Sunday, 14 March 2021

Poland to Finland: The plan

After one year of Corona restrictions many countries are still (or again) closed to tourists, my original plan to hike in the US went down the drain. In spring 2021 there is not much choice of hiking destinations, especially if you don't want to fly. I still have two "unfinished" European traverses so it was obvious for me to pursue one of them - and the choice was easy: Last year I had started in Görlitz at the German-Polish border and had hiked South to Italy. This year I will start there again and go North through Poland, all three Baltic states and Finnland up the Finnish-Swedish border at the Gulf of Bothnia. The route is already planned out because I had intended to go there in 2020, but then had changed to Italy instead. 

In this still unstable Corona situation Poland is a great choice: It borders Germany and in an emergency I can easily get back by train. More important still: Poland has currently very few restrictions for travellers. I don't need a Corona test to enter, even museums and hotels are open - and I will need accommodation at the beginning of my trip because now in March it is still bitterly cold! But most important: I have never hiked long-distance in Poland before, only short sections in the Tatras. 

When I stumbled across a Polish Triple Crowner on the internet I contacted her - and Agnieska aka Zebra helped me to find a better route than my own concoction. I will now hike on a mixture of pilgrimage trails, the European long-distance trail E11 and self-designed routes. 

If I will be allowed to enter Lithuania by the time I get there, I will continue on the Camino Lituano, followed by the Camino Latvia and the Coastal Trail in Latvia and a long-distance trail in Estonia.

In Finland I'll follow the E6 which is now a project of Finnish hiker Matti who offered a wealth of route suggestions and advice.

The entire route is about 3500 km long and I'll begin with 1,200 km through Poland. 

I will start as soon as the weather improves and hope to be able to succeed in hiking the entire route - but this year a lot can go wrong or cause changes. 


Saturday, 13 March 2021

Sentiero Italia and E1 in Italy: Conclusion and tipps

Two long-distance trails are (theoretically) traversing the length of Italy: Sentiero Italy with a total of almost 7,000 km is spanning the entire alpine range, the length of Italy in several variants plus Sicily and Sardinia and is maintained by CAI. The E1 on the other hand shortcuts the alpine range by traversing the Po Valley, has no variants and currently ends in Fortino, although there is already E1 trail in Sicily. It is maintained by the FIE. Both trails use existing paths and often run parallel or close to each other. Where they use popular trails like the Alta Via dei Monti Ligurii or the Grande Escursione Appenninica they are well marked, where they are "stand-alone" their state ranges from brand new fabulous trail to non-existant. 

Generally speaking it is European idiocy that there are two separate long-distance trails in Italy and none is "finished" or even close to finished. Instead of joining forces the CAI and FIE are pursuing different plans just because of one fact: Only the FIE is a member of the European Ramblers' Association which organanzises the European long-distance trails. Sentiero Italia cannot be part of the European network because CAI is not a member of the head organization. 

The Sentiero Italia has already been founded in the 90s but fallen into decay. Only since 2018 the CAI has been reviving it. But instead of now putting all the efforts into really "finishing" the Sentiero Italia the CAI has now announced that it will create a new trail linking all the National Parks in the country. With limited resources I am afraid that this fact will threaten the fragil state of the Sentiero Italia again. 

Generally speaking I found the E1 far less developed than the Sentiero Italia. I would not recommend the E1 because it is impossible to thruhike it in Italy! The E1 just does not exist in places and has never existed there other than on paper. One example: At one place the E1 is supposed to cross a broad fast flowing river where there is no bridge or ferry! Only the FIE knows why they routed the trail there ... To find an E1 marker in the mountains is also a rare occasion whereas the Sentiero Italia is almost 90% more or less marked - which does not mean you can hike it there. Often the trail keeper has been the last person through here - sometimes several years ago judging from the state of overgrownness ...

That being said I want to answer the two questions I always ask myself after a long hike: Did I like this trip? Yes, absolutely! This is one of the most stunning hikes of my entire hiking career. I don't know of any other European trail that is so breathtakingly beautiful over such a long distance! For me personally Sentiero Italia is the "sexiest" trail in Europa at the moment. It has everything a thruhikers loves: Incredible scenery, plenty of adventure and a suitable length for a thruhike. It can definitely rival the long US trails, in fact with Corona restrictions and permit systems / overcrowding on the PCT and AT I would rather hike here in Italy than tackling the US trails. 

But would I recommend it to a friend? That really depends on the friend's experience and expectations. To make it very clear: The Sentiero Italia is not for everyone! You need plenty of experience in navigation, lots of perseverance and sometimes a machete to successfully hike it. (And you will have a problem if you are afraid of dogs ...) I have hiked on wonderful old cobblestone paths - but also had the worst bushwhacks possibly. You will encounter more cows, sheep, horses and dogs than people. In fact I have not met any other thruhiker on the entire trail. There is no trail community whatsoever and your only source of information is the CAI website in Italian. Forget getting any support from them: They did not even bother to answer my emails ...
At least CAI is improving the trail constantly: Always check with their (very slow) Italian-only website if a section has recently been rerouted! A group of young Italian hikers have founded an organization called Vasentiero and they are hiking the trail each summer, also working on a digital guide - so far Italian only. But neither CAI nor Vasentiero tackle one of the biggest obstacles for a thruhiker: Water!

The good new is that there is enough water, at least for thruhiker standards. You don't have to carry more than for one day - if you knew where the water sources are!!!! And that is the biggest problem: OSM maps don't show most of the sources and the ones that are shown can often be dry or turned off. Unfortunately neither CAI nor Vasentiero mention water sources on their website probably assuming that no one thruhikes the trail wild camping style. But even if you stayed in paid accommodation every night it would great to know where each section's water sources are. One good thing is that almost every little village has a public water fountain and on most mountain passes there is a guesthouse, mostly with accessible water taps. 

Another good news is about wild camping: Of course, like in most European countries it is illegal in Italy, but the trail runs so remote that finding a discreet spot out of sight is dead easy! And due to the rural exodus there is hardly anyone around who could discover you anyways ... My favourite were the abandoned dry wall terraces and the platforms for coal piles left by charcoal burner decades ago. 
Although there are wolves and even bears in Italy I don't think they are a threat to humans: They are too shy! Dogs can be a nuisance, but they are only protective to their herds. If you keep a distance they pose no danger. 
Technically the trail poses no real difficulty either, but if you suffer from vertigo you might be reluctant to traverse some knife edge ridges. 

One last word: If you are more interested in culture than nature I would rather recommend the Way of St. Francis, the Sentiero Italia avoids towns and civilisation. 

Germany to Italy: Aspromonte National Park and the end

When I had planned this trip I had imagined Southern Italy would be a dry and barren place and I was really worried about finding enough water. This turned out to be totally wrong! The last of many National Parks along this route looked like the Black Forest, there was water everywhere (unfortunately also in form of rain) and it was foggy most of the time. On my last day I even came through a ski resort!!! It was also much colder than expected. As much as I liked my hike through Italy it was time to go home now. Only 10 hours of delight in combination with the low temperatures made that very clear.

The last 100 km were a race against time. Calabria was about the only Italian region not in look down. I had already skipped my plan to continue hiking through Sicily - I now wanted to finish in Reggion Calabria at the coast, enjoy one last rest day at the beach and then go home. It was the closest timing of any hike I have ever done.

On my last full hiking day I was descending from the mountains and the fog. It was the day after the US election and I checked my smartphone several times to find out the result. I could already see the Aetna and the coast of Sicily when I read a frightening notice: Calabria was to go into hard lockdown the next day! In disbelief I called a German follower who lives in Calabria: Yes, she had heard it, too - but this is Italy! Nothing is decided yet, just hike on, was her advice. It was a fantastic last day with incredible views of the coast. When I finally reached Reggio Calabria the sun was already setting and I headed straight to my pre booked hotel. Tomorrow was my rest day and I could take the official finish photo then.

This is when this follower sent me an SMS: The government is making it official - tomorrow Calabria is in lockdown. All my plans of relaxing at the beach went down the drain. I barely made it to the beach where I took some last selfies as finish photos before heading to my hotel. The owner was all upset because no one know the exact look down regulations. I was prepared to leave that very night after a shower. The owner spoke great English and was incredibly helpful: She called the police and the train station to inquire about the situation. Yes, trains were still running on regular schedule tomorrow and tourists were allowed to leave. But no celebration menu for me: All the restaurants were closed. I could not even find a laundromat to wash my clothes ...

I had to take three different trains to get from Reggio Calabria to Berlin and it took me 34 hours. Every single train was delayed, but I was incredibly happy when I crossed the border into Germany. I was already sitting in the Berlin metro when another follower sent me a message: "Hope you are back in Germany already. From tomorrow on Calabria is considered a high risk area and you must go into 10 day quarantine." But luckily I had arrived before and did not have to quarantine ... My relief and thankfulness to have finished my hike AND made it back in time was overwhelming!  

Friday, 12 March 2021

Germany to Italy: Cosenza to Aspromente National Park

I had been very doubtful whether it was a good idea to continue despite rising Corona numbers, even on my way to the train station in Cosenza I made some last minute calls to friends back in Germany to discuss the topic. But like a confirmation of my decision to hike on I found all the little things in shops that had been missing: I had managed to loose all five bandanas I had bought four months ago in Ulm and here I found a new (and last one for this trip) plus a mini size tube of tooth paste. Then off I went to Sila National Park that looked a lot more like Germany than Southern Italy. It was very windy up on the mountain tops but I found a lovely sheltered campsite with 4G cell phone reception! 

Next evening I had more problems: Right before sunset all trail markers disappeared and my GPS brought me to a river crossing in a meadow exactly when it started to rain. The cows watched me gleefully when I took off my shoes and socks to ford the river. It took me a while to find a decent spot and had to put in ear plugs because a dog was barking all night long on a nearby farm.

I had camped close to Lago Ampollino and everything was frozen over in the morning - but what a beautiful sunrise over the lake! Sila National Park turned out to be cow heaven with huge meadows. Cows here have scary long horns but the completely ignored me. I still kept a distance when I sat down for lunch and drying my frozen over tent. 

I hiked three days across Sila encountering free range horses and a modern sanctuary dedicated to Mary - and of course it started to rain again. I fled into a hotel where I was delighted to find out that the restaurant was closed to the public but open for guests! I had wonderful pasta, a glass of wine and a chat with the friendly owner who spoke fluent Spanish because he had worked on Mallorca before.

He even gave me all the leftovers from the breakfast buffet in the morning and an umbrella. I definitely needed the last one because it continued to rain. That day turned out to be one of the worst of the entire trip. Sentiero Italia brought me to a huge wind park where nobody had been hiking through for several years! The trail was completely overgrown, trees had fallen onto it and worst: Along a steep sandy slope it had almost completely eroded away. After climbing over dozens of blow downs and under blackberry bushes I had to realize that maybe mountain goats could safely pass this slope but definitely me. I had to turn around, but unfortunately my map told me that the only way around would involve a 30 km detour on roads ... To make things even more frustrating I could see the trail markers on the slope above me! Because the sun was already setting I needed a camp site quickly - and that could only be found on top of the ridge next to the windpark. With courage born of despair and decided to climb up through a jungle of blow downs and black berries. 

I managed to get up to the ridge right before it got completely dark and even found a campsite! I was so exhausted that I fell asleep quickly despite the noisy rotors in the wind park. But this little adventure had an aftermath next morning: I took me more than an hour to operate all the spikes and thorns out of my limbs ...
Luckily no overgrown trail the next day, but plenty of kaki and pomegrate trees! And this sheep dogs were quite tame and only guarding their herd. 
I indulged in another hotel room in San Bruno where I suddenly missed my passport in the evening. I remembered having shown it at check in, but had the owner handed it back to me or had I lost it? I was lucky: The owner had kept it overnight - in an unlocked drawer in the unlocked hotel reception ...

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Germany to Italy: Morano Calabro to Cosenza

Pollino National Park

Despite the bad weather I still got to see a bit of Pollino National Park when I resumed my hike. The mountains mainly serve as meadows and despite the low temperatures plenty of cows and horses were still out. When I approached this meadow I could see dozens of cows peacefully grazing. Unsuspectingly I came closer - when all of sudden the sheep dogs must have woken up and ran towards me. Normally it helps to pick up a rock and threaten to throw it but alas - there was no rock whatsoever in the grass, only cow pats. And believe it or not: I picked up a dry cow pat, threw it towards the dogs - and it worked! They let me pass and kept a distance! 

View of Paola
I hiked several more days in rainy weather before the sun came out again. The Sentiero Italia had now brought me within sight of the sea! When I discovered that the famous pilgrimage site of Paola is located only 4 kilometers away from the trail I wanted to pay it a visit. Unfortunately I had somehow overlooked that these 4 kilometers involved a 1,000 meter elevation loss that I would have to climb up again next day. Still this view of Paola and the sea was worth the effort!

Back on trail I was woken up very early in the morning by mushroom pickers! Way before sunrise they drive up into the mountains and look for "porcini". I don't think they would have bothered me but I was not keen on answering curious questions first thing in the morning.

The Sentiero follows a train line around the town of Cosenza. I was a bit surprised to see that on the map but assumed that the line was not active any more so that hikers could walk there. Luckily I checked to schedules and found out that two trains run here per hour! And to make things worse the train line passes several narrow bridges and tunnels. Walking here is basically suicide and I don't understand why the CAI put their route here! Because I did not want to kill myself I took the train and spent one night in Cosenza.

Cosenza is a hilltop town with very little parking. The owners of my accommodation therefore offer E-bikes for their guests. Great chance for me because I wanted to do a last shopping trip to Decathlon and Lidl, both way out of town. But this was my first time ever on an E-bike in an unknown Italian city with no bike paths and almost flat tires. I managed - but was very happy when I brought myself and the bike back in one piece. 

I was having breakfast when I saw the Naples Corona riots on TV. More and more Italian regions were going into lockdown. "Don't worry, this will not happen here in Calabria", told me the owner. She was wrong in the end ...

Germany to Italy: Piaggine to Morano Calabro

Next stop for me was the town of Lagonegro where a new pair of shoes was waiting for me in the post office. Post offices are not an efficient affair in Germany but Italy in Corona times was ten times worse. I had to wait half an hour and fill out a form just to collect my package. But I also had the best pasta in a local ristorante for just 4 Euro before hitting the trail again.

I was now only on the Sentiero Italia, the E1 officially ends here - and inofficially it never existed before. I had trouble again finding a campsite because there were only endless meadows, even without cattle it is difficult to camp in the open due to condensation which got really bad now in fall. I had to search way into darkness to find a spot under a lone tree. 

In Latronico I saw a whole holiday apartment for just 23 Euro and could not resist. And the Pizza Particolare with pumpkin cream and smoked cheese in the local pizza parlor was a real culinary delight!

My campsite on the meadow
Despite the bad weather I had to press on into Pollino National Park. By now I was really worried about the rest of my trip. It was getting colder and colder and more and more Italian regions went into lockdown. Calabria in the South did have very few cases though. 

Pollino National Park is supposed to be a real gem but I did not see much of it due to rain and fog. When I arrived at the sanctuary Madonna di Pollina it was just pouring down. I sought shelter underneath a little roof because everything was closed - even the toilets. Temperature was just 6 degrees and I didn't really like the idea to hike on but had no choice. First there was a steep descent, then the trail was not there were it was supposed to be according to me track. CAI had rerouted this section and luckily the trail marking was great. Back on track I had another endless ascent up the pass. I was soaking wet from outside and inside. I was really surprised that there was no snow up on the pass, the wind was icy!

I was so happy to find the descending trail and be back in forest. Because I didn't want to cool off I even had to skip lunch!

I had to descend 1,000 metres  and then walk more endless kilometers until finally reaching Morana Calabro where I had booked myself into a hotel. Roberto, the hotel owner was great: He called ahead for me to find out which restaurant was open now in low season. I even met a German couple there and had the first chat in my mother tongue for a long time. 
Roberto even drove me to laundromat in the next town so that I could wash my clothes. He had hiked the Camino in Spain and said: "We hikers must stick together!" I was the only hotel guest now in off season. And because I had not much seen of the National Park due to bad weather he even sent me a book about it to Germany!

Germany to Italy: Naples to Piaggine

View of Montesarchio
Because the weather did not improve but I was fed up with Naples and its trash problem I want back to Telese Terme where I had left the trail. As the name Terme suggests it is a spa town and I saw myself soaking in thermal baths again. Alas, everything was closed and I was stuck another day in a boring little town with not much to do but go shopping in the only supermarket. 

Things improved after that and even the sun came back. Two days later I was rewarded with this wonderful view of Montesarchio. When descending from the mountains on a great trail I came across the Grotta di San Simeone, a cave in the middle of nowhere that was decorated with a 16th century painting of the saint. There is a fence now to prevent vandalism but during WW II this had been a hiding place for the locals. 

There is a long road walk across the valley but I found a wonderful "tavola calda" in Montesarchio where I could fortify myself for it.

I nearly missed the Santuario di Montevergine because it was so foggy and the building was so modern (and ugly) that I did not suspect it to be a monastery. But then a nun appeared out of the fog and told me about the place. 1,5 million pilgrims visit it every year - almost all of them by car despite this wonderful old trail!

I had big trouble finding a campsite that night: There were plenty of wonderful terraces more than suitable for camping but for whatever reason there were alarm shots every five minutes to scare the birds away! No way I would be able to sleep here. I had to hike far into the night to find a place out of earshot!

In the Regional Park Monti Picentini the Sentiero Italia follows the Fiume Sabato but the trail along its banks was completely eroded. No problem, I walked in the riverbed instead. But the amount of trash there was shocking. Between dozens of plastic sandals, shampoo bottles and bags I even found a computer keyboard. Not only had the river washed up all that trash, locals were also illegally dumping it into the park ...

Monte Polveraccio

I was now in an area where chestnuts are cultivated. This would be great places for camping but now in October farmers were harvesting them. A 1,100 meter straight ascent brought me up to Monte Polveraccio where it was so windy that I had problems taking pictures. I wonder how the Station of the Cross survived up here so exposed to the elements. Luckily I found a sheltered campsite on the descent. When I planned the next section I briefly considered taking the E1 again and realized just in time that it crossed the river Sele at a place where there is neither a bridge nor a ferry. No wonder nobody hikes the E1.

Monte Panormo
I stayed on the Sentiero Italia with lots of road walking and could not resist the temptation in Contursi Terme to get a hotel with a swimming pool! So much luxury for only 43 Euros - although the pool was not heated and pretty cold for my morning swim. 

The Sentiero goes up Monte Panormo on a wonderfully maintained old foot path. I slept under chestnut trees and discovered that there casks are quite spikey. The view from Monte Panorma was downright breathtaking but I started to worry how I would get down from this knife edge. It turned out not too difficult but I I was still happy to touch firm ground again.

That night I learnt that cows and horses don't sleep at night. Their bells kept me awake until the wee hours and several times they came very close visiting me. I had booked myself in a B&B at Piaggine but check in nearly failed because there was no cell phone reception in town and I had to call the owner (who did not speak English either). In the end all worked out and I was even able to buy some food in the local minimarket before the deluge started. All the restaurants in town were closed and I had to dine in my room with a tetrapack of red wine.