Mountain Passes & Sunglasses

14th-19th July 2017

This post starts with a celebration. On 13th July we received a text from our nephew, Cathal (Dodi to his friends), whose  wedding to Faith we had attended last year in Mexico. At 07.28 that morning Faith had given birth to our first great-nephew, Jackson, a bouncing 8lbs 8oz. Congratulations!!

We left the Siena site without regret, Kate driving for the first time since breaking her toe. Danny only felt the need to issue ‘guidance’ once though, so all was well. Heading towards Florence we escaped the dual carriageway onto country lanes, despite the satnav’s disapproval and occasional efforts to get us back on to it. We dandered through little villages with great views and Kate got her first experience of driving through relatively gentle hairpin bends.

The sky was a heavy grey although the temperature didn’t appear to be affected – at Florence it was the usual 36℃. As we had been warned the city was very busy and progress was slow as we skirted the medieval walls and negotiated the one way system. Once out we were in the hills again and climbing into the Appenines, past the large blue Lake Bilancino and up into densely wooded hillsides and ….rain! We hadn’t seen rain since Puerto Santa Maria back in May so it was a refreshing change. The temperature dropped as we climbed and by the time we arrived at the Futa Pass – 3000 feet up – it was down to 20℃. A kilometre further up the hill we turned into the campsite and despite the rain we liked the feel of the place immediately. Inside the dark room which is the reception, shop and bar, we were greeted warmly by the owners who gave us some bread from their kitchen as the morning supply had all been sold.  The rain stopped so we parked up and had lunch looking outside – Kate in jeans to protect against the cold!

After lunch we drove down into a valley to the village of Firenzuola some 13km away which had the nearest supermarket, and by the time we got back the clouds had lifted from the hills and the sun was shining revealing a stunning panorama of green-clad mountains and red-roofed villages.

It was a pleasant 24℃ and we settled into our pitch and welcomed the respite from the heat of the last few weeks .

We had 5 full days to enjoy this site so relaxed and made the most of it.  The grassy terraces are surrounded by trees and their slopes covered in wildflowers – purple field scabious, small pink-and-white flowers of field bindweed, pink musk mallow, the yellow of trefoil and delicate white umbels of burnet saxifrage. Crickets chirping everywhere, bright serins singing their hearts out in the trees  and a pair of black redstarts darting backwards and forwards feeding their 3 chicks. So different from our previous site. The owners were great, loaning us a good quality walking map and providing possible routes for us.  (No way were we going to get the bikes out here). We also spent time catching up with the Archers on podcasts, having not listened since mid-June. Fascinating.

On Sunday we took a packed lunch and headed off on a walk to the the Paso dell Osteria Bruciata – supposed to be about 8 miles and around 5hrs. Kates first outing since breaking her big toe just over 3 weeks earlier so clearly we weren’t going to be sensible and keep it short or flat. A great day for walking – sunshine, 26℃ and a nice cooling breeze. After dropping down to the Futa Pass we joined the footpath and climbed through deciduous forest – beech and oaks mainly – with occasional clearings where trees had been felled and wildflower meadows had taken over. Butterflies everywhere and the sound of crickets filling the air. Wild raspberries crowded along the path at one point prompting a tasting session of the small but deliciously ripe fruits. The meadows also gave great views into the valleys and distant mountains.

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We continued on along the side of the mountain, the route clearly marked at frequent intervals with red and white bands on trees and rocks. In 2hrs 30mins we made it to the pass, bang on time.

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Being a wooded pass there weren’t great views so we decided to start up the first mountain of the return, Il Poggiolino (3,465ft) . We climbed very steeply on a narrow footpath, the Vie Romee ( Roman Street),

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eventually stopping for our lunch in a small clearing looking down onto Lake Bilancino. Onwards and upwards, it got steeper and the ground beneath our feet changed to fine, brittle and shale-like rock, slippery underfoot with a steep drop to the side and we were very grateful for the steel chains and cables that had been secured to the mountainside to help. After the ‘panoramic viewing point ‘- with helpful ‘danger’ signs all around it – it was up to the summit of Mount Gazzaro (3690ft) before starting the descent through a lovely clearing with a big iron cross and great views where we stopped for a photoshoot.

Then down to rejoin the trail we started on and a further hour to the road, just under a mile from the campsite. By this time we were tired but happy. Danny reached for his sunglasses, his precious prescription Raybans in genuine 1980’s frames. The ones he had dropped somewhere in the mountains – oh dear.

We looked at each other and started back up the mountainside. We knew from photos that he had them at the “panoramic view” so there was a chance of finding them. At the turning to Mount Gazzaro we were overtaken by some fresh-legged Italians and took the opportunity to explain our quest. They bounded ahead of us and just before the summit  they presented us with the precious object. Eternal gratitude was expressed and it was with great relief that we headed slowly back down hill. Blistered toes (Danny), tendonitis (Kate) & a rather sore big toe (also Kate) made progress a little slower and it was with huge relief that we hobbled into the campsite and a large beer each

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We watched the smoke from a forest fire 2 ridges away and pondered the delights of a hot bath – sadly unobtainable at this time. We decided there and then to get collapsible washing-up bowls so we can at least have a foot-bath after a long walk. 7hrs 50minutes, 12.5 miles and 3,350ft of ascent – seasoned hill-walkers might sneer, and Nat & Ian could do it in half-the-time, but we thought not bad for unfit oldies like us. Could have happily skipped the second ascent though.

Close to the campsite is the Futa Pass German War Cemetery. The Pass was one of the most important military bases of the “Green Line” established in 1944 to prevent the advance of the allies northwards through the Appenines. It was selected as a German military cemetery in the 1960’s and nearly 31,000 german war dead have now ben interred there, relocated by the German War Graves Commission. Most killed in Allied offensives against the German front-lines between the Ligurian Sea and the Adriatic. It is a place of beauty and sadness.

Ten thousand slabs of granite are marked with up to 4 names each, and reading the ages was very sobering. Most were between 18 and 30, some had wreath’s laid at them by family. We discovered that amongst other things the German War Graves Commission works with young people to help them understand the consequences of war – a worthy aim.  And the site is remarkable, it’s terraces spiralling up the hill to a simple stone shard pointing to the sky.

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Just below the pass we discovered an old osteria with great views, the Passo della Futa. The owner, Claudio, wanted to practice his English on us and told us that his family had run the place since 1890. He is the 5th generation owner and cook. He told us that locals hunt the mountains for pheasant, rabbit, and deer which are all traditional foodstuffs, and more recently wild boar have re-populated the woods and are also hunted.

Another day we walked up Mount Citerna, a nice stretch of just under 3 hours through oak then beech-woods along an undulating, steep-sided ridge. The earth and fallen leaves beneath our feet were so dry that it was easy to understand how a forest fire could take hold, despite the green of wildflowers and trees.

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Although the views could not compare to Mount Gazzaro, it was still lovely and good to be outside and breathing in the fresh air. Signs of wild boar foraging in the leaves at the side of the footpath did remind us to ‘Google’ what to do if we encounter them apart from (a) climbing trees and (b) running, both of which we feel a bit old for.

After the Mount Citerna walk we treated ourselves to lunch at Passo della Futa. Claudio, now dressed in his lunchtime black chefs outfit came out to shake our hands and have a chat.

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We wanted to try the local cooking so after the beers we went inside and ordered – veal for Kate and local sausage for Danny – to be cooked on the open charcoal fire blazing in the kitchen, accompanied by fried potatoes and mixed salad. (Apparently “mixed” is  some slices of tomato added to the lettuce). While waiting we checked out the walls and noted a framed yellow jersey and photos that looked like a young version of an older man we had seen in the bar and restaurant. Claudio confirmed that this was his father whom he had taken over from (his mother used to be the chef) and that he had won the yellow jersey as a professional cyclist in 1961.  Claudio’s wife is the waitress here, his brother is the barman and his father continues to help out. A real family affair.

The meat was outstanding. The sausages about as porky as it gets and the veal cooked to perfection (rare) with a wonderful flavour from the charcoal. The chips were perfect. A large bottle of the restaurant’s own red wine in a chianti-style bottle was plonked on the table and we were told we would only be charged for what we drank – how civilised. No – we didn’t finish it, and yes we were only charged for what we drank. Totally stuffed and feeling like we had put on every calorie we had walked off that morning, we paid the very reasonable bill and went to take leave of our host. He shook our hands warmly and forced upon us a bottle of their red wine to “celebrate our retirement”. We would love to return in the autumn when the fires are burning and spend a Saturday evening there with the locals.

We managed one other walk before the end of our stay – an undulating ridge walk of 6.5 miles over 3 hours to examine some exposed roman road daring back to 187BC – still in remarkably good condition considering over 2000 winters have had a go at it.

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This walk actually had other people on it as it is a walking route between Florence and Bologna generally following the old roman route, and we even managed to overtake some – although we have no idea how far they had walked! Feeling good. Another lovely day.

It is with real regret that we leave this site, but Bologna and all its foodie glories beckons.