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.

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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?

Adventures in teaching English in Italy

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.

      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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      How to Make a New Life in Italy

      Thinking of pulling up your roots and setting down in La Bella Italia? Well, you’ve popped in at just the right time. Pull up an armchair, make yourself comfortable and let’s get started. I have so many things to tell you.

      Before you leave

      – First, and most importantly, start at the beginning (or even earlier if possible). the best thing you could do now is go back about 15 years or so and marry an Italian. That’s right! Being married to an Italian makes the bureaucracy involved so much easier. If, prompted by your guardian angels, you have done such a thing, you’re home free. If not, you’ll have to follow the bureaucratic route and get a work visa and a “permesso di soggiorno” (literally a “permission to stay”). I can’t help you with details very much, as I didn’t have to do this since I married my Italian an age ago in sunny South Africa. But here’s a site where you can get information.

      – Now that you’ve been bitten by the bug, here’s your most important job. Plan, Plan and Plan some more! How will you find work? Where will you live? Will you rent a property or buy? Remember that property prices and rentals are high in comparison to average salaries. Do your homework so that you know what your possibilities are. Get on the good old Internet and research every aspect you can think of.

      At this point, an exploratory trip may be useful if you can afford it. If like us, you are selling a house and moving across lock, stock and barrel, think about whether it would be better to sell all your furniture and buy new furniture when you arrive or whether you want to take your furniture with you. There is very little market in Italy for second-hand goods, so I suggest you either keep it or sell it in your country. We moved a container of furniture (at great cost) and we could have left a lot of things behind. Use the opportunity to declutter your life and your home. Remember as well, that most Italian homes are small and anything extra is likely to get in the way. You’re going to want to throw it out when you don’t know where to put it!

      Start learning Italian! This may seem like an obvious point, but I’m amazed at how many people I’ve met who are convinced that the rest of the world will speak their language – English. No. Most Italians do not speak English. In fact, few of them speak it at all, and very few of them speak it well. You’re visiting their country, pay them the respect of at least trying to speak their language.They will love you for it! And to get you started, here is one of the best learning Italian Podcasts I’ve found on the Net. Take a look. Listening is free and in-depth lesson notes are provided to paid subscribers.

      Bolster your savings. In our experience, the first two or three years were the most difficult. If you don’t have a job immediately, or you’ve decided to work for yourself, those savings are going to disappear at an alarming rate and you’re going to need every penny of them. It takes time to build up work relationships and a customer base in a country where everything revolves around “raccomandazioni”. My husband networked with his initial clients to expand his client base, but it took a long time.

      When you get here

      This is when the most exciting part starts! And this is where the fork meets the pasta. Your success and your happiness depend on what you do now. Speak Italian as much as possible, even if your hair curls and you instinctively cringe to hear your crummy accent or your poor grammar. It doesn’t matter! No one expects perfection. Were you basically understood? Yes? Then you did well. No? Then find out where you went wrong and work on it. It’s tempting to stop talking because you feel so stupid. I know; I’ve been there. But you have to fight that temptation. If you can afford to do an Italian course, find one in your area. If not, many local municipalities (“comune” in Italian) offer free Italian lessons for foreigners. Take advantage of them! Courses have two benefits: they get you talking and they get you out of the house and meeting people. It’s a win-win situation!

      – In conversation, avoid negative comparisons between your country and Italy (unless you’re showing the negative side of your own country). Nobody likes hearing their homeland criticized by another, and even less by a visitor. When I was a child, we called Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) settlers in South Africa “when-wes” because many of their conversations started with, “when we were in Rhodesia…”and ended with some negative comment about South Africa. Don’t be a when-we. Focus on the positive and people will respond to you in a positive way.

      Accept that your new life will never be the same as the old. La Bella Italia is a seductive force, but she can also be a hard task master. Accept the bad with the good and you’ll have more chance of a fulfilling, ulcer free stay. Getting any official documents can be a slow nightmare and often one department doesn’t know what another department requires and instructions may be conflicting. Take a deep breath and go with the flow. You will get there eventually, along with all the other poor souls in the waiting room with you. Use the time and the camaraderie to practice your Italian.

      In many official places, as well as banks, hospital departments and some shops or market stalls, you will be expected to take a number from a machine standing in the corner and wait your turn. This is a good thing, as it scuppers any inveterate queue jumpers from reverting to their normal bad behaviour! Everyone knows that Italians are incapable of forming and maintaining a single queue. Queues without numbers quickly degenerate into multiple queues or (my personal favourite) a nondescript clump where the jumpers sneakily migrate to the front. Take a number and advise others to do the same. you will enjoy the peace!

      – If you are entitled to do so, use the public health system, but don’t abuse it. Like most national health systems, it is by no means perfect, but it is better than nothing. Accept that there is a waiting list for certain types of treatment, but know that if it were an emergency, you would get the help you need.

      Enjoy the beauty around you. Get out of the house as much as possible. Try new things. Learn to snowboard or ski. Make a list of the places you want to see and start crossing them off. Even if it is only at the rate of one place a year, you will be living your dream. Take pictures and tell friends about the journey.

      Keep a journal. I have a number of journals, and when I look back, I can see how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown. My journals remind me of the places I’ve been, the beauty I’ve seen and the people I’ve met along the way. Don’t be afraid to write down your sad moments too. Reading them later helps you realize how blessed you have been and how your sadness has been lifted. Talking of sadness, most people battle with depression of some form when making a move such as this. Initially, you feel lost and isolated. All your points of reference have disappeared. It’s okay. Ride it out as much as you can, but don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it. In the first years after our move, I often found myself “recognising” distant friends with a leap of the heart followed by the sinking realisation that this person wasn’t the friend who was far away back home. It happened less and less as time went by and now, twelve years later, it hardly ever happens.

      Nowadays, I’m far more likely to hear my name called when I’m out and about, to be greeted with kisses and to be invited to stop for coffee in a bar. And when it happens, I’m always a little surprised and thrilled. And I think to myself, “This is my life. I really have made a new life here.” And you can too!

      You’ve done the preparation. you’ve done the maths. Now go out and start living your dream!

      Revised Dec 2014

      The heart of Italy still seduces her visitors

      Every little corner, village and town in this beautiful country has a gem or two to be discovered if you are willing to slow down, ask around and look out for it. Most people visiting Italy head for the well known tourist traps. Though these places are stunningly beautiful in their own right, you are cheating yourself and missing out on the real Italy if you dont take the time to explore at least some of its lesser know villages and towns. Every region has an abundance of special places where the heart of Italy can be heard and felt to the core.

      A case in point: I live in a little village in Piemonte called Montalto Dora. The crowning glory of this little village of around three thousand inhabitants, surrounded by the splendid green foothills of the alps, is its castle. It’s one of a few privately owned castles in the area and has been faithfully and lovingly restored by the owners.

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      Castle view from the hill closest to the village.

      Not many people know that in the last year or two, the castle has been open to the public on the last Sunday of the month from May until September. The local historical society goes all out to provide a fitting ambience by dressing up as characters from the past and playing ancient instruments as well. Entrance is free, so last Sunday I decided to put on my walking shoes and allow myself to be transported back into the middle ages.

      It’s a good walk from the village, so if you want to visit, wear comfortable walking shoes. Some parts of the road are pretty steep, but taken at a reasonable pace, it’s quite manageable, even for young children. A cobbled road winds out of the village past Villa Cassanna. Look out for the ancient atlantic cedar in the villa grounds. It’s thought to be about two hundred years old. Sadly, on most days, you can only view this magnificent tree through the wrought iron gates. If you’re lucky, however , and there is a special celebration going on, the gates may be open, and you can sit under its shady branches or link hands around its trunk. Who knows what historic personage sat in the same place long ago?

      The winding road snakes up the hill past St Rocco’s cathedral, another little gem not to be missed. Further on, you pass private vineyards and orchards proudly tended by their owners. Quite a few people still make their own wine in this area and if anyone offers you a taste, you shouldn’t hesitate. Just after the little picnic area on the left, you’ll see the road to the castle on your left. On open days there are “alpini” (members of the alpine regiments) waiting to show you the way. Follow the road up to the castle. Don’t forget to admire the splendid view of the valley on your way up.

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      Stop to take a breather and admire the view.

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      As you near the fortress it looms over you imposingly.

      The path is shady and as I walk, I’m surrounded by the sound of birds chirping and the wind rustling the trees. I turn the final corner to find myself facing the castle walls and the arched entrance. I almost expect to hear someone call out, “Halt! Who goes there? Show thy face and declare thy liege!” But I only hear faint voices and medieval music. I quicken my step. Through the arched entrance and I’m in the courtyard, a tiny chapel on my right and a street musician playing a wailing early accordion.

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      Arched entrances draw the visitor on.

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      A street musician fills our ears with wailing music and the jingle of bells as he walks.

      The castle is beautifully restored. I slip into the tiny chapel. Since I’ve come up quite early, I’ve missed the crowds. I’m alone with the worn frescoes and the simple wooden altar.
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      Hand made wrought iron lamps light the castle courtyard at night.
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      Medieval characters add flavour to the visit.
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      This splendid couple are friends who belong to the historical society.

      I join a group of people on a guided tour and learn that the first known mention of a castle in this position was in the 1300s. Over the years the castle, which was more of a fortress and less of a residence, was changed and added on to, then destroyed and rebuilt. The castle we visit today is a faithful restoration based on drawings and documents about the castle, as well as excavation of the site.

      If you would like to see more photos, please visit my album here.

      If you are in Northern Piemonte in the next two months, this little gem will be open to the public on the last Sunday of August and September. Why not come and see it yourself? The September open day will be extra special as it’s the last one for the year.

      Are there any special places you love visiting? Tell us about it.

      How to escape the crazy beach crowds in Diano Marina, Italy

      Just got back from a super relaxing, unexpected break at the sea. The mediterranean may not be the Indian Ocean such as we have off the coast of South Africa, but it is the sea – and I love the sea.

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      Village view: the next town along the coast.

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      Looking down the beach…

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      And up the beach. Rows of beach loungers and umbrellas as far as the eye can see. If you don’t hire an umbrella, you don’t get on the beach. It can cost anywhere from 16 to 20 euros a day for two loungers and an umbrella! You do the math! There are one or two very small “public” beaches in Diano Marina. They work on a first come, first served basis, so if you come to the beach a little late, there will be no space for you or your towel.

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      This is the solution. Locals visit this rocky bay. Yes, its rocky and pebbly, but it has it’s advantages. First of all, no sand in your towel. It’s quiet and secluded. There is no “beach entertainment” so there is no music. Ah… what bliss!

      Hire a bicycle and take a short ride along the old Via Aurelia. Soon you’ll reach the first beach bar – your breakfast stop.

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      Order a cappucino or an espresso and a croissant and enjoy your breakfast beach view.

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      After breakfast, turn your bike around and go back along the Via Aurelia. Stop at the first large break in the railings from the Diano Marina side. Park your bike. Don’t forget to lock it, just to be on the safe side. Then walk down the little path to the rocky beach. You have arrived.

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      Thanks to Jessie at Behind the Willows for inspiring me with her cute post.

      The dog days of summer

      Bees and other insects buzz lazily around the garden while a light breeze plays through the apricot leaves and rustles the liquid-ambers. I close my eyes and absorb the sound of children splashing in the pool and the golden warmth of the late afternoon sun. These are the dog days of summer.

      I wake bleary-eyed in the morning, grateful for the light, cool breeze wafting through the house, keeping the temperature lower than it otherwise would have been. By the time we’ve had breakfast, the rising heat has sapped my energy and I find myself fighting an inner battle to find the motivation to clean the house and cook. After lunch, I collapse on the couch and reading soon degenerates to snoozing. I’m consumed with guilt over all the undone tasks, the unfulfilled intentions.

      And then it strikes me. This is summer! In northern Italy, it’s short – 2 to 3 months of really warm weather. And everyone tells me that after Ferragosto (the 15th of August, which is a major holiday here) the weather changes almost overnight (and it’s true!) Portable pools are cleaned, folded and put away, or covered if left out, and no amount of good weather in September can convince a Northern Italian that they should open the pool and swim. So I should enjoy these dog days while I can. Once Ferragosto is past, it’s back to the Italian version of the rat race as school starts and preparation heads towards Christmas.

      So I’m grateful for this time to relax and watch the season pass by. I’m also grateful for wonderful new neighbours who have decided that the plastic pool they inherited when they bought can be used by all three families living here. What a difference to the previous situation of watching others swim and not being able to do so ourselves!

      I’ll see you in the pool, or maybe at a festival, or if it’s after lunch, be quiet because I’ll be snoozing. And if nothing gets done, that’s also ok!

      A very Lisa and Andrea wedding

      We’ve been planning this wedding for at least a year. Wait, not I, my beautiful daughter and her now husband have been planning. I’ve just been along for the ride, giving my opinion when asked (and sometimes when not) and making that all important dress.

      What a joy it was to have our son with us and to welcome my niece and her husband for the weekend. Being so far away from family, we were delighted to have a house full of people the night before the wedding. We girls painted our nails, giggling and chatting in the kitchen while the guys watched TV in the lounge. Finally, the house was shrouded in darkness and while some snored and dreamt, the poor bride spent a sleepless night. Thank goodness for covering make-up and a smile that never faltered!

      The day dawned, grey and miserable as we had expected. The best we could hope for was a little sunshine to allow the ceremony to be outside. Lisa and I walked into the village just before 8am to have our hair done. By the time she returned just before 9, we had packed the car with our bags and clothes, the dress laid out on top in its special bag. The venue, Castello di Viale, was an hour and a half away by car, so there was no time to waste. The wedding was to be at 11.30, but we still had to get dressed and do our make-up.

      How can I describe the tenderness a mother feels when helping her daughter to dress on her wedding day? She was so beautiful. And she radiated joy. First the petticoat with tulle ruffles, then the dress with its layers of tulle under the skirt and ruffles and bubble hem. Finally the silk jacket, and I had to tie the central rose three times to get it right. Perfect! She sat quietly while her best friend did her make-up. I watched and stored up the memories. My baby has turned into a lovely young woman.

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      I love the flowers in her hair!
      I love the flowers in her hair!

      The sun came out and the chairs were set out quickly in front of the municipal office. If we were lucky, we would make it. Perhaps I should explain. Lisa and Andrea chose a civil wedding which, in Italy, is performed by the mayor. How convenient that the municipal offices in this little village are right next door to the wedding venue (actually, in the same building)! In true Italian style, we started a little late. My heart skipped a beat as Lisa walked out of the building and down the aisle with her dad. She looked so calm and happy! Even her dad looked happy. Best of all  – Andrea’s jaw dropped when he saw her.

      Walking to the aisle.
      Walking to the aisle.
      the ceremony
      The ceremony
      Just married
      Just married
      Funny moment
      Funny moment

      So with the ceremony over and the happy couple whisked away for photos, the guests mingled and enjoyed aperitivi until it was time to have lunch in the dining room upstairs. The chef outdid himself and, in accordance with the couple’s request, laid out a spread of both vegan and traditional aperitivi, each one more delicious than the last. Outside the dining room, they had a seating board with the tables named after countries. They agonised over the seating arrangements and it was obvious because every table was soon chatting and vibrant and everyone was having a great time.

      The wedding lunch was also a mix of traditional and vegan food, carrying on all afternoon and fuelled by good wine and a wonderful atmosphere. Unlike a traditional South African wedding, the couple decided to have no speeches and the happy atmosphere was carried along by their friends’ frequent cries of “Viva gli sposi!” and attempts to get the groom to drink as much as possible, along with much teasing and hilarity.

      Two events stand out in my mind. One was the “sawing of the log”. This is traditional at Italian weddings and signifies the first job the couple have to do together. A very dry log is brought in and set up on the table. Then the couple are given a two-person saw and they have to cut the log while their friends shout comments and cheer when they finish. I had to smile when we complimented Lisa on how well they did and she said, “It was easy. I let Andrea do all the hard work. I just held on!” Here are some photos.

      Sawing the log
      Sawing the log
      Success!
      Success!

      The second tradition is one which Andrea didn’t want his friends to do for obvious reasons, but they did it anyway. The best man walks up and cuts the groom’s tie. He knew this might happen, so he changed his tie after the ceremony. I wish you could have seen Lisa’s face when they walked around to her side with the scissors in hand! I don’t know what she thought they were going to do! Well, they started with the bride’s parents, and cut the tie in little bits which they “sold” to the guests. The money went to the bride and groom. I guess I wasn’t thinking when I gave 50 euros. I hope I didn’t encourage anyone give more than they wanted to. It would be easy to take offence to a tradition like this, but I think it’s a sweet way to help a young couple who are just starting out.

      The rest of the day passed in a blur. Soon we were eating wedding cupcakes and being handed bonbonniere, gifts for the guests with sugared almonds attached. They had chosen bottles of a local wine which had a special label for their wedding. Wait for it – a skull and skeletons representing them with the quote “till death do us part” in both English and Italian.

      wedding cupcakes. Note the lego bride and groom!
      wedding cupcakes. Note the Lego bride and groom!
      moment with guests
      moment with guests

      Well, that was our very Lisa and Andrea wedding. Have you been to a wedding lately? What wedding traditions do you know of?

      I would like to thank my dear friend Ambelene of My Food Memories for the beautiful photos she took. They are precious memories.

      Mr. and Mrs.
      Mr. and Mrs.