Mature Flâneur
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Mature Flâneur

Flaniking in the Italian Alps

Bormio’s Wild Mountains

A topographic map of Italy shows large splotches of white around Bormio, a ski-town just south of the Swiss border. The area contains the highest mountains in Italy, including glaciers, snowfields, vast forests, and high mountain passes:

Sat. map courtesy of Maphill.com

It’s packed with skiers in the winter, hikers and mountainbikers in the summer. Except for the month of May — the “dead season” — which is when we decided to visit. Most of the restaurants, shops and chalets were closed, and the streets of the pedestrian old town were eerily quiet. This “dead season” is why Teresa was able to find us a chalet with such a spectacular view that was affordable for a whole week:

photo courtesy of Chalet Heidi

My plan for the week was to get my hiking legs in shape for the summer. My best buddy Jim texted me a pointed question: “Can one flaneur in the mountains? Isn’t it technically a Paris kind of thing?”

He was correct, of course. As I have written elesewhere on Mature Flaneur, the concept of a “flaneur” was developed in Paris in the late 1800s as an urban pheonmenon. It describes one who wanders aimlessly around the city streets, without a plan, just observing society. Of course, you can stretch the mindset of the urban flaneur to the great outdoors.

I wrote back to Jim, “I tend to head out for a hike with a vague idea of where I want to go, but only pick a path once I’m there. Yesterday the route I wanted to follow was closed for construction, so I drove around for a bit, searching for an alternative. When I found a good place, I literally chose my route at the fork in the road. I ended up not on the path I thought I was choosing, but, oh well, same mountain. So up I went. I think my urban flaneuring has made me a bit more flexible on the trail when the unexpected happens.”

Indeed, the trail I happened upon that day charmed me because, unlike all the other paths in the area, it had a hand-carved wooden entranceway: “La Romantica.” This was not meant to evoke romance, but rather the Romanticism of earlier ages that focused on a love of nature. A wooden signpost marked every bend along this upward winding path. Each sign featured a quote about nature. In Italian, of course, so I could only get the gist of them. What I loved, though was that these were not famous writers. They seemed from hikers who visited the region an contributed a few words. For example, Post #1, by Virginia: I Monti sono Maestri muti e fanno Discepoli silenziosi: “The Mountains are mute Masters and make silent Disciples.”

La Romantica Hike. Top: Start. Bottom: Viewpoint

Part of my inspiration for this hybrid of flaneuring and hiking (let’s call it flaniking) comes from another friend, Hank. He and I have hiked and kayaked together, and we are both long-time members of the same men’s group. Hank now lives in Mississipi, where he paddles and hikes regularly, vlogging about life, death, and paddling, as he roams the swamplands that he loves so well (see his youtube channel: Hank’s Deep Thoughts). Like me, Hank finds being alone in nature connects him to the wholeness of life. In being absorbed into the wilderness, you lose yourself…and can let go of the ego’s grasping for immortality. He and I agree, you can be a flaneur in the wild.

I find “flaniking” through the Italian Alps helps focus the mind on the present moment. The trails are steep enough to keep me paying attention, so my thoughts don’t wander for fear of one foot going amiss and me sliding off the edge into the void. At the same time, when I look up at the mountains across so much empty space, that same void evokes a sense of awe and wonder. I thought of the lines in William Wordsworth’s famous poem: I wandered lonely as a cloud/That floats on high o’er vales and hills. But with fewer daffodils, more fear of death.

One of my best flaniking experiences was a walk along a high-altitude service road near the “Bormio 2000.” It starts at a ski slope at 2000 meters above sea level. A dirt road wound round the mountain for several kilometers through forest. I met not a single soul. Eventually the track ended at a high altitude grazing pasture, dotted with purple crocuses in early spring. There was a small but modern wooden cottage, but it was empty. No people, no animals at this time of year.

Next to it, I found two small, turf-covered buildings that were half dug into the earth, now used for storage. They must have been shepherd huts in ages past. These huts connected me for an instant to the people who lived here in MUCH earlier ages: Medieval, Roman, and even prehistoric. The earliest remains of settlements further up the valley have been dated to 10,000 years ago. Otzi, the 5,300-year-old “Ice Man,” was discovered freeze-dried and entombed in ice on a mountain pass less than a hundred miles from here.

Hi Altitude meadow on Bormio hillside.

On my walk back towards the slopes, it started to rain, lightly, and the trail got a bit muddy. I noticed fresh tracks that were not there on my outbound walk: deer, fox, something feline — probably a cat, maybe a lynx?

Animal prints on path on my way back— use the chart below to guess which is which.

And then this massive print, which was not there on my outbound walk:

WtF?

I’m not exactly Daniel Boone, but I recognized the shape of the paw as canine. But too big for a dog. With not a single human print on the trail, it was hard to imagine a dog roaming around alone way out here. Could it possibly be a wolf? I walked the final kilometre back to my car, and when I returned to our condo, I emailed the photo to my friend Chris, a wildlife biologist. He swiftly replied, confirming the deer, the fox and the cat (but nixing the lynx). On the fourth print he wrote:

“The last pic is really interesting — either a truly large dog, or a wolf. Might want to check if this region of Italy has the latter. They’ve made quite the comeback in much of that area of Europe…” Chris also sent me a great schematic of common animal prints. Other than size, could you tell the dog (first in the second row) from the wolf (last in the bottom row)?

I asked Google, and this is what I found from a local newspaper. Bear in mind, the hillside were I was hiking was in the same valley as San Gallo:

Avvistato un lupo a Bormio, residente se lo ritrova davanti in località San Gallo

Translation of the article from the Italian:

Spotted a wolf in Bormio, a resident finds it in front of him in the locality of San GalloBormio, November 14, 2019 - Singular sighting, complete with video evidence, and now the presence of a wolf in Alta Valtellina is practically certain. A few days ago a mauled sheep was found in the municipal area of ​​Sondalo, the owner immediately thought of a wolf and reported the macabre discovery to the competent authorities. The confirmation of the presence of the animal came thanks to the video posted yesterday on Facebook by a Bormino, who found himself face to face with the splendid specimen, walking quietly on the snow on the side of the roadway in San Gallo in Bormio. In the video you can see the animal walking and, when it noticed the presence of the car, it stops, in favor of the camera, and then resumes its walk.

While it’s far from certain that this wolf sighted in 2019 made the fresh tracks that I saw in 2022 near Bormio 2000, they have in fact returned to this area.

Wolf tracks in the Alps. That’s one thing a flaneur most definitely won’t find in the streets of Paris.

(Up next: Flanuering by car: Is there such a think as flamotoring?)

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Tim Ward

Tim Ward

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Author, communications expert and publisher of Changemakers Books, Tim is now a full time Mature Flaneur, wandering Europe with Teresa, his beloved wife.