Thursday, 26 November 2020

Germany to Italy: Görlitz to Hof

The official start photo in Görlitz
I started my hike May 31st - and for the first time I did not know at the beginning where this hike would eventually take me. A pretty bizarre feeling ... Of course, Deutsche Bahn was one hour late in getting me to Görlitz where I ventured to the bridge across the river Neiße and the German-Polish border. As a European it hurt me to see the busy border closed due to Corona, but I hope to be able to continue eastward from here in one of the next years. But for now I started hiking westward following the Ore mountain range. As I had already hiked these mountains several years ago on the "Kammweg Erzgebirge" I had chosen a different route this time - as usual mixing existing hiking trails.

Corona caused an expected problem: As usual I was looking for water in a cemetery in Löbau, but the faucets were not connected to city water - and public toilets were closed due to Corona. It took me a long time to find a public faucet in the heat. I was not very fast hiking either as I was passed by a horse cart on day one. I must say to my defense that there were two horses drawing the cart vs. me as a single hiker ...
This pittoresque popeye field was ribboned off with warning tape. I had first thought that this was meant to prevent cattle from entering. But while I was hiking along the field several cars stopped and eager photographers jumped out to take pictures ... When it started to rain in the evening I hastily set up me tent - and promptly busted the seams of my old hiking pants who were apparently too old for another thruhike. As I would return back to Berlin for a short break I could luckily replace them.

I had also two interesting encounters: When I had stopped in the small village of Klein-Dehsa to start a new podcast on my smartphone an older gentleman came running out of a nearby house asking: "Do you want a stamp?" It took me a while to realize what he meant: He is the local trail keeper and provided stamps for hikers like on a pilgrimage trail. The second encounter happened in the small town of Mildenau where I walked through pretty tired at 7 pm on my way to a hotel in Annaberg-Buchholz.

Chatting with Norbert
All of a sudden this guy showed up with my book in his hands asking for an autograph! It turned out that Norbert was a long-distance hiker himself who had walked from Eisenach to Budapest the year before. He was following me on social media and had calculated from my route map and my posts when I would approximately pass through his town. He had been waiting for me outside of his house on a bench. Of course I signed his book and we had a bit of trail talk until - alas - I had to leave him in order to get to my hotel in time.

In Klingenthal I could do my good deed of the day at a bus stop where I was having my lunchbreak out of the rain and devouring some goodies from the nearby supermarket, when an older lady showed up. She had just been at the hairdresser for the first time in months and wanted to take the bus home - but unfortunately the strap of her face mask had broken and she could not cover her nose and mouth according to the regulations. Luckily I remembered that there is a tiny safety pin in my sewing kit - et voilà - I had repaired her mask just in time before her bus arrived!

Three-country border
This first section of my hike ended pretty wet and rainy in Hof after passing the "3-country-border" in the middle of nowhere. Here Bavaria (former West Germany), Saxony (former East Germany) and the Czech Republic (former Czecheslowakia) were bordering each other and the infamous "Kolonnenweg" led to the spot. During the cold war this trail had been used by border patrol and it was "paved" with concrete slabs with holes in them. Very hard on the feet and you had to take care not to step into one of the holes. The former German-German border is now a hiking trail called "Grünes Band" or "Green ribbon" but this concrete trail is the main reason why I am not very keen on hiking it. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Germany to Italy: The plan

 After I had returned from the Way of St. Francis Corona struck hard - Germany and most of Europe went into lockdown. For many weeks I wondered if and where I would be able to hike in the summer of 2020. 

My original plan - to finish my hike Europe Diagonal by walking from the Alps to Greece - quickly vanished in the air. Several countries on this route like Bosnia or Montenegro do not belong to the EU and were closed to foreigners. 

Sweden seemed to be the only country open despite all Corona mayhem and therefore I started planning a fourth European traverse from North to South, Finnland to Italy - hoping that I would be able to hike the Northern part through Scandinavia this year. But to my great surprise Finnland and the Baltic countries remained closed - and hard hit Italy was one of the first European countries to open up. By then I had had prepared the Northern section carefully and only had a vague idea of the route through Italy. If I wanted to pull off a major thruhike of 4,000 km I had to start hiking soon - or summer would be over.

Therefore I embarked on this trip on May 31st in Görlitz walking South not knowing if I would continue through Italy or flip up to Finnland. This was the first time I did not know at the beginning of a hike where I would be going ...

As some more days passed Finnland still did not open and with this uncertain prospect I eventually decided to hike through Italy this year. Luckily I had to interrupt my hike in mid June anyways for some presentations and TV shows and I used the time to quickly plan the route through Switzerland  and Italy. I have never planned so fast and with so little detail - but I had to be ready within 10 days.

There are two long-distance trails in Italy: European long-distance path E1 which up to date is not complete and only reaches as far South as around Naples. Sentiero Italia on the other hand even has several alternative branches and is officially complete. For long stretches both trails run close to each other or even coincide. But past hikers reported that both triails exist rather on paper than on the ground. This was going to be an interesting hike ...

Monday, 16 March 2020

Way of St. Francis: Assisi to Rome

View from Trevi - luckily the clouds cleared soon
 The sections after Assisi were so close to civilization that wild camping was difficult and I opted for another hotel stay in Trevi. Between the two towns I passed close by to a Decathlon store and hurried inside to buy another gas canister and a replacement fleece cap for the one I had lost a couple of days earlier. As sunset was approaching I rushed through the aisles, grabbed a cap and went to check out. When it got dark and cold one hour later I took it out of my backpack - and discovered that I had bought a child's cap that did not fit my head at all ….

Next day I hurried up the mountain of Monteluco because I wanted to attend the evening service in the old hermitage there and arrived just in time to see the monks settle into their chairs - most of them with a smartphone in their habit. I left in the dark and miraculously found a wonderful campsite in the otherwise steep area. Next morning I got up early and descended into the town of Spoleto where I was looking for the cathedral in a maze of narrow cobbled streets. I was already getting annoyed because I could not find it - when I turned my gaze and looked right onto its majestic white facade. So early in the morning no tourists were in the plaza and I had the huge church almost for myself.

In the next section the Way of St. Francis passes the artificial waterfalls of Marmore which were not supposed to be running in winter - at least according to their website. But when I came closer I heard water rushing and could not believe my eyes: I had just arrived at the view point when water had been released from the man made reservoir on top of the mountain opposite. Roman emperors had already begun the constructions of these waterfalls which became a popular motif for artists in the 18th century. Unfortunately the official trail next to the falls was closed and my gpx track did not show the correct detour around them. After eventually finding the right way it had already started getting dark. My planned wild camping area was guarded by several loudly barking dogs and therefore I decided to hike on. This was probably my longest day of this trip because I only settled into my tent at 10 pm - at a site hidden by blackberry bushes. No cars passed by the entire night and morning - but of course when I was doing my morning constitutional two trucks came by hopefully not noticing me ….

Another long day took me into Rieti where I had booked myself into a B&B. When I arrived at the address given on the booking platform I doubted my choice: It was an old dilapidated house in the old part of Rieti. I even had to phone the landlady, a very elegantly dressed signora who took me up several neglected flights of stairs. I was expecting the worst when she opened the door to the guest apartment - and could not believe my eyes: Inside was a beautifully restored medieval palazzo which could have been on the cover of Architectural Digest! This wonderful place even had central heating and a brand new bathroom - and cost a mere 35 Euro!

I had wanted to spend the next night in the monastery of Greccio which was unfortunately closed during winter season. I hiked on in total darkness and found a wonderful sheltered camping spot on the mountains above the monastery. It had such a warm microclimate that I was not in the least cold at night although up on the plateau even big water puddles were completely frozen over! I was greeted by this wonderful sunrise in the morning. I had perfect timing that day: The forecasted heavy thunderstorm hit right then when I was visiting the hermitage of Sacro Santo.
I had booked myself into a cheap hotel in Calvi dell Umbria where I was the only guest. Carlotta, the owner and chef opened the restaurant just for me and served a wonderful three course dinner - I even splurged on wine! My last full hiking day brought me through many olive groves and to Fara en Sabina, an old monastery and National Monument of Italy which can only be visited with a guided tour. Despite being such a popular tourist spot the tour guide did not speak a single word of English and made no effort whatsoever to make herself understood - such a disappointment. At least my accommodation that night in Montelibretti was great!

I should have finished my hike there because Montelibretti is well connected with local trains to Rome. Instead I chose to hike another - rather disappointing day. I encountered several wild garbage dumps - and the first other pilgrim of this trip! From Mentana I took the bus to Rome and riding the pilgrimage route into town I can assure you that it is not worth hiking! In Rome I had booked myself into another monastery and spent three great days sightseeing in the eternal city before eventually flying back to Germany.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Way of St. Francis: Florence to Assisi

Dramatic view from La Verna
As was to be expected in February my hike started in the rain. Luckily temperatures were rather mild. Right from the start the trail took me up into the mountains on paths and unpaved roads. This was very nice for hiking but I was soon covered in mud and looked like a pig after a mud bath. At this time of the year there are hardly any tourists. I was all alone in the hermitage of Camaldoli where I took a long break in the chapel. It was even more surprising that I was all alone in La Verna, a major tourist attraction - but the Cafeteria was open. Lunch was a bit disappointing though. The threatening clouds turned into a short hail storm when I left.

Due to short day light hours I  hiked well into the night on most days. When I was following a country in the dark a car with blinding lights came towards me - and not seeing anything I stumbled into the ditch and made a face plant. My pants ripped and most of my food flew out of the mesh pockets of my backpack … Luckily I didn't injure myself and could continue hiking and looking for a campsite. I ended up camping behind a pile of woods … Days became very sunny which resulted in nights getting colder and colder. I was never freezing in my warm winter quilt with a specific balaclava but I woke up to frozen tent several times and had to eat granola with ice cubes for breakfast because my water bottles had frozen over night ...

For the last night before Assisi a severe storm was forecasted for Germany. While I read about life threating weather conditions in my home country on the internet the forecast for Italy was only predicting a windy day. I took extra care in finding a sheltered campsite and was lucky to find the perfect spot right at sunset. Luckily the forecast was right and I slept through a windstill night. Then a last 30 km hiking day and I arrived in Assisi where I had planned to take the one and only rest day of this short trip. I arrived just at sunset and got this perfect shot of the famous basilica of Saint Francis.

Like in Florence I had booked myself into a monastery which turned out to be quite international. With 30 nuns from all corners of the world this was a lively house whereas most other monasteries in Italy I stayed in had problems attracting new recruits. Assisi is a wonderfully spiritual place and a tourist trap at the same time. I spent hours in the magical basilica listening to the singing of the monks but was put off by the dozens of souvenir shops. (I had rather preferred supermarkets to buy some food ...) To wash clothes or go grocery shopping you have to leave the old town. I spent my rest day visiting the hermitage of Carceres which was very peaceful - until two bus loads of teenage school kids appeared …

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Way of St. Francis: The idea

Between eventually finishing my third book and starting my book reading tour I had several weeks time for a hike - in February! Which is not the greatest time to go long-distance hiking in Europe.   Therefore I was looking for a trail in Southern Europe with a hopefully favourable climate and a good infrastructure in case the weather was not cooperating. I still wanted to go camping whenever possible and therefore was looking for a trail close to nature. 

I ruled out trails in Spain because I have already hiked thousands of kilometers there and Greece because I’ll hike there in summer. Which left Italy where I have never done any long trail in the past – shame on me! As pilgrimage trails generally provide a good infrastructure (and lots of monuments for sightseeing) I very quickly came up with the Way of St. Francis which is also easily accessible via public transport. It runs from Florence via Assisi to Rome and both cities are low cost airline destinations. It is 600 km long which was ideal for three weeks plus a bit of sightseeing. 

Still there was one obstacle: The trails leads up to more than 1000 metres in the Appennin mountains and there might be snow at such altitude. But this turned out to be a very mild winter and I could find out before departure that there was no snow even at the highest points of the trail. I flew to Bologna, took a bus to Florence and started my hike with a day of extensive sightseeing.