Published: November 1st 2009October 22nd 2009
Alps from the train
Hello all, now to the best part of our trip so far...
Our friend Ingo, from Freiburg, told us about this agricultural cooperative in the remote Ticino region of Switzerland. We had previously written to them while in Sarnen, and we super excited when we received the positive mail from Ulrico, one of the founders, a couple of days later . Our journey there was long but satisfying as we left Sarnen at around 9:30a and finally arrived in the hills of Pianta Monda at 7:30p, helped on our way by a kind stranger. Our adventurous travel there involved an amazing train ride through the snow capped Alps, where we traveled through tunnels in the mountains almost as much as on top of them. After 3 trains and 2 buses we were on the final and most exhilarating leg, riding in a tour bus up the valley traversing the most hairpin-y of hairpin turns we have experienced. The bus barely fit on the road and every once in a while a tense moment would present itself when a vehicle approached from the opposite direction hoping to squeeze by and continue on their way. Once close enough the bus would go
no further, we then hitchhiked up a very steep hill to the village of Menzonio pop. 80. We were surprised learned while there that 77% of the residences in the valley are uninhabited. Our new friend did not speak much English so he brought us to his house where we met his wife and she then kindly showed us the way to the 20 min. nearly vertical trail through the forest and past vacant stone houses to our final destination Pianta Monda! Phew, what a trek!!
Arriving with the sun's diminishing light over the mountains, we approached the main house and slightly startled Andrea and Damien (the year-round residents), who were as yet uninformed of our arrival. After a few awkward moments and a small language barrier we were given some tea and were told we could stay as long as we wanted. After a couple of teas we were shown to our dainty little stone cottage for two, prefaced by another 10 min. hike up the challenging terrain. The cottage was like a fairy tale house, with a miniature door, small fireplace and three levels with tiny windy stairs. The sleeping quarters were on the top floor
Stone stairs, Menzonio
with a lovely view of the mountains in the background and the middle floor was a lounge area. So perfect and we didn't have to pay a penny! We were there to work to earn our keep and work we did....
The first morning we awoke to almost frost conditions. We got dressed in our warmest clothes and headed down to the main house where we met Ulrico and Sanna, the leaders of the project. We began the day with an ocean of leaves and a spiky chestnut ground cover. This time of year the chestnuts are falling like crazy and need to be removed because the acidity poisons the ground below and doesn't allow grass and veggies to grow. We initially thought it would be a pretty easy raking project but ended up taking us almost 5 hours. We had a short tea break with freshly picked spearmint from the garden. During the raking we collected the largest of the chestnuts and by the end had two huge baskets full of the delicious treats. The area is full of chestnut trees, after WWII the local people survived through the entire winter with just the chestnuts. You can
roast them, but they can also be used to make flour and many other edible delights.
That night we ate dinner together, chestnut appetizers and a great potato marina pasta made by Sanna. We headed back to our cottage to start the necessary fire to warm up our tiny freezing quarters. That night we were awoken by a horrible screaming sound coming from above. After the initial panic we realized what it was. Our hosts warned us about a creature that lives in the wall looking like a mix between a rodent and a chipmunk. They are called seven month sleepers, aptly so because they hibernate 7 months out of the year. Lucky for us they haven't started their long slumber quite yet. Apparently there was a family disagreement because they kept us tossing and turning all night.
The next day was just as cold, but for added comfort there was also a gentle but constant rain. We worked another long day that day with Ulrico and Sanna. We went for about a 10 minute walk into the woods from the main house to a property referred to as El Gorte. This was one of many
properties taken on my Pianta Monda and had lots of restoration in its future. It consisted of several rock structures including a stall for animals, several living quarters, an old cheese making cellar, a fresh spring with the best tasting alpine water you could imagine and a beautiful organic garden. This also included a building that was destroyed from a single giant boulder that careened down the mountain until it was abruptly stopped by the rear wall. The guy that was living there at the time tucked himself safely in a corner, but was never to be seen again. Even though it rained all day, it didn't stop us from enjoying the beautiful landscape around us while we worked. Fog rolled through the valley and over the mountain tops completely enveloping us at times and then in an instant it continued its journey up the alp. Our jobs that day included disassembling a large rock oven piece by piece, tilling in the garden, moving heavy logs and debris across the property and harvesting food for our dinner later that evening. It was another hard day of work, but completely satisfying to see the progress we made in one day. For
Pile o' spiky chestnuts
lunch we had roasted chestnuts over the fire and again some freshly picked spearmint tea.
The next day was another cold rainy day, but we made the best of it. The morning was spent finishing up some work at El Gorte. James made Ulrico very happy by figuring out how to get into one of the old stone buildings that was abandoned and the key was lost. He found an opening in the attic and was able to crawl through a few broken floor boards, push through spider webs as thick as unwoven wool and bust through the door from the inside. Ulrico was quite impressed, unable to do it himself, he wasn't sure when he would get to that project. James spent the morning cleaning out the mess inside the building. He found everything from large rusted pieces of metal, to empty bottles of alcohol that dated back to the early 1900s and some really interesting pieces of wood that were carved and used to hold bales of hay on a wire cable, which was the way they moved heavy materials back in the day. It would have been an antiquers paradise! My job that day was
Strike a pose
to rake the stone paths to El Gorte as they get incredibly slippery from all the leaves and to again prepare our lunch, roasted chestnuts and spearmint tea. After lunch we hauled all the trash down the hill to Ulricos car and were happy to find out it would be a short work day. Exhausted and cold, we headed back to our little cottage. Later after doing some much needed relaxing, we headed down for another wonderful communal dinner. Our dinner was deliciouso, black beans, polenta and some Jerusalem artichokes that we harvested from the beautiful garden.
After our dinners with the group, we engaged in great conversations and a plethora of tea and other hot beverages from the always burning wood fire stove. After dinners James and I would head back to our little cottage and start our own fire to stay warm. We would drink more hot teas, play numerous card games, James practiced up on his harmonica and mouth harp and we talked until we fell asleep. It was quite the change for us to have no electricity, no running water, no computer, no forms of entertainment except for was we provided for eachother, we
loved it! This place was more than just a get away, it was something that we had been yearning for after all the massive, busy cities we have visited. It made us feel whole again and brought us back to what we know and love the most, beautiful natural landscapes, good quality organically grown, locally picked and even wild collected food. We enjoy seeing the sights of the cities, but absolutely need the quietness and tranquility of the natural world.
The next day, we had a day off and were able to explore and go for a walk through the beautiful hills. It is autumn and the leaves are changing and falling all around us. We finally had a day to take a few pictures and it was well worth the wait because this was the first warm, sunny, clear day that we had and it was more beautiful than we even thought it could be. All the rain we got produced loads of snow on the distant peaks and it made for an amazing backdrop. The rain also caused some local creatures to emerge from their hiding spots, fire salamanders. They are about 8" from head to
tail and bright yellow contrasted to jet black with a really cool pattern. Obviously not used to seeing people, each time we saw one they quickly dashed for cover and we were only able to get a couple pictures. We appreciated helping out at the Pianta Monda project but it was really great to have a day to relax our sore muscles. However, just going for a walk is quite a challenge! You can either walk up hill or downhill, and all the trails are steep and covered with rocks. As we walked around we discovered all kinds of abandoned stone buildings including one with a stone pool that was fed by a natural spring. It was almost like we had gone back in time about 100 years. We found a few spots to just sit and enjoy the view and breath the wonderfully fresh air, while we sipped on our fresh alpine water and ate some wild walnuts that we picked along our hike. So amazing!!
The next couple of days we did some work in the gardens and kind of took it easy. Andrea and Damien were really great company and we had some interesting conversations.
Rolling Boulder Destruction
The last two nights we moved to a new cottage, called the grande house. A large stone building with enough room to sleep 12 people and we had it all to ourselves. It was nice and open but also a lot cooler. The south facing wall consisted of large horizontal logs with 4" openings between them allowing wind, leaves and all the elements to enter, including the little critters in the area. With no fire place to keep us warm we snuggled in large wool blankets and once again would talk until we both fell asleep.
We were very sad to leave Pianta Monda, but with a week without a shower, we were ready to head out and clean up. This is a place we will surely remember the rest of our lives. On our way out of town we stopped at Ulrico and Sanna's store, a small shop that sells all local products including chestnuts and just about everything you could make from them. They also sold locally made jams, teas, and clothing made from wool that Sanna would spin on her old style spinning wheel. James bought a scarf from the store that Sanna had made
from alpaca wool and beautifully colored thread. They also gave us some lovely plum jam for our journey. With only a little time to visit we had to say our goodbyes and catch our bus to start our journey to Milan. Off again to the big city and to meet my second cousin Susan, her husband Gabriel and baby Kathryn. Hope you all are doing well, we miss you and love you lots!!!
There are more photos below