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 26th-30th: Hard Days, Hot Nights, High Summits

One of the great ironies of backpacking across Northern Calabria is that the low rural valleys, which you’d suppose would give easier walking, make things harder, and the high mountains, where you’d think progress would be harder, make things easier…

It’s like this:

Private land down in the valleys limits options. There are countless barriers, fences, and all manner of man-made obstacles that get in the way . There is little open country; there are very few places where one can just… walk. Pedestrian-friendly paths and tracks are few and far between, and of the rare handful that do exist none are marked (at least none that I found). Filling the landscape between farms, orchards, vineyards and villages are occasional uncultivated thickets and wooded hills, and these usually are wild in every sense of the word: often so filled with brambles and thorns and with undergrowth so dense that they form, essentially, impenetrable walls. Just try pushing through such places and you’ll feel like a jungle explorer. And you’ll be well perforated and shredded for your efforts. I speak from experience.

There are few places in the valleys where one can camp wild, and finding a hidden pitch takes real ingenuity and great stealth. Water for camp can be scarce; water from streams isn’t necessarily safe to drink. Occasional roadside fountains do exist, but rarely near a good spot for camp, and water usually has to be carried some distance. And the camps aren’t comfortable. By night mosquitoes, ants, and a million-and-one weird and wonderful insects appear, making it difficult to sit outside after a hard day’s slog and simply relax. Mosquitoes frequently force retreat into a zippered tent, and on hot, sultry nights this isn’t the best place to be. Sleep here isn’t restful, one lies tossing and turning, drenched in sweat, and by dawn one often feels more wasted than one had been the evening before after a long and hard day’s hike.

And then there are the dogs: large dogs, small dogs, old dogs, young dogs… muscular farm dogs, flock-protecting sheep dogs, territory-defending village dogs, and plain-old-crazy-mangy-flea-bitten wild dogs. They fill the valleys in their hundreds, barking and howling all night long, limiting sleep, hassling the would-be pedestrian by day. Sit down anywhere during the day for a desperately needed rest and dogs will likely appear, suggesting with snarls, bristling fur and low-hung tails that one should quickly move on. A token few are friendly, most are not. Every time any kind of building is approached one becomes tense, expecting the next set of hounds to emerge. To someone out walking all day they are a curse. No wonder I saw few Calabrians out walking.

And then there are the roads, the hard paved valley roads, the only realistic routes to follow where trails don’t exist and woods can’t be penetrated. The roads can leave legs sore, soles tender, heels raw. The roads cut one off from the land. Unlike shaded woodland paths the valley roads are typically open to the blistering midday sun and can be furnace-hot; how one can sweat while following a sun-baked Calabrian road! And they aren’t the friendliest places to walk: even motorists following quiet country roads frequently make it clear that walkers are out of place. And on major roads? Is the pedestrian made to feel welcome? I think not! After a day following roads in searing late-May heat one can feel physically spent and spiritually drained. And that is when a road leads where wanted. When they twist about unexpectedly and dead end, and when they fail to match the map, then the long distance walker can finish the day feeling ready to keel over and never move again, too far gone to think, to exhausted to question the purpose of being out on foot in the first place.

So much for the valleys!

The high mountains, by contrast, at least those with bald grassy heights above tree line, are a breeze. There’s nothing to interrupt progress, one can see a hundred miles, the air is usually cooler, and one can stop and camp pretty much anywhere one chooses. Easy…

So it’s no wonder I was looking forward to the next set of high mountains, those of the Pollini Range, with such keenness. And it’s pretty clear why I pushed towards them across lower country in such a rush. The valleys after the Sila were undoubtedly beautiful to look at, with their ordered olive groves and medieval villages, and they were fascinatingly rich in history, with layer upon layer of civilization buried deep into the soil… but I couldn’t wait to confine them to my past.

For five days, life was ROUGH.

Of course, it didn’t have to be. Most of the towns had hotels, and a cleansing shower followed by a soft bed in an air-conditioned room every night would have eased the intensity of the adventure notably! Unfortunately, I was on a desperately tight budget. Even without such luxuries as hotels my limited cash reserve was due to run out by September or October, long before I’d reached Norway. Hotels every night were far beyond my means.

And perhaps the landscape would have seemed entirely different and friendlier if I’d crossed it by car, coach, or even by bicycle. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t! When traveling by foot one sees a place as it really is, warts and all! That’s one of the attractions of foot travel, even if sometimes it makes life harder.

Of course, if I was to re-walk that section now, fifteen years on, there are things I’d change. I’d carry half the load, I’d wear soft trail shoes not hefty mountain boots, and I’d go out of my way to ask farmers and locals if I could camp on their land, as I did later on in the journey further north. That, more than anything, would have made the biggest difference of all. But I didn’t. For some reason at this early stage of the journey I felt compelled to remain self-sufficient and camp wild, as though I had to prove to myself I had what it took, and life was exceptionally tough because of it.

The lowest point came when a minor road I was following led into the depths of a steep-sided gorge through which a major four-lane highway roared. By this time I was no longer relying on a large scale map of Italy: I’d picked up a recently published road map just of Calabria, but it was still wildly inaccurate and impressively out of date. It didn’t even hint that the four lane highway existed. Filled with roaring traffic it wasn’t crossable, so I walked along the shoulder for a while, looking for some way to escape. I considered turning back, but I was so hot and tired by this point I just wanted to push on and have the day done, not retrace my steps for many hours to finish back where I’d started.

But I should have turned back. And I shouldn’t have dashed through the first dark tunnel the highway cut through, in fear of my life. Nor should I have tried to climb above the second even longer tunnel. It was a crazy situation for a mountain walker to find himself in, scrambling up steep rocks and loose earth directly above a major highway filled with horn-shrieking engine-roaring trucks and cars. The slope I climbed was so near vertical it might just as well have been vertical, and the ground was treacherously loose, and the exposure was terrifying, and a fall was utterly unthinkable. The only way to climb to freedom was to pull hard on trees and shrubs and hope they didn’t break or come free from the loose ground. With my backpack pulling me backwards I strained and cursed upwards, aware that one slip would finish the walk. And what an embarrassing way to fail it would have been!

But somehow I escaped, and somehow I forced a route through the jungle above the tunnel, and somehow I escaped from the gorge. The vegetation was so knotted and razor-sharp it took an hour to make a hundred yards. It wasn’t remotely pleasant. But oddly, in the midst of the struggle, and despite the flowing blood and sweat, I found myself laughing. It was all so outrageously ridiculous! And I sensed that even this low point had value; that even this insane battle above the tunnel could teach. At the very least it would make future miles away from civilization even more sweet…

A few days later came the high point, when I tasted the sweetness of the mountains, when I burst above treeline for the first time in the journey on the lonely dome of La Mula, and practically danced with joy beneath the sky. It didn’t matter that it was just one mountain, and that I faced another crazy forest battle descending from it, all that mattered was for twenty four hours I could live in absolute freedom and bliss, and I’m not sure I’d ever enjoyed or appreciated the simpleness of a high mountain before the way I then did.

By the time I reached my last village in Calabria – Castrovillari – I was a physical wreck. Being scratched, dirty and torn was the least of it. My left leg was in shocking pain. Great spasms kept erupting behind my knee, across my thighs, down in my calf. And my left ankle had swollen horribly. It had puffed up exactly the way it had after fracturing it four years earlier when I’d fallen a thousand feet down a glacier in Switzerland. I walked a grueling 28-mile day to get to Castrovillari before stores and services closed for the weekend, and most if it was done with a painful hobbling limp. I almost cried with relief when I reached town. I thought: “To hell with my budget!” and splashed out, and found a hotel for a well-earned two-night break.

For 461 miles life had been hard, but it didn’t remotely cross my mind that I could, or should, give up on the walk. Why on earth do that? I didn’t even consider it. The truth was I was having the adventure of a lifetime, it was exactly the way it was supposed to be, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing!

……………………………………………..

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Sunset from the Serra La Guadi in the Calabrian Apennines.

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The beautiful hilltop village of Luzzi on a hot May afternoon. Walking across this landscape shouldn’t be too hard, right?

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Idyllic Calabrian landscape in the Crati Valley. If only it had all been like this…

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The limestone Pollino Mountains, bursting free from dense forests of oak and beech.

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The sweet high life. Joyfully easy progress across bald grassy tops.

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An upland valley in the Pollino. Just don’t go too near the cattle and dogs…

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Big mountains and shifting mists in the Pollino.

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Summit view north from La Mula, the coast in view to the left.

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Long distance view ahead to snow-speckled summits, the highest in the Southern Apennines, due to be reached by early June.

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Hot afternoon and wide spaces near Castrovillari, seen during a grueling 28-mile day.

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?