Monthly Archives: June 2012

Solstice in Heaven

Today is the longest day of the year, summer solstice, and according to Nina’s trusty journal it’s also the 150th day of our travels. It seems like a life time ago that we left England, the many changing landscapes that we have passed through adding to the fortunate yet artificial feeling of ever lasting adventure.

Nina and I are trekking in the Vikos Aoös National park, Epiros, Greece. It’s the north western region of the country, up close to the Albanian border. It’s another place we’ve landed in due to the kind hospitality of friends. We were invited to stay at Angelo and Birgitte’s house in the small village of Paleochlori nestled in forested hills, inland from the port of Igoumenistsa. After two weeks there our attention turned to the national park a couple of hours away. Nina plucked this little gem out of the Lonely Planet, hearing that not many people visit the region and that it’s filled with natural beauty, including a third of Greece’s flora, together with traditional villages and monasteries.

Leaving our most heavy items in Ioannina, we donned our backpacks, sleeping bags, tent, a bit of food and set off for 3 days trekking and camping with a rough itinerary of connecting ancient hamlets, traversing the world’s deepest gorge (according to the Guinness Book of Records’ depth/width ratio), visiting a monastery or two and plenty of swimming, much needed in the 30 plus heat.

Four days ago the bus from Ioannina dropped us in Monodendri, one of 45 villages in the Zagori region. The old houses here are all made from local stone, as are the streets, walls and churches. It has the quaintness of a Cotswold village yet more dramatic in it’s isolated setting. We walked to the 15th century monastery, just outside the village, from where we could look down into the gorge we would walk the next day. Close by we found a nice spot for the tent and, with a little concern about the wild boars, snuggled up for a good nights sleep.

We woke at the crack the dawn, packed down the tent and set off excited by what we may find. The first task was to descend nearly a kilometre down onto the gorge floor. It was already becoming hot but luckily there was plenty of tree cover. The old paths here were used to connect villages before roads were put in more recently. The gorge itself is 20km long. We joined it a little way along and walked around 12km along it. We’d heard that there were bears and wolves here but hadn’t really taken seriously the possibility of seeing one. It took an hour or so to descend and on reaching the bottom we stopped for some breakfast on the dry, rocky river bed.

The walking from here was not difficult, although challenging. The path had to climb to avoid rock faces that descended into the river below. The sheer scale of the gorge was breathtaking and the diversity of plants and habitats made every step of the way interesting. There were plenty of frogs, lizards and beetles. The whole place was humming with insect life. We even stopped to take in a family of weasels playing on the rocks and the only other people we saw that day spotted a small brown bear on the path. We read that there are 1750 recorded plant species in the national park and it feels like a very stable eco system. Geologically though, this is not the case, with the occasional sound of rocks pitching themselves into to ravine below, though not every rock finds the bottom.

Half way along the gorge we came to the source of the spring fed river that continued ahead. The mountains here are caustic which means they hold vast amounts of water within. In winter this forms glaciers inside the mountains and throughout the year they melt to produce the most stunning aqua coloured watercourses. Unfortunately though, this means that they are also extremely cold. Nina managed a five second swim but I only just got my feet wet. The river that we were to follow from here just added more beauty to the already picture perfect surroundings. Rainbow trout now added to the flora, a sub species that have adapted to the extreme water temperatures by spawning all year round.

Our path split from the gorge after a few more kilometres and we begun the climb up and round more forested mountains, clinging to the hillside, before opening out onto flower meadows and eventually the small village of Mikro Papingo. We’d made it to civilisation after a very hot 17km. A welcome fountain greeted us and we cooled down before enquiring about a spot to camp in Makro Papingo – the next village. A barman in the local restaurant pointed us to the village football pitch and we set up camp in the dark.

Yesterday we went easy on ourselves. First stop was the incredible rock pools between the two villages we’d found last night. Nina was keen for an early morning swim but once again I only managed a rinse off in the super cold waters. A small human intervention made a beautiful pool from an otherwise trickling stream through the rock.

We hitched a lift the next 7km to a village where we were hoping to wwoof. The Zissis brothers ran a hotel and restaurant there using their own organic veg. They were the only wwoof hosts in the region and we had contacted them a few weeks earlier. Unfortunately (but in the end fortunately) they had nothing much to do about the place. They instead offered us a free room for the night and lunch, drinks and dinner with the family. Greece already has that welcome feeling that we experienced in the villages of Morocco. We explored the village on foot before a well needed bed.

This morning we walked down the hill to join the Voldomatis river as it continued it’s path from the gorge. We are in awe of the beauty of this region and the unspoilt wilderness. Today we followed a path 10km or so along the river edge. We met one other couple, seasoned Aussie walkers, who obviously knew all the worlds best places to walk. We couldn’t argue that this was one of them. Nina swam again. I chickened out again. We sat and looked at the amazing scenery around us, happy that we are here but sad that to think that most rivers in the world are polluted by industrial and human waste or bad agricultural practices. We’ve been drinking the water from this river for three days, we’ve walked it, we’ve watched the trout, the birds and the dragonflies. The banks are covered in trees, to the waters edge. Nobody is messing with this landscape and that’s why it’s thriving!

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Smokey Tribute – A Mix for the Masses

Gorilla in the Mist

We have been in Italy for 6 weeks in total. For each new person we meet or new village we enter we wonder if we’ll ever have a truly authentic Italian experience. Some time with a family would be nice or the chance to learn about home cooked Italian food. From the comfort of our Molise farmhouse we looked through the wwoof host list once again and although we usually steer clear of agri-tourism farms there was something wooing us towards our next host. It may have been the photo’s that Nina spotted of home made pasta and freshly baked wood oven bread. In fact I’m sure it was. We contacted Giovanni and he was keen to have us for a week in Busso before we left Italy for Greece.

Giovanni kindly collected us from our farmhouse in Faifoli. He has a friend with a mill nearby and was keen to pick up some fresh flour for baking and making polenta later in the week. He hinted on route that he was recently separated from his wife and it was obvious when we arrived at his house that the agri-tourism business had been laid to rest. The topic of conversation in the car was verging on obsessive and Giovanni clearly had a new passion – truffle hunting! It turns out that we had arrived in one of the most prolific black truffle hotspots in Italy and THE only region in the world where you can find the elusive white truffle.

Giovanni got up at 4am every morning to take two of his five dogs out hunting. He mentioned to us that he watches films or listens to music at around 2am each night and he was up past twelve every day that we were there. One day we found him randomly sleeping in his car at lunchtime and on day five he confessed to insomnia which gave reason to the silver-back nature we had experienced, calm and attentive one minute and explosive and unpredictable the next. We wanted authentic and we certainly got it. Our time in Busso was very testing but also very rewarding.

Our host, also a professional chef, was keen to demonstrate his skills in the kitchen and we were baking sourdough bread and pizza within hours of arrival. He cooked pumpkin risotto, wild chicory, potato and bean pasta amongst an array of other Italian delights with home made wine with every lunchtime and evening meal. Oh yes, before you ask, we were treated to the legendary black truffles, once with egg and once with the polenta on a friendly visit to parents for lunch. There is no other taste like it in the world. Delicate fungi with a buttery warmth that when grated, raw, has a distinct texture similar to parmesan cheese. I could see how they could become addictive and maybe why Giovanni was obsessed and a bit crazy.

Our duties as wwoofers were mostly helping out around the place. We emptied a wood shed and added some new acacia uprights for roof support before re-stacking it, we put up some fencing, we helped move things around that he couldn’t have done alone, we supervised the revival of an old lawnmower and we generally kept the crazy-maker’s kitchen clean. Plus we made another round of elderflower cordial, our third batch in Italy!

Giovanni mentioned a few times that he wanted to ‘do’ permaculture in his vegetable garden. On day four he went out to visit a friend and Nina and I set about turning an unused area of his vegetable plot into a synergistic garden. I’d learnt the basics from Elena a few weeks earlier. The process of setting it up is very easy and due to the no-dig nature it only has to be done once. On the slope I pulled earth from the high ground down to form one metre terraces, leaving a path. Nina added plenty of old sheep and rabbit poo and I then added a drip irrigation pipe along the top of each terrace and we heavily mulched, paths an all. We had some seeds collected from our journey so far, some seedlings that Giovanni bought plus whatever we could find around the property, like strawberries and mint. We designed a companion pattern for each bed and packed them full of food crop and beneficial plants like borage and calendula. Giovanni was very happy with his new garden and said that he was hoping to transfer the whole veg patch into this type of ‘easy’ growing system.

We were asked along to a morning truffle hunt one day. Up and out the door before 5am. Dew-proof trousers, a big stick and sniffer dogs in cages. It was all very surreal. We drove to an area just a few kilometres away, a young forest emerging from grassland. Oaks, blackthorn, wild apples, hawthorn, poplar and dogwood were all present. Giovanni showed us areas of grass die back where he expects to find truffles and sadly areas where some very competitive truffle hunters had dug up meters of soil around the tree. They do this once they have found just one truffle in the hope of randomly finding more. Not only do they take the unripe truffles but they break the mycellium and upset the symbiotic relationship of tree and truffle and any hopes of the same area fruiting again. Our guide has no need for this illegal type of scavenging as his dogs are so good at honing in to the spot. It was great to see them nose to ground, excited by what they may find. We didn’t find a truffle that morning. He never does when he takes people with him. We heard the horror stories of poison baits being left for dogs, easy for poachers to get the upper hand once your rival dog is dead. It’s big business and Giovanni has a friend who recently sold a truffle for $23,000.

I was worried for Giovanni and I was worried for his animals. I could have counted the number of hours sleep he’d had in one week on one hand. One moment he was full of joy and enthusiasm for his new garden and the next he was whacking one of his hounds in frustration. He was relying on truffles for an income and relying on his dogs for truffles. When little Ziggy got a wheat tuft in her ear it was the cost of removing it that seemed the major concern and not the welfare of the dog. I had to remind our host that the dogs had no water in their cages, cages that they spend every moment in when not truffle hunting. It makes me think about using animals as tools for profit related business. And it makes me think about relying on one stream of income and the pressure that comes with it. The permaculture principle of redundancy teaches us not to put all our eggs in one basket. The analogy of the spiders web demonstrates this perfectly, it can still perform it’s function even when a whole bunch of links are broken. I hope that Giovanni will be inspired by his new garden and maybe he will develop it further for less reliance on truffle hunting.

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