Puglia, Trulli scrumptious? Road trip week five

Puglia, all we really knew about the ‘heel’ of Italy were the charming little white stone houses with pointy grey slate roofs. We had a week to explore the area (on the south west coast, the Ionian sea). We started with Sunday lunch at a beach bar with impossibly white sand and blue sea. This wasn’t what I was expecting. Beaches?! Sunshine?! The villa that we had rented was a trullo (plural, trulli). The age-old tradition of the trulli, typical of central-southern Apulia, has proto-historic origins, although the oldest remains discovered so far date back to the sixteenth century. The trulli buildings are composed of a cylinder surmounted by a cone, with the distinction of being built purely in “dry stone”, without the use of mortar or other connecting material. Ours wasn’t white but cream stone coloured and with a flat top, more typical of our side of Puglia.

We took a trip up the area to visit the true home of these cute houses, Alberobello. A bit too touristy but it had to be done. And then onto Locorotondo which was a lovely village to wander around it’s winding streets. It had the feel of a village that was striving to win a best kept village award, with flowers on every window ledge and doorway.

After a brilliant weather on our first day, Saturday, Sunday was terrible, thunder, lightning and horizontal rain! We had a lazy day at the villa and caught up on some business, keeping things running whilst we were away. At 5pm we drove across to the other side of Nardó and took part in a wine tasting at Schola Sarmenti. We learnt more about Italian grape varieties that we didn’t know, Reds; Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, White; Fiano. It was a great way to while away sometime in such rubbish weather. We returned to eat in their restaurant on our last night as well.

Talking about Nardó, this was our closest town and it was lovely to visit at night and people watch before dinner. Being out of season our choice of restaurants was severely limited, but I suppose that made choosing easier! Our other trip out for dinner was to the walled island city of Gallipoli.

Our favourite thing about our stay in Puglia however has to be Porto Selvaggio, great out of season probably awful in the summer. You walk through a pine forest for 20 mins and are rewarded with a rocky bay. The water is cold in areas due to the natural springs but it was still pleasant to swim in even in October. Swimming shoes are a bonus as you either have to walk over lots of stones and pebbles or get into the sea from the rocks. We took a packed lunch and spent the whole day there, just popping into the next town around 4pm for gelato. The mosquitoes seem to come out just before sunset, I know as I was bitten quite a few times at the villa. In fact Puglia wins the prize for the region of Italy where I got the most bug bites! (They love me and avoid J).

 

The last word about this fabulous region of Italy has to be about the many olive tree groves. They are vast. And everywhere. Just beautiful. These trees have personalities, they are like old men, gnarled and grumpy.

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Road trip week four; Amalfi coast, lemons and lunatic drivers

The Amalfi coast, just those two words combined can conjure up images in your minds eye; sweeping curving roads, sunshine and elegance. For us, this was the area around which we had created our road trip of a lifetime. Looking again at Monty Don’s book on Italian gardens made our mind up that we should drive along the coast road and up into Ravello. Then we could visit any of the towns we fancied on the return leg, Amalfi, Praiano and Positano. Another early morning start, 7am, saw us pulling in the wing mirror of the car and me holding my breath for almost an hour and 20 minutes!

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They just drive straight at you!” roared J. Not that I can blame him it was full on. Scooters (and cars) overtaking cars on blind bends, buses creating spaces where there wasn’t any. We met a couple back in Modena and they gave us some advice when they heard what we were doing. “Remember you’re a pebble in a stream or a leaf in the breeze”. Basically, we had to let them all get on with their madness around us and try to keep on course. Amazingly we arrived unscathed and found a carpark, dazed we wandered into Ravello town to recover and grab an espresso before taking in some more gardens.

 

First, on the recommendation of our local rep, Gianni, we visited Villa Rufolo, in through the gates on the dot of 9am we had the place to ourselves for a while. The views over to Salerno were breathtaking, like a lot of the Amalfi coast is. Known as the “Garden of the Soul” we were able to feel that sentiment well, I think because of the early hour and lack of tourist hoards. Although a small garden, it has such beautiful detail on the two terraces that it will hold your attention. After we had strolled around and sat on a bench soaking in the sun and seascape we took ourselves off to find the gardens of Villa Cimbrone.

The garden was enticing from the moment we stepped through the huge wooden gates. Pathways led you onward with glimpses of vistas of to the left and right of you. But all the time you knew you needed to walk down the central gravel path and be awe inspired by the infinity terrace at the other end. It was all it promised to be and more. We were certainly getting our fill of beautifully spectacular gardens on this trip. It would be difficult to pick a favourite. Lunch was calling and so I braced myself for the return journey. Arriving in Amalfi I instructed J to turn into the harbour as Gianni had suggested a restaurant there. “We’ll never find any parking” J said pessimistically and as we slowly drove along the pathway (road) we saw the name we were searching for. “Ooh there’s a space” – in the reserved parking for the restaurant – we pulled in and the ‘valet’ said “have you reserved a table?“, “YES” says J, (we hadn’t) and determinedly parks the car and switches it off.  Nonchalantly we walk in and take a table on the terrace overlooking the harbour and have a fab lunch!

I think the glass of wine at lunch helped J’s Italian driving skills and he seemed much more at home on the roads now. We quickly stopped at a road side stall and bought some Amalfi lemons, that we’ve always wanted to see. They are quite amazing. Below, left to right: ordinary lemon, Sfusato lemon & Cedro lemon. The last one apparently you can eat whole. When we open and try it I will let you know!

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One of the trips recommended to us was a boat trip to Capri, Cap-ri not Cupri as we tend to say 🙂 It was a whirlwind tour with a taxi bus picking us up near our villa at 9am, down to the nearest harbour, Marina Lobra in Massa Lubrense, and off around the Sorrento coast and over to Capri. Our boat driver Giuseppe was great fun, showing us all the sights and with one liners that couldn’t fail to make you smile. Dropped off at Marina Grande we had 4 hours to ourselves. Straight onto a small bus we wound our way up into the hills and over mama mia bridge (yes really) and into Anacapri to get onto the chair lift to the top of Monte Solaro for stunning views over the island.

A quick lunch of the tomato and mozzarella sandwich the tour had given to us, we set off to catch the bus back down to Capri and walk through town to the Gardens of Augustus. This small garden only 1 Euro entry (which goes to local charity) has yet more stunning views over the bay and of a winding pathway, Via Krupp, (no longer accessible due to falling rocks) towards Marina Piccola. We then pushed our way back through the crowds (what must it be like in high summer?!!) and caught another bus to the harbour. Here J finally allowed me to catch my breath, sit on the quay side waiting for the boat with a well deserved gelato (lemon if you wanted to know! 😉 ).

In case we were in danger of getting fat, drinking and eating our own body weight each day we try to make sure we walk often. Gianni had one more local suggestion, a secluded bay to swim in, Campanella, you just had to walk 45mins to get there. Down hill, on a stone path. I was channelling my inner goat as I stumbled my way down the narrow steps. Boy was it worth it, glorious countryside and the sparkling aquamarine sea all to ourselves…

…for all of 20 minutes! Then an Italian walking group of about 25 people descended on us, it was funny. We spent about an hour swimming and people watching until we couldn’t put off the return uphill journey any longer. Puffing, huffing and sweating we climbed back up, it took us about an hour!

Amalfi, we have enjoyed how full on your region was but we are ready to hit the road again and discover another new area, Puliga, arrivederci!

Road trip week three; barking, beaches and best meat ever

 

After the highs of the last few days I suppose we were due for a few let downs. We had packed a lot into a short space of time and felt very lucky. This feeling was to change, a bit like the weather and we were caught in a thunderstorm. It did result in a stunning rainbow, but also dampened our mood a lot!

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With a day ‘spare’ we decided just to do lunch and drove to a hill top town I had read about in a guide book loaned to me by the B&B. It was in a lovely little village called Veroli. We still had to get used to lunches sometimes starting at 1pm, so we had a quick look in the church as we were early. The church was beautiful, very plain on the outside but inside was one of the most opulent we have seen.

 

Anyway back to lunch! The menu was not laid out like others, no antipasti, primi or secondi, help what are we going to order? J went for Taglirini e facioli and I went for Capacollo all griglia. Well we figured that griglia was grilled so had to be meat! Pasta and beans arrived for J and a pork chop arrived for me. The chefs here are young, but with an ethos of reviving old recipes with a modern twist. That pork was divine. Yes I should have ordered a side veg dish to go with it but it didn’t matter. In our usual habit J and I have mouthfuls of each others dishes. So every now and then I would have some beans, but J didn’t see much of my dish! The seasoning was perfection with the salt having a black appearance, I don’t know why, it wasn’t burnt just delicious. Best meat ever!

Staying at rural locations mean rural smells and noises, which is fine until the dogs howl and bark for over an hour at 2am. I tried to be pragmatic and think, ‘well, we will be at the next hotel soon and it will be better‘. I was wrong. Faded elegance was how you could describe the next hotel, which was situated on a lake, next to a long stretch of beach. Men with pickaxes and shovels were busy with the holes they had made in the garden. A hose from a small septic tank truck trailed into one. Not the best first impression for the hotel (a 4 star hotel). The man on the front desk (which he refused to leave) handed us one of those stupid plastic hotel ‘key’ cards, pointed at the lift door and said “room 204, press number 1“. Great! Up we went and tried to work out how said ‘key’ worked. Once we had eventually got in the room, we sat and wondered if we had made a mistake. Trying not to have a knee jerk reaction and book another hotel, anywhere, we took a deep breath and tried to give it a chance.

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In the morning, grey skies loomed and we took off to the beach determined to have a good time and ‘chill out’. How British is it to sit on the beach under an umbrella? That was us, day one. Next day, same beach, sunbathing, 25 degrees and we swam in the sea. You know the way in the UK the sea makes your skin tingle with how cold it is? Well we were in the Tyrrhenian Sea (part of the Mediterranean Sea, who knew?) and it was about 22 degrees. Wow! It was such good fun to splash about in the waves that sometimes caught you off guard and slapped you around the back of the head. I realised that we were having child-like fun, easy, simple and full of joy and laughter. Something I personally find difficult in everyday life and this was why we were taking this time off. Time to remember to live. Back at the hotel, our last night there was dominated by a wedding in the gardens, which went on to 3am. We were happy to leave and start our first weeks self catering in the Amalfi coast region. If for no other reason than I was fed up washing our pants in hotel sinks!

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The Amalfi coast was the main reason for our once in a lifetime trip. J has wanted to visit and drive it for years. Over the past few weeks he has experienced how Italians drive and so felt prepared. But as the roads got progressively narrower after we left the autostrada his preparation seemed useless. We met the rep, Gianni, and he drove with us to meet the owner and translate. As we pulled up in the layby next to the lane that the cottage was down we watched as the two men assessed the size (an audi A4 allroad) and quality of our car (90% of cars here have extensive damage). Hmm. “he doesn’t know if your car will fit through the gate” said Gianni. Great. Off we went down hill on a single track dirt lane. Yes it was a tight turn into the drive and gateway, but after a bit of negotiation we were through. Success, we went through the usual intro instructions and breathed a sigh of relief that we were here.

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Quick I thought get a wash on. With dirty clothes spilling out of our two small suitcases I stuffed a load into the machine in the outdoor kitchen. After a brief assessment of the dials I chose a setting and waited. Nothing. Ok yes silly me I needed to pull the dial out. Great off we go. No, nothing. I could hear the machine trying to fill but there wasn’t any water. Ok, contact Gianni to contact the owner (who lives 200 meters away). The owner and his wife arrived and she looked at it and yes it wasn’t working. Technician called, a part was quickly fitted and our clothes were spinning around. Joy! That was until the machine refused to open once the cycle had finished. Were we ever going to see our clothes again?

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After a glass of wine on the roof terrace and a phone call to my dad, I unplugged the machine, waited and waited and CLICK! Clean clothes! Phew.

Road trip week two; city stop, hilltops and gardens, gardens, gardens.

Florence was never on my must do list. The way this trip gradually came together it made sense to take a few days and “do it”. Well there is the Boboli gardens to look at we thought. Driving through the city centre was ok until the sat nav tried to take us up a street that was blocked with road works. With the the “sat bitch” telling us to “make a u-turn” J did his best to navigate us out the other side and to our hotel which was on the outskirts of the city. The Hotel Mulino is on the river and it was nice to come back to after a day in the tourist packed city. Shuttle bused in, we walked towards the Ponte Vechio. “ooh it’s not that nice to look at is it?” we both thought. The glamour was to be found on the bridge not looking at it, as the bridge now houses jewellery shops. One after the other. J quickly walked me on with mutterings of “this is like the lanes in Brighton only worse”. We arrived at the Pitti Palace where the Boboli gardens are. Walking around we had a sense of disappointment, perhaps it was the rain dampening our mood? But we felt like we were somehow missing the good bit, maybe it’s round the next corner? It wasn’t. The highlight/central feature of the fountain on an ‘island’ surrounded by lemon trees in pots was even unsatisfying. There wasn’t any water flowing through the fountain! We walked on to see the Bardini gardens (included in the ticket price), which were small but gave more somehow. A beautiful rill of water flowing around the garden and 15th century steps with a stunning view down into Florence.IMG_0043

The pick up point for the shuttle bus was outside the sister hotel of where we were staying – they had a roof bar (and roof-top swimming pool!). So we decided to wait for the bus up there, with a glass of wine, of course!! Wow, what a view.

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For us two full days in Florence was enough. As we didn’t want to queue for any of the main attractions like the Duomo, it was enough time for us to walk our feet off and soak up the vibe.

IMG_0045The hills were calling. Off to Tuscany. 12 years ago we went with my parents, how can it be that long ago? It makes me feel soooo old. We wanted to do a quick trip down memory lane, revisiting the highlights. Montepulciano, Montalcino and Pienza. All up hill, down hill, except one. It sure got the glutes working! We managed to do a few new things as well, including a natural hot springs, Bagni San Filippo, with stunning calcium formations and the pungent smell of sulphur!!

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Sitting in the grey pools of warm water, I tried not to be too British as the soft yet oozy sensation of the mud beneath my bottom and hands made me feel slightly squeamish. It was pleasant and disgusting in equal measure. Hand washing our bathers in the hotel sink later was interesting! Eating dinner in Montalcino that evening we had the best meal/ pasta of the trip so far. It was a local pasta, pici, which is like a thick spaghetti, but hand rolled, served with a ragu sauce. The taste was immense and we are still talking about it almost a week later! Simple fresh ingredients, done well.

The weather was starting to turn and we were having to make sure we always had our umbrella with us. Leaving Tuscany heading further south beyond Rome we arrived in the region of Lazio. It rained constantly and heavily the whole day. Tired, over dinner at the agriturismo (B&B), we tried not to notice just how loud Italians can be when grouped together. Anything over 4 people and wow the volume goes up and up! When we went up to bed a group of children arrived for a party, it was gone 10pm! Earplugs is all I have to say.

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Ever since we saw a programme that Monty Don did on Italian gardens we have wanted to see the gardens of Ninfa. The gardens are built on the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa. Billed as ‘the most romantic garden ever’ it had a lot to live up to. It was stunning. Even with the tour in Italian (we missed the one english tour that morning) it was gorgeous. You can only visit with a guided tour but they make sure that you saw each notable vista in your small group. So it can still feel semi-private and you can get a good photo without crowds in the background.

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Next on our list of gardens was Villa d’Este in Tivoli. However after re-reading Monty’s book we decided to visit Hadrian’s Villa first (Villa Adriana) as he comments ‘To understand any of the gardens of Italy made in the 16th century – you have to visit Hadrian’s Palace and the Canopus. This is where those gardens came from.

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It was a shock to see how vast the 2nd century AD UNESCO world heritage site was. Roman ruins and olive trees on a scale never seen before. We walked and we walked. Almost 2 hours later we were ready to see the high renaissance gardens of Villa d’Este. Again guided by Monty we rushed through the villa and out into the garden and tried to make our way to the bottom of the gardens without looking at too much. As the garden was originally designed to be seen from the old road from Rome and make your way back up the steep hill. With over fifty different fountains in the garden the water is the repeating theme.

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Some overwhelming in how loud it was, the Fountain of the Organ ,

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some peaceful like the 3 rectangular fish ponds and some that you will never see repeated in another garden,

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the 130 meters of the Hundred fountains. This is one garden that is definitely worth visiting if you can in your lifetime.

Road trip week one; mountains, lakes, fast cars and vinegar

Starting anything at 2.30am has never seemed a good idea to me, however J likes to make an early getaway whenever we travel. This road trip was no exception see here for previous post about why road trips are a good idea! After the ease of the Eurotunnel, we sped along motorways into Belgium (50p for a pee in the service stations 👎) and Luxembourg (or Luckybourg as J nicknamed it), then back into France for our first overnighter in Nancy. We were well into our comfort zone being veteran Francofiles and soaked up the funky decor, delicious food and familiar sounds of church bells… night night.

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Refreshed we drove off to new adventures in Switzerland on lake Thun. Stunning was the word we kept coming back to. J insisted that he could ‘smell the fresh mountain air’ in the car! After dropping our bags at the hotel, we took a much needed stroll around the town and then out along the lake’s edge. Half an hour sitting on a park bench staring at the mountain and lake views was the best mindfullness either of us had done in a long time.

IMG_0018.JPGDinner was interesting, with the menu in Swiss, but with the help of some very friendly staff we ate a Gurk & Wurst starter (gherkins and cured sausage) and then a spicy sausage with spätzli (Swiss style dumplings) for J and goats cheese for me. Driving out of Switzerland the next morning, promising to visit again, we noticed how they stuck to the speed limits, this was not the case over the border in la bella Italy!

Modena was our first stop, staying at a balsamic producers for three nights. First we needed to see some fast cars at the Enzo Ferrari museum. The exhibition housed in a fairly small and sculptural building (shaped like a car bonnet roof, in yellow), was dedicated to women and their love and connection to these beautiful supercars.

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Across the courtyard was another exhibition, this time dedicated to the “prancing horse” engines. It took you through the years of each engines evolution. Brilliant for men and engineers, wasted on me if I’m honest! We were recommended by other guests at the B&B to visit Mantova, which has a museum of Chagall’s work, beautiful buildings and it was delightful. On the way back to the B&B we stopped off for more cars at a farm that produces parmesan cheese. Wow! A private collection of 40 cars mostly Maserati’s and classic motorbikes. We were blown away and we had the place to ourselves, €5 for a guided tour, or free if you just walk around on your own like we did, brilliant. Next day with no fixed plans we headed off to Parma, which turned out to be a bit too busy and a bit disappointing, it was a Saturday and market day, but Mantova was better (for us). A lazy afternoon by the B&B’s pool (a refreshing 18 degrees, no I didn’t go in) set us up for a traditional local style meal that evening. The restaurant served 16 different ‘types’ of meat boiled or roasted, we were told to go hungry. I was one of only 4 other women eating there that night, so it gives you a clear idea of their typical client! Great fun. On the last morning near Modena and before we headed off to Florence, one the owners of Il Borgo del Balsamico, Cristina, gave us a tour and tasting of their balsamic vinegars.

IMG_2145What an eyeopener, unlike other liquids aged in barrels, such as whiskey, sherry or rum, balsamic vinegar casks can last a lifetime, as apposed to 3 or 4 years for the former. Being taken through what started as a passionate hobby of her fathers 50 years ago, she and her sister Silvia now run a successful business. Patience is the keyword with balsamic vinegar as it takes at least 12 years before you can bottle anything to use or sell! We both felt privileged to have a better understanding of their craft, we will never be able to look at another bottle without checking the ingredients (any colourants and it is not a true aged balsamic, whatever the label says!). And that the heart of this road trip was going to be the people we would meet along the way.

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Road trips, a good idea? Hell yeah!

Running our own landscape garden maintenance business, like a lot of self employed people, this has meant making sacrifices. Long hours, phone calls from clients in the evenings, on the weekend… ALL the time. But this is what you do to keep a roof over your head, really yummy food on the table and be able to drink an occasional glass of wine, ok not occasional, perhaps it’s almost every night! After 30 years of doing this there comes a point when you think, WHY? After two close family bereavements, J & I started to question our work life balance. Something had to give.

 

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As you might have read in my previous post we have been doing some house sitting through Trusted Housesitters. This has been one small way to shake things up. But what we had really wanted was a gap year, but that damn mortgage and business kept getting in the way. As a compromise we began to plan a trip of a life time to Italy. For many years J has wanted to visit the Amalfi coast line. Positano, Priano, Sorrento. Lemons the size of your head. Windy coastal roads. Roman ruins, Pompeii. And being gardeners Monty Don had showed us wonders such as Ninfa Gardens and La Mortella on Ischia to visit, we were sold.

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Lots of talking, planning, dreaming and many years on we are finally doing our Italian Road Trip. 6 weeks driving our way down the west coast of Italy to Amalfi, into the heel – Puliga – and back home up the east coast into Le Marche. Now that’s what I call a good compromise!

I will be doing my best to chart our trip here, week by week. This is mainly so I can look back and remember what we did, I seem to have the memory of a goldfish.

I hope you enjoy taking this trip with us, ciao!

Why you should try house sitting

It’s been a long time since we owned a dog and when he passed it broke our hearts. Some people won’t understand that losing a pet can be the same as losing a member of the family. And as such we found that we couldn’t bring ourselves to replace him. Time passed and I read a magazine article that got me thinking. let’s take some time out doing a temporary job abroad with accommodation included. My first thoughts were that this was just for student gap years, but not so as it appears that adult gap years are on the rise.

Google provided the answer and after trawling results that were useless (isn’t that always the way!), I found blogs and websites that described a way of escaping. It all sounded so wonderful, but as reality kicked in I realised that a whole year out wasn’t possible. Damn you mortgage! Perhaps there was a way though to have a slice of the gap year cake rather than the whole thing?

There was a way, house and pet sitting. There are websites that allow you to link up with home owners with or without pets who need a trustworthy person to look after things whilst they are away. So this is how to have doggy and cat cuddles without owning them! Yes please, sign me up, so I did.

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One of the top sites is www.trustedhousesitters.com.  There is a yearly membership fee of £89, but this ensures that owners find pet care from verified sitters (like me) who won’t charge a penny for keeping pets safe & happy at home. Also there is Mind my house which is a great site that costs a lot less at $20, but has fewer members to choose from. There are other sites, but these will keep you busy enough and you can apply to sit anywhere in the whole wide world!

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Over the past two years my husband Jason and I have had the pleasure and privilege of sitting 7 times for 5 different home owners, a total of 7 cats and 4 dogs so far. We have loved seeing different parts of the UK and France. Not only have we had some amazing experiences but have met some wonderful people too. I would highly recommend house sitting and we are happily looking forward to our next sit over Christmas in Gloucestershire.

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The links I have given to the Trusted House Sitter website will give you 20% off membership. For every one that joins, I will receive 2 free months. Please contact me if the links don’t work and I will send you a code instead.