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The Italian word piano has a plethora of meanings. As an adjective, it indicates a flat area or a simple, straightforward situation. Andare piano means going slow, and parlare piano is whispering. Piano also has a musical connotation, as it is the abbreviation for pianoforte.
Piano happens to be the name of an unassuming hamlet lying at the heart of the Val di Sole, a picturesque valley nestled amongst the Dolomite mountains of the Trentino region in northern Italy. Last summer, Piano became our home for a few weeks, after two years of pandemic-induced abstinence from travelling. Feeling like caged birds who had suddenly been set free, my wife Daphne, my two boys Nigel and James, and I, headed out to north Italy, in search of some respite from the scorching summer and from the breathless rat race of metropolitan life.
The cluster of dwellings, a motley collection of ancient ruins and pristine modern cottages, beckoned, as I swerved off the road running parallel to the Noce torrent. Amongst the small villages that we had driven through since we had entered the valley at the Tonale mountain pass, this little collection of houses built around a humble church, was, at first glance, the most unassuming of the lot. As I drove up a sharply inclined narrow road, I realised that to reach the apartment that we had rented, I had to squeeze the car through a quaint but wickedly tight archway. I had been advised by the owner, that the archway led to a private road and a private parking spot, but she had failed to tell me that the already narrow entry was further constricted by stacked firewood and planters that jutted even further out. As I snailed the car through, the parking sensors went haywire and burst into a cacophony of high-pitched beeps that turned those few metres of road into an ordeal.
When the apartment manager came along to greet us, my heart was still beating madly, and the sweat on my brow had yet to dry. Chiara, the soft-spoken young Italian lady who rented out the apartment for her grandmother Bruna, gave us a tour of the place, which had been renovated but had that musty odour that lingers about ancient dwellings. The main door was at the back end, reached via a creaky wooden stairway that led to a covered terrace, just a stone’s throw from the steeply rising, green-clad mountainside. The small round table with its two accompanying chairs were whispering to us enticingly to sit down and enjoy a coffee – a temptation that we would give in to every single day of our stay. The front balcony, on the other hand, provided a bird’s eye view of the spectacular Val di Sole, as far as the eye could see, with its jagged frame of craggy peaks. The gush and gurgle of the torrent far below was a constant melody.
Chiara introduced us to her uncle Battista, a wiry man sporting storm-cloud hair and matching moustaches, who had alert eyes and a quick smile. He tossed our ample suitcases onto a caterpillar-tracked motorized wheelbarrow and drove them up the road to the foot of the stairs. We sauntered behind the chugging and clanging vehicle like a procession. Some of the neighbours popped out of doorways to get a good glimpse of us. A gap-toothed man nodded at us, and a young man ducked out of a dark, low doorway and said hello to us in an oddly high-pitched squeaky voice that made our children grin. Our arrival at the village had not gone unnoticed!
Val di Sole was the perfect destination for outdoor activities – all within half an hour’s drive at most from Piano. It was the quintessential Dolomite valley, with craggy peaks, azure mountain lakes, gushing torrents and surprising side-valleys. Our intention was to spend some quality time together as a family, while sampling the slow life of the little community that we had temporarily joined. We were curious to discover how many of the different meanings of piano would apply to this little-known village, and perhaps, gain a bit of insight into life in the mountains.
Our first port of call after our living quarters was the local bar. For Italians, the bar has a special significance. It is not simply a watering hole, but a place for congregating with other members of the community. Having a caffè is a ritual that is enjoyed daily by the majority of Italians. You go to the bar, knock down an espresso, catch up with the latest gossip, and then go on with your business. The presence of a bar in Piano had elevated the village in stature. Because of the Covid pandemic, thousands of bars all over Italy had been forced to close, so the surviving ones assumed an even greater social importance than before. Because priests are a species on the verge of extinction, many churches had to be closed. The bar took over as a place of congregation, especially for the elderly members of Italian communities.
Bar Rosa Blu was a family concern, run by a dynamic young lady, Tullia, her elderly mother and her two sisters. Through sheer ingenuity, they had managed to keep their business afloat through the dark times of the pandemic. The bar doubled as a lotto office, sub post office and also as a convenience shop, opening daily till eight in the evening. Almost every morning, we would walk down the hill to Rosa Blu, have cappuccino and freshly baked brioches, and observe the comings and goings of the locals for a while, before heading out on our excursions. Tullia turned out to be a passionate rambler who gave us precious advice about walks in the area.
On the way down to the bar, we walked past a neat cottage with a terrace-like front garden. An elderly gentleman was meticulously watering the colourful collection of border flowers. Ornate pots were bursting with blooms of geraniums and the striking colours of coleus. “Your garden is splendid, sir,” I said to him in Italian. He looked up and frowned. His bare chest was as smooth and brown as an over-roasted peanut, and it glistened with beads of sweat. Then, the furrows on his brow smoothed out and he smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “You must be the newly arrived visitors.” Word seemed to travel fast in Piano!
The gentleman introduced himself as Luigi, and as soon as he realised that we were English speakers, he started chatting us up in a perfect English accent. “I have spent 40 years living in London,” he said with a nostalgic look. “When I retired, I decided to come back here. That’s the house where I was born,” he said, pointing to a crumbling mountain cottage adjacent his.
“It’s very nice and quiet here,” I said by way of conversation.
He shrugged his bony shoulders. “Too quiet I’m afraid!”
We set off for our first trek along a smaller side-valley known as Val di Rabbi. Our starting point was the forlorn mountainside hamlet of Piazzola. The overcast sky gave us some respite from the blazing sun of the previous day, and the prospect of a drizzle or two was very likely. From between the tall slender conifers, we could make out the wide expanse of the Rabbi valley far below, with the silvery ribbon of the Rabbies torrent running along the centre, flanked by flower-speckled mountain meadows. Our path eventually converged with the riverbank. Further upstream, the valley tightened up until it became hemmed in by sheer rocky faces. Eventually, we reached a narrow wooden footbridge and feasted our eyes upon the dramatic Saènt Falls, which were fed by the source waters of the torrent. Foaming water gushed down wildly along a rocky descent, enveloping the narrow valley in a cloud of cool spray. This was one of the highlights of the Stelvio National Park.
In the evening, we headed to the nearby Terme di Rabbi, an elegant spa that drew its healing waters from the Rabbies torrent. Every Friday, the entry ticket also included apericena – a combination of aperitif and supper. We first soothed our achy muscles in a variety of saunas and hydrotherapy treatments, and then indulged ourselves in a variety of local cheeses and cured meats, washed down with nectar-like bubbly prosecco. We headed back to Piano at around ten o’clock. It was pitch dark except for the rhythmic flashing in the sky. The night air was cold and crisp, and promised a downpour. As I cautiously drove along the road down the valley, tufts of white fog oozed out of the asphalt, and we found ourselves driving through the set of a vampire movie. After much squinting at the road ahead and a lot of tampering with the rented car’s demisting system, we managed to make our way back to the apartment in Piano in one piece.
In the days that followed, we embarked on a number of other mountain treks in the surrounding area. We took the nearby cable car at Daolasa, which lifted us up to over 2000 metres, to the Dolomiti del Brenta mountain range, a veritable wall of craggy peaks. From the bare windswept high plateau, we rambled down to the Lago delle Malghette, nestled in a hollow within the mountains at 1900 metres, surrounded by thick pine forest. As we started the long descent towards the lake, we crossed two chocolate-tanned Italian ladies from Emiglia Romagna carrying lapdogs. They were breathing heavily and asked us how much more they had to walk uphill till they reached the cable car. My reply was not very encouraging.
The stony path became steeper. The shadow of lofty pines covered us from a blazing sun. Suddenly, as we went round a bend, an echoey hubbub rose up towards us like a gust of hot air. We spent the next half hour speculating about its causes. When we reached the lake, the mystery was revealed. A lakeside restaurant on stilts was packed with chatting diners, who made a louder racket than a scavenging of feeding seagulls. The noise reverberated against the surrounding mountainsides and the lake acted like a natural amplifier. We power walked to the other end of the lake, as far away from the madding crowd as possible, and picnicked on a soft bed of rushes that grew like a thick hairy carpet by the shore. Lying face up on that soft bed of rushes with a full belly and warmed up by the sun, I dosed off. When I woke up, my legs had turned to lead, and I had to huff and puff worse than the big bad wolf to drag myself up the steep stony path. The Solander mountain-hut came into view like an oasis in a desert. I revived myself with a chilled red beer, while Daphne and the boys sipped a glass of newly pressed apple juice.
Later in the evening, when we returned to Piano, Battista was lazing on his comfortable garden chair in his little field, where he had his workshop shed. He called me over and we had coffee together. When I told him where we had been, he laughed. “I know Lago delle Malghette very well,” he said. “Every summer, when I was a boy, I used the drive the herd up to the pasture beside it.”
I looked at him incredulously. “From here? All the way up from Piano!?”
“From where then?” he replied, grinning widely.
Chatting with Battista when we returned from an excursion became a daily habit. Day by day, as soon as I’d slip the car into its parking space, I would look out for him, and he would smile and motion me to join him for a coffee or a sip of grappa. The prospect of that comradely chat was a treat!
The village of Ossana was just a ten-minute drive from Piano – a good destination for a Sunday excursion, which promised to be the busiest day of the week at the Val di Sole. I parked below the village by the cemetery, and we rambled up along the street that led to the Castle of San Michele. The street was lined on both sides by spacious meadows dotted with colourful constellations of wildflowers.
The castle had been built on a spur of rock that overlooked the intersection between the Val di Sole and its smaller sibling the Val di Peio. The spur had been inhabited since the Bronze Age, but it was one of the Prince-Bishops of Trento who first built the imposing castle, which was later usurped by local noble families. The ruins had been well preserved, and the keep, an imposing quadrangular edifice, was in pristine condition. The views from the top were breath-taking to say the least. The village of Ossana, with its backdrop of thickly wooded hills, looked like a painting from an old fairy tale book. I could easily close my eyes and picture gnomes peeping out mischievously from the bijou lawned gardens that flanked the mountain cottages.
San Vigilio’s church was the dominant feature of the village, and its lofty bell tower seemed to compete with the castle tower for gravitas. We walked past the cobbled piazza to reach the marked footpath, which ran uphill in zigzags and was lined by an eclectic collection of local tree varieties, all meticulously labelled. Wooden benches, shrouded by the cool shade of tree canopies, overlooked the quaint village, and, with their promise of a visual feast on the two spectacular valleys, proved more enticing to us than the alluring sirens were to Ulysses and his crew. We sat down, nourished ourselves, and lay silent on the grass listening to the calming sounds of the woods.
It took a short sharp rain shower to bring us back to our senses. We packed up our stuff and took to the path again, going deep into the woods until we finally reached Boscoderniga, a small botanical garden set right in the middle of an alpine forest. It was a haven for kids and adults alike. My boys struck up an acquaintance with a pair of mangy alpacas, whose heads seemed oddly oversized compared to their lean bodies.
We were intent on walking up to Valpiana, an idyllic green flat valley, but the weather begged to differ from our decision, and the sky turned angry and steely. The weather in the Dolomites was very whimsical, and you had to bow down to its wishes and be grateful when it graciously allowed you to go ahead with your plans. We took the footpath running astride the Rio Focie torrent, which would lead us back to Ossana. Striding as fast as our weary legs would carry us, we were pelted several times by intense downpours. The narrow path was very dangerous at times – a slippery sliver of beaten earth no more than a foot wide, at the very edge of a sheer drop. We had to tread slowly and carefully, but though we were drenched, no one complained. At that moment, we were a band of adventurers making our way through a dark wood teeming with danger, and we would not have wanted to be anywhere else. We survived unscathed, trudged through Ossana a second time (it still looked picturesque, even under a dark sky), and drove back to our warm, dry apartment in Piano.
Rain or shine, Battista would be sitting on his garden throne like a benevolent ruler; in the open if the sky was clear; under the eaves of his shed if a shower was likely.
“Would you join me for a coffee?” he told me as soon as I got out of the rain-pattered car. The daily chat with Battista had become my returning-home mantra. I told him that Piano felt like paradise to us. He nodded and sighed.
“I was born and bred here,” he said, “but as I grew older, I felt hemmed in. I was young and restless then, and I still had to experience more of the world.” He took a sip of coffee. “I moved to Turin and for a while considered joining priesthood. But I realised in time that it was not the life for me. I studied nursing, and during that time I met my future wife Adele. We got married, built a family and lived for forty years in Turin. We were happy there. I worked at a local hospital and had a good salary.”
The sky was ablaze with the reds of the setting sun, and a slight breeze made the leaves of the tall walnut trees rustle and dance. Battista looked at me with sad eyes. “I also went through a dark period,” he said slowly. “During the Bosnian war, I was asked to join a select Italian medical team that would travel to the war zone and treat wounded soldiers.” His voice became a croak and his words choked. His eyes glistened. “So much hardship…” he whispered. I could see that he had made a great effort to talk to me about his experience. I was curious why Battista had left Turin to return to live in Piano, but he looked melancholic, so I left that question for another day.
Less than a hundred or so metres up the road from Piano, there was a large restaurant called Bucaneve, and flanking it was Extreme Waves, a company which organised adventure activities, most notably, rafting on the Noce torrent. We decided to have a go at it. We turned up one fine morning, were given rafting gear to wear – swimsuit, life vest, helmet and paddle – and were then driven in a van which towed the dinghies upriver to Ossana. In a small pebbly clearing by the torrent, we were given a brief tutorial on how to conduct ourselves, which basically involved obeying our leader’s instructions instantly and to the letter. The instructions pretty simple: “row” and “stop.” My wife, my two boys and I were assigned to a dinghy that was led by a very raucous Argentinian young man who was called Augustin. A peculiar young Italian couple who hailed from Le Marche joined our team. Contrary to most Italians, the couple were very timid, especially the man, who behaved very much like a nervous squirrel, and could easily have played the part of one of the talking animals from Carlo Collodi’s tale Pinocchio.
The torrent was very shallow as it had not rained heavily for a while, so it was dotted with clusters of jutting rocks. The first stretch was pretty easy, and Augustin shouted out a string of instructions to test our readiness and aptitude – “Row! Stop! Row!” At some point, he decided that I was not putting in all my effort and he shouted at me, “Don’t pretend to row, Richard! When I say row, you row with all your strength. When we’ll reach the difficult stretch, I will not be able to control a six-team dinghy on my own! You have to help me out here!” He had placed my eldest son Nigel and me in the front positions, and I did not like it a single bit. I think he expected us to do all the hard work. The Italian lady kept hitting my wife with the handle of her paddle each time she rowed, and her boyfriend rowed as delicately as a refined lady stirring sugar in her coffee. Augustin rolled his eyes repeatedly but swallowed the snide remarks that he ached to say to him out of politeness. He did not hold himself back at all when it came to me though, and he bellowed like a sergeant major.
Eventually, we beached our dinghy in a spot downriver, waited for the other dinghies to join us, and were given a short practice session on what to do if we fell overboard. We had to wade to the middle of the river, swim with the current and then head to the bank. I’m a pretty experienced swimmer, so when my turn came up, I was not too worried. As I waded out though, my foot got stuck under a rock and I tripped. I fell heavily on a jutting rock which dug deep into my hip. I fumbled the semblance of a swim stroke as a searing pain crackled out of my hip. I barely managed to reach the bank. I bit my lip and hid my pain as best as I could.
The rest of the trip was exhilarating, and we had to contend with gushing rapids and steer around jagged rocks. Were it not for the fiery pain, I would have had a great time. When we touched base again, I ran to the bathroom to change, and found out that I was soaked in blood. A fairly deep ugly wound gaped from my hip. Having said our goodbyes to Augustin, and our two Italian team mates, I drove us back to the apartment and my wife put a dressing on my wound (she was always well-stocked with first aid items). I refused to go to hospital though, and had to contend with the slight bleeding and pain for the rest of the holiday.
When I met Battista again, I asked him why he had relocated to Piano. His answer was very straightforward. When he retired, his pension was not enough to cover the exorbitant rent he paid for the house in Turin. So, he and his wife decided to to live in his family home in Piano, which till then they had used as a holiday house.
“It was very tough for us at first,” he said, “as in Turin we had a very active social life. During our first winter in Piano, we felt as if we had gone into hibernation.”
His wife Adele shuffled towards us, bearing a tray with steaming cups of coffee. “It was especially difficult for me,” she said. “I’m from the south, you see, and it was a while before people here would see me as one of them.”
“At least you live in a beautiful and peaceful place,” I said.
“In Summer it’s peaceful,” said Adele, “but in winter it’s a graveyard. Your kids, playing in the street, have brought a bit of life. There are no children left here. I miss children.”
“The last two winters have been particularly difficult for us,” said Battista. “Before the Covid pandemic, I used to organise card-playing sessions for the elderly – you know, as a way of getting them to meet each other in the gloomy winter months.”
Adele sighed. “With Covid everyone was terrified of meeting other people. One by one, many of our elderly friends were taken to hospital, never to return home again. It was very sad.”
Battista had many pastimes – reading, gardening, woodwork and even collecting paintings. These activities eased him into the village way of life. For his wife though, it had been a much more difficult transition.
The family property, house and land, had been bought by Battista’s great-grandfather in the early 1900s. At the time, Trentino was a part of Austria, so his great-grandfather had been actually Austrian. During the First World War, he had been called up to serve in the Austrian army fighting the Italians. Eventually, after the war, Trentino and its neighbouring Alto Adige became part of Italy and gradually, within the span of a few generations, the local population had turned Italian.
The family property had been split up between Battista, his brother Dante (who now lived a secluded life in a house at high altitude) and his sister Bruna, who owned the apartment we had rented. Battista was the only one of the siblings to live in Piano all year round.
Towards the end of our holiday, we drove further afield to the artificial Lake of Santa Giustina in the nearby Val di Non. The lake had been created in the 1950s by the construction of a dam that allowed the water of the River Noce to build up. The lake was enchanting. It was flanked by hillsides that seemed to have been combed by a giant. Serried ranks of apple trees with their glossy fruit overlooked the tranquil sheet of water. We joined a kayak tour organised by the Parco Fluviale Novella, and the guide, Paolo, led us through a very narrow canyon that split the lake into two parts. It was very surreal paddling through a narrow gut-like constriction with the sky only a ribbon of light far up above us. From the cracked sun-baked banks of the lake, we could tell that the water level in the lake was very low, as were all the major lakes in Italy during that hot summer.
We did our best to make every day in the Val di Sole count. We walked by the emerald Lake of Pian Palù at the head of the Peio Valley, and picnicked by the small but enchanting Lago dei Caprioli, which was a favoured spot for families with children. We went mushroom hunting in the woods near Marilleva 1400, accompanied by an elderly lady, appointed by the Local Council, who identified all the varieties of fungi that we collected. More often than not, we dined at the nearby Bucaneve restaurant, where no matter how bustling it would be, the manager was always kind enough to fit us in, and even treated us with a complementary bottle of Prosecco on our last day. When our time at Piano was up, and we had to drive south, first to visit Trento, and then onwards towards Bergamo airport, we said our last goodbyes to Tullia and her mother at the Bar after breakfast, and then to Luigi who as usual was sunbathing in his garden. Battista and Adele gave us an emotional farewell, and they insisted that we should visit again in winter to see the Val di Sole in its white mantle, and perhaps try some of the winter activities. As I drove out through the narrow archway for the last time, I felt a pang of regret at having to leave that corner of paradise.
I saw the figures of Battista and Adele, in the rear-view mirror, waving at us. I stopped the car, poked my head out of the window and uttered a hoarse, “Arrivederci!” which is a salutation that implies “I hope to see you again.” I felt a lump in my throat. Staring forward, I drove down the narrow road where I gave a fleeting glance at Luigi’s colourful garden, and then sped on to the open road, pondering how that little village – our home for a short while – had lived up to the many meanings of its name.