Enjoying myself in the mountain
Something settled inside me during my enforced break in Bardi. The days spent in that bare pilgrims room, just three single beds and a small kitchen unit in the corner, large single glazed window and a gas heater. I cooked good carb heavy food – beans and rice, chickpeas and lentils, in thick tomatoey beefy stews. I borrowed books from the library and I wrote a long letter. The time passed and I refreshed my email every 20 minutes to track the progress of a replacement tent piece, flying over to me from Ireland.
When I left, I realised I was heading for the mountains. I’d climbed from Fidenza to Bardi, into the hills, looking back at the flat plain behind me, full of twinkling lights. Now I’d climb again, take a route up to 1700m and join a long distance path called the Alta Via de Liguria. Checking ahead, it didn’t seem to pass through any villages for quite a while ahead. I spent a night on the slopes between Bardi and Bedonia, tucked against a woodpile high on the hill above the last village before the woods that covered the mountain. The wind blew all night, the remnants of Storm Ciara that had rattled the windows of Bardi in its final breaths, coming faintly over from the brutal slamming it had given Britain.
Next day in Bedonia I called in for the final supplies in the supermarket there, 250g of salami, four bananas, two bars of chocolate, three small tins of haricot beans, topping up the other food I’d bought in Bardi.
Then into the wilds, to the forests where deer bark and pigs snuffle, to the depths of trees that stand silent in their winter bareness, waiting for the birds to sing again and the sun to show them spring. The leaves are thick on the ground here, the bright orange of beech and oak blown thick into the groove of the path that winds thin and twisting, up and ever up.
I see on the forecast that there will be rain that night, that the wind will blow strongly. Ahead on the route, at the base of some big mountains, there is a small blue house marked on the map, a refugio – a place open to walkers. I mark the distance, the altitude to climb, wonder if I’ll make it before sunset. It’s a hard push, climbing up to one rounded peak at 1300m and seeing ahead the shock of the next day’s route, a brutal burst of bare rock, looking stark and spiky. Down to the left of it, I can see where two valleys meet, where my refugio is but I’m uncertain I’ll make it.
On the way, I see a cabin, small wooden hut with rope keeping a ragged door closed. Inside there are chairs chainsawed from treetrunks and an ancient bed made from what seems to be straw-stuffed sacks. It’s lumpy and on an incline, with a huge gap in the wall where my head would be. The whole hut looks like it would fall over in high winds and I decide to press on.
Next comes a series of low, shuttered buildings. There are barns and sheds and porches. The main house is empty but I can hear the melancholy whining of a dog within and I decide to wait there and ask for shelter. Within 20 minutes a car pulls up and the woman looks at me warily as I appear from her shed and walk towards the vehicle as she’s unloading shopping bags, her son beside her staring at a phone. I am slow and calm, explaining myself clearly through the phone translation. “There is bad weather coming tonight and I am looking for a place to shelter. I would be happy to sleep in a barn.”
She nods, extends a hand and introduces herself as Christina, we make proper warm eye contact and I know I am safe here.
At first she says I can sleep on a wooden bench in the porch but later offers me a sofa inside. It’s a closed restaurant, I find. For three seasons of the year, tourists come here, particularly in the autumn mushroom hunting season, but in winter there is no-one. I go with her to feed the horses and the collection of about 20 husky dogs kept in small enclosures out the back. Chickens are inside, in a shed. I ask if they come out during the summer and Christina points to a secure enclosure, with head height wiring all around.
“There are wolves in this area and the chickens are not safe to roam”. I wonder what the wolves make of their caged husky cousins, if noses ever meet through wire or if there is only maddened snarling in impotent territorial defence.
That night the wind is wild and I lie in safety listening to rain batter the building and feeling very glad I’m not camping. In the morning I look up at the mountain and am surprised it’s not full white with snow. Instead there is still the bare jutting rock looming large above me and I quail slightly, checking the map for escape routes in case there’s snow up there.
Christina waves me goodbye and I spend a pleasant morning climbing gently up the first mountain, the overnight storm has passed and I am bathed in bright sunshine, above the wooded valley bottoms which are full of mist. There are snow patches in amongst the blown leaves but nothing too thick.
Disaster appears during the final 20 metres though as the path twists around to the shady side of the rocky summit and I am confronted by a thin channel of rock next to a sheer drop. There is a chain bolted to the rock but the entire slope is covered in ice, where snow has melted and refrozen over and over. I try the first section, stepping carefully on protruding pieces of stone, pulling myself up on the chain, holding on, but then turn a corner and it is worse. A frozen snowdrift covers the path, solid and impassable. I have no snowspikes or crampons and know I must turn back.
Unfortunately that is not the annoying part of the afternoon. I take the alternative path down the side of the mountain where I can curve around the north of the summit and this too is frozen. There is a steep slope of solid snow, in amongst trees, and I cannot keep my footing. I end up sliding downwards very slowly on my bottom, clinging to any protruding rocks and branches to stop myself sliding uncontrollably towards bone breaking trees and boulders.
It’s a hairy experience and at only 1700m. Luckily I’ll get some snowspikes in the post soon which should help in any such situations further on.
I’m in a very remote area here, and the path I’m following courses on hilltops, above the inhabited valley bottoms. It’s nice, in a way, the most alone I’ve been in a couple of months. I miss the lack of bars for me to make coffee and sandwich stops but it does help me walk a bit faster, even if that’s balanced out by the slowness of climbing mountains. I count out my remaining meals, portion the salami into 50g chunks and reckon I have three days food before I need to descend. The path appears to be limitless, I could walk the entire 300km across Liguria at height without ever coming to a shop.
I look ahead on the map, frantically scanning to find a town that’s close to the route, achievable within the food I have left and has a hotel. I won’t take a full day off there, I decide, as I’m headed for a birthday weekend in Genova, but just parachute in overnight, wash everything, wash myself and head out again.
I find one in just the right place and it’s a good thing too as rain comes the night before I arrive and I make a couple of mistakes in the experience of it. First, in the late afternoon, I try to deny that the rain is affecting me and don’t put on my waterproofs. Then I cowboy camp in the covered porch of a closed refugio in the rugged hamlet of Barbagelata (which means ‘frozen beard’) and during the night the wind blows more rain all over me. It means that I tramp down the hours to Torriglia in even more rain and arrive with everything wet. Everything.
I am surprised by the town, a tight little collection of tall houses, beautifully antique in a way that only Italy has managed on this journey so far. I come through an arch and into the old town square, a sign on the wall just casually stating that this has been here since the 12th century. I think of the Bosnian kings of this era, how many of their buildings remain, of their towns. The colonisers get to keep their history unscathed, layers allowed to build on layers, rather than having all swept away by other empires.
I look more closely at the sign and cheer, St Ursula is mentioned here! She’s patron saint of the town!
Having an unusual name is wonderful, I love being the little she bear, but one small downside is that nothing ever shares your name. I rarely meet other Ursulas and I will search in vain every time there is a display of inscribed mugs or keyrings. Although I’m not named for her, I was thrilled to discover a St Ursula and that she had a day, 28th of October. Now I see she has a town too, and I have walked directly into it.
I made enquiries in the restaurant and the kind owner called the priest who called the library who called Mauro the local historian and so it was that I found myself standing in front of the doors of the church with Giuseppe the assistant priest and Mauro the historian, learning more about the life of Ursula and how she came to be associated with Torriglia. Her skull was here, so I learnt, preserved in silver and gifted to the town by a rich Genovese family. I couldn’t see it though, kept strictly locked away as a precious Catholic relic. I’m not sure why it would be important to me to see it, but I know that I’d cry if I did, I feel the tears welling as I think of it. A Cornish princess who went with her bridal party to marry a man in France, but when she found out he wasn’t devout enough, went to make a pilgrimage to Rome and died on the way, killed in Koln by rampaging Huns and died protecting her virginial friends, or so the story goes. Sounds like she was a pretty intrepid Ursula too doesn’t it.
I go for a coffee before leaving, everything is washed and dried and ready to go again. I even managed two baths in the overnight hotel room and feel wonderful as a result.
I make a final visit to the carved doors of the church to take a photo with Princess Ursula and am surprised at the moment I’m about to leave by a woman coming across the square to greet me.
She’s Laura and she’s British and the village telegraph functioned to call and tell her there was another brit in town.
I end up walking with her that day down to the next village where she finds me a free bed below the church. Then the next day as she shuffles English lessons around to come and accompany me, we walk togetherup over the mountains taking buses at the beginning and end of the day.
Laura is another intrepid woman, who has run her own thousand mile journey from Rome to London.
It’s completely refreshing to chat so easily to someone who understands so much of what drives me and what I’m going through. She doesn’t call me crazy, doesn’t put that blank wall of uncrossable difference between us. She knows how it is to sweat and grimace and collapse and get up to keep going again. The drive to keep on and on and on, just because you had an idea and you’re determined to see it through. She doesn’t ask why.
A couple more days of joyous mountains and then I drop down to Genoa for a birthday weekend.
Genoa is piss soaked and grime crusted, there’s no other way to describe it. I wouldn’t sit down in a single doorway. Like Barcelona except they don’t wash the streets every night, it has the faintly disinterested air of a city that sees thousands of tourists. A historic port town where people have been arriving and passing through for centuries. There are tiny narrow streets in the old town where my room is, full of delightful shops like garment repair or musical instruments, dozens of butchers and greengrocers. There are chocolate shops and focaccia sellers. Genoa is the home of pesto and focaccia. It’s dirty and, at first, faintly intimidating. There are sex workers peering from alley corners and doorways, studiously not meeting female eyes. I haven’t seen street sex workers since Romania, it feels old fashioned somehow, where so much can be organised on the Internet now. I want to make eye contact with them, to have them see a friendly woman who doesn’t hate or fear them, but I guess I am too plump and ordinary to be marked as potentially friendly and maybe it’s only for my ego anyway.
Down at the harbour I can look back from the water to this lego city, blocks of buildings jutting out from the mountains, built against one another, on top of each other. I walk through and wonder at the variety of human faces, the different shapes of bodies. The distortions of age, degraded from the place where we all started, fresh with plump beauty.
It’s a city of dogs. Dogs in shops, dogs in restaurants, dogs belonging to shops, standing in doorways unfussed by crowds. Dogs pissing on antique carvings.
I go into a patisserie, founded in 1828, original cloudy mirrors on the walls and a skillfully blended air conditioning unit. It’s a phenomenon, to be in a city so grand and so functional.
I float through it, scattering leaves under cafe tables, eating divine cakes, eating unnecessarily expensive meals, lost in crowds, struggling to absorb the complexity of this place. Forests are easier, simpler. There I feel purposeful, here in so many other lives I lose sight of the grand points of existence, distracted by the whirl of creative immediacy.
Tomorrow I leave again, leave the coronavirus fear, the closed public spaces, the inflammatory newsfeed, and head for the mountains. I’m following a high track all the way to France and there will be more of the same, more peaks, more solitude, more glory.
It is in these days that the sun has turned from weedy to warm.
It is in these days that its light has started to blind me in the afternoons, turning from thin and diluted to the beginning of full golden summer brightness.
It is in these days that I have started to see flowers, clumps of primroses, solitary shafts of crocus and occasional violets, tiny and sheltered.
I enjoy these mountains, walking feels right again and no longer a tired struggle. I don’t know what happened down there on the plains, whether it was illness or landscape or the darkest nights of January but I felt awful and now, as Imbolc has passed and the earth is turning towards spring and I am climbing in the free and open air of higher ground, I feel good once again.