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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May 25th-26th: A second breakfast

On May 25th I walked off the map. But I had to laugh: how many travelers honestly get a chance to say that?

For the past six days I’d been crossing the Sila Mountains, and life had been good. The walking had been easy, at least by Calabrian standards, and the wild camps had been near perfect. I’d found a small but well-stocked food store in the heart of the range, and had eaten heartedly. And the detailed map I’d acquired back in Catanzaro had eased progress significantly. But now, with the Sila crossed, and the map stretching no further, and with my replacement maps lost in the mail somewhere between London and San Giovanni’s anarchic post office, the journey was about to become, once again, more… complicated.

Which, as I tried to tell myself, was one of the reasons I was doing it.

But then again… getting lost in tangled underbrush, in the heat of the day, with mosquitoes whining about my head, and with sweat pouring, and with my pack getting all snagged up, and with angry dogs barking and frequently running up, and with drinking water hard to come by, and with my left leg hurting more than ever… it’s just that… well… all of that wasn’t quite as much fun as it sounds!

There was nothing for it but to retreat to the roads and try to make progress relying on local advice. At least I possessed a road map covering the whole of Italy, although the ridiculously large scale of it – 1:1,250,000 – didn’t show a tremendous amount of useful topographic detail. But it was better than nothing, and using this I trekked from town to town, following directions from everyone I could find. Not all the directions were reliable, and there were many wrong turns. But at least my Italian was improving, and at least I was engaging the locals in conversation instead of stealing past unobserved through the woods. I treasured the expressions of doubt and confusion I caused upon Calabrian faces when I opened each conversation with: “Excuse me. Could you give me directions? You see, I’m trying to walk to Norway…”

On the morning of May 26th, bedraggled after a hot and steamy forest camp, and frustrated after several turns had lead to dead ends, I came upon the first outlying house of a small village, in front of which three people stood. I stopped and spoke to them, partly to ask directions, and partly to put off walking further down the road to the village where a pack of mean-looking dogs were running about, snarling and snapping at passing cars.

At first I had to answer the usual questions about the walk, and deal with the usual incredulity, and listen to the usual advice. “You’ve been walking through these woods? Here in Calabria? On your own? That is very, very dangerous! There are many bandits. And there is The Family too…”

Eventually I managed to get to my question, “Where does this road lead?” But no-one from the group knew, they were visitors like me. One of them went inside to ask the ‘Lady of the House’, and a serious-faced middle-aged woman dressed entirely in black came out. She peered at my map, frowned, shook her head, waved down a passing car, asked the driver, and after a long and impressively passionate argument she turned back to me and told me to get in, the driver would take me down the road as far as I needed to go. (I suspect that he hadn’t been given a choice.)

It was quite an offer, but my explanation of: “Thank you… but I have to walk… no cars allowed…” was for some reason exceptionally difficult to get across.

Eventually, however, I had the directions I needed, and was just about to depart when the Lady of the House called me back. “But have you had your breakfast yet?” she inquired, with motherly concern in her voice, and even though I assured her I had she told me to wait. I waited… and ten minutes later she re-emerged and pushed a heavy, bulging plastic bag into my hands. “For you.” she urged, “Because you have such a long way to go.” And then she looked hard at me and spoke again with real emphasis, as though she still couldn’t quite believe it. “Because you are so… alone!”

I ate my second breakfast a mile further on, contentedly reclining in the shade of an olive grove out of sight of the road. I emptied out the bag, laughing as the spoils spilled across the ground. Revealed were: two cans of fruit juice, two large chunks of cheese, two packets of sliced salami, an assortment of biscuits, a slice of fruit cake, a tin of tuna, some more cheese, in thin slices, a bottle of orange soda, four slices of freshly-baked bread wrapped in tin foil, and… a bottle of beer!

I started with the beer.

Calabrians, I decided, may not always be the best people to ask for directions, but they weren’t so bad when it came down to it…

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May 24th: In no particular hurry

Often, on big multi-month walks, I fail to make the daily progress I intend. Sometimes it’s because unexpectedly harsh weather or terrain slows me down or forces a change of plan. Sometimes it’s because cartographical inconsistencies lead me astray, a common occurrence in Calabria. And sometimes it’s because I’m essentially a lazy bugger and the reason I like to walk far is because walking far creates the perfect excuse to sit around and not walk at all.

But the most common reason I have for falling short of daily goals is that I have a genetically programmed inability to walk past a perfect camp spot. Stumble upon one, even if I’ve only been walking for an hour or two, and there’s usually no way I can walk past. This is exactly what happened in the Sila…

The plan when I set out early on the walk’s twenty-fourth morning was to climb off trail through beech woods for a couple of hours to the 6325-foot summit of Monte Botte Donato, the highest point in the Sila Range, and then spend the rest of the day pushing north, finishing late afternoon many miles further on. To begin with all went to plan. The climb was swift and straight-forward; the beech woods were unusually open and accessible, and I was spared the kind of epic struggle through a web of tangled branches that I’d grown used to. The only tense moment came when I stumbled upon three wild boar. They were huge, dark, hairy, muscular beasts, fairly intimidating at first glance, but so must I have been: one whiff of my trail scent and they were off, crashing away through the undergrowth like runaway bulldozers.

When I reached the wooded summit ridge I was delighted to find deep snow lying on the forest floor. All the beech trees were now in full leaf, and it was an unusual but not unappealing sight: a gleaming snow-pack on the ground, backlit leaves shimmering in emerald light above. Less delightful was the unexpected sight of a ski area cutting through the far side of the forest. The map had given no hint that it existed, and all the ugly clutter and junk of ski tows and rusty cables and half-broken fences seriously detracted from the naturalness of the forest. Fortunately, it was only a small ski area, and happily, it was easily left behind.

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It was on the far side of the mountain that I found the spot. Just beneath the six-thousand foot contour the slope leveled off to form a sheltered bowl, a secret woodland sanctuary, and something about the place stopped me dead. It had an atmosphere all of its own, a strong sense of place, a feeling that it wasn’t just another part of a forested mountain but a unique location standing apart. Snow was piled around its sides but the woodland floor right in the middle was snow free. The ground there was a soft mattress of fallen leaves, through which beautiful blue flowers were growing. It was… deeply inviting.

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I dropped my pack, and lingered in stillness for a moment. I breathed in the rich woodland scents, heady with damp earth and clean air and growing plants. Silver sunbeams chased through the leafy canopy overhead, countless birds were singing, and there was no sign that anyone had ever stood there before. I’d only walked two hours, and should be pushing on for another seven or eight, but… how could I? This what I’d come for. Places just like this.

I wasn’t on this walk to cover 7,000 miles as swiftly as possible, or to walk to a rigid schedule, or to cover a set number of miles every day. I wasn’t undertaking this walk to set any records, or to push the limits of human endurance, or to do something never before done. This wasn’t about bragging rights afterwards; it was about experience at the time. This journey wasn’t about rushing through the landscape, but about not rushing; it wasn’t about collecting places: it was about truly seeing them, honestly feeling them. This journey was all about moving with a natural rhythm and stopping when and where it seemed natural to stop. This walk was about moments of wonder; about being available and open to make the most of such rare and priceless moments whenever they occurred. This woodland bowl was definitely a place of wonder, and there was no way I could walk on. I began emptying my pack…

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I spent the rest of the afternoon wallowing in the place, loosing myself to the sights, sounds and scents of it. I sat, I explored, I touched, I rummaged. I examined the details: the insect life on the woodland floor at my feet; the texture of beech bark; the patterns of light made by individual leaves dancing in the breeze. And the more I looked the more I found. The more I opened myself the more I experienced. Soon I found myself filled with a growing calmness and an incredible sense of joy. I felt a thrilling elation, a sense of immense fulfillment. It was like I was home… more at home than I ever was back in London. Odd as it sounds, it was exactly like being in love, and being loved back.

Perhaps I could have walked 25 miles a day, and completed my journey in 9 or 10 months. But it wouldn’t have been the same journey. It wouldn’t have been the same at all…

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May 20th-22nd: No mail in the Sila

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After all I’d been through it was pretty easy to fall in love with the Sila Mountains. For a few days Calabria was ‘almost’ easy…

La Sila is a friendly range. Almost as high as the Aspromonte (topping out at 6,300 feet), but a little less wild, the Sila is a large upland plateau of rolling peaks, expansive forests and long lakes. There’s a gentleness to the range, a softness; in many ways it seems entirely out of place in Italy’s sun-blasted south. Southern Italy is known as the land of the Mezzogiorno – the land of the midday sun – a name that hints at the region’s fierce climate. The word ‘Mezzogiorno’ conjures images of searing heat and sun-scorched hills, of brittle forests and bone-dry stream beds, and yet the Sila – lush, green, and watery – is the complete opposite of all that. The Sila looks more like a land stolen from the north – from Austria perhaps, or even from Norway – a land kidnapped by southern bandits and secreted away where it shouldn’t by rights exist. In such a harsh land the Sila feels like a gift.

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I enjoyed my ascent into the range from Catanzaro. I enjoyed leaving the anarchy of the sweltering city behind, enjoyed the developing greenness, enjoyed my first camp in a remote and outrageously verdant valley. I enjoyed the silver dawn that followed, with moisture steaming from meadows, and pine trees sparkling with dew, I enjoyed the succession of lakes I later passed, and I especially enjoyed the way a mighty thunderstorm retreated before me when I climbed onwards later that afternoon. It was crazy: the storm was huge, billowing darkly over the highest summits, spitting lightning, roaring powerfully, but as I climbed towards it it kept moving away, revealing a land cooled and freshly washed, with forests cleansed as though new, and dusty trails dampened and softened. It was hard not to feel that things were going my way, that the mountain and weather gods were rewarding me for three hundred miles of perseverance.

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But if the mountains were looking after me, and my new map was significantly easing progress, my body was starting to let me down. My left leg had developed an unpleasant ache, a feeling of general weakness, an increasingly painful throb that ran from hip to heel with every stride. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where it was centered, or whether it was muscle, bone, or nerve, but worryingly the pain was increasing each day. I wondered if it was a result of too many unplanned miles along too many roads on too many hot days, where every pace is the same, and where every step jars. I was hoping that the Sila, with their softer and more varied trails, would start to clear things up. If it didn’t get better… well, I didn’t want to consider that possibility.

My left arm was also boasting an unusual injury: I’d burnt a two-inch scar into the soft skin beneath my forearm when I’d accidentally leant on my camp stove, and it had deteriorated the next day after catching too much sun and burning further. The wound had swollen into an impressively large blister, an ugly purple puffy thing that felt tender to touch and flopped about when I walked. I was optimistic it would eventually heal itself, but I hoped I hadn’t done any long term sunburn damage.

Less serious, but more notable, was the transformation my morning stools had undergone, changing from well-formed perfectly normal stools to great heaping country-pancakes that your average 1,000-pound cow would be righteously proud of. The cause was something in my diet no doubt, or some slightly dubious water source, but whatever had started them they seemed determined to continue. The movements always occurred shortly after breakfast, and when they came they added an element of extreme urgency to my otherwise sedate morning routine. I was attempting to camp and leave absolutely no trace, but the size of my creations were making this a little problematical. The ‘cat holes’ I was forced to excavate in the forest floor were more like buffalo holes. And it became essential to prepare these latrine-crevasses the night before because when the need arose in the morning there simply wasn’t time. At this rate I was going to leave a fairly unique 7,000-mile long organic Work Of Art right the way across Europe…

If I made it that far.

After two days in the Sila I reached the small mountain town of San Giovanni in Fiore, hoping to find the post office and collect the first parcel I’d addressed to myself care of general delivery, or fermo posta in Italian. The parcel contained a number of ‘essential’ items that I didn’t expect to easily find along the trail. Among them were three novels (I love to sit in camp and read, and it seemed unlikely I’d find books in English deep in the Apennines), four rolls of Velvia slide film, (Fuji had generously donated 200 rolls for the walk), as well as a collection of dried vegetables, food, and powdered milk. Most importantly, the parcel contained a map for the next stage of the journey. Of all the items in the parcel the map was easily the most essential.

The parcel system had worked flawlessly during my previous two big walks, but the moment I stepped into San Giovanni’s post office I sensed things might not work quite so easily here. The post office was busy. No, that’s an understatement. It was crowded, jam-packed, it was swarming; it was filled to the brim with a jostling jabbering mob of young and old and fat and thin and male and female all pushing and shoving and waving and shouting at once. It could have been an enraged soccer crowd. Or some kind of mad auction. Both the din and the lack of order were deeply impressive. Beyond the mob were four windows and four clerks, but there were no lines leading to them, and there seemed no obvious way of making an approach. Faced with the shoulder-to-shoulder mayhem I wondered if I should grab my ice axe and use it to help clear a path…

But I did my best; after dumping my pack in a corner I worked my way into the crowd. Whenever I saw an opening I eased into it, and although it was very much like swimming upstream, and although I often lost several places because of an inbred English politeness that I couldn’t entirely shake, and although I probably said “sorry” more times than an Italian typically would, I eventually landed slightly disheveled before one of the windows. It had taken 20 minutes, but I’d made it: success!

Except… it wasn’t success. “No,” said the clerk impatiently, tutting at me once I’d explained what it was that I needed. “For Fermo Posta you go there, that window, over there.” And the clerk pointed to a window identical to all the others on the far side of the crowd. She stared at me as though I was an idiot, and a time waster, as though I should have known, and then she promptly waved away. “But,” I asked, smiling sweetly, “Couldn’t you just look for my parcel? Please?” The answer was a glare. It said: no, clearly not. I was waved away again.

So I launched back into the throng, and made it to the correct window a little more swiftly second time round, taking just 15 minutes, thinking that my tactical maneuvering was becoming a little more polished. But the result was much the same. I stood in front of the window designated for collecting mail and was told that there was no mail to collect. The clerk, a short bald old man wearing a grey moustache and an inscrutable death mask, wasn’t remotely interested in handing out mail. “What an idea,” his expression read, as he shook his head, “Hand out mail? Now go away and leave me alone.” Not that he actually said that. What he said was: “There is no mail for you.”

“But how do you know?” I asked, trying not to tear my hair out at his farcical reply, “I haven’t even given you my name yet!”

I held up a piece of paper with the words clearly written: Andrew Terrill, c/o Ufficio Postale Centrale, FERMO POSTA, San Giovanni di Fiore, Calabria, Italia, and with a deep grunt of annoyance he stood up, disappeared from view for a time span just long enough to allow him to scratch his nose, and then reappeared. He looked at me blankly, announced again: “No mail,” and then stared right through me as though I didn’t exist. And that was that: we were done.

To cheer myself up I visited several small shops on the way out of town seeking fresh produce, but unfortunately the only food available was processed, pre-packaged crap. You’d expect that the stores of rural Italy would be laden with healthy locally-grown fruits and vegetables? But not in San Giovanni in May 1997. Perhaps most Calabrians simply grew their own?

My visit to San Giovanni hadn’t been the most successful visit to a mountain town I’d ever had, but fortunately, on the way out, I chanced upon compensation.

It was a pub, an ‘Irish’ pub, of all the unlikely things to find in the mountains of Calabria, and the two pints of perfect stout I lapped up, and the friendly and sympathetic conversations within, eased life considerably. A little buzzed afterwards I weaved back into the forests of the Sila. I had no new maps, no books, no film, no fresh food. But for some inexplicable reason I felt like laughing. “I’m drunk,” I slurred aloud at a passing pine tree, “And I’ve got no apples.” And for some reason this, and the madness of town, and of my current situation, of my trying to walk across an entire continent, set me giggling insanely, and it took at least a mile before I managed to get myself back under complete control.

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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…

May 16th – 17th: I wouldn’t go that way…

Sometimes, the direction a long distance walker wants to go, and the direction a long distance walker is allowed to go, aren’t the same. As it proved two day’s running in roughest Calabria…

The first time it happened it was the Carabinieri, the military police, who ‘suggested’ a change of route. They did so while I was making an approach to a forested mountain range which looked as though it would grant several miles of delightfully remote wilderness passage. The Carabinieri were on patrol, driving down from the hills along the exceptionally narrow mud road that I was walking up. When I became aware of their vehicle approaching I waved to be sure I’d been seen, then stepped to the side of the road and leaned back into dense vegetation, hoping they’d have enough room to ease passed. Turned out there was plenty of room, but they didn’t pass. They pulled level; they stopped.

A window hummed slowly open and two dark faces peered out, middle-aged, mustachioed, officious-looking, serious. The face of the policeman nearest me, the passenger, was roundish and bald, and it began talking rapidly, asking quick-fire questions in a concerned voice, but I could only make out the occasional word. Nor, it seemed, could the policeman understand my replies. Neither man had any English; neither man seemed able to remotely comprehend the simple explanation of my walk when I offered it in Italian. Norway? Walking? I might as well have been explaining a hike to the moon. Abruptly, they demanded my passport, and both took turns inspecting it carefully for several long minutes, leafing through it again and again, examining it from different angles as though it might reveal more if looked at upside down. And while this was going on I stood aside waiting peaceably, leisurely crunching an apple, trying to look thoroughly bored and unconcerned.

Eventually my passport was handed back. But they weren’t done. The Carabinieri seemed determined to have me understand something important.

“Questi boschi,” they said, gesturing up at the woods, “Molto pericoloso,” followed by, “Criminali, molti criminali.” They pointed down at their own guns, and up again at the woods. “Criminali.” Pericolosi!” The meaning was becoming clear. I pulled out my pocket-sized English-Italian dictionary to confirm, and handed it to them. For the next two minutes the book was passed back and forth; words were pointed out, and the message, it seemed, was this: “These woods are very dangerous. There are many criminals up there. Men with guns. We must insist you go another way.”

I wasn’t sure I completely believed them but… what choice did I have? I went another way.

The very next day, on the edge of another wild set of hills, a similar event occurred. Only, this time it wasn’t uniformed policemen who turned me back.

It happened at the end of another dirt road where a promising trail looked as though it began. Parked at road’s end were two large SUV’s, and resting against the SUV’s were two impressively bulked up men, dressed in heavy suites, leaning casually with arms crossed, looking thoroughly out of place in so wild a location as this. They looked up as I approached, stepped forward to block the trail, and I came to a halt: I had to… the way was barred. Both men were smiling with apparent warmth as they spoke, as they asked the kind of questions I was now growing well used to: where was I from? What was I doing? Where was I going? They seemed friendly enough, and genuinely interested in the journey, but when I pointed beyond them to the trail that I wished to follow and made as if to move that way they crossed their arms again and stood like rocks, shaking their heads slowly.

One of the men spoke a little English. “Nooo… no-no,” he said, using a deep and wonderfully melodic voice. He smiled easily, but shook his head again firmly. “It is… ah… better you go another way.” He stared at me earnestly, sincerely; there was something half resigned, half pleading in his eyes. “Believe me,” he said finally, with real emphasis.

And so…

…I went another way.

What would you have done?