Friday, 14 May 2021
Thursday, 13 May 2021
When I reached my prebooked room in a agroturystyka that evening a landrover stopped by me and a camouflage clad guy waved me over. I took him for the landlord but soon discovered that this was Polish border patrol! "Documentation!" I was asked and his female partner tried to check my ID while I was explaining in English what I was doing here. They did not believe me it seemed but still let me go. At least they did not take me for a an alcohol or cigarette smuggler. My room in the agroturystyka cost my just 15 Euro but could have been a 4 star hotel. Needless to say I was the only guest.
Although Olsztyn (Allenstein) had survived WW II relatively undamaged, it was destroyed by the Soviet Army, the German population was displaced. Nowadays most of the old city has been beautifully restored and enjoyed my sightseeing trip through the Allenstein's brick Gothic churches. The city caters mostly for German tourists: When I came to close the cathedral's altar, the alarm system sounded in form of a prerecorded announcement: "Don't step into the altar area" in Polish and in German ...
Even hiking out of Olsztyn was a delight: The E11 follows the river Lina with plenty of scenic paths and rest areas. (Alas it was too cold to rest ...) In the tiny village of Barkweda I encountered a big poster of Napoleon. A quick internet research revealed that Napoleon fought a battle here against the Prussians and Russians to cross the river. Napoleon won.
In the tiny village of Schmolainen the E11 made a strange long detour. I briefly thought of shortcutting it - and luckily I didn't! The trail took me to the former sommer residence of the bishop of Ermland. After 1945 the former castle was used as an agricultural school, but is now being restored to its former glory. It is set in the middle of a beautiful park that could be the film set for a fairy tale movie. Old trees, overgrown hedges, small path and thick walls that can only be crosses through theses wrought-iron gates. I could have wandered around much longer but several stray dogs decided to chase me out of their domain ...
|Cloister of Stoczek monastery|
Saturday, 1 May 2021
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 ...
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|
|At the bridge across river Neiße in Görlitz|
|Market square of Bolesławiec|
|Crossing the Odra in Glogow|
Sunday, 14 March 2021
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
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 ...
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.
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.
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
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 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.
Wednesday, 10 March 2021
|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|
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.
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 ...
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|
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!
|View of Montesarchio|
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 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 ...
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.
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.
I took the train from Sora to Montecassino because there are three attractions: the famous monastery high on top of the mountain (I took a bus to get up there ...), several WW II cemeteries and an old Roman amphitheater. I visited all three. But my highlight in town was an AYCE sushi place were I was feasting among hoards of school kids on the cheap lunch special.
I left town much later than planned because it was much more difficult to send my summer gear home. DHL was outrageously expensive and I had to queue at the post office to get a cheaper rate. Although Italy is in the EU I still had to fill out a long customs form for whatever reason. And then the train back to trail was full of screaming teenagers ... I was already exhausted when I was back on trail!
|Lago di Matese|
A last experiment on the E1 ended in scratches on legs and arms. I decided to follow the Sentiero Italia from now on - unfortunately in the rain. I sought refuge in an abandoned house which looked like the film set of a horror movie, even a bat came flying by. When I reached Lago di Matese I felt more like in Scotland than Italy. I was just having lunch in a playground when it started to bucket down again and I ended up waiting out the shower under a slide watching videos on my smartphone ... The weather forecast was a nightmare and I decided to wait out three days in nearby Naples where there are enough sites to keep my busy for several days.
And what a coincidence: A German friend of mine was just visiting Naples so that we could have a reunion in Italy! But as much as I liked sightseeing in town I was itching to get back on trail. It was getting colder and colder and Corono numbers were rising in Italy. I started to worry if I was able to finish this hike as planned ...
Tuesday, 9 March 2021
I took the "antique" train back to Antrodoco where the trail soon took me to a private property with "No entry"-signs - and several aggressively barking dogs. Right behind the fence was another trail marker so I was quite sure this is were I was supposed to go. Unfortunately the dogs thought otherwise. I used the old trick of picking up a rock which kind of worked here as well. The dogs kept a distance while I sneaked across grazing cows and climbed up the mountains. The dogs were too lazy to follow me uphill. The photo shows the view back down to the farm property that I had just crossed.