Let me introduce you to my alter ego, gimlet-eyed adventurer, Sir Ranulph (pronounced “Rafe”) Pye (pronounced “Featherstonehaugh”). Sir Ranulph sneers at hardship and laughs in the face of danger; whereas the person writing this (plain John Pye) is a wimpish sybarite who enjoys the kind of walking holiday where one’s luggage is transported between hotels equipped with soft beds, air-conditioning and excellent restaurants. I don’t mind a bit of exertion and have been known to walk up (and down) quite steep hills. I have braved (and will again, I hope) merciless sun and drilling rain. But for me the hardship adds spice and a sense of entitlement to the indolent luxuriating that will take place at journey’s end.
Sir Rafe is not much of a problem to me, but he does get disappointed when I allow people to pass when going uphill and becomes irritated when strangers aren’t sufficiently impressed by his exploits. He also displays a certain taciturnity towards other Inntravellers: it dents his ego to discover that there are other people doing the same walk as him, while he is trying to imagine himself boldly going where no man has gone before. I just want to remind him that sometimes arriving is better than travelling, and offer our arrival at the Relais Santa Anastasia in Sicily as an example.
It was a misty and somewhat humid morning when we set off up the hill towards Castelbuono on the way to Relais Santa Anastasia, a little dog from the hotel (Azienda Agrituristica Bergi) whom I had made friends with at breakfast, gambolling playfully along with us, sometimes leading the way, sometimes following. At the point where the road up from Bergi met with the main road, which was quite busy, we began to feel concern for the welfare of the playful pooch and I was deputed to send him home. This was easier said than done. I shouted, “Go home,” and pointed back down the hill, but he just looked with interest at my finger. In desperation I rushed at him shouting, “Go away,” and “Avanti”, which I thought might mean the same in Italian, and he ran off, tongue lolling, ears back. But when I stopped, he stopped. And when I turned and made my way back up to the main road, he followed.
I caught up with the others and then we all turned and shouted and he just stood there at the junction, looking rather hurt that his new friends didn’t seem to want him anymore. In the years that have followed, Jean, Jon’s wife, has reminded me of this incident and blamed me for the certain death that the pooch probably encountered, out of sight and out of earshot, as we made our way to Castelbuono. I maintain that he probably turned around and wandered back home. If anyone knows of a little dog that went missing from Bergi in September 2015, please don’t tell Jean.
On the way into Castelbuono I glanced into an old building with big double doors that looked as if they should have given on to a stable with horses. Instead two grizzled veterans in dirty blue overalls were staring into the innards of the real workhorse of rural areas all over Italy, a Fiat Panda.
The original Fiat Panda (1980-87) was a very basic car indeed with canvas seats, but it had reasonably high ground clearance, and came in a 4-wheel-drive version which was probably the cheapest on the market at the time. It therefore became popular with the rural workforce. The most popular colour seems to have been red, an inauspicious choice since the pigment in red paint is very susceptible to fading in sunlight. While sleek, glossy, new cars dart along the roads near the coast, it is these fading, rusty maids-of-all-work that will grind up behind you, listing badly, on the dusty, stony tracks of the interior. As you stand aside to let one pass, the driver – a berry-brown young man in mirrored sunglasses – might give you a lazy wave, and the dog or the goat in the back seat will give you a hard stare.
We stopped for ice-creams in Castelbuono. But as we enjoyed these a fine rain began to fall and we took shelter in the covered portico of the church where there were a few stalls selling odds and ends, including umbrellas. We decided against buying umbrellas – which might have been a mistake. Then we set off into the drizzle.
Our route took us out of town along a bit of ring road, before plunging into the countryside and heading steeply up hill. And as we did this, the rain became a deluge. Normally, Joan and I would have put on our waterproof overtrousers, but for some reason we had decided to leave them behind for this holiday. Jean didn’t have any either and Jon refuses to have anything to do with them on the basis that he walks in shorts and, anyway, legs are waterproof.
I am not allowed to wear shorts.
I was wearing a wide-brimmed, waterproof hat which kept the rain off my head, so I didn’t put my hood up, and my waterproof jacket kept the rain off my top half, but this just served to help it on its way to my trousers – which quickly became thoroughly soaked. Once it had penetrated my trousers, it ran down my (waterproof) legs and into my boots. Waterproof boots are something of a mixed blessing once the water gets inside them. We squelched up a steep, gravelled track against a torrent flowing the other way.
I still have the walk notes for this holiday and the pages have a sort of papier mâché feel, stiff and frayed at the edges – which is a bit how we were feeling when we stepped over a deep gutter, still gurgling with run-off from the hillside, onto the drive up to the Relais Santa Anastasia. By now, the sun had appeared and the concrete driveway was beginning to steam in places.
It is difficult to express quite how hard it rained for a while that day. Suffice to say, that it pelted down so hard that it actually stung. Later, we found out that the northern end of Sicily had been struck a glancing blow by a powerful storm that had turned streets into rivers in other parts of the Med.
We discarded our boots in the porch but still left a trail of watery footprints on the marble as we crossed to Reception. The smartly dressed young man at the desk didn’t even raise an eyebrow at our dishevelled appearance, although I did think I heard something like a stifled snigger, when I bent down to take the hotel vouchers out of my rucksack, and about a pint of water that had gathered in the hood of my jacket deluged onto the floor.
The Relais Santa Anastasia is quite a posh hotel and a great place to arrive at when you feeling like some rest and relaxation. The rooms are large and comfortable, it has a superb restaurant, a fantastic pool and loads of places, both outside and inside, where you can sit and relax. Better still, if you do stay still for any period of time, one of the hotel staff, who seem to be constantly on the move, will ask you if you want anything to eat or drink. There are also lots of sunny spots where you can leave soggy boots to dry in the sun. Joan was a bit embarrassed about littering the hotel with our damp hiking equipment, but I told her that the other guests would probably mistake it for a modern art installation. Oh, and it has its own vineyard and winery. Heaven!
We had yet to find all this out, when we met an hour later to check out the pool and have a restorative drink or two before dinner. In a sort of lounge area with doors to the pool, we found an English couple nursing large glasses of wine.
“We’ve had a terrible time,” said the woman, perhaps to excuse her glass of wine, which I was staring at thirstily. “Our hire car broke down in the rain, and we had to wait ages.”
“We walked here in the storm, over the mountain from Castelbuono,” I said casually, adopting my gimlet-eyed adventurer pose – jutting chin, faraway gaze.
She didn’t seem appropriately impressed, so I changed the subject. “We thought we’d check out the pool.”
“It’s full of fins,” she said.
Wow! I had to see this. I imagined sharks, cruising with lazy menace, and pushed my way through the door into the sunshine. Of course, I was disappointed. What she had actually said was, “Finns.” The whole pool area was adorned by a large party of flaxen-haired, golden-torsoed Norse gods and goddesses, a wedding party, we found out later. Muscles rippling, they dived into the water without a splash, swam like dolphins, as if water was their natural element, and stood or sat or reclined around the pool as perfectly sculpted as classical statuary. God, I hated them!
“I’m not going in the pool till the beautiful people have gone,” I said to Joan.
I had to wait until mid-afternoon the following day to demonstrate my swimming prowess. I have a unique swimming style, entirely of my own invention, but based very loosely on the breaststroke. The problem is that, while I like swimming, I don’t really like getting wet – or at least not with the kind of water that I first failed to learn to swim in – that is 1950s-municipal-baths-type-water, heavily chlorinated and luxuriously heated to a temperature just high enough to stop it from becoming a solid. My swimming style is therefore designed to keep my face and the upper part of my body as far out of the water as possible. It is of necessity an upright style (imagine a fishing float), in which I tread water, while I make vaguely breast-strokey movements with my arms.
Needless to say, I do not make particularly rapid forward progress. And this is exacerbated by the fact that my right arm is stronger than my left, so I have a tendency to swim in a circle anticlockwise like a dinghy with only one oar, or a Sopwith Camel (N.B. aficionados of the early Biggles stories will understand the reference). In order to swim to a particular point, I have to aim at a place some distance to the right of it and hope that my slow, curving progress will eventually bring me to the right spot. This, I maintain, is why I never achieved the certificate for swimming the width, which all my classmates got, at primary school.
When I finally lowered myself carefully into the pool at Santa Anastasia, I was pleased to discover that the water was warm and didn’t smell of chlorine. I splashed about quite happily for half an hour or so. And I earned some admiring comments from Jon, who is a strong swimmer. He said that he had never before seen anybody who could swim and keep their head and shoulders completely dry. For a time, we had the pool to ourselves and I made considerable, if curvilinear, progress, until I started to get cramp and retired to one of the sun loungers, where my stillness was sufficient to attract a flunkey, from whom I ordered beer.
And then, very soon, it was time for aperitifs and dinner.