|Monastero di San Claudio, Serravalle|
According to the internet, I walked more than 16 kilometers yesterday.
Last week I went for a short stomp around the neighbourhood, and in a field close to the river I found a large quantity of wild hops growing in a spot where the farmers had cleared a lot of the brush. Yes, that's the same stuff that you use to make beer. The flower heads were the biggest I'd ever seen on the wild varieties, so I dropped everything and collected as much as my backpack would hold. Then I walked back to town and showed Br. Augustine, one of the brew-monks and he was so excited by this find that he suggested we go - all the brew staff - later in the year when the foliage had died off a bit but before the frost, and dig up the rhizomes to plant in pots so we could have some all the time. He said the when they do their next brew, he'll siphon off a few gallons and add the hops and see how it turns out.
Being terribly pleased with myself at this very positive reception of my explorations, I told Br. Augustine that I would go and mark the spot where I'd found it, tying a ribbon or something around the strands of the vines. Hops are a very vine-y kind of plant, and grow like clematis or bindweed all over other plants and trees, and it can be difficult to figure out where the plant originates in the ground.
So, yesterday, being somewhat fed up with the internet and it being a rather cool and cloudy sort of day, I packed up the backpack with a trowel a few plastic shopping bags and a length of non-biodegradable orange cloth (a duster) I set off back to the spot. I had seen that there are also forests of sloes ready to be picked and had been looking up sloe gin and sloe wine recipes, so I thought I would go and see what was ready. I parked the bike in my usual field behind a hedge and walked the rest of the way to the hops-place. I was only wearing trainers since I had intended just to go there and back.
but it was so beautiful out... the perfect day, cool but not cold, with patches of sun and fast-moving big fluffy clouds, that once I had found and marked the spot where the vines were starting, and had determined that the ground was quite soft and that it would be a cinch to get the rhizomes out, I looked around and thought, "Huh... wonder what's over there..."
Famous last words.
There was the field all full of a gorgeous wildflower I'd never seen before, so, you know, I just had to go and see if I could dig up a few samples. Then I was close to the river and it's beauty, all set about with willow and bull rushes, was mesmerizing. I followed it downstream and found a dozen places where it was obvious the fishermen would come to catch the trout, and I stood many times just watching the perfectly clear water flow over the sandy bed like liquid silk, and spotted the mysterious little fish, gently waving their tails in the stream.
Then I thought, 'Well, I've never been down the valley on this side of the river... I wonder what's over there,' and somehow just kept going. I found a ruined stone house and collected a new tile, nice and flat for painting on, dug up a few more wildflowers and found a bunch of wild raspberries growing on the riverbank and got some lively looking roots from them. We'll see if we can get some raspberries in the garden next year.
Before long, I found myself at the bridge, and being tired of listening to the highway, crossed and turned along the Ferrovia toward Serravalle, the little village where you change buses to go to Rome. It's only 15 minutes by bus of course, and I had heard there is a swimming hole somewhere along the river near there that I wanted to find. The Ferrovia is the old train line ("ferro" = "iron" - via... get it?) but the last train was 1968, and the entire line has been dismantled. Now all that is left is the wide track and the little station houses, apparently in the middle of nowhere, all falling into ruin, and a few rather forlorn looking old fashioned stone mile markers along the way.
These days it's a very popular hiking and mountain biking trail, and if you follow it you will see the whole valley (though I'm told some of the tunnels are no longer very safe.) I kept saying, 'You know, if you keep going, you'll end up in Spoleto... You are remembering that you'll have to walk back, right?' Somehow, though, this voice of reason made no impact, and my feet just kept going. By this time, I had decided I wanted to go as far as Serravalle, stop in the little bar where the bus goes, and say hello to the swans in the little pond there. I like swans. They're the only creature in the world with crankier dispositions than me.
Along the way I found out that hops are a common wild plant, and collected a bunch more. I found a crab apple tree and filled a shopping bag with the windfalls, about four pounds. They're in the freezer to put together with the rosehips when they're ready to make some crab apple and rosehip jelly to go with the Christmas turkey.
The blackberries had clearly suffered during the Big Heat. 12 weeks of 35-38 degree weather had killed most of the crop that were facing the sun and now the only place you find berries for eating is in the shady spots. Well, one field had plenty of this, and I must have eaten half a gallon of them.
The walnut trees were dropping their little protein bombs, and when I sat down at the base of a large one for a rest, I just picked them up out of the grass and cracked them between stones while listening to the leaves rustling in the breeze. I kept thinking that surviving in the wild here wouldn't really be too difficult... at the right time of year.
This late in the season there are not many people along the Ferrovia. I only encountered a middle aged English couple and one woman dressed for vanity-jogging who looked strangely out of place in those lonely and mostly wild surroundings. Other than that it felt like I could be the only person in the valley.
The Ferrovia runs parallel to the highway, but apart from the occasional truck taking sausages down to Spoleto, the only sound was my footfalls and the constant refrain of the river.
I had left the house just before noon, and it must have been (left my phone at home) about 4 pm when I found the little cemetery of Serravalle, like a walled garden, and stopped to say a little prayer for the sacred dead. It had clouded over, with the weather that had been brewing over the tops of the mountains in the morning finally boiling over and flowing into the valley. I felt a few drops of rain then, but it was far too late to worry about getting a bit damp. Even without the side-trips through the fields, the march back along the Ferrovia was going to be at least an hour and a half.
The cemetery was nearly on top of the exit from the Ferrovia path where the little side road takes the bus to the bar, so I knew I had almost made it. As I came off the trail and onto the road, right in front of me was a sign, pointing almost straight up the mountain on the other side, towards a large church, perched up high on a cliff face. The sign said, "Chiesa San Claudio. XIII sec." and had a little stick figure of a man with a backpack and walking stick. The sign for the official trails is a little red and white flag, and there were other signs giving the estimated distance to "San Lazaro"; 7.5 km.
(San Claudio as seen from the Ferrovia is at 1:38)
I had seen the church with its tall bell tower far above the road in glimpses along the trail, and had thought there must be a road to get up there. Well, it turns out that the "road" was a rocky, overgrown track that would have been impossible with anything more than a donkey. San Claudio had once had a hermit occupant, who had died in 1986. Since then there had been sporadic efforts to get funding to save it, or at least to prevent the bell tower from collapsing. I stood at the bottom of the trail looking up with a keen sense of longing... It was at least as steep as 30 degrees in places, but somehow, from the bottom of the trail the church didn't seem that far.
I couldn't resist. I started climbing and the little voice that had been talking about how far it was to get back, now became quite insistent. The climbing was steep and difficult and it was hard to imagine that anyone would have been willing to take this route regularly, even in the 13th century when people were tougher, and the way less overgrown. About 50 yards up the slope, common sense finally got the better of me, and even though it was heavily overcast I could tell that the daylight was not going to last more than a couple more hours. When the trail took a turn and the church could be seen, I discovered that it was a great deal higher up than it had seemed from the road. I hadn't brought my climbing stuff either; no sticks, no boots, no cell phone, no nothin'. Not even a bottle of water.
When I felt the rain starting a little harder and heard the roll of thunder, I finally thought better. The trail was deeply gouged in places where the heavy rains we'd had at the end of August had caused little rock and mud slides. I suddenly realised rather keenly that a single misstep could be disastrous in my soft little shoes. I had already gone up high enough that I felt my right knee (the oldest part of my body, apparently) protesting loudly as we climbed back down the path, dislodging little stones that went rolling merrily down ahead.
I got to the bottom and apologised to my ancient joints, and promised myself I'd come back with the proper equipment... and a buddy.
The bar at Serravalle was only about another 50 yards and as I sat eating the only thing he had to eat - a not-very-fresh cornetto integrale - and drinking my water, I had time to wonder what had possessed me.
The walk back was an easy stroll by comparison, straight along the Ferrovia and I didn't stop again. The rain had become steady, though light, and I pulled out my umbrella, the one piece of equipment I had been sensible enough to bring. It wasn't cold, and there were plenty of places along the trail where the trees completely sheltered the path. The bike was, of course, where I left it, and I was pushing up the hill as the 6 o'clock Angelus bell was ringing.
I checked on Google Maps when I got home, and discovered it was 8.25 km from Norcia to Serravalle. No wonder my feet were sore.
It's a funny thing, that urge to start walking.