Last weekend a group of about twelve friends and I went to spend the weekend in Cogne, on the Aosta side of the mountainous Parco Gran Paradiso. The idea was to go skiing or hiking. I was hesitant to ski after an eight-year hiatus, but when I saw the cross-county skiers skiing right outside the hotel I started to wish I had brought my ski stuff. Maybe next time!

These mountain towns have an atypical architecture for Italy–steeper slate roofs and lots of rustic carved wood. Add small lights outside the stores and restaurants and it’s very cozy! We also ate extremely well in our hotel, which had a fixed menu with all three traditional courses plus fruit and dessert. My favorite dish of the weekend was apple and walnut risotto. We were also in grolla di amicizia territory. I didn’t try it but some of our group did. After a full day in the cold, however, I did try a bombardino. It was not as alcoholic as the name would imply.

The non-skiers walked most of the day on Sunday–in the morning some of us hiked up the mountain stream to Valnontey and in the afternoon a larger group walked to Lillaz, where there are waterfalls just outside the town. Everything was frozen, which made the paths very slippery, but it was still fun.

On the way back from the waterfalls we stopped in Lillaz for hot drinks. Lillaz is really just a collection of houses and barns, probably not more than 100 inhabitants, so when seven of us entered the tiny town bar (in Italy bars are first and foremost for coffee), every head turned. But we weren’t the strangest thing in the room. We were met by a waiter wearing a scarf, apron, beret, a pair of detachable reading glasses, and a fierce expression as he looked over his order pad. Otherwise, the room was cozy with dark wood, red painted walls and lots of books. The bar probably occupied half the room and we occupied another quarter of it. I’m guessing my American accent did not go unnoticed, but for once I wasn’t the only one who stuck out, so that was comforting.

Unfortunately my posts and photos have to leave out the most important part of a trip like this–my friends!* As a rule I don’t post photos or anecdotes about them because it would be an invasion of their privacy. But the Italian concept of friendship is one of large, hospitable and relatively tolerant groups, even if occasionally some of us drive the rest a bit crazy. This trip included conspiracy theories, a bit of accidental skiing, a wacky cab ride, and long stretches of southern Italian history told in a Neapolitan accent. I wouldn’t have it any differently.

*For full disclosure, one of my friends may have taken a couple of the photos of Valnontey, because my aging battery shut my phone down when I tried to take pictures. And of course someone else took the photo of me. Thanks!


At the top of the Roman world, monks to the rescue!

It’s that time of year when Italians flee en masse to the shore. Cities are hot ghost towns with few stores or restaurants open. Since I took my summer trip to the US early, my intention upon my return was to settle down and get some work done. Yet this week it was so quiet (and hot) that it was hard to concentrate.

So when a friend called and offered a day trip to the mountains near Aosta, I jumped at the chance. I admit that just escaping the heat would have been motivation enough, but my friend Ben has a particular talent for getting to know strangers, often with interesting results. Besides, he wanted to visit a monastery high up on an Alpine mountain pass where he had done an archeology dig 20 years ago. Everything about the trip called me to join in.

Our group (Ben, his wife and baby son, and a common friend) ate lunch on the way up to the pass at a rustic stone restaurant perched on the side of a steep incline, its balconies lined with bright red geraniums. Naturally Ben knew the restaurant owner, an extroverted man with white curls and sparkly blue eyes who was aptly named Felice. We sat down on the terrace to a perfect Aostan lunch–mushrooms in cream, chestnuts in honey with lard, soft toma cheese with hazelnuts sprinkled on top, melon, and mocetta (a lean cured meat), among other things. And that was just the appetizer course! Then came gnocchi wrapped in strings of melted fontina, and polenta accompanied by sausage, veal, and rabbit, the last of which was cooked in a mustard sauce. After lunch we split a homemade tiramisù, then drank the obligatory coffee required to be able get up from the table, and complementary homemade genepì as a digestivo. I really would have been perfectly happy with the day just as it was.

Our view from the terrace at lunch

But then we drove up and just across the Swiss border to the Col, or pass, du Grand-Saint-Bernard, named for the founder of a monastery that has ministered to pilgrims there since 1050. This monastery replaced an even an older one nearby which had been destroyed during the Saracen invasions. And before that, the Romans ran a hotel of their own on the site. The pass is so high up that it’s closed for much of the year, with the snow sometimes reaching the second story of the monastery so that the monks have to ski out the windows. Modern travelers usually cross the Alps in winter by tunnel.

But August is high tourist season. Most people come to hike and to see the place that gave the world the St. Bernard rescue dog (some dogs remain there in summer, but now rescues are made by helicopter). Helping stranded travelers is still part of the monks’ vows. And they still risk, and at times even lose, their lives when people hike precariously along the crumbly schist rock or get trapped in the deep snow. We met one of these monks, a friend of Ben’s from his archeology days.

The Roman road (top) and the adjacent foundations of the temple to Jupiter (bottom)

On the Italian side of the monastery, Ben pointed out the old Roman road through the pass, dug out of the rock, and the remains of a temple to Jupiter (the high altitude made the site a sort of Mt. Olympus of the Roman Empire). Most of the temple’s stone had long since been re-appropriated, leaving only traces of foundation and steps carved into the side of the mountain, as well as a human skeleton of unknown origin. On the far side of the monastery and around the peak towards Switzerland, a vast valley opened up with nothing in it but a winding road, some hiking trails, and a sort of ventilation tower for the long mountain tunnel underneath. Here Ben led us to the other site his team had excavated, the Roman hotel. There was still lots of Roman terra cotta scattered about, and the team had discovered Celtic beads there as well.

The Col de Grand-St. Bernard may not be the pass that Hannibal came through with his elephants, but it was certainly used by Napoleon, and was described by Dickens in Little Dorrit. Above, Ben shows me a piece of Roman terra cotta at the site of the archeological dig.

Once the monastery ran a hospice for pilgrims stopping along the Via Francigena, a medieval road from Canterbury to Rome. Now it’s more of a starting point for local hikers. But some of the the hikers we saw that day were also modern day pilgrims, attending the French-speaking evening mass in the basement chapel, its low, vaulted ceiling lit by constellations of tiny halogen lights. My French was so rusty that I could only follow along because I knew what was coming next.

One of the texts from the monastery’s library

We had hoped to eat dinner there, but the refectory was full of hikers and we were out of daylight, so we went home. Even though summer tourists at peak season had overwhelmed the dining room, Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard still felt like an outpost. It’s so inaccessible in winter that the monks have to rely on stored provisions and anyone of their order who dies has to be kept in a nearby outbuilding until the ground thaws enough to bury them. I can only imagine what it must have looked like centuries, even millennia, before, when it was the only place of welcome anywhere around.

Here’s a video (from the hospice’s website linked above) with a nice overview of the monastery, in French with English subtitles. You even see Ben’s monk friend Frederic sitting at the refectory table!

Finale Ligure


(Above: A beach club in Finale Ligure. I’m drinking a rare Italian iced coffee. The waiter asked if I wanted it shakerizzato. That means what it sounds like, shaken with ice, but I was amused that the concept was so foreign they had to appropriate an American word to describe it.)

Since I mentioned going to the sea with my friend Stella in my last post, I thought I would do a short post on the town we visited, Finale Ligure, as well.

Finale Ligure is near Savona, which is to say it’s roughly halfway between Genova and Nice. It’s one of the shore cities closest to Torino. This area of the coast is called the Italian Riviera, and it’s easy to see why: The water is blue, the towns are elegant, the the beach is lined with palms and beautiful rock outcroppings edged by narrow sand beaches.

The beaches are almost entirely taken up by permanent beach chairs with umbrellas, which you rent by the month. There are clubs all along the shore that rent them out. And the clubs have restaurants and bars open to the beach where people spend the afternoon in various states of dress ranging from elegant shifts with jewelry to not much at all. Life is more casual than in the interior cities, but it’s still a far cry from the Jimmy Buffet culture of northern Florida.

Stella and I went down just for the day, but many people rent a place for a week, own a place, or even go to Sardegna for a month.

One day at the shore by no means makes me an expert on Italian beach culture, but I know the sea is a big deal here. Italy is a peninsula, after all, and has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

But I still prefer the mountains. And Italy has a lot of those too.

(Below: the façade of one church and the ceiling of another, plus the main shoreline piazza in Finale Ligure)

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An unexpected Lenten trip


Our group descending from our hostel in Claviere, Italy, about an hour west of Torino

Last weekend I finally made it to those mountains I keep looking at from a distance on clear Torino days. I went with a group of friends, other volunteers from the afternoon program I work with at Sant’Antonio da Padova. And I decided to go only at the last minute.

Claviere is a ski resort, so that was the ostensible purpose of our trip. I thought about skiing, but when I saw how steep the slopes were, I had visions of being stranded on some black trail and thought it might be better to first make sure that I could find a way down. And unlike the small mountain where I learned to ski in Pennsylvania, there were clearly other things to do, with hiking trails intersecting (and sometimes coinciding with) the ski slopes. In fact, among our group of about 15, only three people skied. So I went hiking.

We stayed in a traditional hostel-type house that was halfway up the first slope, accessible only by walking or (for baggage) by snowmobile. Lunch, at a communal table with a red-checked tablecloth where everyone talked loudly at once, was of the typical leisurely Italian type with a pasta, a meat and vegetable, fruit, and red wine throughout. Then we’d go across the path to the other building for coffee and grappa (for those who take a caffè corretto for digestion). After all this lunch, you were either going to burn off energy or sleep. Some threatened sleep, but usually we walked to France instead.

Montegenèvre, France is the next resort over, about 30 minutes’ walk from Claviere–no border patrol to be seen. People in our group went to buy things from the pharmacy, because they said the same brands cost half as much there as they did in Italy. One fellow, whose part in our group’s play includes trying to hide his wedding announcement by swiping and balling up every copy of Le Figaro he sees, said he was going to stockpile French newspapers. What we all ended up doing was buying pastries.

While in Montegenèvre, we discovered that we were walking along the traditional pilgrimage road to Sant’Iago di Compostela in Spain (named for St. James the Lesser). The estimated remaining distance of 2000 km brought nods of appreciation.

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Tiny sugar animals at a French patîsserie and a roadside chapel along the route to Sant’Iago de Compostela, Spain.

On Sunday morning, about seven of us decided to hike about an hour up the mountain to a coffee bar. Two people wore snowshoes, but the rest of us just wore snow boots and ski pants. The weather was warm and the day fine. We had to slow down a bit when the trail became narrow and slippery, and a couple of people had trouble keeping up, but I’m so used to hiking with people who are faster than me that it was delightful to finally have time to take photos, admire whipped-cream snowdrifts, and find a lovely, almost fluorescent-green lichen.

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 Hiking up to the coffee bar, a pretty lichen, and the lawn chairs we commandeered upon arrival

When we got to the coffee bar, we took several commemorative group pictures, and then most of us ordered apple cider and sat outside to drink it. After cider, with some jokes about how Italians know how to enjoy life better than anyone else, we commandeered the row of deck chairs in front of the bar and soaked up the sun for about 30 minutes while the Germans, English and French exerted themselves on the slopes. We were back to the hostel in time for lunch.

I’m sure this doesn’t sound like a particularly Lenten trip, but for me, it was a reprieve from the usual routine, and a chance to appreciate other people for who they were. As we women went to sleep in one room on Saturday night, we could hear two of the men in the other room laughing so hard that they couldn’t take full breaths. At four a.m., I was awakened by more stifled laughter from the other room. But in many ways, it was quiet, and far from my usual concerns. Very early, I got up, read my Bible, and took a walk outside where I watched the rising sun shine golden on top of the facing mountain and listened to tiny flocks of birds feeding in the firs above. In the walks, in the meals, in nature, in the generous hospitality of the group, in the perspective that comes from being away, there I found a gift from the Lord.

10406810_10205536591688096_3295644587190713416_n Someone else in our group took this photo of the church in Claviere at dusk. I took the same shot, but this one came out with less “noise.”

Losing myself on the Collina

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Ballerina bianca (White Wagtail), regolo (Goldcrest), and cardellino (European Goldfinch)

Yesterday I took a long hike. Torino has a lot of trails on the Collina, the large hill across the Po, but I had never hiked any because I couldn’t find the trailheads. But this week I found a place that sells trail maps, got directions, and so I was determined to try one.  It was February and I just wanted to be outside for as long as possible. My goal was La Colle della Maddelena, a park at the top of the Collina.

The day wasn’t gorgeous. In fact, it was sort of typical Torino winter weather, 30s-40s and overcast, with a damp cold. I put on my layers, packed the map, binoculars and some lunch (and my documenti, of course), and took a bus just across the river to the trailhead.

The first part of the trail was along the Po.  There I saw a tree full of cormorants, a river full of gulls, a few ducks, and the usual people rowing.  As I looked more closely, I also saw little black and white birds that flew in scallops and pumped their tails up and down. I remembered them from a sign I’d seen in the park–ballerine bianche (white dancers, or in English, White Wagtails). Later I saw a flock of small birds feeding along the path. At first I thought they were just sparrows, but then noticed that they were more delicate flyers, with touches of bright color. Goldfinches!

The European goldfinch is more exotic-looking than its American cousin.  I recognized it from a coffee table book that I used to look at growing up, which had a copy of Rafael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch in it. Of course it was a local bird. In Italian, it’s called a cardellino, a little cardinal.

Soon the trail left the river and started to climb. The paved trail went past a ruined villa and then ran out.  My destination was about 3km of trails and 715m in altitude away, but that wasn’t the main challenge.  Soon I realized how much snow was still on the ground.  And mud from melted snow.  I briefly wondered if I was getting myself into something foolish, but then kept going.

I went by a church, through a park, and along some roads that were labeled “antica strada,” which means they are old (usually medieval) roads that have been superseded by modern ones. Often they’re just footpaths that join a paved road here and there. After the roads on the outskirts of town, I spent a long time walking through the woods. Some of the trails weren’t clearly marked. Sometimes the mud caked on my shoes and made the going slippery. I lost some time. But I kept going.

Two hours later, I saw the last switchbacks before the Colle. They were lined with the names of war dead. At about the same time, I heard a very tiny and familiar “seep.”  It sounded like kinglets!  (My favorite birds.) And that’s what they were–Goldcrests, the European cousins of the Golden-crowned Kinglet.  In Italian they’re called regoli, or rulers. These had a slightly more pronounced pattern on the backs of their wings than American kinglets do, but they were very similar. It was nice to see one again.

And then I heard an even stranger noise, and looked up to see a small black and white bird waving its long tail in the air and making a strange tsk. A codibugnolo. In English, Long-tailed Tit.

Finally I reached the top. The only other time I’d been up to the Colle, in a car, it had been bustling with dayhikers and cyclists. Now there was not a single other soul around. You couldn’t see the Alps across the valley because of the clouds. And the bar that serves the park was closed. The weather, in fact, was so inhospitable that I decided against my original idea of a picnic lunch. Instead I went across the street, drank my requisite afternoon macchiato, put all my warm wraps back on, and started downhill while munching my piadina.

Given that they way up was so muddy, I decided to try a different route down. This one was snowy and muddy, too, but at least I was going faster now. Occasionally I even descended in a controlled skid. This path was even more deserted than the other one, and the trails less marked, but with my map, I recognized enough landmarks to keep going.

Just when I had been alone and away from farmsteads for so long that I began to feel I was hiking in the wilderness of Oregon, I came to an intersection in the path, where I saw another woman my own age, walking along so calmly and in such civilized clothing that she seemed to be on her way to a city bus stop. We greeted one another, but at first she didn’t seem to want to talk, so I went on ahead. But as I got around the curve and hit another slippery downhill, she started calling out some instructions.  Then we started talking.

She was on her way home from work and said she often took the trails instead of the bus, because it was more relaxing. She preferred them in winter, when there weren’t so many people (I’ll say!).  And she had the right kind of shoes. (Here she pointed to her feet.)

I mentioned that I was surprised the trails were so deserted, and that I’d asked some friends if they’d wanted to hike, but no one could.

“I know,” she commiserated, “They think you’re crazy.  They do that to me too.”

I told her where I was going and showed her my map. About this time, we came to an open field and she said we were supposed to walk through it. I decided she must have been my guardian angel, because there was no trail or sign anywhere. But walk we did, and then we came to a road, where she pointed out a lovely square, white manor house.  “The house of my dreams!” she confided. Her name was Anna.

We went along together for about thirty minutes before she turned off to where she needed to go, and by this time, we were back in the hilly outskirts of Torino, where there are lots of large homes surrounded by land and walls. I kept following the map, managed to get myself lost a couple more times and once found myself amidst donkeys and sheep. But eventually I made it down to the intersection where the bus stop back home was.  I plopped gratefully into a seat, vaguely aware the I was alarmingly dirty.  In fact, when I arrived home and Sarie saw my muddy jeans, she said, “You walked down Corso Vittorio like that?”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sure I looked pretty odd,” I admitted. Most women on Corso Vittorio wear elegant down coats and boots. I was wearing a Patagonia pile zip jacket, a hand knit  cap, and an ancient backpack with the straps hanging down. And a considerable amount of mud.  But I was satisfied.  I’d given myself a challenge and completed it.  I was tired enough to sleep. I’d seen some birds.  And I’d maintained my American independence, or something like that.

375px-SchwanzmeiseCodibugnolo (Long-tailed Tit)

Our little corner of the Alps


Time to add a new post, is it not?  We’ve been back for a week.

Last week was the first time flying back over the mountains that it seemed a bit like we were coming home.  Maybe it’s because the trip was so long, 20 hours with stops in Chicago and Frankfurt.  We arrived back in Europe at 5:45 a.m., also known as 11:45 p.m., feeling a bit stiff and fuzzy tired. The plane taxied past section after section of spotless German glass, revealing a cross section of a clean, gray interior punctuated with orange. Sarie and I had never been to Germany before this trip, and though we never left the airport, we enjoyed watching the other passengers and even appreciated the free, watery macchiato hidden away behind the Lufthansa gates (or I did).

We were really looking forward to the flight back over the Alps. Before Christmas, during the first leg of our flight to the US, I had noted every lake and creamy mountaintop as we flew across northern Italy and then to Germany in a prop plane, chased by the sunrise. On the way back, ragged clouds covered many of the mountains, but occasionally they opened up to reveal dramatic views.

Tolkien based his Misty Mountains on the Alps.


The first photo above is from a previous trip, but it approximates the altitude from the prop plane.  The second photo is from last week.

Shortly we were over to the Italian side of the Alps, seemingly back in the land of the sunrise (in winter the sun always comes from the south) and as the landscape flattened out, the pilot said, “To your left you can see Milan.”  This is what we saw (a little blurry because of the plane window).


Almost immediately we banked right, flew just south of Torino, banked right again, and flew into the Valli di Lanzo between Torino and the Alps, towards the airport.  As we did so, I could see all the small towns along the Stura and on up into the mountains. I had never realized the whole plain was so utterly full of houses and towns. And the Alps seem to form a corner there as they turn south towards the Italian-French border. We made yet another turn so sharp that I thought the wing was going to do a cartwheel in the pasture below, and we were home.

(Too bad I didn’t get a picture of the valley, but you can get the general idea with Google Earth.  Maybe next time!)

Piemonte–home to robiola, toma, gorgonzola dolce, dolcetto, arneis, gavibarbaresco and in general the biggest list of DOCG wines and cheeses in Italy.  Home to hazelnuts and gianduiotti and hot chocolate so thick you could walk on it, to vitello tonnato and bagna cauda. Home to a Frenchy sort of Italian known as Piemonteis. Home to charming old men in loden coats and checked berets who sometimes still hold hands with their wives on the street. And now, home to us.

There’s graffiti across the street from our building that says, “Leggi Hobbit.” (“Read The Hobbit.”) If the Misty Mountains are the Alps, the cozy valleys of Piemonte must be the Shire.  It’s a second breakfast kind of place.

Castle concert

The Neo-Gothic Castello di Roccolo

Yesterday Sarie and two friends played in a Baroque concert in a Neo-Gothic castle south of Torino.  All week I’d imagined the trio playing in a dark stone tower with arrow slits for windows and gray walls practically oozing damp from the predicted rain. But instead we found ourselves in the garden, in a warm, sunny Neo-Classical greenhouse overlooking a classic Italian patchwork plain of light industry and farms. I could hear horses neighing below.

Admittedly, we didn’t know until the last possible minute how we were going to get there. The initial transportation plans morphed quite a bit, so that in the end we found ourselves asking the conductor on the train where we needed to change trains and then get off. Sarie and I traveled with the group’s oboist, Alberto, who met us at Porta Nuova station wearing a trench coat and fretting about the oboe’s sensitivity to rain and cold.  (Reeds are pretty touchy.) The conversation on the train ranged from English to Italian and Piemontese, and touched on Chinese and Elvish.

The ostensible plan was to meet another conservatory student, Bruno, at the closest station to the castle.  Bruno had planned–or not planned–the whole thing, since he was a tour guide at the castle. As we walked out of the station and stood in a small traffic circle, the town looked closed and deserted. But at just that moment, I heard a revving motor and a compact car came speeding towards us. It swerved around the traffic circle by the station and came to a neat stop.  Out jumped a young man with slightly longish dark hair, Ray-Bans, bright red chinos, and the smile and posture of an extrovert. Upon meeting Bruno, I began to forgive Italy, for the four-thousandth time, for its lack of organization as compared to New York. It was hard to become angry with someone who was so genuinely affable.

We all climbed into the two-door car with our bags and instruments, and Bruno speed through the narrow streets of two small towns, accelerating over bumps and turning into alleys briefly to stop short in front of notable churches on the way to the castle at Roccolo.  The entire conversation was conducted in a combination of lightning-fast Italian and Piemontese, but Sarie and I understood some of it.

Once at the castle, Bruno gave us a quick tour of the grounds and then the musicians got to work setting things up in the greenhouse.  Occasionally they would jokingly refer to the arrival of the “green coffin.”  This was the virginal that Matteo, the other member of the trio, was bringing to play basso continuo on.  When Matteo and his father drove up, I got the joke: The main component on the virginal was a long box with a lid, the size of a coffin, and it arrived in a station wagon of adequate dimensions for a hearse.  When it arrived, the musicians (by now all dressed in black), went to remove it from the back of the car.  In no time they had it set up and tuned, even though the bottom key stuck all through the concert.  The keyboard contained only four octaves.

At a few minutes before 4:00, a number of middle-aged couples materialized, while the group decided, at the very last minute of course, how to introduce themselves. Bruno had disappeared. In the end, Alberto did an excellent job. It seems that Italians have a talent for making extemporaneous speeches.  The rest of the concert (which was actually Telemann, Buxtehude and others, with no Monteverdi whatsoever) went off without a hitch, notwithstanding Alberto’s banging on the oboe between movements and his protestations that it was behaving horribly.

During the concert, I tried not to be overly-concerned that a co-worker of Bob’s, who was to give us a ride home, had not yet arrived.  Towards the end of the third of the four pieces, however, I was relieved to see Carolina and her husband enter and take a seat at the back.

After the concert, we all walked around the grounds some more and toured the open rooms of the castle, which housed a short history exhibit. Built in 1831, the castle had belonged to the Duke of Azeglio. Queen Margherita of Italy had been a guest, and this being a Romantic castle, it was of course rumored to have its own ghost. The few parts of the castle proper we saw were dark and crumbling and only half-restored. And by this time, it was indeed raining after all, causing many of our group to make spontaneous references to Wuthering Heights.  Carolina had even read it in English.

On the way home, Carolina was most entertaining.  Facing backwards the entire trip, she spoke to us in Italian, and we replied in English whenever we got stuck (more often for me than for Sarie).  She tried to think of not-too-difficult books for me to read in Italian.  She recommended various friends and relatives to help Bob get his Italian driver’s license and to get Sarie through the piano portion of her conservatory program. Her husband was quieter, but would occasionally chip in a phrase or two in English with a booming voice and a hint of a smile.  His contributions were always apt.

When I mentioned that I had no idea what we were going to have for dinner, Carolina spouted off a whole week’s worth of instructions for quick meals. My favorite: Fettucine Alfredo. Fry up some cubed pancetta while you boil the pasta. When the pasta is done, add it to the pancetta while bringing over a little bit of the cooking water. Then break in one fresh egg per person and stir.  She was all for taking me to Eataly (which is open on Sunday!) as we arrived back in town, so she could show me the best cuts of veal. But I realized that if even if you have a quick dinner idea, shopping adds to the prep time, and it was already going on eight.  So after I remembered a quick vegetable combo that I could spoon over mozzarella toast, I declined.  But we have plans to go shopping just as soon as we both have a Saturday free!

I have to admit that, as I started the day, I had been very tired and a little irritated at how I almost didn’t get to go, at how we would have to rush to the train and wouldn’t have time for lunch, at how Bob was sick and needed to work instead of going, that our promised bus had turned out to be non-existent, and that the way that the musicians got paid their small honorarium, predictably, involved a lot of paperwork.

But in the end, the serendipity more than made up for the annoyances.  Even though we’re not fluent Italian speakers (I’m pretty awful), we made new friends. We saw and heard a portable virginal, got to walk around the elegant castle grounds (which reminded Sarie and me independently of the Cloisters in Manhattan), and the kids had a lot of fun playing Baroque music. And since the whole thing was their idea to begin with, I think this was the best part of all.

Newton Farm

We’re back in Italy now, but I thought I’d share a thing or two more from our time in the US.

Bob and I spent part of our trip at an organic farm in the Catskills. After 18 months of immigration challenges and almost constant work for Bob, it was very restorative for the two of us to go somewhere by ourselves. The week at Newtown Farm, moreover, included some actual vacation days for Bob, whereas he mostly worked during the rest of our six-week trip. We were so far from civilization that our phones didn’t work, and the internet was slow.  It couldn’t have been more welcome.

As soon as we ‘d walked into the farmhouse and had a look around, Bob said to me, “This is your dream house.”  He was right, of course, and even literally.  When I was a child, I used to dream about exploring serendipitous houses, in which one opens a door and discovers an unexpected wing. Newton Farm gave me much the same feeling, especially after fifteen years of living in apartments.  Three or four days into our stay, I would still walk down the hall and glimpse an almost forgotten room in my peripheral vision. Sometimes I’d go stand in it just to experience the new perspective.

Maybe one reason for the exploratory feeling was that the house and farm were extremely photogenic.  It was hard to get a bad angle on the place, though I never did get photos of every room.  Nor did I see every room, because some of them were closed off.  One afternoon I stood on a bench outside the house and peeked into a window. It was full of old furniture and rolls of fabric, indicating more bounty.

Bob and I spent a lot of time in the large farm kitchen, partly because it was the only room in which the internet worked at all (even on vacation Bob checks and replies to his work e-mail) and partly because I had a big box of farm produce to use, and fresh eggs daily. In Italy, kitchens tend to be isolated. Here, the kitchen was the social hub of the home.

Still, I was a little startled the first morning when I went down to breakfast and within minutes was joined by the caretaker, who entered from the back of the house to cook his own breakfast. Apparently it was a shared kitchen!  But Bob and I soon appreciated the company, because by talking to Garrett we learned all about organic farming in upstate New York.  A former Williamsburg guitarist, with appropriately tattooed arms and a dog who looked almost feral, Garrett had apparently adapted well to rural life and seemed positively happy doing (among other jobs) small repairs, weeding, checking beehives, driving produce to Brooklyn once a week, and trying to tire out Mina, the extremely energetic new dog.

Bob liked Mina too.  Within a few days, he had taught her to sit, to refrain from jumping on people, and, if not to fetch a frisbee, to at least let go of it so he could throw it again.

The farm was tucked between two mountains near Hunter, NY, in a town so small that it looked like a modern one-street subdivision inspired by Grant Wood–until you noticed that it had its own post office and two local churches, all buildings circa 1840.  The road was a dead end and trailhead, so Bob and I went hiking two of the days we were there. One day we hiked up 1700 ft. to the mountaintop, though you could only see the view below from a lookout rock, since East Coast mountains don’t usually rise above the tree line.

And where was Sarie?  She was at a music camp, enjoying daily lessons with a great teacher, practicing chamber music, and calming her dorm mates, who were apparently terrified of nature. I got reports of increasing terrors: Crickets, spiders, a road covered in newts, and finally, a bear.

The day after the girls saw the bear, I was outside the farm feeding compost to the chickens when I heard a loud crunch–the sort of crunch that something makes when it’s larger than a human.  I looked towards the border of the field, where it met the mountain and forest, but saw nothing.

I heard the same noise a few minutes later, but this time it was coming from a particular direction.  There, high in a tree about 50 yards away, I saw a young bear (not a cub), stripping branches and swaying precariously.  I went and got Bob and we both watched him for about five minutes.  Then we slowly walked back to the house, so as not to disturb him.  I could tell that he knew we were there, but thankfully he showed no interest.

Newtown Farm couldn’t be less like Italy, but it was a perfect getaway where I could pretend for a week that I lived a life more like that my grandparents had lived when they were growing up. In fact, the house’s front porch and wide floorboards, covered in layers of paint and pierced by large heating vents, reminded me of my grandparents’ homes, so in some ways this place was much more familiar than the apartment where I’ve lived for almost a year now.

Below are some photos of the farm, including, of course, the bear.

Top: A side view of Newton Farm from the driveway. Below: the kitchen; eggs; the chickens (who apparently liked the pineapples contributed by a neighbor who was starting a popsicle business); some of the many bottles, ceramics and other interesting objects in the house; knives conveniently stuck to a magnetic bar; our bedroom (one of three); one of the dressing rooms attached to the bedrooms; the front porch, where Bob and I sometimes ate breakfast; one of the barns; Bob and Mina; the bear.

Counting castles

The castle of Fenis, from a webcam image on Saturday.

Most of the time, living in Italy isn’t a vacation. We’re here because Bob invented a job, and between that and Sarie’s junior year with online classes and conservatory, we haven’t gone on many adventures.

So I was delighted when Bob said, “Let’s go driving up into the Valle d’Aosta next Saturday.”  The original idea was to go hiking, but I didn’t even mind when all-day rain washed out that plan.  We were still going exploring.

Our rain-modified plan was to drive to Ivrea, a sort of far suburb of Torino, and then proceed to Aosta, between the mountains and near the Italian/French/Swiss borders.  For those of you from Georgia, I might as well say it:  This is the original Valdosta.  But other than that, there are no similarities.

Top: A geological map of Ivrea, posted in a shop window. (The Valle d’Aosta is the narrow valley off to the top left.) Bottom:  Ivrea’s main street.

Our first stop was Ivrea.  We stopped there because someone who works at Bob’s office lives there and said it was an attractive town.  (Some Italian suburbs are just outlying areas of cities with ugly new apartment buildings.) Ivrea had one main pedestrian thoroughfare, a Saturday market, a river running alongside it, and up the hill, a cathedral and a fort.  We got some coffee and walked along the main street, then bought some cookies at the market.  When the seller heard me explaining to Bob in English what was in all the types of cookies, he asked, “Are you German?”  Which means he didn’t speak any English at all.

Then, curious about what was further up into the mountains, we kept driving. Just outside of Ivrea, we saw a large storybook castle.

Terraced grape arbors on the sides of the mountains.

As we started to drive into the valley between the Alps, we saw more castles. Some looked ruined; others looked well-preserved.  We also saw grape arbors all up and down the sides of the mountains, many of them made of stacked stone.  And eventually we saw a sign saying that we had left Piemonte and were entering the Valle d’Aosta.  Signs were in Italian and French.  Roofs went from tile to slate.  All the place names were French.  We were obviously in a border region.

Aosta had a cobbled main pedestrian street similar to that in Ivrea.  We walked along it until we found a restaurant that looked traditional, but not ridiculously touristy.  We are aware as we walked in, however, that there was something about this town that drew tourists, because we sat between a French family and a Chinese couple, and our waiter spoke English.  Excited to be in a different region, we tried items from the menu that didn’t look familiar.  We found out that Valdostan cuisine means cheese, especially Fontina.  I had ham and cheese crepes and Bob had polenta with cheese.  Bob couldn’t finish his polenta, which says a lot.

Thus armed with calories, we continued to explore the town.  We knew that it had some extant Roman walls.  Those, in fact, were right next to the restaurant, with apartments built between them (above).  But then we saw a map with an amphitheater.  After walking down a couple of dead ends, we found it.  In retrospect, it would have been hard not to.  It took up most of the town!


Most of the houses in these photos are either the back side of the main thoroughfare or one block back. The third photo from the bottom shows the Tour Frommage.

The amphitheater was well-preserved, and there were medieval buildings built into it all around the edges. Some were still lived in, like the ones between the walls in the photo above, and others, mostly the towers, were now preserved as monuments.  Our favorite was the Tour Frommage, or Cheese Tower.  It was so named because the family who built it was named Casei, which sounds like casein, Spanish queso, etc.  Even though the Italians and French say formaggio and frommage respectively, the association wasn’t lost on them.  Nor on our family, who quickly invented a family tree using feminine-sounding cheese names like Velveeta.

By time we finished walking through the amphitheater, it was too late to explore any longer, so we started back home.  On the way back, Sarie decided to try to count and photograph all the castles. There seemed to be one on every semi-independent rock in the valley.  The photography was of mixed success, since we were now on the autostrada and opening the car windows resulted in tons of noise and a wet lens.  But she counted eleven castles. Below is Bard, a Savoy castle, one of the largest, and one of the closest to the road:

Of course, all these castles and ruins got us wondering what the story was behind them, so I did a bit of Googling when I got home.

One thing I found was that every Roman colony town had a main road, a decumanus, running from east to west.  This is why both Ivrea and Aosta were split right down the middle by a wide  (pedestrian) thoroughfare. And the walls we had seen in Aosta were its Porta Praetoria, or military gate, facing the direction of barbarian invasion (the Alps).  And then I realized that Torino’s main pedestrian shopping street,Via Garabaldi, was once its decumanus.  Via Garibaldi runs straight west towards the Alps from the Palazzo Madama, which is built around the original Roman east gate.  And Via Palatina, which is one of my favorite streets in Torino, was probably its main north/south road, or cardo.

It’s a little harder to tell about the castles.  Border regions usually get left out of the sort of history you study in school.  Everyone learns about the Holy Roman Empire and Italian Unification under the Savoys.  But The History of the Medieval World annoyingly leaves Torino off every map until almost the last chapter of the book, so it’s hard to tell where it belonged when.

After the Celts, Romans, Ostrogoths, Franks and Lombards, it was ruled in the late 900s by Arduin of Ivrea, who took it after the Saracens were expelled. The Saracens?  What were they doing in the Alps?  Then the Burgundians. Then the Savoys.  No wonder they needed castles.

And thus ended our little reconnaissance mission into the mountains. I didn’t even mind the rain, because the clouds made the landscape look mysterious and fairy-tale like. But I can’t wait to go back and see the insides of the castles.

In which we drive into France, but not very far

After lunch today, we drove into France, just because we could.  We’ve rented a friend’s car for the month, and France is only about forty minutes away.  We drove to a lake just on the other side of the French/Italian border, in an area called Moncenisio, or Mount Cenis in French. Down on the Piemontese plan, there had been a sunny haze that bordered on a fog, and visibility was low. As we drove up into the Alps, the haze dissipated and the sky became piercingly clear.

When we got to the lake, we realized it would be an excellent place to hike, but we had gotten a late start, Sarie had forgotten her passport, and it was plain that the French border police only let us through to have a quick look. Still, the view was beautiful. We were just above the tree line, at what was probably a dammed up melt lake. All along the road on the way up were what had probably formerly been old roadside inns, now abandoned, and as we approached the border, we started to see partially melted snow (there was one cold, rainy day in Torino this week). Terra cotta roofs gradually gave way to slate ones, and sometimes there were both materials on the same roof. Signs, too, were a mixture of Italian and French.

On the way back down the mountain, we stopped for an afternoon macchiato at the first Italian bar we came to, in Clòo. We realized that we felt at home hearing Italian and following Italian customs. Still, we’d love to return to the Alps soon for a hike. Crossing the border almost makes me want to review my French–one day.

Clòo, where we stopped for macchiato.  It has both slate and terra cotta roofs