I’ve been here three weeks now tucked under the remote Majella mountains in Southern Italy looking after a campsite for my friends. They told me not to expect too many visitors while they were away on holiday. ‘Highly unlikely you’ll see anyone at this time of year.’
Cue a carload of Germans the second they leave. Questioning me about routes up the mountain thinking I was an Italian sheepherder raised on mutton and goat’s milk who knew the valley better than anyone else alive.
I explained to them that I was from Leeds, and raised on dripping and iced-buns and the only exploring I’d done was cycling up to the 1400 metre ski station at Passo Lanciano on my third day here. They seemed pretty impressed and asked if there was a route up there on foot instead of by bike. I said I didn’t know, vaguely pointing up to the bleak, brooding mountains above the campsite. Had I a map they asked. No I replied.
That was three weeks ago and I’m still waiting for them to return. I’m kidding of course. One did make it back and then spent the next two weeks in the pouring rain trying to find his friends.
‘Good for business though,’ I joked with him at the end of his ‘holiday’ as I charged him a full two weeks camping. ‘I’m sure they’ll turn up. When the snow’s thawed,’ I added. ‘And you must come back next year,’ I finished, handing him a loyalty card.
He thanked me for my generosity and left, just as the sun exploded out from behind the thundery clouds, giving me and Elizabeth the perfect opportunity to finally explore the local sights.
The Pennapiedimonte valley being one. A fine example of the perfect rugged gorge if ever there was one. In fact, I must send a memo to a Mr. S. Spielberg of Hollywood Studios saying something like: Stevieboy, if you want to make a new Indiana Jones film combining all the great shots from the others into one spectacular panoramic swashbuckling masterpiece, you could do it here. Signed. Philip Blogley. Pennapiedimonte, Italy.
I say this because as we were walking along the track cut into the sheer face of the gorge, I said to Elizabeth, ‘Do you think this is where they filmed The Temple of Doom?’
She looked at me blankly. I knew what she was thinking. Everywhere we go, he thinks it looks like a scene from Indiana Jones. She cleared her throat. ‘Which one was that?’ she asked warily.
‘The one where all the bad guys fall into the gorge and get eaten by crocodiles in the river below.’
‘What like that!’ she said motioning me over towards the precipitous edge knowing I’ve got the head for heights of a mole.
I looked down into the nothingness below. ‘Yes, exactly the same,’ I croaked, edging towards the safety of the path wall, even though I knew at any minute I could get crushed by a boulder cascading down from the steep gorge walls above.
Earlier on in our walk we’d trekked up to 4000 feet and had our sandwiches at a mountain refuge. Later we found a series of giant caves along what was once – about 500 million years ago – an old river bed, but which were now stranded over 1000 feet above the present one. Enormous entrances and high ceilings that made modern cathedrals, even the really old ones, look like models.
Not so long ago shepherds used them for sheltering sheep and goats, bricking up the entrances with stones to form natural pens. The one we found actually seemed to be in use, the smell of dung floating across the clean mountain air and hitting us like we’d walked into a public toilet on the Champs Elysee. Although I have to admit nothing quite as stomach clenchingly foul as a French squat toilet on Bastille Day.
The other highlight of these past weeks – apart from just enjoying the mountains and cooking rich goulash and arborio rice puddings on open fires – is swimming in the pools down by the benedictine abbey a few kilometres outside Serramonacesca where the campsite is located.
Created by the river that runs down from the Majella range, the pools are deep, blue and extraordinarily cold. Both me and Elizabeth have swum in some cold rivers and lakes on our travels, but these take cold bathing to another level. So cold in fact that it only hits you once you get out. Then you feel your legs splinter and crack like they’ve been doused in liquid nitrogen. Your head feels like it’s been mummified in cold ice cream and your hands have no recollection of ever being attached to your arms.
I’ve realised that the only rational thing to do is to quickly get in again. And again. Three times is perfect to get the heart racing. And after that you’re so cold you can’t feel anything anyway so it doesn’t really matter. The only way to warm up is to pelt it back on foot to the campsite and get into the open fire. I’m not joking either. I actually was half inside the fire in the living room when Elizabeth charged in and tried to rescue me.
‘I’m okay,’ I cried out. ‘Just trying to defrost. I’ll be alright in about two hours!’
‘Well don’t be long, we need that for pizza later.’
And she’s right. The open fire in the living room has a pizza oven built into the back of it and got me thinking that when they built houses here there must have built them round the pizza oven like you build a church round an altar. How practical is that?
You build your fire, let it get up to temperature, slap in your pizza, uncork the 10 litre flagons of wine they sell round here, put on your favourite film, say just for example, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and you don’t even have to leave the room.
And if you get too hot, you just dash down to the pools, immerse yourself, run back up and do it all again. Three times in fact. Raiders of Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade. Love Italy.