(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.