Dan and I first came to Abruzzo in 1995 to attend my son Joshua’s wedding to Silvia, a native of L’Aquila. Joshua and Silvia lived in Milan then, so our subsequent trips, with a few exceptions, were to Northern Italy. About 8 years ago, Joshua and Silvia and our granddaughters, Sofia and Emily, moved to L’Aquila. I had come to know and love the bustle of Milan. Its museums, the exquisite and expensive looking shop windows, and the constant activity in the Piazza Duomo, kept me entertained for hours. I was not happy about spending time in the “provinces.” What on earth would there be to do while Joshua and Silvia were at work and the girls in school? Dan, who is more outdoorsy than I, suggested that we try hiking.
For our first hike, we drove to San Demetrio ne’ Vestini with the intention of walking from there to the Roman ruin of Peltuinum. It seemed like a fairly easy walk for two people in their early 60s, in good shape and used to hiking (although, at that time, my hiking consisted of long walks or a ramble around the neighborhood). Armed with vague directions found on the internet, which we completely misread, we spent a lovely hour walking around Lake Sinizzo, looking for the entrance to the trail. Thirsty, badly in need of a bathroom, and hoping to find directions to the “real” trail, we drove into town and stopped in a bar. Two expressos and a snack later, we still didn’t know where the trail was. We decided to call it a day. By chance, as we were driving out of town, we found the road to the trailhead. It was getting late, but we decided to do a few mile walk in and walk out. We never made it to Peltuinum.
As frustrating as the day was, that little hike was enough to wet our appetite for further exploration of the Abruzzo on foot. That evening we stopped into Trekking Abruzzo on the Corso Vitterio Emanuele. With the help of Giovanni, who spoke excellent English, we purchased a pair of hiking poles, a large trail map (in Italian), and asked his advice on trails in the area that would be suitable for us. Even with Giovanni’s directions, we often couldn’t find the trailhead. One time, certain that we were on the right track, we discovered that we were hiking a drainage ditch running parallel to a sheep trail. I don’t even want to tell you what we found there.
Italian family and friends, when hearing of our misadventures, were appalled that we hiked alone. They admonished us that if we were to venture into higher and wilder places it would be too dangerous without an experienced, native hiker. We were at a loss as to how we would go about finding a guide. Then, one night near the observatory on top of Gran Sasso, where we had gone to observe the planet Mars, we met Fabrizio Soldati. Fabrizio, who was raised in L’Aquila and whose family is from Colle de Lucoli, one of the thirteen small villages that make up Lucoli, offered to help. That is why, in May of 2010, Dan and I met up with four friends from our home town of Madison, Wisconsin, for 3 days of hiking the Abruzzo. Claudio and Victoria, two experienced mountaineers and life-long L’Aquillani, were our guides.
Our group’s experience began with a walk through the few areas of L’Aquila only just opened to civilians, after the earthquake a year before. We were all moved by the experience of walking through the fractured streets. Dan and I, who had spent many weeks in the wonderful city over the years, were heartbroken. Still, amidst the rubble and the sadness, the beauty of the city and the courage and spirit of the people was apparent to all of us.
We eased into hiking at higher altitudes. The first day walking a gentle uphill grade through woods filled with wild orchids and bird song to the castle and hill town of Bominaco, where we were privileged with a private tour of the exquisite C12th church of Santa Maria Assunta—the church Joshua and Silvia were married in. Then, we toured the 11th century Oratorio di San Pellegrino. Our English speaking historical guide provided a most impressive description of the frescos that wrapped the walls and covered the ceiling. From there we traveled, by van, to Popoli, and finished the day with a tour of the Valle Reale Winery. A light rain falling as we strolled through rows of grapes didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for the tour or the lunch and wine that followed.
The next day, we drove up to the Gran Sasso Plateau where we hiked along the windy and rugged Campo Imperatore. It was a more strenuous, but more beautiful, trek through rolling meadows blanketed with yellow and blue violets. We passed wild horses grazing near a shallow lake. Across the way hunters forged through concentric circles of wild mushrooms patterning the hillside. The ruin of a monastery built more as a protective refuge for travelers than as a place of piety, provided a sheltered resting place. We celebrated the finish of the hike eating apple-sized balls of fresh mozzarella. Lunch was at a trailer-like butcher shop and picnic place at a crossroads, somewhere near Santo Stefano da Sessanio and Calascio. We barbecued Arrosticini, lamb ribs and lamb chops and purchased small bottles of olive oil to for gifts.
Our final hike, to Monte Ocre, was the most spectacular. We started off at 914.4 meters above sea level and ended on a narrow ridge, with breathtakingly gorgeous views, 1828.8 meters above sea level. My heart still races remembering the short, yet frightening descent, through a sudden mountain fog. I finally understood the importance of having a guide. Throughout the hike, which took almost 7 1/2 hours, we were again treated to a variety of terrain, fauna, woods, wild horses, wide vistas and fields of snow. The temperature changed often, resulting in our removing and putting on jackets and sweaters throughout the day. One minute we would be in shirtsleeves, the next we would be having a snowball fight!
We will not be hiking this year. However, our group is planning another adventure for the summer of 2012. Then, we will hike the Campo Felice high plain to the Sebastiani Refuge and, the next day go on to the Punta Trenta Refuge. It sounds like it might be a bit more strenuous, but we’ll be ready!