Where did the last seven months go?
Oh yes… a global pandemic. On a personal level, another battle with bureaucracy, three more moves and (miraculously) some summer travels. Plus I’ve finally finished polishing the narrative nonfiction novel I wrote about my solo bike journey across the US. Although “finished” is a funny word, because completing a novel is like saying you’re a farmer after buying a rabbit. You’ve still got to acquire the land, the equipment, the rest of the animals and probably somebody to help pay for it all, so to speak.
In the meantime, I’ve challenged my readers to challenge me. Specifically, new followers are rewarded with a personalized creation. I received some very interesting requests–one of which is for a Tarot/I Ching mash up dance or song (thanks Mark). While I’m working on that I’ll offer you, my amazing followers, what Steve asked for: “more European adventure stories.” What came to mind first was a short backpacking trip I did this summer, just over the border of Tuscany.
A note: if you are reading this and you followed me a million years ago, I would love to create something for you, too. Please check out this link and then send me a message.
I live in Emilia-Romagna, a little known province until Covid-19 swept through earlier this year, placing Italy in the spotlight. From Faenza, I can arrive in the town of Marradi by bike in about an hour and a half, or by train in half an hour. Marradi is in an underrated part of Tuscany that, in my opinion, is just as lovely as the parts of it which are beaten in. There, the bread is chewier and tastier than the bread in Faenza, where it’s made without salt (just flour and water). The flat territory east of Faenza, which leads to the tepid Adriatic sea, becomes a memory because Marradi is a small mountain town. When you walk through its narrow, fetching streets, the locals cast you suspicious stares, as is the nature of most people in most tiny mountain towns.
I took the train to Marradi early one morning in August. My destination was a magical place called Eremo (or Hermitage) di Gamogna that can be reached in two hours–or three with a backpack containing camping gear, a book and enough food for two days. After passing through the modest heart of Marradi, I walked under an arch decorated with the ubiquitous red and white markers of CAI, or Club Alpino Italiano. Thanks to this club, which among other things maintains and designates many of Italy’s trails, I have almost but not quite gotten lost countless times. For some reason, they always place the next, crucial marking just out of sight of the last one.
From Marradi, the trail goes unapologetically uphill. Even once it has diverged from a road and reached a power line via a trail hemmed in by blackberry briars and thickets of nettles. It continues to climb even after leaving the sweet-smelling pines and gaining a panoramic ridge. Here there is always a bit of wind and views over a particular landscape comprised of what Italians call calanchi. We Americans know them as badlands, dry and clay-rich formations which bring to mind snake dens and the spines of certain dinosaurs. This is my favorite part of the trail, this long traverse across a stark and expansive scene.
Then the trail dives back into the trees before rejoining the dirt road used by the nuns to access the eremo. Here and there are patches of ruined cobbles which bring to mind the word “medieval.”
In Italy, very little actual wild lands remain. Even in the north where the jagged Dolomites challenge Italians to cultivate steep slopes, many still manage to do so. It’s common to hike up avalanche paths and steep valleys for hours only to run into a rancher in a mud-splattered Fiat Panda tending to his sheep. As such, it’s a challenge for an American like me, who grew up next to the wilderness, to find solitude. But when the trail winds on and off of this old dirt road, even though the road itself is evidence of human impact, the feeling of remoteness is achieved. The sounds of traffic have faded, and only on weekends do hikers make it past the panoramic ridge. A distant dwelling might break up the forest, but it’s mostly a big puzzle of mountains, clouds and sky.
The feeling is amplified at night, as there are no lights apart from the softly glowing eremo windows. Those lights are turned off early, because the nuns arise even earlier for vespers. During previous visits, I’ve stretched out in the dark to the snorts of wild pigs and the howls of coyote-sized, reintroduced wolves. It’s then easy to imagine I’m far away from everyone and everything.
Where the road angles down in a sweeping bow shape, I know I’m not far from the old eremo. Gaining another ridge, where on the right a tall wooden cross has been placed beside the road, I get my first glance of it across the hanging valley.
The road dives into this valley so steeply that it makes walking seem a bit like running. There’s the carefully tended garden and lavender bushes, the sound of ringing bells and the spring-fed fountain that I depend on for water. This year was a test because we’d had a bone-dry summer; the mossy fountain had been reduced to a trickle, but trickle it did.
I filled up my water and passed the eremo, following the trail up to a grassy bench and an old chapel. I set up my tent across from it in my usual spot. Then I lay down on my tarp, watched clouds pass and listened to distant rumbles of thunder until it was time for dinner. Thanks to a sweaty August day in the lowlands, the first night at a bit of elevation was cool but comfortable.
The old chapel is dedicated to a deceased priest who had a reputation as a healer. His image is now watched over by a host of spiders and several squirrels roosting in the eaves. The latter didn’t appreciate when I rushed inside the chapel for shelter during one of many thunderstorms that passed during the second afternoon. Honestly, I’d considered not coming at all because the weather forecast kept shifting back and forth from unsettled to a verifiable apocalypse. However, the fresh memory of three plus months confined to an apartment (albeit with a courtyard and two humans that I love), made the decision for me.
And so it was, on the second afternoon, that I found myself waiting out a deluge in my tent for about four hours. In the morning, I had drunk coffee until I couldn’t sit still anymore and then raced up the ridge above me for a view. What I found was a patch of wild tiger lilies, an old growth forest and an alarmingly black horizon. I had sprinted back down and dove into my tent right when the skies opened up.
When the storm ceased, I slithered out of my soaked tent, trying not to touch it and send the droplets clinging tentatively to the fly onto my head. I walked across the squishy grass in a thick fog. Una nebbia così fitta che le si può appoggiare contro la bicicletta, as they say around here, or “a fog so thick you could rest your bicycle against it.” On the other side of the bike rack humidity, I could hear angelic voices singing a capella. And one with an American accent, coming from above me. I looked up in surprise.
“Mom, my cell service isn’t great, hold on,” a blond woman said, leaning well out of a small, shuttered window.
I crept into the chapel and sat on a battered pew in the back. Six nuns dressed in flowing gray and white habits sang hymns, their simple harmonies reverberating off of the stone walls. Someone handed me a hymnal and, since I can harmonize with anything, I added my own voice to the mix. The effect was rather ethereal.
After the songs faded, a long period of prayer began. I snuck out the door and walked up the path behind the eremo. The dewy spine was wide at first, but as it slanted upwards and the views expanded, the path narrowed. At the end was a soggy bench where I could sit and contemplate how lucky I was to have arrived there again. That particular spot was showed to me to summers ago by an elderly friar who had talked my ear off. I’d been the first person he saw after a long winter that I imagined was chalk full of that bike rack fog.
I sat and watched the clouds dancing with the cool air, feeling deep gratitude to be healthy and outside, after all Italy and the world had gone through since January. A bolt of lightning then attacked the opposing hillside, sending me scurrying back down and into the eremo.
I found the same blond American woman inside praying in front of the altar. She was barefoot and on her knees on a woolen blanket. I tried slipping into the back pew again, but managed to find every creak in the old wooden floor on my way there. The woman turned and I saw she was older than I thought. Her slender frame and graceful movements evidenced that she was fit; when she told me later that she was a long distance runner, I wasn’t surprised.
“I’m Michele,” the woman said, holding out her hand. As I clasped it, I remembered that shaking hands is now kind of taboo. At the remote eremo, it was easy to forget momentarily that we are still battling a global pandemic.
Outside, a strong wind blew residual droplets off the trees and thunder cracked like a whip.
“You’re the only other American I’ve ever seen here,” Michele said, zipping up her blue sweater. “And I’ve been staying here every year for quite some time.”
“I love this place,” I said. “I also come up every year and camp nearby. Except this time, the weather isn’t cooperating.”
Michele’s blue eyes grew round. “Wait… you’re camping? In this?” It looked like midnight outside the open door even if it was approximately four o’clock in the afternoon.
“Actually…” I said. “Do you think the nuns would let me sleep inside the eremo tonight?”
Michele cupped her chin in thought. “Well, the sister in charge is coming back from the store. Hospitality is part of their mission, but usually you have to arrange it ahead of time… But let me see what I can do.”
She disappeared to talk in French to an older nun with a heart-shaped, laugh-lined face. Another bubbly nun came up to me and introduced herself as Marie Claire. She hoisted up the muddy hem of her thick habit to reveal sandals. “Would you like to join us for dinner? It’s Friday, so it will be nothing special, but you’re welcome.”
I felt warmed from the inside and a smile sprung up of its own volition. “I’d be honored,” I said.
Marie Claire beamed at me. “We’re going to pray, but you’ll hear bells around six o’clock when we call everyone for dinner. You’ll have an answer on sleeping inside then, too.”
I squished back across the grass and retrieved my Jetboil stove and my collapsible cup (which always smells like onions, no matter what I do). I boiled water for mint tea and spread my waterproof tarp on the ground in a patch of half-hearted sunshine to wait for the dinner bells. When they rang, I sprinted back to the eremo.
Michele met me at the door to the sanctuary. “We eat dinner in silence,” she said. “So once you are inside the dining area, you shouldn’t speak. Help yourself to food and drink.” She grinned at me. “It’s Friday, so it will be something unimpressive.”
I followed Michele into a stone hallway. On our left, arched windows with flower boxes gazed into a little inner courtyard with a well in its middle. It all seemed rather plucked from a fairy tale.
Before we reached the dining room, I was approached by a sturdy nun with white tendrils of hair escaping her gray veil.
“I am Mary Grazia. We have prepared you a room upstairs,” she said with a voice that was simultaneously stern and welcoming.
I thought gratefully of the cozy, dry night ahead. “Thank you so much,” I said. Maria Grazia nodded and we entered the dining room.
The other nuns welcomed me with warm smiles. I saw a wooden table lined with bowls of salad, roasted vegetables, a cold rice salad, bread and condiments, tea and fruit. We circled the table like silent vultures. I was hyper aware of each metallic clink of silverware against porcelain, but no one else seemed to notice. I sat down on the corner of another long, wooden table. The nun nearest me filled my glass with water and I smiled at her in thanks. She smiled back.
One of the nuns put on the chants of Franciscan monks or something similar. I noticed that as I ate in silence, with the bewitching music the only distraction, I naturally focused on the act of eating. Sweet, meditative thoughts began to interrupt my normal ones of future English lessons, train schedules and errands. I glanced at the kind women who had invited me in to share their meal and felt a deep peace.
I looked up and Michele mouthed, “Seconds are okay.” She made the “OK” sign with her fingers. I got up and refilled my plate alongside a shy Polish guy in a polo shirt who had passed my tent that first morning with his bible. He hadn’t said a word; I think we were both surprised to see each other. Me perhaps a bit more than him, as I’d just finished hanging my wrung out underwear in a nearby tree.
Dinner was followed by a flurry of dish washing. We then shared coffee from a massive Moka, the octagonal stove-top coffee maker beloved by Italians which makes espresso that’s blacker than a moonless night. I next took a hurried shower because Michele said the nuns were heading to bed. Silence was key in this process, and the sound of each footstep or closed door reverberated around the building.
It was the height of summer and the sunlight hadn’t yet faded, so it was too early for me to sleep. I turned off the ceiling light in my tiny cell–just big enough for a single bed and a rickety chair–and saw stars dotting the sky.
I tiptoed back down the stone stairs and got a bit turned around in the pitch black, labyrinthine lower level. Eventually, I found the back door and held my breath while I turned the ancient knob. On the floor beside the door was a pile of white stones with names written on them.
“Why is this stone named Anna?” I’d asked Michele earlier after coming back with my gear and soaked tent. Thankfully, there was an empty room across the hall from mine where I could lay it all out to dry overnight.
“Well, the nuns lock all the doors at night. So if you exit afterwards, you have to prop this door open so you don’t get locked out.” Michele answered. “They often host groups here and this way they can keep track of just who’s outside.”
I propped the door open with “Roberto” and “Elena” and walked out into the meadow. Silence was my only other companion apart from whomever made all the chirps and rustles. I looked up at the Milky Way, its carpet thick with stars thanks to the sleeping nuns. It seemed for a moment the storms had departed, but to the west I saw the unmistakable flashes of an incoming storm.
There was no need for an alarm because the bells calling the nuns to prayer at seven o’clock the next morning were likely heard back in Marradi. I rose with a groan and followed the smell of coffee downstairs, noting nighttime storms had created a sort of pond in the eremo courtyard.
Breakfast was again enjoyed in companionable silence. Afterwards, I retreated upstairs to ready my backpack and gather up whatever euros I didn’t need for a return train ticket. On my way outside, I left them in an offering jar. I figured it was the least I could do for the nun’s warm, last minute welcome.
I found everyone gathered at the door to see me off.
“Thank you all so much for the hospitality,” I said, pointing at a sign on the wall listing the eremo phone numbers. “Next time I’ll call ahead.”
Marie Claire grinned as she pulled her phone out of her habit. “Put your number here so when you call, we’ll know who it is.” She handed me her phone and I laughed, because she had written my name as “Crazy American Sylva.”
I turned away from the eremo to a chorus of “ciaos.” I splashed through puddles as I climbed back up the steep road. The sky was a brilliant blue and there wasn’t a single cloud to be seen. It was hard to imagine how the ground shook from thunder the day before, and how I could barely hear it because it was raining so hard. It struck me as a fitting metaphor for this crazy moment in our lives: sometimes we need a really good storm to wash away the old and make room for whatever it is that comes next.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! 🙂