Po Valley or Bust

One of the beauties of traveling is not knowing where you’ll end up. It is often the places that you don’t plan to visit that leave a more lasting impression on you that your official destination. In the run up to this trip, I caught myself telling people that Torino was my main goal. It is a city I’ve been to numerous times before but mostly just popping in and out for a few hours to visit family. This time, I told myself, I would take a few days to devote myself to the city and truly discover Torino. As it turned out, I saw very little in Torino that I hadn’t seen before. The real discoveries lay along the road.

The first stop on our journey was in East Tyrol, a forgotten area of Austria with stunning views of the Alps. We stumbled upon Aguntum, a Roman settlement in the former province of Noricum. The museum and archeological site have been added to our list of places to return to another time. We had to continue on to keep our date with Ötzi, the Iceman, in Bolzano, a little ways over the border in Italy in the parallel universe of South Tyrol. The mummified corpse of a man who lived around 3200 BC was discovered in the Alps along the Italian and Austrian border in 1991. This was a sensational find because it included remnants of clothing, tools, and other objects he had with him – for example a goatskin coat, an axe with a copper blade, and birchbark containers.

What I find most fascinating is that Ötzi is covered in tattoos that correspond to the meridians used in acupuncture – and the tattoos were made thousands of years earlier than when acupuncture is thought to have been developed. Whenever I visit an archeological museum, see the range of tools, and think about what people were capable of doing thousands of years ago, it worries me how few of these skills most people learn today. Can you start a fire, make a shelter, make your own clothing, gather wild edibles? Why are these skills not deemed important enough to teach children anymore? Ötzi died because he was shot with an arrow and bled to death. He was found in an awkward looking position with his arm across his chest. According to the signs at the museum, this position is apparently one that could be used to stop the flow of blood, a kind of DIY tourniquet. Though it didn’t work, it shows that Ötzi had a certain amount of medical knowledge and knew what to do to try to save his own life. Why don’t we learn these kinds of things about our bodies anymore?

With all those questions reverberating in my head, it was good to take a walk on top of the Sacra Monte on Lake Orta, the westernmost of the alpine lakes in north Italy. What a peaceful place, one of those green and lush places where it is hushed and calm, where a stranger moves his motorcycle to make more room so you can squeeze into the only parking spot available for miles. It’s a place intricately tied to water, the most valuable gift of the Alps. Here I must confess: Torino is not really for me. It is a monumental city, a city built on secular power: the former capital of the Duchy of Savoy, reunified Italy’s first capital. Within Italy, Torino is an industrial center of power, the home of Fiat (cars), Lavazza (coffee), and Nutella (sweet hazelnut spread); all of these products fuel modern life for better or for worse. Yet I was happy to see the city pay homage in its own monumental way to the waters that nourish it, that make settlement and everything that comes afterwards possible. Two statues represent the most important rivers in the history of the city.

Near the confluence of the Po (above) and the Dora Riparia (below) rivers, the Romans built their colony Augusta Taurinorum.

What the Po actually looks like you can see below. Without it, there would be no risotto! We bought 6 kilos of risotto rice and have eaten it nearly every day since our return. The risotto highlight of the trip: risotto with leeks and apples. The risotto highlight of the week: risotto with bear’s garlic and walnuts.

Just as the journey there was full of delights, the journey back was too. We stopped in Asolo, a small village situated on a hill in the Veneto region that charmed us a few years back. It has attributes of many a pleasant spot to spend the night: a few streets that converge on a central square with a café from which you can watch all the action, a good trattoria with regional dishes, castle ruins at the very top of the hill that you can reach by walking along a path bordered by an orchard full of olive trees, and magnificent views of the snowy Alps to the north, the Po plain to the south, and cypress trees in all other directions.

British writer, traveler, and centerarian Freya Stark made her home in Asolo for years. Garden tours at the villa she called home are regularly available but require registration, so now we have another place on our list to examine more closely. I was relieved to return to Asolo and not find it turned into a tourist trap. The danger is there. We observed a loud group of Austrians from uncomfortably close to home descend upon the village (or rather ascend since they had to walk uphill to get to the center). About forty minutes later they were on their way down again, having “done” Asolo. It is a place that is perhaps a bit too beautiful for its own good but welcoming to the lingerers, to those who have the patience to wait out the day tourists and watch the sun set over the Po Valley.

Hope you know a nice spot to linger and enjoy the sunset!