While we visited the Cinque Terre area, we camped at this beautiful little campsite in Levanto, just north of Cinque Terre national park. This turned out to be a fantastic decision, not only because the campground was great and a freak, intense thunderstorm forced us to buy a tarp which has helped us since, but because the town of Levanto really treated us well. As disillusioned as we were with Cinque Terre, that’s how much we enjoyed Levanto. Warm and beautiful with twisting alleys and gorgeous beaches, we spent most of our three days in this area soaking up everything we could here, at our last stop in Italy. Then we packed up camp at 3:00am and took a 14 hour train(s) ride to Paris.
*Also you should know two important things I love about this place: the wisteria trees (photo with patrick standing under it) and the fact that the most common vehicle on the road is, by far, the Piaggio Ape50 (photo of me towering over it). I want one of these vehicles. Badly.
Before I start, I want to say for those of you who have been to and love Cinque Terre, we loved it too. The towns were beautiful and amazing, the water was gorgeous and the gelato was great. That being said, after only a few hours in the towns we needed to get out. In a very hypocritical way, we really hated the onslaught of tourists we had to fight our way through. There were so many people all just gawking at the villagers who are either trying to: A) deal with the wave of tourism that has completely changed their way of life or B) trying as best they can to continue their lifestyle and ignore all the sunscreened, Rick Steve guidebook clutching, tourists blocking their path. And it wasn’t even high season! I can’t imagine the whirlwind of people who hit these five towns in the summer. If you don’t know much about Cinque Terre, it’s well worth the wiki/google search to see these towns. They are as beautiful in real life as they are in the photos.
On our last day with Sigismund and Ursula, we again shared a family brunch at the beautiful farmhouse and then Ursula drove us into Volterra. When we told her we were planning to spend a few days in Cinque Terre, she told us that we had to see Volterra before we left. I can’t begin to tell you how right she was. Volterra is the Italy you dream of. It was all alleys and hills and stone and cafes. It’s a town that dates back to the Etruscan civilization (pre-Roman). It’s on the top of a hill and still has the massive wall around it, built to deter invaders. You really should just go and google/wikipedia Volterra right now so you understand just how amazing it is.
While we were there, a hail storm blew in. Since you can see for miles and miles across the surrounding countryside, we watched hill after hill slowly disappear into the rain and storm clouds. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen. It also made the already incredible landscape absolutely epic. If you go somewhere in Tuscany…in Italy for that matter, go here. You will not be disappointed.
We had stunning weather while we worked at Podere Vallari. When we arrived the temperature was around 17 degrees and during the 10 days we were there, it would sometimes even jump to 27. We couldn’t have asked for better weather. On our final morning of work, it rained. It was actually really beautiful to watch the clouds roll in over the hills and the rain was gentle enough it hardly slowed us down. What a beautiful way to end this phase of our trip.
Riparbella is your average Italian medieval town. It’s also the closest town to Podere Vallari and sits on the top of a hill overlooking the valley. The first time we went, we followed the road. I’m not too big to admit that this just about killed me. I think for the entire 70 minutes it took us to climb all the switchbacks in the hot sun with traffic whizzing past us, Patrick wished he had left me at home. I have almost no photos of this first trip. Trust me, it wasn’t great. When we got back that evening Ursula showed us a map of the old walking path that runs through the forest and up the hill into town. This took about half the time, had the ruins of an old olive press to explore, was less constantly uphill and my personal favourite, had two “river” crossings. We ended up using this trail a lot.
The butcher in Riparbella is fantastic. He speaks probably 5 English words and a handful of numbers which was all we needed. He makes his own prosciutto and it is phenomenal. I was seriously considering buying a whole one and shipping it home. Patrick was less enthused with this idea and much more disappointingly realistic.
There are really only about a dozen businesses in Riparbella. A post office (which is only open 3 hrs a day, sometimes), the butcher, the bar, a grocery store, a bakery (which we never saw open), a couple convenience stores, a hardware store and a few restaurants (also never open). It took us a while to get a handle on how this town works. Turns out most businesses are open weekdays from 8-12 and then again from 4-7. This seems to be true of EVERY Italian town we’ve been in. There’s a little catch though. Some businesses are open for a couple hours on Saturday, so to make up for this, they close on a weekday. In Riparbella it was Wednesday (in other towns we’ve been in it’s sometimes been Tuesday). So Riparbella is a great town if you’re looking for something on weekday morning or evening that isn’t a Wednesday. Unless you just want a beer. The bar always seemed to be open.
All of our meals and many great conversations happen at Ursula and Sigismund’s house. This place is a collision of Germany, Africa and Italy all in one and I love it. Sigismund is particuarly gifted at building and has built many of the apartments/houses on their property. I really enjoy homes that have character and say something about the people who live there and Ursula & Sigismund’s place is very much them. We’ve only a few snippets of their home here, but it’s well worth seeing the place we’ve been welcomed into so warmly.
No day at Podere Vallari is complete without mentioning the cats. Ursula and Sigismund have roughly 9-12 cats (two cats just had kittens, that why there’s currently not an official count). We see them before and after every meal and when we eat outside they – mostly just Heidi the small one – beg quietly and patiently at our feet. Ursula says they didn’t name the cats until a few years ago, but now their names range from Paula to Capt’n Jack. Heidi is by far our favourite because she’s small and sweet and purrs so aggressively I sometimes worry she’ll throw herself off the railing. The white one (not sure of her name) has the saddest eyes of any cat I’ve ever met. Paula is also very sweet and spends most her time at our house since her kitten were born in the bush below our bedroom window. We get to wake every morning to tiny kitten mews and we love it!
*As a sidenote, the cats are kept strictly outside and Ursula says she’s not really a cat person. She doesn’t like to touch them, but she encourages them verbally … unless they’re trying to get in the house.
The work load at Podere Vallari can hardly be called work. While we spend all our mornings except Sundays in the olive groves or vineyards it’s usually a really beautiful time of our day. It’s a quiet time of day, the birds are out, the grass is often tall and still wet with dew and by 10am it’s warm enough to wear a tank top and shorts.
When we arrived last Thursday, we got to the farm around 1pm. By 2pm we were in the olive grove. I loved it! We spent a few days collecting all the branches pruned from the olive trees and burning them. Right there in the field, between trees…this would never happen in southern Alberta. Here in Tuscany, you can have open fires for just this type of work until June when it becomes too dry, hot and dangerous to do so. While we burned pile after pile we learned a bit from Ursula & Sigismund about olive production and pests. Having never really been part of farming that involves trees before, it was a whole new world for me (plus getting to burn things for hours was pretty awesome).
A few days later, after we’d finished in the olive grove we moved into the vineyards. Ursula had already been through the lines of vines and had pruned the stocks. Our job now was to unwind, clip and tame these pruned vines from the wires into tidy piles to be burned later. This sounds simple, and in theory it is, but never before have I been made to feel so weak. Some tendrils pulled off the wires easily, while others – only a few mm thick – would cling for dear life. I’d be using my whole weight to pull them off and they’d still hang on. We’ve spent the rest of our work days here involved in this work. We’ve learned a lot about the birds and bugs of the area, the heat of the sun and the beauty of working in the Tuscan hills.
*Also there are tons of these little lizards all over, sunning themselves in the hot dry soil. They’re only a few inches long but they are adorable and I’ll miss hearing them flee up the hillsides as our footsteps approach.
Cecina (cha-chin-na) is the closest “city” to Podere Vallari. It’s not terribly far and we can see it clearly in the valley while we work in the vineyards and olive groves. The land flattens out a fair bit as it drops towards the sea so on Sunday, Patrick and I borrowed Ursula & Sigismund’s bikes and pedaled into Cecina. It was slightly less demoralizing to me than the uphill hike to Riparbella the day before (that’s a whole other post). The town has some beautiful bike paths and we made our way down to a public beach, after stopping at a bar to have a beer or two and a prosciutto and artichoke panini.
The sun was hot and the beautiful Ligurian sea was cool and before we knew it, we were both more red than brown. We stopped for gelato on the way home and walked through the outdoor flower market. All in all, it was a beautiful Sunday trip.
On Sunday morning, we were invited to brunch with Ursula and Sigismund as well as their son & daughter-in-law, their boys and Ursula’s friend Liesel. Their son Valentin had just arrived after having been away from his family for 3 weeks. The boys (all 5yrs and under) were so excited to see him that most of the brunch conversation was punctuated every few seconds with “papa!”.
We walked over to the “big farm house” where Valentin and his family are staying during their visit and had a beautiful outdoor brunch of homemade bread, strawberries, eggs and jams. Our view was also particularly spectacular with it being clear enough to see the sea at Cecina and beyond that, the islands of Corisca & Elba. So beautiful. We’re really enjoying being enveloped so warmly into this family.