Counting My Cannolos

I flew to Sicily with 100 Euros in my pocket to meet my German boyfriend. This was all that I had left after a wild summer of travelling to every corner of Europe and I was sure that people back at home would be wondering, “When is she going to get a job?” And I did feel guilty about taking yet another trip but when I kissed Michael hello at Trapani airport on the northwest tip of the island I momentarily let my worrying mind forget. And then we jumped into a hire car to start our island expedition. All I knew of Sicily was Etna, Mafia and Cannolo, the last being a sweet treat of ricotta wrapped in a deep fried wafer. Our first Cannolo was in Erice at the famous bakery of Maria Grammatico, it was delicately crafted, our second was in Scopello,  it was soft and spongey, our third was in Syracuse, it was crisp and fresh, and then, before we knew it, we were lost in our unexpectedly delicious Silician adventure.

And our path meandered on – between pesto tasting, skinny dipping, canyon hiking – we drove along the northern coast, climbing the crags above San Vito Lo Capo, sleeping on the beach at Scopello, and wandering the winding alleyways of Cefalu. We would eat pineapple rings for breakfast, sun dried tomatoes for lunch and ice cream for dinner, then sleep among the dark woods of the Madonie National Park, to the sound of wild boars.

At day break we found ourselves in fresh cool air, on the lofty top of Pizzo Carbonara, staring at the sun, at the sea. At twilight we were in the earthy fields outside the village of Isnello, munching on the ruby reds of cacti fruit with the toothless farming ladies of the town.

We jumped between sleepy hill top towns on bendy roads, playing i-spy in three languages. We saw houses carved from rock and castles balanced on pinnacle tops. We slept under the stars on the rocky slopes of Mont Etna and then climbed to the top amongst swirling clouds and howling winds.

As I read the books that filled my rucksack, my head filled with tales from Everest, Bolivian back streets, the Namibian desert and Indian temples. These scenes of epic adventure would gradually fuse with my peaceful Sicilian ramblings to create the perfect travelling day dream that would entertain me for hours.

We chatted about Italian drivers to an artist in Toarmina, “they all think they are Schumacher!” he exclaimed. We chatted in German with an Italian shop keeper in Randazzo, “the best pizza in town!”, he pointed on our map. We learnt that we can sleep anywhere, we learnt that we still love Italy.

We cleaned our teeth in car parks, washed our muddy bodies in the sea, ate mozzarella sandwiches in golden piazzas and slept one night in the light of the moon amongst jungle grass on the rim of the Cassible canyon, and then dived into its hidden depths where I observed crabs moving about their watery cave dwellings that dripped in green magma.

We fell asleep in Syracuse, we fell in love with Toarmina, we greedily gobbled down all the free samples of the famously crumbly chocolate from Modica. And when I explained to the lady at that famous chocolate house that yes, I am English but sometimes communicate with my German boyfriend in Spanish, she smiled to herself and said, “Bellisimo!!”

After riding this wave of bruschetta, vino, pistachios and pasta alla norma to the south we found ourselves sipping on cool lemon and almond granitas at the Caffe Dell’Arte in Modica where I opened my notebook and began to write this story.

Finally, still penniless and jobless, we arrived in Agrigento where we found our last Cannolo and it was the sweetest of them all! Eating so many Cannolos, I mused, was sort of like this trip, enjoy the moments as they last and worry about the consequences later!

All in all, I had counted my Cannolos and I had counted my pennies every step of the way and now I only have a pot of gold, moments that have inspired me and refreshed me. As I head back to crisis riddled Britain, I do not feel guilty anymore. Travel is my life and I know that some day it will also be my work.

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Bambina !

Michel and I were on Sardinia in a car and in the middle of a very spontaneous road trip. We were heading south, towards a town called Buggerru. We had no idea what would be in this town, we had simply seen the name on the map and it had amused us.

We arrived in Buggerru at about 7pm, and squeezing the little car along the narrow streets to the waterfront, we realised that there may well be no places to stay here. It was a tiny town, tucked into a rocky cove, in the less visited part of Sardinia. Why would any tourist venture this way?

We wandered into the local bar, the only building in town that showed any life. As soon as this strange pair walked through the door, of course, every head in the joint turned in our direction. But, safe to say, it was a friendly turn and a young girl came up to take our order.

Sipping on our latte machiattos, we pondered our next step. The bar would not be open all night and I did not feel like sleeping in the car. Michel suggested asking the young girl if she knew of any pension where we could stay. So, I bravely wandered up to the bar and said in my best Italian, “Cerco una pensione”. The girl nodded positively and said that she would ring her friend, a couple of minutes later, she came to our table and assured us that this man, whoever he was, would be 5 minutes. Cheerily warning us that, “E ‘solo una stanza”. I didn’t know what that meant but nodded along anyway.

A tough looking, dark eyed man wandered into the place a few minutes later, as we were enjoying the Italian football on T.V. “Follow me” he muttered. So Michel and I got into our car and followed this strange man through the dark alleyways of Buggerru. What was going on? I thought. I hesitantly suggested to Michel that this man was part of the Sicilian Mafia or the Sardinian independence party, all looking for vulnerable foreigners to kidnap, but in his usual manner, Michel had complete faith and was enjoying this unexpected adventure.

We came to a dead end and the strange man pulled up outside a house. He motioned for us to join him. As he opened the door, noise erupted from the interior. We saw through into the living room where there was a crazy Italian family having a get together, all generations screaming and shouting at once. We were whisked upstairs by several new faces, where we collided with whom I assumed to be the mother of the house and maybe her eldest daughter, on seeing me, she cried out “BAMBINA!” I groaned, did I really look that young?

The interior of the house was dark, as if it had come right out of the Godfather films, but atleast there was no Don Corleone around here, only an eccentric and extended Italian family. The scene downstairs was so chaotic that we decided to hide in our
room all evening, feeling a little uneasy whenever we looked up at the faded picture of Jesus Christ that hung above the bed.

The next morning, we tip toed down stairs to enquire about the chance of a cup of coffee. Only the Bambina lady was there now…sat alone at the table and looking rather somber. Some how, the scraps of Italian that I had gathered over the last two months all came to the surface of my mind and I managed to have a conversation with this lady in her native language. Those happy smiles of the previous evening maybe masked a sadder situation. She told me that she had 12 sons and daughters, one of them had cancer, he was at home. As she spoke, I saw a shadow behind a curtain, a shy face peered out, it was that son, the only one still living at home. Another son had died, several were living in far away places, like Milan, Rome or Florence, one was studying at Cagliari University, one had picked us up from the bar the night before. I felt guilty now thinking about how he would kidnap us. Her family had spread and was now far out of her reach. She told me how sad she was, there in the house, all on her own, she had never lived anywhere else but Buggerru. We left some time later to find the start of a coastal footpath. But that sadness in her face lingered in my mind, how lucky was I to be gallivanting all around Europe without a care in the world, while she was tied to the place where she was born, never to leave, Buggerru, on the edge of Europe, noticed by noone.

“Cerco la gelateria, per favor”

(I’m looking for the ice cream parlour please)

Michel and I threw our bags into his old car and headed south. South for the glorious land of jagged mountains and delicious pizza. We had escaped Germany in minutes and Austria pasted by in a flash and before I knew it Bam! There we were, back in my pizza heaven comfort zone. I had very fond memories of a life in Italy that involved ice cream, pizza and mozzarella and prosciutto crudo sandwiches and I couldn’t wait to indulge once again. However, whilst packing I had asked Michel, “what do I need? What will we be doing?”. “Hm” he pondered…“adventure stuff…like usual”, he casually shrugged. To anybody else this may mean going for a simple hike in beautiful scenery but to Michel it meant something very very different. There would certainly be a few mountains to climb between me and my mozzarella.

We were on the road heading for Lake Garda, when Michel pulled off into the small town of Mezzolombrado. “There is a via ferrata around here that I’d like to try”, he said. I gulped in a silent fear and shakily replied, “Did you bring the gear for that?”. I then had a few hair raising flash backs to my last and only experience of via ferrata. Somewhere in France I had followed a cute guy up a cliff face thinking that it would be a breeze but then becoming so terrified that I had feared for my life. To those who know nothing about via ferrata it involves, wearing a harness and clipping yourself onto a metal wire, with this securing you in case of a fall, you can then climb up ladders, swing on tiny bridges over infinite abysses or haul yourself up cliff faces on easy, man made foot holds, but with maybe hundreds of feet and fresh air below you. So basically it is safe but can be super scary for certain individuals like me or super thrilling for people like Michel. I decided to give the experience another try. Michel was an expert and I was hoping he may look after me. Also, he convinced me that it was an easy route; the internet review recommended it for people as young as 5 years old! So surely I could do that! Right?.

We put on our harnesses and wandered along a narrow canyon path to the start. The canyon suddenly ended and they was nothing but a ladder, the only way was up, and as I looked up I realised that it really was up, up, up all the way. The ladder seemed to disappear into the sky! Where the hell was this all going? I could not possibly climb that, and this is when all those old feelings of nightmarish vertigo, that you bravely think you can resist come flooding back in one second. After some minutes of whining like a little girl, I realised that I was a brave person, I could do anything, I had done many things. Why was this stupid ladder so terrifying? And what would Michel think of me? I wanted to impress him, I wanted him to be proud of me. So I went for it. One foot at a time, not looking down for a minute. When I got to the top, I shrieked with joy. Wah! That was actually fun, and I wanted more of it! We scrambled up and up and entered the main section of the canyon. I did not know what had come over me. I was fuelled and wanted my next vertigo fix, maybe I could do this after all. Several ladders and cliffs later, we had reached the top of the climb and were heading back down. I felt completely invigorated and excited to see where the rest of the week could take me. That was one thing that I did like about Michel; whenever he was around I always did things that I never thought possible.

So now it was my turn to be in charge. We headed straight into the village to find the pizza take out place. I was not disappointed. I walked in through the door and went weak at the knees. Huge slabs of juicy, tasty pizzas were laid out before me; it was my reward for the vertical adventures. Next stop was the ice cream place in town. We wandered around for a while, looking and looking and then I started to get a bit worried. This was my first day in Italy for nearly a year. I had to eat ice cream! This tiny town must have an ice cream parlour somewhere, surely? No Italian town would be complete without one.

Michel reminded me that I did have a few scraps of the Italian language, maybe I should put it to the test. However, I had not really got to the stage with Italian where the pure embarrassment of speaking a new language has been lost. I reluctantly and shyly mumbled to a passing woman “C’é una gelateria aqui, per favor”. A big Italian smile instantly burst across her face and very enthusiastically she pointed down the road…buenissimo! And she licked her lips with a twinkle in her eye. A couple of hours later I settled down into a very comfy make shift bed, next to the lake, under the stars, surrounded by mosquitoes, with a happy smile and a full belly.

The next morning, I was admiring the doughnuts in the local patisserie. There was an M, dusted in sugar, on each doughnut. I assumed that it stood for Mezzolombrado and I was impressed by the patriotism of the town. A while later, all thoughts of sweet treats had left my brain when I was hanging from a cliff over Lake Garda. How I wished for that sweet treat now; it could have been a distraction to the great gaping whole below me. It was another via ferrata. We were on our way to Cima Sata which sits at 2,300m above Lake Garda. After having hiked up 1000m, we were now part way up the via ferrata, and just around the corner were a few scary ladders waiting for me. Even though the ladders would climb about 300 metres vertical, I was still pretty confident about them after my first success. Then the sky broke and a thunder storm arrived. The rain and clashing thunder surrounded us; no way did we want to be on a metal ladder at that point in time. In minutes we were soaked through and squelching around. We hid under a tree and thought that we would wait it out; the way down could have been treacherous, but I was already shivering to the bone. Unfortunately in the end we had to turn back. “Oh what a shame!” I exclaimed to Michel, “I guess no ladders today”. He chuckled to himself, not believing a word.

After that thunder storm, the car started to look like a steam room: everything was damp. The windows were steaming up and it all just smelt like wet dog. All we could do was to head for the beach, lay in the sun and forget about it. Who needed inside spaces when the outside spaces were so god dam beautiful? Lake Garda is like heaven. Clear, warmish waters, an infinite horizon, baking hot skies and sun, cliff like mountains popping up on either side, above the shimmering waters. And with that thought I fell straight to sleep…

Torbole is the wind surfer spot on the north end of Lake Garda. We would slowly become the official hobos of Torbole, and maybe in the running for the official hobos of Italy. We found a beach bar that would sell us a hot shower for 50 cent. After a mega fast, night time dip in the lake we would run to the shower and stand there together in our swimming stuff, giggling as we both tried to wash our bodies and hair in under three minutes. All in front of several bemused diners in the bar.

After washing, came food. The life of a hobo is a very simple one. And after the pizza slice, there was only one place to go: the gelateria. We were fast becoming regulars. I hoped they wouldn’t remember me and that my favourite flavour was cookie nut crunch. I would not live with the shame of possibly being on such familiar terms with the local ice cream man. And then, we would have a very early night, driving up the mountain to find some deserted lay-by where we could set up our mobile bed and lay down our heads for the night, amongst the grass and the trees. Of course, we had a bird eyes view of the lake, twinkling down in the valley below us.

After a few days at the lake, we headed to the mountains and found an Albergo. You really do appreciate a bed far more after 4 nights of sleeping amongst the grass and the mosquitoes. The next morning, I woke up but felt like a zombie for the next half an hour. Michel grabbed my ankles and pulled me out of my warm bed. I scowled at him and nearly fainted when we were sat at the breakfast table and I noticed that the time was 7am. I was seriously bad in the mornings. A bit of a contradiction for a mountain person, whom should supposedly love early starts. Michel bundled me into the car which was quickly becoming a huge mess, and started to drive us off into the mountains. I had reservations about what could be in store for me that day, but for a while I chose not to think about it and resumed my pleasant sleep.

When I next opened my eyes, we were in a car park full of Italian hikers and Michel was throwing the harness in my direction. “So where are we and what exactly are we doing?”, I needed clarification. “We are at Pasubio and we are doing the via ferrata up to the hut, lots of people hike up too, it’s like 900metres”. Well, I did not really have a choice, Michel had already set off to find the trail, so I ran after him, fiddling with the straps at my waist line, in my sleepy state and with a head still full of dreams. That sleepy head was soon alive and kicking after a few extremely exposed rock steps and it was positively on fire when it saw the next ladder in this ladder adventure odyssey. My heart leaped into my mouth. The ladder disappeared into the sky! Could I really climb that? There were a few young and sporty looking men behind us. I hesitated but could not for long. I did not want to be the afraid little English girl. Michel just said, “climb it Janie, now”. And I did what he said. I started climbing and just did not look down. At the top of the ladder I had to step out and off to the right. There was a hand hold and a narrow rock ledge. But below, there was about 200 metres of nothingness. I knew that I would never fall, I was harnessed in. However, the fear and uncertainty was immense. Michel was right behind me; encouraging me all the way. I hesitated for less then 20 seconds and then I was off and away. I knew turning back was no way an option. And there I was, the professional climbing girl (as I liked to brag to Michel later). We speeded up the ridge and eventually arrived at the refuge. Feared did not flicker once more and I was proud and enthralled, life in the Alps could be extremely exhilarating.

Later, we were collapsed on a picnic bench around a bar/pizzeria on the pass just opposite the mighty bulk of Pasubio. Well, I was collapsed there, Michel was leisurely looking through the address book on his phone to find us a place to stay for the night. I made the decision that I needed food. Now. So I walked into the bar and, in my best but worst Italian, asked for the menu. The bar woman looked at me like I was crazy. Did they not have menus in Italy? After a while she pointed to a man on the other side of the room. “Ask him”. So I did, this was a chubby man with a red face. “in 6 minutes, PIZZA!” he happily bellowed. After 6 minutes, nothing materialised and I did not believe for a minute this sleepy mountain top pizza place was going to produce anything. I stormed back outside to Michel and insisted that we go somewhere else, quick! After that 1000 metre scramble, my stomach was caving in and I needed emergency attention. In my absence, Michel had found a place in Camposilvano, a tiny village just down the road. We decided to take a risk on it. It was September in the mountains and maybe a little too cold to sleep outside. After many hair pin bends, Camposilvano popped up around the corner, surrounded by dense forest and awesome mountain views, there was really not much going on in this corner of the world. In the village there were a few sheds, a church, some white bricked tumbled down properties and not much else. We followed the sign for the Albergo Alpina and as soon as we turned the corner, we groaned in disappointment; It looked like a dump. An empty and boring building with nothing there and no one around. But we decided that we had no choice.

A shy, small and awkward looking girl appeared from the kitchen to greet us. I immediately liked her and thought about how she could be my new best friend. She was young and pretty; what was she doing in Camposilvano? I immediately felt sorry for her. We climbed into the lift to go and look at the room, she shyly said to me in English, “It is not very fast”. If I had not been as tired, I would have replied but instead just nodded politely. As usual the novelty of German-English, Tall-Short had caught some attention. In the restaurant we asked for some pasta and settled for tagliatella and mushrooms, it was delicious. Our fellow diners were rather amusing. In the large and perfectly set out dining room there were us and a couple of odd looking singles, very politely and quietly enjoying a full three courses. I started to wonder what business they had in Camposilvano. As for us, we had made a mess like usual; crumbs everywhere, drips of wine everywhere, and every scrap of food on the table demolished however I did not care. I feel asleep satisfied and refreshed.

The next day, it was raining, I knew that my body needed a break. Michel looked on the map and found a random mountain that he had never climbed: Cima Cartegna. “Let’s climb it”. As is what always happens, the rest day turns out to be an 1000 metre hike up rumble fields, over rocks and over high mountain passes. I guess we would both just get bored lying around in a coffee shop all day long. On reaching the summit of this unknown peak, Michel was at the peak of mountain fever and he was already planning a return trip to Cartegna on his bike. Thankfully the refuge on top of the mountain was open, so we treated ourselves to a good lunch.

The solo man that we had seen on the way up was sitting right next to us. I had taken no notice as at that moment I only had eyes for my plate of hot food: fried potatoes, mushrooms and bacon. I found out that he was from Vicenza. A big city just out of the Alps. Ooh! I thought, this man speaks no English, what a great occasion for me to practise some of my Italian. If only my all encompassing shyness and clumsiness would not stop me. All I muttered was, “where do you live?” and he replied by telling me that he drove here and had left his car in the same place we had. Oh well, I thought, at least I tried.

The atmosphere in the refuge was warm and friendly. There was a certain curiosity about this strange English/German twosome who had appeared out of the mist. We made friends, we tried to communicate and we had our glasses topped up several times. I left that cosy refugio to be welcome by a face full of rain. We started to run down the mountain. The very strong coffee, red wine and unknown liquor was mixing up in side my stomach to no good consequences. Mist and fog engulfed us but I was simply happy to be on my feet, in the fresh air and in the craggy Alpine lands.

A couple of days later, we were approaching the Austrian border on our return and my stomach was starting to rumble. I convinced Michel to make a stop at the Lottensee Hutte as we would be going right past. This was a favourite haunt on the Seefeld plateau just before the Austrian border. It had an excellent mountain menu: their Bratwurst was the best.

We parked and tumbled along the foot path through the woods and eventually came to the grassy clearing and the wooden building. We took a seat outside. It felt like home; there was a soft and warm breeze, an international crowd, great and simple food, and an intense blue sky. Could I believe that in a few hours I’d be back in England? This place felt pretty good.

So It was breakfast in Italy, Lunch in Austria, dinner in Germany and bed in England. As usual going home felt like going to another planet. I got off the plane to another face full of rain, back on home turf feeling like I’d gained a little something from the week but left something a little more important behind.

Spiders and Stars…

I finally arrived at Feltre train station and thankfully Cannon was still there. I confidently cycled off on him and into the darkness. Again I had to ask myself the question, what was I doing and how did I get myself into these stupid situations. It was so black and I had no lights and there was a huge main road of 15 km in between me and my campsite. It was far. I was tired. Every now and again a pin pick of light appeared from behind me and gradually speeding forwards I got more frightened and all those Italian drivers were probably thinking, what a foolish young Girl. Some people started beeping, I was scared, my body filled with adrenaline. I started crying. I flung my bike over the grey steel barriers and collapsed crying in the stinging nettles. It really was one of those I am going to die moments. I have had many, mostly involving my fear of heights or of cows. I stumbled on in the dark. Did I appear a criminal on the run, what would a young girl be doing on the side of the road at 12 midnight? Stumbling along in tears, had I just been raped? I reached the bridges that crossed the lakes and all of a sudden horror struck me and I simply screamed my head of. In the higher barriers there were a million cobwebs with the ugliest looking spiders imaginable in horror movie like fashion, a fright even more frightening then the cars rushing past me. It was a true nightmare.

I finally stumbled into the campsite at about one am and went straight for a shower, I had sweated more in Venice then cycling up Alp D’Huez. I felt so relieved and thankful for my life. I was alive, nothing mattered now, I was alive still after that horrid tunnel and that is all that counted. I fell into an instant and grateful slept.

It was an utterly fabulous situation to be in. 33 degrees, on trusty cannon on the antiplato de seitti communi. I felt relaxed and buzzing after my truly delicious new breakfast routine. I was skinny, tanned and the fittest that I had been in years after all the Alpine passes. I had just downed an ice-cold can of Orange soda in a local bar and was now conversing with the locals. These vivid moments of wildness and happiness could never end. Eventually I found one that could speak French. He decided that the idea of my arrival in Caldonazzo that day was just impossible, it was 4 o’clock already and more then 40 km away. He offered me the phone so that I could ring my ‘friend’. He was waiting for me by the lake. I loved it when people told me that my plans were impossible, it only made me more determined to prove them wrong. I then sped off on Cannon.

The night before I had been dying on the side of a main road in pitch-black darkness. I thought, I would die right there on the side of the road, how sad, all lost. But now after a single SMS, 50km and two more pizzas I was lying by a river under the stars with him…

Sorrento Diaries

September 24th – I thought I would give myself a treat today so I decided to take all of my clothes to the laundrette. I took them there at 11am on Friday morning, just after I had said goodbye to all of the my guests, they were on their way to the airport. The lady at the laundrette grabbed the clothes of me and said that they would be all done at 5pm for the price of 10 euros. When I went back at 5pm my clothes weren’t ready. So I returned again the following morning at 8.30am but the place was closed. I stumbled back to the hotel in my pink flowery dress, thinking what a great impression I would make as an experienced hiking guide to the new guests when I turned up wearing such suitable attire…as that item of clohting was the only thing left in my cupboard! Just to top it off,we had a torrential downpour on our way into Sorrento, we nearly swam through the streets. I stopped at a small shop and called back, “everybody buy an umbrella, only two Euros”. During the day there was a lot of rain and wind and I was constantly stumbling around grabbling with my skirt and trying to keep my dignity,…and ignoring the bemused looks of my guests. When I returned that evening to the Laundrette, a man was now on duty and again chuckled to himself when he saw what I had been wearing all day long, but I didn’t care as I had never in my life been so thankful for two trouser legs to keep out that chilly September breeze…