Monday, September 24, 2007

Why England?

This precious stone set in a silver sea

One could wonder why I went to a foreign and relatively distant country to undertake a long distance walk.
As a matter of fact, it is the very question my wife Chantal was put to, whenever a friend or some other acquaintance knew that I was walking in Norfolk: "Why going so far?! Couldn't he walk here?".

This question must be answered following two implicated approaches:
  1. Why not Italy
  2. Why England

Why not Italy

Public Rights of Way

Excepted Alps and other mountains, it is actually impossible to walk a long distance in Italy.
I mean that it is not possible to walk long distance trails forbidden to motor vehicles. Obviously, if you want, you can - at your own risk - travel on foot on any road not expressly forbidden (like motorways) to walkers.
Of course, there are footpaths even outside mountains but they are short and not interlinked as to cover hundreds of kilometers.
Italian trekkers would probably protest in reading this. But what I am intending here is that in this country - outside mountains - there are no trails not even in the least comparable to such as e.g. England's Offa's Dyke Path (285 km) or South West Coast Path (1,014 km).
Mind you, length is not the only aspect weighed here; what makes the difference is that England's trails - such as those above mentioned - allow people to travel across the country on ways reserved to walkers!
That is, without being disturbed (and threatened) by motor vehicles (even though some stretches may be shared with horse or bike riders) and, at the same time, never losing contact with the main aspects of the genuine country: towns, villages, monuments, etc. Although, of course, many sections may be retreated and amid woods, heathlands, meadows, farmlands, etc.

Why this lack of long distance trails in Italy?
Well, in my opinion this results from the combination of several causes.

One reason is probably the very lack of demand: citizens do not put enough pressure on the government (local and central) to preserve public rights of way, reinstate illegally obstructed ones and negotiate new passages with owners.

A second reason - partially related to the latter - is the endemic "culture of illegality": frequently public ways are obstructed by bordering real estate owners.

I will never forget the first (and last) time I went to Monte Argentario (a circular headland in south Tuscany) with the rosy expectation to swim in one of its beautiful coves (such appeared to me from photos, films and guides). Well, although - riding a scooter - I had a very distinct perception of the ground, I made the whole tour of the headland (c.a 30 km) without finding any access to the sea. They had been all obstructed by the villa owners.
Consider that this is not an exception in this country!

What difference with the 1,014 km of public footpath of the South West Coast Path (UK) or - known by personal experience - the 75 km of the Norfolk Coast Path where one is never shut off from the sea.
Or, giving an other example directly experienced: Concarneau in Brittany (FR), where the local gevernment has managed to set free access to the whole spectacular coast path.

Beside the above "objective" impediments to long distance walking in Italy I would like to tell about personal motives as well.

I already mentioned that in Italy it is still possible to undertake long journeys on foot in the mountains but it is more like climbing than walking (probably - although there are no standard terms - one might say "trekking"). This is rather hard (especially for over-sixties like me); landscape and environment are very particular; accommodation is mainly on shelters (no sharing everyday life with local people). Of course, this is a question of personal taste. I won't contest the pleasure and the beauty of mountain trekking but, I insist, it is a quite different experience than the long distance walk I had in England (the very object of this blog, whose gentle reader I pray to have some more patience).

But look! This post is becoming too long. So I publish it as it is, promising to continue - in the next one - the story about why I didn't choose Italy for hiking.

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