Sunday, April 01, 2012

Cima Comer

It’s early evening. I’m at an outdoor café in Gargnano – a different one, just to compare. The waiter brings a Aperol spritz. I know better than to order a snack with it – it’s included. Little breads with tomato, salami, olives, chips.

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Quack. I look down. A duck has waddled in from the shore and is asking for a handout.


A well dressed trio is strolling by. The woman, in lovely jewels and a warm smile looks over, sees the duck and exclaims in shock – a duck? At the café? She walks over to the duck and gives a stern reprimand. What kind of a duck are you! You should be in the water! The duck ignores her. Quack! She walks off with a shake of the head. Ducks!

I’m sure that late in the season the people of Gargnano have their fill of tourists. Strangers come, they fill their restaurants and bars, they make it difficult to move around. But the season hasn’t started yet and right now, Gargnano folk are as welcoming and engaging as can be, as if that winter without the hub and hassle has had its toll. You miss your enemies too, after all. What else is there to talk about if not that aggravating tourist who sits at a café and wants desperately to feed the duck, even though she knows she shouldn’t. And the duck can sense her ambivalence and so it stays and quacks.

Truthfully, I am just so happy to have civilization around me again. Ducks included. It was a remarkable day, one where I’m proud to say I did what I set out to do and that leaves me, at this evening moment, feeling genuinely satisfied.

But I have a few reprimands and they are directed toward me, even as I’ll write them here so that I’ll remember that I am prone to doing things that are sometimes, well, foolish if not exactly fraught with danger.

But before I get to that, while I’m on the topic of ducks, let me say that they’ve got my name here. This morning, I took my breakfast outside. The German couple staying here felt that it was too cool. Nonsense. It was in the upper fifties, but the sun was out and it felt heavenly there, suspended over the water.

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The ducks saw me, swam over and together we finished some toast. (I kept the croissant and fruit to myself.) It was interesting to watch them establish their territory and fight off all intruders. Ducks and people have something in common after all.


And since this was to be indeed a mostly sunny day, I thanked my stars and asked the hotel proprietor about a nice long hike.
Long is good, I said. Just not one with sheer drops.
I understand, he tells me. I have fear of heights as well.
I felt instantly bonded. Indeed, I wanted to call Ed and tell him that even among the rugged and sporty people of mountainous Gargnano, there are those who, like me, can’t stand at the edge of a cliff.

The proprietor suggests a lovely hike up to the little chapel at San Valentino. He maps the trail for me and it looks to be a four hour deal. I notice that the trail actually continues, up to the tallest peak around here – the Cima Comer.
Is that a difficult climb? I ask. I’m interested in getting some good views.
He hesitates. You’ll get good views just from the shorter one. But if you want, you can continue. Of course, it will be longer. It's 1279 meters (that's 4196 feet) above the lake.
Okay, I’ll see how it goes.

I set out at 10:30. Everything about the day (and the place) feels bright. Cheerful.


Even Cima Comer, towering over the village, looks friendly, in a distant sort of way.


(Well, maybe less so once I start the hike.)


It is, at the village end of it, a lovely and historically meaningful cobbled trail.

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These villages along the western coast of Lake Garda were once the northernmost lemon growing places in Europe. Before the unification of northern Italy with the south, the country depended on the lemons from Garda. It’s mild enough to grow citrus fruits here, though during the winter they need some modest protection. And so you see these stone pillars dotting the landscape here. They supported winter cover for the groves of lemons. I suppose it’s like our hoop spinach – grown year-round in Wisconsin. I have a lot of respect for places that try to beat the odds and extend the growing season.

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They've since been replaced by olive groves. These days you can ship lemons from elsewhere. Olives command a better price.


As I  climb up, the forest obscures the view toward the water. But there is a clearing at one point, offering a lovely glance at the village below as it winds in a ribbon along the shore of the lake. Even from this escalation you can see the southernmost tip of Lake Garda.


But the views to the north are obscured by the Comer cliffs.  I have that itch to find out what's on the other side.


About a third way up the mountain, there is a tiny hamlet of Sasso. Just a few buildings and a café bar. Buildings are made of stone here. No surprise.


I’m tempted to pause, but decide to push forward. I’m already two hours into the walk and I’m feeling ambitious.

How ambitious? Well, here come the reprimands. There are many points, so bear with me.

First, I have to say, wise people would save the hardest hike for last. You have to build up to it. I may be fit, but I don’t climb mountains for a living.

Then, too, I should learn to take breaks, even if Ed isn’t with me. He insists on it. For the view. For the serenity of it. For a snack, a nap, or for no reason at all. He likes journeys. I like to get to the end of the book. His way makes more sense.

And also, if there is a sign that says – this portion is for advanced climbers, I should back off right then and there. I may be a solid hiker, even with camping gear, even for many days on end, but I am a wimpy climber. Anything that requires scaling and has the potential to send me plummeting down into a ravine will freeze me solid. I should remember that.

Here’s another tip: perhaps I shouldn’t hike long distances alone. Take someone else. Or take a phone. Take something! Because if I go into rocky terrain, it really is not that difficult to stumble and fall and unless I want to write one of those books about how I made it down a mountainside with a broken bone jutting out of my arm or leg, I should have some way of seeking rescue.

I did encounter one (and only one) fellow – on his way down, pausing here for the view.


Useless type. Like Ed, he seemed to enjoy sitting at the edge of cliffs. I worried that he’d fall and I’d have to carry his pack down with me – to help with the identification of the body at the base.

Other things to remember: ask about snakes in the region. Find out if you should carry a knife or some venom-stopper in case they are of the biting sort.

Finally, take a flashlight. Even if I’m going for a four hour hike and I leave at 10:30. Because you never know if that hike will extend itself into the evening hours and it really is inconceivable to navigate these mountain trails in the dark.

On the upside, I did take water and as I was already thirsty one third way up, in Sasso I purchased some more. And – here’s another wise tidbit: I remembered to take the old but still functional peanut butter sandwich from Madison.

So now I continue to San Valentino. There are some difficult stretches – slippery stones, requiring that you get on your butt and proceed slowly, but nothing beyond the beyond.

At San Valentino, there is a chapel and a shelter – it appears that hermits once lived here. How or why is beyond me, but people are people and each one has her own sets of preferences.


It’s just short of 2 p.m. By my (incorrect) calculations, the summit should be a mere hour or so away, if I take the short cut.

I don’t pause. I take the short cut, scoffing at the “it’s dangerous” signs.

A few minutes later, I retreat, tail between my legs. It’s the long road for me. I can't, even with the aid of steel ropes, make my way up rocks. Who am I kidding.

The long trail is... long. And steep. And, my hotel proprietor to the contrary not withstanding, it has some nice bends along cliffs that go straight down to the level of the lake. I slow down on those. My imagination is very good at conjuring up images of how a fall might look.

When at 3 the peak still seems mighty distant, I think about giving up. But when you’ve climbed a mountain and you still don’t know what it’s like around the bend, you don’t easily turn back.


So I continue. It has been such a long and pause-less climb that I feel I have certainly given my heart a good workout. I keep my eyes focused on the trail, always looking for the easiest steps, the less slippery option. The benefit of looking down is that you notice the alpine flora. There are, indeed, quite a number of flowers (and fraises des bois!) growing here.

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And then, suddenly, I have passed the tree line, and I see that I have only a short distance to go, and I have to admit it, I have never been so happy to see a cross in my whole life.


I look around. The mountains, rather than the lake below, now grab your attention. To the southwest...


To the southeast...


And finally, long hidden from view, to the north...


I realize that what I thought was the haze of travel yesterday was really the haze of the lake. It gets that way here often. A mist forms, things get a little blurry. Canvas-like. Always beautiful.

I am left with the challenge of a summit photo. Ed, where the heck are you?? Sigh... It’s back to figuring out how the self timer works.


There isn’t much time to pause now. I do sit down for five minutes and chomp away at my half a peanut butter sandwich. It’s a little mushed and the jam has seen better days, but I figure I need the protein for the hike down.

And it is a grueling hike down. I leave the summit at 4 and I try to put some speed into the descent. (I’ve been known to fly down mountains. Ed is much more methodical – up or down, his pace never varies.) I borrow a stick from the woods to help me and still, my feet feel every stone by the end of it all. Every pebble in fact.

Finally, there's Sasso. Two thirds down, one third to go.


As I approach Gargnano, I look over my shoulder. There’s Cima Comer, laughing at me. Or, is it that I’m laughing at her? I managed to touch her tip after all. There’s nothing like a safe return to make you feel deeply satisfied with life.


That, and an Aperol spritz with Prosecco and an orange slice. Eight hours after the start of the hike, I'm at the café.

This is the evening when I look for other eating venues in town and my kind proprietor suggests the lovely Three Geese, a.k.a. Trattoria San Martino. I’m not sure why it has two names and the hotel proprietor has a lively debate about it with his parents who have (charmingly) taken to sitting in the love seat by the front desk in the evenings.

I walk to the restaurant at 8 in the evening. Even though the sun sets behind the mountain by around 6:30, it doesn’t quite get dark until after 8. Here, I can still see the peak of Comer, jutting out over the village below.


At the Three Geese (or San Martino...)

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...I am the first there, but within minutes, the place fills, helped by the appearance of a family of ten adults and five children, there to celebrate the birthday of one of the moms. Initially, I had been given the table facing the window, looking out onto the water, but I find the view inside much more entertaining and so I switch sides.

It’s been a while since I’ve done a run of food photos, so let me do it now, if only to remind myself of the wonderful spaghetti with lake Garda sardines...


...and the utterly delicious Lavarello – a fish I had never heard of before, but one that apparently is abundant and caught fresh daily, here at Lago di Garda (it also makes an appearance in Lake Como).


...oh, and a delightful strawberry mousse for dessert.


It is true that I’ve had my fill of walking for the day, but the stroll home is lovely and takes no more than ten, maybe fifteen minutes. Still, I am happy when I reach these arches. It’s the last bend in the road. After that, I know I’ll find the sweet doors of the hotel.

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