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Mountains, Mongrels and Motorhomes Part Three: Hilda

Update 6: Goodbye Mountains

ITALY | Sunday, 27 November 2016 | Views [337]

24.   Arco, Italy (27th September – 4th October):

As Pisogne was effectively battening down the hatches for the winter, we decided to go to Riva del Garda on the shores of Lake Garda as we thought that the summer season might be slightly longer there and we knew that the nearby town of Arco was a world-famous climbing hotspot - we fancied a bit of rock climbing as a compromise between staying in a warm climate and doing outdoor type stuff. We took the Passo di Croce Dominii as our route which was predominantly on very narrow roads through an almost deserted countryside which didn’t look unlike the Lake District in England (aside from the lack of traffic) and, for some reason that I cannot explain, the van got completely covered in cow shit. We arrived in Riva del Garda with the van looking like a farm vehicle and were amazed to find that the place was completely rammed. We were somewhat overwhelmed; the campsite was absolutely huge but had only three available places and everyone (and I mean everyone) was German. The sheer volume of people came as a complete contrast to what we had become used to so neither of us felt inclined to stay. Moreover, although I am a fan of the Germans, seeing a place so completely overwhelmed was a little too much. All of the cars on the roads had German plates, everything written was in German and when shop owners or people in the street spoke to you, they simply used German. We learned later that Munich is often called the most northern city of Italy but the reality is that Riva del Garda is more of a suburb of Munich. To escape the crowds we headed up the road a few kilometres to the town of Arco itself and found the campsites to be active (most plots had a slack line slung between two trees, you know the type) but a lot less busy.

The very next day we set off for our first taste of rock climbing in the famous Arco aided by a free guidebook to the most well known crags. Now, Rachel does like rock climbing but only if the weather isn’t wet... ...or too cold... ...or too hot. There also needs to be enough people but it cannot be too busy. Oh yes, the climbing cannot be too hard or too easy and the routes need to be not too short or too long. Provided the walk in to the crag isn’t too hard or the crag too difficult to find and if the routes are clearly marked with good protection then she does quite enjoy it. The upshot of this is that I had braced myself for disappointment but, by some form of miracle, all of Rachel’s criteria were met, not just once but repeatedly, and we spent the next fortnight climbing every other day. We both really got back into it and everything started to come together and in the space of a couple of weeks Rachel was leading 4b confidently and I was leading 5b and seconding 5c (which is a lower grade than the pre-middle-aged me used to be able to lead but higher than I had expected). The only person who was not so keen on the climbing was Hilda who, apart from getting rather bored at the bottom whilst we went up and down the rocks, she re-discovered her old fear of flying people that she had previously overcome. What set her off were the wing-suited base jumpers deploying their parachutes just above our heads having leapt off the top of the huge rock face behind where we were climbing – Arco is that sort of a place.

On the off days, we spent time in the town of Arco where there are more climbing shops than food or clothes shops and we did a couple of local via ferrata. Arco, despite it’s fame as a climbing venue and the German invasion, was a friendly town and a nice place to be and had not taken on the intimidating or "too cool for school" atmosphere that, in my opinion, places like Chamonix have. That said, the people of the town were all slim with slightly over-developed shoulders and mostly wearing something in lime green which is obviously the in-colour for outdoor fashion this year. The abundance of climbing shops also yielded a new pair of boots for me - which is no easy task given that God had to root though the spares bin when it came to my feet - and, guess what, after trying on fifty three million pairs, the only ones that fitted were lime green! I am now in fashion (or at least my feet are) for the very first time in my life.


25.   Milan, Italy (5th October):

By the 5th October, the whole area had started to empty out and, although the weather was still fine, there was a chill to the air and the trees had started to turn autumnal. We were driving to Milan where I was planning to meet up with my old team from work who were all having a meeting there. The drive took three hours (half of which was driving down Lake Garda – it is huge) and we arrived to find the campsite at Milan to be empty save for an encampment of Irish gypsies who yelled at each other from one van to another. I left Rachel in the early evening (half expecting to return home the next day to find the van on bricks and ransom note for Rachel’s safe return) and took the bus and tube to the hotel where my ex-colleagues were staying and joined them for drinks and then dinner. It was a really great evening and fantastic to catch up with everyone and the whole evening went by in a flash. It is amazing how, in such a relatively short space of time, the lives that my ex-colleagues are leading now and I myself was leading only a few months ago, can seem so incredibly hectic.


26.   Riva del Garda, Italy (6th October – 14th October):

The following day, and with a significant beer induced headache, I got back to Rachel and we set off for Lake Como as there was some good rock climbing in the area but when we got to one of the very few open campsites, the place didn’t appeal in the slightest so we had a dirty MacDonald’s in an attempt to cure the hangover (it didn’t work, it never does, I don’t know why I keep trying) and headed back to Lake Garda. This time, the place was much quieter so we stayed in the town of Riva del Garda and were back rock climbing the next day only for Rachel to take her first lead fall. The weather remained pleasant (we were still wearing T-shirts in the day) but by 9th October there was snow on the higher hills so the activities in the days that followed were determined by temperature and turned out to be a mix of running, walking Hilda, via ferrata and more climbing. I managed the Monte Albano via ferrata in Mori which is one of the most difficult in Italy which I was rather pleased with myself for and Hilda learned to body surf which she found fantastic fun and was a great spectacle for us and a crowd of other onlookers - it basically consisted of swimming out to fetch the ball and then riding the waves back to shore.


27.   San Gimignano, Italy (15th October – 17th October):

By 15th October we had climbed most of what we were able to do in our free guidebook and the weather was deteriorating so we resolved to head south in our continuing quest to prolong the summer. We headed for the town of San Gimignano on the grounds that it looked like a nice place to start our time away from the mountains. The drive took around four hours in total and we were treated to our first taste of the gradual decline in civilisation that occurs as you head south. Initially this manifested itself in even more impatient driving and gradually deteriorating roads but we got there in the end and settled in a campsite a few kilometres from the town.

The following day we strolled into town with Hilda. It was a lovely hot day (ten degrees warmer than Arco and getting towards thirty degrees by early afternoon) and San Gimignano turned out to be a very quaint old town surrounded by typical Tuscan countryside. The town itself was quite small so after an hour wandering around the small streets we decided to have a lunch to celebrate the formal end to our time in the hills and do some people watching. I ordered a lunchtime beer for the first time in ages and, before we knew it, the whole afternoon had been spent in the central piazza enjoying the sun and chatting to whomever happened to sit next to us which culminated in being invited to Transylvania by a pair of Romanian's that we had a great time with (it is an offer that I would really like to take up one day). By early evening we meandered back to the campsite having soaked up the atmosphere (and quite a lot of cash) and were promptly invited to join two other Brits. that we had spoken to earlier in the day for an evening drink in their van. We duly obliged and finally made it back home at 1.00am. The next day, to clear the head, Rachel used the interweb to find a long walk from the town through the Tuscan landscape of vine yards, olive groves and old houses. It was a really lovely walk and the blue sky showed off the autumn colours to best effect. That evening we walked back into the town for a meal to get a feel for the place at night and were not disappointed with either the food or the atmosphere.


28.   Siena, Italy (18th October – 19th October):

The next day I felt rather restless so ran the walk of the previous day with Hilda and then set off for Siena. The drive was short but the roads were ropey and the general standard of driving was now way beyond bad. A typical scenario was an occasion when two lanes merged into one due to roadworks on a dual carriageway. There was plenty of warning and the carriageway had clearly been closed for a long time given the weeds growing out of the tarmac, nonetheless, the final closure of one lane took the locals by complete surprise and the merging of traffic was a pantomime of last minute breaking and swerving. We made it to the campsite in one piece (interestingly there were no Brits. at all – do we not travel any more?) but we were rather tired so we had an early night before setting off on the bus to Siena the next day. The bus in was fine and we mooched around Siena for most of the day. We had the obligatory ice cream, took in the Duomo and clock towery type thing and went to the various squares. It was a pretty place indeed and more interesting for there being lots of independent shops as oppose to the usual chains that have taken over many similar sized cities. However, personally, I lean more towards the natural than the man-made and am somewhat of the view that once you have seen one enormous Gothic marble Duomo you have seen them all, so by early afternoon we decided to head back...

We waited at the bus station at the allotted stop but no bus came at the allotted time. The driver of another bus told us that the information boards were wrong and that we needed to be at another stop. Having some experience of southern Italy we knew that neither the driver nor the information boards could be trusted so we stood in the middle of the bus station and waited to ambush the next bus wherever it stopped. When it arrived our plan worked out and we got on the bus. The driver immediately told us that Hilda needed a muzzle (which we knew about and she was wearing but he hadn’t noticed) and then said that she was too big for the bus. This completely stumped us. Nobody had ever mentioned that the size of the dog was an issue and it hadn’t mattered in the morning. Moreover, we had paid for our tickets and this was the only way home. The bus driver told us to get off or he would call the police so I told him to get on with it and went down the bus hoping that he would get over himself. He didn’t get over himself and instead called the police and stopped the bus. In the following stand-off, I felt increasingly uneasy about inconveniencing the other passengers (some of whom had already got off sensing that this fiasco was going to go on for a while) so when one chap explained that "the bus drivers are crazy, you just have to live with it" we took it as an excuse to back down with some face and got off the bus. I was furious. We had no way of getting back (dogs are not allowed in taxis and we couldn’t walk as we had no idea where the campsite was), we had paid for our tickets and it had gone fine in the morning so why had the rules changed now? As we wandered the streets, I happened to spot two Carabinieri (a sort of step above the local police) in a car so went over to explain our problem. I was fully expecting to be told to get lost and stop wasting police time but what happened next was even more bizarre than the bus incident...

After five minutes of internal dialogue between the two coppers in the car and a phone call to somebody they asked me the weight of the dog. I was not sure whether or not weight was a formal criterion that determined whether or not the dog was allowed on the bus but, if it wasn’t, why were they asking and, if it was, how could it ever be practically measured? Whatever, when I told them Hilda’s weight there was then another phone call and after five more minutes (Rachel was timing this) the question came up as to whether any passengers objected to the dog. They hadn’t. At the fifteen minute point, I was asked if I had a ticket for the dog but when I told them that it wasn’t needed, they seemed to accept this and there were more phone calls. After a full twenty minutes, I asked the killer question "How do I get home?". When the answer came back "It is very difficult" I began to question my own sanity. In the twenty minutes the exchange had taken I am pretty sure that they could have driven us to the campsite and driven back again but this hadn’t occurred to them. Indeed, given the time that this episode had already taken, their next move was astonishing: they told us to walk back to the bus stop where they would join us and wait for the next bus and speak to the driver. I was extremely grateful but couldn’t help be staggered at their choice of action. Two senior coppers were going to wait for what could be up to an hour for the next bus! Fortunately, good luck went our way and when the four of us arrived at the station, the bus was due in just five minutes. When we boarded the driver let us on without a question! We thanked the Carabinieri profusely but we were left wondering whether it might have been easier to have had a set of rules, I don’t know, perhaps even a notice or something, just to make public transport a little less ambiguous.

Anyway, we got back after what had amounted to nearly three hours of trying, only to discover that we had run out of dog food and needed to do an emergency shop. Nothing of this is of note other than the car park of the shop was a single lane road with parking spaces off to one side which meant that you had to drive in but reverse out the same way. As I was waiting, I watched one car reverse out just as another car was coming in. The rational next step would have been for the driver coming in to simply reverse back out, let the car that was vacating the space leave, and then go back in and take the space or, failing this, the car leaving the space could simply have driven forward, let the car behind park and then reversed back out. Neither of these things happened and instead both drivers got closer and closer to each other, got out of their cars, had an exchange of some sort and decided that the best course of action was to squeeze past each other in a space barely big enough for one car. They managed it but I was left aghast for the second time in the space of few hours at what passed for common sense around here.


29.   Greve in Chianti, Italy (20th October – 24th October):

That night we had a great meal in the campsite restaurant and the next day set off towards Florence as we were due to meet my old pal Alex and his partner there on the coming Tuesday. When we left we made two attempts to fill up with petrol and a failed bid to check the tyre pressures - nothing, absolutely nothing, is straightforward in southern Itlay. We had resolved to stay in the Tuscan countryside to do more walking before getting to Florence and, after driving to the first campsite and finding it closed (should we have been surprised?) we drove to the town of Greve in Chianti as it looked pretty and stayed in the camping car park which was thankfully free and busy enough not to be vulnerable. We spent five days there mainly doing lovely walks through the countryside and enjoying the continuing good weather and picture postcard scenery (the only exception being a day spent in the local launderette getting through our enormous pile of washing that had been accumulating for far longer than is healthy). On a couple of occasions we passed through the very pretty town of Montefioralle and stopped off for cake in a very quaint tea room and on another walk we somehow got involved in a wild boar hunt! The latter event, as these things often do, evolved rather quickly and one minute we were walking along a path minding our own business and then, during the course of the next minute, we first spotted men with guns, then spotted three wild boar running for their lives followed by a pack of dogs and then suddenly were dancing like puppets on a string as a volley of shots went off from just behind us. It was hard to know what to be most scared of given that the guns, the dogs and the wild boar were all potentially rather serious health hazards, but in the event, I was actually more concerned about Hilda!

Tags: alps, climbing, dogs, hilda, motorhomes, mountaineering, mountains, rachel, simon, walking

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