A life full of mountain adventures in the Aosta Valley

Written by on November 14, 2020 in Aosta Valley, Italy Stories

family photo

An interview with Tom Durham – skier, mountain biker and entrepreneur, who lives with his wife Lorna and daughter Sadie in the lovely village of Gressan in the Aosta Valley

Tom, thanks so much for agreeing to share your story with us.

What brought you guys from Scotland out here to the Aosta Valley

There isn’t really a short answer, but the Valley has been like a second home for a long time. We were in need of an adventure and the time was right for us to take the plunge and move over here permanently!

We are originally from a small village in North East Fife, on the east coast of Scotland, between Dundee and St Andrews. I first came to Aosta with a friend 20 years ago for a winter season after we both dropped out of university. One season turned to two, then a couple of years later my wife Lorna finished university and we came here full time. We ended up managing the well-known Old Distillery Pub in Aosta’s old town centre. We worked nights and went skiing, snowboarding, biking and hiking during the day. Great times!

english pub in Aosta

Following that we moved back to Scotland but still visited Aosta multiple times every year, usually driving 24hrs each way. But eventually, we decided to turn things around, move out here to live, and travel back to the UK occasionally as required.

What businesses or jobs are you involved with here in Italy

We run a national first aid training business in the UK. I am also involved in the mountain bike industry as a trail designer and as a mountain bike guide here in Aosta. Our businesses are set up so that we can work from anywhere really, so we’ve continued to run them from here – the customers, and often our staff don’t know any different!

Do you make regular trips back to UK. Where is back home for you these days

In normal times pre-covid, we’d travel back to the UK several times a year to see family and friends, usually tying in with some work.  I work all over the place in the UK and Europe so we are regularly on the move. Back home as such is the spare room at my mum’s place, we very much consider Aosta our home now.

aosta piazza Chenoux

Tell us about your home in Gressan. You are renting, right

A bit missing from the history of why we’re here is that Lorna’s parents also fell in love with the valley through visiting us, and once they retired they bought an apartment in Gressan, the village in which we now live.  We knew that the owners of the apartment underneath theirs were sick of letting it to tourists, so we made them an offer for a long term rental which they happily accepted.  We rent our house out in Scotland which covers our rent here so it’s fairly straight forward.

beautiful view over Gressan - A life full of mountain adventures in the Aosta Valley

How do you find that

Renting here has been fine, and very convenient with Lorna’s parents upstairs which is great for our daughter Sadie. The building is very old, I think the 3 apartments were rebuilt around 40 years ago. Unfortunately ours hasn’t been updated since! There are certainly a lot of things we’d fix about the place if it were ours. But that is all balanced against the convenience of not having to fix them because it’s not!

The location is excellent, the view is outstanding, there are mountain bike trails that arrive at the back door, and we can be up in Pila skiing in 20 mins, either driving up in the van or using the Aosta – Pila telecabina. So despite some general grumbles about the apartment, our set up is hard to beat.

All that said, we’re looking for a place to buy now, or a plot on which to build, which will be a whole new adventure.

Please tell us more about your business enterprises – they sound interesting

Together with a co-director who is based in Scotland, Lorna and I run the First Aid Training Co-operative, which is a specialist first aid training business covering the whole of the UK and beyond.

In addition, I am a mountain bike facility development consultant, which means I plan, design and then build mountain bike tracks and trails.  Projects are mainly UK based but it takes me all over the place and I have a few projects in the pipeline out here in Italy too hopefully.

building mountain bike trails - A life full of mountain adventures in the Aosta Valley

In the Aosta Valley I work as a mountain bike guide for about 5 months through the summer with Aosta Valley Freeride. I’m now a ‘socio’ which is somewhere between a shareholder and a director and means that I can start to build more of an income locally.

My guiding work ties in nicely with the trail building project and I’m also hoping to start a non-profit style organisation to take on the management of the ‘sentieri’ or footpaths that we generally use when guiding. This has been historically something that hasn’t been done effectively, but needs to be for the sustainment of the cycle tourism industry generally.

mountain bike guiding

In addition, Lorna does flower arrangement for weddings at a local hotel that our friends run up in the mountains. Often local florists don’t do things to a British couple’s taste and Lorna has been doing wedding flowers for friends for a long time in Scotland, so when Brits get married up there she steps in – she usually ends up in all sorts of other related discussions too, as a bit of a go-between!

beautiful flower arrangements for weddings

Please say what you love about living in Italy 

I get asked this a lot, not least by Italian friends who say “Ma che bella la Scozia – perché siete venuti qua?!” (But Scotland is beautiful, why did you come here?!). I always reply by joking that yes Scotland is beautiful on its day, but those days are pretty irregular.

The climate, the mountains, the food, the coffee, the wine, the changing seasons, the culture, the pace of life here in Italy are all things that we love about Italy – I could go on!

I love that no one is really in a rush, that spending time with family, friends and good food is prioritised over almost everything. That you almost never get a meal that is anything less than superb, even in the most unlikely looking places, and that it rarely costs a lot.

eating out in Italy is great

I love that I can wake up in the morning, stand on the balcony and see adventures and fun everywhere, all really close and accessible. On the flip side I love that we can be swimming in the Mediterranean in less than 3 hours.

mountains and at sea

In the UK I would be the last person to want to go for a walk around a town centre or go to the shops, but here in Aosta, the town centre is a real pleasure, great atmosphere, nice shops and bars.

I love seeing Sadie flourish, becoming fluent in 2 languages and learning a third (French) at 8 years old.  There seems to be less pressure on kids to grow up here, they are allowed to be kids for much longer and seem much more innocent.  They get worked really hard in school for long days but then have 2 teachers in a class of just 21 so get a lot of support.

little girl having fun walking and in the pool - A life full of mountain adventures in the Aosta Valley

and what are the downsides

The downsides are not seeing friends and family in Scotland as often as we’d like – that has been especially acute this year with travel restrictions, but in normal times we tend to see people pretty regularly.

The bureaucracy here is definitely a challenge, although I think you just need to embrace it as it’s not going to change. It is all part of the relaxing pace of life aspect I guess, you can’t have things both ways. My mantra when I find myself getting stressed in a queue in front of yet another ‘sportello’ is ‘everything sorts itself out in the end Tom, there no rush!’

Please tell us some more about your area – The Aosta Valley

There is an endless list of things to do here in the region – our activities outside of work are fairly based on the season that we’re in.

We live just outside Aosta town on the south side of the valley, about 100m higher up the hill, surrounded by vineyards and apple orchards, with a forest behind us, so the simple pleasure of going for a walk around the local area is something that we do most days, especially in the low seasons of late spring and late autumn.

autumn colours

We’ll also regularly go into town for a ‘passeggiata’, basically a wander around the beautiful old Roman town of Aosta, punctuated by a glass of wine or a gelato and a chat with whomever you bump into.

Do you get to do much skiing – Pila is your local resort right

In the winter we ski as much as possible and often have friends over so enjoy getting involved in their holidays! As a family, we ski on Wednesday afternoons (schools are ½ day Wednesday) and at weekends, although Sadie is starting ski club this year (all being well) so she’ll have left us long behind pretty soon.  Other days Lorna and I will pop up for a quick ski on the lifts or a short tour with the skins before work.  Then I’ll go on more of an off-piste adventure whenever I get the opportunity.

A life full of mountain adventures in the Aosta Valley - ski touring

Pila is our local resort that we go to most of the time. It’s just up the mountain behind our house and is in the same Comune as us, the Comune di Gressan. And it is fabulous. Great pistes always immaculately prepared, easy going atmosphere, really good snow record, great restaurants. Not at all busy, at least not during the week.

One of the best things about skiing here in the Aosta Valley is making use of all the other small village resorts, often with only 1 or 2 lifts. Usually you get the place to yourself and a really good and cheap lunch into the bargain!

What else do you and your family get up to in the winter

Other than skiing, in the winter we like to go on ciaspolata (show shoe) tours and also do some cross-country skiing. Every year we have the Mercatino di Natale (Christmas Market) at the Roman theatre and in January there is the Fiera di Saint Orso to look forward to, in Aosta old town, which is a huge artisan and traditional crafts market.

christmas market in Aosta town

And what about during the rest of the year

In the spring the weather starts to get hot quite early so we eek out the last of the skiing, and then take to walking, running and biking.  Usually road cycling early on, as a lot of the ‘sentieri’ still have snow on them. It’s a quiet time, but beautiful as nature comes out of hibernation, and it often feels like the Valley is all ours. Spring is a busy time usually with our work too, so often it’s a chance to get our heads down and catch up after a busy winter season here.

mountain biking in the summer - A life full of mountain adventures in the Aosta Valley

Summer really kicks off properly when the schools finish in the middle of June, although in reality the weather is pretty stable and hot from mid – late May.  I am busy guiding during the summer but as a family we do as much as possible outside and up high to escape the heat in the valley. Family days often involve a trip to the outdoor pool in Aosta while it’s relatively cool in the morning, then a walk or mountain bike ride up high later on, or a big walk and camping in the mountains with a picnic somewhere.

Summer service of the Aosta – Pila tele-cabin

We make the most of the Aosta-Pila tele-cabin which runs in the summer as well as in the winter. In 20 minutes from downtown we are at 1800m in Pila, with the bikes or just on foot. Making the most of the amazing mountain bike trails, going for a hike or just having a beer and a pizza at one of the lovely restaurants up there. Sadie really likes climbing too so we do that occasionally, and I introduced her to the ‘via ferrata’ this year which was a great adventure!

climbing the ferrata in the alps - A life full of mountain adventures in the Aosta Valley

Public BBQ spots in the mountains

One of our other favourite summer activities is a big ‘grigliata’ (BBQ) at one of the public spots up in the mountains. Everyone gathers there with enough food and drink for an army, sets up at a table, lights a fire and spends the day relaxing with friends.

Breath taking autumn colours

Once school starts again in mid-September, summer is officially over and the valley gets quiet again, although in reality the weather is usually amazing in September and only really breaks consistently from mid-October. So we’re still active and the autumn colours are truly breath taking. Often we’ll chose a new valley to visit, or a new castle that we’ve not explored – that’s often a rainy day option, or just go for a big lunch somewhere with friends that we don’t see during the peak seasons.


Please tell us something about the food and wine of the Aosta Valley

A really nice way of eating here that we often do with guests is to visit an ‘agriturismo’ – that is usually a farm that has a hostelry and serves meals.  The general idea is that they serve only (more or less) what they produce themselves, so the menu changes with the seasons but is typically traditional mountain foods.  The best thing though is that you don’t usually get to choose – you sit down, start eating, and keep going for often upwards of 6 courses. Always accompanied by great wine, it’s a really traditional and enjoyable way to eat, highly recommended!  (Top tip – resist filling up on the bread at the start!)

agriturismo eating delicious food

Do you have any favourite places elsewhere in North West Italy that you especially like to visit. 

The place we have spent most time outside of the Aosta Valley is the Ligurian coast which we love. There is something really refreshing about seeing the sea and a distant horizon every so often after spending a lot of time surrounded by mountains.

We like a city break now and again too and have made a few visits to Torino and Milano, both of which are great, although hard to pick a favourite!  We haven’t spent a lot of time in Genova although I’d like to get to know it better – we usually bypass it on the way to the beach!   We’ve also tried to visit Italian cities further afield and have been to Verona, Venice, Florence, basically ticking off the tourist hotspots!

tourist hotspots to visit

We recently discovered the ‘Freccia Rossa’ fast train which makes city breaks within Italy much more accessible and less stressful. We simply drive to Torino, park under the station and jump on the fast train.  Next on our list is Rome I think.

How is your Italian now, what has been your language learning journey

My Italian is slowly improving and I’m fairly comfortable with basic interactions and everyday life, albeit there is a long way to go with the vocabulary and getting the grammar right.  I learnt initially in the Pub 20 years ago, but it’s only the last two years that I’ve actually put any effort into learning properly, and to be honest it hasn’t been as much effort as it should have been.

‘Mind Your Language’ course for immigrants

When we moved here in 2018 discovered that it’s possible to get free ‘Italian language for immigrants’ lessons at an adult education school in the town centre. We did that for 2 school years which although wasn’t the best teaching, was a great experience to be in a classroom with 20 or so other immigrants from all over the world a few times a week.   That got me up to a level that would qualify for citizenship but that’s as far as the lessons go really as that’s what they’re aimed at achieving.   Lorna has also had private lessons at a different language school here which were OK, but it can get quite pricey to do regularly.

Our situation working from home means that we aren’t speaking with Italians on a daily basis so we have to make an effort to do that which is often easier said than done.  I’m lucky in that my guiding colleagues are all locals, so in the summer I have the opportunity to chat regularly.  I often get the squinting look of someone who’s deciphering what I’m trying to say, but we get there in the end!  We also have a lot of Italian friends, who have started to humour our spoken Italian more and more, which is good of them as their English is invariably perfect.

Meanwhile Sadie has left us long behind and blathers away at 100miles per hour, so there’s good motivation to improve at home as well as out and about.

Please tell us what you think being in Italy teaches us in life

Apart from patience you mean? For me living in Italy constantly reminds me of what is important in life, and spoiler alert, it’s not the latest new ‘thing’!  A few people I know here have a tattoo that says ‘Live, Love, Laugh’, and although it’s a pretty cheesy cliché to have written on your wrist, it is an important motto for life I think.

live laugh and love with family and friends

Please share a funny story from your life in Italy. 

I have numerous funny stories about my slightly mistaken Italian – I’ve asked for a steak with which to cut up my food in a restaurant (cotto letto / coltello) – I’ve asked a builder how he was planning to fix my breast rather than roof (tetta / tetto), and soon after we arrived in 2018 we were invited to our neighbours one afternoon to share what I thought was going to be an enormous hamburger, but in fact to our relief was a watermelon (anguria) – it was indeed enormous though!

What’s your motto for life in Italy, or life in general

I tend to see life as a big adventure – you don’t progress if you stay in your comfort zone, but you do have to be ready to laugh about it afterwards!

stretching your comfort zone - A life full of mountain adventures in the Aosta Valley

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