As I bumble through this time of change — like a cyclone in a ceramic factory — I consistently receive wonderful gifts of encouragement from random sources. One of my favorites: fly like the lovely little bird you are. And just keep moving, they say, one step at a time. In other words: walk. This makes complete sense to me, the girl who wanders around in headphones, listens to Italian, and utters il cetriollo and quanti hanni ha il tuo figlio? to no one or walks to calm her nerves, or to the Post Office just because.
So it felt redundant even saying the word “yes” aloud when my good Italian friend Lisa suggested we hike in the Apennine mountains. I flew over at the end of April so we’d have ample time to complete a woodsy loop before she left to lead a bike tour in Sicily. In fact, she shoved off yesterday morning after we both finished shoving fresh pastries in our mouths at a cozy pasticceria around the corner, Antica Pasticceria del Corso. Didn’t hurt the pastry chef was as sweet to look at as his pastries were to eat…
But let’s rewind. In the evening on April 25, my sturdy old pink road bike and I alighted on Italian soil. I can’t imagine why I got so many amused glances at the airport…
After taking the bike down to her new stable in the dungeon under Lisa’s Castle (aka apartment), we drank as much wine as needed to catch up. And then a sweet, floral digestivo from Greece just to make sure the details were adequately investigated.
On Wednesday morning, we slapped the bike back together and went for a 116 kilometer (or 72 mile) ride from Faenza to a kite festival on the Adriatic coast. The murky waves rolled in one after the other behind the rows of lidi — one little plastic chair-infested bar after the next. The whole thing stretched infinitely down the coast like a particularly stringy bit of Mozzarella cheese.
A sky packed with kites like so many olives in a jar never materialized; Lisa went to inquire in the information tent whether or not — as the clock snuck towards 4 p.m. — anything was scheduled to happen, like the web site said.
“Oh don’t look at the web site,” said the woman inside. “It’s not updated. Here — have a pamphlet.”
Back on the cloudy beach, we had a good laugh about the backwards-ness of updating pamphlets in the internet age. Afterward, we enjoyed the coordinated efforts of a khaki-clad group in mid-field:
Back at the castle, we celebrated being free, reunited bi-otches over a bottle of champagne Lisa imported from the region of Champagne. We What’s Apped our friend and co-worker Igor and arranged to ride bikes and borrow his tent the next day. Next, we perused our four-day, three night route in the Apenninos, which we would embark upon Friday morning.
By the end of it, we’d walk 89 km (55 miles), ascend 3649 meters (11,972 feet) and descend 3776 meters (12,389 feet). But that’s putting the dolce before the aperitivo…
Day One: Simply Blown Away (Marradi to Lago di Ponte)
On Friday morning, via a short train ride, we clambered out of the station in Marradi, greeted by a breeze stiffer than our knees would be at the hike’s end.
“Brrrrr,” I said, the first of many such mutterings.
“I can’t believe you talked me out of wearing pants,” Lisa said, also for the first time of many.
It wasn’t long before we spotted the trail, marked in the typical way with red and white paint and a route number. As we climbed from town, through someone’s backyard, into the woods and up onto the exposed, rocky ridge, we began to feel a bit like one of those bazillions of kites we were hoping to be awed by a couple of days prior.
The wind was the type that could entirely change the meaning of one’s words. When I yelled over the gale “I wish I brought warmer clothes!” Lisa turned around because she probably thought my fish sought a farmer’s nose. As always, the only way was through it and at least the sun shone above it all.
In Gamogna — a refurbished eremo (or hermitage) first founded in 1053 — we were unable to find a windless iota to empty our shoes of twigs and stuff figs and dates in our wind-nipped faces. We did, however, stumble upon a peaceful and lovely mass conducted inside by a handful of nuns and a priest.
Miraculously, hours later, we found a rarefied island of calm in which to have lunch after descending back down to a valley with several remote homes, an excited puppy carrying a rock around like its most prized possession and a sign which read:
Tutte vogliono tornare alla natura, ma pochi ci vogliono andare a piedi. Translated, it means many want to return to nature, but few want to go on foot.
Directly after the sign, the road turned upwards like a snobby nose and I felt, briefly, I could be satisfied viewing nature from a window. But the moment passed, the wind returned and soon we found ourselves in someone else’s backyard, greeted by a curious little donkey, a mule and a horse. After that welcome pause, the peppermint-themed signs directed us towards a massive quercia, or oak — a centuries old giant keeping company with a dilapidated ruin and an aptly placed wood carving of a woman sunning herself.
Accepting assistance with the wind from a friendly stand of trees, we rejoiced — until we saw where the trail went next. Up, of course! Up to a cross perching on the ridge, the route to which was steep enough to squeeze prayers of thankfulness out of an atheist.We arrived at Lago di Ponte to find running water, several other humans, the sound of car doors and a sunny picnic table to watch the wind torturing the lake into agitated ripples. So began the tradition of Contemplation Hour, wherein Lisa and I clung to the last bit of sunlight like reptiles, stretched our tight, perplexed legs and soaked in the glorious freedom of simply being where we were.Maybe it was the therapy of nature or the simple act of having nothing better (and wanting nothing more) than to sit in the sun and think, but I finally began the to accept my new, free life. In Dillon, it felt like a struggle to reclaim myself and create a new start among everything so worn in and stamped with the past. Now I just sat still and sated on a thatch of sunny clover, watching for innocuous-looking brown and apparently poisonous caterpillars (called processionaria for their propensity to march together in a line). I realized something as the wind settled: I’d finally wrapped my unusually chilly fingers around the concept of perspective.
Silly life stuff that used to get under my skin and lurk there for awhile actually causes me to pause, breathe and consciously let it pass. Like when I lost my US sim card a couple days ago (doesn’t help it’s the size of a fairy’s sneeze and just as easy to miss). Past me would’ve probably been so pissed at herself that she’d lose half a day stewing about it like a lamb hock in a crock pot. Even though I realize it’s going to be a pain when I resurface stateside, it’s okay. It’s just a sim card.
After waiting until everyone left so we could illegally set up camp by the lake (oops) and before the sun slipped away, we’d already donned the majority of our extra layers. Just then, we realized we’d forgotten a lighter. Here’s the exact moment Lisa realized it:So we said ciao (for now) to the stove, an instant(ly warm) cup of soba noodles and several varieties of (warm) tea. In the past it may have been more irksome (especially as lizard Sylva watched the sun go down, zipping on her rain jacket not for inclement weather but warmth) but suddenly, it’s just funny. It’s not like we didn’t have plenty of other food and really, what’s the biggie?And with a combination of full bellies, the unrelenting wind, premature cold and 17 kilometers (11 miles) of hiking with a big pack, we were inside the tent and snoring well before dark.
“I can’t believe you talked me out of wearing pants,” Lisa mumbled from somewhere inside her mummy bag.
“Brrrrr,” I said from mine.
Day Two: Frozen In Wonder (Lago di Ponte to San Benedetto in Alpe)
Even though we turned in around 9 p.m., I wasn’t back on two feet again until about twelve hours later! It was as though all the sleep I’d missed in the last few months found legs and a soccer ball and kicked it straight at my head. When I came to and pulled open the fly, a gray sky met me, hand in hand with our friend, segnore Cool Temperature.
Lisa got up earlier and said the day started sunny — but it changed like a fickle mind. In a tragic void of lighters and therefore coffee, we ate cereal with nuts and berries and packed up camp. Soon, we were on the trail again — and of course, it went the opposite way of our hopes for warmth (up).
The scenery provided a wonderful distraction for the chill; we climbed for a while on a nature path, learning (and promptly forgetting) the flora of each aspect. I do remember reading (with Lisa’s help, as the signs were all in Italian) with each 100 meters (328 feet) one climbed, the temperature dropped .6 degrees Celsius and the plants and trees changed accordingly. Cool!
The rest of the day went a bit like this…
- We found ourselves at a high point.
- The forest stole our hearts again. And it began to look exactly like something out of Little Red Riding Hood…
- We had a bit of fun (a theme which would continue throughout, while Lisa looks normal and I do weird shit in the background).
- It got cloudy (er) and cold (er). “Brrrrrr,” I said, to which Lisa answered, “I can’t believe you talked me out of wearing pants.”
- It got steep (er).
- We came across signs of civilization.
- We reached actual civilization (San Benedetto in Alpe).
- We ate. And decided, over our meal, to live the good life, aka mezza pensione (a room, dinner and breakfast for a flat rate). The proprietor (a woman who managed to somehow find the bridge between stern and friendly) said it was 6 degrees Celcius the night before — 41 Farenheit, which it turns out is miserable paired with humidity and pinch of altitude.
- We took showers and went out for aperetivo (and ate, again). And then slept. Very, very well.
When we arrived in San Benedetto in Alpe, the scene changed abruptly from one of carefree exploration to a rather sobering familiarity. The jagged stone church at the top brought it all back. Then Lisa and I descended the same steep path Tyler and I had climbed up one night years prior, to explore the church we’d spotted from San Benedetto in Alpe, listing below. “There’s a Madonna down there,” I said, turning to Lisa. “I remember seeing it with Tyler.” Sure enough, around the corner there she was, in a recognizable alcove, surrounded by plastic flowers and half-burnt candles. And on the bend of the road below, the campground where Tyler and I stayed a night on a bike tour or hike.
All the way around the world and there I was in the same spot: sad, angry, hurt, momentarily off my equilibrium. Of course I hadn’t expected after a nine hour plane ride all my problems would evaporate like the giant Spritz I just concocted before sitting down to write. No — like the walk from Lago di Ponte to San Benedetto, the only way to get there was one step at a time.
And it got me to thinking about time, that tricky helper and space, which my brilliant friend Emily suggested over the phone awhile back is interchangeable with time. I suppose I have Einstein to thank for that one a la his infamous General Theory of Relativity. Therefore, space is just as good for me as time (flying to Italy, moving to Oregon). And space in Italy, strictly speaking, tends to be scarce — even the ice cube trays are tiny; one entire tray (from Lisa’s mini-fridge) was sufficient for one (generous) Spritz.
So if we’re talking space and everything is piu piccolo (smaller) in Italy, so therefore are my problems. They might not be gone, but they shrink with each passing day — and each day, I am thankful for the journey. Especially when stacked against Italy in spring, where blossoms erupt and the sun becomes evermore warm with each passing day. And the gastronomic gifts are enough to make ones cares melt away like pistachio gelato in that same brave sunlight…
Now, for example, I am fortunate enough to dine on a perfectly simple salad of fava beans, spring onions, arugula and lettuce from Lisa’s grandparents’ garden. I’m accompanying this with an omelet of farm eggs and in season barba di frate (literally friar’s beards, which comes in a bunch of thin, succulent, grassy sprigs) and rosemary focaccia from the little panaderia (bakery) around the block.
So I’ll sign off in order to properly enjoy this splendid meal. Buon appetito!
On the next Sylva Lining: the journey continues as Lisa and Sylva take the high road; and as everybody knows, the high road doesn’t always come easy…