Mountains everywhere sing the same song.
They might differ in shades of tone or pitch, but like a good folk song that keeps going round and back again, everyone thinks them their own.
Today we walked into a glorious sunrise to the mountains.
I woke early, surprised I’d slept at all through the smell. Ben, who’s never been a fan of leaving his bed, tried to convince me I couldn’t tell morning from moonlight. He made a bid for 6.30; kindly I gave him till 6.45. He didn’t notice the smell till he braved morning beyond his tent. We agreed it must be coming from the drain nearby. By 7.30, a couple of sesame bars in our bellies, we were on our way; a wonderful view as we began to climb out of the valley beneath a clear blue sky.
Three kilometres on and we walked into Collarmele, a neat little town whose gun-barrel empty streets belied its productivity. The usual bar gave us our coffees and strange red orange juices that neither of us wanted but the barman clearly thought we needed anyway. We were soon on the road again, past kids on their way to school and the old men standing around standing around.
We climbed high into the stark come-snow mountains. It was a magnificent day! We pretty much had the road to ourselves, sharing it occasionally with a cyclist or car and, every now and then, Italy’s grand prix contenders for the world motorbike championships. We stopped regularly to gaze at the valley below, where sun struck gold the clipped fields of autumn and even the giant cement autostrada looked as if it tiptoed through the morning.
Soon we turned our backs on the valley altogether and spent hours meandering through the mountains. Sheep the colour of the Earth swarmed the face of a distant mountain. Dogs with purpose let us pass in peace. The soft wind brought to us the secrets of the valley below. We walked and we rested, basking in sunshine and stillness you find only in the mountains.
We reached the summit and laughed till we cried when we saw the town we had hoped would refuel our bellies. Forca Caruso was a sign and a crumbling barn.
We were now on the downward run. I have blisters from walking flat, blisters from walking up, blisters on my bandaids on my bandaids on my blisters – it was now time to complete my prized collection with a series of blisters from walking downhill. We wandered deeper into the mountains, which peeled back like a hall of mirrors. Only the occasional tinkle of a sheep bell and yap of a distant dog interrupted the steady rhythm of our feet on the road and the rustle of our packs. Imagine that. All you can hear are your own footsteps.
These mountains are bare-topped mountains. They are brown and grey and picked clean by snowmelt. On their lower reaches, where we are, they’re covered in hardy snowgrasses and scattered weeds sewing the last of their seeds before the snows come, making ready for the far-off Spring.
About the same time as the clouds began to gather above we saw our destination, if not for the night then at least for a refuel. Gorano Sicoli was way down in a valley, an old yellow church tower rising square above white walls and red roofs. About the same time as the rain began to fall from the clouds, my feet caved in. Like naughty children in the back seat of a car on a family holiday, they began to scream, to fight among themselves, to make life hell on wheels.
We put on our ponchos, which gave us all the finesse of wicked goblins with hunchbacks – image confirmed by the looks on faces in cars zig-zagging by us, up and down the mountain, to and from town. My feet howled. The rain poured. Gorano Sicoli proved elusive. Around this corner. This one. This one.
In the end, there was nothing else to do but put my hands deep in my pockets and pretend for all the world like I was out for a merry wander in the mountains, the burning in my shoulders from the pack became the sun warming my back and instead of paying attention to the naughty children in my feet, I concentrated on the minutiae of the wet mountain road . . . a tiny white flower, a squashed cigarette butt, the road surface looking like Google maps by night.
We limped into town. Okay, so Ben didn’t limp. He sprang, all the while buoying my spirits with the good news he knows how I feel. I collapsed on a bench. The locals stared and didn’t smile even when line 4 of the Eugenia Street Prayer kicked in and I saw the miracle in others. I think it was the wicked goblin thing.
We found a hotel. It wasn’t open, she said we could stay, she wished we wouldn’t, we did because she made the offer. The restaurant wasn’t open either. And there wasn’t anywhere else in town to eat. Her husband said we could have a sandwich. I think he felt sorry for me as I sat bewildered on a clean bed in the face of his wife’s pleasant hostility. That sandwich, I have to say, is the best sandwich I’ve eaten in years: fresh white Italian bread in big chunks, real ham, real cheese and juicy red tomato (tomato! fresh food would you believe it!).
And I lay my darling feet between clean white sheets and kissed them goodnight, knowing all would be well in the morning.