Saturday, 1 May 2021

Poland: Poznan to Olsztyn

 After Poznan I finally left the Camino and continued on hiking trails. This route had been a suggestion of accomplished Polish long-distance hiker Agnieska aka Zebra. Her goal is to hike all Polish long-distance trails - and therefore she and another Polish hiker friend joined me for the next section. Michal aka Shakespeare did not know who I was but immediately recognised me when I met him in the parking lot of the train station were Zebra was to arrive soon. There are not too many ultralight hikers around in Poland ... Before embarking we had a quick lunch consisting of all leftovers from Michal's kitchen. We then followed the blazes - and immediately ended in a bushwhack because the trail has not been maintained for decades ...

Although the landscape was still pretty flat and monotonous hiking was a lot better now because there was very littel pavement and mostly trail, even boardwalks around lakes! Plus we were mainly in forests. With two native speakers it was no problem to ask for water at houses because there were no good natural water sources. With lots of practice even I learnt the question "Can I please have some tap water" in Polish. We bought more food in a small supermarket and had a real hiker trash meeting in the parking lot. I almost felt like back in the US! 

Although Zebra and Shakespeare were constantly doing some stretching exercises we still made good progress. I was fantastic to have some thruhiker company and enjoyed these 2,5 days hiking with them tremendously. But they wanted to complete this specific hiking trail which continued to Pila whereas I was heading northeast towards Bydgoszcz. After I tearful goodbye we went our separate ways. 
I had to cross the very agricultural plains of river Netze where it was even hard to find a place to pee because there was no bush or tree. After one night camping on my own I was to have more company. Beata, a Polish pilgrim had invited me into her home for a night. Her invitation came right in time because I needed some stuff sent to me from Germany and I could use her address. On a Spanish Camino she had made friends with some Germans who follow me on social media. When they realised that my route passed almost directly at her home they asked her to invite me in. What a small world! I spent a wonderful evening with Beata and her husband who both speak excellent German and learnt a lot about Poland!

I spent a rest day in Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) because there was so much to see. As it was Easter I wanted to attend a mass. Due to Corona restrictions number of worshippers was restricted and people were even standing outside. When I found a church that still let me in I realized too late that is was locked during service! I had to listen to endless readings from the bible until I eventually realised there was an emergency exit where I could sneak out ...
When I left on my own I finally had to practice my new language skills and ask for water at a house. I mumbled my sentence - and the guy answered in perfect English: "What the heck are you doing here in the middle of nowhere?" He gave me not only water, but fruit and chocolate on top!

Next in a series of former German towns was beautifully restored Chelmno (Kulm) where the town hall looks like out of a picture book. The next day I followed the River Wisla (Weichsel) always on top of the dyke. I really scenic section but day time max temperature was only 4 degrees in early April and I was freezing my butt off ... 
Because my camping gear was not fit for these temperatures I booked myself into another "worker room" in Graudenz (Grudiaz) and did the next section as a day trip by bus. I had falsely assumed that the bus would leave from the bus station. First of all it was not exactly a bus but a transporter and secondly it left from a nondescript bus stop in front of a supermarket. Luckily I had scouted out everything the day before. When I left Graudenz for good on day two the "bus" driver greeted me already and knew where I was going. There were only two passengers in the bus ... 

I used the same trick in Ilawa (Eylau) where I could also hike a section as a day trip by train. I had now entered Mazuria with its many lakes. But winter temperatures in April did not lead me into temptation to swim ...
Both Ilawa and Ostroda had been mostly destroyed in World War II so there was not much to see there. But I was now on the European long-distance trail E11 - there were even signposts with the E11 sign! 
Along this stretch I also saw several "half"-kayaks housing stations of the cross. When I examined this weird combination a bit closer I realised that they were located along the route Pope John Paul II had taken a boat trip in his younger age ...
The weather had been somehow sunny for a couple of days but as soon as I reached Olsztyn the temperatures dropped extremely within hours. I could wear only a shirt at lunch, had to put on a jacket at 2 pm and gloves at 5 pm ... But luckily I was due to have a rest day in town now!

Poland: Greater Poland Camino

To be honest the Camino route across Poland is not really very exciting. The landscape is dead flat, there is very little forest but endless fields. The trail is often routed over paved roads. There was no protection against the ice cold winds, rain and snow. But there were lovely sections along the river Odra or the many beautiful tree alleys. I discovered lots of interesting village churches and cemeteries, often still with German tombstones. Because of the winter temperatures people weres still heating their houses. Thick black smoke came out of the chimneys which smelled horrible. At least for this reason the Corona face masks were of advantage...

Lubin monastery church
Highlight of this section was the monastery in Lubin. Despite lockdown the monks let me stay in their guesthouse. I had expected a drab dormitory but there were modern single ensuite rooms even with Wifi. The monks even brought me something to eat for dinner. During morning mass it was freezing cold in the huge church ...
The Camino now led me through Chłapowski landscape park - but if I had not know it is a landscape park I would not have realized it ... Chłapowski was a pioneer of agriculture and introduced new methods which meant that the entire landscape park consisted mainly of endless flat fields.
Unfortunately the Camino is routed over mostly concrete although better alternatives exist nearby which I used instead.
Still my feet were hurting when I finally reached Poznan (and the end of the Camino walking for me!).
I stayed in an incredibly luxurious holiday apartment in Poznan with even a bath tub to recover from my first 10 days of hiking. And I loved Poznan with its beautifully restored city centre!

Poland: Lower Silesian Camino

At the bridge across river Neiße in Görlitz
Like one year ago I took the train to Görlitz - only that it snowed this time! I went to the exact same spot where I had started my hike to Italy on May 31st, 2020. Back then the sun was shining and I wore a T-shirt. On March 17th, 2021 it was bitterly cold and raining - I even had to wear a jacket. But one year ago the border was closed whereas this time I could cross without any problems. I did not even need a Corona test (althoug I had taken one just in case!). Just four hours into my hike I got a disastrous message on my smartphone. Four days from now Poland would go into a hard lockdown because infection numbers were rising exponentially. 

Market square of Bolesławiec
This news hit me hard: I had chosen Poland because hotels and museums were open - and now everything would close down! Normally this would not affect me that much because I am camping anyways and do not depend much on hotels. But the weather forecast was a nightmare with temperatures well below freezing for the next few days. I had prebooked hotels for the first few days but would they accept me now in lockdown? Tourist travel was forbidden now but as a writer I was travelling on business. The first night I stayed in a hotel in Luban which would close for lockdown. Would I even be able to find accommodation that was open?
I decided to hike on. Lower Silesia was once German so every town had an old German name. I discovered that there are two "Naumburgs" and walked through Bunzlau (Bolesławiec) at night where I stayed in a quite luxurious "room for workers". The quantity of the breakfast there was really meant for workers and saved me eating lunch!

The next days let me walk through various snow storms, temperatures dropped down to -6 C. In Polkowice I stayed in a hotel on the first day of lockdown. They confirmed my booking only one day before because it was still unclear who was allowed to use hotels. My publishing house had sent me a document stating that I am travelling on business which was luckily accepted wheras another hotel cancelled my booking claiming that foreigners were not allowed. When I asked at the reception what the exact rules are the receptionist just shrugged her shoulders: "We do not really know ..."

Crossing the Odra in Glogow
The Lower Silesian Camino ends in Glogow (Glogau) where I crossed the river Oder on a bridge that was painted in bright pink! (No idea, why they chose this unusual color ...). The last days had been filled with snow storms and I had not met a single other hiker. In fact, my gpx track had even led me to a major construction site. Where the camino is supposed to be now a motorway is being built. I had trouble crossing it ... I had booked myself into a holiday apartment in Glogow where I even stayed two days to do the next section as a day trip by train - because no other accommodation was availabe and the weather continued to be a nightmare.

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 ...