The Eight Mountains – book review

The Eight Mountains, by Paulo Cognetti

I’m often asked to recommend books for blokes.

While I hesitate to divide literature into shades of pink and blue, I’m going to put my neck out here and say I think there is a difference in the way men and women experience books. I could probably draw an intersection pie chart with a crossover middle bit (there is a big chunk that belongs to women alone and a smaller chunk for hard-core boys – and I don’t mean that in  top-shelf kind of way, I mean car chases and adventures and explosions).

I belong to a bloke’s book club, which is very different to the all women clubs I have belonged to where we talk about the symbolism and the metaphors and the lovely writing. The boys are a bit more nuts and bolts and they want the ideas without particularly worrying about the package.

Paulo Cognetti doesn’t wow with fancy writing here.  This is sparse prose, cleanly cut, cool and clear as the mountains (oops – a simile, cut it out!) It’s the coming of age story of a nice Italian boy called Peitro who gets irritated by his father and doesn’t seem able to find a way back to him, which is very sad but so very real, I thought.

He also loses his childhood friend during adolescence, a local peasant boy from the village where Peitro’s family holiday so his father can climb the mountains.  But he finds Bruno again and they climb over a few obstacles into an adult friendship and the kind of kinship that escaped Pietro with his dad.

Pietro’s father goes uphill and his son chooses the path of less obsession, as most teenagers would, down in the village and then out in the world. But he is his father’s son and later in life his mountain backdrop is the Himalayas.  It is Bruno who manages to meet Peitro’s father on his own terms, you can’t blame the old man for welcoming the company of the substitute son.

What a lot father and son would have had to talk about together if a) they could articulate their feelings and b) they would talk to each other. See why I think this is a bloke’s book? Blokes know this.

Later, Bruno and Peitro together build the Italian mountain equivalent of a man cave but they take turns in their isolation, the lonely setting begetting lonely lives. You know it can’t go any other way.  Don’t go there blokes, go back down to the village, don’t lose your community. Reach out. Arrgggh. Blokes!

No car chases or explosions, but plenty of adventures up mountains and into the soul.

 

 

 

 

Ortegia

and Syracuse in Sicily

The thin ribbon of tourists ripples from the bridge up the main shopping street to the Cathedral and down Via Roma right across the island. We are in Otrigia, the small island which is the historical centre of Siracuse in Sicily. This is the birthplace of Archimedes, and one of the prettiest tourist towns I’ve ever visited.

The first thing you notice, especially after a weekend in rather grubby Catania, is that this little island town is absolutely spanking clean. It is built of white marble and rubbed smooth, not only with the passing of so many feet but professionally scrubbed and polished. There is no graffiti, where the occasional ancient stone work joins brick and plaster the transition is smooth. The crumbling bits are shabby chic.

It is early September and tourists are sparse compared to the hordes of Rome and Sorrento. Step away from the main trail and the small alleys winding the gully between whitewashed houses are full of large leafed pot plants but empty of people. You get that ridiculous tourist thrill of thinking you have discovered the real, old Italy, but the locals pull up on scooters and unload their shopping in bulging plastic bags and look at you as if to say – your patch is the main road, why are you here?

We go looking for authenticity, but of course there is no real Ortigia, no original people, you can go back through the layers of time to trace a tide of invaders, settled until the next lot arrived. The current invasion of tourists spend in the restaurants and shops and marvel at the Cathedral, where the Roman stones mould around the Doric columns of the earlier Greek Temple, there are echoes of Arabs, Jews and centuries of other worshippers here.

At the point of the island, cannonballs are strewn around the castle like balls of ice cream, dropped on the ground thousands of years ago.

We walk the circumference of the island one day, and the next go over to the main city of Syracuse where the Greek and Roman amphitheatres lie side by side on the hill. It’s wonderful to imagine the intelligent Greek orators in this vast open space informing and entertaining the theatre goers. It’s very different feel to the Roman ruins where the crowds were entertained by brutal gladiators spurting blood.

Greek ampitheatre

Walking the Amalfi Coast

Thousands of steps

The Amalfi coast consists of battered marble stairs that thread around and under houses and go up: irregular, steep, connecting across the winding roads and hundreds high, then a corner, and another hundred and a corner and a few hundred more until you collapse, exhausted at the top of the world with far more sea than you could ever view from the ground.

Everywhere is a walk down or up – hard on the knees but good for the heart, and what starts as breath talking surprises becomes the expectation: whitewashed houses built into outward leaning cliff faces, a ledge of rock holding an exquisitely proportioned church, a scrap of near vertical land terraced with lemons, a view that reaches from Capri along the whole stretch of the Amalfi Coast.

From a height, the towns are rustic and their history obvious, goods flowed down to the port for trade. Olives, figs, lemons, tomatoes. On this coast there is no flat land, so the little villages fill the crevices in the steep hills upwards from the sea. The stone steps of the original paths have remained, too steep to evolve into roads, and the narrow roads overlaid, following the contours, stuck into a crack of a cliff, best driven at speed in an Aston Martin with dark glasses and a movie star smile.

Close up, the towns are now a setting for tourists and the mishmash of joined houses clustering the port sell sandals and cool linen clothing, jewellery, pottery painted with lemons and sun hats to an international crowd. If your idea if heaven is a restaurant with a fine sea view and fresh basil, tomato and mozzarella on the menu, go to Positano, Amalfi, Praiano, Atrani, Minori, you’ll dine with the gods every day.

If you’re walking (do some hills before you go), take the Sunflower Guide and follow their descriptions of the paths, there is no detailed map that can guide you along the path in the direction of the single island and up the narrow pathway to the left of the church until you find the wooden fence by the olive grove. You need that level of detail and it helps, as you’re climbing, to imagine a future life when your job is a full time checker of Sunflower Travel Guides. We didn’t see anyone else with packs walking from town to town – busses are everywhere, but I would do the same again. Felt like a pilgrim.

Amalfi to Ravello is at least 1500 steps with long steep paths. Most people take the bus but the very few of us on the path recognised fellow heroes. There’s a beautiful pause when you reach the shelf that holds the gardens of the the Villa Cimbrone on the edge (very edge) of Ravello. A step further and you’re flying. Ravello is an impressive, established town that looks, from the coast, like a couple of houses, but the town unfolds as you crest the peak to a thriving hub with several large churches, a sunny piazza and busy streets. Ghosts of Virginia Wolf, Gore Vidal, DH Lawrence, Wagner give a good, boho vibe.

We kept walking inland, up yet another 300m staircase when we were already on top of the world, and skirted the Lattari mountains on a mule track back to Amalfi, inside the deep limestone bowl of towering cliff faces.

The most famous track, with tourists to match, is the Path of the Gods, which starts with a bus trip up the cliffs to Bomerano and ends, several gods later, in a million steps (not really a million) down to Positano.

My absolute number one walk was from Colle di Fontanelle to Sorento via Sant’ Agata, a glorious ramble on the rugged land’s edge where cliff meets high pasture and terraces, right across the peninsula with occasional views on both sides and no other tourists. The path led through a couple of small towns where kids played football in the square and ancient three wheeled vehicles laboured up the hills.

This wasn’t on my bucket list but I am ticking it off anyway. You feel the Gods all across this region, but on this track “ZEUS WAS HERE” is carved into the stone.

 

Storms and busses on Capri

Long drops to the sea

There’s a funicular in Capri from the marina to the town. The island has no coastal land, everything is up. To a kiwi the funicular is a cable car, and their cable car up the mountain a chair lift, but it is a cheap and fun way to get around so up we go.

Capri town is white and fluid, one holistic shell with alleys and tunnels running off the central piazza with no straight lines. The interlocking spaces are cleanly whitewashed, with chic boutiques selling international brands to beautiful people. You can watch them while you eat bitingly fresh tomato salad and guess who is buying and who is wishing. I used to think white clothes separated the money from the backpackers, but white dresses and shirts are everywhere here.

Anacapri, the other town on the island, is further up again. There is one road. It cuts across a sheer cliff face, and if I say it is the width of two busses wide, even with the truncated mini busses of the island, it sounds more generous than it feels. Passengers have to suck in their stomachs and even then there is barely a millimetre between passing vehicles. It is a jaw drop to the valley below. In the bus you are standing above the parapet and the camber of the road leans you out into space. This mountaineering by bus is quite normal and is done at speed.

I’m getting better at heights, but felt physically ill on that bus.

We walked from Faro along the length of the west coast to the Grotta Azzura, and left the tourists behind. We passed only one guy on the walk and he was from New Plymouth. On the road less travelled, it often is a kiwi. It’s an easy 10km walk on an ancient stone path between olive groves and baked terraces and rocks of extraordinary knoblieness, with history, geography and always the Mediterranean Sea and vast sky. There’s a kiln where they burned the marble of evil Tiberius’s palaces to make white wash. And good riddance to him (I’ve just read Robert Graves’ I Claudius. Haven’t eaten a mushroom since). It hadn’t rained here for 100 days (I could fill a travel book on places I have been that haven’t rained for 100 days) but we got hit by a torrential downpour that had us cowering for fear of the lightening directly overhead. Under the tree or away from the tree? Couldn’t remember. We dried off as we walked and watched the second hit came in across the sea to smash the island, forked lightening and instantly booming thunder and such water that turned the stone paths into storm channels and the road into a river.

A bus came through the deluge and picked us up as we clung to the rails on a stone wall.

Drowned rats, mad dogs, happy humans.

Faro Lightbouse Capri

 

Travelling light (makes me smug)

On the way to Amalfi

The kids are impressed. They’ve travelled Eastern European winter, South America, Thailand with cheap school bags, but I still get the nod for my small back pack.

Three socks, three knickers ( surprising the number of people who ask this), three light shirts, one each of sundress, shorts, mini, nighty, cap. Towel, swimsuit, sarong (more on the sarong later!). Tiny bag of moisturiser, sunblock toothbrush & paste, hairbands, deodorant. Laptop, phone (with books downloaded), passport, card.

I meet a friend at the airport who congratulates me for my frugal packing and I’ve taken a photo of my Kathmandu day bag sitting, cute, on the chair beside me. Hope smug still feels good when I’m hand washing every night.

I am off to the Amalfi Coast to walk The Path of the Gods, a narrow trail of volcanic rock that goes from village to village high above the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of steps to look forward to.  So, no wheels on the bag then – they wont be going round and round on that terrain. Light as possible.

There’s a balance between travelling light, and only having one pair of shoes to go from mountain to restaurant.  But I figure if I need more than trainers,  they have pretty sandals in Italy.