Up in our little corner of Italy, we’ve almost forgotten that it’s winter. Days are warming and the bulbs I planted last November are valiantly pushing out their tender buds in a burst of colour.
Seeing them reminds me that winter never lasts forever. No matter how cold, harsh or dry the days, eventually the spring warmth and gentle rain awaken the earth.
We’re still waiting for the rain. It hasn’t rained since Christmas and the forest is tinder dry. Nevertheless, spring’s urge has woken the forest flowers and in some places, they carpet the dry, leaf-strewn soil under parched trees. May the rains come soon.
Another Sunday and another of the walks in the mountains I’ve been enjoying so much! I wasn’t going to write about this walk, but the sheer beauty of the place and its uniqeness compared to my other walks convinced me that it’s worth mentioning and certainly well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
We started off on a paved path in Gressoney St. Jean, which soon became a sandy road. The path runs past these beautiful houses with their resplendent flowers and wooden walls, so typical of this Walzer valley tucked away in the north of Italy. The path rose quite quickly into a larch forest, becoming narrower and more tortuous, the shady trees and light breeze providing a welcome coolness in contrast to patches of bright sun.
Once again, my attention was captured by the flowers… and the butterflies! So many bright jewels flitting by!
This was the day I learnt that my companions weren’t infallible. We took a bit of a detour because no one could remember with certainty which path we had to take. Was it 11A or 11B? We took the 11B path for ten or 15 minutes before deciding that we should go back and take the 11A. We climbed higher and higher with some debate going on and a fair amount of questioning of passers by. When we reached a meadow and stone huts, consensus was reached that we should have stayed on the other path but we would be able to find tbe path and join up with the other one. So we struck out across the meadow, passing the huts and climbing the hill behind them, looking for the path. Fortunately, the path became clear as we neared the top and we were off again, stopping briefly to munch on wild blueberries, exquisite little bursts of flavour such as I’ve never had before.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
When I arrived home, I could hardly lift my feet to get up the stairs. Would I do it again? You bet!
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.
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.
Some of the houses and other buildings date back to the 1600s and 1700s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Further down, we stopped to top up our water bottles and were enchanted by the butterflies drinking from a trickle on a rock.
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?
I’ve just survived my second week of teaching English at a summer city camp in Italy. The first week, in June, was extremely nerve wracking. I was so nervous and agitated about being prepared that I couldn’t sleep at night after spending the last few hours before bed reviewing what I would be doing the next day. By the end of the week I was shattered.
This time, I was ready for my overactive brain and didn’t prepare late into the night. Sleep came more easily, and a rested mind left me with more energy the next day.
As before, we stayed with a host family whose daughter would be attending the camp. My partner teacher, Giulia, and I were welcomed with open arms and shared an attic room with an en-suite bathroom and a resident cat. Actually, there were two cats, but only Micio came looking for company and slept at the foot of my bed every night. He had the most gorgeous face with an intelligent gaze. While practising the guitar one morning, I looked up to find him watching me intently from the top stair, his unblinking gaze and tilted head taking in everything I was doing. I almost expected him to start talking to me!
So here are a few observations and ideas from my experience.
Be prepared, but be flexible. Things can change in a moment and if you see something isn’t working, it’s better to change it. When a game or activity was no longer fun, we moved on to the next idea to keep things fresh and fun.
It’s not really necessary to organise every moment of the day. We found that our kids begged us for free time when they would quite happily organise their own games with a ball. If you have enough balls, you can have three or four different games going. Favourites were football for the boys and various versions of tag using a ball. They also loved it if we joined in with their games. Although it was quite exhausting, judicious use of my time and energy helped forge a bond between myself and the children and made class discipline a little easier.
I found a lot of good ideas on the Internet. Besides finding examples of English camp songs (for ESL purposes), I found a number of brilliant ideas that worked very well. The first of these was a simple call and answer to get the kids’attention when they were particularly excited and noisy. Most teachers will probably know this one, but I didn’t. It was a lifesaver! Teacher shouts, “One, two, three, eyes on me!” Campers must reply, “One, two, eyes on you!” I stressed that they should stop what they were doing, look at me, and listen for instructions. It worked like a charm, and made a very good impression at the final day concert.
The second was my “Good English” cards. Most Italian kids of this age can’t string together a sentence in English, although they maye be able to conjugate various verbs correctly. My main aim for this camp was to get them talking and to help them realise that it’s not as hard as they think. So I found this sheet of squares with “Good English”, printed off a large amount and cut them apart to keep in my pocket. I told my kids that if they used good English any time in the day, they could get a card. At the end of the day, each camper counted his or her cards and the camper with the most cards could choose a sticker from a supply i brought with me. I also decided on a second camper to get a sticker every day so that not only the best students got stickers. I was soon surrounded by campers, even during the freeplay period, as they asked me questions and tried to make conversation. Success!
The final day mini concert was a proud moment for me as campers who hadn’t wanted to speak last time around spoke loudly and proudly in front of their parents. All in all it was exciting, exhausting and very satisfying and I’m looking forward to doing it all again next summer. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and write a reply to a twelve-year-old camper who wants to continue speaking English.