Italy pt. 3b: Self-Reliance in Limone

limone-1
Gorgeous Limone. Not pictured: food

Day 6: FEED ME

My earlier ‘rain day’ in Arco had turned out not to be a day off at all, but this time, I needed a day off. My knees have never hurt the way they did that morning, and I had no problem aborting vague plans to explore the hiking trails around Limone in favour of eating all the food I could possibly dredge up in town.

It went okay.

After a breakfast of more crumbled-wafer porridge, I set out for a look around. *Some* places were open this day, at least, including a café with some anemic pre-packaged prosciutto & cheese sandwiches. Well, I wasn’t feeling picky.

Limone itself is just stunning – mountains towering overhead, clear sparkling lake lapping at the edges, picturesque alleyways and medieval walls winding up the hill – and I can certainly appreciate why it’s a big tourist attraction. There must be a sweet spot, after the deadest deadness but before the height of the tourist invasion, when restaurants are open but the streets aren’t yet overrun. Right? Surely. That must be a truly wonderful time to visit Limone.

Suppertime arrived, and my AirBnB host told me that there would be one restaurant open that night. I duly spruced myself up, hydrated in case of wine, and stuffed my pockets with euros. I had some major caloric deficit to make up for tonight.

3460151414439796525_account_id1
“Spruced up” = dressed so transparently Canadian I laughed when I saw myself.

But alas.

The restaurant was closed.

I found a shop that sold me some Pringles, at least, and used that little energy boost to repeat the previous night’s ravenous exploration of the town. After perhaps half an hour, I poked my head hopefully into a café that looked like it might be open. The friendly server informed me that they were closing in 15 minutes and were only serving drinks now.

I don’t know what depths of sorrow & despair my face betrayed upon hearing that news, but it worked. The server dug around and mercifully offered to warm up a(nother) prosciutto & cheese sandwich for me, and brought a little bowl of chips (as in crisps, not frites) to go with the carafe of wine I had immediately ordered. So on my day off in Eataly with an empty stomach and several days’ food budget burning a hole in my pocket, the only food to pass my lips was Desperation Porridge, chips, and prosciutto & cheese sandwiches. I got wine out of it, at least, and was in fact profoundly grateful for that last sandwich. What on earth would I have done without it? (More bloody porridge is the answer.)

The server turned out to speak quite good English (I could have cried),  because he has family in Edmonton and has even visited over the winter. We chatted amicably about how cold Canada is while I devoured the little meal he’d so kindly thrown together for me. I popped the last bite of sandwich into my mouth three minutes past closing time, thanked him from the bottom of my heart, and left a 40% tip despite his protests.

Day 7: Limone to Bergamo

This was supposed to be a non-day. I was supposed to pack up, catch the 10:30 bus to Brescia, where I’d catch another bus to Bergamo airport, and fly home to Prague. Things went royally south, of course, but I did accomplish my stretch goal of befriending an Italian in the end. So there’s that.

My day began promisingly when I found myself standing inside an actual, open, bustling café, successfully ordering food in Italian. Glorious.

I’d bought a bus ticket the day before, and verified the schedule at the tourist info centre (considering that there isn’t even food here, imagine my surprise when I learned that the tourism office was open year-round). I turned up about 30 minutes early for the bus, and there was one guy already waiting. He said something in Italian, and we went through the now-accustomed routine of checking for shared languages (“Français?” “No. Español?” “No. Uhhhhmmm…Deutsch?” “No…”). Though the answer turned out to be negative, that didn’t stop us chatting away. Basically, he spoke Italian, and I would listen with fierce concentration until I figured out what he was talking about and then improvised a response in made-up Latin-Italian. We got along famously.

He told me that he’d been waiting there for hours, and two buses that should have come by hadn’t turned up. That wasn’t promising, because the 10:30 bus we were now awaiting was the last one scheduled until that evening. And naturally, 10:30 came and went with no coach. My friend inquired at the tourism office, and apparently the company claimed that the buses had indeed passed through the town. But that’s not possible. We hadn’t gone anywhere, and we hadn’t seen any buses.

My friend wandered off to deal with his frustration in solitude. Half-panicked, I went into the tourism office myself, where the man thankfully spoke English. I asked how it was possible that we could have missed the bus. He didn’t know, but mentioned that it wasn’t so much a *bus* we were waiting for as a *van*…

Oh.

Oh shit.

We were on a busy street. You’re supposed to flag down your bus when it comes, but because we weren’t looking for a van, it’s entirely possible (indeed, almost certain) that it just drove straight past.

As the realisation dawned that I really had missed my bus, the tourism man (bless him) really cranked up the sympathy. He asked when I had to be at the airport. Not for hours, but that had been the last bus (“bus”) until the evening. I asked him if there was any way to get to the airport from here on time. He said maybe, but his eyes told me it would be impossible. I was trapped. I was trapped and alone in a town with no food, where just making small talk with a stranger pushed the very limits of my focus and intellect.

Chin quivering, I asked if hitchhiking was legal in Italy. Once I’d explained what ‘hitchhiking’ meant, his face fell and he came up with a last-ditch suggestion. Why not take a taxi to a town where I could catch another bus? It would cost €40, but should get me there on time.

I dug through my pockets, counted my change, and came up with €38,50. Taxis don’t take VISA, and there wasn’t a bank machine around that would take my card. He helped me exchange my bus ticket for a slightly cheaper one, bringing my tally up to €39,50. He phoned the cab company and talked them down to €35. This could just work. I thanked the tourism man a thousand times and stepped back outside just as my friend was returning to the bus stop. Somehow, I managed to convey to him that I had a cab coming, and did he want to split it with me?

Yes! Yes of course he did!

And when the cab came, my friend talked the driver down even further to €30! Turns out I had been quoted the anglo tourist price. Just like that, in 10 whirlwind minutes, I went from ‘completely fucked’ to ‘paying €15 to fix everything’.

We drove maybe half an hour to a town that had more…predictable…bus service, and within just a couple of hours, to my astonishment, I found myself in Bergamo airport with time to kill and plenty of money left for lunch (even for the massive lunch my empty belly was demanding).

So when I use ‘self-reliance’ to describe this time, you can see how totally misleading that is. What really happened was that I realised I simply couldn’t function, I couldn’t solve every problem, without sucking it up and talking to people. I needed directions, I needed food, I needed to get to the airport as cheaply as possible, and the only way to get it done was to get over my isolation and anxiety over speaking Italian. And it went great! People are lovely, even when you butcher their language!

Incidentally, this knowledge made my next trip, Provence, sooooo much easier…

Italy pt. 3a: Self-Reliance in Limone

‘Self-reliance’ is a straight-up misnomer for my experience with Limone sul Garda. Less punchy but more apropos options include ‘Not-Starving in Limone’, ‘Not-Dying on a Mountain near Limone’, or ‘Not-Remaining Trapped in Limone to This Day’. I relied almost entirely upon other humans to accomplish these things, though I’ll say that it felt like bold self-reliance at the time (mainly because an amount of communication in Italian was occasionally required). I’m still surprised that everything turned out okay in the end, honestly.

Day 5: Arco to Limone sul Garda

My journal entry for this day begins thus:

“Holy FUCK.

That one hurt.”

img_20161120_160425
Taken when I’d thought I was done, but then saw that I had about 30 minutes of downhill left.

 

This day would be my only thru-hike of the trip, strapping all my gear to my back and lugging it over and around mountains until I reached my accommodations in the village of Limone sul Garda. Though by road this walk is only 17 or 18 km (11-ish miles), the winding footpaths, ascents, and descents added a considerable amount of distance and time to the whole operation.

I got up extra-early so that I could hit the road just after sunrise and maximise my daylight. The day before, I’d bought a nasty grocery-store pizza, cut it up into bite-sized bits, and put them in a bag for ease of eating on the run. I also packed chocolate wafer cookies, water, teabags, and some plain oats for some reason. Just in case I needed porridge later, I suppose. You never know when you might get so hungry you’ll eat a plain porridge. I grabbed the Sticks Jagger & Astley and set out.

The walk from Arco down to Riva del Garda followed a road and was pretty uneventful, apart from the lovely sweet dog that I befriended. Riva marks the beginning of the Old Ponale Road, which was an important highway in the early-20th century but is now open only to pedestrians and cyclists. This stretch of the walk was super easy and scenic, and took me all the way down to the Ledro Valley in comfort.

Well, sort-of comfort. My bag was heavy, and my body was slowly disintegrating from several days’ unaccustomed mountain walking. I’m a Prairie Girl with Prairie Joints. No use complaining, though; I had hours to go and this was the easy part.

The road ended and I struck out on a mountain path, and would you believe I immediately got lost? I got so lost. I even walked several minutes in the wrong direction along a path I’d already covered, without realising it. Absolutely hopeless.

While lost, I found myself in the midst of a large group of Italian hikers, all cheerful and laid-back and decked out in the most fancypants walking gear available. I asked them for directions, and about 5 of them rallied together to interpret what I’d just said and to confirm that I had somehow found the correct path again. I thanked them and struck out ahead of the group, but it turned out that they were also on their way to Limone, and between my speed + hopelessness and their slowness + actual knowledge of where they were going, our paths crossed several more times. And finally – finally – I got to have some conversations.

One man who had hung back for a furtive pee that I’d pretended not to notice caught up and started chatting in Italian. I gave my go-to ‘mi dispiace, non parlo italiano‘ response, but as we carried on for a spell in silence, I realised that this wouldn’t do. “Parlez-vous français, peut-être?” I asked, adding with meek hopefulness, “Or English?” No, he only spoke Italian, but that didn’t stop us. He had learned some English in school decades ago, and had fun rattling off the few words & phrases he remembered. I practiced my terrible Italian on him, and we managed to ask & answer some mutually intelligible questions.

Other people caught wind that I was Canadian and gathered around, bombarding me with half-remembered English (“You…ehm…holiday?”) while I did my very best to answer in Italian and they gently corrected me. (Helpful tip from a classicist: when in doubt, put plausibly-Italian-sounding endings on Latin words.) It was great, though! They were so sweet! They clearly thought I was going to die on the mountain, being alone and laden and lost and unable to communicate, but they were very kind about it.

A number of people, come to think of it, are probably wondering if I ever died on that mountain. Being so absurdly prone to losing my way, I made a habit of asking everyone I encountered if I was on the right path, whether I believed myself to be lost or not. They would smile kindly and either tell me yes or give me directions, and then I would catch snippets of their conversation as they walked away: “Italianitalianitalian alone italianitalianitalian doesn’t speak Italian italianitalianitalian hope she has GPS…”

But I made it! Just as the sun was starting to go down, no less. 8.5 hours of spectacular mountain scenery (on a clear day!), including 2.5 hours’ knee-crushing descent on slippery cobblestone, later, I hobbled into Limone sul Garda brandishing a wad of cash for whoever could offer me the most calories in one sitting.

But alas.

Everything was closed.

Limone is a very small town – overrun with tourists in the summer, so the infrastructure makes it seem big, but the wintertime population is teeny-tiny. And by 4:30 pm on a Sunday, not a single shop, restaurant, café, anything, was open. Even my AirBnB hosts were away that night, so I couldn’t beg them for food. I walked the length & breadth of Limone 3 times before I found myself back at my room, using the trickle of hot water from a Keurig machine to make porridge from my plain oats. I crumbled a chocolate wafer into it and sat on the floor laugh-crying at this absurd combination of hopelessness and resourcefulness that seemed to sum up my day so well.

Will Janet subsist entirely on coffee-water porridge for the remainder of her stay? Will the people of Limone have any patience for her terrible Italian?? FIND OUT NEXT TIME IN OUR THRILLING CONCLUSION…

Italy pt. 2: Solitude in Arco

Following the Veronese mini-adventure, I headed up into the mountains for some Fun with Topography. My few days in Arco were amazing, but they were also a lesson in facing isolation, something I don’t normally deal with very well.

arco-river
I’m told there are mountains behind all that mist.

Day 2: Verona to Arco

I caught the bus to Arco early-ish in the morning. My 2.5-hour ride cost only €5,80. Boom. I still get to eat lunch today.

Arco is at the northern end of Lago di Garda, so most of the drive from Verona features astonishing views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Or at least it would, I assume, if it weren’t misty as fuck out. I couldn’t see a dang thing out my window, but comforted myself with the vague awareness that some of those darker forms in the mist could in fact be mountains.

img_20161117_105228
They do know how to make a Canadian feel welcome, though

I checked into my AirBnB, an apartment all to myself (luxury!!), and stocked up on groceries before heading out for an afternoon walk. I hadn’t familiarised myself with the area at all, but my map book made it clear that there were hikes to be found in just about every direction. So I started walking toward an inviting little mountain, and told myself that I wouldn’t go back Down until I ran out of Up.

arco-route-1

That was tiring. Mountains have a lot of Up, it turns out. Have I mentioned that I’m from the prairies?

The mist was darn near impenetrable near the top, which of course obviated any views but did lend a wonderful spookiness to the whole experience. On the way down, I picked up a walking stick named Stick Jagger and we became fast friends. We sang Moves Like Jagger to each other.

I was beginning to feel the lack of social contact, if you couldn’t tell from the singing-to-my-stick episode, though I wasn’t quite feeling lonely yet. There were nice people all around me, and I rediscovered the comforting rural friendliness that had existed in Dorset (except now I’d be saying ‘ciao’ to everyone I passed, instead of ‘hiya’). I was having a hard time working up the courage to go into more populated places where I would have to speak Italian, though, and opted to have supper at home rather than to suffer the embarrassment of trying to make myself understood at a restaurant. This couldn’t last, and as my first day in Arco ended, I resolved that the next day I would go to the town centre and see what happened.

arco-supper
That wine sure kept me company, though.

Day 3: Arco (Monte Velo)

I had chosen Arco for its proximity to mountain hikes, so my social goals would have to wait until after I had dragged my already-exhausted haunches up and then back down another mountain.

arco-route-2
I’m guessing with a lot of this route…

My original plan for this day had been to tackle Monte Stivo, the tallest peak in my general area at 2059m. That was…ambitious. By the time I was halfway through my daylight, I had only made it to the top of nearby Monte Velo, almost a full kilometre shorter than its neighbour, and it kicked my ass oh my word. Beautiful, though.

The path mostly wound along the wooded slope, occasionally intersecting abruptly and unpleasantly with a highway. Stick Jagger gained a companion, Stick Astley, with whom I sang Never Gonna Give You Up while Jagger quietly indulged us.

This mountain doesn’t appear to be well-travelled in November. In fact, I didn’t encounter a single other walker. I found myself engaging in some frank conversations with my walking sticks, such was my loneliness (and tenuous grip on my sanity). They’re good listeners.

I was pretty thoroughly lost for almost the entire hike, top to bottom. The map only showed one path, but there were a whole lot of side-trails, and things weren’t always well-marked. It wasn’t too alarming, since Up would take me away from civilisation and Down would take me toward it, but I did occasionally find myself doubling back and blinking at my map while looking all around for a path marker. I was engaged in just such behaviour, near the top of the mountain, when I wandered near a rather incongruous house. There was an old Nonna busying herself in the garden, and after I’d passed her a few times, she called me over and started chatting to me. I couldn’t understand a word, of course, and apologised for my stupidity. She stared for a second.

NONNA: Italianitalianitalian –sola?

ME: Ah! Si! Sono sola!

NONNA: Oh! Italianitalianitalian –brava! Brava!!

ME: [explodes with pride]

So if nothing else in my life, I have earned the respect of a badass mountain granny and will cling to that comforting thought forevermore.

After many, many hours of being lost on a mountain, I emerged dirty and sweaty and exhausted from the woods just as the Arco Christmas market was starting up.

A Christmas market! Among the palm trees! Well, here was my chance to interact with other humans. I joined the lineup for some chocolaty treats, and a child immediately started vomiting behind me.

Hm.

I fled to another booth, this one serving crêpes. There was no recognisable lineup here, just a crowd of people standing around asserting themselves. Each time the man would look up to take someone’s order, someone else would get in there before me.

Siiiiiiggggghhhhhh.

I did eventually get a crêpe from a less populous stall. And the market was freaking enchanting. But I was not quite what I would call a functional human yet. As I curled up at home with some take-out pizza and a (delicious) bottle of wine, I promised myself I’d go to a restaurant tomorrow. And I would speak Italian, dammit, and I wouldn’t be afraid of sounding like an idiot.

Day 4: Arco rain day

Oh boy did it ever rain. I woke up with aching muscles to a grim sky, and immediately learned that the goddess Sharon Jones had died. This devastating news, combined with the weather and the soreness and the loneliness, and the recent election of That Awful Man, left me feeling quite thoroughly demoralised.

I thought maybe I’d take it easy that day. I thought about wandering into town for lunch, while I absentmindedly packed sandwiches into my bag. I thought maybe I could take a quick look around the shops, while I absentmindedly flipped through my map book and traced out a hiking route. I thought, “At least I can wear my civvies instead of my nasty adventuring clothes,” while I absentmindedly pulled on my smelly leggings and strapped on my knee brace. What I’m saying is, my brain wanted a day off but my body had other plans. So I hiked in the rain.

arco-route-3
It’s the one marked ‘Nov. 19’; sorry, I’m sloppy.

The trail I followed was just what I needed. It was quite a simple walk altitude-wise, but it led to such a spooky place!! All my accustomed lust for adventure came flooding back as soon as I found the mysterious labyrinth of 3-foot-tall walls on top of this hill (you know how I am with walls).

They went on forever! And I had no idea what they were! I’m still not sure, honestly, because what little information I can dig up is in Italian. I had thought it might be remnants from an old quarry, but am now pretty sure that it’s actually a network of WWI trenches built by the Austrians. Possibly. If so, that makes this place SO much spookier, and also very interesting. The only problem with this spontaneity lark is that you must often plough through a spectacular day in complete ignorance.

My walk was not too trying, despite the rain, and I had plenty of time after to freshen up and get psyched for the restaurant trip I’d promised myself. And it went fine, of course. I fumbled through my Italian coherently enough to get a delicious salad & pasta, and far more wine than I could possibly drink with composure over the course of a meal. I sat there by myself fostering a gentle buzz for about 2 hours and had a lovely time. Still lonely, but at least functional.

The people here seemed so friendly, and I was becoming painfully aware that my greatest limitation wasn’t so much my Italian as my fear of sounding like an idiot in Italian. I had to put myself out there, and I had to get myself interacting with people beyond ordering cappuccinos and apologising for being an idiot. After several days of this, I’d had enough, dammit. My goal for the rest of my trip, then, was to make friends with an Italian.

Italy pt. 1: Spontaneity in Verona

Right before I left for Dorset last month, in anticipation of my next adventure, I hopped on the internet and searched for the cheapest plane tickets I could get from Prague. The destination appointed to me by the fates was Milan (well, Bergamo, which is a different town entirely despite the name of its airport). Italy! Great! I booked the tickets, took off for England, and thought no more about the trip until maybe a week before departure, when it occurred to me that I should really try to learn some Italian. Oh hello, Duolingo.

It was also quite last-minute that I decided what I would actually do during my week in Italy. Milan itself held little appeal. I wanted to hike, and I wanted mountains, but I also didn’t want to die. The Cinque Terre look amazing, but apparently the trails tend to get washed out this time of year. The Dolomites would have been soooooooo coooooool, but probably too treacherous for solo travel at this time of year, especially because it was difficult to find out if any mountain rifugios (basically cabins) would even be open.

I settled on Lago di Garda, the biggest lake in Italy, mountainous but not remote, dotted with towns & villages that at least theoretically could accommodate a hungry traveller in comfort. I would spend my first day in Verona, so that I could see what an Italian city looks like, then I’d bus up to the village of Arco and use it as home base for a few days of hiking, then walk to idyllic Limone sul Garda for my last couple of days.

garda
This is the sort of thing we’re dealing with.

I found that each location was accompanied by its own theme or mood or whatever you’d call it, so that’s how I decided to split up this account. First:

Day 1: In fair Verona, where we lay our scene

I chose Verona for my one Italian city because a friend told me a few days before my trip that it’s awesome. Good enough for me!

I did a little bit of Googling in advance, and learned that pretty much every major attraction could be found in the few square blocks of the city’s historic centre: the third-biggest Roman amphitheatre in Italy, some medieval towers, ‘Juliet’s balcony’ (baaaaaarf), shops, etc. Okay, I guess I’ll head in that direction and see what happens.

verona
1. Porta Nuova and groovy walls  2. Rip-off Roman amphitheatre  3. Historic centre; full of fancy people  4. Hill & Roman ruins; A+

First I had to buy a bus ticket for the following day, and at the station had my first of countless conversations of this type:

THEM: (brightly) Ciao!

ME: Ciao! Parla inglese?

THEM: (look of abject horror) Ohhhhh,  poco poco poco!…erm, no.

ME: Well shit.

It appears that they mostly get Italian and German tourists in the north of Italy (especially outside Verona). Almost no one I would encounter that whole week would speak any English (or French, for that matter) at all, and in my anglo arrogance, it had never really occurred to me that I might have to function entirely in Italian…Good thing I’d invested several tens of minutes into learning the language.

Verona was a blast, though. With the next day’s travel arranged, I headed toward Porta Nuova, the gateway to the historic centre, and immediately found some old walls to play in.

I crossed into the old town centre and was charmed for like a solid 7-8 minutes. The famous Roman amphitheatre, though spectacular, charged €10 for admission. NO THANKS. I was perfectly happy to do a circuit of the exterior and peer inside through doorways for free. As for the rest of this area, though it is breathtakingly pretty, it’s also…not for me. There were all kinds of fancy rich-people stores, and cloying tourist restaurants begging for my custom. Yech. Walked through the rest of the town centre without so much as breaking my stride, until I came to the Roman Ponte Pietra which led across the river to a saner part of the city.

I loved it here. I found the affordable site of a Roman theatre and resolved to come back to it later. I climbed the hill to the Piazzale Castel S. Pietro, which offers stunning views over the city. My wanderings on the hill brought me to a mysterious, secluded green space full of crumbling walls that I found absolutely enchanting. I sat there writing and looking around wistfully for ages, until I could no longer ignore the urgent notices from my bladder. Found a divey café, and became acquainted with their squat toilet.

squat
Fun fact: Italians have quads of steel

While admiring the the city from Castel S. Pietro, I had noticed an old city wall that stretched a little ways north up into the hills before turning back toward the city. There had been no mention of it in my preliminary Google research. How mysterious. I really, really like old walls, as you may have noticed, especially if they’re mysterious. I decided to investigate, and wound up stomping around gleefully for hours. There’s some lovely parkland running alongside the walls, with walking paths and things, and periodically you’ll find crumbling old towers to creep into. What a fun thing to have in your city! And so devoid of people! Just a few joggers and couples walking dogs, and one buoyant Canadian poking her head into every nook and cranny.

I had sort of wanted to follow the wall from one end to the other, and made it most of the way, but the afternoon was slipping away from me and I really wanted to take a look at those Roman ruins. So that’s where I went next, happily forking over a mere €4,50 for admission. It’s an Augustan (late-1st c. BCE) theatre, the site littered with bits of sculpture and extending up a good part of the S. Pietro hill that I had climbed earlier. At the top, there was a fine little archaeological museum housed in a 15th-c. Jesuit monastery that was itself a very interesting site.

Finally, exhausted and delighted from a full day of gazing at old things, I headed back to my AirBnB for the night. I tried out a bidet for the first time there. It was ice cold and the less said about that the better.

But do you know what made my day in Verona so wonderful? I hadn’t planned any of it. I didn’t even wind up doing any of the things I’d thought I might want to do. Any great experience is made a thousand times better when it’s accompanied by the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of having found a neat thing all on your own. There’s a feeling, whenever you go somewhere new, that there are things you must do. You must visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris. You must cross the Charles Bridge in Prague. You must go look at Juliet’s balcony in Verona. No, you don’t have to do any of that. If you’re on your way to something else and you find yourself peering down an alley or up a hill and thinking I wonder where that leads? then fucking drop everything and go take a look. That’s where the adventure is.