Thursday, October 11, 2012

Getting to Spoleto the Hard Way: Hiking the Olive Grove Trail

         In Italy, they call it the “Festival Dei Due Mondi” (Festival of Two Worlds). The box office even has some of the same posters we hang in Charleston. “I’m from ‘the other world,’” I blurt. Glancing up disinterestedly, the ticket seller is decidedly unimpressed by the fact that we have traveled from the other “mondi” hiking more than 50 hilly, sweaty miles to get there.

         Ten days earlier my husband Mark and I had sat waiting at the appointed meeting spot in Foligno, anxiously asking ourselves, “Can you make a plan with a stranger via the Internet from 3,000 miles away, reveal your credit card number, and actually expect someone to show up?” But exactly at 2 p.m. Luc arrived. “I’m Swiss; I’m always prompt!” From a hilltop café with the next day’s destination on the horizon, he described our self-guided route along the Olive Grove Trail. Our walk would take us through some of the most untouched parts of Umbria down a trail lined with olive groves, past charming fortified villages, down ancient cobblestone streets and past Romanesque churches. St. Francis Di Assissi wandered this area in the twelfth century and today it’s home to some of the country’s best culinary delicacies, especially truffles. Most every family makes a signature olive oil from their groves. It sounded exciting, exotic, difficult and daunting. We quizzed him: “What if we get hurt?” “What if we get lost?” “What if we want to quit?” “Are we too old to do this?” “Why are we the only crazy ones going?” As we finished the first of the trip’s many bottles of Prosecco, Luc answered all our questions and we mustered our courage to begin.

        As we stepped into the olive groves early the next morning, farmers waved and wished us a good journey. The arcane directions became our Bible although they seemed to have been written by someone who was speaking English as a second language, was directionally dyslexic, and didn’t know the English definition of “path”: “After climbing all the steps up to the lovely village of Pale, you reach the Piazza de Castello. … it might sound weird but you must cross it and climb what looks like a path in front of you.” We bantered: “This rocky, overgrown, dried up streambed? It can’t be!” Reading further: “As the trail disappears, look sharply up the hill to the left and spot the roof of a pink house. This is your hotel.” We balked: “What?” “Where?” “That little building way up there?” “There’s no sign!” Mark threatened: “Tell me we’re not going to knock on someone’s door in the middle of nowhere! If that’s not it, I’m going to kill somebody!” Guess who. Bloodshed almost occurred when a confused woman answered our knock. Fortunately, the guesthouse owner intervened and we soon cooled off in the much-appreciated swimming pool.

         Our next day’s directions warned of “the most difficult day with many climbs and a long stretch on the asphalt road.” Ancient stone lanes meandered through Roviglierto, Santa Maria in Valle and other ancient villages, each surrounded by crumbling walls and simple farms. Hot and thirsty, we were surprised to find no stores at all. Not even someplace to buy a cold drink or sandwich. People tended their gardens and livestock, and shared the shade in the square where we ate our salami and bread and rested. Since it was a Sunday, the echo of church bells reverberated through the valley between the towns, the only sound as we walked. Deep in the forest, clinging to the rocky hillside, the Abbey of Sossavivo appeared as from a Grimm’s fairytale. Famous for its 14th century frescoes and chanting monks, today it was quiet and spooky. Maybe the monks were hiding or too hot to sing. Further on, we zigzagged up and down the hillside, catching sight of our next destination: the walled medieval town of Trevi in the distance.
     In the blazing midday sun, we began the long asphalt section that led into town. Although we drank plenty of water, dehydration caused our hands to swell and we could hardly close our fists. We decided to veer off course and treat ourselves to lunch. Despite our disheveled appearance, we joined a crowd of nicely dressed families and uniformed policeman raucously enjoying Sunday lunch and delighted in ample servings of pasta with truffles. Then we called the hotel to come and get us. We’re no fools. Arriving at the Casa Guilia, we reveled in the huge room at the top floor of the sprawling 17th century estate. We thought this was living the good life until we saw the next destination.

        The hike’s highlight was walking to Il Castello di Poreta described as “surrounded by lush forest and overlooking valleys of olive groves…the ultimate in tranquility, panorama and comfort.” Really? A castle? Or more like a Boris Karloff kind of castle? Leaving Trevi in the cool of early morning, we
arrived at noon after walking five hours. We were the only guests. The manager was very glad to see us, as our early arrival meant he could go home for the afternoon, leaving us all alone. King and Queen of our own castle. And it really was one too. It even had a private sixteenth century frescoed church and miles of views in every direction. Later that evening, the manager returned to cook us a sumptuous meal of stuffed pork, truffled potatoes, home made bread and local wine as we enjoyed the starry view from the terrace. It was hard to leave the next day. 
        “Rough and ready, ready to roll” was our daily mantra. We obstinately put faith in directions such as “Turn right by the red washtub”. And often got lost. Once we stopped a motorist to ask for directions, and he insisted on driving us to where he thought we should be. He let us out on a country road a few miles later and we were completely off the trail. We encountered very few walkers, no hikers at all. Villagers we passed smiled in amusement as we trudged by sweating in the heat. Two young Italian men were on a one-hour stroll and joined us one day, practicing their meager English. We were proud to tell them that we had walked ten days and were finally reaching Spoleto that afternoon. 

        Safe and exhilarated the next day in the wonderful Hotel La Macchia just outside of Spoleto, we were surprised to be summoned to the lobby for a visitor. It was Luc from the tour company coming to host a celebration for us. The friendly family that runs the hotel and Luc had prepared a little feast to toast our journey and hear our adventures. We had a tremendous sense of accomplishment, not only for reaching the destination but also because we had never had to call Luc for help. 

        Later in the week, crowded into our stone seats in the Teatro Romano, we watched Chip Menotti enter the 2,000 year old amphitheater with his entourage of high-fashion glitterati. Chatter in several languages surrounded us as the panorama of the Italian sky turned dark and the enrapturing sounds of Andy Garcia’s Cuban band began. This was the moment we had walked for. We Charlestonians at The Festival Dei Due Mondi.

Originally published in Charleston Magazine

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