During week two of operations at our tour company and holiday villa in Abruzzo, Italy, I learned a very important lesson, which in hindsight should have been bloody obvious to me.
The week before while out with a guest in the Pescara River Valley near our villa, I’d come across a flock of sheep owned by an Abruzzese father and son team who had spent 10 years living Australia.
The sheep had wintered in the valley and in the next few days, they were going to be driven up the San Leonardo Pass between the Maiella and Morrone mountains to around Sant’Eufemia for the summer.
Abruzzo is famous for many things – mountains, sea, beaches, rich red wines, medieval villages, and strong but gentle people – but it’s probably most famous for sheep herding. This is because for a couple of millennia, the whole economy of the region was based on something called the transumanza. This phenomenon saw shepherds winter millions of sheep in the relative warmth of the Adriatic Sea coast and low valleys then drive them to the cool high mountain pastures in the late spring and summers and back then again in the fall. Along the way, they traded milk, cheese and meat to farmers for wheat, eggs and produce. The transumanza died with the rise of industrial farming in the 20th Century, but there are still plenty of sheep around. Also, the effects of the transumanza can still be seen today in the ovine heavy culinary and cultural traditions of Abruzzo.
In short, sheep are important in my adopted part of Italy. Furthermore, my wife, Lisa Grassi-Blais, and I had quit our careers in Canada to provide people with authentic Italian experiences in the land her grandfather was born and worked as a shepherd in before moving to Canada. So, for these reasons, I’d been looking for a shepherd and flock of sheep to show guests, and when I saw the 1000 animals or so near Piano d’Orta, I thought this was a great opportunity to expand our day trip options. The father and son owners of the sheep said they were keen on having visitors too.
The next week, the second week of May 2016, I phoned the son and said we had a group ready for a visit. The next day, I sent Luca, our tour guide, and the guests to a Sant’Eufemia to meet the young man who, it turned out, had a deep commitment to listening to death metal music on his headphones at eardrum exploding volumes. According to what was later said to me, after introductions, the death metal shepherd jumped on a motorbike and, with Luca following in a van, led our group up and down one of the worst mountain roads in Abruzzo at speeds ranging from “Oh my god” to “AAaaaaaaahhhh!!!”
For several kilometres, it was spine-jarring wash outs, ruts, and pot holes, impossibly steep inclines and descents, and little ribbons of road clinging to the mountain with serious drop offs inches away as Luca, who is not an adventurous driver, tried to keep up.
When they arrived, it was a beautiful pastoral setting high in the mountains with the sheep grazing and bleating gently. The mountains stood majestic while white Abruzzese Shepherd dogs quietly stood guard on the lookout for wolves and other threats. After about an hour of beautiful vistas and serenity, the harrowing drive was repeated in reverse led again by the maniacal shepherd.
When our guests returned later that day, I was keen to hear what I assumed were going to be glowing reviews. They were polite at first and said it was a beautiful setting, and that the sheep and shepherd dogs were great. But Luca pulled me aside and said the road to the flock was nuts and our shepherd man was maybe a little crazy.
At dinner that night, we asked our guests their honest opinions, and there were two comments that stuck out in my mind.
The first went something like this:
“It was like being on a really, really, really scary roller coaster. The difference is that with a roller coaster you kinda know you are safe, like you won’t get hurt. With this, you really didn’t know that.”
The second comment went something like this:
“There were times when I felt we actually could die. In fact, there were several of those times. Like almost the whole time.”
These were very well travelled people not prone to hyperbole, who wanted to help us get our business off to a good start. They were not nervous nellies, and the unanimous advice was – don’t do that again.
Here’s the thing. Before opening day, Luca, Lisa, and I had road tested the hell out of all our other tours before taking guests on them. We knew the stops intimately right down to the condition of the bathrooms that would be available for people. We’d purposely left nothing to chance.
Therefore, to this day, I can’t figure out why I didn’t simply drive up the valley and check out the sheep situation before hand. I would have figured out quickly that things weren’t quite right.
What was I thinking? Probably, I wasn’t thinking. I don’t know. The cause of my brain freeze remains unknown.
But the obvious lesson was learned:
Don’t use customers as Guinea pigs. That’s dumb.
Next Week – We need to relax and get some rest.