The highlight of our farmstay is a hodgepodge of domestic animals. Ducks, goats, swans and two funny Alpacas! On the other side of the fence there is a table with stale baguettes. Soon we have a feeding party. We get a good downpour until we reach the port. A quick check by the French border guard and we are off to board the ship. Strelka has to stay inside the car for the whole trip but this is peanuts compared to the Mediterranean crossing. I brace myself for the British border check, especially the animal control part, they have a reputation for excess pedanticness that reaches legendary levels (people still circulate stories of quarantined animals). Yet I am left with a big question mark, nobody checks anything. Dover is behind us and I am still perplexed, what about all the preparation, the stress and imaginary confrontations with police? Nope, nothing not even the slightest paperwork. Well I guess it was easier to enter with a car. Now take care to stay on the right, erm left side of the road which is the right side on this country. Back to England! Wuhuuu! I still think Brexit will not happen. Let’s see. Let’s see.
Somehow against all previous odds, we arrive early. The room is not yet ready so we wonder on this peaceful village, killing time. A contradiction, not the only one on our walk. In another timeline the serene pastures and nearby forest were the center-point of a bloody WWI battle (of Fromelles). Not as horrible as the battle of the Somme but enough to leave a commemorative cemetery of fallen soldiers (a few from as far as Australia). Cows ruminate in a nearby field, you barely see a soul, just picturesque brick farmhouses with tendered gardens.
Waking up in a quiet town, local radio station with French pop hits and warm coffee. The forests are near so we decide to go for a stroll before driving to the next destination. Our route choice is pure randomness. After the mushroom failure of North Italy, surprisingly Yana manages to find the first (or last of the season) Porcini. They are small but we gather a handful along with a couple of Parasols. A French grandpa observes as I pick one and we investigate it together. He says it’s “Tre bon, tre bon” roasted with olive oil. Indeed they made an excellent dinner! And best of all, no food poisoning 🙂
Passing the border to France is so anti-climaxing that it doesn’t even register in. Drive drive drive ops suddenly you are in French soil. No Gendarmerie, no Louis de Funes, no baguettes nothing. Just some rainy weather. Total letdown. To protest we stop in a le Mc Donald and order le fille of fish and les potatos. Accidentally I order with mock French-English accent. Somehow we decide to pronounce everything with “le”. Sounds more French and more fun. Deep down in some old filling cabinet on the depths of my memory there are some French lessons dated 20+ years. I ll be damned if I can utter anything more than, merci, vulevu cushe avec moi, aujourd’hui, Jordy (rember him?) comment tu t’appelle, Lunedi. I also remember a funny gag from the Freak Brothers comic, where Fat Freddy somehow ends up in France and is put off by all the scary sounding food names, Poison, Crudities, Pain.
We wake up and our eyes still hurt from all the perfect landscapes. The smell of manure tries to balance it a little but it is still ridiculous. Damn you Switzerland! to vent our steam we stop in a picturesque turquoise lake fed by a frosty alpine river. I baptize myself for 10 seconds (tops) yelling like a madman. Once out and blood repopulates the extremities you feel invigorated and ready to face the world. Strelka swims casually without much fuss bringing big branches from within. Goes in and out five times and doesn’t even bark. Don’t sweat it. Yana is not partaking in this madness. After the morning swim we continue for a small town next to Zurich, Natalia, Marios and Anna (the newest member of the family) are going to host us. Nomadic family reunion! 🙂
This morning we cross the border between Italy and Switzerland. Three passports (check), tree adequate crossing the border faces (check), greetings in any of the three languages (check). A jolly policemen with a gun asks us if we’re going to use the highways and redirects us to the office to buy a sticker for a car. With this sticker you can pay upfront for all the highways for a year. Sticky toll system and it’s not much too, around 40 Euros.
We drive in without any further questions, new country for both of us, Switzerland at last. It meets us with a broken road and we start wondering about the fairness of the sticker. Just a bit further I spot a giant pumpkin on the side of the road, it forces us to turn back and enter someone’s yard for a picture.
After that we drive further and further into the heart of this land, the scenery starts wow-ing us by each new turn. The eye can’t process so much beauty – smooth hills, crystal blue lakes, yellow autumn trees under the amber sun. 370 pictures later we arrive to Am Bach, to stay in the house of an Irish and a Swiss priests. I close my eyes and can only see these ridiculously good looking landscapes that my brain have to process before falling asleep. Tough day.
We decide to stay one more day in Northern Italy and enjoy the rugged mountains. After all when will we come back here again? (well definitely in August when it is prime Porcini season). Plus I still have mushroom fever so needed to hunt a little more in dense forests and lush valleys. Our host for today is Pietro, he has a house tucked in the foot of a mountain. Ideal base for long hikes and explorations. I showed him the Parasol mushroom I found earlier and he gave me the Italian name: “Mazza di Tamburo” (Drummer?). The house is boiling hot. An old wood-fired oven is radiating heat like a volcano. Yana is happy! I take Strelka and get lost in the woods. On the way back the forest gets pitch black even though there is still ambient light outside. We exit just in time and head to the hot hot kitchen for some warm Orecchiette.
It’s time to get serious and head to the mountains. Searching for porcini spots I pin some random place on the map, somewhere North East of Milan. But first a stop for coffee and focaccia. Valleys give way to rugged mountains. We pass a lovely lake and see two guys preparing for spearfishing! Arriving in the Alpic region, forests look grandiose. If not here where?
Asking for fungi leads me to Guido the hotel expert. We try to communicate in Italian, about some valley after the village of St. Antonio. Posso trovare qui a poi giri a destra. Or something like that. But wait two minutes. I will take you to the start of the footpath. I was not prepared for that, just went down to pick some stuff from the car. But hey, you don’t plan serendipitous moments. Guido appears with the hotel van and I jump along. Yana will understand.
Dashing through the narrow streets he drives like a local and greets everybody. We stop at a farm where he chats to a lady with two rose cheeked daughters and a dog. I cannot follow the exchange but the woman disappears inside the house only to come out a minute later holding a fresh egg. Just your casual drinking egg for the road. A few local interactions and we arrive in the next village, the starting point of two footpaths. Both leading to valleys were porcini grow plentiful. On the way back we speed like Valentino Rossi, pass a red light and don’t bother stopping at a roundabout. “There is no police here”. I run to the room, Yana is amused, grab the car keys and Strelka and we head to the valley. There is still some daylight. We don’t encounter a soul in the path, just empty mountain huts. Fresh oxygen tickles the nostrils. Unleashed we reach the valley, stillness and more huts.
The forests are so dense that light has a hard time breaking through. We scout the ground yet no prized mushroom in sight. I have to admit defeat. As the song goes: ” I been in the right place but it must have been the wrong time”. Apparently up here the porcini season ended in September. On the way back, we meet the friendliest pack of donkeys. They come so close I can pet them in the head. Strelka freaks out and starts running in circles. As Heraclitus said: “Dogs bark at what they don’t understand.” Need more donkeys and more exposure!
Day 9 of our trip starts with arranging our next move. We agree to make a small detour to visit Florence and spend a night in Lentigione which will bring us closer to the famous porcini area next day.
Being delayed by our frequent ‘let me just check out for a second’ stops we arrive to Florence quite late, around 4 pm. In my morning imagination we were walking through deserted autumn streets of Florence, in reality the streets were crowded by tourists. So we decided to drive through the city instead which proved to be quite an entertaining way of sightseeing with me hanging out with the camera from the car’s window and Strelka as a parrot sitting in the middle centred on the road. We’ve amused tourists.
Our last kilometres were on the grown-up pants highway predominated by giant trucks. They were competing with each other and were not bothered by us. Driving last bits through the straight roads between endless fields with cows and tractors, we reached our room in a random farmhouse late at night. An Italian grandpa gave us the keys and disappeared. Where are we, still in Italy? These fields reminds me so much of the Netherlands.
There is no plan, we slowly move upwards, with a few twists and turns. Book a place for the next day, pet friendly 🐶 (check), 0-50 euros 💰 (check), including breakfast 🥐☕ (checkitty-check). Put the location on the GPS, pack our stuff and off we go. Some spatial neurons surely atrophy by this satellite convenience but it’s too good to pass. Mental hurdles are good for the brain, says a brain surgeon on a podcast. Use it or lose it applies here. Unpredictably predictable Italian drivers sharpen our mental game. They frequently offset from their lanes in poorly visible mountain turns sending shivers down our spines. Roads that twist like fusilly feed into the almighty Autostrade. The speed limit is a bit of a joke here, even for truck drivers. We are but a tiny snail, migrating slowly.
Sipping our morning coffee we decide to brake the rules of our extremely strict schedule and stay one more night in Torre del Colle. If you find a place that makes you time travel you ought to spend a little bit more time there. Twenty kilometers away lies the town of Assisi, birthplace of San Fransisco. To get there you cross tended vineyards a village called Cantalupo and many abandoned farmhouses. In some parallel universe or another stage in life I could see us buying and restoring one. Stone gives a different feel to otherwise nondescript rectangular shapes. There are a few dogs in Assisi and even more tourists, the town is beautiful and there is an uncanny consistency. All the buildings sing to the same tune when it comes to building material. Different shapes and sizes but harmonious as a whole. In a local vineyard a gang of hens march happily along the stalks, picking slugs and the odd fallen grape. Not a bad life, not a bad life at all.
Yana might be driving but I drive her nuts scanning the passing forests. We do random stops into the most promising musky areas where mushroom could grow. This is a new hobby for me, but in many countries a time honored tradition. So far porcini are nowhere to be found, but we have many forests to cross still. We leave Abruzzio and enter Umbria, new region, different landscapes. Tonight’s shelter is a pleasant surprise. A walled settlement (could be considered a tiny castle) with just a handful of houses all made of stone. Walking through the arched gate and you travel back to medieval times, you can smell wine in the air. If a dagger welding bandito suddenly jumped from a dark alley demanding our silver, I wouldn’t be surprised.
We drive so slow the space time continuum elongates, making arrival times very very relative. According to the GPS 200km should take about two hours. We make them in six. Stop for a coffee here, for some mushroom hunting there. Go check that beautiful lake, get lost in a forest, get stuck behind a slow moving truck in winding mountain roads. Yesterday we stretched the time so much it got dark until we arrived in our shelter. Remote nature will be extra pitch black, but then you get to wake up and see the view for the first time. A farm house amidst fields of green pasture. Pasqualina the owner is living there with her son, we speak in broken Italian and supplement with automated mobile translations. Modern and rural, foreign and familiar, Wi-Fi and homemade cheese. Stories about visiting travelers from New Zealand, and in the background music from the fiesta of the nearby village. And off we go to the next destination. From Castelpagano towards some tiny village in the middle of Abruzzo.
It was a pleasant morning walk, through the sunny roads of the deserted seaside resort of Torre Santa Sabina. Tendered houses, friendly dogs and Italian coffee. About the latte(r), I’ve order a latte and was observing the barista while he was working his magic. My order amused his colleague, who was observing me getting my “latte” – a big glass of steamed milk. In Italian “latte” means milk, and for a coffee you need to specify “cafe latte”. Noted.
100 km later and we’ve arrived to Bari with its small market of homemade pasta, vintage Vespas, picturesquely drying clothes on every other balcony and an iconic design of Bialetti moka express. Enjoying the road perhaps a bit longer than we’ve planned we made the last kilometres in the dark, arriving to Castelpagano just after sunset.
Spend the night in a car on a boat, with water above and below. Surprisingly calm, just a few sore limbs to stretch on the shore. The alternatives were not much better, a crowded ship and a deck that resembled more a swimming pool. Oh well, only 9 hours and here we are in Brindizi. Not in a mood for many kilometers we end up on the sleepy sea side resort of Torre Santa Sabina. Emptiness and stillness, the holiday makers long gone. Only Rocko and Freddo come to greet us, two small male dogs happy as clams. Rafael the Italian grandpa who rents his house speaks only Italian. We manage to communicate. The Italian lessons I did 11 years ago, still function somewhere in the area of the brain dedicated to half learned languages. The babel cortex. Russian words mix in as I speak. We wander around observing empty summer houses. Athens still clings through street names.
The stormy clouds carrying Autumn had finally reached Greece as we woke up to the smell of rain. Just a day ago we left Athens with +30 °C in our t-shirts and now we were glad that we’ve packed raincoats and fleece shirts. On our way a river broke its banks, flooding the road. While we waited for the traffic to resume, a granny with a jacket on her head appeared on the side of a road from a village nearby to check what was happening. She crossed herself and in the direction of the river.
When later we’ve arrived to the port town Igumenitsa, Poseidon with Zeus decided to say their goodbyes and organised a tremendous farewell thunder storm. Cars were swimming and lightnings were flashing every other second making the whole electricity in the town to blink and keep switching on and off. What a wonderful night to cross the sea, adventure at its best.
You don’t really think about your stuff, until you have to pack them in boxes. The more you move the more you trim. A small vehicle makes for creative constraints. Even if you wanted to, you can’t carry much. Two backpacks, Strelka’s food and her pillow, a box with various stuff. A tent, two sleeping bags, and two mats (that I doubt will survive the journey). Two boxes to be shipped to London and a few more to be stored. And just like that, off we go. Not much of a plan. Just a start and an end point. Athens to London, by road and through the sea. We say our goodbyes to people we love, to Faliro, to Athens. Until next time, so long and thanks for all the sun and olives.