Tag Archives: Italian Mountain Life

Models of Repopulation

As you may know, alongside making yurts and other tents and supplying replacement yurt covers for a big chunk of the UK campsite industry, we also are looking to create a sort of multi-use site in the centre of Italy, yes juggling many balls may be demanding at times,

Lately we have had a short break from making yurt covers that has allowed us to focus on a model for repopulating rural villages in southern Europe.

We are now working on the creation of a cultural association called Heartland (like the site we are building), whose aims are to promote eco-tourism, organic agricultural and low impact ways of building, as ways to repopulate the abandoned lands of southern Europe.

valle-piola-25 (1)

The abandoned church of Valley Piola

In Italy there has been a very strong trend of rural depopulation: whole villages on the Apennines are now empty, one example is valley Piola now for sale as a whole village and in other places, you can be given an old house for free if you agree to renovate it. The historic centres of quite a few villages in south Italy are drawing investors that way.

We felt that we want to find a way to give something back to the region of Abruzzo and the best thing we can focus on, is to help this amazing region to introduce systems of sustainable tourism and green building legislation. Italy, as a whole, is still behind Northern Europe when it comes to the green tourism wave: yurt campsites, holidays on working farms, low impact building etc., even though the Italians love going on holiday and have lots of it.

Anyway we are getting off track here, the issue is that many places in southern Europe have become depopulated, due to economic issues (mainly), a change in life style and the hardship of mountain living and agriculture –  the village contracts inwards so to speak, the land furthest from the village core, at times become totally abandoned, the dirt roads fall into disuse.

The model we are developing currently is one in which those lands which are furthest from the village get developed as a sort of green belt, – we realise that the fact the village contracted inwards, (meaning that most people from the surrounding countryside now live inside the village), means that change in the centre is hardest. The Italian village is like a fortress. In the mountains it usually has a very strong identity, people still mill around until late at night in summer, sitting on benches and having coffee. It is hard to bring change to local communes – the village people are welcoming of course (it’s Italy after all), but the strong identity of who they are also serves to inhibit change, the traditional way which is so attractive, serves to keep things as they were.

So instead we are focusing on developing the furthest reaches of rural communes in the mountain region where we want to create the Heartland centre as the place where new movement will come from.

heartland-9 copy

yurt campsite

The focus is on creating an eco-centre in each commune, it could be a green tourist attraction, a small yurt village or maybe an organic farm where you can stay, maybe a place that studies new organic farming methods one that can be implemented in the fields of the old farmers, crops like giant bamboo, truffle growing, ancient grains.

Or it could be a small mobile saw mill focusing on km zero production in this region where massive mountains oaks grow wild. The only forestry the locals know is called firewood. Anyway you get the point, endowed lands gets developed into a green zone, that serves as some sort of responsible and ecological attraction.

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mobile saw milling

Next we are looking to the Region to establish new laws to help green building and low impact structures to be built in that green zone, with the hope to attract those green operators: the people that will come like pioneers to dig the ancient hills and plow it into an organic paradise will get an incentive The back-to-the-land movement is strong, if a bit under publicised, in Italy.

There has been so much in the area – growing ancient varieties of grain, fruit and vegetables, there is so much nature, amazing mountains, in fact Abruzzo has more national parks than almost anywhere else in Europe, walks between caves in the mountains, wild life to dream of, but yet it is still falling into abandonment. It is amazing, because, being specialists in alternative tourism and professional campsite builders, we feel we are able to help this region take a leap into a sustainable future, away from creating hotels on the mountain and paved walking paths. We envisage more old stone houses becoming Alberghi Difusi, yurts serving as small places to stay, safari tents as places to holiday on working organic farms, small dirt roads that lead from one small mountain municipality are tied together green area to neighbouring green area, what a dream right?!!.

There is a lot of work to do that is for sure, but it’s nice seeing the first seeds starting to grow, people coming to the region in a responsible manner, no more of selling whole villages to some foreign investors. Rural communities need to maintain their identity not to sell their soul, if you too are looking to help the sustainable future of southern Europe we urge you to get involved, thinking about having your own campsite?, your own little bit of paradise where you grow organic produce? The situation in a lot of rural Southern Europe is similar to that in Abruzzo, Italy.

Little by little we see how our small area of activity has already made a difference, our centre building is already forming new relationships, already bringing energy and people to an abandoned area, and its amazing to realise that the whole side of the local hill would turn back into jungle if it wasn’t for our efforts, to know the olives are cut again, the wells are all clean, to know that the thousand year old road is now being resurfaced by us in conjunction with the local commune. It feels good to be able to make a difference and help those mountain people of southern Europe come back to their roots in a new people, a new generation of green mountain people.

abruzzo road building

Building old roads

If all of this speaks to you too feel free to contact us, you can also become a member of the Heartland Association or subscribe to the mailing list (button at bottom of page) to keep abreast of new development of the association and our tent making activity.

Wood and Earth

Winter has finally come around and although it is  our busier time of the year, I took a moment to lay in some garden beds for the next season, at our land in Italy. The weather has been amazingly sunny and warm: we seem to have endless string of sunny days, and the little dusting of snow we had just adds to the beauty of it all. The mountain is majestic and it is so good to be outside all day long in the sun – we are even sweating  most days.

We decided to take a moment break (well I did) and make some raised garden beds. There is an old method that used to be practiced in Eastern Europe and Germany for decades – it is called Hügelkultur, and it calls for burying wood under earth, and layering to create compost, which ensures constant moisture to the bed. It is said that this method can be used in the desert and would not need watering if done right so I thought well we should give it a go, as we sure did water our garden last year in the hot, dry summer.

We have dug a wide long trench. This was quite easy as we used our digger instead of having to do the work by hand and the ground is nice and dry. The commotion drew the neighbouring farmer so we used the opportunity to have him deliver some horse manure.

First step was to fill the dug section with logs and as we have just been clearing the old orchards, there was quite a supply of weeping elms.

Weeping Elm Logs

Filling the trench with logs

 

Horse Manure

Horse Manure

The logs were covered in earth and we piled some straw out of an old straw bale that came from another neighbouring farmer, it seemed it was all just flowing, whenever the next layer was needed someone would happen to be driving along and come and deliver it.

Raised beds covered with straw

Straw covered earth.

The best thing about the straw bales is that they need to be really old or one has to go through a process of maturing them, and the good thing was that the old farmer that came to pick the bales for his horse, was picking up last years bales and some have got in a bad way or might I say, they ended up in a raised bed.

As we were rather rich in horse manure we thought we would lay one layer of that afterwards to help the composting process. The whole Idea of the process except for its compost quality is that once the wood rots, its acts more and more like a sponge collecting water when the earth is wet, and delivering it back slowly once it dries up, or in another sense, as I was telling the local farmers who could not really believe I was burying my wood pile in a nice clear field, it’s a method for having a garden without the need to water it.

Horse Manure being used for gardening

Laying horse manure

As things were in swing and all the local farmers seem to be out and about in our parts, I thought maybe we can kill two birds with one stone, and got one of them to come with us to pick up some of the olive branches of the olives we just pruned. These olives have been neglected for 10 or so years, and there was a surprising amount, and i thought great that would be another nice layer for the raised bed. Back in the day Olive wood was quite sacred, and its amazing smell when burnt made feel like a sacrilege to just throw it in the ground, but somehow we managed.

using olive branches for raised beds

Olive branches delivery

To top it all up we have put the remaining earth, another load of horse manure, and another whole straw bale, seeing that no manual digging was involved I was rather pleased with the speed it all came together, and it was nice education for us and the local farmers, who promised that if my gardening experiments work they would make their own garden the same way.

Abruzzen Shepard

The bed is raised!

It felt funny teaching them how to garden, like selling snow to eskimos, but in a way it is time for new ways to take place, and as the Italian country side is suffering from the lack of governmental reforms more than most and the old day farming methods seems to have been swapped to simply plowing in grain once a year, I guess it is a turn for the good. It sure felt like it was flowing and I hope the abandoned lands and olive groves would flourish again at the foothills of the Magellan. The locals seem to have put a little more effort than usual this year into their fields and I hope we helped in some way to revive the abandoned fields and get the locals to not abandon their plots.

 

Olive oil

We have had a busy season, the summer ebbed away into Autumn and it was a little hard to keep up with all the activity, always busy sewing and making yurts, balancing building our Italian centre, and now November has come its also olive picking time.

We have the fortune to have landed our site in an area full of wilderness: only the other day one of the locals was telling us to be careful that our dog does not get killed by the wolf they have seen the other morning.

But one of the best things about this area is that a lot of the old cultivation has been abandoned, it means there are scores of fruit trees for us!, this month we have spent a good two week picking olives of old olive groves, that have grown wild.

The Italian mountain weather was at its best, and so we picked some 500kilo of olives, all from wild uncultivated trees, organic and in the fresh mountain wilds, the Oil is simply Amazing.

There are three main olive varieties in our area, the big eating olive called olive grande, the small ones I can never recall, and the middle sized one that mature latest, called in dialect la gentile (the gentle one). traditionally olive groves are planted with some sort of a mix of varieties so to offer one the best of all worlds oil, and eating olives.

 

olivegrande

olivo grande

 

The olive trees we resurrected around Heartland  are of the eating variety around the area we are going to be putting all the yurts, and further up and down are mostly of the la gentile kind.

We use the old method of making green olives, so instead of chemicals we cure ours in water, but we also use ash from the fire,  placed in a sock inside the water with the olives, it makes them go “sweet” so after a week or so they can go into brine.

The black Olives are done under salt, simply put them in a sack with a load of salt and keep turning them.

This was the capping stone over a summer of fruit collection and gardening, having a site to manage travelling to our usual cover and yurt making, is overly demanding but it is rewarding, Sitting now by the oak fire, with a big pot of mushroom and nettle soup, knowing the olive oil in the bottle was picked by our hands from our own local olives is great, and the taste is superior to anything you have ever tasted.

olive press

Olives to oil

The local olive oil press works long hours for those two months, finishing some nights at 12pm, it takes about an hour from arrival to oil. Nice friendly locals all bringing their olives to be pressed its a real good way to get involved with the locals.

olive oil coming out of press

Mountain Olive Oil

Our second olive picking being little latish, got us 35litres out of 200kg, which is an impressive 18%. this is due to the fact that most of the olives we picked was of the la gentile type (they have more oil) and because the olives were little more mature, as we only got 15% a few weeks earlier, the earlier Olive oil is little less acidic which is a good thing too.

Moving On

We have been so busy in the last months we never got round to updating the blog.

Summer has come with its full glory, and with it the heat. Luckily the place we have chosen to create our Italian Centre is situated in the mountains, so it never really gets too hot, topping up at around 34 degrees celsius, actually once you get used to it its the perfect temperature!.

Italian yurt campsite

Our Italian Campground Project

The area we chose for this special campground is below the hilltop village of Torricella Pelgina, in an area called San Venanzio. The whole area is somewhat abandoned, though it used to be populated by 35 families, we are only 12 people. It suits us because we have looked for a place to create a real  “free-from-distraction” centre, to allow people to reconnect with an inner core that seems to get neglected.

The nature is astounding: Italy seems to have gotten more than most in some respect, Abruzzo is a region which is somewhat left alone, it is beautiful and diverse, but for some reason it is becoming more and more unpopulated. Some of this is due to the Italian government and tax system, more and more people flee the mountain villages to seek work. The young people go elsewhere, leaving a thousand year culture of agricultural peasantry and rural life, the fields used to be harvested in the morning and the grain used to be milled that very same day, but those days are gone.

 

Torricella Peligna

The Abandoned houses of San Venanzio

Farmers can’t keep up with the cost of living, and farming in itself is becoming an impossibility, unlike the UK. It seems here in Italy, the national debt situation is not understood on a micro level, leaving the country on a move away from self sufficiency, and that reflects in rural life where the people can’t afford to live in the old way, and small businesses can’t flourish.

We hope to help the area as much as we can by introducing a new level of work and income, and a new approach, changing things on a micro level. It seems we have gotten this area of San Venanzio all to ourselves. The locals are welcoming and open to our project.

It is amazing how many old houses are left standing and we have so many ideas for this area.

But for now we are fully occupied with the creation of “Heartland” that yurt campground we always dreamt of making.

So between the amazing sun basking, abundance of fruit, and trips to the UK and back, we have been reclaiming our 12 hectares from nature, bit by bit as more tents go up, and more fruit and olive trees are found, and nurtured back to health.

Yurts in a reclaimed olive and apple grove

Our parcel of land in the not so distant history was the hiding place of the first Italian Partisans: The “Brigada Majella”, and with a strange twist, the old Italian stone house we have on the land is called ‘La Difesa’, (‘The Defence’), although the locals think it predates the Second World War. The name seems appropriate. There are stories of the Germans gathering locals inside a house and dropping a bomb through the roof. One of the locals has told me, (under an olive tree) how her grandmother lost her head (literally), and another how his grandfather’s been shot when the Germans came to take his cows.

Summer has been seeing us digging  the partisans house  up from the ground again, to install French (but Italian) drains. The local stone is called Majella stone (after the mountain) and the general structure is amazingly intact, with little if no, damage to the old lime, almost seems a shame to have dug it up, but alas there was one little spot where the water entered.

Italian partisan house

La Difesa

But I never miss an excuse to work up our digger, although I did find it funny, that with the abundance of machines we have, 4 trucks (and one digger) we still end up piling gravel with the shovel!

fiatallis fl4

Digger Love, can you tell?

 

The Tricky Tracks and Trucks

We have finally opened up the road to Heartland, after weeks on end of clearing the road, bulldozing, cutting the oaks’ branches down, we finally drove our truck through the tricky track to the heart.

mercedes 814 4x4 off road

Tricky Tracks Trucked

It was one of those rare times in life where everything aligns. I parked the truck in the centre. We have 12 hectares of wild Italian mountainside land, and a few of the plots that make it are old vineyards, and olive groves. The central one where we are planning to raise the Zodiac Tent one day, has been cleared, and we have found a circle of olive trees that magically conforms to the contour of the tent, yes its amazing! the old olives have been grown in a circle of 20 meter diameter, the exact dimensions of the Zodiac Tent.

814 4x4 in camper van

Parked at the centre

That first few days Living at Heartland, were amazing. I was a little sick and delirious from  fever, but that added a charm, laying in the hot bath last thing at night, in the light drizzle, and having the majestic Majella in front of me, exploring the lay of the land.

fire heated bath

Outside hot bath

It was like I was living inside this magical circle, I could feel a silent voice telling me not to leave it to be healed, the fever disappeared, and I started exploring the land boundaries. It’s amazing how big it actually is, I kept walking and thinking, is this still ours?

I found full size oaks, and flowers and vines, and old olive trees nestled in wilderness, places the wild boar walks, old stone walls, and little coves made for no apparent reason, and apple trees everywhere, some big some small, maybe over a hundred!

I went down to the smaller river (Heartland is nestled between two rivers) and walking the river border was like going into another land, it starts with a rock bigger than our House…

riverside rocks

Guardian and river

…in fact we have two rocks this size as our lowest borders, like two mastodon guardians.

I discovered pools and waterfalls, it was strange knowing we own those, it felt wrong somehow this notion. I guess the whole notion of owning the land is strange. I was immersed in the watery world bathed in the river pools, admired the waterfalls. It was a world of its own, the land around here can get quite hot so its nice to know the rivers run wild and cool all year round.

waterfall

Waterfall

I seem to have walked a whole day getting lost in those 12 hectares, it seemed endless, like receiving a gift, and unwrapping it, that gift was wrapped in my favourite wrapping of the wilderness, and slowly slowly we are finding its contours, and where things used to be grown, and where some of those things still grow!! The olive trees that survived have been abandoned for 50 years and the apples.

We discovered three wells on the land, deep and clear, all full of water.

pumping the wells

Pumping out the wells

But the deepest experience was connecting the group body to the land, it’s like we have been working with this entity, and it never had a place that could contain it. It reminded me of watching this movie about Moses, and how God got him to take the people out of Egypt. There was this feeling we have had for years, like we can’t be at home, we lived in houses, Trucks, Tipis and Yurts, but somehow we could never feel at home, that feeling of wanderlust, I even thought it is uncureable, but then I felt the group body arrive at Heartland.

It was like a space I forgot existed opened up again. There is the hum, a harmony of sort, the resonance of the place and the work coming together, and I could see this visual space open. In it I could see our little tribe already Living on the land, like there was an inner Tent, a transparent Zodiac Tent, one that exists on another realm, and in it our people are already here, the Group Body is at home. Our tribal god has come to rest.