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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.