Elvo River, Italy (CNN)Dario Zanetti squints into his black plastic pan, tilting it into the sun. There are three tiny yellow specks, and a slightly larger one, the size of a small bread crumb.
This English teacher is ankle deep in Italy’s Elvo River, just south of the Alps, panning for gold.
“I’m relatively new at this, a freshman,” he laughs.
Dario is also studying for his PhD in archaeology, specializing in kitchens in medieval castles. He isn’t doing this for the money, though he readily admits he has caught gold fever. Two years ago, as a Christmas present, his mother paid for him to attend a gold-panning course in Germany.
“It’s also about the adventure,” he tells me. “It’s like, you know, being in America in the gold rush period.”
Dario is just one of a growing number of people who have joined the Association of Gold Seekers of Biella, this province in northern Italy.
The gold here has washed down from the melting glaciers of the Alps, deposited in the sand along the banks of the Elvo.
This area was once part of a vast Roman gold-mining operation dating back to the second century BC, says Arturo Ramella, who is also the president of the World Goldpanning Association.
The hills just above the Elvo are all man-made, composed of millions of tons of rocks and stones that thousands of local inhabitants separated from the gold-bearing sand. The mine was active, says Ramella, for around two hundred years, and the gold found here helped finance the Roman Republic’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula.
Long gone, however, are the days of forced labor. The atmosphere on this bend of the river is light-hearted, almost picnic-like. The sun is shining, it’s warm but not hot and the eight or nine people here to pan for gold spend half their time chatting.
Eight-year-old Giacomo came with his grandmother. He helped her carry the pans full of sand to the river, did some panning himself, and showed me two flakes he had managed to separate from the dark sand.
“It’s fun!” he exclaimed with a toothy smile.
His concentration waned as the morning wore on.
“Look at all of those!” he said, pointing to the finger-long sand-colored fish darting between the stones in the shallow water. “I want to catch some and cook them for lunch!” Clearly Giacomo no longer had images of gold nuggets dancing in his head.
Bruno Martini helps run the association in Biella, and he taught me the basics of panning. First you have to figure out where gold is most likely to be found, which is where the river widens out and the heavier gold flakes are deposited in the darker, iron-rich sand. Then you fill your pan with that sand, removing the larger rocks, and take the pan to the river to slowly rotate the pan, letting the lighter particles wash away. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll have three or four tiny specks of gold.
The province limits daily takings to five grams, or 0.176 of an ounce, but the gold panners say the chances of finding that much gold even after a full day are slim at best. By my calculations I may have managed to get about $4 of gold.
Giancarlo Rolando, a 65-year-old pensioner in a straw hat and sleeveless T-shirt, is the group’s veteran gold seeker. He’s been panning since the 1980s, and recalls that back in the day, he managed to find enough gold to pay for a six-month vacation to the British Virgin Islands.
Since then, however, his earnings have helped pay for occasional car repairs and the odd dinner with a girlfriend.
“It makes a difference because my pension is a bit low,” says Giancarlo.
He comes here once or twice a week, and is proud of the tan all that time in the sun has left him. “My friends think I got this at the beach,” he quips.
As he sits on the riverbank panning away, he explains the attraction.
“Yes, it can be tiring carrying around buckets of sand, but you hear the sound of the water, there is the sun, the wind, tranquility. If you’re tired, you take a nap under a tree. When you’re hungry, you eat, and when you’re done, you go home. It’s not like a job where you’re subject to a schedule. You do what you like. You’re free.”
Gold or no gold, there’s no rush here.