Harvest day, wine-making and a departure

I decided to stick around until at least Wednesday to help out with the big harvest day with many friends and family coming to help, and also for the opportunity to see at least some wine-making start. Tuesday was a pretty slow day, so I was looking forward to departing and exploring again. Come Wednesday, all sorts of people turned up to help – friends, extended family, neighbours (whose grapes we’d help pick the week before). We picked most of the Pinot Grigio that day and ate a lot for lunch with more at the table than the usual ten.

Random grapes.

There was finally enough grapes to warrant using the mechanical press – the previous small batches of grapes had been stamped by foot (such fun) earlier, from what I can tell to get the fermentation going and adding to the larger batches later.

Starting to load the press.

The press is a large rotating drum, half of which has inside a material layer (seen on the far side of the inside of the drum above) that presses the grapes using compressed air. Pre-programmed, it takes about two hours for it to go through its full cycle of rotating, pressurising, de-pressurising and so forth. There was plenty of lifting of boxes of fresh grapes in and then plenty of cleaning to done afterwards. Although it’s all inside work, I find it much more interesting than harvesting grapes and cleaning out the bad ones from the bunches.

Shovelling out the remaining skins and stalks after the pressed juice has all been pumped to a vat. All this goes to make grappa somewhere.

Slowly it leaked out that I intended to leave the next day – I’d tried to keep it quiet in case I changed my mind again. I didn’t change my mind, but after getting everything ready to go (again) I had to wait quite a while for some of the other volunteers to get back from an early shopping trip to Aosta. It was another big harvest day, so there were grapes to be picked while I waited. In good time the others arrived back – although most of them got a little lost getting to the vineyard, so I didn’t actually see them: that was a waste of ninety minutes of potential riding. So I said goodbye to most of my new friends and a small part of the world I’ve come to love in less than two weeks and rode off down to the valley floor for a couple of months of exploring Italy alone.

A problem with such a relatively narrow valley being such an important transportation link is that you can’t really get far from it all – the highway, the autostrada or the railway. Even though, for the first twenty-odd kilometres I managed to be on a cycle trail to Saint Vincent. Such valleys also tend to funnel wind – even when I turned south I was still pressing on into a headwind. With no other option as the valley narrowed, I joined the highway to climb from the floor over an escarpment. It was a little odd eating lunch alone in peace and with only a small amount of food in Verres.

Going from such friendship, companionship and having some sort of purpose in my day’s work to the prospect of two months of solo-travelling was beginning to weigh on my mind as I set forth for the afternoon, mostly off road through fields near the river.

As the valley narrowed again, I was on the highway for a while. I came across Forte di Bard – there has been a fort here since the fifth century, except for a brief period of time in the early 1800s after Napoleon had it destroyed. He was understandably a little less than impressed that this fort and only four-hundred soldiers should stall his 40000-man army from progressing to a surprise attack further down out of the valley.

The vineyards seem to get steeper and steeper as they clung to the side of the valley.

In time, the valley opened up a little and I started to see a feasible route to escape to the east over hills, not mountains, and stop heading towards Turin alongside the autostrada. Of course, as I climbed out of the valley with the sun beating on my back I lost the wind. To my disbelief, on what was such a quiet road, I came across a sign telling me that bikes were forbidden. Around the corner I found a big unlit tunnel – I debated for some time whether I should just turn my lights on and ride through it, turn around and go back to the valley floor and skirt the bottom of the hills or retreat a little and take the other road up and over the hills. I, for some reason, chose the hardest option – up and over. As I slowly went up what is apparently a Catergory Two climb, I don’t believe it although parts were 17%, things were starting to get a bit lonely again. When I reached the hill-top town of Andrate, I stopped and stared at this lovely view for quite some time, contemplating how many more wonderful things I’d see on this trip and not have anyone to share it with at the time.

It doesn’t look so impressive in a photo…

By this time I thought I had better start thinking of tomorrow’s breakfast, as there was actually a small bakery in the village shop. As I sat eating whatever sweet treat I bought, the prospect of plain bread for breakfast in my tent instead of the customary egg for which I’ve become infamous crossed my mind. In one of those small decisions that has quite unintended and unforeseen consequences, after checking the GPS, I followed the sign for Biella (where I was vaguely heading) and plunged off the hill. This put me back on the road I was on previously – after the tunnel I’d stood in front of; but unfortunately on this quiet road in front of another big tunnel I was not allowed in. But also, very strangely, for such a B-road in the hills with little traffic on it, in the general vicinity of a hideous-looking prostitute who, for the language difference, resorted to crude gestures in trying to make a sale. Now, I know nothing about turning tricks, but I would imagine location is quite important; my mind boggled from the whole encounter – why would you even bother on a road where I’d seen nary a car, let alone a truck/lorry. I still can’t understand it. This time I chose the easy option of riding down the hill again.

Somehow, I found the Via Francigena again. This is an old pilgrim’s path that goes from Canterbury to Rome and it passes just below where I was staying in the Aosta Valley. I decided to follow it for a little while as it’s generally on quieter roads and paths and it was going the vague way I wanted to go. Because of the kit I was carrying I had quite a few people stop and ask me if I was going to Rome, I was a little more surprised by this than I should have been I suppose. There were also a lot of people out on mountain-bikes, which is always a good sign.

Beginning to wonder where I might buy dinner and then make it to afterwards to put my tent up for the night, I stopped in a small village (Palazzon Canavese) as some sort of meeting was finishing and people started filing out of the church.

In typical Italian fashion they all really seemed to be enjoying each other’s company in vocal fashion. As I watched on with envy, the traveller passing through again,  what I was doing began to seem more and more ridiculous. Perhaps I was more tired from battling into the wind, riding near a hundred kilometres and climbing a big hill for naught than I realised – but my previous resolve to try at least a week of solo-touring crumbled. As I looked back on my travels over the previous five years, it’s obvious while I often travel solo I rarely go too long without visiting someone I know.

Now for the second time in a month I was leaving people I care about to go exploring on a bike solo and I was even less happy about it this time – as I knew what was in store, and two months alone looking for wild-camping spots, searching for a bathroom each morning, dining and the probable rain in October (I’ve been warned) were frankly unappealing. And for what – so I can see yet more new places and go wherever the fancy takes me? There will always be more places to explore. It turns out I may be slightly goal-oriented – wandering aimlessly for two months just to see more of Italy began to seem pointless. As all this raced through my mind and I struggled not to be overcome by it all, a nice woman from the meeting came up and started talking to me – it turns out my Italian has improved more than I thought, but she spoke slowly for me and it turns out her daughter lives in New Zealand. I was hoping she’d take pity on me as I struggled to hold it together and invite me for dinner, but I’m not very good at dropping hints when I’m speaking Italian it would seem. Realising that it’s riding bikes and being around close family and friends is what keeps me sane, and not one of those by themselves, I turned around and went to find a hotel in Ivrea.

So, sorry if you were rather enjoying following my little bike trip here – but it seems now I’ll have far fewer bike and travel stories to tell in the next couple of months. That may be the only downside, but I’m not fussed – I wake up to beautiful mountains each day and know I’ll spend the day working and eating (loads) with wonderful people.

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