Tag Archives: euro2014

Les Granges – through another’s eyes

Sort of a guest post today – well, I’m still writing but all the photos are Zuza’s. Previous posts during my stay here at Les Granges have centred on activities away from the vineyard and winery – mostly because I don’t tend to carry my camera when I work and therefore don’t have many photos to write to. But Zuza likes to carry a camera around often and has somewhat become official photographer for the few of us that have been working together for the last two or so weeks. It’s also interesting to see things that I see every day through another’s lens – plus she’s a much better photographer than I am. So, with minimal words hopefully, here are some of the scenes of my stay here.

Nightly serenade.

Every so often the aged family dog makes an appearance struggling on tired arthritic eighteen-year old limbs.

A little slice of home.

New house (still in progress) and winery on left.

Netting up to thwart the hungry birds just before these grapes are due for harvest.

Cleaning vats in the winery.

Pressing grapes by foot.

Edo and the small vessel used to ferment a little – this is then added to the larger batches of wine to kick-start them.

Pizza night.

And some from our hike to Col de Malatra, near Monte Bianco, last week:

Tasty, tasty ham.

A hike in the Alps – Col de Malatra

A slightly longer and higher hike was planned than that of two weeks before. Also promised were good views of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc) for most of the day if the weather was good. Eight of us set off for the day out – it started with an hour or so driving up the Aosta Valley to Courmayeur and then turning north-east to the trail-head. The weather was proving sufficiently good to get nice views of Monte Bianco as the highway wound through villages, under and over the autostrada and railway, loosely following the Dora Baltea upstream. Clearly we were getting into popular ski country as large cable-cars and smaller chairlifts stretched up the valley walls and sometimes across the valley.

Off the highway and out of Courmayeur, the road climbed steeply and we were loosely paralleling the French border, which in this part is the watershed of a ridge towering above the valley we were in with some quite impressive peaks. Starting to walk at around half-nine it was at first a little bit near the road to get to a bridge that crossed the river that drained the valley we were to walk up to the pass. I only mention that as the bridge was wooden planks and every time a car crossed it, the sound would reverberate around the valley – I was hearing that annoying bridge quite a lot. The climb began in earnest as we left the road again; with a mixed group the pace was also mixed – so there was frequent stopping to wait, take photos, eat wild blueberries, admire the views and snack.

A very dirty glacier way off in the distance.

Down the valley from which we started – Monte Bianco hiding briefly behind clouds.

The first milestone for the climb was the refugio (a day-hut) at about 1900 m. For some of us, this was the limit of the day’s walking – I couldn’t quite understand being up in such beautiful mountains on a sunny day and wanting to sit at a day-hut waiting for the rest of us to return. I later found out that there was a pretty good bar in the refugio, so that made a bit more sense. Six of carried on, five of us together and the sixth at a steady pace much more suited to her. The valley was quite wide and our climbing would have levelled off quite a bit – if we had taken the correct path up the centre of the valley, not up the (/our) right hand side. It didn’t matter though as it was easy to traverse around to the trail when our mistake was realised.

Traversing near the top of the valley.

Monte Bianco on the left.

Back on the trail, we were onto the steepest climbing of the day as we climbed out of the grassy valley and eventually traversed a rocky scree slope to the pass. Just as we got out of the grass we were passed by two mountain-bikers coming down – not sure how they would go on the descent of what we’d just climbed (I’d have had to walk a fair bit) the rest of the day’s trail looked fantastic and I was slightly envious.

There’s the trail heading up to the pass – which is the narrow gap on the right. There wasn’t a lot of room to have lunch.

I for one started to notice a shortness of breath, plus maybe a little tiredness from the previous thousand metres of climbing, as we went through the last two hundred metres. At the pass, 2925 m, there was a bit of a traffic jam of various groups (some had walked up from the other side) but once one group moved off we had enough room to perch ourselves and tuck in to all the cheese, proscuitto, bread and chocolate that had been hauled up. The view that opened up on the other side of the pass was towards Great St Bernard Pass – but this was obscured by a couple of other peaks in the way.

Various attempts at group photos ensued before we descended.

A fantastic walk up with great views all around in excellent company – the most surreal thing was trying to teach Zuza, a Polish girl studying languages and translation, how to count in Maori while walking in the Italian Alps. As we got off the scree on the way down I was impressed to see Mary still making her way up. We continued down together for a while, but our pace was a bit too much on the steep part – rather we all spread out as I took it pretty slowly too so as not to have sore knees for days to come.

I really wanted a bike as we got back into this valley – the trail was sublime.

We found Eliza and Rachel back at the refugio enjoying the sun and the views. I was hungry again and they had even more proscuitto. Jokingly, I mentioned that a drink a bit stronger than the mountain-side water I’d just filled my bottle with would be nice. When some of the Italian part of our group returned with a bottle of red and glasses, I realised that there was actually a bar – sitting in the sun staring out at the Alps and Monte Bianco drinking wine, playing cards, and probably eating still, was pretty damn good.

We all spread out again on the final descent to the road, before regrouping and heading off for gelato – of course.

A return

With a big pizza, a beer, a chat to family back home and a good sleep under my belt I awoke Friday morning much happier and, although a possibility, I didn’t even really consider heading out east to tour Italy. Heading back to Les Granges was what I wanted to do, but I first I had a couple of hours before having to check out of my hotel in which I could wander around Ivrea without a bike.

Most famous last century as the headquarters of Olivetti, the thing about the city that intrigued me the most from my brief research was the Battle of the Oranges – the largest food fight in Italy. Throwing oranges (the only figure I could find was a quarter of a million kilograms) sounds rather vicious – and a little nuts, as oranges don’t grow around here and have to be imported from Sicily. Still, for some reason, on the last three days before Lent thousands of people form into various teams and throw oranges at each other.

I missed that, being quite some months after Shrove Tuesday – so took a slightly more dignified walk around town.

The ride back to the Aosta Valley was fairly uneventful. This time I had the wind at my back and I did an even better job of avoiding the highway and taking small paths and roads. For the first part of the day this was on the Via Francigena again – although it could be a bit of fun trying to spot the trailmarkers. This was for two reasons – every so often they’d completely change, and the trail is really for going to Rome, not the other way as I was headed. I met a nice elderly couple fairly well loaded up going towards Rome; from Trieste and Trento (both places I’d hoped to get to, sigh), they are doing the Via Francigena in sections and had come over Great St Bernard Pass the previous week in snowfall. Such encounters are one of the things I’ll miss of touring – but trying to choose off-road routes rather limits them and they are fleeting.

The pictogram of a pilgrim that often was the trailmarker daubed on posts.

Still managing to keep off the highway, with the odd dead-end sending me backtracking, I wanted to get closer to Forte di Bard than I did passing it in the other direction. Little did I know that that would send me up the steepest pitch of road I’ve dragged my bike up on the whole trip. With the sun beating down, those few minutes to struggle forward only a hundred and fifty metres, but at over twenty percent gradient, were some of the hardest earned for quite sometime – possibly since having to push my rig up muddy slopes in the Ardennes. Bard is the smallest commune in all of Aosta Valley, so it didn’t take long to roll down its narrow streets, avoiding those struggling to walk up, back to the river. I thought I deserved lunch and found a bar, a beer and a delicious panini (more of a big toasted bun) filled with salami, cheese and artichoke hearts.

The remaining distance was fairly uneventful – there was the big climb up to Saint Vincent on the highway, more gelato at Saint Vincent and then very familiar mountains coming back into view before the last climb off the valley floor to Les Granges. Generally, I’m probably a bit too predictable – but I must say, it is quite fun completely surprising people. Rather hot and sweaty, I stowed my bike in the garage and wandered back into the house to see who was around. The mixture of surprise, excitement, and moderate amounts of disbelief were more than I was expecting (I’d only been gone about thirty hours) and enough to let me know that I’d definitely made a good choice.

With the fun of surprising people over, it was time to get back to work – making red wine. Apparently I’d missed two big days of harvesting (that was well timed) and everyone was pretty tired. The first stage of red wine production is much quicker and simpler than that of white wine. Of what is harvested, the only thing that doesn’t go in the vat is the stalks. The grapes, skins and pips included, are removed from the stalks by a rotating shaft with paddles attached and then pumped into the vat. There’s a lot less waiting around and the cleaning is easier. Saturday was also another big harvest day with many friends and family turning up again – I got reasonably good at explaining in Italian that I left and then it was no good touring alone, so I returned. People I can hardly hold a conversation with seemed a lot more pleased by this turn of events than I expected – everyone is so friendly here. The lunch crowd was much bigger this time, so a couple of big trestle table were set up and the salamis, cheeses, large rice salads, kilograms of potatoes and large jugs of red wine straight from somewhere in the winery flowed.

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.