A Recipe for Friendship

Hotel Arrucador had been a wonderful nights rest after a tiring day. Uniquely designed with a bespoke interior in wood, stone and steel, it blended old and new in an unexpected but beautifully balanced way that just seemed so at home in its surroundings. It was certainly the most luxurious stay of our trip and Walter had made our evening with a meal that included his own recipe vegetarian ravioli with almonds and herbs, followed by wild boar and polenta, washed down with a delicious red that we couldn’t help feeling would have cost a lot more at home.

Italians, it seems, rarely have more than coffee and a piece of bread or brioche for breakfast and we’d been hungry by 10:30 the last couple of days.  When we came down for breakfast Walter somehow knew this (the crystal ball of a good hotelier of course) and casually quizzed “bacon and eggs?” in a way that was more assumption than question. It was the best way to start a days hiking and we left feeling 100% better than we’d arrived the previous day.

A relaxed start meant the sun was already hot as we picked our way through cultivated fields and small dwellings, across a burbling creek and then began the steady climb that was becoming each morning’s challenge. The previous day I had carelessly sunburnt the backs of my legs wearing shorts and today I had to pay the price with an even hotter sun beating down on the backs of my legs. I’d worn thermal legs under my shorts today to keep the sun off them but the heat felt through these still agitated my already sunburnt legs, and it was oh, so hot and sweaty!
Walter had given us clear instructions to follow a network of hillside pathways that would join the GTA as it climbed the hill opposite rather than descend all the way into the hamlet of Limonetto, only to climb back out again thirty minutes later.
We were grateful and found it OK despite a misleading side turning to some huts. We turned left onto the marked trail and headed up the long ridge with a welcome break at a stream crossing before continuing ever upwards through flower meadows. At any stream opportunity like this we would not only drink (having filtered the water against bacteria of course), but we would also soak our clothes and hats to maximise cooling in the hot sun. Of course clothes would be dry within minutes but it did help to minimise the effect of being in the full heat of the sum all day with rarely much shade.

A downed signpost with signs laid on a cairn needed checking as the path was not clear and we pulled out the map to confirm our route. On occasions the, otherwise well-marked, route would just seem to vanish in the long grass or in meadows heavily grazed and trampled by cattle. The maps we carried were useful, if less than accurate at all times, and we were soon back on track. The path became steeper again and we paused momentarily for a brief chat with some German hikers following the route South, before continuing up steep switchbacks to the crest of the ridge, a trio of craggy outcrops that formed the natural barrier between valleys.

Lisa had me go ahead on this last steep section to the top to assess the exposure, still nervous from previous day when she’d been experiencing a bit of vertigo on the more exposed sections. To be fair I thought her concerns were well founded. The climb up had been steep and hard work but never a struggle for safe footing, whereas the descent ahead looked much steeper and had a lot of rough loose rock. It seemed that the path makers had also thought similarly as they’d laid on bolted cables for hand holds on the way down.

Despite this Lisa tackled it with confidence determined not to let her occasional vertigo with heights get in the way. It was tricky going and we had to pick our way down carefully finding both secure footholds and handholds. It was a steep concave slope so the angle only began to lessen as we got much lower down. Part way down we spotted two Chamois on the rocks further round the slope. Their incredible nimbleness put our efforts to shame as we watched one of them skip it’s way up the steep rocks scaling what appeared to us an almost sheer face before stopping to look back at us (slightly mockingly it seemed to me).
We disturbed two more further down the slope and watched as they quickly skirted round us, watching us warily.

At the foot of the slope was a beautiful turquoise lake just beyond which we stopped for some lunch. The sugar free biscotti were definitely wearing thin by now and we craved some decent lunch snacks. We’d found buying snacks a real challenge. The small village stores stocked barely anything ‘packaged’ and it seemed that Italians in this area must make almost everything from basic fresh ingredients. It was a wonderful revelation in terms of the resistance here to the inexorable rise of the supermarkets, but we could hardly carry a tomato, a couple of onions and a bag of carrots for several days of lunches. We got by however with a combination of nuts, some dried fruit, a little (usually soft) chocolate, biscuits and some apples.

The rest of the way down was straightforward. As we descended the undergrowth became more lush and for a while we followed a stream gurgling down the hillside, and stopped to filter water from a side tributary. Further down we entered woodland and encountered two older Italian ladies out with cameras exploring the undergrowth.  One had gone ahead without the other realising and she was chattering away when she looked up to find us stood there rather than her friend which made us all laugh, even though we couldn’t communicate much we all got the joke.

Palanfre itself was a beautiful little village. We passed the dairy first and then a cluster of houses.  We walked to the end of the village first then back up to the post tappa, outside which several other hikers where sat in the sun having a drink. 3 Austrians and a German where to become our friends for the evening. The host was an exhuberant young guy who greeted us with a little English. In typical Italian fashion he encouraged us to relax first, have a drink, and sort the room out later. We drank Chinotto, a local sparkling fruit drink, part of the slow food movement which began in this, the Piedmont region of Italy. Focused on quality ingredients, local provision, preparation that takes as long as necessary to be right, it is a movement that rejects the whole ethos of fast food.

The evening was great fun. Languages, politics, Brexit (!) were all covered as we drank the house red. I should note that the ‘simple cheap house red’ here was better than most expensive bottles I have had back home. The food was incredible; an enormous board of prosciutto and formaggio,  locally produced here in the village. All the more impressive when we learnt that just two families live permanently in this valley now. At one time there were more than 300 people living here. Many of the houses that were still standing had become quaint well-cared for holiday homes.

The family had a new born baby and despite that mum was busy preparing food and serving us while her baby quietly waited in a rocker. One of the family had a mixing deck and entertained us with a constant flow of eighties tunes, all skillfully mixed. This posto tappa was clearly the life and soul of the handful of houses and the walkers that stayed a night seemed a very welcome connection to the wider world beyond the family and the cow bells.

We were comparing language skills as English and German were the common tongues and Lisa had them all roaring with laughter when she recalled how to say ‘hello, my name is Lisa and I am eleven years old’.

It always amazes me that you can throw together a small group,  of three different nationalities, in an unfamiliar destination, with some good food and wine, and they’ll invariably find more in common than they will to divide them and we said goodnight that night more like old friends than the strangers that we were.

A Rough Start..

So, we are now out of the mountains and back in Turin. A lack of internet access and problems uploading photos precluded posting to the blog while we were in the mountains. Nonetheless I will catch up now and post the updates over the coming days.

On our first full hiking day we woke early to clear sky and sun, not the rain that had been forecast. We set off West along an undulating path accompanied by the ubiquitous cow bells that are such a feature of the Alps. The landscape here was dominated by larch and hazel and undulated through grazing pasture surrounded by imposing rocky peaks. We crossed a himalayan style bridge and continued through low scrub. Several times throughout the day we would run into herds of cattle accompanied by a herder and numerous Maremma sheepdogs, a breed that goes back centuries in close association with alpine grazing, herding and the transhumance.  

Our first big climb took us 600m up and over the Passo Delle Saline a name drawn from the pass’ history as a trade route rather than from surrounding mineral deposits. As we climbed we were chased by gathering and darkening clouds. The wind at the top grew fierce and cold and, ignoring the track up to the colle on our left, we quickly dropped down the far side descending through heather clad hillside and met our first hikers coming the other way, Germans who somehow knew before they reached us that we were English and greeted us accordingly.  We wanted a quick stop on a rock for lunch but the rest was short lived as the cold wind that we’d left on the ridge swept down behind us to meet that coming up from below. 

The sight of the darkening clouds was enough to hurry us on and accompanied by the bells of the cows below us we hurried on. The sky became darker and darker and we’d hoped to reach the Rifugio Mondovi that we knew lay on our route a short way ahead, before the inevitable rain caught us. We scurried forward and down but the valley below became darker and between the rocks ahead which hid a steeper descent, the valley had the grim appearance Mordor. The sky lit with a thick immediate bolt of light that crashed to the ground somewhere ahead that seemed directly in our path. Suddenly reluctant to push ahead we stopped and adopted rain gear in preparation for the imminent deluge. Cracks of electrified thunder burst above us and the lightening erupted around us again and again. We put our heads down, gritted our teeth and pushed forward,  the Rifugio now in sight. Despite looking quiet and dark, it was not a hard decision to stop and we were relieved when we found the door open and life inside.

Within minutes of reaching shelter the rain came. Not gently at first but all in one go as if there would not be sufficient time for it all to fall. It came in waves, pelting the windows and the temperature dropped by as much as 15 degrees. Inside we were met by friendly guy with enough English vocabulary to make our order of drinks an easy request as the rain turned to hail and the lightening moved across the sky. We’d been incredibly lucky to reach shelter. Some hour or more later,  when the worst had passed we continued, scaling our second pass of the day and began the long but incredibly scenic descent to the Rifugio Garelli, a haven perched improbably on a prominentary with a view that money couldn’t buy.

We woke again to clear blue sky and still air, a contrast to the wind and rain that had once again pounded down after our arrival the previous night. Our friendly host, had a powerful telescope trained on a distant crag where he was watching some Chamois, a mum with a couple of kids. He was running the Rifugio alone now but in a couple of weeks his wife would join him and in the Peak of the season, five people would be needed to run the place. All supplies and the food he was serving us were all hauled up to the Rifugio at 1965m by horse. 

After a sparse breakfast of bread, jam and a hot chocolate, we got going. Initially downhill, over a ridge edge, and back on ourselves to skirt a gully around the tributaries of a stream. We were out of the sun and into the shade of the towering peaks and crags around us until the narrow path skirted gradually higher diagonally up the increasingly steep slope. The undergrowth here was thick and lush with dwarf pines competing for light with grasses, shrubs and wildflowers of every colour. We were unprepared for the crest of the ridge which buffeted our sweaty bodies with a brisk wind at the most inconvenient time. A scattering of paths meant we needed to consult the map and guide as the ubiquitous red and white markers of the GTA were not immediately visible.

Further confusion ensued at a later junction that appeared to be marked incorrectly with the red and white marker of the GTA. After several days we soon learned that there is more than one GTA. It is best described as main route with a series of possible options or variants. 

As we travelled west our route began to use old military tracks initially down then past Hut Delle Ortica (surrounded by nettles as the name suggests) and then swooping a long curve back on ourselves to the next ridge system and the small concrete post marking the French border. 

As we’d been scaling the last climb to the ridge and border we were surprised by a German couple coming the other way who greeted us earnestly with the question ‘are you the English?’ unsure initially what made us stand out so or why they would be expecting us, we tentatively acknowledged and they explained that Walter sends his greetings and looks forward to meeting us. Ah.. The penny dropped. We had asked our host at last night’s Rifugio to telephone ahead for us to make a reservation at the Hotel Arrucador, a small, if perfectly located hotel with just three rooms at the foot of the days mountain, just below the Colle De Tenda, right on the French/Italian border. Walter was the owner and our new German friends had stayed there last night.

Our route then followed the border often walking in France for long periods, ridge after ridge. Again and again we past these concrete marker posts, high in the mountains, marking the boundary that was set out in 1947 at the end of hostilities. Walking a boundary in this way only served to highlight the absurdity of our human imposed division on a landscape. No change was visible as we passed from side to side, no feature nor flora or fauna characterised France more than Italy or vice versa. The wolves that once again roamed these mountains did not discriminate, any more than the prey they pursued. Yet the politics and division that we create had set neighbour against neighbour across these mountains, more than once.

The first mountain fort that came into view was Fort Pepin. Deep on the French side our route did not visit it but my disappointment would be tempered over the coming days as I began to realise just how many such forts, barracks and other fortifications remain an enduring feature of these mountains. 

After the remains of a smaller fort we made a navigation error. Missing a small path between shrubs, allegedly marked with the typical red/white base on a rock, we found ourselves on a long switchback into the French side on a gravel track. By the time we realised the only thing to do was continue as it would eventually return us to a point lower on our path but it added a couple of kilometers to an already long day.  Then we were back at last to the Colle de Tenda and the imposing Fort Centrale, a short way below which lay our destination for the night.  In our tiredness we made a further silly error and set off down the road without checking the map believing our hotel,  the Arrucador, could be accessed from the road. We were wrong and it took a feat of will power to turn around and walk back up the road twenty minutes later to select the correct descent by a broad grassy path. The day had been a lesson in diligent navigation and our tired legs made us all the more determined not to make sure errors in the days ahead.

Hotel Arrucador: Just 3 rooms, but wonderfully located, individual and luxurious and amazing food!

The Journey Before The Journey

After an early start from Abbey Wood at Lisa’s parents,  we found ourselves stood at the station, reading alerts for delays on our route. They didn’t transpire and despite initial concerns we had a smooth run through to London Bridge, an easy change and straight to Gatwick. Before checking in we went to get our rucksacks shrink wrapped to protect them. It was almost amusing. Our wrapped sacks were smaller than many folks carry-on luggage and they seemed half empty. We had nothing to carry on unlike most, and were content that we were carrying only the minimum we needed, knowing that over the coming days we would be carrying them many miles over steep mountain passes. The wrapping service provided smiley face stickers to identify our bags and we were asked to deliver them to ‘oversize baggage’, surely they must have been joking with us.

The flight was quick but turbulence hit over the Alps as we began to descend and a clear air pocket meant that the plane dropped suddenly with several people’s drinks hitting the ceiling. We landed safely, were quickly through baggage reclaim and almost straight onto the bus into Turin. The sky was dark with cloud, raining and ominous as we drove through the industrial outskirts of town. Soon however we were into the centre and the lights softly lit the arches and swirls of the old architecture. The hotel Genova in the center of the city welcomed us and enabled an amusing first attempt at speaking Italian, then after a shower and change we were off to Restaurante Marcello for dinner. 

We got in at just the right time. It was popular, touted as one of the best in Turin, and the many walk-ins were turned away. Simple local food cooked beautifully was something we would come to appreciate on the days ahead. This was followed by a walk to the piazzas, the rain had cleared, the temperature rose and it had become a lovely warm evening, clear and fresh after the rain. 

The following morning we had a chaotic start. A power cut left our phones uncharged, we were late into Porto Nuovo station and thought we’d missed our train. It seemed fate was smiling on us as we discovered our delayed train was still in the platform but we should have seen it as an omen as it not only started late but crawled and stopped, getting later most of the way. We were late into Ceva and missed the planned bus but after a short wait in this sleepy town, a later bus appeared around the corner and Lisa tackled the issue of purchasing tickets and communicating our destination of Ormea to the bemused driver. We clambered on and were whisked through windy roads higher toward the mountains. 

Ormea provided a fabulous lunch and gelato at the Bar Nazionale, but getting out of it in the direction of Viozene proved more difficult. There were no buses that ran to Viozene and it would be a 17km walk if we couldn’t find someone to drive us. We waited until 4pm for the small tourist office to open as the sign outside it had indicated, but 4pm came and went without any sign of life therein. We’d begun to wonder whether we might be searching soon for accommodation instead of transport. After several circuits of the small town looking for any information on a taxi service we resorted to stopping passers by to find a potential translator. When we did find someone she kindly enquired for us at the Bar and the name of a potential driver, Luciano was identified. Unfortunately his phone was out of connection and a further attempt to contact his wife revealed she had no idea where he was and didn’t sound happy about it! Our good samaritan was keen to get on and had to leave so we were faced with accepting that we might be stuck in Ormea for the night. Then just as she was about to drive away, our new friend leapt back out of her car, phone in hand, it was Luciano, he had returned the call. We could try to find Signore Colombo,  and if we had no luck then Luciano himself would take us about 7pm. It seemed appropriate that this detective work should conclude with a hunt for a Colombo, we were giggling as we walked down the road, picturing the detective Colombo, cigar in hand, turning back in a doorway; “before I go, one more thing”. 

We honestly did not expect to find Signore Colombo and probably looked more surprised than he was when we met outside his small garage, just locking up for the day. Of course he spoke only Italian so we did our best to make our request clear and he immediately smiled, “Si, Si, Viozene, taxi..” well, that was the bit I understood at least. We almost couldn’t believe it. He had us wait while he changed, then we loaded our packs into his car and attempted futile conversation as we wound our way up the steep mountain road to Viozene. After much thanks and hand shaking he departed and we were left at the foot of the track at the official start of the Grande Traversata Delle Alpi, which then climbed up through the beautiful little village, directly to the Rifugio Mongioie which was our first nights accommodation and the start if the real walking!