As soon as we had returned to the yellow zone at the start of the week, we had been keen to make the most of our newly-restored freedoms. And by Thursday we looked set to achieve a hat-trick: we had just finished our first breakfast on the terrace of the café in the village for weeks, we were about set off to Umbria on our first trip outside Le Marche in seven months, and as Mr Blue-Shirt was settling the bill for our coffee and croissants, my eye fell on a poster stuck on the café door that offered us the opportunity to ‘participate in an outdoor physical activity together with other people’.
The tightly printed A3 sheet set out the programme for a half-day guided hike that Sunday in the hills just to the north of the Monti Sibillini National Park – complete with breakfast stop and pre-ordered picnic lunch plus a visit to a remote church on the way back to see a major 15th century religious artwork. It was organised by the regional branch of a national environmental group called L’Umana Dimora that, primarily by means of such walks, focuses on the relationship between humankind and nature.
Now, while our house is powered by solar energy and we are even toying with the idea of buying an electric car, we can’t, hand on heart, claim that it was the environmental angle that caught our attention particularly. But having spent much time at home on our own over the preceding weeks and months, restoring our own relationship with humankind and nature by spending a morning striding through the Apennine hills in the height of spring with a bunch of other walkers sounded very attractive indeed. So I took a quick photo of the poster and when we got back from Umbria, I exchanged a couple of emails with the organiser, booked our places and ordered our picnics, and on Saturday evening dug out our walking boots and backpacks ready for the next day’s 7.30am start.
Old habits die hard and Mr Blue-Shirt still can’t shake his military ‘five minutes before’ custom, so at precisely 7.25am on Sunday morning we pulled onto the deserted car park outside the pharmacy on the edge of Macerata that was our designated meeting point, a little unsure what and who to expect, and when. But on the dot of 7.30am, a gaggle of cars converged on the car park. The organiser, an incongruously rotund chap called Primo, did a brief head-count of the dozen or so people milling about in walking gear and masks and exchanging elbow bumps in the early morning sunshine. As soon as he was confident we were all present and correct, with a cheery “Andiamo!”– “Let’s go!” he invited us all to return to our cars and head off to our breakfast stop at the services a few kilometres inland along the dual carriageway, and by 7.35am the car park was empty again.
As Primo handed out our picnic bags over breakfast at the stand-up tables on the terrace of the service station, we discreetly checked out our fellow walkers. We were mildly relieved to find that they were all pretty much the same vintage as us, and that, like us, they were certainly dressed for hiking, but not a route march. So, pleased that we didn’t stick out too much like sore thumbs (other than being the only English participants, of course), we tentatively struck up conversation with a couple of people and discovered that most didn’t really know each other, but had only met once or twice on previous walks, which we also learnt took place every fortnight or so – all of which we found quite promising as trying to break into a long-established, close-knit group would be more of a challenge.
With everyone fed and watered we once again all jumped back in our cars bang on schedule, following Primo’s instruction to keep an eye on the battered 4×4 Fiat Panda driven by Corrado, our guide for the day. Only Corrado shot off so quickly that he was already out of sight by the time we were able to join the convoy, so we took the next best option and slotted in behind Primo who had set off along the dual carriageway at a slightly more sedate pace in his ancient Ford Focus. We began to doubt the wisdom of this some minutes later, however, as we sailed past the exit that sign-posted the village closest to the start-point of the walk. Fair enough, we thought: local knowledge, perhaps. But as some vigorous arm-waving broke out between driver and passenger in the Ford Focus, it became clear that Primo had missed the turning – along with the other half dozen or so cars behind him.
No matter, we thought: we could all take the next exit, re-join the dual carriageway going the other way and leave at the correct exit from the opposite direction. And sure enough, barely two kilometres further on, we all followed Primo off the dual carriageway. But, still gesticulating wildly at his passenger, he ended up bouncing along a gravel track away from the dual carriageway, and although we were briefly prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, he soon slowed to a crawl, and then executed an ungainly about-turn in the driveway of a disused cement works. So one after another, we all duly executed a similar multi-point turn and followed Primo back to the main road.
We had little choice but to stick with him as we had no idea exactly where the walk was supposed to start, so despite our bafflement, but still pinning our hopes on local knowledge, we stayed on his tail as he headed off up the slip road to the dual carriageway – on the same side as we had all just come off – only for him to slam on the brakes halfway up, and the line of cars behind him to miss concertina-ing into one another by a whisker. Primo’s increasingly exasperated passenger leap out, his extravagant body-language leaving little doubt as to the thrust of their latest exchange:
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?! You’re on the wrong bloody side!”
“But you said get back on the dual carriageway!”
“Yes – going back the other way, you stupid idiot! It’s miles to the next exit!”
“Don’t blame me! It was your crap directions! I’ll turn around…”
“What? You can’t turn around here! It’s a bloody slip road!”
“I haven’t got much choice, have I! Just get everyone to follow me.”
“For f…. sake….!”
So as Primo performed his heart-stopping U-turn, his co-pilot took his life in his hands and stood in the middle of the downward side of the slip-road to warn drivers taking that exit of the obstacle ahead, while simultaneously frantically directing the rest of us to follow Primo’s lead.
“Jesus!” exclaimed Mr Blue-Shirt as he executed the fastest U-turn on record. “I don’t believe we’re doing this!”
“How that guy hasn’t got taken out on the slip road I do not know. Thank God there’s so little traffic at this time,” I said weakly, clinging onto the dashboard as we spun through 180 degrees.
Once safely off the slip-road and finally facing in the right direction, the convoy pulled over to catch its collective breath – and to allow another driver who actually did know the way to our destination to take over from Primo as lead vehicle. Having fallen in behind the dark blue Fiat 500 with Primo now relegated to tail-end Charlie, we were on our way again in a couple of minutes – not onto the dual carriageway as expected, but, after yet another dodgy U-turn across a petrol station forecourt, along the minor road that ran parallel to it – and going in what at least felt like the right direction. And sure enough, within a couple of kilometres, we began to climb out of the valley up into the steep, forest-clad hills, at last following signposts to the village we were supposed to have been heading towards before everything had descended into a real-life version of Wacky Races.
Little over ten minutes later we finally arrived at our destination at the bottom of a steep stony track leading up into the forest on the far side of the tiny village of Borgianello, perched on a bluff high above the Chienti valley. The other half of the group who had followed Corrado straight there were standing around, boots laced and backpacks on as we finally hove into view to a round of mock applause and multiple calls along the lines of “About bloody time! What kept you?”
While they were all understandably impatient to get going, after our white-knuckle ride just to get there, we could have done with a bit of a rest first – even though it was not yet 9.00am and we had yet to walk a single step…