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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