Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 24, The Hounds From Hell or Lunigiana Roadside Attractions, Part 3,
In my last post, Lunigiana Roadside Attractions, Part 2, I concluded with a picture of this chap as it served nicely as to divide a quite extraordinary day into its two quite distinctly different components; the carefree and exhilarating back-country-road-exploring of the early part of the day, and the equally exhilarating-yet-ultimately-terrifying-alpine-meadow-rambling that lead to the quite nasty confrontation with five huge great Italian mountain sheep dogs.
The reason for the friendly salute was due to the fact that I had just agreed to purchase a box of his wonderful looking porcini mushrooms, the very first of the season. I had been hoping to find such a roadside attraction as I set out that morning following a conversation with my Airbnb hosts who had expressed their disappointment at not being able to find any for themselves in the woods surrounding their lovely home just outside of Pontremoli. They had explained though that a select few ‘old timers’ always seemed to know exactly where the little devils grow and would often be seen strolling along a woodland footpath and casually sauntering back a few minutes later with a bag overflowing with them. Clearly I had found one of their cadre in this tough-as-nails old timer.
Though he spoke no English at all he seemed quite eager to chat and so we passed a quite comic moment or two miming out our questions and answers, but when I replied “Colorado” to his inevitable question as to where I lived he shook his head in bewilderment. “Colo-ra-do, U-S-A” I repeated. Still nothing. “America” I blurted. “Ahhhh, America? America!”. That’s the moment I snapped the above pictures.
Although he did show me a small jar of truffles, and I was tempted, it was the porcini that I had pulled over to the side of the road for and at this point I wasn’t about to be dissuaded. This was the box I carefully placed in the back of ‘The Bee 2’, my trusty rented Fiat Panda, and my good judgement was later confirmed by common consensus that these were indeed ‘beauties’ – I had done well.
The mushroom picker had clearly chosen his spot well for he pitched his spot at the very top of the ‘Passo del Eagastrello’ where four roads collide as Tuscany and Emillia Romagna meet. Crossing the watershed just a kilometer or two beyond his roadside stand I burst onto a quite different scene. The pass pictured above lead into a wide open alpine vista that could have been the setting for Julie Andrews to burst into song.
The hills were alive but thankfully not with the sound of music. However everything that is lovely and liberating about the wilderness was on view as the mountainous panorama unfolded before my eyes.
What a glorious landscape I had stumbled into.
The quite air, the tranquility, the peacefulness of it all was quite astonishing.
Climbing to the top of a grassy knoll I was able to look down upon a scene of bucolic idyll; the lovely sculpted and near empty country roads, the modern but traditional dairy farms and the tightly clustered houses clinging to the steep hillsides quite captured my imagination and I spent a considerable time taking it all in.
Finally though the time came for me to head back to the car and so as I was cutting across the steep slope to a rough path I had seen on the far side of the meadow I caught a glimpse of a dog crouched down in the rough grass. I had heard the sound of a cowbell clanking in a copse of trees at the crown of the hill and so I instantly recognized that I had stumbled across a sheep dog. ‘How nice’. Click, I took a picture.
At the sound of my electronic shutter snapping the beast sprang into action. It seems I had inadvertently walked into a trap of the most vicious kind, for it turned out that he was the leader of a pack of five such hounds and at his howl they came running from several directions, and before I knew it they were bounding down the hillside with what appeared to me to be a quite an aggressive intent.
…until I found myself face to face with all five of the beasts growling, howling, barking, snarling… the sound was tremendous, not to mention quite utterly terrifying.
Now, I know what you are thinking – why, when I am facing such imminent danger am I bothering to take pictures, why don’t I just leg it?
Well, that’s not a bad question but there is a simple and quite logical answer… well, at the time I thought it quite logical. You see all this happened in a veritable blink of an eye. Within seconds of that first howl I snapped the picture you see above. The camera never left my hands and as the beasts bounded down the hillside it was the only thing between myself, and them! Whether real or imaginary with the camera between us I felt as if there was something other than my own flesh and blood to occupy them, and for whatever reason they did pull up just at the very moment I feared they were going to launch a massed attack and tear me to pieces… devour me perhaps.
This was the one I was most concerned about – the leader, the one I had surprised with the click of my camera. It seemed to me that our differences were irreconcilable. Not merely content with driving me off he seemed to have a different agenda to that of the other lesser dogs. It was at this point I got to wondering (hoping like hell) that he had been fed regularly. Time after time, as the others would back off he would rally them and they would be growling and snapping away just feet from the lens as I slowly beat my retreat backwards down the steep, slippery grassy slope.
Soon a pattern emerged. I would issue assertive commands, they would howl their hatred, I would take a few steps backwards, and they would make as if they were going to outflank me and cut off my retreat. Just what I would have done if they had surrounded me, well I dread to think, for each time I even took my eye off them they made as if they were going to rush me.
Several times I managed to put distance between myself and the pack, and when I eventually connected with the rutted path I imagined that I had reached some sort of boundary that would satisfy their sheepdog instincts that they had indeed done their job and now I was at last free to go. For that’s what I kept telling myself, that they are in fact mere sheepdogs and that they were after all only doing their job. But then again, what if they really were very very hungry?
And then they would come rushing down once again and I’d be back in the same position… fending off a vicious pack of hounds from hell with my camera! Well, at least there would be some clear evidence at my inquest as to just who the guilty party was.
At last, after several of these concerted and terrifying charges I managed to reach some sort of boundary to which we could agree would keep me in one piece and their pride as worthy Italian sheepdogs in tact. In facilitating my escape I had backed my way all the way from the trees at the top of the photo to this point where the picture was taken. Even then I feared to turn my back on them as they had feigned a let up in their attacks many times previously, and so I continued to shuffle backwards until I was quite sure that there were to be no more such charges.
It was only when I approached the trail head that I noticed this sign – not by the car park, or anywhere near it, but a good 100 yards down the track.
A few yards on I came across their compound…
…neither of which was visible from the road.
Silly, silly me… apparently I had taken the wrong path!
However, as with all horrible/terrifying episodes they make a good tale to tell, and when I returned to my Airbnb hosts as twilight began to settle on their beautiful little corner of Lunigianan countryside I acted out my bizarre form of escape by shuffling backwards… and snapping these pictures, much to the amusement of Francesco, Eugenia and the neighbor children.
As for the porcini mushrooms… Eugenia treated me to a lesson on exactly how to clean and store them. Apparently washing them is the ultimate act of barbarianism. They must be meticulously picked clean with a sharp knife, as illustrated below:
This was to be my last day in Lunigiana as the next morning I hopped into ‘The Bee 2’ and pointed it in the direction of Borgo a Mozzano across the Tuscan mountains in Garafangana… where I am currently putting this post together. I have in fact been enjoying this perfect slice of heaven for over two weeks, and in the next post we’ll relive the trip that takes us through some of the most idyllic country lanes and rustic countryside that it has been my pleasure to experience.
Till next time, watch out for vicious sheep dogs.