It was raining when I woke the following morning in the Rifugio Ca’ Da Cardella, tucked away on one of Mendatica’s precipitous cobbled streets. The village was eerily quiet.
As refuges go, the Rifugio Ca’ Da Cardella, was of the Ritz or Connaught variety, with comfortable bunk beds, duvets, wifi, ensuite bathrooms, wide-screen tv, capsule coffee maker. Local bread and apricot jam and sheep yoghurt and raw milk had been left for our breakfast. I’ve known many hotels less well-appointed and kitted out. It was all a far cry from the tarpaulins and sleeping bags of the Herbert River Gorge. Some kindly soul had even left us a copious packed lunch in the fridge to keep us going during the day’s excursion. Not that we needed much after the blow out of the day before.
The rifugio looked down over the orange tiled roofs of the village and out over the Val d’Arroscia that zig-zagging between the humped shoulders of the surrounding mountains covered in chestnut, beech, birch,ash, larch and pines. The rain had stopped and we set out. To begin with progress was slow and halting because I had a dodgy back that meant stoppong every hundred paces or so to recuperate. We went down through the village in stages, with a ‘buongiorno’ or ‘salve’ from each villager we passed – what polite and kindly souls they seemed to be; on past the rather grandiose church of Santi Nazario e Celso; until we came to a sign that read Cascate d’Arroscia, the Waterfall of Arroscia, just outside Mendatica, and we began to climb.
And climb and climb.
When I’d first conceived of this walk, the idea of pottering from the mountains to the sea had a certain romantic logic. We’d start up here, Ireasoned, and, by gradual degrees and easy stages, walk down there. It doesn’t say much for my map-reading skills or for absorbing the briefing notes emailed by the ever-efficient Ligurian Alpine Park crew, that I hadn’t really taken in that, in order to walk down, we would also have to walk up, that the Via Marenca followed the contours of the land rather than the dictates of my fond imaginings.
As it turned out there was going to be quite a lot of up from Mendatica at 800 metres above sea level, to the Waterfalls of Arroscia at 1100 metres to Poilarocca (1420 metres) to Colle Garezzo (1700 metres) to Monte Monega (1800 metres) until we started going down to the Passo Mezzaluna (1454 metres) and the Passo Teglia (1387 metres). And that was just the first day. Not for the first time in my life, I rather wished that I’d taken rather more interest in fitness and rather less than in table research. And my back was slowing down. I was beginning to sympathise with Captain Oates. Rory was philosophical and kindly about my weaknesses.
‘Someone of you age, Matt. It’s not surprising.’
So up we went, through the dripping woods of walnut, oak, beech, cherry and hazel. Where the path broke from the trees, it was edged with lush grass, thyme, broom, rock roses, euphorbias, orchids that glowed as if made from enamel. The smells of the thyme, broom and rosemary filled the air as the sun caught them.
At the Waterfall of Arroscia the path wound over an ancient stone bridge wreathed in ivy, arched, like a detail in an Arthur Rackham illustration. The falls weren’t quite Niagara or even Reichenbach, but they the tumbled prettily over starts of rock down through threes and flowed over the path so that we had to cross it by stepping-stones.
Then up again, the path, stone and leaf mould and earth, winding back and forth, climbed steadily. The heavier leaved trees gave way to slender larches and small beeches more finely spaced, so that sun shone through a tracery of leaves and cast a dappled shade.
We reached Poilarocca around lunch time. Once it must have been a reasonable sized village or large hamlet, one of many that dotted these hill sides. Now it was completely deserted, the houses roofless, the walls of irregular brown and grey stones, sagging and collapsing, windows blank, doors caving in. A stone with the words ‘Adlaude et honore D.M. virsine hoc opus recite fieri comsorcia ‘ elegantly carved on one side of a mysterious sign in the shape of the petals of a flower within a circle and then ‘schuerus descrita incapua cotinet’ on the other, was set at random in the wall above one of the doorway. I hadn’t a clue what it meant or signified. A thicket of nettles and campion burst out of the doorway, flowing down into the rich mix of grass, shrubs and wild flowers that had flooded the steep village streets and frothed up around the buildings.
Julia Blackburn evoked villages like Poilarocca in her book, Thin Lines. Even at the time about which she was writing, 1999, many of these villages were dying. The populations were ageing. The pattern of life, the rhythm of the life they embraced, was out of kilter with contemporary expectations. Who wants to be a peasant these days, rising with the sun and going to bed at sunset and working all the hours between? No three weeks holiday a year or cheap flights to Alicante or wide-screen TVs or the other trappings of modern life. No wonder the young people drained out of such places to find jobs as waiters or to train as accountants or IT specialists.
I tried to conjure up the people, the animals, goats and sheep and chickens, dogs and cats that would have populated Poilarocca a couple of decades ago, the men in their battered hats and well-worn clothes and heavy boots, the women in sensible dresses, faces weathered by sun and wind, children – but not even their ghosts appeared.
‘Sunk are thy bowers in shapeless ruin all,
And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall;
And trembling, shrinking from the spoiler’s hand,
Far, far away thy children leave the land.’
Oliver Goldsmith wrote about England in The Deserted Village in 1770. The same thing was happening in Italy two hundred and fifty years later. There’s an inexorable and tragic logic to history.
We found a convenient wall with a stone trough beyond to shed our ruck sacks and settle from our hefty packed lunch – focaccia spread with tomato, Brigasca cheese, a slice of tart.
‘ I think they’ve spent more time on the pastry cladding than on the filling,’ was Rory’s observation. It would have been useful if we had remembered to bring some bottled water to wash it down with.
The hillside fell away to our right, and we looked out over a green breakers of tree tops to barer hills beyond. A large buzzard wheeled in the sky above, its melancholy mew breaking the silence. It was extraordinarily beautiful and remote and unmarked by any sign of human interference. This was an illusion, of course. Almost all landscapes bear the marks of having been managed, even if they were disguised by resurgent nature. Hidden away along those trees would be the remains of orchards, stands of chestnuts, hazel and walnut, and olive groves that, like Poilarocca, itself, had been reclaimed by less biddable vegetation.Presently I found a spot where I could lie down and take a snooze.