The Road to Riparbella

Although we enjoy the quark, potatoes, bread, and tomatoes so readily available during meals on the farm, Gabe and I decide we should consider venturing to the nearby town of Riparbella to supplement our diet with some more fruit and vegetables. We hear that we can make it to town via bicycle, so we naturally borrow bikes from the farm and start naively on our way. We wait until about 5pm to try to avoid the heat of the day, but unfortunately, we aren’t entirely successful. After crossing several undulating hills, we hit the main road and optimistically look up the hill and think that we’re almost there. We start climbing the hill, and as we round every corner we prepare ourselves to see this small town. Eventually after about 20 corners and much climbing, we see a sign welcoming us to Riparbella. Unfortunately, the sign appears to be more of a tease than a welcome because we still only see more climbing leading to another bend in the road. Nonetheless, we rejoice at the sight of the sign, take a short break, and attempt to remove some of the sweat from our faces.

Riparbella sign

While waiting at the Riparbella sign, we watch other professionally dressed bicyclists in much lighter and higher-tech bicycles struggle up this same hill. Although we are not maintaining their pace, we still feel better knowing that we are not the only ones suffering. Eventually, we convince ourselves that this next corner will in fact be the last corner, we mount our bikes, and we continue forward. The next corner was not the last, but after only several more turns, we find the town, and more importantly, we find a small market. First thing, we find water to start re-hydrating ourselves, but as soon as we feel the warm bottle, we are less excited. We grab the water for later, but at the moment, find a refrigerator with cold beers, and we share one of the most refreshing beers I’ve ever tasted. The taste isn’t even mind-blowing, but the circumstances are perfect.

We purchase a backpack full of vegetables, water, juice, and some drinks for later, and we then walk around town with our beer and water. Satisfied with our completed mission, we remount our bicycles and enjoy the downhill ride with wind in our faces. We get back to our room, immediately re-shower, get ready for dinner, and then rehash our adventure to Ursula. She claims that she had warned us about the hill and that no other WWOOF-ers have ever attempted that ride before. Gabe and I look at each other, smile, and change the conversation.

Ursula and Sigismund’s Story

This story begins in Mannheim, a town about 50 miles south of Frankfurt, Germany. Ursula and Sigismund, a happy couple with stable jobs, are discussing the best environment to raise their three boys. If they stay where they are, the boys will end up attending boarding school from the age of ten, and although they will receive a good education, this disrupts the family unit. The couple is not willing to compromise their family values for anything, but they also recognize the importance and benefits of a strong education. The answer that eventually forms is that the family should move to a location that accommodates all their goals. After some debate, Ursula and Sigismund consider moving to a German farm. They do some research and learn more about German agricultural real estate. Unfortunately, it seems that the price tag for such real estate is higher than expected and that plans need to be reconsidered.

In 1979, Ursula writes a letter to a man in real estate in Tuscany, Italy. The letter is simply worded as she does not know any Italian, and asks if there are any farms for sale in the region. The agent kindly responds stating that the only way to find a farm is to come visit in person. Inspired by her dream, she takes a train and travels on her own to Cecina, Italy. Being unable to communicate in Italian at a time when tourist travel is difficult presents early obstacles to overcome. Also, there is no rental car agency or tourist information booth conveniently located near the train station. After some wandering around, she comes to a gas station where she is somehow able to convince the owners to rent her a car to use over the next couple days. As she is driving away from the gas station through Cecina, she pulls into the first real estate agency she finds. While speaking in French, the only common language between herself and the agent, Ursula again expresses her interest in finding a farm. That drizzly and overcast afternoon, the two make their way to a small farm near Riparbella. The farm sits on a hill overlooking several small adjacent towns. As the real estate agent starts pointing out these towns, Ursula starts to be able to imagine herself and her family on this land with its grapes, olives, peaches, and apricots.

She excitedly returns to Germany to share with Sigismund everything that she has seen and learned. In 1980, the two return together to take a closer look at this Tuscan farm. The price is high but much more reasonable than what had been available in Germany, the lifestyle accommodates their values, the produce growing on the farm is young and healthy, and the views from the top of the hill are breathtaking. The agent no longer needs to act as the seller as Ursula is doing most of the sales pitch to her husband. After many discussions over this life-changing move, Ursula, Sigmund, and family move to Tuscany to start their lives anew. Farm life starts in two small rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen. Between jobs in the fields, Sigismund employs his woodworking abilities to slowly make improvements to the house. The farm was picked based on the fertility of its soil and not on the grandeur of its house because it is much easier to upgrade the house than affect the health of the soil. The three boys attend a nearby school and are picked up by a local school bus, which often waits for them to finish tying their laces before continuing onwards to school.

In their free time, the boys learn musical instruments from their father, Sigismund. The choice of instruments is between piano, cello and violin. One son, Augustine, demonstrates prodigious talent on the violin and progresses very quickly. The children have mixed feelings about being isolated on a farm during their childhood, but as a result of the move, the family remains very close-knit and they have all been given strong roots on which to grow.

Now, fast forward 30 years and Ursula and Sigismund are still living on the same plot of land. New land owners have moved in all around them. Some of them have elaborate houses with perfectly planted small vineyards of which the owners can appreciate as they drive past in their Ferrari’s. The nearby town of Riparbella now has a church, two grocery stores, a pharmacy, a hair stylist, and two bars. Their vines and olive trees are a bit older and in some disrepair, but now with the children gone, this is enough to easily support their lifestyle, especially when supplemented by a guest house that they rent. Their oldest son recently started a family of his own and appreciates now more than ever the roots given to him by his parents. Augustine is now a concert violinist living in New York and playing with symphonies around the United States.

Ursula and Sigismund

Since the late 1990’s, Ursula and Sigismund invite people from around the world who are members of the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms Organization (WWOOF). In exchange for room and board, able-bodied workers travel to their Tuscan farm to help them with their grapes and olives. Gabe, Katherine and I fit into this WWOOFing category and are staying on this farm, Podere Vallari, for one week.