Adventure in the Valley of the Pig
There are no photographs, but, dear reader, everything that follows is true.
It all began on Friday lunchtime. I was restless, keen to go out for a walk, but suddenly sick of the dog shit and litter on the Palermo streets. I consulted a reputable guide to walks in Sicily. A two and a half hour walk (grade 1-2, fairly easy, maybe the occasional ‘scramble’) was suggested, on Monte Pellegrino, the famous mountain that towers over the city.
A bus ride later, I got off, foolishly feeling too shy to ask the bus driver for precise directions. The Adventure in the Valley of the Pig has cured me once and for all of shyness. It soon became apparent that I was in the wrong part of the mountain, but I tried and failed to find my way to the right part. Each path led merely to a cave or just a rock face. After an hour of this, I decided to call it a day, and headed in the direction of the road. I’d had my hour’s walk, it had been absolutely lovely amongst the spring greenery, if a little frustrating, and now I would take the bus home. I arrived back at the road, and realised that I had, unwittingly, now reached the start of the walk in the guidebook.
I’d come back another day. Yes, that was a good idea. But my stubborn streak rejected good sense, and I decided to do the walk. Fifteen minutes later, battling with vertigo, combined with rage at the guidebook, and a ridiculous desire to laugh at the thought of meeting my doom on a mountainside within 500 metres of a main road, I was high in the Valley of the Pig. My first, relatively minor mistake, was embarking on any walk without a map. My second mistake, more serious, was keeping going for the few metres that meant that going back down was not an option.
For one brief moment I steeled myself to look behind me: sheer rock faces on either side, creating a narrow gorge. A jumble of boulders and trees behind me. It was impossible to see the path that I had already climbed, the gradient was so steep, the path so un-path-like. Far down below, the city of Palermo, bathed in sunshine. Beyond that, more mountains, with muddy storm clouds hovering. (There have been spectacular storms here in recent days. OK. That was my third mistake, check the weather). I did not stop or look back again: that is why there are no photos.
On I went, hoping, hoping that this was really a path and that it would come out in a ‘peaceful pine wood’ somewhere near a road on which there would be a bus that would take me home.
The entire climb took perhaps only 30 minutes. But, by the time I saw some mountain bikers, I must have looked like a madwoman, so happy was I to see another human being. ‘Stanca?’ one asked. Yes. I was. I was only too happy to take a photo of them, to joke about Vincenzo Nibali, and get directions to the road. The few minutes I’d spent chatting with the cyclists meant that I had missed the bus. Damn. The next one was in nearly two hours. I settled in for the wait at a cafe by the bus stop, enjoying the parade of cyclists arriving at the top of the mountain. (There is no equivalent to MAMILs in Italy – yes, the men are middle-aged, many are actually old, and yes, they are in lycra, but, my god, they are superfit, and take on the mountains with panache).
I was sipping a spremuta, and the cafe owner was closing up shop around me, when he surprised me by offering a lift back down the mountain. I jumped in the car with four other people, and off we went. I can’t believe I’ve been seven weeks in Palermo and not been up (or down) that road. Crammed in a small car, trying to speak Italian, and still somewhat wobbly from my climb, I couldn’t really appreciate the views, but I will go back.
Will I venture into the Valley of the Pig again? The answer should be no, but one of the strangest things about doing something like this is that, once it’s over, there’s a perverse desire to do it again. I would never have done the walk if I’d read the advice on the park’s website – consulted later that night, whilst restoring myself with a glass or three of Castellosvevo vino rosso – words like ‘espertivo’ and ‘difficile’ sprung out at me, confirming my dim view of the Cicerone guidebook’s reliability.
Above all, however, the afternoon confirmed my sense of two of the things that make Palermo such a special place. One is the way in which extremes exist side by side: squalor and beauty, wilderness and suburbia. The other is, over and again, the kindness of strangers.