Friday, 14 May 2021

Europe Diagonal: Interlude in Greece

Back in my home base in Berlin I have been deliberating trail options. Not too many countries are open without quarantine and not even all of these are interesting to me as a hiker. And after miscalculating my chances of a straight thruhike to Finland I was now looking for a "safe" option - which appeared in the form of Greece! The country announced complete opening to tourists starting from May 15th - no quarantine, open hotels, open museums and no travel restrictions - only a PCR test required. 

Still my planning didn't first work out. I booked a cheap flight to Crete, which was cancelled only two days later ... After much deliberation I booked another, not quite so cheap flight. 

I had also hoped to be able to get at least my first Corona vaccination during my stay in Germany - but no such luck. And with vaccines being scarce but plenty of people fighting to get it the situation will not improve too soon. But as soon as I am able to scare a vaccination date I will return to Germany - as much as I hate flying back and forth. But this crazy Corona year requires special measures. I will not be able to do one long straight thruhike, but at least I can do several shorter hikes. 

The E4 in Crete seems to be perfect for this weird situation. First of all it is on my route "Europe Diagonal" from Ireland to Greece. The length of the E4 in Crete is around 500 kilometers and can easily be extended into Peloponnes and Northern Greece, also on my route. I'll start at the Eastern terminus of the E4 in Crete and keep going until the vaccination calls me back to Germany.

I am really looking forward to this hike because of two reasons: Although I have travelled extensively all over the world, I have never been in Greece. And after having hiked through snow storms for six weeks in Poland I am ready for some warm weather now!

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Poland: Goldap to Lithuanian border

The Pusza Romincka (Rominter Heide) is a huge forest, now partly in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and partly in Poland. The border is only marked by a couple of boundary stones - and I stayed clear of it! German emperor Wilhelm II used to hunt here - as did Hermann Göring. I found this withered memorial in the middle of a swampy forest, the inscription says that His Majesty Emporer Wilhelm II shot a buck here in 1908. 

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.

It was still snowing every day now end of April and I ditched camping. Accommodation was plentiful and cheap, mainly because of the Green Velo, a popular bike route through Eastern Poland. 
I passed the former monastery of Wigry, founded by the Camaldoli order - a place in Italy that I had visited just the year before. Now hotel guests live in the fomer hermit's cells. 
I discovered former Russian Orthodox churches and a Jewish cemetery - this area has housed so many now forgotten people and cultures. 
I was very lucky with my second last accommodation. The landlady, eight month pregnant, spoke fluent English because she had worked in the UK before. When I left after a hearty breakfast, Joana gave me her private cell phone number - just in case. She must have had foresight! 
When I reached my final destination at the Lithuanian border, the pilgrimage town of Sejny the famous church was already closed. I had made a reservation at the only hotel in town via, but when I arrived the place was all locked up.

I called the phone number on the confirmation but whoever answered the phone only spoke Polish - and just hung up on me. When I tried to call again - no one picked up the phone. Why bother with an ignorant tourist! Never ever such a thing had happened to me before. When I reported this incident to after my trip, I was not even offered an excuse or given any compensation! My review was not published on their website. I have used for over a hundred of bookings - and am deeply disappointed now. They take your money - but don't help you when there is a problem. "We are not responsible", was there only answer to my written complaint ...
But luckily I had Joana's phone number. When I told her about my problem, she jumped into her car, picked me up and even gave me dinner! 
And now comes the sad ending of this hike ...

Due to Corona I was only allowed to cross into Lithuania with a negative test - and a seven day quarantine. Which is a long time for a country that I would traverse in 2,5 weeks. Plus the situation in all three Baltic countries was the same. I had decided to go back to Germany and do another hike in the meantime. 
But Poland was now considered a high-risk country in Germany which meant I could only come back with a negative Corona test. And as it turned out that was difficult to obtain in Poland. PCR tests were easy to find but very expensive. Antigene tests were accepted in Germany but rarely available in Poland. The closest test center was in Bialystok - and Joana was going there to have a check up of her pregnancy. She and her Bulgarian husband took me directly to the test center and even inquired for me if they offered the right test. I still had to wait 2,5 hours in the cold before it was my turn. I have never seen so much inefficiency as in the test center ... After a short sightseeing tour through Bialystok I took the train back to Berlin where I also had to go into quarantine - but only for five days which are tolerable when you have Wifi and a laptop to work with. I hope to be able to continue towards Finland later this summer!

Poland: Across Masuria from Olsztyn to Goldap

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. 

The next days were a historical delight. I walked through Dobre Miasto (Guttstadt) and Lidbark Warminski (Heilsberg), both former German towns. Most of the old houses have been destroyed, but both places still sport huge brick cathedrals which stick out of modern communist housing blocks in a bizarre way. Heilsberg had another surprise in form of an WW I (!) PoW cemetery. 

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
87% of Polish people are Catholic nowadays. Therefore it does not come as a surprise that several pilgrimage sites are located along the route. I had never heard of Stoczek (Springborn) before and the huge monastery plus church looks a bit like a UFO in the middle of the namesake village with only 300 inhabitants. Wandering around the big complex I even came across a pilgrimage hostel with its doors wide open - but nobody there to check me in! Because I expected the hostel to be closed due to Corona I did not dare to check me in myself. After half an hour of knocking on every door but getting no answer I left the place and frustatredly decided to camp.
Something similar happened in Swietka Lipa (Heiligelinde), a baroque gem with a world famous organ. I came right on time for evening service and could recharge my phone. But due to Corona public toilets and the pilgrimage hostel were closed, due to night frost water fountains still turned off. Again I had to wander through endless corridors until I found a water tap. When I left with my refilled bottles a monk was just about to close the monastery gate - I slipped out in the very last minute.

I arrived in Ketzryn (Rastenburg) on a Sunday morning - ideal for recharging my phone again because now all the churches would be open. They were open indeed but masses were scheduled every hour and people were even standing outside to attend. No way I could sneak in and look for an electrical outlet. After trying my luck at several churches I arrived at the brick Gothic cathedral just between two services. While my electronic devices were recharging I discovered paintings of Luther and Melanchthon on the pulpit - in a Catholic church! An information board (in Polish and German) gave me the solution: The majority of the former German population had been Protestant, therefore this Catholic cathedral had been Protestant until 1945. 
Next was a very unholy place: Hitler's Wolf's Lair which has been turned into a sort of historical amusement park. I had already visited this place on my bike trip through Poland several years ago. Back then you could still play paintball in General Jodl's bunker ...

This time I just walked past but even outside the fenced in pay area there were plenty of bunkers to see. 
Next day took me to the dilapidated castle of Steinort, where one of the members of the July 20th, 1944 attempt had lived and been arrested. Despite its historical importance the place is about to collapse and the park is completely overgrown. In front of the estate a huge modern marine overlooks Mamry, one of the biggest Masurian lakes. I recharged my phone in the public restrooms which were totally empty due to still freezing temperatures. 

Despite the cold this section along endless crystal clear lakes was a delight. This lake district is pretty flat but close to Goldap I passed a ski centre with several lifts! The highest "mountain" rose up to 274 meters ...
I had rented a holiday apartment in Goldap where the landlady greeted me with a bottle of champagne, fruit and cake! And that is not all: Next day she arrived at noon with a Schnitzel for lunch - for free! I most have looked very hungry. Because it was still so cold I went to the visitor information centre were the friendly English speaking staff made a dozen phone calls to find accommodation for me for the next section. 

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 ...

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. 


Germany to Italy: Sora to Naples

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.

I ended up staying four days in Naples. It had been an excellent decision to get off trail because it was bucketing down so much that even the metro had to be closed due to flooding ...

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

Germany to Italy: L'Aquila to Sora

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. 

These lovely two lakes are actually reservoirs and I had spent an entire day walking around them on a very steep slope with partly overgrown trail. The view compensated for a lot of effort. I filled up with water at dusk in this village which meant that I had to walk until sunset where I camped at a fenced in picnic area. I was even protected from the cows which never showed up ... 
I was now only 50 kilometers away from Rome as the crow flies but felt like in a completely different world. I did not even do a day trip or rest day in Rome in order not get out of the hiking flow! 
I was now on the Sentiero Italia in the Monti Simbruni. I even walked through an abandoned ski resort which I would have never expected so close to Rome!
When I passed a commercial camp ground I was so thirsty that I asked for water. The receptionist told me there was no tap water (which I found hard to believe in a campground) but gave me bottled water. I wanted to pay for it but she refused. I still don't know whether the water here was potable or not.

Next highlight was the Santurio della Santissima Trinita starring a very rare old depiction of the Holy Trinity as three identical persons. The old chapel is perched into a sheer cliff and looks totally unaccessible but a narrow path led me down there. Modern pilgrims come by car but even they have to walk 20 minutes from the nearest parking lot. 
Because the old chapel is way too small for the masses of pilgrims mass is held open air on a terrace with a breathtaking view over the valley. There were dozens of souvenir stalls selling everything from baby bibs to rosaries. I was all alone again on the wonderful old hiking trail descending down into the village.

As you can see on the photo the Monti Simbruini are truly spectacular - but there is very little water. Before ascending I had made the mistake to try to follow the E1 again ending up in an impossible bushwhack. I detoured back to the Sentiero Italia taking too little water and had to hike the whole day with only one liter - big mistake! When I had finally descended again and reached the first water fountain I guzzled down two liters!
Next to the fountain I met a French cyclist I had already seen in the morning. It is always nice to meet fellow travellers but she was not the smartest one. When I police car showed up she asked them were to camp. The answer: "Definitely not here! Go down at least 10 km, because the next village there is out of our jurisdiction." 
Unfortunately I made the mistake not to camp here either - not because of the police, I just wanted to get some more miles in. Therefore I walked down the road at sunset getting this fantastic view of the monastery which is not inhabited any more. 

Alas, no camp site could be found. Where I had intended to camp there were too many houses. I even had to backtrack on the road in the dark and was followed by a car. I was pretty scared, turned off my headlamp and disappeared into a trail that shortcut the road switchbacks. But instead of driving on the car stopped and the driver got out. I listened intently in the darkness and suddenly something came rolling down the hill. The motor started and the car dashed off. Several trash bags rolled in front of my feet. This had not been a stalker but some person illegally dumping trash. Luckily I had not camped here ... I eventually found a decent campsite though where it was impossible to dump trash on me. 

As you can see in the photo a big thunderstorm was threatening. I decided to stay low and road walked to the train station in Sora. As much as I dislike road walking here it gave me the chance to constantly snack on apple, pear and fig trees plus grapes! In case you were wondering: I didn't have to steal the fruit, there are a lot of abandoned orchards where you can help yourself.
Nights were getting colder now in September and I had had my warm winter equipment sent to me in Montecassino, my next rest stop.