Avolasca is a village of about two hundred odd people, mostly old.
A chance conversation with a college mate about summer plans was the first time I heard of WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote sustainable living. Several months of research, correspondence and planning later and armed with a generous endowment from my college, I was on my way to Avolasca, all set to spend a summer exploring, learning many new skills and unlearning many old ways.
Having had the privilege of travelling to many countries with my family, mostly on beaten tourist paths, the opportunity to live and work on a remote farm and immerse myself in the “real” Italian way of life was undeniably exciting. Agritourism is growing in popularity and organisations such as the WWOOF offer opportunities to volunteer on working farms or agricultural institutions that are part of their worldwide network. It involves contributing by helping the host with daily tasks on the farm in exchange for boarding and lodging. Such vacations offer one an experience of a lifetime — a chance to connect with nature; to learn new skills; to enjoy local delicacies prepared with farm-fresh ingredients; to meet new people; understand different ways of life; and most of all to disconnect with the technology driven, fast-paced life that we are all so used to and so dependent on!
I chose La Vecchia Posta in Avolasca, a family-run farm in the north-western Piemonte region of Italy, known for its wine, fine cuisine and herbs, as my summer destination. Avolasca is a quaint town nestled in the tranquil rolling hills of the province of Alessandria. We took a taxi from Tortona and with our 70-year-old driver hurtling towards our destination at 100 miles an hour, I realised that not all is lazy and laidback in this country.
In the short ride to Avolasca we were treated to verdant landscapes, rolling hills crowned with vineyards and crossed an interesting vintage car rally and several groups of cyclists huffing their way up the hills in their lycra and sleek bicycles — cycling is apparently very popular in Italy.
Avolasca is a village of about two hundred odd people, mostly old. It is the quintessential sleepy village where you would barely see a soul on the street. Served by a bus that operates only thrice a day connecting it to nearby Tortona village, Avolsaca with its quiet streets is just the place to be if you want to get away from it all!
La Vecchia Posta, as the quaint signpost announces, is a farmhouse owned and managed by Roberto and Annemie. They harvest their own fruits and vegetables and produce their own organic wines. They run a weekend restaurant that is popular with visitors from neighbouring cities and regions.
Avolasca has another agritourism centre that also conducts pasta-making, wine appreciation and wine growing courses for visitors and has the village’s only other restaurant.
Annemie’s food is the highlight of La Vecchia Posta. Our days would start with a special breakfast spread — fruits and vegetables bursting with colour, freshly baked bread from the oven, an array of delicious cheeses to choose from and if we were lucky, leftover bakes from the weekend. The restaurant offers the perfect idyllic setting and true to the Italian way of life, lunch is a long drawn affair, where families bond over many glasses of wine and lip-smacking food. We were lucky to be part of a wedding and birthday celebrations and experienced first-hand the love, bonhomie, laughter and a lot of noise that binds Italian families.
On restaurant days we cleaned and prepped the restaurant, peeled kilos of fava beans for the fava bean soup and washed mountains of dishes. During the week we helped with the cleaning, harvesting of crops — zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, peas, fava beans etc. or worked in the vineyards. On lucky days I got to cook lunch for the ten odd farm hands and was thrilled to see they loved my curries.
Although this may not sound like the average person’s ideal vacation, I must say that the sense of accomplishment and simple joy that I felt on learning these skills was immense. Opportunities such as these take you back to the essence of what matters — good food, good conversations, a hard day’s work, celebrating the beauty and tranquillity of nature. In short ‘la semplice vita’ or the ‘simple life’ with all its joys and without 24/7 internet connectivity, thanks to limited network. I read books, drew and painted, had long conversations with people, took long walks, listened to music, spent hours under the “lonely tree”, a perfect picnic spot on a hill to watch the sunset and sunrise from and to meditate or just sleep.
Of course city people like me need the regular fix of restaurants, bars, city-life and sightseeing too. Avolasca is perfectly located to be able to visit several famous tourist places — Lake Como, Milan, Genoa, Turin, Switzerland. So my days off were dedicated to visiting the touristy spots. I must say that it is a once in a lifetime must-do!
Avolasca - fact File
Mrinalini Bhushan is a Sophomore at Claremont Mckenna College, California.