Italy boasts an enduring culture of Alpinism, to-die-for cycling, and hard-core ultrarunning. It's why I planned a trip there this fall. (Yes, there's also...The food! The vino!)
I spent a week trekking in Abruzzo, a multi-sport mecca for climbing, trekking, paragliding and mountain biking. It's often referred to as "Little Tibet" for its uncanny resemblance to the Himalayas. The UK Times recently rated a hiking tour of the area as one of the "Top 10 Adventures of a Lifetime." Haven't heard of it? Until recently, neither had I. But I'm grateful I did—its one of my new favorite places. You should go too, and check out some of the things on my list of the top six things to do.
1. Hike it Out
Hard to believe this sleepy region is just an hour and a half outside Rome. With so much space, there's no better way to soak up the ethereal views and mountain vistas then on foot. The place includes three national parks, a regional park and more than 30 pristine nature reserves. Here you have a better chance of seeing golden eagles, wolves, bears, than you do of running across other people. Recently rated by the UK Times as one of the "Top 10 Adventures of A Lifetime" I decided to tap into my inner Thoreau and sign up for a week-long walking tour. I spent six days roaming across rolling mountains, exploring Medieval castles, and resting at cozy B&B's. I made a slow climb up to the majestic Campo Imperatore and the highest Appenine mountain, the Corno Grande. The best part? All that lovely quiet. And because I roamed all day, not once did I feel guilty about indulging each evening in the region's infamous hearty lentil soup and mouthwatering Pecorino cheese.
Details: To book a guided or unguided walking tour, contact World Walks. Tip: If you decide to go guided, ask for Lorenzo Baldi, who is an encyclopedia of knowledge on the region and a veteran guide in the area.
($920 per person, 6 nights accommodation, luggage transfer, meals included)
2. Summit Corno Grande, The Tallest Mountain Of The Appenines
It's not Mont Blanc. It's not the Dolomites. That's why I loved it. After all, how often can you enjoy a 9,500 foot mountain like this all to yourself? With most tourists flocking to the more famous mountains in the north, the Appenines are a quiet getaway. At 9554 feet, Corno Grande stands grey and formidable over the entire Gran Sasso; claiming the title of tallest mountain in the Appenine chain. I found it to be an intermediate climb easily done in a day. It starts fairly easy, and builds into some technical ridge work near the summit—if you choose to deviate from the easier, classic western ridge trail. The view from the summit more than made up for the work. Watching dusk spread out over Campo Imperatore, the sprawling plain below and the purple shadows folding and falling over the knot of grey mountains was not a memory I'll ever forget. Don't miss the Calderone Glacier on the north face--it's the southernmost glacier in all of Europe.
The climb can be done on your own, or as the final leg of the walking tour. Tip: At the base of the mountain, reward your hard work with a beer in the hotel where Mussolini was imprisoned in 1943.
3. Rock On
Fancy some face time? I did. But except for a few days in a climbing gym and some bouldering in Yosemite, I'd never rock climbed before. 'It's a wild and beautiful game," Andrea Di Donato, my climbing guide for the day told me as I stepped into my harness. Within a half hour I was stuck to a wall fifty feet up, adrenaline buzzing. Climbing is an exhilarating way to get to know the mountains intimately. With multiple mountains and routes to keep beginners and veterans alike happy, the Abruzzo boasts a highly respected mountain school and several outfitters. Bonus: All the guides I climbed with spoke perfect English and were incredibly patient, not to mention sporting ridiculously cool shades. Most of them, I later discovered, had bagged first ascents in the area and were legends in their own right.
For day trips or to arrange week-long climbing excurisons contact:
Mountain Evolution at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. Paddle Happy
Once you've satisfied your Alpine fix, rent a canoe and glide onto liquid glass. The nearby Tirino River is the most pristine river in Italy. Words like "gorgeous" or "breathtaking" fail to do the area justice. I paddled over an emerald carpet of water-celery and Carribean blue sandbars, dodging the occasional fly fisherman working for a plump brown trout.
Il Bosso (2 hours guided canoe ride, $70)
5. Mountain Bike Through Time
Single track junkies can rent a mountain bike and set off on the network of trails near the Tirino River that wind through the mountains before heading down into rolling vinyards. It's a ride steeped in history. After an hour of riding past castles and down steep grades, I stumbled across a group of people standing in the middle of a small vineyard. I dropped my bike and headed over to investigate, only to realize I'd left my wheels on an archeological dig. Peering into the hole I saw the perfectly intact remains of a skeleton from 400 B.C. I ended the day flushed from a great ride and awestruck by a vast sense of history and time.
For mountain bike rentals contact ilbosso.com ($14 half day, $21 full day)
6. Soar Above Castles
It's not every day a person can run off the top of a mountain and not expect to kill themselves. But during a late afternoon paraglide flight over a mountain near a charming Medieval village named Calascio, I did just that. Feel what it's like to be cradled by the wind, and carried by updrafts high over castle ruins. After a good fifteen minutes gazing down at a valley of quilt-like fields I landed in a farmer's field, intact. Only briefly did it occur to me that the only thing keeping me suspended in the air was a few bolts of material and some strings. One note: Just make sure to keep running when you land if you don't want to eat dirt.
($98 per person per flight, available through Mountain Evolution.)
Getting There: Once in Rome, Buses to L'Aquila depart hourly from Rome's Tiburtina Station. A pickup at the airport can also be arranged.
When To Go: For hiking, it's best to visit June through October. Avoid August, when locals who have migrated to the city return home for a month and the normally sleepy regions gets busy.
Moonlight snowshoeing, and backcountry skiing are available in the winter months beginning in January and treks can be arranged through Mountain Evolution.
Photo 1: A view of the Entire Gran Sasso from Pescara, a seaside town on the Adriatic. Courtesy of gigi 62
Photo 2: Dusk over Campo Imperatore, a grand plateau that has stood in for Tibet in many films, and is often used for spaghetti westerns.
Photo 3: A herd of cows blocking the road: Abruzzo's version of a traffic jam.
Photo 4: View from the summit of Corno Grande, the tallest Appenine Mountain
Photo 5: Climber Andrea Di Donato
Photo 6: Climber Andrea Di Donato
Photo 7: An Archeological dig in a vinyard near the Tirino River
Photo 8: A human skull from 400 b.c
Photo 9: Paragliding near Calascio
Photo 10: Paragliding gear in a field, just after a flight
Photos courtesy of Shauna Sweeney