"It's mostly on flat terrain, not too much climbing" said the woman behind the desk when I asked her about the guided hike sponsored by the hotel. On that advice, I took a pass on skiing my last day in the Val Gardena and instead joined a group of eight other people for a walk in the mountains.
After skiing all week on snow that had become slushier and slushier due to unseasonably warm weather, "How hard could this be?" I thought. Well, as it turns out, a lot harder than I ever imagined. We started out on flat terrain alright, as we headed away from the village.
The trail was on even ground, albeit a little icy and/or slushy in places.
There were signs to some castle ruins at one point, but why was another sign suggesting children under 14 be accompanied by adults?
I was soon to find out, as the trail became more difficult - and entirely uphill -- nearly three hours of uphill - in snow and slush and ice and me without hiking boots. So what was that story the lady at the hotel desk told me about flat terrain? And who were all these people ahead of me who seemed to be having no trouble negotiating the terrain? marathoners? (well, yes as it turned out, one of them was.)
I could say though the scenery was breathtaking, but truly I had little breath left to give, since I was huffing and puffing from the climb.
We passed a via crucis (signs of the cross) along the trail. It seemed like a prayer was in order.
(Please God, get me down from this mountain in one piece - or at least to the lunch place.)
Thankfully, he answered my prayers and I straggled into the mountain-side baita last in my group. But at least I made it intact. Partly due to Giovanni, a generous man from Rome (and a real marathoner who has run in races all over the world). At one point in the descent, Giovanni used his boots to create a staircase in the snow for me, allowing me to place my feet where he had left his footprints.
Lunch never tasted so good, and the view wasn't bad either.
Giovanni's wife, Maria, ordered the barley soup, made with bits of speck.
But a lot of people ordered the homemade mezzelune (half moons), stuffed with spinach and slathered butter and parmesan cheese. They were delicious.
After bolstering our bellies and our confidence, we started back down. If I thought the uphill climb was a challenge, well, the downhill trip was ever more difficult, since the opportunity to slip was even greater. The previous days of skiing had been a piece of cake compared to this one-day hike.
Again, I held up the rear the whole way down (you never know when a wild boar might attack the group -- someone's got to be on the alert.)
We took a different trail down and the village was in sight sooner than I expected.
I'm not sure I'd tackle a similar trek again without hiking boots (and more training), but I did meet many nice people that day.
I arrived back at the hotel just as the late afternoon "snack" was set out.
But all I wanted to do was soak in the warmth and bubbles of the indoor-outdoor pool, gaze at the onion dome in one direction...
...and at the formidable mountains I had just conquered in the other direction. It's safe to say I won't be climbing Mt. Everest any time soon.
Back in the states, I put on a pot of barley soup, but instead of the speck, I made mine with mushrooms - both dried porcini mushrooms and fresh ones from the supermarket. By the way, in Italian, orzo means barley, not those small rice-shaped pastas labeled orzo in the U.S.
- 4 cups chicken broth (you can make this entirely vegetarian if you want by using vegetable broth)
- 1/2 cup barley
- 1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 12 oz. white "button" mushrooms, sliced
- 2 T. olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 large onion, minced finely
- 2 stalks celery, chopped finely
- 1 carrot, cut into small bits
- 1 bay leaf
- small bit of finely chopped rosemary
- 1/4 cup sherry
- heavy cream (optional)
- sour cream (optional)
Bring 1 1/2 cups of the chicken broth to a boil and add the barley. Let it simmer for about 1/2 hour to 45 minutes, while you prepare the rest of the soup. Soak the porcini mushrooms in the water for about 20 minutes or until the mushrooms have softened. Don't throw away the liquid, but strain it through a filter and reserve.
In a large pot, saute the onions in the oil until soft, then add the garlic, minced celery and carrot bits. Add the fresh mushrooms and continue sauteing until the mushrooms have developed some color and are cooked. Add the porcini mushrooms and their reserved liquid. At this point, if the barley has softened, add it and the liquid it was cooking in into the pot. Add the remaining chicken broth. Add the sherry and seasonings, including the bay leaf and cook for another half hour, until thickened. If necessary, add more water or stock if it gets too thick.
If you want to make it a creamy soup, add heavy cream to your liking, and serve with a dollop of sour cream.