08 July 2007

hiking + eating

Cogne is nestled in a valley worthy of Heidi and her mountain-loving brethren. Think alpine meadow teeming with equal parts wild flowers and wild grasses. Big blue sky and snow-covered mountains. Folks sunbathing topless and thong-ed. Yep, the last one stood out for us too. But I assure you, certain members of our party were not complaining. In fact, this person's pace noticeably slowed to better take in the view.

The hiking paths within easy reach of Cogne (and well past the scantily clad sun seekers) are nothing short of magnificent. They are the shockingly beautiful scenes that taunt you from tourist brochures and nature magazines. This area is part of the Gran Paradiso National Park - a park that is well-loved by Italians. We didn't run into any Americans although promptly upon our return to Milan we found out that a highschool friend was in the Park at the very same time, hiking her way through her honeymoon.

You might know Stefano and I like to hike as well and we recently purchased one hiking pole each. While not considering ourselves expert hikers we might go so far as consider ourselves somewhat physically fit. So why, you might ask, would we need hiking poles?

"Need" is a strong word but after enough times passing pole-possessing hikers looking like king/queen of the world - while feeling pretty exhausted yourself - you too might turn to these magical tools. (The same logic does not apply to the black socks + sandles combo nor the scarily popular plaid hiking pants.)

I think the overall vote on the poles was a hearty thumbs up. I don't know what nature thinks of us sticking poles into it every two feet but we sure felt like it gave us more support along the way.

However, there isn't enough support in the world to make our first hike easy. Stefano calculated the elevation change and found that we hiked 3500 feet up in under three hours. That's like climbing more than two Sears Towers without the benefit of stairs. Then turn around and go back down. You will quickly learn that gravity is not your friend.

The gleaming light in the middle of our hike was the refuge where we had our lunch. This was the first refuge we've ever been to; a refuge being a lodge in the middle of nowhere, reached only by foot, that is filled with beautiful hearty plates of food.

I'd like to now make the grand and sweeping statement that the best hikes in the world are followed by the best food - and that this is one of the most satisfying pairings that can be found on our planet. If somehow I'm the first person to mention this, it's only because everyone else is too busy hiking and eating.

Our perfect convergence of hiking and eating took place at the Rifugio Vittorio Sella. This refuge has been there at 2584 meters since 1860 and when it finally came into our view, it was as if the sad and lonely island castaway suddenly saw a cruise ship coming right for him. We couldn't have been any happier.

Inside the refuge on the wood-paneled walls were framed posters identifying poisonous mushrooms and technicolor wildflowers. Families and couples took their places at the thick wooden benches and tables. It seemed hot and steamy inside at first - we realized later this was only because we were sweating so much from our hike.

Once the food was put in front of us, we were transported into a magical and delicious place. I had something called soup but it really was a luxurious combination of cheese and bread and butter... in a soup bowl. Stefano had a steaming bowl of minestrone that was thick and hearty but yielded easily to a spoon.

For our second course we each had mountains of soft polenta topped with rich saucy stews -- porcini mushroom for me and a local beef variety for Stefano. And to finish, a sweet cakey blueberry torte. The icing on the cake? A bird clock nearly identical to those of various family members back in the US which occasionally broke into mechanical song during our meal.

I cannot over emphasize how welcome this meal was. After climbing what felt like straight-up for three hours we had the opportunity to stop in the middle of it all, and eat something so good - surrounded by scenery so pretty - that there was no doubt it had all been quite worth it. When we left, after having cooled down during our meal, we realized how very high we actually were - it was freezing outside. Although that didn't stop big lumpy marmots from goofing around nearby.

The walk back down was just as difficult as the walk up although there was the added fear of succumbing to gravity and exploring the scenery far more closely than one might otherwise prefer. We did take a breather to lay on a shady rock and watch a glider circle above, drafting on air currents with an early moon hanging in the background.

Our second hike was supposed to be easier than the first as it started with a cable car ride up a mountain, instead of a climb. The hike turned out to be suprisingly challenging yet there were at least three children with us in the cable car on the way up. While discussing our aches and pains along the path we realized these young kids must be doing the same path. (Note: not only are Italians magically immune to sunburn and mosquitoes, but apparently their children are super heroes as well.)

On this path it seemed we only went up, or along thin steep ridges. And when we went down it was either along stretches that were so steep that some of us (me) went down on our rear ends - all the while trying not to think of the fearless kids who would be scampering past shortly. I won't even go into our "hikes" down the ski slopes. (Who knew a wide swath of steep land - perfect for zipping down on skis and gathering momentum - would be a great place for scenic walking?)

We did have an excellent picnic on a slide of rocks that had come to a standstill long ago. The view was stunning and the lardo was herbed. Oh yes, herbed lardo is a local specialty and it's scarily marvelous. We had long thin slices of lardo curled on fresh ciabatta rolls and ate spiced olives, salami, and hunks of Toma cheese. All were acquired in the local delis in Cogne and at a very reasonable price. Hell, when we got back down into town we even had a few crème puffs as well.

Like I said, hiking and food are made for each other. Especially when the food is this good and the scenery this stunning. Every angle of the Alps is different, and every town has its charm. And often, these places are even more charming from the likes of 3600 feet up -- especially after a steaming bowl of cheese, bread and butter.

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