Under the Chestnut Trees

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First, a note of a statistical nature: as of Sunday we are officially halfway through our pilgrimage, time-wise at least. 35 days down and 35 days to go!

Chiavenna is a charmed place, and it wasn’t only Emanuela’s breakfast jam cake and the rainbow connecting the mountain to the city that convinced us of this. We woke up yesterday to a glorious morning and proceeded to enjoy the most wonderful day of hiking of this whole pilgrimage.

We went south along the Percorso Storico, the historic route up a little ways along the hillside from a time when the lake and river were less predictable and controllable. (Also, of course, there’s a very good chance that Luther followed this route for some distance; we’re not quite sure where he hopped on the boat.) It threads its way through a forest all of chestnut trees—we saw signs advertising various events for the chestnut festivals throughout the region this week—a tree rarely seen in the U.S. due a blight some time ago. The green canopy overhead was lovely, as was the smell of the fallen leaves, but in some ways it reminded me of the apple tree forest around the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” movie—namely, well-armed. While we never got clonked on the head with falling chestnuts, their husks are hedgehog-sharp and thick, and we had not infrequent stabs in the ankle. But inside the husk is the shiny brown nut, and just the words “chestnut forest” are so enchanting that we were willing to forgive a few slivers.

The local architecture was also delightful. Not surprisingly, it’s mostly stone. The houses are built tall and wrapped around with multilevel wooden balconies, all facing the sun—I’m sure in this deep valley the people have learned how to soak up every bit of it. In one town we were admiring the crooked beams holding up the stone-shingle roof (we had a good view of its overhang from below) and a lady came out to offer some comments, in Italian of course so we didn’t understand much besides “vecchio,” old. I offered “bello,” beautiful, but she shrugged. As a passing traveller I see beauty and charm in something old and unlike anything I’ve seen before; she probably sees poverty and the trouble of upkeep.

Quite to our surprise, all along the Percorso Storico (very cleary marked and often lined with stone walls; we really appreciate that in a walking path) there were abandoned houses, with the same stone walls and shingles on top. Some were up away from anything in the forest, but others were right in little villages. They were ruins, essentially, though not as old as the Roman ruins more famous in Italy. I suppose living on top of ruins is a more normal state of affairs for Italians than anything I as an American can imagine. The contrast between past and present was even more strongly reinforced by the not-so-distant buzzing of a go-cart track in the valley below!

In the early afternoon passing through another village we asked an old gent sitting outside his house to fill up our water bottles for us. He not only did that but invited us to share a beer with him, so we did. We prepared ourselves for the challenge of communicating in our nearly non-existent Italian, but yet another level of challenge was there: he lifted a bandana and showed us the hole in his throat where his voicebox used to be, due to smoking, as he could gesticulate without trouble. So, we passed the duration of a bottle of beer with gestures and about five words of Italian and a few more of Spanish, and you know what? With good will and some effort you can do pretty well. He offered us a few perfectly ripe tomatoes off his vine and then we were on our way again.

Back in the forest we saw signs pointing two ways to San Fedelino, one of our waypoints; one direction took an hour going up, and the other took only half an hour following the shore. Naturally we took the faster way, and arrived at the 10th century chapel commemorating a Roman soldier saint in short order; but then we discovered that the lower-level trail peters out as a cliff shoots straight up out of the lake, so we had to climb back up to the top again. The first phase was a real scramble up a hillside of huge tumbled rocks, more like climbing insane stairs than walking up a trail. When we did get to the trail it was about as vertical as could be.

This probably sounds onerous, but the truth is that nothing wore us both out as much, physically and mentally, as those two straight flat unvarying days along the Iller Canal; it was the only time I got serious foot pain and felt like I was about to lose my mind from sheer tedium. Yesterday’s journey was always interesting simply in the physical act of walking, actually engaging of the mind and challenging to the body in rewarding ways. And at the top of all this hard climbing was a truly spectacular view of lake and mountains, from the little villages at the bottom to the snowy peaks at the top below a glorious blue sky.

A little farther along the ridge, right before we dropped down again into Dascio for the night, we found a little shrine to Mary and an altar set up overlooking the lake, so we said our evening prayers there. Gratitude flowed out very naturally!

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