A week in the Aosta Valley, e un po più.

Born of the despondency induced by the wet, muddy and lonely traipse through Belgium, I looked for a way I might spend a bit more time in one place rather than just riding through – so as to met and get to know some people a bit more than previously on my travels. Somewhere in the Saarland of Germany I read a blog post about volunteering work on farms on a short to medium term basis in exchange for meals and board. My interest was piqued – I investigated further and signed up for the Italian list and contact details. A week on, a farm upon entering Italy seemed a good idea as it would be a useful resumption of my meagre efforts to learn the language.

By the time I left Strasbourg I’d found a farm in a suitable area of Italy (it made sense for it to be in the north-west so that I could ride there). This planning and the setting of a tentative arrival date, and improving weather, I think helped give extra purpose to my riding – it’s nice to have little goals to work towards sometimes instead of just wandering and aimlessly exploring. It was a much happier week – but then the mountains were bigger and I got covered in less rain and mud; but even when it was muddy and wet, it seemed less overwhelming.

So that is how I came to spend a week on a small family-run organic vineyard on the slopes of the beautiful Aosta Valley. A brief introduction: Gualtiero, Liana, Bea and Edo have about three hectares of a variety of grapes and a small winery. Most of the grapes are particular to the local area and the vineyard was started by Gualtiero’s father, I think, about seventy years ago. As well as grapes, there’s a substantial garden growing (and kiwifruit vines – home!) and Liana is a fantastic cook – we seem to eat predominantly from their garden and other local produce. Bea studied viticulture in Pisa and has recently returned home – she was the contact for organising my stay and I think as well as having volunteers to stay and help with the large amount of work to be done, volunteers come so that Bea has new people to meet as she’s very sociable and keen to practice her English speaking.

It’s been a tremendous week, far exceeding my expectations – the work on the vines is pleasant in the sun and heat is not too onerous; there’s has been plenty of little trips here and there in the valley outside of work to see new things; the food and wine has been unbelievably good (I’ve eaten so much fontina cheese, drunken great wine and probably a bit too much grappa); I’ve had the chance to speak a lot of Italian (I think my speech is improving, but my vocabulary isn’t really and with a small vocabulary I really struggle to understand Italian spoken at a normal pace – still it’s a lot of fun); the people (the family and other volunteers alike) are friendly and funny, keen to learn English or Italian as appropriate; and I’m loving being back in proper mountains (if the work get a little boring, one only has to sneak a peak at the scenery for respite).

There’s just one small problem – I don’t know how I can leave, yet I know I have to. On one hand, the desire to ride a bike and explore this country for the next two months still beats strongly; on the other, it’s so damn good here and I’d almost be a fool to leave. I was planning to leave today after nine days, but I just can’t do that yet.

Every meal is taken sat around the table (I’ve not seen the TV on all week) and with a swell in numbers of volunteers over the weekend we’re now up to ten people in total – Sundays so far seem to be particularly festive (helped by yesterday being Liana’s birthday) and the wine, grappa and scotch was almost as abundant as the food last night. So after last night and the upcoming harvest day on Wednesday (we’ve been harvesting most of the time so far, but this Wednesday a large amount of friends and family will arrive for the day to help bring in the Pinot Grigio), I’ve not even made a move towards my bike today. Yet, I’m really looking forward to going home to NZ in December for, at least, five months – so I have to leave sometime and the longer I leave it, I think the harder it will be…

Enough soul-searching: a few pictures and details of what I’ve been doing for the past week. Unfortunately, I don’t tend to carry a camera when I’m working – so there are not many photos of grapes and vines, but I’m just going to assume you know what they look like. Work for the most part has mostly been starting the harvest of the earlier ripening varieties of grapes, and to some extent thinning leaves around the grapes to let the sun in and a bit of bird, bee & wasp protection. It’s pretty easy work, but enjoyable in the sun and heat passing the time chatting or in companionable silence with good people. Every so often something reminds me strongly of my younger years when we had a berry and kiwifruit orchard – the little orchard tractor (this one’s a Ferrari, I prefer the Massey Ferguson 35), riding on the back of the venerable Hilux (must be almost as old as me & more suited to Barry Crump scaring Scotty to bits or being almost-destroyed by the Top Gear crew) avoiding overhanging branches and generally working with vines. Ah, nostalgia.

Fenis Castle – out for a drink after work.

The fruits of the labour – well, last year’s.

Bea was heading up into the mountains for the night to play the violin with some musical friends – she took Amy & I along as apparently it’s beautiful up there. It was. We wound our way up a side valley to about 1600 m and as the day ended the big wide sky opened up above us. As I understand it, the premier amateur observatory for Italy is at Saint Barthelemy due to the lack of light pollution. While Bea played, Amy & I wandered – the moon was a bit bright for star gazing but it was a beautiful evening all the same. We stayed the night in the grandparents’ former home, got up early, collected yet more produce from the garden and descended back to breakfast and work. I resolved to ride my bike back up the big hill to visit again when I got the chance.

One lunchtime when it was a little cooler I forsook a siesta and went for a little ride climbing a fair bit as I followed the valley-side east.

Right across the road from the house, a neighbour started to dig to build a new house a while ago. He found Roman ruins, so his house now has to go somewhere else as the site is now an archaeological dig, with some bits apparently pre-dating the Romans by a couple of thousand years too.

It’s a struggle to leave such waking and working views behind.

We actually had a little rain Friday afternoon, so the grapes weren’t able to be harvested until they’d dried out Saturday afternoon. I seized my chance and biked back up the hill to Saint Barthelemy – considerably easier than Great St Bernard due to lack of luggage, even though it seemed steeper in parts. Once I reached the village I stopped for slice of cake at the bar of Bea’s friend. The nominal goal of the day was to reach 2000 m – this seemed easily achievable as I was consistently climbing 100 m each ten minutes. However, behind the village at around 1950 m the sealed road ended and the double-track led me into a gorgeous valley where the climbing stopped. I met a father and son (thirteen years and only studying five languages) who were riding up the valley. With the promise of being able to buy fresh cheese from a dairy, I tagged along happy to be chatting a bit in English and a bit in Italian.

The promised cheese didn’t eventuate, but I hardly need any more and the stupendous views were more than enough consolation. I had to go a little past the last farm and the new refugio to get my two thousand metres. I returned for lunch at the same bar – due to some misunderstanding, my soup was pretty much a bowl of fontina cheese interspersed slightly with bread, cabbage and onion. Wonderful cheese overload & a local dish too – but not as filling as promised. I dashed back down the hill about five times faster than I climbed it – there is something quite fun about pinning a mountain-bike into hairpin corners at 60 km/h and passing cars down mountain roads. Perhaps when I’m to old to be shaken to bits and cleaning mud off me and my bike, road-biking may be an alternative.

Oh, after a lifetime of not being able to understand why people eat figs – the ones around here are amazing and I now eat figs. And the first crop of liquorice was taken from the garden today – promptly weighed out and put in a few bottles of previously un-infused grappa. Chewing on the liquorice sticks from the bottle we finished last night was about as close to alcohol as I came today. Apart from the sampling in the winery – which is full of bright shiny stainless steel vessels, bliss. The vessels are getting a thorough hot-water pressure clean at the moment to prepare for the start of winemaking in earnest on Wednesday. They’re process vessels – naturally I’m interested in seeing that, unfortunately.

That’s about it of note really – just my inability to say goodbye and leave remains. I’ve got to stop making good friends in such different places around the world; I think my chances of continuing being able to visit them are unsustainable.

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