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Hiking in Italy

Have you hiked the Apennines? Not one in half-a-million North American hikers can answer “yes.” Far more have trekked the Himalaya than have hiked the Apennines.

Many European hikers are at least aware the Apennines are the spine of the Italian peninsula. Still, very few of them have hiked there.

Why? Because the supernova fame of the Swiss, French, Italian and Austrian Alps blinds people to Europe’s lower-elevation ranges. So the Apennines’ immense allure remains unpublicized. You’re now among the cognoscenti. This invitation is your opportunity to pierce the veil of a genuine sanctum: one of the last remaining, little known, sparsely visited, unspoiled niches on our over-run planet.

In early summer, while North American peaks remain sheathed in white, the Apennines afford sublime hiking. The meadows are luxuriant. The wildflowers are in painterly bloom. All but the highest summits are snow-free. And when you walk into any of the dozens of medieval and renaissance villages—linked to each other by paths and country lanes—you’ll likely be the only foreigner.

Our first stop will be one of those medieval villages: Santo Stefano di Sessanio, where boutiques and eateries are tucked into ancient, stone walls. With fewer than 150 inhabitants, it’s the ideal place to recover from jetlag. We’ll stay here three nights, in a renovated, country manor with fully-furnished apartments affording mountain and village views. Our first hike begins at our front door and climaxes at a ridgetop fortress. The next two days, we’ll drive to nearby Campo Imperatore—the vast, grassy, mountain-ringed plateau Italians call “Little Tibet”—from which we’ll ascend to exciting vantage points.

The following eight nights we’ll base ourselves 35 km (22 mi) from the Adriatic Sea, in the romantic city of Sulmona, where people have been living for more than 1800 years. With its small population (22,000) and compact downtown, you’ll soon feel at ease here. The locals—because they’re not exhausted by tidal waves of tourists—are open, warm, patient, kind, curious. They might urge you—as they did us—to join them for a grappa (guaranteed to ease everyone over the language speed-bump).

Sulmona is in Abruzzo: the region of central Italy where the Apennines climax, bristling with 26 peaks exceeding 2000 m (6562 ft). Prominent among them are 2249-m (7377-ft) Monte Petroso, 2793-m (9161-ft) Monte Amaro, and 2912-m (9554-ft) Corno Grande. This peaky Praetorian Guard kept Abruzzo remote and its villages unspoiled for centuries. Today, more than a dozen villages in Abruzzo are Borghi piu belli d’Italia, which means they officially rank among the nation’s most beautiful.

Abruzzo remains insulated today because a third of it is protected as national parkland and nature preserves. Maiella National Park, Abruzzo National Park, and Gran Sasso National Park—all of which we’ll hike in—buffer Sulmona from the tumult of modern Italy. Though it’s only about a two-hour drive east of Roma or a three-hour drive north of Napoli, compared to those seething cities, Sulmona is soothingly tranquil.

It’s possible to see a wolf, deer, fox, boar, lynx, eagle, or brown bear while hiking the Apennines. It’s likely you’ll spot a few chamois. Europe’s southern-most glacier is here. What’s absent are other hikers.

For weeks during prime hiking season, we were largely alone while exploring the Apennines’ ridges, gorges, high plains, fertile valleys, and forests of beech, oak and pine. Never did we cross paths with a native English speaker. Once we met locals harvesting wild spinach. Startled to see us, they were astounded to learn we’d come all the way from Canada. They took a group selfie, with us in the middle. Then they insisted we visit them anytime—“in qualsiasi momento!”—at their home in Sulmona.

Your home in Sulmona will be an elegant apartment in a recently rebuilt, private home near the town centre. From the top-floor terrace, you’ll gaze at two of our dayhike goals: Monte Argeste and Monte Velleia. With your own kitchen, you can cook a hearty, hiker’s breakfast, rather than do as the Italians, who start most days with only a cappuccino and a calorically-deficient bun. Your front door will be a three-minute walk from Sulmona’s corso, which is closed to cars each evening for the passeggiata, when the townsfolk stroll, people-watch, chat, flirt, and queue-up for gelato.

Living in the heart of Sulmona gives you a profusion of ristoranti to choose from. That alone is reason enough to spend eight days here. In a country where eating is the national pastime, Abruzessi are convinced their regional cuisine is preeminent. And they might be right. We certainly didn’t exercise our typical, budgetary discipline by cooking dinners every night in our apartment kitchen. Doing so would have been an absurd deprivation.

Even the simplest Abruzzese dish can make you swoon. One of our favourites comprised nothing more than olive oil, black pepper, a blend of pecorino (sheep) cheeses, and fresh pasta. (Here, pasta is “fresh” only if created after the server arrives in the kitchen with your order). And their more complex creations? Pizzichi di farro, for example, is a lusty, pasta soup made with calamari, sepia, mussels, clams, and scampi. This isn’t mere cuisine. It’s sorcery. And it’s central to these people’s identity. To appreciate their culture, you need to get your feet under as many dining tables as possible.

The time to rouse your appetite while hiking the Apennines is early June, when the weather performs its comfortably-warm balancing act: neither cold nor hot. And the time to decide if you’d like to join us on our Apennines dayhiking venture is now, because our group will be small. This invitation is open to only nine people.

You can be confident your fellow hikers will be much like you—accomplished, athletic, ambitious, adventurous—because we’ll screen everyone for on-trail compatibility. Together we’ll approach the hiking the way friends always do, with someone (in this case, us—Kathy and Craig) offering advice based on knowledge of the area. We won’t be guiding per se. Instead, think of us as your scouts.

After landing at Roma’s Leonardo da Vinci airport, you’ll rent a car and soon arrive in the village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio. Later, we’ll all drive our own rental cars—in caravan—to Sulmona, and to/from each day’s trailhead. We’ll make on-trail decisions together. In restaurants, you can order as you please from the menus.

Unlike guided hiking, with its inherent restrictions, handholding, and invisibly inflated prices (tour companies profit by charging you far more than they pay—for everything), the trip with us will be financially transparent. You’ll see the actual costs, and that’s all you’ll pay. This makes our Apennine dayhiking vacation as inexpensive as possible.

Your one additional investment will be $1500 CAD per person for our counsel and organization. Throughout the journey, you’ll benefit from our knowledge—painstakingly acquired on many months of hiking throughout Italy.

After hiking the Apennines, we realized most keen hikers would agree it’s a life-list experience—if they could benefit from our on-the-ground, trial-and-error research, which included… Scrutinizing options for where to stay and where to eat. Pouring over maps. Scouring guidebooks. Driving and re-driving the roads. Hiking constantly. Sifting all that intelligence through our Don’t Waste Your Time paradigm. Then planning a boot-tested, certified-spectacular itinerary.

For 25 years we’ve been writing and publishing, motivated by a desire to share with others the joy, wonder, and exhilaration we’ve found in wild places. Our motivation now is to share it with you in person. So we’re offering you our companionship on this extraordinary, hiking focused, Apennine holiday.

Intrigued? Peruse the accompanying details. Then send your questions to us: nomads@hikingcamping.com. If we’re not in the backcountry, we’ll respond quickly.

Want references? We can put you in touch with people who joined us in December 2016, when we led two, twelve-day journeys (17 hikers total) in the mountains along the Mediterranean coast of Spain.

Go here for photos

 

— Kathy & Craig

The Opinionated Hikers

On patrol for you


Dates, Costs, Details

Start

Friday, June 15, 2018

Santo Stefano di Sessanio, Abruzzo, Italy

End

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Sulmona, Abruzzo, Italy

Estimated Per-Person Costs (CAD)

airfare$1400 from YYC or YVR
hotels$650 for 11 nights
meals$400
12-day rental car$220 plus $100 gas (based on 2 people sharing)
cultural tours $80 half-day cooking class
scout fee$1500 (8 or 9 hikers)
$1700 (7 hikers)
$1950 (6 hikers)
subtotal$4350 per person (based on 8 or 9 hikers)
additionalmedical, car, trip insurances

Actual Costs

Your airfare will depend on the airline you choose and when you purchase. The accuracy of our estimates for meals and rental car will depend on ever-fluctuating exchange rates. Our scout fee will not change.

Payment

You’ll pay for your accommo-dation through us, but you’ll pay only what we’re charged. All other costs—airfare, rental car, meals, etc.—you’ll pay directly. That’s what makes this trip uniquely affordable: There’s no markup on any of your expenses.

Deposit

Tell us you’re interested. We’ll send questions about your hiking experience and fitness level. As of March 2017, we have three couples who are ready to commit to the 2018 trip. Therefore, if you and we have agreed you can comfortably handle the hiking in the Apennines, secure space in the group now by sending us $1500 per person via e-mail transfer. The deposit deadline is Tuesday, January 16, 2018 (five months before your trip). Your deposit is refundable only if your group falls short of six hikers, which is unlikely because we have many people interested a full year in advance. If by February 15, 2018, your group has fewer than 8 hikers, a second deposit is due to cover the increased scout fee: $450 per person for a group of six, $200 per person for a group seven.

Airfare

Regardless where you fly from, you’ll want to land at Leonardo da Vinci—Fiumicino airport (FCO), in Rome. From there, it’s only about a two-hour drive east to where we’ll meet to begin hiking together. According to expedia.ca (January 2017), Air Canada offers a round-trip flight from Calgary (YYC) or Vancouver (YYR) to Rome (FCO - Fiumicino / Leonardo da Vinci Airport) for $1,400.

Apartments

The renovated, country manor in Santo Stefano di Sessanio—where we’ll each have our own, fully-furnished apartment—will cost two people $320 for three nights.

The recently rebuilt, private home in the centre of Sulmona—booked entirely for our group—comprises three apartments:

  • top-floor, three-bedroom / two-bathroom apartment with terrace (where three couples will stay)
  • second floor, two-bedroom / one-bathroom apartment (where one couple will stay)
  • first floor, two-bedroom / one-bathroom apartment (where Kathy & Craig will stay)

All are spacious, modern, elegantly furnished. All have a full kitchen. The first- and second-floor apartments offer greater privacy but have only small, partial-view balconies. The second floor apartment has a much better view than does the first floor apartment. The top-floor apartment, with its huge terrace, offers one of Sulmona’s best views. Everyone in our group will have access to the top-floor terrace for morning coffee/tea and evening aperitifs at an hour agreed upon by the group. When you book your trip, we’ll discuss with you these apartment options and help you make your choice. Whoever is first to reserve will have first choice of rooms. The cost for two people in any of the apartments will be $980 for eight nights.

The accommodation cost (per couple, for 11 nights) will total about $1300. That amount is due by Friday, March 16, 2018 (90 days before your trip). We will hold your deposit in trust, in our account. Once you’re in Sulmona and have paid for all the accommodation directly, we will e-transfer your deposit back to your account. Please be aware that our accommodation-cost estimate of $1300 is based on the January 2017 exchange rate. That rate is likely to increase a bit by June 2018.

Meals

The costs below are estimates only. Actual costs will depend on current restaurant prices, as well as on what and how much you order.

Breakfasts & Lunches Our host at the country home in Santo Stefano will have each of our apartment kitchens stocked with basic, breakfast ingredients. It’s included in the cost of your room.

On the drive to Sulmona, we’ll stop at a grocery store and buy everything we’ll need to stock our Sulmona apartment kitchens for a week of breakfasts and on-trail lunches and snacks, which we’ll prepare ourselves. We haven’t included these groceries in our expense estimates. The cost will be comparable to what you’d pay at home.

While staying in Sulmona, we’ll twice go out for lunch. On day four, prior to our afternoon hike, lunch will cost about $40 per person at a small, family-run, locally-revered ristoranti. On day seven (a rest day), we expect to have lunch as part of our cooking class.

Dinners will cost from $30 to $60 per person for three or four courses. So you can expect to pay about $300 per person (5% tip included, drinks not included) for the seven nights we intend to dine out.

To save money, and to allow us to eat an abundance of fresh vegetables, we plan to cook dinner in our apartments on four nights. We haven’t included these meals in our expense estimates, because the total cost will be comparable to what you’d pay at home. We also haven’t estimated for gelato, because a cup or cone costs only about 2 to 2.50 Euro.

Rental Car

If you’re comfortable and confident driving in North America, you should have no trouble negotiating Abruzzo. Exiting Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci—Fiumicino airport (FCO), the highways are well marked. Once you’re en route, it’s a straightforward drive, skirting the south and east sides of Rome, proceeding northeast to L’Aquila, then east to Santo Stefano. Before renting a car, go to www.autoeurope.com, a consolidator who will compare all the rental-car companies’ prices, then offer you the best deal. A distinct advantage of autoeurope is that their rates—in addition to including CDW (collision damage waiver)— always include insurance coverage for theft and third-party liability. We’ve rented several times in various countries through AutoEurope. Never were we able to find a better option on our own. We’ve also appreciated that autoeurope agents have consistently provided excellent phone service. When we talked with AutoEurope in January, 2017, they could arrange for us to rent (in June, 2017) a manual-transmission economy car—such as a Fiat 500—for $37 CAD per day. For twelve days, the total price was $440 CAD, tax included.In Europe, most cars are extremely fuel efficient, and the distances you’ll be driving will generally be short, so your petrol (gasoline or diesel) costs might be lower than you would imagine.

Cultural Tours

On our rest day, our group will enjoy a half-day cooking class with a professional Abruzessi chef, so we can return to our kitchens at home with a pinch of Italian expertise. The cost will be about $80 per person.

Insurance

We require you to buy emergency hospital and medical insurance to cover you while you’re in Italy. Should an insurance company ask if you’ll be climbing or mountaineering while in Italy, you can honestly say “no.”

We also recommend you buy trip-interruption/cancellation insurance. For a small fee, it covers an emergency return to your home country. Your need to return could be due to a foreign affairs office traveler-safety advisory, for example. Or it could be due to a family emergency—if you are the primary caregiver. A reliable travel-insurance company is Allianz Global Assistance (www.allianz-assistance.ca/en 800-363-1835). Ask them for details.

Bear in mind, if fewer than six people commit to the group you’ve chosen, we’ll have to cancel the trip. No insurance policy covers that. So if you purchase your airfare before we confirm your group has at least six hikers, you must be confident you’d want to continue with your own vacation in Italy for the same dates. We will not refund your airfare.


Itinerary

This is the day-by-day itinerary for our Apennines hiking-focused vacation, starting Friday, June 15, 2018.

Day one Depart Roma (either your hotel, or the Leonardo da Vinci airport) in the morning. Drive your rental car about 2.5 hours to the tiny village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio, in the Abruzzo region. We’ll stay here for the first three nights, in a renovated, country manor with views of the nearby mountains. Once we’re all settled in our fully-furnished apartments, we’ll have a picnic lunch on the manor lawn. Then we’ll hike an easy loop starting at our front door. Our destination will be the best-preserved fortress in the Apennines: Castello di Aesis, built between 900 and 1000 AD. The entire route is scenic and might—if we’re lucky—be a wildflower lollapalooza. Hiking time: 3 hours. Distance: 10 km (6.2 mi). Elevation gain: 200 m (656 ft). We’ll dine at the ristorante a few minutes’ walk from our apartment.

Day two After cooking our own breakfast, we’ll drive to Campo Imperatore: the vast, grassy, mountain-ringed plateau Italians call “Little Tibet.” We’ll feast on views of the bizarrely beautiful campo while ascending Monte Drepanum and cruising along its rolling, summit ridge. Afterward, we’ll indulge in a uniquely Abruzzese dining experience. We’ll purchase fresh lamb from sheep ranchers on the campo. They’ll have their grills fired up and ready to sear, so we’ll barbecue the arrosticini (skewered lamb chunks) ourselves, right there, and dine al fresco. Hiking time: 4.5 hours. Distance: 11 km (6.8 mi). Elevation gain: 500 m (1640 ft).

Day three Corno Grande, highest peak on the Italian peninsula, is the cynosure of Gran Sasso National Park. Bolting skyward from the edge of Campo Imperatore, it’s an enthralling sight, and an irresistible invitation to hikers. We’ll return to Campo Imperatore and drive up to the observatory on the skirt of Corno Grande. From there, we’ll ascend as far as snow conditions safely allow. If we’re very fortunate, and the snowfields have melted, it’s conceivable we could top out on the 2912-m (9554-ft) summit. We’ll either cook dinner in our apartments, or dine at a village restaurant 45 minutes below the Campo. Hiking time: 5 to 6.5 hours. Distance: 12 to 14 km (7.5 to 9 mi). Elevation gain: 800 m to 950 m (2625 to 3116 ft).

Day four We’ll depart Santo Stefano at 9 am. Driving our rental cars in caravan, and stopping en route at a grocery story, we’ll arrive in Sulmona about 11 am. By 11:30 am, we should be settling into our town-centre apartments. By 12:30 pm, we’ll drive our rental cars in caravan about 30 minutes to the village of Solsinii Novi, where we’ll have lunch at a small, family-run, locally-revered ristoranti. Directly from there we’ll embark on a short hike: up to the perched village of Mantua, down into a luxuriant gorge, looping back beside a creek to Solsinii. After the 30-minute drive back to Sulmona, we’ll have time to shower and change before eating dinner at a superb ristoranti a few minutes’ walk from our apartments. Hiking time: 2.5 hours. Distance: 6.3 km (4 mi). Elevation gain: 370 m (1214 ft).

Day five Though our group arrived in Sulmona only yesterday, it will be obvious to all that 2061-m (6762-ft) Monte Argeste should be our next goal. There’s an immediacy about it, because it rises from the edge of the city. Yet it’s also a congenial mountain, with a ridgecrest that summons rather than intimidates. After cooking our own breakfast, we’ll drive to Passo Aretium. Our trail starts here, climbing mercifully through a gorgeous beech forest, then proceeding at a gentle grade through the alpine zone to the panoramic summit. From there, we’ll have the option of retracing our steps, or forging ahead on a longer loop. That evening, we’ll gather for antipasti and apertivi on the top-floor terrace of our apartment, where we’ll look up at Monte Argeste beyond Sulmona’s tiled roofs. For dinner, we’ll drive to the neighbouring village of Libarna, where we’ll indulge ourselves at a fabulous taverna. The first time we dined there, our server was the owner. He asked, “Would you like to order from the menu, or talk with me?” We said, “Talk with you, of course.” He proceeded to bring us dish after dish—every one “squisito!” Hiking time: 5.5 hours. Distance: 16 km (9.9 mi). Elevation gain: 900 m (2953 ft).

Day six The vista from our Sulmona, top-floor terrace is inspiring. Among the many summits we’ll see beyond the city’s tiled roofs is 2137-m (7011-ft) Monte Velleia. More spine than peak, Velleia affords a supreme ridgewalk: airy, sustained, panoramic. “Skywalk” is more apt. Soaring along Velleia’s crest, you might be a little less envious of birds, a little more content to be a biped. So, after making breakfast, we’ll arrange a car shuttle, allowing us a one-way flight over Velleia. Upon returning to Sulmona, we’ll have time to shower before driving a few minutes to the nearby village of Mateola, where we’ll dine at a premier agriturismo. Hiking time: 6.5 hours. Distance: 15 km (9.3 mi). Elevation gain: 1000 m (3280 ft).

Day seven We’ve laced-up our boots every day for six days in a row. Time to take it easy: sleep in, linger over breakfast, relax in our apartments, sip cappuccino, read, converse, lounge on our top-floor terrace, and wander around Sulmona. That afternoon, our group can enjoy a cooking class taught by a professional Abruzessi chef. The goal is to learn a few skills we can use back home in our own kitchens. And, of course, whatever we prepare during class we’ll savour as a late lunch. That evening, we’ll cook an easy meal in our apartments, then dine together on our terrace. Afterward, we can flow into the passeggiata—the locals’ languid, social ritual of strolling, people-watching, chatting, flirting, and queueing-up for gelato on Sulmona’s corso.

Day eight One of the Abruzzo giants, and one of the highest peaks in Maiella National Park, is 2793-m (9161-ft) Monte Savo. Much of Savo’s snowmelt streams to the Adriatic via the Venusia River. The result of this short, steep, summit-to-sea sprint is the Venusia Valley, which offers an Abruzzo hiking experience unlike our group has so far experienced atop the Apennines. Departing Sulmona after we make our own breakfast, we’ll drive to the village of Haenneste. From there we’ll descend on foot into a verdant enclave of polyhued greens: a seeming wellspring of life. Lushly forested, shady, mossy, the Venusia Valley has a mystical atmosphere. Maybe that’s why pious hermits carved retreats into the valley walls. Our day won’t be monkishly serene, however. It will be vigourous, with sharp ups and downs, and a few narrow sections—including one along the riverbank—that require balance and sure footing. Upon looping back to Haenneste, we’ll stop for antipasti, then return to Sulmona. We’ll dine at an excellent ristoranti about ten minutes on foot from our apartments. Hiking time: 6 hours. Distance: 17.5 km (11 mi). Elevation gain: 750 m (2460 ft).

Day nine Within Abruzzo National Park is a massif comprising several summits exceeding 2000 m (6562 ft): the Monti della Levanna. The namesake peak is 2241-m (7352-ft) Levanna Centrale. This is today’s exciting objective. We’ll drive to a trailhead at the foot of Levanna Centrale. We’ll quickly surmount forest, enter the alpine zone, and marvel at the big-mountain environment. About 300 m (984 ft) below the summit, we’ll attain a grand view from Levanna Centrale’s broad, grassy shoulder. Some of our group might find this is sufficient reward and decide to linger here. Weather permitting, however, the rest of us will push to the summit for a great sense of accomplishment, and a panorama extending from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean. That evening, we can either cook dinner in our apartments, or eat at one of the nearby restaurants in Sulmona. Hiking time: 4.5 to 6 hours. Distance: 12 km (7.5 mi). Elevation gain: 850 m (2789 ft).

Day ten We’ve maintained an ambitious hiking schedule, and we’ve dined together every evening. As a result, we’ve gotten to know each other well and now feel some solidarity. So this morning, we’ll gather on our Sulmona apartment terrace, and—as a group—decide where to hike today. We (Kathy and Craig) will, of course, suggest options. Ridgewalks. Summits. Village-to-village walks through olive groves, vineyards, and forest. All are possibilities. Whatever we choose, after our hike we’ll go to the town of Relatzio, where we’ll dine at a family-living-room size restaurant whose patrons include Italians who drive all the way from Roma and Napoli just for dinner. Hiking time: TBD. Distance: TBD. Elevation gain: TBD.

Day eleven For our grand finale, we’ll aim for 2249-m (7379-ft) Monte Messana—another of the Monti della Levanna peaks, and a wonderful vantagepoint. After making breakfast, we’ll again drive from Sulmona to Abruzzo National Park. Starting at a trailhead above Lago di Stellene, we’ll ascend through the mystical beech forest of Val Hastelna, to a sensational crest. Our trail then writhes through the alpine zone to a refugio (mountain hut), in a saddle beneath our goal. The weather is favourable? The visibility good? We’ll pound up the final approach and give each other high-fives atop Monte Messana. Should conditions deny us the summit, our crest walk to the refugio will have been a very satisfying climax. We’ll loop back to our trailhead through another ethereal, beech forest. On our return drive to Sulmona, we can stop for appetizers at a local ristoranti. Or we can beeline back to prepare dinner in our apartments. Hiking time: 6 to 7 hours. Distance: 12 km to 15 km (7.5 to 9.3 mi). Elevation gain: 850 m to 1100 m (2789 to 3610 ft).

Day twelve Everyone departs Sulmona. Ideally, you’ll have arranged to continue travelling in Italy. One of many enticing possibilities: Visit the gorgeous, seaside town of Positano (a 3.5-hour drive south), and hike the trails above the Amalfi Coast.

Contact Keen to join us? Have questions? Send us a note: nomads@hikingcamping.com