I stretched the stiff muscles and we went out to dinner in Stia. The restaurant was only 2 minutes away but the heavens opened and we donned our raingear for the short journey. I didn't mind as this was to be the Shrove Tuesday banquet. Tomorrow the start of Lent and following family tradition no booze and little meat until Easter. My head was full of pasta y fagioli soup, my very favourite, and perhaps a steak or lamb. This evening I'd splash out on a Chianti or Barola reserva. The brightly lit restaurant was warm and inviting. The waiter stepped forward and as I started to take off my jacket he said, "sorry gentlemen, the entire restaurant is booked this evening for Carnival." Alarmed we asked if there was anywhere else open and he directed us to a Pizzeria along the road. As we walked along in the rain I felt a little crestfallen but we were soon at the Pizzeria. Jam packed with people the man at the door looked doubtful but asked an older woman who was bustling about. She looked at us dripping in the doorway and beckoned us in. In a jiffy she pulled a table out virtually into the entrance corridor and told us to sit. My mood darkened. Ever the sensible one the Big Man whispered "we can't leave, there may be nowhere else." The menu arrived. I searched for soup, I searched for meat. It became clear that the señora who had seated us was the mother of the restaurant and clearly the boss. I asked about food as she passed by. "Pesce, pesce, pesce" she cried. "We don't do meat here." I took a deep breath and decided I would have the mussels to start and a pasta to follow. The señora seemed pleased but was back in a moment to tell me there were no mussels left. Stephen sensing what would happen next said, "stay right where you are or we'll be out in the rain and starving." I nearly saw red but hunger and good sense prevailed. "I'll just have a salad to start," I said. The señora seemed pleased as I pointed to a line that started "insalata". Both starving the atmosphere was tense. Not only sore and hungry I was worried about the weather and the very difficult walk in the morning when we were planning to combine two stages. The first very difficult. We also needed to carry food. In short I was being His Majesty The Baby. Then with a flourish the señora placed my "salad" in front of me. Pulpo on a wooden board just as it would be in Galicia. This was so improbable I burst out laughing. The señora asked why. We explained I lived in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the home of pulpo. "The Camino?" she said in very broken English. And in a few sentences she knew we were Scottish and all about the current pilgrimage. Saying no more she turned with a "leave this to me" attitude. The pulpo was delicious in fact. But almost instantly a foccacia dripping with molten mozzarella almost covered the table. Next a giant jug of wine. She set it down with only one word "Scottish". We set to and polished off the food. "Still hungry?" she said as she ushered still more diners past our table. Before we could reply she shouted "two spaghettis" to the kitchen. Out came two steaming bowls. She was beaming. Then she appeared with what looked like a mound of chocolate. "We only have one of these left, eat it quick." Two spoons appeared. This was the most delicious tartuffo I have tasted in my life. The bill was ridiculously modest and she gave us directions to find the supermarket in the morning.
Back at the hotel I set my alarm, closed my eyes and woke 7 hours and 45 minutes later not by my alarm but by the Big Man who was fully dressed and sporting a carrier bag with freshly made sandwiches for our journey. He'd gone out to find the start of the route, met the señora from the restaurant in a coffee bar, followed her directions to the shop and returned victorious. And it wasn't raining. I asked him if he'd also recited morning prayer and jogged round the Plaza a few times as I put the pillow over my head.
By 8.30 we said goodbye to the helpful staff of the excellent hotel Albergo Falterona. No sooner had we taken a few steps than hail poured down on us, cold and wet. The guidebook had warned us of a stiff hike uphill that could take 6 hours and we were apprehensive. However within a few kilometres of what proved to be a hard climb up to the start of the really hard stage the skies cleared and the sun shone. The view became increasingly spectacular and the few local people we met smiled and said " up, up, up." We were walking strongly and well protected against the chill wind. We spoke about Lent and the symbolism of the ashes dispensed to Catholics on this the first day. We wondered if we would get our ashes that evening when we arrived. Most of all we were agreed that Lent should be more a time of change for the better than just giving something up. A time to give more. This was very reminiscent of the lessons I had learned on Shikoku.
Up we went to encounter a charming little church in the village of Lonnano. It was open and there on the altar we found everything laid out for the Mass of Ash Wednesday including the ashes of course. The village priest wasn't there but I had one with me and with a prayer Stephen blessed me with the ashes using the modern form of words, "Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel". As he said this I remembered vividly the older form of words which my mother often repeated, "remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return." I shared with Stephen that in saying this my mother explained her philosophy that we are only given this one life and we should wring every drop of fun we can out of every day.
Soon we settled back to what was a glorious day's mountain walking that was becoming increasingly steep. Throughout this day on the mountain we saw many trees felled by the winter storms. None more so than on the ledge we had to negotiate as we went up. At first I thought the way was impassable. Two large trees had blown down and with them a mountain of earth and mud blocked the ledge. Because of the drop to the right I got on hands and knees in the mud and found handholds in the roots which allowed me to swing over and round - always leaning in to balance the weight of my rucksack. On another day with rain or snow we would have had to turn back. I was relaying where the handholds were to the Big Man who was now also in the mud when I heard the retort, "your family must have been a real barrel of laughs if this is your idea of wringing every drop of fun out of the day."
But we made it and following a break for some chocolate and water we set off up a steep mountain path which over 3.5 kms would take us to the top. This was very strenuous walking which had to be taken slow and steady with plenty of stops. Looking back we were ascending at 2 kms per hour. We joked that this was like getting on a step machine at the gym for five or six hours with an invisible hand increasing the incline regularly. But no gym could ever reward with such spectacular views of the Tuscan countryside
The temperature was dropping as we went up and soon we were above the snow line with remnants still around. Exhausted but pleased we reached the road at the top and made our way down through the picturesque forest to the Hermitage of Camaldoli. The hermitage has a dual life. One of a monastic community and the other where members live separate lives as hermits with the simplest of existence. A fascinating place it has been there since the 11th century. Although very unusual the aesthetic way of life seems to me to be like a spiritual counterbalance to the fancy frills and material excesses of other parts of the church. There was a café open to the public - with heating and hot coffee!
Fully restored we made our way down to the next village about 2 kms away. From there we had only 8kms of straightforward walking to get to our hotel. As we walkers all know sometimes going down is as tough as going up and the descent was painful. The forest was dotted with waterfalls cascading over rocks and we could easily understand why the guidebook described it as a "fairy-tale" forest.
Reaching the Monastery of Camaldoli we spotted the sign which would take us onto the last 8kms which the guidebook promised would be positively relaxing in comparison to what had gone before. First I had to sit down to rest. One of the problems of winter walking is that it if there is no shelter it is warmer to keep moving. As I sat for a few minutes a portly figure wearing an apron appeared from the door of the Monastery. He came over and we struck up a conversation. I have found in Italy that if I speak in Spanish slowly they understand a lot. Thankfully the Big Man was on hand to help with the bits not understood. This was Germano a brother in the Benedictine Monastery. He explained that there are 35 in the community both priests and brothers. The fratelli. This is a medieval Monastery and spreading his arms wide he explained that all of this enormous forest as far as the eye could see and beyond belonged to them. "This is our work" he said. A genial and peaceful man I enjoyed talking with him. He chortled with laughter when I suggested he walk to Rome with us. But time was marching on and we stood to get going again. "Where are you going?" he asked. "To the next village of Badia Prataglia where we are sleeping tonight." "Then I will take you he said," pointing to a white van. We said we had to walk. He said he had to drive us. "Would Saint Francis have accepted a lift from a Benedictine?" he laughed. There was no sensible answer to that and so we accepted gratefully this modern expression of the traditional monastic hospitality given to pilgrims.
We're bone tired. The hotel here is modest and draughty. The temperature has dropped again. We asked about food and there was good news: the lady gave us a huge tureen of minestrone followed by piping hot tagliatelle and then two hot chocolates.
How lovely on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings Good News.