May 21,2013 — Piediluco to Poggio Bustone
Last night’s dinner was over-the-top delicious and plentiful, which led us to wonder how much we would owe for the privilege of enjoying it. We’d made a bargain with the hotel/restaurant proprietor yesterday to rent a room, then later agreed to have dinner too, but we realized we’d asked the price for the room but not the dinner. This morning when we headed to reception to settle the bill we learned our per-person total was 70 euros for the rooms, dinner, breakfast wine and snacks in the afternoon, plus a big bottle of water for the road. Not a bad price really, but we realized we should be more careful in the future to get the whole price before confirming.
As we walked outside we were greeted by a cool, dry day with high clouds. We crossed our fingers, hoping the clouds would keep their moisture to themselves so we would have a dry climb up the anticipated 2100 ft (700 meter) elevation gain to Poggio Bustone, an important St. Francis site in the Rieti valley, just across the mountains standing before us.
“See the town on the mountain up ahead?” “Yes.” “Good. We are climbing there.”
As we turned out of Piediluco, passing the Italian National Crew (rowing) headquarters, we noticed a hill town high up ahead and wondered if it was Labro, our intermediate stop for the day.
Before long something important became obvious: the waymarks were becoming fewer and less noticeable. We had relied on a blue and yellow stripe combination since the very start, but now the blue was gone and an occasional, halfhearted yellow stripe haphazardly appeared. Our theory was that we’d just left the region of Umbria and now were in the region of Lazio, whose waymark caretakers aren’t as diligent as their Umbrian peers. The lack of good waymarks would become important as the day continued.
In spite of the infrequent trail markings we managed to make our way up a gravel road to Labro, about one quarter of today’s elevation gain. Labro is a typically quaint and gorgeous Italian hill town, with centuries-old tile roofed houses stacked atop each other, all of them clinging to steep hillsides and separated by cobbled streets.
Somehow we missed the “centro storico” (old city) with its crenelated walls and ended up walking on a road at mid-city height that spit us out without coffee or croissants at the police station on the edge of town. It was only 10:30 anyway, so we kept climbing up the asphalt road, then turned onto a gravel road next to a cow pasture with two classic, tiny Fiats rusting under a tree. “I want that one,” said a wise Andreas who recognized them as stylish, urban collectors’ items — anywhere but in Italy.
We followed the road as it snaked uphill several kilometers while it started to rain, then arrived at the little town of Morro Reatino, which was blessed with an open cafe. Though at 11:30 we were very ready for pizza we settled for coffee and croissants since pizza would not be served until noon.
During our snack we studied our Lazio guide booklet, which indicated the direction to Poggio Bustone. Less hungry now, we faithfully followed yhe scarce marking and vague guidebook directions in the cold rain. Higher and higher we walked until we reached the top of our climb where we were presented with a confusing intersection.
In one direction was a sign for Faggio Bustone, the “beech tree of St. Francis” where tradition says he prayed and performed a miracle. In another direction were the yellow waymarks, seemingly pointing to Poggio Bustone, our goal for the day, but oddly north of the road we’d taken up — the opposite direction of Poggio. Our map suggested another possibility, that we go to the miraculous beech tree and walk past it to Poggio. The final option was presented by a shepherd, sitting in his old, white Rabbit pickup, who pointed vaguely at the road we’d just come up as the road to Poggio.
Tiny chapel at the Beech Tree of St. Francis
After a discussion of several minutes we opted to follow the map. During an hour of uphill climbing we met several handsome tan colored horses, a half dozen white cows, and two Swiss hikers — coming toward us, in their words: “in the direction of Poggio Bustone.” We now realized we were lost. We tried our cell phones to see if we could find our location on a suitable map. No signal.
By now it was 2:30 and I started to do a calculation in my mind of a) the amount of daylight left, b) the amount of food we had with us, and c) the downward direction of the temperatures.
We stopped to discuss where to go. Straight ahead would take us north. Going back would cost us another hour of time. Finally we opted to head back to the Beech Tree, where we’d seen our last waymark.
Fifty minutes later we were back at the Beech Tree chapel, where our Swiss friends were taking their lunch. While the others in our party shared the little bits of cheese, crumbled bread sticks and cherry tomatoes we had left, I walked down across a large meadow and found a new set of waymarks –red and white stripes — one of which had two welcome words written on it in black marker: “Poggio Bustone.”
We briefly headed back to the confusing intersection, which we still couldn’t sort out, then finally opted to follow the red/white striped waymarks I’d scouted back near the chapel. These waymarks, it turned out, were meticulously painted, leaving no doubts about our direction. Following the markings we picked our way down a steep, slippery trail to a dirt road below. Our direction clearly was now southerly and carefully following the markings we found ourselves after two hours on the outskirts of the scenic town of Poggio Bustone (applause!).
None of us were ever scared in the slightest that we might have to overnight in the cold, wet mountains of Lazio, but we all knew we could begin to see the limits of our stamina and the potential dangers ahead. The red/white markers were a huge relief and the kilometers melted away under our tired feet.
As we walked down the gravel road to Poggio Bustone we were startled by a large, white cow who charged out of the bushes ahead of us. We noticed her udder was dry and that she was quite alone in this very remote stretch of mountain territory. Since we’d walked throughout the valley we knew quite well that the nearest herd was at least 2-3 kilometers away, and we felt for her as our presence on the isolated road inadvertently nudged her farther and farther down the valley. Later, as we entered Poggio we saw an old, bleached cow skull and thought about life and death in the remote mountains and about the lone cow somewhere in the hills without her herd.
In Sebastian’s words, “In a couple more wrong turns we would have looked like this.”
We’d made a reservation at La Locanda Francescanna in Poggio and were surprised to be greeted by its proprietor as we made our way into town. He’d driven to the end of the road, where the path spills out on the north side of town, perhaps to check up on our well being. It was 5:30, a few hours more than a normal walk should take from Piediluco, and we were late to receive his hospitality.
His employee greeted us kindly at the hotel’s reception desk, then we rested and showered before enjoying an ample dinner at the hotel’s restaurant a few blocks away from the hotel itself. OK, yes. We did get lost getting to the restaurant. But we’re used to that by now!
Package price for overnight, dinner and breakfast? A prearranged 45 euros. We’d learned our lesson about pre-negotiating our price, as I think we also learned not to be caught under-prepared for a hike in the cool, wet mountains of Lazio.