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.

Up Grigna, Lake Como way

It was supposed to be a family affair, the four of us. “Have we got enough petrol?” “Yes, of course we have.” Of course we have enough petrol.

“Excuse me, how much further is it to the start of the walk?” I ask. The man cycling upwards pulls a face. “Oh, about four kilometres.”

Not so long after we’re sitting in the back of a car of a couple from Milan, myself squashed between my two kids, and I’m telling them the story of how my husband dropped us off earlier and is now somewhere on the shores of Lake Como with a petrol can, and thanking them profusely for giving us a lift up to where the walk is really supposed to start.

It’s all worth it though. Granted, there’s the occasional sheer drop and excessive scree but that’s what it’s like up Grigna, that huge mountain massif in the province of Lecco above Lake Como. It’s calcareous and dolomitic for a start – just like the Dolomite mountains that stretch across Trentino and Alto Adige – and renowned for its huge rocky peaks and world-famous climbing opportunities. Today we’re walking the stretch from above Cainallo to Rifugio Bogani up at 1900m. This matters for my son. How high is it, mum? How high is it? There are several people already coming back down. They greet us with the friendly air of people who walk regularly in the mountains. No pretences, just a genuine appreciation and respect for all that is around them. Mountains can be a great leveller.

There is a famous saying by an Italian Alpinist Beato Contardo Ferrini, a Franciscan monk who also became a saint. “It is by overcoming the obstacles of nature in the mountains that you learn to overcome the obstacles of life.” It’s carved onto a slab of rock in a valley where the cows are taken to pasture in summer and fresh cheeses smell of meadows and the cycle of life; and it’s always there at the back of my mind.

Mum, I want to go to the top. Mum, can we go right to the top? Mum, when can we go right to the top?

Rifugio Bogani, Vò di Moncodeno, 23825 Esino Lario LC, 368 352 7021

It’s always advisable to ring and book if you’re wanting to eat at the refuge, and especially with the new COVID restrictions.

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.