Mid June: Not all directions are created equal…

So, what had I discovered about the Southern Apennines after 50 days traversing them on foot? Well, for one thing, I’d learnt that the human inhabitants of the range didn’t always know their own landscape quite as well as you might expect…

I was in a village called Volturara. It was a rough, tumbledown place hewn from the bones of the huge limestone giant it sat hidden beneath, Monte Terminio. It was a Sunday, and I was seated in shade beside a small water fountain on the edge of a large piazza, looking across to a crumbling stone church that looked a thousand years old. Or maybe it was only a few hundred; in this earthquake ravaged region even new buildings can quickly take on the characteristics of the ancient. The piazza was bustling with people: women, immaculately dressed in dark Sunday finery, heading to church; men, more roughly turned out, standing in small groups, talking, watching the world breeze by; and children and dogs, tattered and scruffy to the last, running about in the sun, chasing one another exuberantly. For once I wasn’t surrounded by inquisitive locals; I was an observer, not an active participant, and it was heavenly to have a chance to lean back with an empty-mind and simply watch.

My destination lay in the next valley, beyond Monte Terminio, across a wild set of sun-blasted hills. Trouble was, I didn’t know how best to get there. The map, in typical Southern Apennine fashion, was a thing of creative imagination, not a document of factual accuracy. It gave few genuine leads to follow, and experiences from the preceding 50 days meant I was in no rush to follow them.

Eventually, an old man strolled casually by, and paused to talk. He was dressed in the rough clothes of an outdoorsman, and he explained that he had lived in Volturara for 78 years. He looked… calm, and knowledgeable… even wise, and I thought to myself that if anyone could help me with accurate directions surely this man could.

“Which is the best way to reach Santa Stefano di Sole?” I asked. “Which road should I take?”

“Santa Stefano?” He replied right away, “You want to start on that road.” And he pointed to the far corner of the square, and then beyond it to another road that snaked upwards away from the village.

“You are certain?” I checked, and my local guide nodded with cheerful certainty.

The road was narrow and cobbled, and once upon it I discovered it twisted about like a disturbed snake. Another old man, completely toothless, was sitting on stone steps beneath the last house right where the village came to an end. Once again, I asked for directions, just to be sure: “Santa Stefano?” I asked, pointing up the road, and the man answered with an unforgettably enigmatic grin that I later cursed. “Si, si, si,” he nodded vigorously, “Santa Stefano, heh heh heh!”

And so on I went.

It was shaping up to be another blazingly hot day, and walking uphill in the full blast of the sun with a large pack strapped to my back wasn’t an especially comfortable occupation. My face soon felt flushed, and in no time I was pouring sweat, my eyes stinging from the salt of it. The baking road torched the soles of my feet, and my limbs grew heavy and lethargic. Visions of crystal-clear mountain streams and ice-cold lakes drifted through my mind. I let myself enjoy them, and saw myself surrounded by dew-laden meadows steaming with cool morning mist, and sun-dappled pine forests sitting peacefully beneath snow-clad peaks. I imagined myself lying back in a small upland pool, floating gently like a star, feeling a delicious chill enveloping my body, soothing away the heat and effort…

And then I came to, and refocused on the harsh reality surrounding me: the sun-baked limestone hills of Monte Terminio, blinding with reflected light, and fiercely burning Mezzogiorno sun. Oh how easy it would have been to have simply stopped, and rested, for hours… for days! But instead I told myself that I had to keep going; it was only June and surely it was going to grow hotter in July and August. So I pushed on, but slowly, pausing for short breaks every mile or so, easing off boots to air burning feet, drinking carefully from my water bottle at every opportunity. At least, I told myself, I was heading the right way. The last thing one would want to do on a day like this was to walk in the wrong direction and gain unnecessary height…

After roughly four miles and a thousand feet of ascent I came upon two men, standing beside the road and their car in the shade cast by an umbrella pine. My shirt was drenched with sweat, and the shade looked indescribably inviting. I didn’t hesitate when the men beckoned me over. Goodness it was hot! “Fa caldo!” I gasped, and both men agreed, laughing. One of the men stared down the valley, and blew a shrill whistle, summoning his dog. Apparently it had been gone for most of the morning, and possibly it was lost. The second man had come out to help with the search.

“And where are you going anyway?” The second man asked, once the whistle had been blown again.

“Santa Stefano,” I answered, sleepily.

“Not on this road you’re not,” came the swift reply, and suddenly I felt wide awake. “You want that valley, away over there.” And suddenly, it seemed, all the birds stopped singing at once. It was too hot to have gone wrong. Surely not! After all, I’d asked directions… twice!

“You’re sure?” I asked, praying that they were just playing some joke, that I wouldn’t have to retrace over two hours of hard won progress.

“Si. We are sure. This road… it goes nowhere. Just up to Monte Terminio and then… finito, finish. The woods are too rough. There is no way through.”

The dismay I felt must have registered on my face because the owner of the missing dog took pity on me. “If you wait, we will show you the correct way. Just wait for my dog.” And amazingly, right on cue, up it bounded, dripping mud, wearing a suitably apologetic grin upon its slightly idiotic face. “Right, we go now…”

The correct route to Santa Stefano lay seven miles away, down to Volturara, and then up the next valley. When driven by car this immense distance seemed like nothing at all. The dog owner, Franco, finally pulled his car over. “Allora… well then, I can drop you here, or I can take you another ten kilometers closer to Santa Stefano, if you would like?” He looked at me enquiringly.

“Well, actually,” I said, and to increasingly incredulous expressions I began explaining my walk, and its one simple rule, that I had to cover every single mile by foot, that I needed to leave an unbroken line of steps behind me, with no interruptions to it, with no cars, no trains, no buses…

“Um,” I murmured, “Could just take me back to Volturara, so that I can start again from there?”

Both men looked at me as though they thought me insane. Clearly, the midday sun had fried my brain! But, kindly, they did as I asked… and then, wasting no time, shaking their heads, they drove swiftly away.

Back in the large Piazza in Volturara I flopped down into the shade exactly where I’d previously sat. I hadn’t walked nearly 700 miles to have my continuous line of footsteps broken by a bad set of directions. I was going to walk every step, no matter what happened!

And so, three hours after leaving the square for the first time, and with the day even hotter, I set out again, and this time in the right direction.

Or so I hoped!