Rather like the rest of our life, the walk did not go to plan.
After several strenuous hikes above 7,000ft, we had decided to go flat.
Only that morning, the British Government scattered more caltrops across our road home to the UK. In a spectacular feat of closing-the-door-months-after-the-horse-has-bolted, they announced plans to introduce a compulsory, fourteen-day quarantine for anyone entering Britain. With no address to self-isolate and a £1000 fine for breaking the terms, what do we do?
Not that we want to evict our tenants, but we can’t get our house back, because it is rented and the Government introduced a freeze on repossession due to coronavirus. Our relatives all have vulnerabilities that preclude our staying with them – although staying with someone is hardly isolation. And all the campsites are closed. Our return from Italy to the UK looks further away than ever!
The walk I chose, two villages down the mountain in Gressoney St Jean to incorporate a trip to the weekly market, seemed like serendipity. In the local Walser dialect La Strada Lombarda is named after us; Lambertschgasso. Despite the promise of Valdobbia’s waterfall at the end of what was described in our guidebook as ‘a mule track used by merchants coming from Lombardy’, both we and Footpath 14 got off to an unpromising start.
“They wouldn’t route a footpath around the back of the sports centre!” we rationalised, despite having seen a signpost adjacent to the Sporthaus that suggested otherwise.
There was no obvious route through the riot of weeds that backed on to the centre. It seemed obvious to cross the wooden bridge over the stream, although that appeared to lead away from St Jean; precisely the opposite direction to the Valdobbia cascade. The narrow, stony path that climbed steeply through a woodland was not well-used and looked too tricky for mules, although Mark, looking at the wrong bit of the map without his glasses, remained convinced that it would join a higher path, which would ultimately lead to our destination. When we had clambered over several fallen trees and reached a boulder avalanche with what appeared to be someone’s private ménage of horse jumps beyond, we gave up and turned around.
Back at the sports centre, we slapped our foreheads as we spotted a faded, yellow arrow painted on the concrete wall. The footpath did indeed take the scenic route past the industrial hoses and air conditioning units that, in less dystopian times, would serve the deserted leisure centre. After wading through waist-high undergrowth, we spotted the start of the mule track at the far end of the sports centre. It had a barrier across and a large sign that declared it Chiuso.
It was closed.
Muttering to ourselves, we crossed back to our van, Big Blue, via the concrete car park at the front of the Sporthaus.
“Why don’t they just start the footpath at the other end of the sports centre? The aircon units really add nothing to the walk. The car park is easier underfoot and much more picturesque…”
Grumpily, we all clambered back into the van. Four doggy faces glowered at us,
“You’ve not forced us to get in the van and suffer twenty minutes of hairpins for THAT!”
We promised them that the brief circumnavigation of a concrete sports centre was not ‘it’ for walkies. If only we could have known what was to come.
“Let’s drive up to Castel Savoia. There are some footpaths up there.”
At the very least, the pretty Passegiata della Regina – The Queen’s Walk starts there. I studied the map on the hoof as we ascended more hairpins and spotted a circular route above the castle that we had not done before. It looked about the right length.
“If we go up Footpath 2, it is a gradual ascent, with a steeper descent down Footpath 3.”
My itinerary seemed to cross the contour lines at an angle and viewing them in a jolting vehicle, they looked quite widely spaced. Fortunately, I didn’t pay too much attention to the height markers.
The initial climb was rather steeper than I thought, but I was distracted by the beauty of the forest. Huge, mossy boulders, one with a full-sized larch tree growing out of it, littered our way. We felt transported.
“I feel like I am abroad!” I said to Mark.
“You are abroad. You’re in Italy!” he replied.
“You know what I mean. I feel like I am somewhere else.”
Mark agreed that the mossy landscape and dappled light reminded him of some of the forests that we had walked through on our travels in Germany and Eastern Europe.
As the woodland ended, we crossed St Jean’s Leonardo David ski run, now adorned in bright spring green, rather than its shroud of winter white. A tiny hut with a tin roof, flying the Italian tricolore and a Union Jack, had the most glorious view down to the village.
“That would do me!” I said to Mark. He agreed. If we ever do move back ‘In the Brick’, our dream is a tiny house in a wonderful location, although if lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that five years into our three-year road trip, we’re not yet ready to settle in one place.
Further ascent up a forest track took us past Ristorante Cialvrino and a large, white chapel with a tin roof. There, we had to study the map carefully; the footpath seemed to join the narrow road, although the map suggested otherwise. Even the road was pretty, with the occasional glorious, little house clinging to its vertiginous sides, hidden in Hansel and Gretel woodland. Through the trees, we were granted occasional glimpses of the giant waterfalls opposite, cascading for thousands of feet down entire mountainsides. One of them was the elusive Cascata Valdobbia, so at least we saw it, albeit from a distance!
A little more map confusion ensued where Footpath 2 (the road) joined Footpath W, whose signpost claimed that it was Footpath 1W. With no other paths around, we deduced that it must be correct, so we followed it upwards and found ourselves in paradise. A stunning, traditional house greeted us, with its fish-scale, stone roof tiles glittering in the sun.
Alone on a plateau, surrounded by a meadow filled with purple orchids, it commanded a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panorama of the Lys valley, with uninterrupted views to the snow-covered peaks of Monte Rosa at its head. We were blown away; not least by the sign saying it was for rent! With our return to the UK seeming further away than ever, an idea formed. Maybe we could hole up here instead.
But the main event was just above us. My camera ran out of battery as we ascended to the two little chalets on the next level. In my excitement, I stupidly forgot that I carried a spare! Their views were even better and their size much more in keeping with our love of tiny living spaces. It was like a dream come true. We could really see ourselves living here; high in the mountains and engulfed by beauty.
It was hard to drag ourselves away, but the path continued into another magical woodland. Surrounded by pale yellow Alpine anemones and the shiny, green leaves of myrtle bushes, we picked our way over chattering streams and through boulder gardens formed by ancient avalanches. The views were stupendous.
At the start of our walk, we had seen a sign board bearing children’s drawings of Gune, which suggested that it was a destination of note on our way. At 1,870 metres (6,135 ft), Gune was the high point of our route in more ways than one. The fact that it warranted a sign board gave us high expectations!
Our tired legs noted my lack of attention to the difference in altitude between Gune and our starting point at 1,433m (4,701ft). A 440 metre (1,444ft) climb was anything but the flat walk that we had promised ourselves. But there was still no apparent sign of Gune. After the many map-based confusions, this was a slight worry, although we had passed under the ski lift and knew that our worst-case-scenario was the glaringly obvious descent down the wide, green swathe of piste.
On one section of the path, we passed a multitude of giant ants’ nests. (Giant nests, not giant ants!)
“Maybe this is like Gune. An Anty-climax!” I said to Mark.
Just from the groan, I knew that my pun had hit the spot. I felt it unnecessary for Mark to add,
“No. THAT was the anti-climax…”
We did find Gune eventually, exactly where we expected; just before we began our descent on Footpath 3. Gune appears to be a rocky, grassy knoll with a very sheer front face. Located in a particularly verdant part of the forest, it was indeed an enchanted spot, worthy of children’s drawings. Shafts of sunlight picked out the colours and contrasts between the vegetation and the mica that sparkled in the striated, gold and copper rocks. A dead larch stood like a lofty, black totem pole, with bracket fungi texturing its trunk and festoons of lichen catching the breeze, like tattered, grey-blue banners on its broken branches.
I was relieved that I had chosen Footpath 3 for the descent rather than the ascent – and not only because the clockwise views were better. Had we gone the other way round, we would have turned our backs on the glory of Monte Rosa, but our legs shook from the strain of the precipitous down-climb as we emerged at the timber yard, close to where Big Blue was parked.
There, Mark stopped me suddenly with his hand on my shoulder. Almost in a whisper, he said, “Jax. Look…”
On every walk recently, we have seen ibex and marmots, and occasionally, the rare, bearded vulture. I scanned the deserted timber yard carefully; the hushed reverence in Mark’s voice suggested at least a troupe of trumpet-bearing marmots in heraldic dress, mounted on ibex, with a bearded vulture above, carrying the Italian flag.
My gaze came to rest on a magnificent beast: bull-nosed and muscular, shimmering as it stood creamy-white and perfectly still in the sultry afternoon haze. A Volvo N10 truck, motionless on six oversized, knobbly tyres; its sturdy back laden with the trunks of at least twenty, full-grown trees.
“I’ve got to go and look at that!”
I rushed over to marvel at the classic lines of the truck. It was the first time I had ever knowingly met a Volvo N10; a sister to The Beast from Belgium that we bought in January, which is set to become our new home.
Back at base, I checked out Baita Cialvrina on the Estate Agent’s web page. With a price tag of €200 per night, our summer dreams swiftly shattered. A week amid the Alpine meadows would cost more than two months in our little apartment under the mountain in Staffal. Nevertheless, it’s always nice to dream, because sometimes, dreams come true
The second dream home that we saw, the Volvo N10, is in the process of becoming reality. And in any case, a dream home that can travel overland to Mongolia is much more our style!
I thought that you would like to know that the Latin name for the early purple orchid, Orchis mascula, means ‘masculine’ or ‘virile’ due to its roots; two tubers which apparently look like testicles! Known as ‘Adam and Eve Root’, in some cultures, extracts were used in love potions. A nutritious flour called salep or sachlav made from the dried and ground tubers was a popular ingredient in drinks and desserts in the former Ottoman Empire.