I spent the first 10 years of my marriage running an Alpine Refuge with my husband. A Rifugio Alpino is akin to a combination of a lodge, restaurant, B & B and rustic hotel. He had run a similar refuge for several years before we met, and when the opportunity arose to take on another one after we married, we took it. I was expecting out first child, and we saw the refuge as an opportunity to raise our child together 100%.
Our refuge was poised atop a mountain pass that connected one craggy Italian mountain valley to another valley leading down to picturesque Lake Iseo. When we took over the refuge, the only way up was a muddy, rocky road carved into the side of the mountains. My American relatives would hold their breath collectively when we made the trek up the mountain. You haven't seen a real hairpin turn until you've driven a jeep up northern Italian mountains. The road would become impassable during the winter months because of the snow, so we would often make the trek up on foot with our child, and then two children, in packs on our backs.
The refuge was a very old stone structure, which had taken on a sprawling appearance after centuries of additions... the pig stall, the hay loft, the cisterns. We had no electricity for the first year, and we had to pump our water up from a spring located below a steep ridge. We had only wood stoves for heat, and the only place I could talk on the phone was in the closet under the stone stairs leading up to the second floor, which was perennially full of stinky, muddy boots and pitch dark. Our kitchen was a huge, bright room with a fireplace so large that you could sit inside of it on the sides atop carved stone benches. We had a small bar, constantly full during the summer months, we served lunch for about eighty people and we also had rooms for about 25 people. We did not have a dishwasher. Our clients ranged from hunters to tourists to dairy farmers. Our refuge was also a stop on a popular 10 day trekking route, so we also got plenty of backpackers from the rest of Europe.
We had a hen house full of chickens and an obnoxious rooster that my younger son would pick up and pet like kitten. We had a wine cellar full of barrels of wine and a cheeses cellar full of local cheeses from the dairies that would open up on the mountaintops during the summer. The sound of clanging cowbells was my children's first lullaby. We had a giant paiolo, a pot for cooking polenta over the fire, which was so big that it took two people to empty it when the polenta was cooked. Once my children were born, we found a wood burning hot water heater, and I could finally enjoy a hot bath without my husband having to lug buckets of hot water up the stairs from the wood stove in the kitchen.
We ran that restaurant for 10 years. Both of my sons were there at one day old, and learned every inch of those mountains, bringing home baskets of wild blueberries and porcini mushrooms. They would race their tricycles through the dining room to the joy of our guests. We sold the business as my youngest son was turning 7 and starting the second grade. We were exhausted. We had always said that we would leave as soon as the road to the top of the mountain was paved, since it would surely bring new people to the Refuge, people looking for a wine list and fresh fish and a well appointed bathroom. That is what happened and that is what we did. It is the kind of life that looks romantic from the outside and in hindsight, and it actually was. But it is definitely a life for the young.
The view from the Refuge
When we returned to Italy this year we went back to see our refuge. It was completely renovated a couple of years ago. There were private rooms with their own bathrooms, fancy table linens and frothy curtains. There was a real printed menu, no longer the menu of the day that I would recite depending on what we had decided to cook. There was central heating and a sparkling stainless steel kitchen. The hand carved benches that were once out front were gone, and the ancient fresco over the entry door had been restored in a garish and crude manner, probably by a local artisan proud of this brightly colored image of a crowned saint. The refuge now even has its own website. The images are almost spooky to me, as if someone kidnapped the refuge of my memories and replaced it with a lakeside hotel. But the photo galleries of the vistas over the mountains and sunsets are the same.
We stayed for a while, and we were immediately surrounded by some of our former customers and friends, some of them older and grayer, and all of them missing i tempi belli when we ran the refuge. When we left my younger son said he was not at all impressed, and I couldn't help but agree. He went on to say that the absolute best part of the refuge, the most cherished memory of his childhood, was completely gone. The hen house, he said. The path down the mountain had grown over and the daisies his grandfather had planted were no more. The road that took us down was paved and crowded with fancy cars on such a beautiful summer day, and I remembered bumping down that same road nine months pregnant and in labor, and I smiled. We really did have the best of times, i tempi belli.