Snow hike

Nothing could be better than getting a late Saturday night message that says, “Do you want to go walking in the mountains with us tomorrow? ” I will admit, I hesitated before replying because I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It never is, but the feeling of achievement when you get to your destination and the beauty of the walk is well worth the effort.

Bluest of skies contrasting with pristine snow.

This was only my second walk with snow shoes and the first was relatively easy, with long, flat stretches and a small climb in altitude. Not so for the second time! We stopped in a parking area of the village and had a short, steep walk to the start of the trail. I was already tired and I hadn’t even put on my snowshoes! When we started walking, the going was relatively flat and open. it was a beautiful, sunny day and though the air was crisp, the sun warmed us as we walked. Around us, the snow lay deep and heavy on the fields, sparkling iln the morning sun. I’m always amazed at how soft and powdery snow can be when it’s fresh, and the snow was about as fresh as you could get.

My snow shoes.

We started out eagerly, following a narrow trail forged by the early birds. Around us, there was a profound quiet such as you only get when the snow lies thick on the ground. An occasional soft thud signalled the falling snow from an overhead branch. The only other sound was my deep breaths and the chattering of the leaders, who obviously had no problem with shortness of breath.

What a stunning backdrop!
Friends make life better!
Forest snowdrifts
Icy river and snowcapped rocks

As I walked, my snow shoes collected the snow underfoot and seemed to get heavier and heavier. I had to stop regularly to tap my feet together and dislodge the snow. Just when I was getting to the end of my tether, we came towards a group of houses where we stopped for a short rest. Grateful for a drink, I admired the view before my friends chivvied me along the path again. Imagine my dismay when someone said, “That was the easy part. Now the hard part starts!”

Coming up to the houses. A welcome rest.

My heart sank. I briefly considered telling them I would wait at the houses for them. If it weren’t for the fact that someone was sure to volunteer to stay behind with me and I didn’t want to spoil the walk for anyone, I might have done that. As it was, I bit my tongue and slogged on. The gradient increased steeply and we passed through a forested area, zigzagging sharply in order to climb quickly.

Up, up, up. Am I falling behind?
Take that photo now because I’m not sure I’ll make it to the top!

A number of times I thought I couldn’t lift my legs another step, but it’s amazing what you can do when you have no other choice. I slogged on slowly with Lino behind me, encouraging me all the way and finally reached the lake where the others were already pulling out sandwhiches and flasks. I loved the applause they gave me! I did it! I grabbed my lunch and sank to the ground for a well-deserved rest.

Looking across the lake.
Pristine alpine beauty.
Snow-capped rock.
Lunch on the trail.

The break was all too short and before long we were heading down the trail again. Why is it that you seem to move so much faster on the homeward trail? My biggest problem was trying not to slip or fall on the steep slope and my knees and thighs shouted their displeasure at what I was doing. At one point I did slip. I put out a hand to save myself and, plof, my arm sank into the snowdrift up to my elbow. My face came up with snow all over my glasses and my knees were covered in snow too. Pity no one was close enough to take a photo. It made me smile though and when I told the others they said that everyone falls at least a few times.

Trying to get the snow on my shoulders.

When I arrived home, I could hardly lift my feet to get up the stairs. Would I do it again? You bet!

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Thoughts on a train trip

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I love train trips! Even the short half-hour trip to Chivasso to visit beloved grandchildren and daughter has a charm of its own. Slowly the train accelerates, wheels click-clacking with hypnotic regularity. I gaze out of the window at field and forest, cocooned in the warmth inside the coach.

Muffled conversation lulls my senses and I slip deeper into the moment, noticing the deep green of newly planted fields and the bright glow of spring sunshine. Lifting my gaze, I’m awestruck by the distant Alps. Powdery peaks line up as far as the eye can see, anchoring me in this place, this moment. There’s Monviso, one of the highest peaks, towering over Turin. A hawk hovers over a newly turned field, perfectly balanced in the morning air, while a coven of evil looking crows struts the field, pecking and squabbling. The track beats the rhythm of my destination like a simple repetitive prayer. My heart aches with the sheer beauty and oneness of it all.

Then, the familiar curve as the line enters Chivasso. The coach leans to one side. Brakes screech as it slows..until…..finally…….. it stops. Doors hiss and airlocks release with a thud – slide open. We’re there. Down the steps, through the underpass, up the other side.

Celebrating 2017, Welcoming 2018

Happy New Year everyone! May 2018 be a year of love, success, joy and peace for all of you.

An Old Irish Blessing

May love and laughter light your days,
and warm your heart and home.
May good and faithful friends be yours,
wherever you may roam.
May peace and plenty bless your world
with joy that long endures.
May all life’s passing seasons
bring the best to you and yours!

Usually I can’t wait to finish the year and start a new one, in the hope that the new one will somehow be better than the old. This year was different. At the start of 2017, I made a “good memories jar” and throughout the year, I added slips of paper with special memories of all the good things that had happened to me.

This was the cover of my jar, with images of things that are special to me.

Last night, I opened the jar.

And throughout the evening, we chose a slip and read it to each other. So saying goodbye to 2017 was a very pleasant trip down memory lane and 2018 was welcomed in with hope and joy. This was the best New Year’s Eve ever!

What New Year’s Eve traditions do you have? Share them with us in the comments.

A little gem

Last Sunday I learnt some important lessons about living here and experiencing the beauty and diversity of my adopted country. First, there are little gems in tucked away places, waiting to be discovered by the traveller who is determined enough to go out and find them. Second, if you really want to know a place, ask a local. The jewel of this walk was a tiny village called Chemp, situated above Pont St Martin in the Aosta valley.

After a slight organizational hiccup, we parked our car near Nantey and started walking up a path between some houses. The weather was cool and overcast, sadly not the best for photographing the glorious autumn colours, but good for the approximately 600m climb that our walk would entail.

The mountains here are thickly wooded with chestnut trees and our path was strewn with bursting chestnut pods, their fat, shiny fruit begging to be collected. I’m not really a fan of chestnuts, they’re too floury for me, but even I couldn’t resist collecting a few for my son-in-law, who enjoys them.

Theres something magical about walking in a forest with the sound of the wind in the trees and a waterfall in the background. The forest seems alive and you feel as if you are breathing in its essence.

The path climbed steeply, passing over rock steps and around steep cliffs, until we found ourselves in a meadow with our objective, the village of Chemp, just beyond.

This little village was abandoned and slowly decaying, until the artist Angelo Giuseppe Bettoni discovered it and dreamt of breathing new life into it. He managed to buy one of the houses, which he uses as a summer home, and over the years, he has populated the village with sculptures, some his own and some by sculptor friends. A stroll through the village finds the visitor charmed by sculptures tucked away in little nooks and corners or proudly standing beside the buildings.

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This has to be one of my favourites!

Some of the houses and other buildings date back to the 1600s and 1700s.

The sculptor's house.

Who could resist this little fellow peeping round the corner of one of the houses?

And the pastoral peaceof this...

But don't forget to look up! IHard to believe it's all wood as it seems so light and carried on the wind.f you

If you’re interested, you can watch an evocative video containing some sculptures and the sculptor explaining his reasons for establishing an open air museum in this little corner of the world. He calls his project A Dream Carried on the Wind. It’s in Italian, but don’t mind that – just soak in the beauty of it.

Ps. For visitors who would prefer not to hike the mountain paths, there is a road to the village. If you’re in the area, don’t miss it.

Priceless!

Today’s prompt is Priceless. So much could be said, but this is my personal list of some of the things that I count above price in my life and in life in general.

  • Hearing my grandchild call me Nonna or Granny.
  • Feeling arms around my neck and a tired little head resting on my shoulder.
  • The look in your eyes when you say I love you.
  • The love and support of dear friends.
  • A walk on the wild side with friends.
  • The look on your face when you realised you had thrown our medicines in the bin and left the composting refuse in a packet on the table.
  • A day’s work for a day’s wage.
  • A good night’s sleep.
  • A thankful heart.
  • A roof over my head and a warm bed to sleep in.

What do you count as priceless in your life?

Life lessons from a walk in the mountains

Sunday saw me in the mountains again, this time on a longer and more difficult walk. Instead of giving you a boring account of every step, however, I thought I’d share some of the thoughts inspired by another spectacular day in the open.

Anything worth doing or having requires effort and sacrifice. The view at the top was worth every exhausting step!

Take time to enjoy the view. Life is all about the trip.

Don’t forget to look back often. It helps to see how far you’ve come.

Expect the unexpected. Change is the only constant in life, so they say, and nothing is more changeable than the weather in the mountains!

Some paths are easier than others but we all get to where we need to be in the end.

The company you keep impacts on how much you enjoy the journey. Stick with those who encourage you and build you up.

If you’re in Italy or coming to visit, this walk is in the Aosta area, in a valley called Valsavarenche. It entails a walk of about 2 and a half hours on well beaten paths with a climb of about 750m. Information on the walk and the mountain hut prices here.

A walk in the mountains – Italian style

I’ve been here for quite a while now, but never really taken the opportunity to go walking in the mountains as so many of the locals do on a regular basis. The Alps are a little intimidating when you come from a place where you never went walking. The hills and high mountains are crisscrossed with paths and sign-posted walks, but unless you really know what you’re doing, you can get horribly lost, so it’s best to walk in groups or with a knowledgeable friend.

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On top of the world!

Last Sunday was my perfect chance. Adriana invited me to spend the day with her, Lino, Graziella, Giuseppe, and his dog Elliot, and since my better half would be glued to the computer putting in extra hours on a long and complicated translation job, my answer was yes, yes, yes!

We left by car at eight in the morning and by nine we were in Champorcher, a village in the Aosta region of Italy. After a short drive above Champorcher, we arrived where we were going to leave the car. This always amazes me: we simply parked the car at the side of the road along with many others. Obviously we were not the only ones with a yen for a walk in the mountains! There is never any concern for the safety or position of the car. Italians just park and go! (Perhaps I should explain here that my surprise has more to do with my husband’s habit of always looking for a shady, out of the way spot than with any bad parking habits of the Italians.) A short walk up the road led to the start of our designated path where there was a map (which I forgot to photograph – curses!) showing the various paths in the area. You can also buy maps with indications of the various walks in an area. We chose one of the shorter routes since we had to be back in Champorcher by 3pm for a piano accordion concert in which Franco, Adriana’s husband, and Luigi, Giuseppe’s son, were playing. We would take a circular route, stopping at one of the lakes for a packed lunch.

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“Let’s go, ” said Adriana, and the five of us and Elliot the jack russel started up a path of stone steps. He had to be kept on a lead as we were walking in the “Mont Avic” nature reserve where a free ranging dog might chase and disturb the wildlife. I looked up and the path rose steeply above us, disappearing into the trees. The steps soon degenerated into uneven rocks and sandy path and we concentrated on stepping carefully so as not to slip or twist an ankle. A word from the (now) initiated: if you’re going to walk in the mountains, make sure you have a good pair of walking boots. They’re absolutely essential because they support the ankle in a way that a running shoe doesn’t. For a while, my ankle started to hurt, but after concentrating on putting my foot flat, the pain faded and I was able to walk strongly again. I was so thankful for the boots I’d bought a couple of years ago!

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looking ahead…Elliot is happily sniffing around.
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Looking back…

I looked around, drinking in the view and everything about being in such a glorious place. Trickling streams joined others and became gushing waterfalls, a background soundtrack to my thoughts and breaths. Birds twittered above the buzz and hum of a myriad of insects and the flowers… Oh, the flowers were a delight for the eye! They ranged from tiny to tall and I had to stop and photograph each new wonder. I think I love the tiny flowers best of all. There is such exquisite perfection in each minute bloom and leaf that it takes your breath away.

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Bluebells? Not sure, but they were the first flowers I saw.
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The smallest flowers. Tiny perfection! Wish I knew what they were.
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More exquisite perfection.
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Gentian flower. My find of the day!
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Excuse me for saying so, but the taller flowers seem brash and almost vulgar beside their petite cousins!

We reached the top of the hill, starting down the other side and I soon learnt the downside of a walk such as this. When I was tiring on the upward slope, the others encouraged me by saying that after an upward slope, there is always a downward one. That’s true, but I soon discovered that after every downward slope there was always an upward one! Nevertheless, by taking it slowly, I was able to keep up with my fitter friends and stay the distance. It certainly helped that we slowed down to pick wild blueberries (not as sweet as commercial ones but all the nicer for being enjoyed while in the mountains) or to photograph and comment on the scenery. Rocky outcrops and slopes mingled with fields of heather and juniper.

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Juniper and heather rampant on the hillside.
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Trickling, gurgling, rushing streams: the background soundtrack to my thoughts.

We passed two herds of cattle, their cowbells clanging and echoing through the mountains long after we had left them behind. At first I was enchanted, but then I thought of all the wildlife and how they must have been disturbed by the sound. I suppose they must get used to it. We didn’t see any wildlife and I wonder if the cows and the number of people were part of the reason although, to be honest, the cloudy weather and the time of day could have played a part too.

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Cheese in the making! Alpine cheese is infused with the flavours of an Alpine meadow.

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Another seemingly interminable rise, another dip and finally we arrived at the lake and a very welcome lunch break. There were quite a few groups of walkers dotted around, chatting and munching. I was fascinated by the colourful reflection of one group in particular and tried to capture it. For being simple phone camera shots, I think my efforts weren’t too bad! While we were having a quiet lunch, we were disgusted at being disturbed by a group on the opposite bank who were flying a drone. We agreed that had it come close enough and had we had the means, we would have blasted it out of the sky. But that’s another blog post!

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First view of our picnic spot. Who wouldn’t love this?
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Reflections

Our relaxing lunch break was all too short and soon we were heading back on a different route. It was obviously the short way back because the path snaked steeply down. Our knees complained as we braced ourselves on the slippery, rocky path and I was grateful for the Nordic walking stick that Graziella lent me. It made me feel just a little more secure. We picked up the pace as we were running a little late, but I remembered to look around nonetheless. At my feet, a rough hewn stone “bridge” was bolted together to allow an easy crossing over a little stream. How long had it been there, I wondered. And who had built it? A little further along, the path rounded a corner and the vista opened up. Verdant meadows with tiny stone lodges lay dizzyingly far below, backed by brooding, forested peaks. To my right, a rocky outcrop dominated the view. I took a deep breath and let it soak into my soul.

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Stone mountain huts abound.
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That rocky bridge. See the holes and the bolts?
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Yes, I really was that close to the edge!

Further down, we stopped to top up our water bottles and were enchanted by the butterflies drinking from a trickle on a rock.

butterflies by Adriana
Photo by Adriana

All told, we think we walked about 10 km and climbed about 680 m. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was up hill and down dale all the way and my legs were aching. But the day wasn’t over yet. Arriving back in Champorcher, we parked the car and drifted towards the accordion music echoing from the medieval centre of the little village. An enthusiastic and talented group of musicians was seated at the entrance to the little chapel, entertaining a growing crowd of listeners who arranged themselves in the little piazza, some seated on a mishmash of kitchen chairs and benches supplied by the church and some sprawled on the grass in the shade of a tower and a war memorial.

I chose a spot on the grass and closed my eyes, concentrating on the music. The enthusiasm of the musicians was catching, and I found myself humming along and tapping my feet in time to the music. They took us on a whirlwind musical tour of the world, with pieces evoking or coming from, among others, France, Spain, Russia, and Africa. I glanced at the faces around me. The little crowd kept swelling and people were singing, swaying or humming along with even more gusto than I was! The grand finale was a piece played by all the musicians who had contributed to the day. I pictured the notes floating into the mountains on a never-ending journey. What a wonderful way to end a spectacular day!

When I got home, I collapsed on the couch and didn’t move until bedtime. However, after a good night’s sleep and a few day’s rest, I think I’m ready to do it all again. Anyone want to go walking on Sunday?

Spaghetti Alla Norma a Modo Mio (Spaghetti Alla Norma My Way)

Yesterday was Cleaning Day and I hate Cleaning Day! Perhaps I should qualify that: I hate the process but I love the result. There is nothing like the smell of a freshly dusted and polished house or the feel of a newly washed floor underfoot. Anyway, since it was a hard day cleaning, it had to be an easy day cooking and nothing is easier than pasta, in my book.

A quick look in the fridge revealed an aubergine begging to be eaten and a plan began to form. This recipe is based on a recipe from an Italian recipe book, but I tweaked it with the addition of bacon bits. My daughter has the firm belief that there’s nothing that can’t be improved with the addition of bacon, and I tend to agree. If you want the authentic recipe, just leave out the bacon. The ingredients are enough for two hungry people as a main meal. If you serve this as a primo, Italian style, then it would probably serve three or four people.

Ingredients :

1 aubergine
1 onion
100g bacon bits
250g spaghetti
Tomato passata
A few fresh basil leaves finely chopped
Salt
A small mozzarella ball (about 125g)
Chilli pepper to taste

Peel and slice the aubergines in thick slices. Salt them and leave them to draw for twenty minutes.
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In the meantime, peel and dice the onion and the bacon if it isn’t already diced. Prepare the basil leaves and keep them aside.
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Fry the bacon and onion together. You can add a little oil if needed. I always fry my onion until it is soft as I don’t like it crunchy, but you do it the way you like it. It should be golden and delicious. Mmmmm….can you smell that delicious onion and bacon smell?
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Now prepare the aubergine. Rinse and dry the slices well. Cut them into squares and fry them in a little hot oil. They will absorb the oil. When they have browned all over, drain them on kitchen paper. Be careful not to let them brown too much!
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When they are ready, add them to the pan with the bacon and onion. Add the passata, salt and chilli pepper to taste and allow to cook until the brinjal is cooked through and the sauce is rich and glossy.
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Now prepare the pasta.
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You need a large pot because pasta needs to cook in lots of water. None of this shoving it in a tiny pot. You need one this size and the water must be boiling with a rolling boil before you put the pasta in. Add lots of salt to the water. According to one italian saying, the pasta water should be as salty a the sea.

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Add the spaghetti to the pot in one piece. Do not break it or you’ll spoil the chance to eat it like an italian, slowly slurping in those stray strands that wouldn’t twirl on the fork. The strands slowly sink into the water as they soften and you can help them with a fork, turning and mixing them slowly. Put the pot lid on to bring the water back to the boil quickly, but watch the pot as it boils over easily. Once you have a rolling boil again, you can remove the lid. Use a long fork or spaghetti spoon to agitate and turn the pasta now and then while it cooks. This will help prevent the strands from sticking to each other. Cook until the spaghetti is cooked enough for you. It’s a personal thing. Al dente for most Italians means that there must still be a hard bite in the centre of the pasta. I don’t like that and cook until that bite is gone but the pasta is still relatively firm. About 14 minutes for this pasta.

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While the pasta is cooking, dice the mozzarella into small dices.
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Drain the pasta in a colander, keeping aside a little of the cooking water to add to your sauce if it’s too thick or too little and needs extra liquid. This is a trick all Italian mammas know and use to make a sauce stretch. It also helps make a sauce creamier. Put the spaghetti back in the pot and slowly add the hot pasta sauce, the diced mozzarella and the chopped basil, mixing gently. Add only enough to give the pasta a generous coating, not to drown it in sauce. I used about half the sauce and froze the rest for another meal.

Serve with a little grated parmesan. Buon appetito!
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Double trouble, double blessings, plus one = triple blessings!

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That’s right. Twins! This celebration is one of the best. My daughter-in-law is expecting twin girls. Sadly, the distance between us means that we won’t get to hold them and love them as much as we would like. But we will be sharing in the joy and excitement of the arrival of these two precious babies. And we pray that they, their siblings and their parents may be blessed and sustained throughout their lives. Their arrival turns a family with two children into a family with four children. Yikes!

But wait. There’s more! My daughter, who lives near us in Italy, is expecting her first child. For the first time I get to share in the pregnancy. We feel incredibly blessed to be able to share in her pregnancy, seeing scan pictures and hearing about her experiences. And we know we will share in this baby’s life in a meaningful way. We are truly blessed and very thankful!

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