I’m walking across the north of Italy, from east to west and since I came out of the mountains about a month ago, just after the border crossing from Slovenia, it’s been nothing but flat plains.
I’ve walked through prosecco territory, past Udine, Venice, Verona, Padua and Mantua. I’m almost at Parma. Cities I try and avoid though, I’m certainly going nowhere near Milan, the sprawling gritty maze that would take days to navigate.
The land is flat, I haven’t been anywhere so completely horizontal since Romania, as I crossed the floodplains of the Danube, south of the Carpathian mountains. I don’t think about Romania here though, I think about the flatness of Ukraine. There it was endless, I could look ahead to nothing but fields, fields all the way to the horizon, an infinite flatness. Here it’s different, the houses are spread out in a way that they weren’t back east. There you would have villages, houses clustered in a tight grouping…and nothingness, just miles and miles of only fields. Now there are farmhouses at regular intervals, probably the sign of a calmer history than Ukraine. There are also the Alps in the far distance, the white snow covered peaks hovering, like marvellous apparitions, ancestors watching from the mantelpiece, always there as I track parallel to them down on the flatlands. The farmhouses are grand here, the barns are brick, with high two storey arches, elegant hay storage. They are mini villages sometimes, a courtyard with dozens of shuttered windows, a personal chapel. I think of all the people who would have worked a single farm versus what can be done now with a tractor and seeding/ploughing/cropping attachments. Often I realise that I’m passing pig farms, not from seeing any animals, they’re all kept indoors, but the stench of manure is enough of a sign, the long low barns with huge fan units attached to the outside.
The walking is a little mundane here on the flat, there is too much road and not enough path. Everything is agriculture and, more challenging, there are water channels everywhere, splitting the land into neat drained parcels but leaving only the roads and trackways as walking possibilities. Too wide to jump over, I can’t go rogue. So I stick to the routes I can, track my way west as straight as possible, I’ll be in the mountains again soon enough, down near Genoa and then crossing the Alps over to France.
I don’t think about that yet though, I’ve been focused on my energy this week. It feels like the first time in a month that I’ve had energy to walk full days and not keep stopping. I’ve been trying to eat as much as possible, keep a conveyor belt of carbs coming and it seems to be working. Problems I face in rural Italy are the lack of shops. I’m firmly in car-based society now, where people drive to the big weekly shop and there are fewer emporia of small things, shelves of sweets and tins and gloves and biscuits all arranged neatly, with a waiting shop person jotting down your total on a scrap of paper as you select your single banana and your packet of crisps. There are fewer shops but plenty of bars and restaurants, I can always find a place for a sit down, a coffee and croissant, but places to stock up with serious food are more difficult.
A problem with all of it is that Italian opening hours are extremely variable! Closed on Mondays, closed between 3 and 6pm, closed at 1pm for two hours, closed on Wednesday afternoons, closed until 6pm, closed all week until Thursday evening. There is no way of knowing what hours an establishment will keep until you see the sign on the door. Lunch is an inviolable sanctity for shops, and so is the afternoon break for restaurants, if they open during the day at all. It’s….confusing. People get around this with the extensive availability of vending machines. I’ve seen them selling baked goods, milks and cheeses, flowers, cigarettes. Those placed outside pharmacies are the most amusing to me; containing all the things that I can imagine someone rushing towards closed doors in the dead of night, frantically in need of – baby formula, nappies, contact lens solution, plasters, denture glue, antacids, tampons, vibrators, lube. The condom selection is extensive.
I’ve been spending too much time in bars really, popping in at lunchtimes. They do sell food, of the snacking variety. Toasted sandwiches of ham and cheese, or a variety of tramezzini, small sandwiches in white bread with the crusts cut off. They are wrapped around chunks of filling in delicate ovals then cut in half, the spongy pertness of the bread sculpted to hold a spoonful of tuna and handful of cocktail onions, or some slimy mozerella and lettuce. A small selection of buns with ham or salami flapping down from the edges. Croissants are always available, in glass display cases that sit at eye level, small doors for you to open and help yourself. People eat their croissants like icecream cornets here, holding them vertically wrapped in a napkin and consuming from the tip downwards. Bars are gathering places for old men, those who sit in groups and chuckle gently, those who read the newspaper alone. Sometimes they’re playing cards, gathered in groups of four with others standing and watching. I see them, the good looking one, the suave one, the one who is brusque and too loud, the one who makes coarse jokes that makes others shuffle nervously, the nervous one who has never been good at conversation. Our typecasting continues, from toddlerhood to grave. The bars are nice calm places, without the heavy wood and seclusion from the outside that marks a UK pub.
Coffee and croissant and tuna sandwich are nice but it’s not really the kind of energy food I need for walking all day so sometimes I go to a restaurant, thinking I will just get a single course, a cheap plate. It doesn’t work like that, mostly. There’s a sense of occasion about going for a meal here, even in a cheap canteen type place with loads of vans outside for men in overalls to come for lunch. Even here there are still napkins on the table, glasses turned upside down waiting for wine, two sets of cutlery. A restaurant meal is a process that should be followed – pick your choice of still or sparking water, a first plate, a second plate, a small carafe of wine, perhaps a dessert and always coffee. It is unthinkable not to finish with coffee. One day I call in at a riverside restaurant, there are no houses nearby, it’s an isolated place. On the step outside there is a cat basking in the sunshine, inside, a dog lies sleeping in the cosiness of the firewarmed room. There are six people eating, all men. I admie the smartness of their jumpers, thin wool sitting smooth over their shirts. There’s a crisp smartness to male dress. Really I just want some quick food but I give into the process, order pumpkin ravioli which comes soaked in butter and cheese, tasting of sweet marzipan. I enjoy the sunshine in the room, the small plants on each table, the white tablecloth and napkins. I savour my icecream dessert, my coffee, my slightly fizzy red wine. As I finish, they are getting ready to close at 3pm. I wonder whether this place would exist in the UK, serving 10 people at lunchtime, in such a lonely location.
It’s a wonderful lunch, that I cannot do every day but sometimes, sometimes, it’s a worthwhile treat. Later that evening, making my camp in a secluded tree plantation, I eat the heavy barley soup I’ve been carrying since yesterday. A hare rustles nearby, I catch sight of its ears bounding a hasty retreat when I poke my head out to see it.
I am taking food seriously at the moment, and so does Italy.