May 17th-19th: Quest for a map

Deep in the frenetic hill city of Catanzaro I got my hands upon something that made me uncontainably and inexpressively happy: a decent hiking map. The long detour to Catanzaro that I’d taken on a whim had paid off…

Although I’d grown used to the many unplanned ‘detours’ that had characterized my route through wildest Calabria I was still keen to find a way to avoid them. All I needed was a decent map, but that was something I’d so far failed to attain. For most of my route north, for practically every mile beyond Calabria and Basilicata, I already possessed reasonably detailed topographical maps. I’d bought most of them back in London and had placed them within the re-supply parcels that I’d collect every couple of weeks. But, except for large scale road maps, southern Italy had been one big blank. Rumor had it that accurate topographical maps did exist. Supposedly the Italian Military had commissioned them. But no-one knew how to track them down, not even the specialist map stores in central London who are usually so good at that kind of thing. Nowadays, it would be a piece of cake to find them online, but back in 1997 the internet wasn’t the information power-house it is now. Pre-internet, planning a 7,000-mile trek was an entirely different game.

And so I made do, and relished the walk for what it had became… an adventure. But when I’d walked to within striking distance of Catanzaro I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to leave the highest ground for a day or two on the small chance that there might be a map to be found somewhere in the city.

This ‘planned’ detour led me right down to Calabria’s east coast through deeply forested foothills and narrow side valleys. The scenery was wild and stimulating, but it was marred the closer I came to civilization by the amount of roadside junk. Calabrians, it seem, have two options when disposing of trash: pay someone an exorbitant amount to take it away, or just dump it over the side of the road when no one is looking. Trash piles like these were a regular sight near towns…

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Back beside the sea I spent a fine afternoon walking barefoot along the water’s edge with my boots tied to my backpack. I almost felt like a tourist. I sat beneath palm trees, ate an ice cream, spent leisurely evening hours exploring an ancient and thoroughly ruined monastery that I stumbled upon by chance. The place made for an atmospheric camp.

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I reached Catanzaro the following morning, and it was a shock to the system. I’d grown used to peaceful woodland glades filled with birdsong and quiet hillside villages where time seemed to stand still; Catanzaro was a hot, steamy, pulsating center of seething humanity, filled with noise and motion, where almost 400,000 souls were going about their business right on top of one another. Ugly breeze-block apartment buildings towered side by side, traffic roared, scooters buzzed, people rushed, voices shouted, arms gesticulated, dirt clung, laundry fluttered on a thousand clothes lines stretched across the streets, a labyrinth of narrow alleys twisted uphill and down, music howled, dogs barked. To me it was awe-inspiring for its chaos. To the locals it was just another regular day.

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I settled into an inexpensive hotel held together by dust and grime and deposited my pack; then charged forth into the mayhem. As well as a map I was also seeking food for the next week, but my quest seemed doomed. I found plenty of bars. Bar after bar after bar. And then more bars. And then more still. People here clearly lived off nutrients gained from vino and beer, not food. Inexplicably, whenever I asked for help and directions, no-one seemed to know where a food store might be. After two hours I was flagging in the heat, wilting in the pressing humidity, and just about ready to retreat to my hotel, if I could find my way back to it. But then, by blind luck, I finally arrived at a back-alleys piazza where a small general food store and a fruiterers sat side by side. The dark window displays were half empty, and covered in dust, and were hardly appealing, but I didn’t care: I’d succeeded in one of my tasks: I’d found food! Hoorah!

But of course… both shops were closed.

“They won’t be open until tomorrow morning,” explained a man across the square, who was loitering outside a funeral parlor that in contrast to the food stores was open and waiting for business. I was almost ready for its services. The man that had spoken was the ‘Chief’ Director of Funerals, as he told me, and he was dressed for this important if somber role in faded blue jeans and an extravagantly colorful Hawaiian shirt, which was open at the neck, chest hair spilling out. He invited me into his office for a glass of water.

Signor Funerale explained that he had lived for ten years in Ohio, and was excited to practice his neglected English and tell me all about his previous American life. He had a lot to say, and it was all very interesting, but I found it hard to focus: taped upon his office wall was the very thing I’d been dreaming of for weeks, that I’d detoured to Catanzaro specifically for, that I’d been tramping the streets in search of for two sweaty hours: a hiking map covering the next stage of my walk! It was detailed; it displayed contour lines, hiking paths, mountain springs, official campgrounds; it was filled was the kinds of topographical information that made getting lost next to impossible. It was all I could do to hold myself back from running up to it, tearing it swiftly from the wall, and sprinting away with an exultant scream into the teeming city.

Eventually, I managed to get a word in. I asked about the map, wondered where he’d got it, explained all, and the one-time resident of Ohio shrugged his shoulders casually and said that if I wanted the map it was mine. I was so happy I almost jumped up and hugged him, and kissed both cheeks, but British reserve intervened at the very last second and stopped me from succumbing to such a passionate and probably ill-advised Mediterranean display. But I think the man could tell from my smile just how much his gift meant.

It was happy hiker that sat in his claustrophobic hotel room a little later, cooking over his camp stove, excitedly examining the next week of his life on his new map. Now that I could see where I was going there were so many possibilities to choose from. Almost too many choices! I felt a renewed sense of freedom, a lightening as though a great weight had been lifted.

After dinner I took my first shower since April (and what bliss it was!) and discovered that my ‘suntan’ wasn’t quite as dark as I’d supposed. Sleep was difficult – the hotel bed wasn’t anything like as soft as the forest floor, and the jarring sounds of the city weren’t nearly as lulling as a mountain brook – but there were no complaints. And there were no complaints the next morning when the map revealed straight off that it, too, wasn’t quite as accurate as it could have been. But it didn’t matter! The topographical detail meant the problem could easily be fixed, and fixed it soon was, and later that night as I rested in camp in a lush side valley that I’d navigated to without difficulty I positively chuckled with excitement for all that lay ahead.

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The next range to cross were the Sila Mountains, where snow, apparently, still lay. Snow! A decent map! More mountains! Things were looking up…

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