Montespluga

“Go there today,” the woman in the café tells me. “You don’t get many days like today.”

“No?” I ask her.

“Not up the Spluga. You probably get about five clear days every summer, really clear days.”

I’d set off that morning, passport at the ready, with the intention of going up the border into Soglio in Switzerland, what was once voted the most beautiful village in Italy. And it would have been beautiful, perfectly Alpine, picture postcard, and I would have sat in a bar and drank coffee and eaten a brioche or whatever else was on offer and thought I was in some earthly paradise.

She mentioned Spluga and I was off. I’d forgotten the road or rather I remembered it as far as Campodolcino and had forgotten about the sharp bends on the stretch afterwards up to Madesimo. The part where you literally traverse up the mountain pass and if my husband were driving, he’d have been belting his way up there, and I’ve have been shouting (possibly screaming) SLOW DOWN. Just SLOW DOWN. It never had that effect when I first met him. We’d be up and down mountain passes at all times of the night, on icy roads and with thick snow falling, and I don’t remember screaming at him. Then I got a bit older, and I’d met mortality. And that made me want to slow him down.

Anyway, today I was in control.

There’s something about travelling alone that makes me ever more convinced it really is the perfect way to travel. I don’t think I could ever do group holidays. It’s not that I don’t like the people who I could have a group holiday with, I just don’t like the idea of it. It’s the whole idea of getting up in the morning and deciding where to go. It’s a no go from the start.

Then after I’d driven up the few hair-raising bends, the whole landscape opened out. I’d left the trees behind. It was late March and the snow was still on the ground, although not as much as some years. Where it had melted, the mountains were brown and in need of more days of sunshine before they would take on the colours of summer.

It was strange being up there in the snow. It gave the whole place a sense of false calm, as if the snow was covering its true nature. I’d expected it to feel wilder, more remote. Whereas it felt crisp and beautiful and slightly too perfect. Maybe that was the effect of the clear blue skies.

I remember coming up here to go walking one spring. It had seemed like a good day.

After a couple of hours we were huddled by the side of the mountain refuge, trying to protect ourselves from the sleet.

Mountain refuge

Yesterday I was sitting in a mountain refuge with my oldest Italian friends. It’s the thing I like doing best. Walking up a mountain, taking in the views of the said mountain and then sitting in a mountain refuge and eating mountain food. It was an early birthday celebration, a day with friends and their teenage son who I remember being born and have known all his life. It happens when you live in a place for a while. You make history here.

“I’ve just realised I’ll be twenty years older than the age I was when I first came here,” I said as I finished off the polenta and wild mushroom stew.

And in twenty years nothing much has changed. I’m still sitting in mountain refuges, older, with two children and an Italian husband.

Conversation in the car with my elder son.

“But mum,” he began, “could you not speak ANY Italian when you came here?”

“No, I learned it when I got here.”

“But how long did it take you to learn it?”

“I can’t remember. A few years. I learned most of it in the mountains, when dad and I used to go skiing every weekend.”

Silence, which means he’s thinking.

“You know what I once did. I once needed a stamp and I didn’t know the word. So I made it up. I kept saying to the guy, timbra, timbra. I thought, well it’s timbre in French so it could be something similar.”

Elder son starts laughing.

“Anyway, so he said francobollo. So, I thought right, it must be a shop called Franco Bollo.”

“Francobollo?”

“Yeah, you know, Franco. Franco Bollo. So off I went to look for a shop called Franco Bollo.”

“Oh, muuuum…”

Once there was a young woman who went round a shopping centre for a good half hour looking for a shop called Franco Bollo.

She’d arrived in Italy only a month before liked some kind of 90s Lucy Honeychurch with a bright orange puffer jacket and a vague desire to travel. She stood out like an amber traffic light. Very few Northern Italian woman wore bright orange puffers jackets and certainly not in provincial lakeside towns. She got on and off trains and went up and down a lake and looked at the mountains and wanted to go. She loved all of it: the food, the scenery, the places, the people. Which is what Italy is all about, all that, and never judging a book by its cover.

That’s the bit you learn later, when the dream becomes reality.