Saturday, September 22, 2012

Piemonte and an Incredible Confluence of Interests

Lago di Viverone was the perfect place for a rest day. This is where our tour goes from a peaks tour to a beaches tour. We only swam in the lake once because it was fairly cold, but the weather was warm and we got some laundry done. It turns out they'd had the Internet we'd been looking for in Ivrea all along. We also rode into town (no bags! so light!) and bought some fresh bread and other Italian treats, like focaccia, that were uniquely delicious. We had dinner at the pizzeria attached to the campground, which was very busy every night, and discovered that it was a very well deserved busy. We drank outstanding wine.

Our next destination was an agriturismo called Cascina Nuova, just outside of Valenza. It had been tough to find campsites south of Lago di Viverone. This popped up on a search as a place we may be able to set up a tent. And we figured if we couldn't put up a tent, we'd get a room. 

The route we took headed almost due south until the Po River, where we saw, on our new map, that there was a path along the River. We'd take the Po east until we needed to head south toward Valenza. 

One thing we'd started to notice by this point was that the people of Italy were fascinated and delighted by the sight of us. Okay, probably not everyone felt that way, but unlike anywhere else we've traveled by bicycle, in Italy people stopped, stared, and smiled, sometimes even cheering us on. We stopped in a town for a cappuccino and watched as people stopped by our bikes and had a good look at them. Some kids were absolutely fascinated and excited by our bikes. It was delightful for everyone involved. 

The weather was incredibly weird. It was warm out with high clouds that the sun almost came through. Plus there was a low haze. We kept expecting it to change, but it just stayed that way. 

The light was weird, but every once in a while we got glimpses of clouds that Michelangelo would have painted. This was our first tour that took us through fields and fields of rice.

My camera did not know what to do with this light.

As we neared the Po, we came upon a sign with information about the Fiume Po Bike Path. Nearby there were benches, so we decided this might be the perfect place for lunch. Joshua started setting up our picnic and I went to learn about the bike path from the map. As I stood there, three people on bicycles almost went by, but then circled back to where I was standing. I understood from their Italian conversation that they were about to invite us to go with them.

They first asked where we are from and what language we speak. They laughed, because they had predicted that it was unlikely we were Italians. They said they were on their way to a local event, a bit of a festival celebrating the restoration of an old Grangia into an info center about cycling in the area and along the Po River. 

Rivers and bicycles.

When we lived in Los Angeles, Joshua and I were on the board of a non-profit that supported the use of bicycles in the city (The Bicycle Kitchen). At the same time, I worked for a non-profit that was working toward revitalization of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). One aspect of the river work involved the bike path that was and is being built along the LA River. It's a tough river to help, not only because it's been neglected for so long but also because it flows through many cities between the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach. Jurisdiction is mixed, to over-simplify the problem. There are long stretches with bike path and gaps that are inconvenient and unfortunate. 

The people we met randomly in Italy are working to create a bike path that goes the length of the Po, from Piemonte all the way to Venice / Venezia. 

The summer before we left LA, a daring trip along the LA River took place and a group of people kayaked from the headwaters to the mouth of the river. This summer, the first guided tours of the LA River by kayak took place.

The first boat trips along the Po in this area took place just two years ago.

The parallels are awesome.

So we went with these people to have a lunch of local food - which turned out to be a particular local dish called panissa, a risotto con fagioli (rice and beans) - and learn more about these projects.

following our new friends
surprise lunch!
an incredible two of three panels of the planned bike route across the top of Italy

Our hostess was Maria Teresa Bergoglio, who works for the Parco Fluviale del Po e dell'Orba, and we also met one of the local park rangers, Nicola Scatassi. They told us about the building we were at, an old Grangia, or grange, which had been restored to become a local info center. Inside there were a number of bikes, from the first, simple bread delivery models to today's speedy roadie versions. This area of Piemonte is the historical home of rice. A Grangia is essentially an old village that was there to grow, harvest, and process rice. Each Grangia had a small church, places for the workers to live, and grain processing facilities. Feudal times, indeed. Today, most of them are privately owned and not well maintained. This one is the first that has been renovated for a use that would benefit the public. 

We were pretty stunned. Nowhere in our travels have we been invited to share a meal and learn about the local projects that are going on. We felt like we had stumbled over the alternate universe of our previous lives. Stunned. Everyone was friendly, curious, and full of great information that we were curious to learn. 

They had a journalist with them who said he'd be writing a news story about the American bike tourists coming through and using the path and attending the event. 

They also knew about Cascina Nuova and said the owners were very nice people and it was a great destination. They were not sure about any campsites anywhere. They gave us a few of the bike maps for the river that they'd created recently. 

After a couple of hours of chatting and eating, we said we had to get on our way and we went on down the path. Our tires were no match for the rock gravel. To make up some time, and because we do prefer a paved route, we continued on the road route rather than along the river, which was a bit sad. We really really want them to have the success they are aiming for. Their model is the Donau/Danube path through Austria, the most highly trafficked bike route in all of Europe. Cafes, inns, B&Bs, tour groups, historic sites - they want that stuff. Sounds like an incredible and perfect idea. 

By the end of the day, we were tired, hot, and sick of mosquitos. We ended up spending quite a bit of time on rough roads and it was exhausting. When we finally made it to Cascina Nuova, we didn't even know if we were there - because we'd come off the path closer to the river and there were no signs. It wasn't exactly a high traffic path. We looped around and eventually made it to the front, realizing that it had been the right place, and waited for someone - an owner? - to show up. When he did, we met yet another wonderful, welcoming, and interesting Italian. 

Cascina Nuova is a farm run by the grandson of the previous farmer. He grew up in Milan, but preferred the rural life on the farm with his grandfather, and he's been successfully running it for almost 20 years. They changed it to an organic farm and he told us about the organic wine makers and other organic farmers in the area and how they formed a collective and managed to make things work. 

When we asked if we could camp, he said yes, told us where the bathrooms and showers were, and wasn't going to charge us anything. We asked about rooms and he showed us a gorgeous, large room that we couldn't resist. We asked if we could have our dinner (our bread, cheese, lettuce dinner) on the patio where there was a table and he said of course! Then he brought us fresh tomatoes from his garden - the best tomatoes - and a box of wine made by his friends who make wine. We sat together drinking a glass of wine and sharing bread and cheese until his friends showed up to watch the soccer game together. 

What is this magical land of river revitalization and bicycle advocates and organic farmers? Piemonte, who knew? And how did we run into all of them in one day?

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