Walk slowly, at a cadenced pace if the climb is steep. Accelerate where the terrain requires less care, where you can push your stick without too much effort into the earth that goes from dry to covered with stones to under a cloak of leaves. Peeking into the humus, here there’s a twig poking out, there there’s a menacing hornet flying past, further on there are a variety of blooms and it's like a painting. Looking up to the immense blue sky. And then–you've barely taken twenty steps and you're breathing is still controlled–the scenario becomes different from what you had observed just a few meters before. Unexpected, unseen, the summit shows another face, the rocky outcrop is sharp whereas before it had seemed round, the view downstream reveals a clearing impossible to imagine, a huddle of houses, a bend in a river, a little cove edged with blue and green.
For forty years, the mountains have been my summer; solitary trails, leaving the crazy August crowds behind. The cool forest, the sun-beaten mule track, the water bottle emptied to the last drop, then the bench in the hut. Finally, the finish line: the summit. The body sore, from the thighs to the toes of my boots, and–above all–my spirit restored.
Hiking is an increasingly popular preference. The lockdown favored the option of secluded countryside. The number of “followers” is rising, up by twenty or thirty percent. Today, it is encouraged by the striking and suggestive scenes in The Eight Mountains, a film based on the Strega Prize-winning novel by Paolo Cognetti and winner at Cannes and also at the David di Donatello awards.
Hiking is an increasingly popular preference. The lockdown favored the option of secluded countryside
Whether pilgrimage routes or secular trails, hiking is good for the body and the mind. It teaches you to listen, outside and inside. This is what counts: this intimacy experienced precisely while we are outdoors, as they say now, disdainfully rejecting the term “in the open air,” which expands the lungs just by saying it.
The album of snapshots in my memory flips through incorruptible images. Alpe di Siusi, the green plateau of alpine pastures where the paths are snow-white ribs overlooked on the horizon by the peaks of the Dolomites. The Rosszähne/Denti diTerrarossa, the Langkofel/Sassolungo, the Plattkofel/Sassopiatto, the Schlerngruppe/Sciliar. Setting off. The destination, looking at it from afar as it comes into view around a bend, appears unlikely. Unlikely that the impassable gorge, sharp blades of mountain, could be hiding the fully-equipped bivouac with bedrooms and South Tyrolean delicacies. The Demetz Refuge, 2,685 meters, was apparently placed there, in the Forcella del Sassolungo, by a god with long arms and delicate hands (the other spur is called Cinque Dita, or Five Fingers).
The Matterhorn is a mystery because of that horn at the top (in Aosta Valley patois it is called Gran Becca–Big Pinnacle) that seems to bow on the Italian side and changes perspective on the Swiss side. The sun, a cloud, noon, sunset take turns on the ridges; new dihedrals appear with each change of light and angle. The pyramid commands respect. For undemanding hikers, Rifugio Teodulo, 3,317 meters, is a distant but doable destination. Especially charming for its position on the border with Switzerland, there where the Italian Cervino becomes the German Matterhorn and the town is the glamorous Zermatt. In August, you can still see the white of the glacier. The roof and walls of the shelter are now in sight, twenty minutes’ walk at most, but you walk cautiously, fearing crevasses. The full sun hits you on the terrace with the wooden tables, and inside, in the glass-fronted lounge, as you sip a glass of wine, the view includes the Grandes Murailles mountain chain
Central Italy and the south offer mountains on a human scale, where the vertigo is feasible. And yet your interest is tweaked by the constant presence of a genius loci, which perhaps supplants the tourist organization of the North. On sheep-tracks, steep scree slopes, natural balconies protected by ropes, there appear saints and peasants, medieval ruins and farmhouses, legends and village quarrels. Such as on the majestic Maiella. In a narrow passage in the Blockhaus–kids have to be held by the hand and you hold on to a rope–a shepherd popped out of a hollow in the rock, and he was holding out a caciotta cheese to us, to sell, brought up there, presumably with a few other cheeses, from who knows where.
Central Italy and the south donate mountains on a human scale, where vertigo is controlled
In the Simbruini Mountains, between Cervara and Subiaco, halfway up the mountainside, lie the remains of the monastery named after St Chelidonia. The ascent begins in Vignola. Shaded by holm oaks, oaks and pines. Tufts of wild sage and oregano along the path. You get glimpses of Aniene Valley, occasionally branches framing the Rocca di Subiaco. Then a final climb, accompanied by a procession of cypress trees. The destination is mighty ruins: pointed arches, stumps of rough stone spurs. And a small church, protected by the mountain rock.
You don’t make the “pilgrimage” just to fill a basket with mushrooms. The input is historical, artistic, hagiographic. The first woman hermit, Chelidonia, lived in these woods for sixty years in the 12th century. She escaped the rain and lightning in the shelter of Morra Ferogna, where a goddess of fertility was worshiped before the foundation of Rome. A staff was needed for the future saint to reach the highest peak. Tradition has it that, at the top, she dug it into the ground and leant on it to listen to the mass officiated by the pope in the Lateran Basilica. Born in Cicoli in the Reatino region around 1097, she left her father's home at the age of 20, and chose to live on the mountains on the Aniene River frequented five hundred years earlier by St. Benedict. Reddish rocks, veined with blue and white. She mastered these rocks and thus, from Cleridonia, her name was changed to Chelidonia, which means swallow in Greek.
Only once did she abandon woods and fasting, between 1111 and 1122: a pilgrimage to Rome and on her return a stop in Subiaco where she took the Benedictine habit in the monastery of St. Scholastica. This was followed by thirty years of solitude and prayer in the cave. Where she died, between October 12 and 13, 1152, according to the accounts of locals who brought her some nourishment. And who, eight years later, when the “period of hail” was over, witnessed the construction of a monastery, commissioned by Abbot Simon, amidst the tangle of nature. Chelidonia's body was transported here in a marble urn from St. Scholastica, where it had been buried. But in the early 1400s, the monastery was subject to raids by soldiers who arrived from the adjoining Kingdom of Naples. Pope Martin V had it dissolved. As the structures began to decay, Chelidonia's mortal remains were finally buried at St. Scholastica. Now, the surviving little church welcomes pilgrims and a few hikers. And is home to autographed thank you note signed by ‘Antonio Mancini of Risano, known as the bagpiper,’ who reached the impassable destination for the last time in 2000, defying his 87 years
The setting is one of the most beautiful seas in Italy, along with the coast: between Sapri and Maratea, between the last strip of Campania and the 37 kilometers of Lucanian coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea
The route I have just completed is different in suggestion, one hundred percent secular. The setting is one of the most beautiful seas and coastlines in Italy: between Sapri and Maratea, between the last strip of Campania and the 37 kilometers of Lucanian coastline on the Tyrrhenian Sea. You start in the harbour in Sapri, where “three hundred young and strong men” died, facing the Gulf of Policastro, looking to Cape Palinuro. The hike is a ten-kilometer round trip, walking high above the coast dotted with coves, and immediately encountering the Scoglio dello Scialandro (the only survivor from the shipwreck of a Greek ship) on which, peering out to sea, stands the bronze figure of the Spigolatrice di Sapri [TN: from the poem of the same name by Mercantini, ‘woman who gathers ears of wheat’].
Intrigued by the name of the trail: ‘Apprezzami l'asino,’ or Apprezzamm 'u ciucciu in local dialect [Value my Donkey]. Until the early twentieth century, this path was the only one linking the coast of Sapri to the coast of the Materano area and was used to transport by donkeys and mules the goods produced by locals. This path between the mountain and the sea in some places was too narrow for two donkeys loaded with saddlebags to pass one another by. And since these patient beasts do not know how to walk backwards, the matter was cynically resolved by making an appraisal of the least valuable donkey, giving half of the value to the owner and throwing the donkey down onto the rocks by the sea. A legend that narrates an event that happened maybe once. But so be it. ‘Value my Donkey’ becomes the paradigm of a poor and rough way of living. Significant encounters are made along the way, under the Mediterranean scrub. Two towers built by the Bourbons as lookouts against Saracen pirates, the steep descent to the sea that leads to the Cartolano cave and well, the other easier route down to the Saline (salt flats) and the Angeli beach. The last section is for rock climbers. A sheer headland is the natural bastion before the Midnight Canal, which marks the border between the two regions.
Daring descents and ascents, from the Apennines to the Alps. Feeling on top of the world.
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