A bit of hiking serendipity*

by Laura A

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Lately I’ve had some things I wanted to write about, but little time to post them. So I’m just going to have to post out of order, sometimes considerably after the fact. Better to post a bit willy nilly than not at all!

Recently, some of our friends from New York, the ones who went with us to Garfagnana a few years ago, came to visit. But this time they came separately: first Lydia, and then her brother Matt with his girlfriend, Heidi. As with good friends, it seemed like we picked up where we left off, except we got to add Alberto and Heidi into the mix. The more the merrier!

Anyway, Sarie and I drove Matt and Heidi up into the mountains on Wednesday afternoon because we wanted to show them something outside Torino. We already had one destination in mind, but the other we chose rather randomly. We had an idea, plugged it into the GPS, and set off.

Two hours later, we lost our GPS signal and arrived at our destination simultaneously. Which made sense, because we were trying to leave civilisation behind. But more probably it was because we were now in a deep valley between two mountains. We got out of the car, had a coffee (because we weren’t trying to leave civilisation that  far behind), asked where the nearest hiking trail was, and started off. We aimed to go 45 minutes out and the same distance back, so we could get to our other destination for the day and then meet Alberto for pizza. On the other side of the valley, we could see green fields and craggy peaks far above the tree line. We spoke briefly of wanting to be “up there.”

At first the road seemed too broad and freshly cut, but we soon found a traditional hiking trail that branched off and climbed gently up the side of the mountain. Then we started seeing small outbuildings made of stone; often these were in ruins, but some were perhaps in use anyway. We walked along at a relaxed pace, Sarie taking photos (the ones in this post are hers) and all of us falling into our established habit of banter and repetition jokes.

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We continued to climb until we crossed over a stream which plunged steeply into a larger stream along the cut road below. As we waved our hands around in the cold water we noticed a picturesque steeple on the next outcropping, at an elevation even with ours.  We thought it was probably beyond our range for the day, but we decided to see whether we could at least get closer enough to see it better.

We went along, noting interestingly jutting rocks, unfamiliar plants, and the usual numerous lizards until we suddenly found ourselves approaching a charming little farm in the classic Italian mountain style, with white stucco walls, dark wooden beam trim, a slate roof, lace curtains, and red geraniums all around to add a splash of color. Except that as we got closer, we saw that it wasn’t just a farm, but more of a hamlet. There were several homes joined together (a few abandoned, but others in good repair) and, as we followed the trail into the midst of them, there was the church we had seen from a distance! It hadn’t been so far as we’d thought.

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1) The steeple we saw from the creek, 2) the hamlet with the church in the background (the photo only includes Heidi and Matt, as this was the better exposed photo, but I framed it awkwardly and so had to cut Sarie out), and 3) the façade of the church.

We stopped for a few minutes to admire the facade of the church, which had faux bricks and other decor painted red into the stucco, its own lace curtains, benches and geraniums, and even a rustic basin for holy water by the door. Some of the house doors had shoes lined up outside, but we never saw another person. We moved on after a few minutes, out of respect for the residents’ privacy. Not terribly long after that, we passed three more outbuildings and a then final one that had been built on top of a large boulder, complete with a cellar door underneath the boulder. We climbed up, Sarie took the photo of me at the beginning of this post, and we started back. Along the way, I told Matt and Heidi that next time they came, I would be living in the hamlet. It was just a matter of working out how to get groceries without a road.

As we once again neared the end of the cut road, we noticed something painted into one of the outcroppings–a swath of stucco, now partially crumbled, with a red cross painted on it. “Oh, I thought I saw something like that on the way in!” Sarie remarked, and sure enough, when we looked on the other side of the boulder, there was a thinner, more crumbled sign or the same sort. Given that there had been another small chapel near the beginning of the path, we decided that they must be some sort of markers for pilgrims. But we didn’t know for sure. This sort of thing always piques my curiosity.

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Just before we got back into town, we saw a man clearing brush. He greeted us and asked us how we had liked our hike. We told him about the church and asked him how old it was. “Oh, I don’t really know!” And he made a gesture that in Italy means ages ago, or depending on how many times you make it, even more ages ago. He made it about four times. And then he added, “Yeah, I think about four cats still live up there.”

When I got home, like any city person I tried to Google the situation to see what I could sleuth out. But I found very little, not even the name of the little hamlet. In fact, the town below, like many Italian mountain towns, had suffered a decimation of its population since the 19th century, from about 1500 inhabitants to 150. I know that many of these mountain towns practically close in the winter, as there is no road access and even the water supply freezes up.

Italy is full of things like this, little mysteries that you have to solve by word of mouth. Perhaps one day I’ll know the story of the little church and its surroundings. But for now they are a bit like the green fields above the treeline–still inaccessible, and probably better off for it.

*I just found out what happens when you forget to title a post: It gets a number! In general, I’m a bit sorry for those of you who get the instant email version, because inevitably there are typos and editing mistakes that I simply don’t see until I reread the post the next day. My eye simply gets stale. Thank you for your patience!

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