That Time I Walked Down A Mountain

20 years ago | Monte Baldo, Veneto, Italy | c.15th May 2003

2003 was my first-ever trip to Italy; a week staying around Lake Garda with friends, sampling the local cuisine and the stunning scenery. Pre-parenthood, it offered us the chance to have the sort of holiday you pack away with other aspects of your life when you have a young family, hoping one day to re-visit. And that’s how it was that I walked down Monte Baldo…

We were staying in Malcesine, on Garda’s eastern shore. There were five of us in all: Helen and me – and three friends. We spent most of the week catching ferries around the lake and finding different places to eat in each different town, every day – which is absolutely the right way to ‘do’ the Italian lakes.

On one of the days, we’d decided to take the cable car from Malcesine up the mountain (Monte Baldo), to see what the lake looks like from above. Even agreeing to do it had been something of a challenge. Not all of our party were thrilled at the prospect of a cable car ride, being not great with heights. Someone had the reasonable idea that if they faced into the mountain from inside the car, the possibility of vertigo would be less pronounced. Unfortunately, this plan was ruined by the fact that, as the car began to ascend, it slowly rotated clock-wise, ensuring everyone had a chance to take in the magnificent views!

Once at the top, we mooched about a bit and – I’m pretty sure – took a drink or two in the bar. When it was time to descend, either I or the other male in the group had the idea of the two of us walking down to meet “the girls” back in the town. The idea was, I’m sure, initially ridiculed but we were determined and before long, we left them to board the cable car down and off we went on the clearly-marked footpath.

It started off as a pleasant hike. The weather was perfect and the view was breath-taking. What was there not to like? And then the topography began to steepen and the path became more challenging. We were two lads from England in trainers and suddenly, we were being overtaken by hard-core Alpine holidaymakers with walking poles. Had we made a mistake here? More disconcertingly, a little later on, one of the next passing party of pole-wielding mountain walkers missed his footing and rolled down the mountainside for an ignominious few seconds.

Our response to the challenge was to go all ‘Lord of the Flies’ and fashion our own staffs from sticks we found in the forest through which the path was cut. As the altitude reduced and the temperature rose, it became necessary for us to wrap our T-shirts around our heads, ‘Rambo’-style. We were going to meet this challenge with a typically British resolve to simply ignore the possibility that we were ill-prepared for the task.

Almost three hours later, the path began to grow less steep and the slab of blue far below had become a thinner sliver of silver just beneath us. Looking like extras from ‘Bridge On The River Kwai’, we marched triumphantly into Malcesine and straight into the bar we’d agreed to meet up at – to howls of laughter from the other three, who’d been in there for at least two hours, by that point.

Monte Baldo is 2,218 m at its highest point. Lake Garda is 65m above sea level. It’s not unreasonable to suspect we walked down two vertical kilometres that day – equivalent to one-and-a-half Ben Nevises or two whole Snowdons. It was a long, long way down.

What I remember most were the physical consequences over the following days. A three-hour workout of muscles you only use when walking downhill had the strangest effect. For the rest of the week, I could still sprint upstairs like before but even stepping off a kerb produced a kind of wince-inducing pain that I’d rarely felt before.

For some reason, Helen found this to be hilarious…

Malcesine and Lake Garda taken from the top station of the cable car. For scale, the lake is approximately two miles across at this point.

That Time I Discovered The Drunken Duck

30 years ago | Drunken Duck Inn, Barngates, Cumbria | 9th April 1993

In our first year at University, a few of us decided to meet up in the Lake District over the Easter weekend.  We arrived at the campsite at Low Wray, on the north-western shore of Windermere and set up our tents.

With everyone having assembled by around tea-time on the Maundy Thursday, there was nothing else left to do but go to the pub.  But where was it?

Fortunately, someone had spotted a small sign pointing up the hill about a mile and.a half back down the road to the site.  That was good enough for us, so off we wandered, hoping it wouldn’t be too much further from the sign.

Not only was it almost another mile further on but the rest of the walk was a steep incline, climbing for over 300 feet.  We were all starting to work up a thirst.  Hopefully, this place would be worth the effort required to get there.

Was it ever!  We arrived at a charming pub called the Drunken Duck Inn, ordered a round of Old Peculiers and sat outside, around the bench tables across the road.  In the mild spring sunshine, we chatted and ate and drank as the evening wore on.  Through nothing but pure luck, it just became one of those magical nights when all the elements were perfect.  

Not only did we go back the next night but we were there the next year as well, each time expecting the experience couldn’t possibly measure up to that mythical first night.  Every time, we were pleasantly surprised that it did.  The place seemed to be enchanted, as if it could only be accessed from the outside world via a portal.

I’ve been back a few times since then, over the years – I even bought the T-shirt  on one visit.  It’s gone a little more gentrified in recent times but at least it’s still there, still legendary.  One day I’ll go again and when I do, I’ll sit at those bench tables across the road.

The view towards Ambleside from the bench tables at the Drunken Duck. Photo: Paul Bentham