen the police check tickets and there is always a scofflaw who gets cited (why they risk it I have no idea).