From Lama to Pietrolunga via Bocca Seroglia

The village of Lama, which I left on a clear Monday morning, just as the clock was striking eight, was only marginally more lively than yesterday’s ghost town appearance and rush hour consisted of two cars at the roundabout slowing down to allow the drivers to exchange a few pleasantries. And although I walked along the main road out of town to the south-east, I don’t remember being passed by a single car for the two kilometers, before turning off and starting the familiar walk along farm-tracks and through deserted and half-deserted farm buildings.


Lama to Bocca Siroglia – 8th day on the trail (easy walk out of the village for the first few kilometers).


Slowly climbing into the foothills on my way up into the mountains

The path rose gently, winding through fields and long grass, often obscured, making its quirky way through the countryside and leading me, as every day, deeper into the wilds, inexorably up and inevitably free from other human beings. I passed a postman once and a lady out walking her dog, but that was in the first 30 minutes of leaving the village. Thereafter – silence and solitude. Not even dogs barking. The call of the cuckoo has been my constant companion over the past ten days, joined occasionally by the ticking of a woodpecker, but no people.


The ruined church of Santa Felicita

The trail, sometimes little more than an indentation in the grass, lost itself regularly in thick brambles, wild rosebushes and jungle like vegetation, such that without my GPS trail, I would have been hopelessly lost and not for the first time on this trip. But I have learned to trust my technology and am sensitive to the slightest deviation from my waypoints. I am always amazed at how quickly the satellite system is able to show when I have taken a wrong turn and I have developed a keen sensitivity to the way in which my track is depicted on the screen, allowing for inaccuracies, which can be between 3 and 10m. I have often caught myself walking slowly backwards and forwards at the intersection of a few tracks, uncertain which of them was meant for me, knowing that a wrong turn could – under normal circumstances – lead to wasted time, energy and motivation, watching the tracker symbol calibrate my position, until it appeared to make up its mind and settled for an accurate reading. I can tell when it needs more data, when it is struggling with triangulating my position and together, with my moving and stopping, we figure it out.



The view from the abandoned site of Santa Felicita at around 534 msl

Even though I purchased an excellent detailed map of Italy, the area of my walk being mostly 1:25,000 level of detail, many of the tracks and forest paths are not shown. This is in singular contrast to the quality of maps that I have used in the UK and Ireland and also in Germany, Austria and Switzerland (I haven’t tried out France yet, but I will be doing just that in September). So any image of me taken along the route would more than likely show me with my Garmin nestled in my left hand, flicking adroitly between various apps showing either the elevation profile (basically telling me how much more of this steep bit I have ahead of me) or the waypoint catalogue showing me the distance and estimated time, given current speed, to the next waypoints (highest point, lowest point, next village, end of track etc) or the track details showing me how long I have been walking, what my average speed is, how many kilometers I have clocked up and so on.



A rare selfie (I hate doing them and despise the result)

Now you may think that all this measuring is a little nerdy and detracts from the serenity and inner contemplation which the walk is supposed to promote, but having put almost 2.000 kms of trail walking behind me, I can assure you that nothing is as likely to put a mental cat amongst your contemplative pigeons, than getting lost, having to retrace your steps perhaps for an hour (two kms off track means two plus two back, which adds up to an extra 45 minutes to an hour) and losing precious daylight hours and of course energy.



A beautifully restored hotel with the interesting title of ‘Country House’ : I wish I had known – I would have happily walked the extra 10km.

And perhaps the last point is the most critical – I am not a professional athlete nor do I make a pretence at operating at peak fitness during the normal course of my life. I walk a lot and like cheesecake and sometimes (mostly), the cheesecake has the upper-hand. So budgeting my energy resources and knowing how far I have to travel and over what sort of terrain, is an important part of my self-management of these trails. Now I have been told that I am a control-freak and that I like to know stuff, especially when it concerns my well-being. I am also pretty sure that this is never meant as a compliment and that a state of trust in the benevolence of the universe, would lead to less stress, a more contemplative balance and equanimity and that this state of being is infinitely more desirable and is to be aspired to (right, Angela?). However, I am not there yet and until I am, I am keeping my Garmin and checking it at regular intervals to see if I am OK and on track (and close to my next cup of tea and cheesecake or local equivalent).



Looking back at the country house with Sta. Felicita still visible in the background

The last two days have not been quite as dramatic as the previous ones and I have spent most of my time in woods either marching stiffly up (yesterday very stiffly) or down hills, with slightly more up than down. I spent yesterday afternoon and night at the Refugio di Bocca Seroglia, a very primitive hostel type house set by an abandoned church in a clearing in a forest, with the Bar de Cima some 100 yards further down the hill, where basic necessities and alcohol (which I don’t count as a basic necessity) can be purchased, if it is open. I was the only guest when I arrived just at the start of a hefty downpour and was greeted by the charming, dishevelled, keeper of the Refugio, Leander, whose english was on a par with my italian so we hit it off just fine. Leander informed me that he was expecting four other guests, but that he had to pop off somewhere and would I show the guests to their rooms and generally look after the place in his absence. Never one to ignore a leadership challenge, I took on my new responsibility and decided that what this damp, dank hostel needed most on a cold wet miserable day, was a roaring fire in the grate in the main room. Leander thought this was a novel idea, as novel as wanting to brew a cup of tea in the afternoon, and told me that there were some logs and firewood behind the old church and off he went.


I wish I had brought a pair of trunks – the water looked divine

My afternoon – or at least the next two hours – were then spent in the pleasant past-time of creating a roaring fire from two pieces of paper, kindling made up of damp bark and twiggery, collected old-style from the edge of the surrounding forest, and logs which, happily were covered by a plastic tarpaulin, but which were cut to a length of about 1m and impossible to break. Now, I adore making a fire and as long as I have one match (on a sunless day), I know I can, with patience, get a blaze going eventually, but faced with so little material and my main resource not really fit for purpose, this was going to test even my resolve.



It took about an hour to dry the kindling and I almost lost my initial glow on a few occasions, but slowly a whisp of smoke, that came from the heat starting to accumulate in the centre of my little pile of twigs and bark, indicated that this was more than just paper ash smoking and that, even if infinitesimally, the fire was beginning to take on a life of its own.



The Maria Martell.


Trying to start a fire in the hearth with just my sandwich bag and some damp twigs as well as some oversized loglets: note the small whisp of smoke…

My brain-flash (and saving inspiration) was remembering that I had more resources in terms of paper at my disposal than Leander’s initial gift of packing paper, in the form of my sandwich bag and the kitchen paper in which my daily panino had been wrapped. Once this had been deftly and judiciously inserted into the smouldering pile, we were starting to accelerate and some thirty minutes later, the kindling had evaporated enough moisture for a flame to appear. For those of you who have gone through the painstaking process of lovingly breathing and willing a fire to life, you will recognise the sense of deep elation and satisfaction of knowing that the momentum is now on your side and that, if you feed the flames, the fire will accelerate and grow stronger by the minute. Thus it was and by the time another thirty minutes had passed my damp, smouldering heap had metamorphosed into a roaring blaze that filled the grotty little room with heat and light and allowed me to draw up to chairs over which to hang my sodden kit and boots, in order to dry and warm them. Not quite the same as having them washed, but much much better than nothing.


An hour later, the fire is roaring, boots drying and tea steaming.

One more little incident fron Bocca Seroglia: later that evening, after a delightful and surprisingly good supper cooked by Leander, I was sitting in front of our now enormous fire with its bank of glowing embers pumping out heat into the room, when the wife of the Austrian couple staying in “my” bit of the hostel, asked her husband to pull up one of the two ancient armchairs to the fire. This he dutifully attempted to do, but dropped the chair with a yelp as a large black scorpion crawled over the headrest close to where his hand was, or had been. There is a very good reason that most people hate and react violently to snakes, scorpions and spiders: all our ancestors who were not possessed of the gene that screams “I hate spiders/snakes/scorpions” were bitten and the “oh how sweet” gene died with them. We three – all of us from the same primordial gene pool – then spent an exciting 15 minutes marshalling our resources to execute a disposal plan, which ended with Roman, the bravest, carrying the offending arachnid, to its exile in the forest, all of us hoping it wasn’t a homing scorpion, whose only purpose in life was returning to its base behind our sofa. Guess how well I slept last night, having turned over every piece of furniture in my sparse little room and hung my boots by their shoelaces from the cupboard, to reduce the likelihood of my finding creepy crawlies in them in the morning.


As I write this, I am ensconced in a perfectly charming room in a perfectly charming family hotel, with a steaming pot of tea and the rest of my monks chocolate from Camoldoldi, in the hillside village of Pietralungi. I am luxuriating in the fact that I have a hot shower that really works (no vasca de bagno unfortunately), a large and comfortable bed, a host who (with a little persuasion) has taken all my kit off me, that was seriously in need of a wash and dry, and looking forward to a dinner that, my host informs me, is Gault Milau and Michelin quality.


Sun out in the afternoon and a delightful spot in the garden in front of the refugio, listening to few podcasts and catching up on some reading…


Sentiero Francescano – sign outside the bar Cima.


My trail ahead today


Approaching Pietrolunga.




The old castle next to the municipal offices, Pietrolunga.


Hotel Locanda del Borgo, Pietralungo. My dining room, replete with a rather prettier fire than yesterday’s.

Designing a perfect day’s walk

Imagine you were tasked with creating a perfect walk, taking no more than a day to complete. What ingredients would you collect to compose it? You might start with a medieval town, in Italy for instance, and have your walk begin with a stroll through the almost deserted streets, quiet and empty after the bustle of the previous night, especially if you were to organise your walk on a Sunday. You would arrange for a small pasticceria to be just opening its doors, but not yet open for business and a friendly owner to give you a small bag of pastries for your way; you would arrange for the walk to have some challenging sections, some ancient monument to visit on the way; you would ensure that there was at least one waterfall, several streams to cross, with enough icy rushing mountain water to cool your hands and face and to replenish your water bottle.


Sansepulcro to Lama via the monastry of Monte Casale, Sunday 22.5.16. Early morning start in the hope that the 700me climb will be in the cooler part of the day.

You would definitely incorporate dramatic views from on high across broad plains below and forests and mountains all around. You would make sure that each new vista was equipped with a perfectly placed rocky outcrop, shaded and free from ants, upon which you could sit and drink in the scenery. You would, of course, have arranged for a flawless blue sky and a strong, but not too strong sun, probably placing your journey in the second half of May or late September, prefering May, in order to profit from the abundance of wild flowers – from red poppies to blue cornflowers to purple clover and yellow furze – in bloom and the trees in full leaf, yet still fresh in their greening.



Out of Sansepulcro on the first hill

You might pay particular attention to ensure that your walker had the entire length of the route to himself, to ensure that meditative state that sets in when the body has found its rhythm and the route does not require full concentration to navigate or negotiate, could fully develop without distraction from other walkers.



The last view back over Sansepulcro

After the challenging uphill stage, which you have judiciously placed at the start of the walk, lasting no more than two hours and taking your walker past your selection of waterfalls and mountain pools, along a slender path, well-trodden, after centuries of wear, you would place a monastery, such as that of Montecasale on a ledge, the stones worn smooth over the ages and arrange for a stone table with a cover of vines providing shelter from the sun, and a bench to be strategically placed to give your walker an magnificent view over the mountain just scaled and over the plain below. Your walker would take tea and water and perhaps a fresh peach or pear, resting from the strenuous climb, before departing for a stroll over several hours through shady woods and open trails on the crest of the hills that you have selected.



The testing climb ahead to the monastery of Montecasale

Finally, knowing that legs that are beginning to tire, you would direct the trail down the far side of your mountain, leading your walker over grassy fields and gently declining broad, comfortable paths, bringing the walk back to the valley in which you had started the tour and leading your walker on to a charming village, with a café in the tree-lined square, serving home-made ice cream and an excellent tea, before guiding them towards a well-appointed hotel just off the main street, where a friendly receptionist, the proprietress herself, welcomes her new guest, asks if she can wash their clothes and boots, dusty from the previous 5 hours exercise and pointing towards the well-manicured garden and a large blue pool framed by cypress trees.


The end of the valley from which the trail turns right up to Montecasale

If that is approximately what your ideal walk might look like, then I might have a suggestion for you. You should know that I only lied about the hotel.


It starts here…



The waterfall barely visible behind the dense foliage



The waterfall from the top



Breathtaking views of the Tiber Valley from the terrace of Montecasale, which at 0830 in the morning I had all to myself.






Montecasale – refectorium






Tea, peach, garmin – my favourite minutes of the day (as I never tire of repeating)



Statue of St. Francis above Montecasale



The view back over the trail from the high point of today’s stretch



I couldn’t resist stopping for another break in the sun at this first view of the next valley



Scenes from the trail, midmorning about half way to Lama



My picnic table, made to order



The views today were stunning, especially as the drop into Lama further down the Tiber Valley began



Tiber Valley and the mountains below



Perfect walking stretches across mown grass (at least for some of the way)



Walking on the ridge before the final sharp descent to Lama



The end of the valley to the north



Horse and ginestra



The view over Lama



Lama at 1400



My second favourite part of the day!


Three days and 75km later – La Verna (again) to Sansepulcro

Given that I have missed – for one reason or another, and all good – posting for two days, I now have three stages to report on. Listening to my “Write like Hemingway” podcast, this seems like an excellent opportunity to put my newly acquired skills into practice and allow myself and you, patient follower of my amblings, an opportunity to catch up. Here goes…


La Verna to Pieve Sanstefano, 20th May 2016

There were mountains. They were steep. It rained. I pressed on, regardless. As men do.


There was fog in the morning. And rain. Always the rain. The country was gentler, the road less masculine. My sandwich was soggy. I ate it in silence. As men do.


Sun. Heat. Sky. There were still mountains, but sloping downwards now. Then water, as far as the eye could see. No sea this, but a reservoir feeding the ancient planting grounds of imperial Rome. Better men than I had died planting and harvesting under the relentless sun. I pressed on. As men do.


So, that’s me done. This Hemingway stuff is great – you can dash off three days worth of reporting, whilst on the loo (I didn’t, of course, but you know what I mean).


What? More detail? Not good enough? Oh, alright, no more Hemingway. Perhaps I can use it to tweet with…

The last few days have been a transition from alpine quasi-mountaineering in thunderstorms and rain on Thursday to a valley bed slog under the midday sun today . I have scrambled up the steepest of rocky paths, slip-sliding away on the wet, muddy surfaces (and, yes, Paul Simon’s refrain was going round my head continuously, as I climbed up to La Verna) and tramped for what seemed like endless kilometers (about 10, if you are stickler for detail) on the dusty gravel road leading into the town of Sansepulcro.


I have slept in a spartan room in the Refugio in one of Europe’s oldest and most storied abbeys at 1.100 msl and spent last night in relative comfort in a motel by a motorway service station, dining in the delightful Autogrill with truckies as my table neighbours rather than german pellegrinis (guess which I prefer?).


I have walked the best part of 75kms in the last three days and broken the back of the first half of this walk and am starting to pick up speed again, my average hourly speed ticking up a few points every day so that in the last half of the day I was cruising along at 5 km/h, due in part to the gentler territory and my increasing acclimatisation.


Nice though the Abbey was, I was not unhappy to leave its stern and foreboding, even unfriendly, certainly not welcoming environs. The place is gigantic, with endless chapels and sanctuaries, halls and courtyards, spread out on a square kilometer at the top of the magnificent rock.


The atmosphere was foreboding, more due to the angry sky and the constant roll of the thunder directly overhead but I was expecting a more enthusiastic reception by the staff at the Santuario and I was shocked to discover that they had absolutely no infrastructure for washing or drying clothes. Surely a pilgrim site as famous as this would have figured out by now, what a rain soaked pellegrino needs more than anything else after a bone-breaking slog up to the top? Well, I will impart some customer wisdom to them, for free: a warm welcome, a cup of tea, a hot bath AND a place to clean and dry, if not your mud-soaked trousers, then at the very least, your bloody boots! But no: grumpy reception (almost as if I and my fellow pellegrini should be humbled and honoured to even be privileged to stay in such illustrious quarters); something approaching workhouse beadle-like astonishment at my temerity in asking for a laundry or boot room (in Italian no less), a poky selection of teas grudgingly served by a couple whose only interest in manning the tea-shop was to fleece as many visitors in the shortest time possible, with the least amount of human interaction and, of course, no bath in my tennis court sized bathroom, fitting my three bed dormitory (the sight of which left me terrified that the spirit of brotherly love which, I presume, defines the Santuario, would mean my having to share with some evil-smelling northern European pellegrinis but I was at least spared this experience).


Dinner was a group affair, served at 1930 sharp with table-sharing in the Refectorium. About 45 guests all told, 44 catholic pilgrims and yours truly, feeling like a new boy at the first dinner in the big hall, hoping that I wouldn’t be asked to chant something or forget to stand up or sit down or whatever the ceremony dictated. As it was, I had the company of a delightful and charming retired German senior civil servant from the department of the environment and his pellegrini partner, a retired colleague from the equivalent ministry in Budapest at my table (or, given that they outnumbered me, they had the pleasure of my delightful company at their table).


First sighting of the reservoir at the head of the Tiber Valley

First sighting of the reservoir at the head of the Tiber Valley

What shocked me, given where we were, and what added to my sense, that the management of this establishment really didn’t give a monkey’s about the people who turned up here, was the fact that no Grace was said before dinner. How difficult would it be to have one of the many monks fluttering around the place, come in for five minutes, say a few words of welcome and then a blessing for the dinner, before releasing the carbohydrates on to the gasping refectorians?


My silhouette, reminding me of someone from a Fistfull of Dollars…

So, I was not unhappy to leave in the morning mist, before breakfast and start my way on to Pieve Sanstefano, but not before the extraordinary experience of walking past a (what is the collective noun for pilgrims? – a suffering, perhaps) group of german pilgrims, huddled together under an archway, reminiscent of a scene from The Name of the Rose, singing, of all things “Land of Hope and Glory” (not the words, of course, but the melody). I couldn’t suppress a salute as I walked past and disappeared down the slippery cobbled walkway, thankfully leaving the whole institution behind me.


A last view across to the last days trail with the unmistakeable profile of La Verna on the left.

An altogether less strenuous, but nonetheless, long and tiring days walk awaited me and the weather forecast, surprisingly accurate fulfilled its promise of a rainy, windy morning, metamorphosing into a gradually sunny afternoon. And that was how it was: the walk was mostly downhill, but with plenty of stretches of uphill pulls, as I moved from one valley to the next. The walk was made particularly exciting by the tortuous path the trail took through fields of wild roses so thick that I had to hack my way through them or if that failed, to walk through them backwards to allow my pack to take the brunt of their thorny resistance.


My favourite time of day: first tea (this time cut short by ants, upon whose way to work I was evidently sitting)

That worked mostly, although the roses did have the cunning ability to get themselves hooked into every loop and strap that my pack has on offer, making progress slow, but voluble. I have taken to shouting “Focaccia” loudly in moments of stress, which may sound strange to any italians within earshot, but I know what I mean.


Must have been Brits or Irish here before me – inveterate cairn-builders anyway


The highpoint of today’s stage: Sansepulcro can be vaguely made out in the distance…

A day later and I find myself in the bustling medieval town centre of Sansepulcro the first and largest town on this first stretch of the Tiberian plain, historically one of the most fertile and agriculturally rich areas of Italy. That wealth is visible in the town with its merchants palazzi, fortifications and general atmosphere of gente grande.


Whoever placed this small drinking fountain outside their house – I bless them: urgently needed replenishment of my liquid reserves and a chance to wash my face and hands.


The Tiber again, stronger now that it has consolidated a number of streams from the hills behind.

I am spoilt for choice for restaurants tonight and have solicited a recommendation from my host of this evening for a place that does funghi porcini and excellent steaks. The day’s walk was the longest so far with almost 27km under my belt between 0730 and 1430 and plenty of eye candy from the top of the hill separating the last valley from this one. I even had one last glimpse of La Verna before leaving that section of the trail behind me once and for all and beginning the long trudge down into the valley. As men do.


The ancient gate of Sansepulcro.