To begin, a vignette:
At the foot of the Appennine mountains in Tuscany, in the town of Pontremoli, I stay at a Franciscan monastery that has a magic well.
The abbot tells me about the well with jolly pride, then gives me a warm bag of tiny ripe yellow plums from the orchard. I sit by the fountain in front of the church and eat the plums with good sharp cheese I bought in a tiny cheese store from a fat smiling man in an apron.
There is a literary festival going on in this village, and fancy beautiful people fill the piazza. I eat the sweet plums and marvel at the cut of the men’s suits and the way they move, at once broad and precise. One man touches the elbow of a woman as they sit beside each other. That touch is like a secret.
When you walk for weeks through wilds, villages, countryside and cities, you thread moments like these together like beads on a necklace.
I’m really into walking, the way some people are into CrossFit or wine. For two consecutive summers, I’ve done long distance trips in Europe, threading hundreds of memory beads onto a 1300 kilometre-long necklace from Lausanne, Switzerland to Rome, and traipsing across France for 800 kilometers, eventually crossing the Pyrenees into Spain.
This summer I would branch out from the cushy digs of Western Europe and head to the Balkans to wander around the Prokletije, or “Accursed” Mountains, named for the traditional perception that they are an untameable wilderness. In pointed contrast to their forbidding reputation, they are also the richest area in Europe for butterflies.
The Peaks of the Balkans trail is a network of mostly shepherd’s tracks connecting small mountain villages in Albania, Montenegro, and Kosovo, and was created in 2002 to encourage sustainable economic development in remote areas. These countries are new to me, with their unfamiliar histories and their linguistic love affair with the letter “j.” How should I even pronounce “Prokletije?”
Walking is my favourite way to interact with a country I visit. No rushing from one tourist site to the next, gawking at some landmark that lacks any personal significance, no aimless wandering around backpacker’s ghettos wondering “Why am I here?” The trail itself and the people I meet provide purpose in each day. My mind slows down, and the world is on a human scale that is a rarity in workaday life. Everywhere I go, I need to get there on my own two feet, which brings a certain here-and-nowhere-elseness to life. I think better. Echoing Rebecca Solnit, author of Wanderlust: A History of Walking, “I suspect that the mind, like the feet, works best at about three miles an hour.”
After my trip to the Accursed Mountains, I would loop back to my European home base of Munich. My sister lives there, and her apartment near the fantastic English Gardens has been a refuge of recuperation after my walks. I would ride her bike all over the city and spend time in leafy beer gardens, or get on a bike and just cycle away for a few days, following the Isar River paths. Bavaria, with its broad valleys and delicious beer, is a wonderful place to explore on a bicycle.
I would be the ticket fairy for a good friend of mine who is much in need of a European adventure. He’s had a recent break-up and a never satisfied desire to go on solo escapades. Plus, the look on his face when I slid the envelope across the table would be hidden camera worthy.
So lend me a hand in helping my feet string together another necklace of memories, this time around the peaks and ridges of The Accursed Mountains. Currently, I don’t exactly know what to expect. But butterflies? Sure bet.