June 4th-9th: Basilicata, and beyond

Leaving the airy heights of the Pollino was a wrench, as usual. Discovering and exploring such places was one of the reasons for being on the walk, but leaving them, I could see, was going to be one of its curses. Moving on, always moving on, is what makes a long walk a long walk. But when you‘re in a place as perfect as the Pollino moving on can be hard.

On the other hand, if I didn’t get going I’d never find out what lay over the next hill and pass, or discover what lay in wait in the next valley. Undoubtedly, great riches lay ahead, and if I sat in the Pollino for the next 17 months (as I could!) I’d never unearth them. It occurred to me that there was a life lesson in this, something along the lines of: “Enjoy to the full what you have when you have it, but when the time is right don’t cling to it and hold yourself back, let yourself move on.” And so, a little reluctantly at first, I did.

With the Pollino behind I weaved downhill through sun-dappled beech and oak woods that reminded me of the woods I’d traversed during the walk’s first week. On the northern edge of the Pollino I passed a sign: “NO CAMPING IN THE PARK” it said. Oops. But who’d have thought it? A mountain wilderness that you’re not allowed to enjoy and experience by night? Well, I’d broken the rules, but I’d done no harm, had disturbed no wildlife, and had taken immense care to leave no sign of my passing. Morally, I couldn’t believe I’d done anything wrong…

Wild land belongs to everyone. It’s our birthright, our truest home, by day and by night. Closed wild land is an abomination. In popular areas rules and regulations are often necessary to preserve the integrity of a place, to ensure we don’t love a mountain or a forest to death, or damage flora or fauna we’re not even aware of, and I accept this, but when it comes to the wild a part of me will always rail against rules and regulations. I’ll admit it: I’ve jumped fences to reach wild landscapes, slept where sleeping is banned, walked where walking is disallowed. If a landscape isn’t farmed, and isn’t filled with livestock, and isn’t obviously going to suffer for my being there, then it’s fair game for exploration, ‘private-keep-out-no-admittance’ signs or not. I’m a serial trespasser, and over the years I’d become very good at it. And this ability to trespass and camp discretely served me well on my long walk across Europe, especially in the southern Apennines.

No camping in the Pollino? The three nights in the Pollino were the highlight of the south.

Anyway…

I was now in Basilcata, passing through its western regions, with Campania lying just a few days ahead. Wildest Calabria instantly seemed like ancient history. Basilicata looked different, felt different. Instead of endless rolling forests here we had a greater variety of landscapes: deep gorges, open farmland, grassy uplands, steep-sided mountains, craggy limestone ridges, deep valleys, attractive hill-top villages. Here, the rural areas were tidier, more prosperous. The olive groves and orchards were clearly better cared for; they were less tangled, they were cleared of thorns and scrub. In towns, buildings were cleaner, sporting bright white walls and well-maintained red-tiled roofs. And there were many more woodland paths to walk, and more tracks to follow up to the high mountains, and once up there more wide-open spaces to cross. For a long-distance wanderer, it was a far easier place to walk.

Some things hadn’t changed, of course. The midday sun still shone with fierce determination, my pack still hung heavy on tired shoulders, uphill still felt like uphill! Discrete camps still took some effort to make, mosquitoes and ants still whined and crawled through the nights, dogs remained a frequent snarling hassle, and maps remained challengingly inaccurate. I was still asked: “Dove vai, dove vai?” over and over and over, a thousand times a day. “Where are you going, where are you going?” And everywhere I went the locals still stared, stared, and stared some more. A full ten-hour day, with the many adventures great and small that filled it, still left me physically exhausted by the end, and my left foot still hurt; it still gave intense stabbing pain when I caught it badly, as though a bone was broken somewhere inside. So… some things hadn’t changed, but that’s just the way they were. These hardships, discomforts and difficulties didn’t seem so important any more. The further I walked the less I noticed them. Being hot, tired, thirsty, and all the rest… I wasn’t going to let such trivial matters spoil everything else I had. They were are small price to pay for my freedom, an inconsequential fee for the amazing natural beauty that filled every moment of every day.

It seemed like there was a life lesson there, too. “Don’t focus on the bad, focus only on the good. And if you do, you might sometimes forget the bad exists.”

One small incident illustrates this. Towards the end of a draining twenty-six mile day I came to a small village, famished and desperately trail-worn. I could have stopped a couple of hours earlier that afternoon at the first official campground I’d come upon in weeks, but I was out of food, and the campground store was woefully empty. So, pulling on reserves I didn’t know I had, I pushed on to the next village, and grinned and grinned and GRINNED once there as I walked around the small supermarket, plucking items from shelves as though I hadn’t eaten in weeks. Afterwards, I collapsed outside, foot-sore, sweat-soaked, weary indeed. But I didn’t focus on that. Instead, I focused on nothing but the simple goods I’d just acquired.

This is exactly how I scribbled it in my diary that night:

Late afternoon I reached a supermarket. Oh joy! JOY! Food! FOOD! Fully stocked up, with fresh milk, fruit, cereal (after a breakfast-less morning), bread, chocolate, and more, I sat outside, looking up at dark storm clouds building over the mountains. But let it rain! Hah! Let the storms do their worst! Thunder, lightning, torrents: I don’t care, I’ve got food, and that’s all and everything I need!

After 550 miles I was living in the moment, focusing on what I had; my needs and pleasures were now very basic!

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Some photos from Basilicata & Campania:

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A bank of poppies and daisies above Piani Montessano, Sulla Marcellana, Basilicata

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A typical hillside village, Basilicata

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And a typical village alley

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Looking ahead to Monte Sirino, Basilicata

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Apeninne perfection!

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Monte Pollino, seen from Monte Sirino, above morning valley fog

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Monte Alpi seen from Monte Sirino

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Not the best photo by any shot (!) but a blurred picture of a wild boar, dashing away…

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Monte Sirino, Basilicata. Spot the sheep and shepherd if you can!

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Looking to the summit of Monte Sirino, from another limestone top.

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Farm land, Basilicata

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Monte Motola, Basilicata

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The deep limestone valley of the Sammaro Gorge

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Looking down the Sammaro Gorge

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Poppies on the floor of an apple orchard, location of one of my discrete camps

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Village of Campagna, Campania, beneath steep forested hills.

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My weaving route north evolved of it’s own accord and carried me all the way to Campania’s west coast. It was worth it, for two quiet nights listening to waves, and for this sunset.

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May 31st-June 3rd: The Pollino – a private wilderness

While waiting for sunrise high in Calabria’s Pollino National Park I realized I didn’t know what day of the week it was. And, hard as I tried, I couldn’t work it out…

Now, not knowing whether it was Monday, Wednesday or Sunday may not sound like a big deal. But it was. It clearly illustrates that a fundamental shift had occurred: that after nearly five weeks on foot I was now so far removed from the routines of the every-day world that routines were no longer relevant. A day was now just a day, an event without a label. Not knowing what day it was meant I was free to live it to the full.

When you know what day it is you typically know what to expect. A Monday, for example, is a particular thing – the first day of the working week for many people – just as a Friday is often the last. Knowing that it is Monday means we know how the day will likely unfold, and we know how we will likely behave. The day’s name may well help us survive it and help define its routines, but it also limits how we approach it. But if a day has no name with no pre-determined routine then there is no expectation of how it should unfold, and then it can become a thing of unlimited potential, a blank slate upon which we can draw whatever we wish.

Pre-school children don’t know what day of the week it is when they awake. And they don’t usually care. They just know it’s another day; that it will be whatever it will be, filled with things to discover, and experiences to be had, and that it holds great potential for fun. Pre-schoolers know how to live life…

And so do long distance walkers! When they’ve been underway long enough, long-distance walkers get a chance to step right back…

Which is what I got to do in the Pollino.

The Parco Nazionale del Pollino is Italy’s largest national park. Covering 756 square miles the Pollino forms an immense mountain barrier that separates Calabria from the rest of Italy. The range boasts the type of mountains I’d been dreaming of since the walk had begun: stony giants thrust above treeline over which one can stride without hindrance and see for a hundred-plus miles. The highest peak, Monte Pollino, is the highest mountain in the southern Apennines. For half the year its 7,375-foot summit is buried in snow, and the surrounding forests can hold a snow pack lasting many months longer. Deer, wild cats, and wild boar make the Pollino home. As do golden eagles, vultures, and the elusive and endangered Apennine wolf. Apennine wolves pose little threat to people, but just knowing they were around added an extra element of wildness to the mountains and surrounding woods. They gave the national park value beyond measure.

I climbed into the Pollino on the last day of May after a wonderful stay in the town of Castrovillari. The town, filled with welcoming and helpful folk, proved to be the perfect place for rest and recuperation, and, thankfully, the ease of my stay there helped the swelling around my left ankle improve a great deal. Unlike elsewhere in Calabria all my ‘rest-day’ chores were completed swiftly and with the minimum of hassle. I filled my pack with quality food from a single well-stocked supermarket, and washed my clothes at a local laundry ably assisted by locals who helped me surmount the laundry’s otherwise insurmountable quirks. Just two blocks from my hotel I found a photographic store and bought some extra rolls of Velvia to replace the rolls that hadn’t reached me further south. And the owner of the hotel gave me a book, in English, the enigmatic Villa San Michele. Best of all, a stranger I bumped into in the laundry went away to make photocopies of his detailed hiking maps and brought them to me at the hotel. They covered the next hundred miles of the walk and opened up the Pollino for full exploration.

And explore it I did. After a long climb from the hot plains following a remarkably easy-to-follow trail (a rare thing indeed in Calabria!) I set up a base camp at 6,000 feet in the heart of the wilderness, and from there spent two days wandering over high ridges, lonely tops and through flower-filled meadows. My base camp sat above a wide grassy bowl and looked south to a shattered crag laced with snow. A huge snow-drift just above camp gushed fresh water, removing in a stroke one of the main challenges Calabria had presented. The camp’s location was everything I could have ever wanted: beautiful, wild, and completely un-peopled. And it was cool: I needed my fleece! Even at midday the slightest breeze prompted goose-bumps upon bare flesh, while the nights were mountain-cold. Each dawn brought a coating of frost to the inside of the tent and a skim of ice to water within my water bottle. Each evening I sat wrapped in my sleeping bag in silence in my own private wilderness while deer and boar rustled unseen in the forests and cuckoos called from nearby slopes. The mountain closest to camp was named Dolcedorme, which means ‘sweet sleep’. After all the sultry nights at lower elevations I certainly did.

I climbed to the high crest of Serra Delle Ciavole and then Pollino for sunrise. In soft pre-dawn light I picked my way carefully over patches of hard-frozen snow and scrambled up a shattered limestone ridge to stand higher than anyone else in southern Italy. What a morning it was, so filled with vibrancy and promise! There was a child-like thrill to experiencing it, a simple joy in tasting every subtle nuance. Every sense tingled with life; every breath seemed sweeter than the one preceding it. When the sun finally burst free from the horizon the rocks at my feet glowed, and a huge swathe of Italy came into view. I looked across to three seas – the Ionian, the Adriatic, and the Tyrrhenian – and gave my imagination permission to roam. There’s no traveler like the imagination, and no better place to grant it freedom than a high summit at dawn. This was why I’d come.

And it didn’t remotely matter what day of the week it was…

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The wild heart of the Pollino National Park.

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Easy walking beneath Monte Pollino.

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Soft pre-dawn light on the Serra Delle Ciavole, at 5:10am.

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Sunrise across wildest Calabria.

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The high ridges of the Pollino, offering unhindered walking and hundred-mile views.

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Summit view from Monte Pollino.

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Castrovillari and the hot plains seemed a world away.

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A Pollino sunset, viewed from just above camp.

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My home in the Pollino, a private wilderness.

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Collecting fresh water, and it was sweeter than from any tap.

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