Carlo, chef to Sophia Loren
On the first evening of our walk in the Piedmont region of north western Italy we were taxied to the village of Cortemilia and the Hotel Villa San Carlo. After settling in we gathered for dinner, and what an exquisite meal it was. Carlo and his wife were terrific hosts. The decanting of the Barolo wines was something to behold. All six of us in the party had our name written in chocolate on the dessert. It was only later, after looking at the brochures and magazines displayed in the sitting room, that we learnt that Carlo was an identity in Italy, executive chef for Sophia Loren’s 70th birthday party and her son’s marriage – oh and Chef de Mission to the Italian Winter Olympics team! A nice way to start our six days of walking in this premier wine region of Italy.
Out of the mists
In Spain and approaching the Mediterranean escarpment we were greeted by an extraordinary sight. I wrote in my diary “Today was a delightful day of walking, perhaps the best on this trip. We started in rain but it cleared for glorious views across the Bay of Roses and out to the Mediterranean Sea. But the sea-mist rolled in as we began to descend around the headland. And then…as we rounded another turn and through a break in the mists there emerged a monastery. It was incredible, beautiful…a spectacular medieval fortress guarding the bay. My own thoughts turned to “The Name of the Rose” as for a moment we were transported back in time."
Walking in Provence in 2004, we were advised to keep an eye out for hunters. It was the hunting season and there would be people in the forests stalking deer and occasionally wild boar. We heard the sounds of shots in the distance but thought nothing of it as they seemed to be a long way off. Then, at the top of an ascent, the three of us who were in the lead stopped in our tracks. There in front of us was a hunter with his finger against his lips to say “shhh”. He was stalking a deer. What astounded us was what he was wearing. Picture a children’s fairy tale with a hunter clad in leather waistcoat, thigh-high leather boots and a hunting cap with a feather! The one element of modernity was the gun casually draped over his arm. Then he quietly disappeared into the forest. We could never convince our companions of what we had seen. Grimm was alive and well, and in the Luberon!
Four nuns a-walking
Again, walking in Provence. It was on day 4, on the route between Forcalquier and Reillanne, an unusually long day, 24 klms and the group was strung out along the path. When we stopped for a drink of water two of the party tried to tell us they had witnessed the ghostly apparition of four nuns in full white habits walking across a field. Even they were not sure if what they saw was real, let alone the rest of the party. And then along our path from the opposite direction came four nuns, in white habits. They gestured to us not to take photographs (too late, I’m afraid) and then they were along the path, around the bend and gone. We found out later that nearby was a convent with a closed order, and that just once a week the nuns were able to take exercise outside – the surrounding countryside was isolated enough that they were unlikely to encounter anyone from the outside world… except, on this occasion, us!
It was the second day of our Hidden Italy and Slovenia holiday. We walked into Slovenia from Italy, across the top of Monte Matajur at 1643 metres and down into the valley of the Soca River – with its amazing aqua waters – and into Kobarid. A spectacular, but long day with the towering Julian Alps surrounding us in every direction. Our notes reminded us that Kobarid had a special place in the history of the Italian front in World War 1, as it was the site of furious battles to hold off the invasion of Italy. Though we explored some of the trenches and fortifications on the lower slopes of the valley, we discovered (from the dioramas in the local museum) that, in fact, the battles were waged not in the valleys where we were but on the rocky crests and ridges hundreds of metres above us. And realization… Kobarid at the time of WW1 was called Caporetto and was the setting for Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical “A Farewell to Arms”, the story of an ambulance driver in the Italian army. And so a refresher course on this little-known theatre of the Great War, and motivation to reread Hemingway’s novel. Unforeseen outcomes of a decision, made months earlier, to select a walk which would allow us to explore some of eastern Europe.