Saturday, 31 December 2011

All The Sights of Serra

What a fabulous walk - a winter giro of the Alento Valley, from Kokopelli, up through Garifoli, into the back woods to the Torre di Polegra,

Torre di Polegra, Garifoli

Down to the San Liberatore,

San Liberatore & The Chateau de ma Mere

and then up and up and up to San Onofrio,



up further to Casteluccio, the ancient dry stone settlements, and some fabulous views all the way to the sea

Jaqs' new home...


Gran Sasso in the distance


Serramonacesca bottom left, Garifoli & Kokopelli centre right


Serramonacesca


The cross at the top, Casteluccio

Kokopelli in the middle

Finally, down to the Castel Menardo,

Castel Menardo


down the D2 towards Serra, taking in a couple more ancient, tumble down cottages along the way








before stopping at the Bar dello Sport, heaving with New Year's Eve bonhomie, a welcome cup of coffee for me and a Murphy's for KP

All in all a total of 17km and just over 4 hours of slow walking.

A truly lovely way to take in all the sights of Serra.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Magna Majella - A Feast of a Walk

The Clearance Crew
After what seemed like weeks of preparation, meetings, advertising, planning, route clearance and marking, not to mention all the cooking by the women of Serramonacesca, the day of the Magna Majella (www.magnamajella.org) finally arrived.

Testament to all the hard work, all bookings for the event had closed well before the date of the even when the total capacity of 500 was reached.  Honoured to be asked to be guides, all we had to do was get our group of 53 safely down the mountain.  Simple.  


Checking in
Together with Omar, our fellow guide (chief gweed), we'd got off pretty lightly as, unlike earlier groups that started from 6am, our group wasn't due to leave Serra until 9am giving us a teeny weeny lie in.  Quite welcome as we'd had the Garifoli festa the night before.  

We donned our official Guida badges (pronounced gweeda), quickly became Big Gweed and Little Gweed, and joined our group on the coach.  Other than a bit of a cuffufle and a few animated discussions when one guy couldn't take his dog on the coach, the first challenge was ticked off.  All present, correct and looked relatively harmless.

Chief Gweed & Little Gweed
After a 20 minute spectacular drive up the tight winding road to Passo Lanciano , we were at the top, 1600m above sea level, and tucking into the delights of the first food stall.  Delicious homemade cakes and biscuits were devoured, the wine was sampled, not by us very important gweedas, I might add, at least not yet, and then we were on our way.  12km all the way back down to Serramonacesca across, through and over some of the best the terrain the Majella (www.parcomajella.it) has to offer.  Chief gweed, Omar, took the lead with big gweed and little gweed bringing up the rear.

What started out as a fairly quiet, sedate group made up of lots of little groups, quickly became one big walking train full of bonhomie, chat, laughter and singing, ie Italians being the Italians!   Despite being English with only a smattering of Italian, one by one our charges would drop back curious as to who we were, what we were doing in their country and keen to talk to us and teach us about the delights of their country, culture and cooking.


The walk took us from the plains at the top with the most fabulous far reaching views across Abruzzo, it took us through the woods and gorges below, all the way back down to the river at Serramonacesca.  The view from the top spanned all the way to the sea, from the hills of Le Marche to the north stretching all the way across to Vasto and Molise beyond.  In front of us was the dramatic sharp pyramid of Corno Grande, the highest point of the whole Apennines, and behind were the mountains of the Majella, rising up in bleak contrast out of the green tree covered hills below.  Every which way you looked you were faced with breathtaking beauty.



Every few kilometres, at natural stopping points such as an old stone shepherds hut, an ancient cave, hermitage or chapel built into the rock, we found the food stands.  Each one a sample of typical Abruzzese cooking.  Simple peasant fare but all equally delicious.  At one, just tomatoes and bread, but the biggest, ripest, sweetest tomatoes you have ever seen, all drizzled with sweet, peppery olive oil.  At another, pecorino cheese, and at others we found a meat stew, cheese balls in tomato sauce and the most tender and delicious cold pork.  

But the lower we got, the hotter it got, and the more freely flowing the wine became.  Even us gweedas could resist no more.  After all, how can you eat cheese without wine?! And what a merry group we became.  Singing and dancing our way down, with a good old jig breaking out when we were met with an accordion player half way down.

Finally, 6 hours later we were back down, a fairly weary bunch, a few wobbles and slips along the way, but we all made it to our final stopping point in excellent humour.  




So there we were, at the end of fabulous day, all sitting round a table in Serra tucking into our final dish, a big bowl of pasta with a delicate ragu, neatly finished off with a huge, chin dripping, chunk of watermelon.  

What a great group, great walk, great event.  All weary, sunned, well fed, wined and dined, a success indeed.  Roll on next year!

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Saturday, 6 August 2011

If you build, they will come...

I've been compiling a list.  A list of things from observations that our summer house guests have maybe expected but not found, or not expected but indeed discovered.  


Have they been happy discoveries?  I'm absolutely convinced of it.  We have had immense fun showing our friends around, sharing their surprises, and learning from their adventures.  Our challenge for the future is to learn from these things and find all those fellow adventurers, and they are out there, who will also revel in exploring, discovering and learning.  It is different here, its not your usual holiday destination.  Italy may be part of a smart, sophisticated and developed Europe, but Italy isn't all Rome, Florence and Tuscany.  


There is so so much more.  Many many places where time has stood still and tourism has barely entered.  Cultural boundaries will need to be crossed, and joy will be found in escaping, even if just for one week or two, the treadmill of a life that no longer allows for the time to stop, feel the moment, absorb, saviour and capture.

The pleasures to be gained from exploring a wilderness, hiking it, running it, climbing it, cycling it are immense and last a lifetime; the building blocks of memories.  We are surrounded by, and look out on every single day, the most amazing landscape, with the knowledge that it is peppered with ancient tracks, trails, streams and waterfalls.  There are shepherd huts to be found, long forgotten settlements and evidences of the old ways of working and living off the land.  There are ancient hermitages, chapels built into and out of the rock, abbeys and monasteries. 


You can startle, or be startled by, a cinghiale enjoying an afternoon snooze, you can watch deer softly grazing in the woods or birds of prey circling on the thermals way way above. There are fox cubs playing with childish abandon in the warm sun, and you can marvel at bear footprints in the snow in the winter, or their scratch marks on the trees in the summer.  


There are the spring flowers, butterflies and fireflies, the autumn colours and crisp mornings and the winter snows.  There are even wolves.  This is what we have.  Every single day.

And then there's the food, the people, the community, the pace and the priorities, sometimes not ours, but important to them nonetheless.  Families are still together.  They live together, work together, all generations together. Cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, second cousins, aunts twice removed.  All still in the same village, sometimes even in the same house.  


Friends growing up together, working together, friends whose fathers grew up together, and their fathers before them.  All still in the same village.  All still in the same house.

But how do you sell this?  How do you explain to a population grown up on instant pleasures instantly purchased that if you scratch the surface that this is what you will find?  But there is a price to pay, you have to let go of your "normal" life and step to the side of your comfort zone.  Just for a moment.  If you don't, you may not find it. 


Don't expect to find English speakers, newspapers, foods, drinks or menus.  Our little corner of Italy is neither Spain nor a Greek island.  Abruzzo is not Tuscany.  Kokopelli is not "glamping".  But that is good.  


Embrace and enjoy.  Be brave.  


Be excited by getting lost, metaphorically as well as actually, and then revel in finding your way. Learn new words, try new foods, meet new people.  Sleep in a tent, take off your make up, live out of a rucksack. Walk, run or cycle till your legs and your lungs burn.  Share your stories, bask in the warm glow of a challenge faced and overcome. 

But how do you sell this?  How do you prepare people for this, help them to let go, explore, saviour and enjoy?  Now therein lies our very exciting challenge, our own personal "out of the comfort zone" challenge. 

If you build, they will come...



Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Tues 26 July - Plotting & Planning the Magna Majella

The Clearance Team


An impressive tool!













This is all very exciting. The Magna Majella (www.magnamajella.org) is building pace.  And what a lot of fun we're having.  Very privileged and very humbled to have been asked to be guides for the English speaking group (heaven help them), we're finding ourselves being drawn in to the excitement and the plotting and planning in readiness for the big event on Sunday 7th August.

Last week it was the planning meeting in the church hall, so along we went armed with notepad, pen and lots of questions.  All, it turned out, were completely useless.  The notepad and pen because the speed of the talking, and the number of people all talking all at the same time, meant not a single word was understood.  The second because my questions and concerns had become trivial and redundant.  



Oi, KP!  Where you off to now?!
Expecting the meeting to discuss things like health & safety, emergency procedures, timings and weather contingencies, I was a little thrown to find such topics not on the agenda at all.  Getting around 400 people (mostly inexperienced, unfit, non-mountain walkers) down a mountain safely, in one piece and in one group, particularly when there's copious amounts of free wine involved, is no mean feat.   But no, these guys had it sorted and they know what they're doing.

The meeting began well with a great turn out and seemingly half the village rammed into the church hall.  There chairman clearly had an agenda and appeared in control.  A good start. Promotional posters and flyers, impressive in their artwork and design, were displayed and distributed, but interest was clearly starting to wane as, one by one, and then in bigger groups, the church hall started to empty.  The smell of cigarette smoke from outside the door started to drift in, along with muffled chat and laughter.  



Tea time
Full attendance, order and attention was, however, immediately resumed once the topic that was clearly everyone was waiting for was reached.   Where the food stations were to be, who was manning which, what was being cooked and by whom.  Far, far more important.

Chaos and the decibel levels reached mammoth proportions as impromptu groups and allegiances were formed around the room, this highlight on the agenda was sorted out between the groups with no help whatsoever from the Chair.  



Quite how decisions came to be reached when all were seemingly talking at once and the only hands that were raised were those used in gesticulation and point emphasis, I have no idea, but decisions were clearly made.  I'm not sure if the Chairman had any idea who was doing what as no voting occurred nor did it appear that any motions were passed, but this was far more fun!  
Boys toys


Eventually, as chaos levels reached the point of no return, everyone descended on the bar round the corner, laughing, chatting and in great spirits.  No meeting was declared closed, no minutes were taken or signed.  Brilliant. I like these sort of meetings. 


Start of the route
One of the many fantastic views
As for my health & safety questions, well there's Antonio in his Land Rover so just give him a call if you need help I was told.  Of course, silly me.

As for the route itself, KP went off on Sunday with the Serrese boys for some male bonding and route clearing.  I left them to it.  Clearly man's work all this wielding heavy machinery and the swinging of scythes and machetes.  But a good time was had by all and the 12km route down the mountain was cut and prepared.

Not wanting to be left out however, and taking my job very seriously, I did want to actually walk the route.  So yesterday a very pleasant day we had, together with Rossano, as we followed the route down.  And it's beautiful.  From the top of the mountain you can see all the mountain ranges of Abruzzo and the entire coastline stretching from hills of Le Marche in the north all the way along to Molise in the south.  Absolutely stunning.




A useful shelter (complete with token bat)
The route takes you through glorious woodlands of dappled sunlight, across sun drenched open plains, past streams and waterfalls and some fascinating ancient caves with resident bats, shepherds bothies with complimentary sheep, goats and cattle, hermitages and churches.  There was even a place where the wheat was cut, milled and bagged before being transported down the mountain.  Absolutely fascinating and not so long ago either.
On the whole, the route, being down hill almost all the way, is relatively easy walking. There are a few points that may pose a bit of a challenge, but only enough to give the walkers a feeling of satisfaction and achievement and a few dinner party tales.  So long as it doesn't rain (those rocks can be very perilous when wet), and so long as the copious amounts of home made wine freely available all the way down isn't too potent...


Route Summary & Stats (courtesy of Endomondo.com)

Monday, 18 July 2011

Sun 16 July - Woodland Fairies & The Red Hot Chilli Peppers

Still Abruzzo remains in perpetual summer.  The sun has shone for so long now that it's hard to imagine it could ever be any different.

Our weekend began, Saturday morning, with more foraging.  This time for non-edibles.  We need screens.  Just a little one to start with, to divide the balcony between the bedrooms. 

So, with our drop in the ocean attempt at saving the planet through buying nothing new, we went out and cut canes.  Theres a huge abundance of them absolutely everywhere, just ripe for the picking.  Much more fun than joining the rest of the Saturday shopping brigade out on the road to Pescara to go and buy a new one.  And, regardless of the finished result (which I'm sure, at very best, it will look "interesting"), sitting in the garden, creating our own design and weaving them all together, will certainly beat standing in the queue in Leroy Merlin.  There's much to be said for this foraging to save the planet lark.  


So there we were, down the lane on a Saturday morning in glorious sunshine, me with my gardening gloves and secateurs, KP with his machete.  I still haven't quite got used to being a professional forager, ie taking things for free, and felt very naughty.  Quite who would take offence to us taking a few canes I had no idea, but I was glad to get our booty back into the safety of our garden. 

The job nicely done, the canes stripped and put out to dry, and with the sun bring it's usual relentless self, there was nothing for it but to pull out the sun loungers and have a nice little siesta under the Persimmon tree.  It was the weekend after all.  You're allowed to do things like that at the weekend.

After a couple of hours snoozing in that hot hot afternoon, it was time to go and find the fairies.



The Festa degli Gnomi.   A spectacular festa for the children going on all weekend at San Liberatore.  A weekend of woodland fairies, elves, gnomes and goblins.  Singing, dancing, storytelling, games and picnicking.  Absolutely fabulous.  


Of course, we didn't go the easy way, but combined it with a walk through and across the valley, going up and around the tor and across the river, which was now but a trickle.  A fast flowing, cascading trickle, but a trickle just the same.


We were, however, absolutely delighted to find the waterfalls and plunge pools still with an abundance of water.  And we found fairies!  An absolutely magical delight.  Obviously escaped from the festa, we found them playing in the woods, right by the waterfall.  


The waterfall that we thought it would be a good idea to swim in.  God, it was cold.  KP thought he might have a heart attack.  But he didn't, he got in, and what larks we had.   Very, very surreal though. Us playing in the woodland waterfall and the fairies playing on a fallen tree.  


A very strange sight we must have made.



Contrast that with our night out that evening at the Parco in Roccamontepiano.  As at was really rather late before we got back from the festa, and we were very very hungry by now, AND it was Saturday night, a night out eating arrosticini and listening to live bands suddenly seemed very appealing.  And what a great night!  What a great band.  The Reddot Chilli Peppers, a Red Hot Chilli Pepper tribute band, and absolutely brilliant (Facebook page).  


The raw talent coming out if this place never fails to amaze me.  This group could have held their own anywhere.  


But, as always, they didn't really start to get going till about midnight so it was a rather late to bed night.  




Ah well, tomorrow is Sunday after all...


Saturday, 16 July 2011

Tomato Beach, Pomodoro Spiaggia



Tomato Beach.  Pomodoro Spiaggia.  What a great little spot.  A tucked away little gem.  No, it's not groomed, raked or preened, and it is a little frayed around the edges, but that is it's charm.  Refreshing simplicity.  

A long long stretch of glorious sand and gently shelving warm, warm sea Pomodoro Spiaggia is, so far, untainted by the stains of tourism.  This is where Abruzzo wins.  There is not a single hotel in sight, there are no children's playgrounds, no cocktail bars, no pedalos for hire.  Just sand, sea, sunbathers and a few kite surfers.  

There's a small stretch of beds and umbrellas, a couple of little restaurants serving the most delectable sea food, and that's it.  Just perfect.  And you'd never know it's there.


The beach lies on a very nondescript stretch of road just south of Francavilla al Mare and the only access is under the railway line or through a hole in the fence in Tollo station. 

This is what makes it so exciting.  No smart, decking boardwalks onto a preened beach, but a squeeze through a gap in a fence, or a duck under a very low, very old brick built archway of a tiny railway underpass.  There's  a short walk down a labyrinth of clustered and cluttered houses with narrow dusty walkway.  

And then there are the tomatoes!  Fields and fields of them, and poly tunnel after poly tunnel.  All tatty and cobbled together.  Just love it.

And it's only a half hour's drive from Kokopelli.  Driving through the most glorious, dramatic scenery, along the drivingly green and over grown Foro Valley, past all the vineyards, you leave the mountains of the Majella behind.  Half an hour, that's all it takes from mountains to sea.  Abruzzo.  Never ever fails in her breath taking moments.  Humbled by her raw yet regal beauty.  Utterly unique.  






Thursday, 14 July 2011

Tues 12 July - Kitties, Veggies & A Fly Screen War

OK, so now it's hot, absolutely stunningly stiflingly hot.  And life here has slowed down in respect.  

Kat's kittie, 2 weeks old
Kat's kittens are coming on beautifully.  Their eyes are now open, just, and their tiny little legs can just about support their tubby little bodies so they sort of weebly wobble their drunken way around their box.  Another week and I think we may see a few tentative steps from their world into ours.  That should be amusing.

And the work goes on...
The barn work continues with the guys working relentlessly in this heat.  It can't be easy.  The ducting's been going in for the electrics and the plumbers been doing whatever it is that plumbers do.  The roof is done, the door frames are in and the walls are being plastered.  

Most exciting of all though, has been the delivery of the concrete slabs to start building the grand terrace with the best view in Abruzzo.  Now that I will get very excited about.  The only problem we need to ponder is what to do with all the concrete expanse whilst the hacked down figs and honeysuckle are slowly returning.  

Delivery of the wall slabs - very exciting!
Now, let me explain.  Because of the gradient difference between the barn and the ground below, the terrace has to be supported by one big massive concrete wall.  Not exactly the look we're going for.  I think its going to be very ugly.  So what to do with it?  Cover with green netting?  Trellis?  Or contact the local art college for any budding wall mural artisans?  I guess, like everything else, when it's up and ready the answer will find it's own way through.



Our veggies are coming on a treat.  Well, as best they can in my unmanured, dry, barren plot that's clearly, as everyone keeps telling me, in the wrong spot.  

The lettuces and rocket are just about keeping up with our voracious desire for fresh, hot peppery leaves every day, the tomatoes are turning red and the courgettes look just beautiful.  The cabbages and cauliflower (no idea which is which) have now, thankfully, grown beyond the bird pecking danger zone, so the orange Sainsbury's plastic bags can come out of the olive trees.  They are, however, attracting rather a lot of very pretty white butterflies.  They do make quite a picture as they flutter in and out of the rows, but I think, as their offspring start to arrive, I might be wishing them further and not oohing and ahhhhing quite so much.  Ho hum.  

Dry, barren & Heath Robinson, but producing!
The peppers and aubergines, however, are still lagging somewhat behind so I'm not too sure what's going on there or what they're waiting for.  The aubergines look like dark purple bullets, unlike Tina's great big bushy things dripping in mahoosive purple bulbous fruit.  Of course I'm not envious, honest (secretly hoping hers will wilt and shrivel).  Our peppers aren't doing much better either with their stunted growth and Neverland flowers - they've been in flower forever!

Other than that, and other than looking very Heath Robinson with all the makeshift canes and supports, I think it's just beautiful and can't wait until the whole garden is one big veggie plot.

The cooking experiments are continuing with the breadmaking having found it's own rhythm, the Nocino liqueur is still being sloshed around everyday (still, frustratingly, got sometime to go before sampling can begin) and the brine soaked walnuts are now ready for pickling.  They look and smell disgusting so I'm not too sure about that one.  The yoghurt, however, looks like it's worked a treat!  Thick, smooth and creamy with a jar of honey at the ready for breakfast. 

As a last update, we finally have mozzie screens over the bedroom doors.  Woo hoo.  Not.  The subject of a summer long, er, 'discussion', in the name of peace, tranquility and not finding myself locked away in some seedy Italian jail as a crazed murderess, I have, finally, relented.  Or rather, after another night of KP leaping naked round the room like a demented wart hog being attacked by a swarm of bees, it was more of a "forcrissakes just get the damned things up!" 

And so he did.  I may now be locked into our bedroom, I may not be able to get out onto my beloved balcony, I may now have to go downstairs, outside, round the back and up the outside stairs to reach my wardrobe, drying room and to put the washing away but, hey, that's fine.  I may also, accidentally of course, walk right into it.  Sometimes I can be so clumsy.  But, hey, that would be fine too.  Tee hee...