We are all pilgrims who seek Italy.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
As we passed the sign, I had a strange sinking feeling. It felt odd coming back, because the last time we’d been in Tschaval – Staffal, we were absolutely desperate to get away.
High in the Italian Alps, this small ski village has long been one of our spiritual homes. Were we to add up short vacations when we were working, and entire seasons once we retired, we have spent over two years in its picturesque environs. A jumble of traditional wooden Stadel houses, set against the magnificent backdrop of Monte Rosa, the second highest peak in Western Europe, it is achingly beautiful.
Our arrival sparked mixed emotions, which arose because Staffal was where we were marooned in 2019-20, when Northern Italy was the epicentre of Europe’s No.1 coronavirus hotpot. We remained stranded there for eight months, under one of the strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world. Even though Staffal boasted fewer than ten permanent residents, and our nearest neighbour was the peaceful, snow-bound national park around the Monte Rosa massif, the carabinieri manned a roadblock, and prevented us from leaving the confines of the garden surrounding our apartment.
On our previous departure, we had left behind a vast deserted car park, where the giant TV screen broadcasting adverts day and night into empty snowbound silence had made it seem we were inhabiting a dystopian nightmare. It was almost as disturbing to return to same place on a bright spring afternoon, with everything abuzz, and functioning as normal. It was as though we’d awoken into a new reality, and the whole ordeal of our incarceration had never happened.
Our drive there from Savines-le-Lac to Staffal was beyond picturesque.
We crossed from France into our beloved Italy via the Col de Montgenèvre, an ancient mountain pass through the Cottian Alps. The ski resort of Montgenèvre sits at its highest point; 6,102 ft – the equivalent of 1,860 m, or 1.2 miles.
The Romans certainly knew the Col and used it to connect Rome with Southern Gaul and Spain. Generals Pompey and Julius Caesar both passed over its summit, and some speculate it was the route taken by Hannibal and his elephants. More recently, it has featured ten times on the Tour de France, and now – it is where our Beast was inaugurated into the mile high club!
Our reason for revisiting Staffal was primarily to liberate our skis. With our Estate Agent’s blessing, they had been holidaying in the locker belonging to our rented apartment since 2020, ready for our return the following year. Unfortuntately, winter 2021 was cancelled due to coronavirus.
When we couldn’t reach Staffal in 2022 either, because we needed to care for my Dad, we sent a begging letter to Ezio and Carlos in the ski shop. We pleaded with them to rescue four sets of skis and boots, plus all our backpacks, thermals and avalanche gear, in case the landlord let ‘our’ apartment to another tenant.
We parked The Beast on the waste ground where we’d stored Caravan Kismet in 2020. Then we popped in to say ‘Hi’ to Carlos and Ezio, and empathised with them over the previous season’s closure.
“It was much worse than 2020,” they told us. “That was only closure for a few months from March. Last year, we were locked down for the entire season, and everyone had to stay within 300 metres of their house! We’ve had COVID-19, monkey pox, and the war in Ukraine – all we need now is an asteroid to smash into Monte Rosa!”
We all noticed that communication was more stilted than usual. After a two-year hiatus on travel, their usually fluent English was rusty, and I struggled to recall my Italian.
After such a long drive, we’d set our heart on pizza and Weissbier in our favourite restaurant. It was always popular, so I ran in to book a table and double check they were still happy to accept our the dogs. It looked the same but different inside; clearly, the management had given it a lockdown facelift.
Later, when the owner handed us the menu, I realised we were in an upmarket bistro. Pizza and Weissbier was definitely not on the cards!
It was too late to depart with any dignity, but I’m glad we stayed to suffer the consequences. I wish you could experience the rich herbal aroma of cherry-smoked rabbit with honey-glazed carrots, which wafted across our table a good thirty seconds before our mouth-watering main course even arrived. They say French cuisine glorifies the chef, but Italian cuisine glorifies God. How I had missed the intense and sensual flavours the Italians can conjure out of nothing more than simple seasonal ingredients, prepared with minimum fuss.
The owner chose a crisp Val d’Aosta white wine – not chilled too much – as the perfect accompaniment to our dinner. It wasn’t pizza and beer, but it ranked among the most delicious meals I’ve ever tasted. It was also a really swift way to steam through €100 of our trip budget, so I vowed to apply more diligence the next time I selected a pizzeria!
After such a lovely welcome ‘home’, we could have done without the rude awakening at 4 a.m.
In the middle of the night, Mark stepped out of bed into a lake.
He had accidentally left the valve and lid open between the outside water tank, high up behind the cab, and the inside water tank low down and underneath the sofa. As a result, six hundred litres had found their natural level by cascading an excess of around three hundred litres into our living space.
Our new carpet, fitted just before our trip, had done its best, but it took a mini-Matterhorn of microfibre towels to soak up the rest. After an energetic interlude of mopping, we finally climbed back into bed around 5 a.m.
Luckily, the following morning, arid Alpine air and trademark Monte Rosa sunshine soon dried us out. The speedy desiccation was a godsend, particularly wen two separate bouts of cursing evidenced the points at which Mark dropped our newly dry carpet into sun-warmed snowy sludge, and had to hang it out again!
Like Montgenèvre, Staffal is also a mile high resort. Although Ezio and Carlos said the snow at the top was still good, we decided not to ski. The valley had not had significant snowfall since the beginning of December, so the blizzard that grounded us in France a few days previously had brought a welcome replenishment to Monte Rosa’s pistes. The guys lamented,
“We’ve never known a season like it. The glacier isn’t good – the crevasses have not filled with snow. Last winter, when everything was closed, the conditions were superb!”
They also relayed the misguided attempts by the resort management to recoup their COVID losses.
“Monte Rosa is the most expensive in the Aosta Valley!” they complained. “At the start of the season, the ski pass was €60 per day. At least they have reduced it now…”
The cost of lift passes, insurance, and servicing two sets of skis for a couple of days on slushy spring snow didn’t seem worthwhile. Plus, we have always rented an apartment for skiing, and didn’t want to leave our pups unattended in The Beast. We sated our need for snow and Staffal by strolling along a few of our favourite tracks; up the Zigzag towards the chapel of St. Anna, through the pretty woodland beneath the ski lift, and up to the mountain refuge at Bedemie for coffee and a cake.
It amused us to reflect on the conversations we’d had in December two years ago while walking these same paths; the discussion had mostly revolved around a madcap idea to beat Brexit by buying a 24.5-tonne army truck unseen off the internet to convert and drive to Mongolia…
“She’s far too big and too heavy!” was the principal concern we had sallied back and forth about the Volvo N10, although we eventually concluded,
“Yeah – but it will be fun!” and put down a deposit.
Who ever thought we’d be back in Staffal accompanied by The Beast herself!
A few days later, our friends in the village gave us a wonderful send off. We’d been reunited with our skis, and all the hoteliers who had remained in the village during lockdown. As Carlos and Simone waved us off from outside their shop, Ezio revealed he drove trucks like The Beast for the Italian army!
We’re always told that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, but I’m not sure that applies to driving large vehicles into Pont St. Martin down the Gressoney valley.
When we departed from Staffal after lockdown with our caravan in tow, a truck coming the other way almost took us out on a tight switchback just above Pont. Our swerve to avoid a head-on collision left Caravan Kismet stuck fast against the wall at the apex of the bend. Thankfully, some workmen had dislodged her by pulling her sideways with their mini-digger, and we had repaired to our ‘local’ supermarket, Conad, for caffeine, cake, and a calming chat to rationalise our near-death experience.
I’d photographed the Haipin of Doom on the way in, little suspecting that it would catch us out again.
For a second time, I found myself trying not to sob in Conad’s car park, after we narrowly avoided another smash on the same bend. No matter if you use your horn, Italian drivers are undeterred from rounding a blind bend at a hundred miles per hour on the wrong side of the road.
“Don’t go down that storm drain!” I screamed. “If The Beast gets stuck, we’ll never get her off!”
As two wide-eyed truckers limped to the bottom of the mountain, The Beast made her own contribution to the drama.
“Oh sh**!” Mark exclaimed. “The oil pressure has just dropped completely”
My stomach wove itself into a Spanish Rose, the most complicated knot in the world. The oil pressure climbed back to normal shortly after, but my confidence did not follow suit. Like an astronaut cast adrift in the vast emptiness of space, it’s uncomfortable to have your faith in the reliability of your mother ship shaken so near the start of a lengthy voyage into the unknown.
When we finally pulled into Conad’s car park, the powerful smell of burning and billows of blue smoke issuing from The Beast’s brakes did nothing to salve my spirit. I touched the wheel hubs and recoiled immediately. They burned my fingertips.
“I greased the brakes yesterday. I probably just used too much,” Mark said over his shoulder as he disappeared into Conad with a shopping list and Bags For Life. “I mostly used the engine brake, so I’m sure it’s all fine.”
I was shaken. I needed reassurance, so I consulted a primary source, and messaged Richard, our perennial saviour, at Crouch Recovery.
Hi Richard – I hope you don’t mind me asking. My nerves are jangling after driving our Volvo N10 down a couple of thousand metres of Italian hairpins! The brakes were smoking when we got to the bottom. Mark said he greased them yesterday and mostly used the engine brakes on the descent. Do you think he might have over-greased them, or do you think we ought to get them checked? I could imagine the smoke smelled a little like burning grease, but I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking! 🙂 I would really appreciate your advice.
Hi Jackie – it’s common with brakes. They are drum brakes that are overheating with the weight and the decline. As you’re not in a rush, every time it happens, get him to stop for an hour to let them cool down. Don’t say I said, but the least he can use the brakes doing that the better. I’d imagine it’s not the brakes, just the strain. When they smoke, it’s burning a bit of the lining away – it doesn’t need to happen too often. And between us, a truck of your size wants to be avoiding mountains. Skirt round them or use the tunnels through them. x
As I contemplated how to break the news to Mark, the usual crowd of admirers gathered around The Beast.
“Ukraine?” one asked.
“No – the UK sticker is for the United Kingdom. Ukraine is UA.”
The chap who came over to share his extensive overlanding experience with me instantly made me feel one hundred percent better about our undertaking.
“I used to travel in lorries like that. Before, you could park up in the desert no problem, but now you never know – especially when you’re NATO green. You better watch out for drone strikes with that vehicle!”
Burnt out brakes, sudden and unexpected drops in oil pressure, Italian drivers, and now, the prospect of annihilation in a ball of flames because we were painted the wrong colour. Things were definitely looking up.
When we arrived at our next stop in Ivrea, I really needed that beer!
Join us next time as we discover how many adapters it takes to fill an LPG tank!
To read more about Monte Rosa, see my blog Gressoney, Monte Rosa – Hidden Gem & Off Piste Ski Paradise!
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My latest release, It Never Rains But It Paws – A Road Trip Through Politics And a Pandemic follows the the birth of our Brexit Busting Plan involving The Beast, and finishes up in Monte Rosa, detailing how we tried to make our coronavirus isolation splendid!