On being carfree and carless

We have lived in Italy for 5 months now and I have discovered something that has struck me as interesting. I really haven’t missed one of the icons of American life…the car. Some of you on reading the title for this posting probably thought that I had made some typographical or spelling errors and, I guess, I did. It should probably be car-free and car-less for you see we have not had a car at our disposal while living in Bra. We did, to be accurate, rent a car twice for 3 days at at time. Once when we went to Verona and later to travel around the surrounding area of Piemonte to visit the wine towns of the Barolo region. As part of our daily lives we do not use nor find a need for a car.


Granted, we live downtown in the “historic city center” of Bra. This means that we have within a few blocks almost all of the things we need for our basic survival. We live above a fish shop and across the street from a fresh pasta shop. We are a few doors down from a produce shop and across from what I fondly refer to as “our hardware store.” Going the other direction down our street and within a block or two are a pastry shop, a cheese and salumi shop, a meat market, a bakery, “our” coffee shop, a nice restaurant for whenever we want to celebrate something (every few weeks), and my barber. Actually, there are several pastry shops, bakeries, meat markets, produce stores, gelaterias (places to buy gelato), etc. within easy walking of our “flat.” No car needed for those. If we need to do some more extensive shopping there is the COOP about 6 blocks away or, for those times when sufficient just isn’t enough there is the Big Store (Yes, that’s what they call it in Italian!) which is about 2 miles away but you “have to” pass by a great gelateria on the way to or from there.


To get to school, which is about 4 miles away, I have been walking in the mornings when it is cool and taking the bus back in the afternoon when it is hot. I have a bus pass so the logistics are pretty easy. There have been a few times when class hasn’t ended near the time when the bus heads back from Pollenzo to Bra and I have had to 1) wait, 2) walk or 3) catch a ride with the 2 or 3 students that do have a car. In general, though, not having a car for school is not an issue.

So, what have I learned about not having a car vs having one? It really can be summed up in the title. Being “carless” can be felt to be a burden. “Less” means missing something…not whole. One could view that as being deprived of something. On the other hand, being “carfree” means free of the responsibility of having to depend on an oft undependable item with all its needs like fuel and parking. “Carfree” can truly mean “carefree.”


There have been very few times when we have felt ourselves to be “careless” about being “carless.” One is when we want to make a quick weekend trip to one of the quaint small towns that surround us and to which there does not appear to be any reasonable way to get to other than by car. We tried, for instance to walk to Cherasco, a nice town about 6 km from Bra…an easy walk. It would be easy, too, if there was a path to walk on that was not in the direct path of cars and semi-trucks. We got to within about one kilometer of the town and found that a bridge separated us from our destination. There was no way to cross the bridge on foot. I tried and had to turn around and return after only a dozen feet or so while a semi-truck was stopped, holding up busy traffic, waiting for my retreat. Biking would be equally as treacherous. Many of the students have bikes but I haven’t found a need for one. The issue of safely riding a bike on highways is the same and bikes have been stolen.


So, we are car-less and do not feel deprived. We have learned to navigate the train and bus schedules and have come to enjoy traveling, on trains (mostly) or buses. It can be freeing having nothing to worry about except watching the countryside or reading or writing this blog posting…completely carefree.



Posted on the train from Trieste to Milano.


Green Harvest

Saturday promised to be sunny and hot as we were driven to the La Spinetta Campe winery near the town of Grinzane Cavour in the Piemonte region of Italy. We were going to La Spinetta to participate in the green harvest. Gathering in the tasting room with about 18 others from Switzerland, Denmark, and Belgium we were welcomed by Anja Cramer, (responsible for marketing), Giorgio Rivetti (the wine maker and co-owner), Giovanna (Giorgio’s sister, vineyard supervisor and cook), and Manuela Rivetti (Italian sales and winery visits). We were given background on La Spinetta, a family owned and run winery (http://www.la-spinetta.com/index.htm). The work we would be doing that morning was some of the most important work done in the vineyards and involves cutting off almost half of the clusters of green grapes from the vines. This work is done before the grapes start to turn color and is done so that the plant provides all of its energy to fewer grapes. It reduces the quantity of wine produced significantly but increases the quality. La Spinetta is all about the quality where as other commercial wineries are more concerned on the volume of wine produced.



We were given aprons and cutters and headed for the vineyard. There we met the part of the field crew that works for La Spinetta for harvest, pruning, thinning, and green harvest. They are all very skilled at what they do and are supervised by Giovanna.


Divided into groups of 5 or 6 we were assigned to one or two of these workers. Giovanna showed how they wanted to have about 5 or 6 grape clusters remaining on each vine, though it depended on the age of the vine and the size of the clusters. Some of the clusters were long and we were to cut them shorter so that the remaining grapes would do better.


The thinning had the functions of making fewer clusters so that each received more nourishment but also to create space between clusters so that they would stay dry. If clusters are too close together and it rains they do not dry well and then mold forms and ruins the grapes. After the demonstrations we were ready to work under the watchful eye of the skilled workers. When we would have a question about whether or not to cut off a cluster we would say, “Questo? (this one)” and get a “si” or “no” or “corto” (shoren it). It was a little unnerving to think that each cluster cut would be less wine, Barolo in this case, made.




Our group would move down the row each taking a vine to harvest and then when done moving past the last one down the row to select another vine. There is another vineyard between two of La Spinetta’s properties that is not owned by them. The owner is not a winemaker and sell the grapes to other winemakers. He does not do green harvest and you could see the vines thick with green grape clusters. For this grower it is all about production of a lot of grapes. Giorgio said that the winemakers who buy these grapes are not farmers and by not being farmers they don’t understand that the quality of the wine begins in the vineyard.


Just when it seemed we were getting the hang of it we stopped for lunch. Lunch was served at the ciabót, a little hut or house in the vineyards where the vignaioli used to store their tools and take their breaks in the heat of the day. Lunch was simple, but delicious “finger food” prepared by Giovanna accompanied by La Spinetta wines (of course!).



It was a good time to relax, eat, drink wine, meet and talk with the other people there and to enjoy the lush green view across Barolo wine country.



Then it was back down the hill to the winery to turn in our cutters and back to the hotel to clean up and rest before dinner.



Dinner was in Canelli at the Contratto winery. Contratto is a very old sparkling winery that was acquired by La Spinetta very recently. The winery is built into the side of a large hill and consists of multilevel tunnels dug into the hill. The winery was built over a 100 years ago without the machinery or technology we have now and it is very impressive to see how well it was constructed. I forgot to bring my camera in the evening so I cannot show you just how beautiful the facility is. They still use the manual process for “riddling” (getting the yeast into the neck of the bottle so it can be expelled before the final bottling.) All of the large sparkling wine companies have machines that do that now. We had a demonstration of riddling from a man that has worked there for 30 years. There soon will not be anyone with those skills around.

We had aperitivos in a underground tasting room (with some Contratto sparking wine, of course). Then we returned above ground to what was once a restaurant on part of the winery where we had a lovely meal prepared by Giovanna accompanied by several La Spinetta wines.

We were fortunate of be sitting by Giorgio and were treated to many stories. It is clear that they are passionate about their wine making and they work very hard to product the best wines that they can. One of the other guests told us that a La Spinetta had been rated the second best Barolo in Italy and was ranked among the best wines in the world. The evening ended with a 2004 Barolo Reserve and it couldn’t have ended better.


(for more pictures go to:  http://gallery.me.com/doughiza/100175)