August 04, 2023 8 min read
Run by Toni Vastano, alongside his wife, Ann, and son, Luca; the Vastano family have become a core part of the Cairngorms. Their care for the community is apparent through the warmth they provide to every customer that walks through their door, as well as their commitment to sourcing locally-produced ingredients and bakes for both the locals and visitors to enjoy in a memorable way. The Café also has its 'gallery' section in which an array of local artist's work is displayed and available for purchase, including a vast collection from Ann Vastano herself, whose successful scenic- scapes capture the colours of the cairngorms in a beautifully authentic manner.
Speaking with Toni Vastano himself, he provides a deeper insight to the heart and soul of the region, the unique role his cafe plays in bringing together the lives of residents and visitors alike. Hearing more about The Old Post Office Cafe's 'Cyclist Cafe of the Year' nomination, Tonis appearance on BBC show, 'The Mountain' and the personal mountains he has had the climb over the past few years, gives us an authentic insight into what life in the Cairngorms is like and how it keeps ticking.
You’ve been a well known face around Aviemore for many years, with La Taverna and now the Kincraig Art Café. What is it about the community here that makes it so special to you?
Well, the first word that springs to mind is 'belonging' and being part of a community. Growing up in the Highlands of Scotland and living in the foothills of the Cairngorm Mountains, it always has felt very exciting, a little bit like a wild frontier I guess. Having made it my home, I feel very much connected and have a responsibility along with the other local inhabitants to care for this beautiful, wild wilderness. To represent it.
I know you’re a big cyclist and the café is very popular with cyclists. Did you get a kick from being nominated for Cyclist Café of the Year?
Cycling is, and always has, been very important to me. I remember being around 10 years old and my Nonno taking me to see a stage of the Giro di Italia as it passed through Civitanova Marche (where we we living in Italy). From that moment I knew I was in love with the bicycle.
I grew up riding in the foothills of the Cairngorm mountains way before mountain biking and Gravel bike became a thing. It’s just wonderful to see how many people are riding around the hills, trails and forests of the Cairngorm national park.
It was very much part of the plan for Ann and myself when we put together the whole adventure that has been the Old Post Office Café and Gallery. Art, Food and cycling. We positioned on a very popular local cycling route which I have been using since I was a boy. So when we were nominated for cycling café of the year we were over the moon. I was just so happy and excited, it truly meant a lot to me.
Image courtesy of @kincraigartcafe
It would be great to hear a bit about your recent fundraiser for Lucky2BHere. What exactly did it entail?
Well, I already felt a connection with the charity from past experience and the work they do is pretty amazing- they set up and keep up the maintenance of defibrillators and around here, in more rural places, I think it's pretty essentially to not let things like that slip because you just never know when they'll be needed in an emergency situation. So, aiding in fundraising for those was the mission that I and three on my good friends set out on.
We decided to cycle from Campbelltown to Kincraig self assisted. It was a wonderful experience and we had a fantastic time, even when I caught food poisoning (I don’t make thing easy for myself- lol). Anyway, we cycled 300miles in 5 days and we were able to raise an incredible £12,000 for the charity and secure a new defibrillator for our own village, Kincraig.
How did you find the experience and what was your motivation?
Lucky2BHere are a very important player in my motivation to keep going. My life motto is 'keep moving forward'. I’ve had several episodes with my heart in my life. Last year in September, whilst on the beautiful Scottish island of Islay (where my wife Ann comes from), I had a serious episode and my heart stopped beating twice from cardiac arrest. If it wasn’t for a newly installed defibrillator provided by the local community in Port Ellen Islay, I wouldn’t have made it. So I am literally-lucky to be here. Lucky2BHere .
I died twice and with the quick thinking of Ann and several local residents they acted very quickly and, with the aid of the newly installed defibrillator, managed to keep me alive long enough for the air ambulance to fly me to Glasgow where I was put into an induced coma.
Almost immediately after waking up from the coma I felt that I wanted to focus on something that I knew would bring me happiness and peace. So I slowly, very carefully began with some very special friends to get back on my bike and train to ride a charity bike ride for a very special charity called Lucky2BHere. I had cycled for Lucky2BHere before in 2015, after I had had a cardiac arrest a couple years before, so I knew and respected them very much.
The whole experience was just on incredible display of what it’s like to be part of an amazing community. I couldn’t have done it without them all.
As you’re a big cyclist, I’m sure you’ve covered a lot of ground over the years. What would be your top 3 scenic spots in the Highlands?
Now, this is definitely my favourite question. It’s a tricky one as well because I’ve so many! Here's a few of my top spots, though not in any particular order -
Nethy Bridge to Kincraig - So beautiful, peaceful and natural. It’s got everything; ancient forest tracks, lochside paths and wilderness views. (My heart is in the Highlands).
West Side of Mull, Tobermory to Iona - So rugged, tough and has a beautifully breathtaking view if the weather's good. It's endurance challenging and body breaking when it’s not. It'll take you to the edge of the world and back.
Kincraig, Glenfeshie, Glentromie loop - Just a go- to ride locally. One of the most rewarding and beautiful places on this planet; do it once and you will just keep going back, it's a heaven on earth.
Image courtesy of @kincraigartcafe
You were featured in the BBC show about the Cairngorms, ‘The Mountain’. How did that come about and did you enjoy it?
It was great fun and I really enjoyed being part of the whole team. I guess they were at the time looking for local people and businesses working and living in the area. When I was first approached I wasn't too sure about it to be honest but once we started filming in the kitchen and restaurant, the team started to get to know us all and then things just grew from there.
It’s funny because years on, people still come up to me and say “ I was watching you on the telly last night". It's very entertaining and all in all, it was a really fun experience.
What do you feel are important aspects of maintaining community spirit in places like the Cairngorms with such seasonal swings in population numbers during the tourist seasons?
I’ve seen many changes locally over my life here in Badenoch & Strathspey . As a child, growing up, the community was much smaller than it is now. We all knew each other.
Tourism has played a huge part in our recent history and for the most part, has been very positive for our communities, locally, with every village providing some sort of attraction or facility. Every village has grown bigger. Every community has changed .
As the area has grown in popularity, the number of people looking to experience there own utopia within the National Park has grown and grown . Where local residents once lived, holiday homes have taken over. Some used for personal use by families, and others for commercial and financial purposes. This has caused a very difficult situation as it has bumped up the price of homes which has left many local families and people working within the area unable to afford the cost of housing and has left them no option but to move away.
This has then had a detrimental effect on the overall quality of services that we are able to provide and creates an 'opportunity' issue for our younger generation, but we don't let these obstacles diffuse our spirit. With these challenges there comes a camaraderie between our communities through sport , music, cultural events etc.
Your family hails from Napoli, how do the two communities compare?
Wow that’s a great question, it’s got so many layers to it and so many answers. When you think about it, my first reaction is to respond with nothing!! How can one of the most built up cities in the world, with some of the most diverse population culture and traditions, with a reputation for being dangerous have any similarities to the Cairngorms and Badenoch & Strathspey. But that’s not true because 'home is where the heart is' as the saying goes. From a very young age I recognised how lucky I was to have such an incredibly diverse family and how lucky I was to be able to experience such incredible opposites.
Napoli and Badenoch & Strathspey are worlds apart culturally, geographically and socially but actually it’s us, mankind, that connects the two together. We, as people, want the same things. We love, we care, we support each other through good times and bad. We suffer together, we show compassion, we connect through the desire to be human.
I have always been very grateful and thankful for all my experiences as I bounced back and forth between the two worlds.
The charity that Toni and his friends cycled for, Lucky2BHere, saves lives everyday through their dedication to providing defibrillators and delivery of life support training to local communities across Scotland. Thus far, they have installed 316 defibrillators within the Scottish Highlands and continue to look for continued support to ensure rural areas are as provided-for and equipped as anywhere else. As we have seen in Toni's case, access to necessary medical aid can truly be life-changing and even life-saving. More details on the organisation can be found here.
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