We spent an amazing nine days being hosted by the amazing couch surfing Roberto in the Trentino mountains. I’ve said repeatedly that the highlight of our trip has been the people we have met. We planned to stay with Roberto when we were keen to explore the Dolomites, and looking for someone who could help us store our bikes for a while. We left having experienced so much more than we could have ever anticipated. We kept our minds open to all the suggestions Roberto gave us, and in doing so we had a much richer experience than if we had doggedly pursued our goal ‘to see the Dolomites’. I will summarise some of the awesome experiences we had!
Roberto introduced us to the Italian ‘Bivacco’, small mountain huts/refuges where you can rest, cook, or sleep for one or two nights in the mountains… for free. They range from very basic (a wooden plank in a WW1 fortification/cave) to absolute luxury (purpose built with all mod cons!). Liam and I could not believe the quality of the three bivacco we explored. Usually built and maintained by volunteers, sometimes with support from local councils/cooperatives, they can be warm, cosy spaces stocked with a place to cook, fire wood, and bunks or platforms for sleeping on! People leave food there and in one we found Nutella, wine and tobacco. This isn’t just leftover dry packet pasta and rice, although there is plenty of that too, you can find tins of olives, tuna, chocolate bars, biscuits, enough to survive on happily for quite a while. The bivaccos we saw were all exceptionally clean, and we left the one we stayed in even cleaner than we found it. I think everyone has the same attitude – lets maintain these beautiful spaces!
At one Bivacco we went for a day hike with Roberto’s friends and had an amazing feast cooked on the wood fired stove inside. This included a giant pot of Polenta and I lost count of how many different types of meats. Wine overflowed all afternoon, and dessert included Lindt chocolate bunnies and gorgeous Italian biscuits. Liam and I were treated like royalty, and served first, with multiple generous helpings of the most delicious food. We merrily waddled down the hill afterwards with bursting bellies.
Outside the bivaccos it is usually also possible to have a fire and sit in nature. We were there during the day so a fire was not necessary, but we used the gorgeous space to have a singing and guitar playing session. We swapped stories of child hood songs, Liam and I were treated to several Italian classics. I regretted not knowing many songs, but managed to remember an Irish drinking game song instead.
Reading the guest books in the bivaccos we stayed in, it became apparent that people not only use the huts for refuge on multi day walks, but also as places to socialise with your friends and family, have parties and eat communally together. We thought they were an amazing idea, and wish we had more things like this in the UK. And all for free!
A multi day walk in the wilderness
Liam and I were really keen on doing a multi day walk, missing our Nepali trekking adventures. Normally when we get recommended walks, we end up finishing them pretty early and with legs hungry for more. This was not the case with the three day walk Roberto recommended. If I had truly known what I was getting into, I may have been tempted to choose another walk. However, no part of me regrets the experience. It was the best walk I’ve ever done and partly because I was pushed to my limit.
The walk took in a ridge line across the Trentino mountains and finished with a spectacular view of one of the Dolomite ranges. It took in many passes, and was mostly over 2000m so you really had the feel of being wild in the mountains – what added to this was that we saw very few people. The walk actually only involved a very short bit of walking and then it was mostly a clamber over rocks, with some scrambling and some very basic via feratta (more like using ladders and cables). I never felt in any danger, but I was glad my mother couldn’t see me! Liam and I weren’t used to this sort of terrain, so it made it quite the experience.
Along the way we slept in one amazing camp spot, and one luxurious bivacco. The stars. The stars were incredible. We had mesmerising views of ever changing dancing cloud formations, rugged peaks, snow capped Austrian mountains, wildlife and tumbling volcanic rock scapes. We saw marmots and an abundance of mushrooms, grasses, wild berries and perfect little flowers. Sometimes we saw nothing at all, because nothing really survives above 2000m.
I had the strangest experience whilst camping at 2000m. I have never experienced, maybe in my whole life, such silence. I awoke during the night and felt complete sensory deprivation. I could hear *nothing*. No traffic, no water, no animals, no rustling, no breeze. I panicked at first until I realised what I was hearing: not death, but silence.
We also got to experience the panic of running out of water. When Roberto advised us to take water whenever we could, we naively didn’t understand that this meant we needed to take as much water as we could. There was a section where we had to ration our water, and although we never felt truly in danger, it was an interesting experience to not know when we could find more. When we finally found a spring out of the mountain the next day, we were very pleased!
We were lucky that Roberto met us during day two of the walk also so he could advise us that day three would be tough. Honestly, we nearly didn’t finish day three. We nearly took refuge in another bivacco as we were exhausted and afraid of becoming benighted on the unforgiving rocky terrain. Boulder field after boulder field awaited us, we moved slowly over the sharp rugged terrain at times at a painful pace of 1.5km-2km an hour. We didn’t fancy our chances negotiating the the terrain in the dark. Fortunately, we got faster, motivated by fear and gifted with experience.
When we arrived at the pick up point arranged by Roberto, he was blasting We Are the Champions out of his car, with open arms and his usual open smile to match! Although I could barely walk, he took us to see a waterfall on the way home, as we winded through the Dolomites as they were being bathed in evening sun.
I want to take a moment here to talk about Roberto’s fridge and cooking, and also discuss Italian food in general. Roberto’s fridge was stuffed full of amazing local meats and cheeses, jars of homemade pickles, sauces, miscellaneous items. He taught us about the simplicity of Italian cooking – the principle is that you use as few ingredients as possible, but each item has to be the best quality, and cooked really well. Italian carbonara doesn’t contain any cream, for example, instead Italian’s use the pig’s cheek (not pancetta), which is a really fatty and creamy part of the pig. When you fry the pig cheek, the fat breaks down into cream, and the taste is totally delicious. No need for any cream! I promise you!
We’ve had the Italian home made food experience before also at Eduardo’s house (a warm shower host). His mother made us a tomato salad which just contained the most amazing fresh tomatoes, and basil, with a drizzle of olive oil. You really needed nothing else, the ingredients sing on their own. Even Liam, who normally won’t go near a tomato until its been roasted, fried or blended to an inch of its life, loved the Salad and had seconds!
Roberto cooked us some incredible food whilst we stayed with him, and also said we could help ourselves to anything in his amazing fridge. It has been great to sample how the Italians eat, and pick up some more tips, to add to the ones in France. We really enjoyed a fish he cooked for us, fresh from the sea near Venice, and a pasta with a sauce from fresh muscles.
I am not sure I can get on board with Italian breakfast however, although Liam is loving it. Italian breakfast is basically just a creamy/milky coffee with biscuits or bread smothered in delicious chocolate spreads/nutella. I mean, I can and have definitely gotten on board with these breakfasts, but it goes against everything I have been taught about breakfast food! Imagine our shock when we turned up to a B&B and the breakfast was a large bag of chocolate biscuits with jam. We thought this was unusual, but have learnt it is typical.
And then we leave Roberto’s!
After Roberto picked us up from the walk, we spent a few days relaxing at his beautiful house. I really fell in love with the area he lived. I walked his little dog Baloo three times a day, and each time, the same path would appear different. The pine trees smelt so amazing, and their scent perfumed the air as the retired leaves of autumn crunched under your feet. Mushrooms and wild berries grew around you, and the colours were always changing in the different lights. The clouds rolled in the valley, dropped down as mist, and then rose out of the sky to reveal a beautiful sunshiney day. Spiders webs glistened in the afternoon glow. I could have walked around the crisp valley forever. I could totally see why Roberto never wanted to leave his amazing hometown.
Thanks so much to Roberto for being an outstanding, generous and funny host. We won’t forget him in a hurry. He rescued us from a tight situation, picked us up from the bottom of a mountain pass, welcomed us into his home, shared his space with us as if we were family, introduced us to his friends and local area. We really enjoyed all our chats, about life, spirituality, trees, food, spaghetti in tins, chocolate and travel.
We really felt we never wanted to leave. But. Leave we must. And we did. We cycled down the enormous hill Roberto had driven us up several weekends before, and rode off full of anticipation about our path ahead!