It wasn’t only rain that stopped play while Mr Blue-Shirt was tiling our newly-built thirty-eight square metre terrace. After a few days on his hands and knees he realised he was going to need a little light relief every now and then from the tedium and repetitiveness of the mammoth task he had set himself if it wasn’t going to drive him to complete distraction. So when he just could not bear to see one more thirty-centimetre-square terracotta tile for a while, he came back indoors, and spent the odd day pushing things forward with the unplanned refurbishment of the shower room, approximately half of which now stood stripped back to its bare bones.
This impromptu re-fit had become necessary after we had discovered just how much damage had been caused by a series of long-term leaks that had meant a simple patching up operation was out of the question. But we also knew that this re-fit was going to have to last a good twenty years, so, short-cuts and quick fixes were out too: from our experience with previous renovation projects in the UK, we knew just how much truth there is in the maxim ‘buy cheap, buy twice’. Added to which, after four anxiety-ridden months of complete lockdown during which (along with the rest of the country, I know; I make no special pleading here) we had seen no one, gone nowhere and done nothing other than work, we decided we simply wanted to treat ourselves to something a little bit special.
As it turned out, this decision more or less coincided with the gradual lifting of travel restrictions, so ‘something a little bit special’ actually came to include being able to go to different places to source the various elements of our new-look shower room. Even while travel only within our region was permitted, I would never have imagined how pleasurable the sheer normality of hopping into the car on a Saturday morning could be, and tootling down the hill to the trading estates in the valley to browse around bathroom shops for shower enclosures and trays – even if masks, distancing and hand sanitiser were de rigeur.
A couple of weeks later when we were at last permitted to travel from one region to another, we decided to celebrate our newly restored freedom and make a full day out of going to the Umbrian town of Deruta to look at some ‘statement’ tiles for the short wall of our rectangular shower cubicle. Deruta is one of Italy’s Borghi più belli d’Italia and for well over six hundred years has been famed for the quality of its ceramics (thanks to the characteristics of the local clay) and in particular for its highly decorative majolica ware that is still hand-painted today in tiny workshops dotted around the fortified old town. We had visited it a couple of times before, once simply because it sounded an interesting place to explore (it was), and once to buy some large pots for the garden from one of the dozens of factory shops around the outer edge of the historical town centre.
It was on our way out of town with our bulky purchases tightly wedged in the boot that we stumbled across one that stood out from all the others we had passed. Rather than sprawling displays of terracotta pots of every conceivable shape and size or row upon row of traditional ceramics (the skill in whose complicated patterns we can admire but don’t particularly like), this outlet was more like a gallery, with what looked like pieces of richly coloured abstract art filling its spacious, modern showroom.
The slabs of bold colour we had seen from the road were in fact just samples of their unique take on the town’s centuries-old craft that involves the use of the volcanic rock – basalt – which they combine with specialised glazes, jewel-like pigments and dramatic, organic patterns to create a vast array of items from drinks coasters and tiles through to table tops and work surfaces and even swimming pool floors. We spent goodness knows how long wandering around the place, marvelling at the stunning colours and textures and the striking shapes and design. And gulping at the prices. Totally smitten, however, we promised ourselves that one day we would treat ourselves to a little of this gorgeous pietra volcanica.
That day arrived back in the days of full lockdown when spirits were low and Mr Blue-Shirt was scrolling through tile suppliers online and the name of that maker in Deruta suddenly popped up. More out of curiosity than with any real intention of buying, he sent off the measurements and asked for an indicative price: well, there was no harm in asking, was there? A couple of days later their quotation plopped into his inbox. As a special coronavirus promotion, they were offering a fifty percent discount on any orders placed during lockdown. What would have been way over-budget had suddenly become just about affordable. Sod it, we thought. Let’s do it. So we did. We just needed to decide on colours and patterns.
Friends in the UK had laughed at us the evening before when we said that we were marking the lifting of travel restrictions by going to look at bathroom tiles, envisaging, I suspect, a mind-numbing trudge around some faceless out-of-town retail park just off the ring road. We knew better, however. For not only were we going to buy something that we had fallen in love with but had never thought we would be able to afford, the trip would involve a drive through the wooded lower slopes of the Sibillini Mountains, out of Le Marche (for the first time since December, we calculated), and then down through the olive groves of the broad Umbrian Plain. We would even be able to stop for lunch (Lunch! In a proper restaurant!) in one of our favourite places, the achingly pretty town of Spello, with its distant views of Assisi and the vast honey-coloured Basilica of St Francis. It felt like an adventure; it felt like Christmas; it felt like a birthday treat; it felt like a holiday. What it didn’t feel like was shopping trip to buy bathroom tiles. No, it felt like coming up for air.