Rewarding trek up timeless valleys

Lake Orta, northern Italy.
Lake Orta, northern Italy. Liz Light

I TRACE path over folds of the map and fret; the altitude lines between Lakes Orta and Maggiore are close together and I note a town called Alpino. There is, it seems, a mountain range to walk over. I wonder if I'm up to it, if my knees will last the distance, and what about blisters? There are daily walking schedules of around 15km - I sit at my computer all day so am not mountain-fit.

Romans walked these paths 2000 years ago, so if bootless Romans can march for months I can walk for a week; it's just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other.

In the morning my anxiety has gone. Lake Orta is silver shiny and the ancient monastery on its tiny island looks pretty in a medieval way. We turn our backs to it and head for hills, the peaks of which are cloaked in cloud.

Kath, friend and chief navigator, reads the Inntravel walk notes carefully and we soon leave the road for a forest path. The vegetation is lush and the forest-filtered light is awash in green. I can almost hear the trees growing. I quickly learn to avoid nettles. Ouch. The old tale about juice from dock leaves easing nettle stings is true.

We follow skinny lanes uphill to round a corner and grin at the pinch-me-I-might-be-dreaming 1566 church of San Rocco. The facade is decorated with statues of saints. In the adjoining bell tower a cluster of bells wait to strike the hour and steep steps lead to the solid wood door. Religious artwork, much of it as old as the church, adorns the interior. In our world this is found only in history books.The path, originally for horses and carts, curls upwards to Maisino, a village of cobbled lanes, stone houses, some with plaster finish painted in frescoes - vines, flowers, stylised lions - and a piazza. We sit and ogle at the buildings around the square. The houses, both modest and grand, are 300 years old, and still are people's homes.

A lane leads to an open valley with small farms in it where cows graze on knee-deep grass. Their bells dong gently as they move. Hamlets of five or six houses hunker into hillsides. Some have magnificent vegetable gardens with fat cabbages, tall beans, spinach, tomatoes, aubergine and scraggly artichokes. We pass roses rambling over fences, hedges of sweet jasmine and flowers - tiger lilies, petunias, geraniums - bright with summer.

Farmland turns to forest and the walk notes direct us along a riverside. The river warbles, cuckoos call (the same sound as grandma's cuckoo clock), misty rain falls and we walk on, losing track of time and distance. I'm tired, but pleasantly so.

The sun breaks through just before we climb a steep zigzagging path to the hilltop Mesma Convent. There are chapels along the way, 12 of them, each with a picture depicting Jesus's journey, shouldering his cross, to the top of Calvary. It's a long, hot, steamy climb for us and we feel progressively sorrier for poor Jesus. When he finally got to the top of his hill he was crucified. We drink cool water gushing from a stone lion's mouth, rest on a seat surrounded by flowering rosemary and eat chocolate and almonds that we packed for such moments.

It's downhill from here, back to Lake Orta, 12km done and four to go. These last four are hardest. When we eventually stagger into our hotel I'm hot, footsore and have just enough energy to put on my togs to immerse myself in the lake. Ahhh, it's cold, clear and just what my tired body needs.

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Topics:  italy travel travelling trek

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