The plan had been to spend a week in Tuscany. Then, I closed my eyes and opened The Rough Guide to Italy at a random page. No, not Tuscany. Abruzzo. The National Park of Abruzzo. 400 square kilometres of rugged, unspoilt mountains. Home to the Marsican bear, the Apennine Wolf, the Royal Eagle, chamois, deer and the odd lynx.
I weighed my options for at least five seconds. Tuscany’s appeal suddenly waned. Who wants to go and see a landscape featured in every olive oil commercial? Mountains full of wildlife… I pictured myself in the midst of a Nicholas Evans novel underscored by the Alpine creations of Rodgers & Hammerstein. I dreamed of strolling through thick forests, sitting and writing the next Booker Prize winner on a sunny mountain top overlooking luxuriating valleys, with eagles and falcons swooping over my head, and even scratching a wolf behind the ears. He would let me, of course, because he would sense that I am an animal lover, and trust me implicitly. Above all, I would have a break from my fellow humans and that, in itself, was irresistible.
The two and a half bus ride from Avezzano to Civitella Alfedena – where I had decided to set up base – was free of charge because of a staff strike (London Transport staff, take note!!) The journey was all twists and turns. We snaked up uncompromising mountains, then dipped respectfully towards sun-filled valleys with glistening streams. Teasing the mountains, pretending we were not really presuming to reach their peaks. I wished I possessed sufficient vocabulary to name the myriad different greens. Lime, olive, emerald. Clusters of brilliant red poppies. Silvery sunlight. Mediaeval towns sprouting from the rocks. Derelict stone towers perched on cliffs, slumbering but still watching out. Dark shadows of drifting clouds gliding down mountain flanks streaked with snow.
It takes a while for me to find a human to ask for directions. I drag my suitcase up a steep hill of challenging cobbles which toss my suitcase up and onto its side every few inches of the way. I try not to slip and tumble backwards as I struggle to hold onto it. The sky darkens and the surrounding mountains rumble with thunder. Slumbering giants, gently snoring to a lullaby of cattle bells. Swallows and red tails swoop down the narrow winding alleys, past sand coloured stone houses with terracotta tiled roofs; past the locked church which is supposed to contain frescoes; past the post office, which is open three mornings a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
I unpack my luggage in my hotel room, and go to explore. The few inhabitants, sitting on benches outside their houses and shops, greet me as I pass them. The outsider.
I feel strangely light-headed, as though in a dream, and an unexplainable urge to giggle. In the park, I take in the panorama and pick up two young pine cones from the grass. I need to feel their sharp edges against my palms. Totally un-self-consciously, I spin around. “The hills are alive with the sound of m-.” I stop. Two elderly ladies have paused in their late afternoon stroll to stare at me.
I put the pine cones in my pockets, and go to the Tourist Office. Even though I am an almost native Italian speaker, I cannot seem to absorb the information. I ask for it to be repeated but it flies out of my memory once again. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I feel giddy.”
The nice woman behind the desk observes me with indulgence. “It’s the altitude,” she says. “Everyone feels strange when they first arrive here. Ringing in the ears, blood pressure problems, or just feeling woozy.”
Or, in my case, just drunk on too much oxygen.
Luckily, by morning, I am sober again.
The National Park of Abruzzo has enclosures for a few wild animals who – for various reasons – cannot be returned to the wild. Either because they were born in captivity, or because they are physically unfit to fend for themselves. At Civitella, there are two such enclosures. One for an elderly she-wolf; the other, for a pair of lynxes. Needless to say, neither specimen is keen on photo ops, and tends to hide in the vegetation, away from human eyes. I cannot blame them. I watched with open irritation a group of visitors lean over the wall, emit Hammer Horror howls, and wonder why the wolf did not show up. I had no luck there, either.
In the quiet of the early afternoon lull, I went to sit above the lynx enclosure. Nothing for a while. Then, something brown stirred at the foot of the hill. I pointed my theatre binoculars. A large tobacco coloured doe was looking at me, ears twitching. I was amazed that she could be aware of me from such a distance. I sat as still as I could. After a while, the doe resumed her grazing. Then, an unfamiliar sound travelled over the air. Something between distant thunder and the deep vibrato of a purr. As slowly as I could, I slid my binoculars away, and met the gaze of a lynx. The awe of it prevented me from shrieking with joy. The lynx stared at me for a long time, motionless. Apparently reassured, he looked away, and strolled through the vegetation. Every muscle rippled with lazy grace. Reddish brown coat, pointy ears with black tips, white tufty beard. Further away, his mate. Both paced along the fence, eyeing up the doe. I wondered if they had ever hunted. The doe, clearly trusting the safety of the fence, grazed on unperturbed.
A couple of visitors walked up behind me. “Is it true there is a pair of lynxes down there?”
“Yes, there they are.”
I pointed but there was nothing now, except tall grass and thick bushes on both sides of the fence.
One thing that had not crossed my mind, is that I would walk along the designed mountain paths for kilometres without encountering anyone else. I admit it is inconsistent to yearn to be away from humans yet need them to feel safe. The locals told me that they had never heard of any unpleasant incidents befalling ramblers, but then neither did they know of lone ramblers. One or two people warned me against wolves and vipers, if I strayed far away from the designated paths. “Oh, I’m not worried about the animals,” I said, “I’m worried about the people.”
Long, puzzled, wary looks.
I guess the paradox lies in the right number of people. Either a large number or the cast iron guarantee of none.
I assumed there would be some tourists around over the weekend. So, on Sunday, I parked myself on a rock at the start of the marked path and waited. And waited. Black squirrels with tufty ears and white bellies scurried along the branches above me, studying me with curiosity. A gorgeous tortoise shell cat strutted up the path, and we indulged in a half hour of caresses. Finally, after about an hour and a half, people. A group of friendly-looking people of a wide age range. In an attempt to combine safety with solitude, I pushed ahead. Occasionally, I would pause and listen out for their distant voices, then walk on. I lost my advantage when I reached a creek. The rocks were sharp and slippery, and my natural lack of a sense of balance added to my insecurity. The group caught up with me. As naturally as though I had always been a member of their party, they chatted to me and helped me across. Introductions were made. It turned out to be a most welcome encounter. Among my new companions were wildlife artists, ornithologists, botanists and sympathisers. One of the painters picked up a four foot beech branch, and gave it to me as a walking stick. Having a third leg to steady me increased my self-confidence on the slopes.
We sat to eat our packed lunches by a bubbling stream that looked like liquid diamonds in the sunlight. Venus slippers grow on its banks, and the artists sat to draw them.
Not wanting to outstay my welcome, I said goodbye to my new acquaintances, we swapped e-mail addresses, and made back for Civitella. I was told it was seven kilometres of paved road. For the first kilometre or so, there were other people about. Then, as I reached the main road, they vanished into thin air. I felt increasingly anxious. The road was narrow, that the odd passing vehicle zoomed past me with only a couple of feet to spare between us. Motorbikes in particular whizzed past me at breakneck speed, their engines shrieking. I was not even sure I was walking in the right direction. I started screening the faces of the drivers. When I caught a glimpse of a woman with children, I waved my arms frantically. She stopped and offered me a lift to the next junction, ‘bless her heart, sparing me a good three kilometres.
Dominated by the ruins of a 12th Century castle, Castel Mancino, Pescasseroli is larger and more tourist orientated than Civitella (well… The Tourist Information Office was shut, and no one knew if or when it would reopen). I imagined, and hoped, there would be more visitors and so more people trekking in the mountains.
My first goal was lunch. A good lunch. I found a good tavola calda on the main square. A large red setter I had stroked on my way accompanied me to my table. My lunch arrived. The setter gave me one of those lingering ‘nobody loves me and nobody ever feeds me’ looks. Right. I pushed his muzzle away from my plate. He whined. I took a deep breath and blew into his nose. Outraged, he lifted his paw and slammed it imperatively on the edge of my plate. Grilled aubergines, courgettes in breadcrumbs, roasted red peppers and juicy mozzarella bounced up in the air. Once they landed back on my plate, I sent the setter packing.
In the afternoon, I visited the National Park infirmary. They have two bears and a wolf cub. I had never seen a wolf up close. The custodians told me that Dacia (named after the writer Dacia Maraini, who found her in her garden) cannot be released back into the wild because she has problems with her hind legs. Her pale, slanted eyes are full of understanding. She knows what I cannot even imagine.
The local tour guide office had no day excursions planned during my stay. Also, they advised me not to walk in the mountains on my own. “What if you fall or twist an ankle?”
Hoping to encounter other ramblers on my way, I had no choice but to venture up Castel Mancino alone. Except that I was not alone. A little way from the main square, I came across three dogs lying in the sun, bored, clearly at a loss for something to do. Two little pooches – one white and one black – and one large dog with the tan coat of an Alsatian and the pale slanted eyes of a wolf. Perhaps the fruit of an illicit one night stand between a wolf and a sheep dog – there are many such canines, I was told. I cuddled the trio and they suddenly sprang into action. All tail wags and grins, they began following me. When I say following, it would be more accurate to say that they lead me up the mountain. They ran ahead, then paused and waited for me to catch up before bounding forth again. Once, I failed to take the right turning. The wolverine dog ran after me and, taking my fingers gently between his teeth, pulled me back onto the sign posted path.
Later that day, I noticed the wolverine dog outside a shop. “Is this your dog?” I asked the owner. I told her about the morning mountain excursion.
“Oh, I wondered where she’d been all morning.”
On my last evening, I heard of an organised night excursion in the mountains, to listen to wolves howling. €20 seemed excessive but, at least, this was my one chance to go deep into the woods in perfect safety. The tour guide looked approvingly at my walking boots. She motioned my moleskin jacket. “Do you have a thick jumper and a waterproof jacket?”
I did not.
“You can’t go like this. You’ll freeze.”
Bum. Blast. Damn. Next time take warmer clothes, go only during high season, and recruit friend. Till then, I had better stick to museums.