Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hiking in Val Biandino: the miracle of San Carlo

Introbio (province of Lecco) - "...while passing through the Troggia valley, the saint became thirsty, and like Moses, split a rock with a blow from his walking stick, causing fresh water to miraculously flow through the crevices."

Even if it's the sort of thing that spawns legend, it wasn't like I was dead set on finding the spot where San Carlo performed a miracle with a mere ka-thunk! to stone. Rather instead, it was an opportunity to experience the first part of a trail which promised a pleasant hike even in winter. This initial trek took us from Introbio to the midway point of Ponte dei Ladri (bridge of thieves) which crosses the Troggia river. The bridge is much more recognizable as the last parking area for those wanting to get a headstart on the trail to higher altitude mountain huts which are further along the way (Tavecchia, Bocca di Biandino, and Madonna della Neve). Only authorized vehicles are allowed to continue from then on.

See google maps.

The beginning of the trail is set behind a residential area. To get there, keep an eye out on the left side for the local bar Umberto I as you enter town (on the corner of via Umberto and via Fucinetta just after the bridge). To the right of the bridge will be via Partigiana Mina which then curves left into via all'Acqua and finally via per Biandino. This is not a terribly difficult path but it needs to be said that the smoothstone donkey lane climbs rapidly and steep. Soon after appears a shrine dedicated to St. Uberto (the protector of hunters!), and from there the going gets easier.

Red and white signs with the letters VB, Val Biandino, or the number 40 clearly point the way. When in doubt, follow directions to Fontana San Carlo which in regards to the right image, leads through a chestnut grove before crossing a bridge. After the bridge, a switchback up the mountainside intersects with a paved road. From here on up it's a breeze until San Carlo's fountain.

A few more minutes brings you to the Ponte dei Ladri. I feel as if this entry is only half finished with not having tucked into a bowl of steaming hot polenta at a refuge! But then that would've taken the fun out of packing the pocket knife, bread rolls, a hunk of cheese, a salame bought from the market at the Festa di San Bassiano and a few banana-chocolate energy bars, now wouldn't it? This itinerary is about 3½ hours total (2 up and 1½ down).

My new waterproof Merrell's are kick butt! Come snow, rain, or mud...bring it!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Hiking Italia without hassles: it's all in the details

Whewf! And this wraps up the week in hiking entries as I am finally, and thankfully, caught up with images and trip notes. Honestly, it takes a heck of a lot more effort to put together a comprehensive outdoor post than it is to blurb food or produce Maddie videos.

Of course if the sun comes out on Sunday, we are sure to be hitting the trails again.

But getting back to the subject in question, I realized there needs to be some clarification on the excursions that we do, specifically on the level of difficulty and altitude, as it isn't always easy to determine if an itinerary is suitable to your level of fitness. That said, here are the determining factors on the sentieri (paths) that we select:

Total time involved going and heading back. [No more than 5 hours]
Difference in ascent and descent. [500 meters or 1640 feet, give or take a hundred]
Altitude. [No higher than 2500 meters or 8200+ feet]
Difficulty. [Easy/medium - no rock climbing, ladders or swinging bridges]

Another factor is the dog. She has her limits! We take care in not overextending the hike if the terrain is rough gravel, asphalt, or if we're in extreme weather like ice and snow. Her paws have cracked and bled a little from overexposure. She never complains, but like any worrisome doggie mama, I pick her up for a free ride.

Plans for the year include expanding outings to the province of Bergamo, picking up a telephoto lens for wildlife photography, and perhaps even scheduling an entire week in the wild, traveling from mountain hut to mountain hut by foot. The following links are two of my favorite hiking sites. Both in italian, even if there is a small english section in the second (mainly on the Spluga area of Switzerland).

Pieroweb Valle Brembana - for images, click ULTIME FOTO or LA TUA FOTO
Diska's Photos - this outdoor enthusiast is my hero!

On a final note, even if it would never cross your mind to park in the handicap zone, italian signs go the extra mile in making a not so subtle point. It says...

"YOU WANT MY SPOT? Take my Handicap"

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Forcella Alta to Pertüs Pass: an ecomuseum

Red paint marks on the trees guide hikers through the forest.Flashback: Passo di Pertüs. Incredible to think that only two months ago when we were enjoying fall foliage, at this altitude the populated lowland views of Lecco could clearly be seen for miles around. Yet on this afternoon excursion in the snow, all that was plainly visible were clouds. Thick, poofy bunches of it! A cotton candy layer which hovered over the entire province it would seem, shielding inhabitants below from the rays of a bright winter sun.

An ecomuseum in the woods

I was surprised to see the trail updated with particulars in its ecomuseum. Part of this open-air museum includes structures used in the past to trap migrating birds. Rather clever I'll admit, but to get the gist of how it was done, large signboards render detail on the way these strategically positioned snares did the job. With the placement of nets among the trees, birds flying through a path were thereby easily caught without too much fuss.

This horseshoe shape so aptly named ròccolo (trap) employs the use of decoys and the calls of caged birds to lure the unknowing victims. In this illustration, the third image depicts the throwing of a predator-like object that frightens the flock into the surrounding nets. What happens to the lucky few who escape? Who knows, but there's a recipe - uccelli scappati (escaped birds) - which, regardless of the name has nothing to do with birds whatsoever.

la Cesena (Turdus pilaris) Fieldfares
il Tordo Bottaccio (Turdus philomelos) Song Thrush

la Peppola (Fringilla montifringilla) Brambling
il Fringuello (Fringilla coelebs) Chaffinch

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Directions for Forcella Alta: See google maps. The road left of the pond is where the trail begins. During spring/fall, about 1½ hours round trip from Forcella Alta to the abandoned convent. Add extra ½ hour if going further to the Pertüs pass. We took just a bit longer due to the 10-inch deep (25cm) snow. This is a popular area on weekends after a particularly big snowfall. Perfect for family outings, sledding and cross country ski practice.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Passo San Lucio: on the border 'tween Italy and Switzerland

Buggiolo (Val Rezzo) - This easy hike was done in December, 2 days before the year ran out, and ended up being such a pleasant discovery that I'm marking it as a do-again. What drew me to the itinerary was the proximity to Lugano and the swiss border, and the fact that we'd be able to cross the imaginary divide between Italy and Switzerland without having to show passports. Also, the idea of being in two countries at the same (eh, one foot planted on the Swiss side and the other in Italy) made it even more cool-worthy. Kinda like the feeling I had when I shot this photo of the swiss flag and refuge with the italian hut to the right.

Swiss and italian refuges at Passo San Lucio

The trail is simple enough, with about a 500 meter (1640 feet) difference from starting point to the top and takes 2½-3 hours for a round trip. A 16th century church makes a stark contrast against snow-capped peaks and sits silently alone, just steps from the two refuges. To keep on track, two signs point the way to rifugi San Lucio and Garzirola along the trail.

16th century church at Passo San Lucio

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Rifugio San Lucio
What? No polenta?!? - Odd, but true, and I think it was only on this occasion that the yellow porridge went missing. We plowed through everything - locally made salame, bresaola, pancetta, assorted cheeses, a hefty portion of braised ham shank, tripe soup (slightly chewy strips with bits of vegetables), and a half loaf of simple country bread. It goes without saying that everything tastes twice as good after an invigorating walk up. If I might give a thumbs down on any one thing, it would be the coffee. It was lukewarm and weak (like swiss coffee perhaps?), not the usual dark stuff that Italy is proud of. Doesn't matter much, because from food to service, it was clear that this rifugio is popular with visitors. Diehards go even further to Rifugio Garzirola (elevation 1975 meters), another 1380 feet to go people!

L - R: salame, bresaola, pancetta.

Locally made cow's milk cheese. The middle is a black-pepper ricotta.

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On the way back we ran into a small herd of goats (check the horns on that animal!) before stopping at the bottom for a stroll on the lake. Lago di Piano is clearly visible and freezes over solid during this time of year. Ice skaters, sled riders, hockey players, doggies...they were out on the lake in numbers. Another first for me and also for Maddie who wasted no time trying to win the affections from anyone who caught her attention.

Directions for Buggiolo: See google maps. The Garzirola/San Lucio rifugio sign on the left marks the beginning of the path off of Via Provinciale and is hard to miss. As with many starting points located in remote or isolated areas, the road which eventually leads to Buggiolo can be quite harrowing. At a certain point after the hamlet of Corrido, the lane narrows considerably, but occasional wide spots allow for two-car and roving farm animal manuevers.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Hiking in Italy: Ice, snow and cold

If Maddie the Snow Bunny left you amused, then entries for this week should give you an idea of what has been on my mind for the new year. A decade ago I would have scorned the suggestion of hiking in the cold winter but some of the best scenery in Italy becomes even better when it's covered in an icy landscape. The photos here were taken on a hike at Sant'Apollonia (scroll down) in Ponte di Legno.

What might appear at first as a small river crossing the path is actually a frozen sheet of ice. Fortunately a stretch of snow on the left side made it possible to get across even if my husband and Maddie found it difficult to resist the slippery surface. The westie does quiet well on ice, trotting and running over it without hesitation, her four legs going into ABS mode if the footing got tricky. I had only to keep an eye on her whenever she went too close to the stream. One misstep and it would be frozen pup-sicle.

Directions for Sant'Apollonia: See google maps. The white narrow road leading off to the left leads to and ends in a large picnic/parking area and thus begins the trail.

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