As much as I love Italy’s fantastic “big three” cities, of Rome, Florence, and Venice, sometimes I have to get off the tourist track and go to a remote corner of Italy with gorgeous scenery where local life reigns and tourists are few.
This I did in June when I went to the Monti Sibillini– a place that feels like Italy’s secret corner.
The Monti Sibillini are mountains that straddle the eastern edge of Umbria, and the western side of Le Marche, and in 1993 were given national park status. The name Sibillini presumably comes from the Sibyls who were the oracles in ancient Greece.
After my three weeks in Puglia, I met with my friend John in Rome and we headed to these mountains to see the famous wild flowers, and hike; and since John had not heard of a rifugio, I figured I’d introduce him to one.
We drove from Rome to Norcia, in Umbria, and then up a curvaceous road into the heart of the mountains, to the rifugio we’d booked for two nights.
A rifigio in Italy is the same concept as the mountain huts (hütte) in Austria. Located in mountain ranges to accommodate trekkers, these huts are usually quite large with a variety of dorm style rooms upstairs and a big dinning area downstairs. For the price of the night (in our case 58 Euro each) a basic breakfast and a hearty dinner is included. Pasta, meat, wine, desert… you can leave the granola bars at home.
Upon arrival we were greeted by Roberto, who pointed out that behind the hut we could view Monte Vettore, the highest peak in the Monti Sibillini at 8,123 feet (2,476 meters). This rifugio is one of nine on a nine-day circuit– a trail that the Itailans call the anello. (ring.)
On the first night two other guests were there, a British retired couple who were on the last leg of the anello circuit. They were clearly intrepid travelers. The next night a large group of Italian hikers from Bologna descended. I was drawn to their happy Italian chatter as they set their packs in the entrance hall, and pealed off their wet jackets. Upon asking a few of the men how hard the route is, they invited me to have wine with them. We sat at one of the long wooden tables until dinner time, our conversation running from their hike, to my love for their country, to my time in Qatar which has been the biggest curiosity in the past three years from any new people I meet.
This is what I love about these mountain huts. The immediate comradery with other guests and the eagerly shared travel stories and the natural high felt by all from a day in an exhilarating landscape.
What drew me most to this area was the famous fiorita– the blossoming of colorful wild flowers that turn the Pian Grande (the big plain) into a watercolorist’s delight of crimson and violet.
This, I was told, happens in June.
But it had been an unusually cold spring in Italy, causing a month’s delay in the fiorita. We didn’t see it in it’s full glory, and it was rather rainy during our stay, but still we were able to admire the area’s rugged beauty and see small yellow and blue flowers scattered over exceptionally verdant hillsides.
And horses, glorious horses, perfecting the peaceful pastoral scenes.
In the morning we hiked in an area that Roberto recommended, and met an local man gathering wild mushrooms. My mother who saw the photo later, says she’s in love with his face.
We then drove to the Pian Grande. This meadow is about 7 kilometers long, with a road through the middle and big rectangular patches of plowed earth sloping down its sides where the famous tiny lentils are grown.
We thought we’d hike again but it was raining so we drove to the medieval village of Castelluccio, which perches on a mountain crest above the Pian Grande. There we tucked into a warm trattoria and had zuppa di lentiche.
One really cannot go to Castelluccio and not have lentil soup.
We drove thirty minutes out of our way from Castelluccio to Visso in order to get cash to pay Roberto at the rifigio. I’m glad we needed an ATM because Visso turned out be “The handsome town that no one has heard of.”
Situated at the bottom of a valley in the confluence of three rivers, Visso has harmonious multi-hued Renaissance facades, and pretty ivory stone edged arches and windows–apparently carved by master local craftsmen.
In the church called La collegiata di Santa Maria, I was amazed by the largest fresco I’d ever seen. Floor to ceiling about 30 feet (9 meters) tall, Saint Christopher seems ready to jump from the walls and into a Harry Potter book.
My friend Margaret who is an expat in a small Umbrian village, visited the Monti Sibillini and the Pian Grande a month after my trip and was able to catch the full fiorita. Here are two of her photos.
Super Duper Glorious, right? (To see more of Margaret’s photography go here.)
Accessing the Monti Sibillini is easiest by car. The nine-day circuit I imagine would be perfect for intrepid hikers with time on their hands. If your time is restricted, you can see an ample amount of the region in a few days, throwing in some day hikes and perhaps a horse ride. You can download here detailed information on 19 different hikes in the region.
Saluti from Italy’s Secret Corner!