Sunday, 14 August 2011

Magna Majella - A Feast of a Walk

The Clearance Crew
After what seemed like weeks of preparation, meetings, advertising, planning, route clearance and marking, not to mention all the cooking by the women of Serramonacesca, the day of the Magna Majella ( finally arrived.

Testament to all the hard work, all bookings for the event had closed well before the date of the even when the total capacity of 500 was reached.  Honoured to be asked to be guides, all we had to do was get our group of 53 safely down the mountain.  Simple.  

Checking in
Together with Omar, our fellow guide, we'd got off pretty lightly as, unlike earlier groups that started from 6am, our group wasn't due to leave Serra until 9am.

We donned our official Guide badges, and joined our group on the coach.  Other than a bit of a cuffufle and a few animated discussions when one guy couldn't take his dog on the coach, the first challenge was ticked off.  All present, correct and looked relatively harmless.

Chief Gweed & Little Gweed
After a 25 minute spectacular drive up the tight winding road to Passo Lanciano , we were at the top, 1600m above sea level, and tucking into the delights of the first food stall.  Delicious homemade cakes and biscuits were devoured, the wine was sampled, not by us, I might add, at least not yet, and then we were on our way.  12km all the way back down to Serramonacesca across, through and over some spectacular terrain and stunning views.  Omar, took the lead with us bringing up the rear.

What started out as a fairly quiet, sedate group made up of lots of little groups, quickly became one big walking train full of bonhomie, chat, laughter and singing.   Despite being English with only a smattering of Italian, one by one our charges would drop back curious as to who we were, what we were doing in their country and keen to talk to us and teach us about the delights of their country, culture and cooking.

The walk took us from the plains at the top with the most fabulous far reaching views across Abruzzo, it took us through the woods and gorges below, all the way back down to the river at Serramonacesca.  The view from the top spanned all the way to the sea, from the hills of Le Marche to the north stretching all the way across to Vasto and Molise beyond.  In front of us was the dramatic sharp pyramid of Corno Grande, the highest point of the whole Apennines, and behind were the mountains of the Majella, rising up in bleak contrast out of the green tree covered hills below.  Every which way you looked you were faced with breathtaking beauty.

Every few kilometres, at natural stopping points such as an old stone shepherds hut, an ancient cave, hermitage or chapel built into the rock, we found the food stands.  Each one a sample of typical Abruzzese cooking.  Simple peasant fare but all equally delicious.  At one, just tomatoes and bread, but the biggest, ripest, sweetest tomatoes you have ever seen, all drizzled with sweet, peppery olive oil.  At another, pecorino cheese, and at others we found a meat stew, cheese balls in tomato sauce and the most tender and delicious cold pork.  

But the lower we got, the hotter it got, and the more freely flowing the wine became.  Even us guides could resist no more.  After all, how can you eat cheese without wine?! And what a merry group we became.  Singing and dancing our way down, with a good old jig breaking out when we were met with an accordion player half way down.

Finally, 6 hours later we were back down, a fairly weary bunch, a few wobbles and slips along the way, but we all made it to our final stopping point in excellent humour.  

So there we were, at the end of fabulous day, all sitting round a table in Serra tucking into our final dish, a big bowl of pasta with a delicate ragu, neatly finished off with a huge, chin dripping, chunk of watermelon.  

What a great group, great walk, great event.  All weary, sunned, well fed, wined and dined, a success indeed.  Roll on next year!




Saturday, 6 August 2011

If you build, they will come...

I've been compiling a list.  A list of things from observations that our summer house guests have maybe expected but not found, or not expected but indeed discovered.  

Have they been happy discoveries?  I'm absolutely convinced of it.  We have had immense fun showing our friends around, sharing their surprises, and learning from their adventures.  Our challenge for the future is to learn from these things and find all those fellow adventurers, and they are out there, who will also revel in exploring, discovering and learning.  It is different here, its not your usual holiday destination.  Italy may be part of a smart, sophisticated and developed Europe, but Italy isn't all Rome, Florence and Tuscany.  

There is so so much more.  Many many places where time has stood still and tourism has barely entered.  Cultural boundaries will need to be crossed, and joy will be found in escaping, even if just for one week or two, the treadmill of a life that no longer allows for the time to stop, feel the moment, absorb, saviour and capture.

The pleasures to be gained from exploring a wilderness, hiking it, running it, climbing it, cycling it are immense and last a lifetime; the building blocks of memories.  We are surrounded by, and look out on every single day, the most amazing landscape, with the knowledge that it is peppered with ancient tracks, trails, streams and waterfalls.  There are shepherd huts to be found, long forgotten settlements and evidences of the old ways of working and living off the land.  There are ancient hermitages, chapels built into and out of the rock, abbeys and monasteries. 

You can startle, or be startled by, a cinghiale enjoying an afternoon snooze, you can watch deer softly grazing in the woods or birds of prey circling on the thermals way way above. There are fox cubs playing with childish abandon in the warm sun, and you can marvel at bear footprints in the snow in the winter, or their scratch marks on the trees in the summer.  

There are the spring flowers, butterflies and fireflies, the autumn colours and crisp mornings and the winter snows.  There are even wolves.  This is what we have.  Every single day.

And then there's the food, the people, the community, the pace and the priorities, sometimes not ours, but important to them nonetheless.  Families are still together.  They live together, work together, all generations together. Cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, second cousins, aunts twice removed.  All still in the same village, sometimes even in the same house.  

Friends growing up together, working together, friends whose fathers grew up together, and their fathers before them.  All still in the same village.  All still in the same house.

But how do you sell this?  How do you explain to a population grown up on instant pleasures instantly purchased that if you scratch the surface that this is what you will find?  But there is a price to pay, you have to let go of your "normal" life and step to the side of your comfort zone.  Just for a moment.  If you don't, you may not find it. 

Don't expect to find English speakers, newspapers, foods, drinks or menus.  Our little corner of Italy is neither Spain nor a Greek island.  Abruzzo is not Tuscany.  Kokopelli is not "glamping".  But that is good.  

Embrace and enjoy.  Be brave.  

Be excited by getting lost, metaphorically as well as actually, and then revel in finding your way. Learn new words, try new foods, meet new people.  Sleep in a tent, take off your make up, live out of a rucksack. Walk, run or cycle till your legs and your lungs burn.  Share your stories, bask in the warm glow of a challenge faced and overcome. 

But how do you sell this?  How do you prepare people for this, help them to let go, explore, saviour and enjoy?  Now therein lies our very exciting challenge, our own personal "out of the comfort zone" challenge. 

If you build, they will come...