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Walking on top of the world in the Appenines

Great hiking trails matched by excellent value for money make the Appenines a good choice for summer walking

In the Italian Appenines, 100km east of Rome, is the karst landscape of the Gran Sasso mountain range, which includes the Corno Grande, at 2,914 metres the highest summit in peninsular Italy. We spent a hill-walking week there at the Hotel Campo Imperatore, a former ski hotel located at 2,130 metres and surrounded by rounded grassy hills and snow-streaked summits. We walked out the door each day into this magnificent wildflower-rich landscape, with a choice of day outings from easy high meadow walks to steep ascents.

The hotel fell on hard times a few years ago, and, just a little frayed at the edges, it is now leased out as a luxury mountain refuge by Paolo Pecilli and a small group of delightfully welcoming and friendly Italians, who do everything they can to make their guests stay enjoyable.

When Benito Mussolini fell from power in 1943, the new Italian government felt the hotel was a sufficiently remote place to detain the ex-dictator while they decided what to do with him. Hitler, however, needed Mussolini to head up an alternative government, so he gave the daring and resourceful SS Colonel Otto Scorzeny (who spent some time living in Ireland after the war) the challenging task of rescuing him. Scorzeny and a force of battle-hardened paratroopers landed in gliders beside the hotel, and within hours Il Duce was dining with Hitler in Austria. The small suite that he occupied in July 1943 has been preserved, and, on request, the staff will put on a little guided tour.

All routes and paths in the Gran Sasso are well marked and in good weather conditions, armed with the Kompass map of the region, we found it easy to navigate the many well-marked trails.

Besides the Cornu Grande, there are plenty of dramatic peaks to head for from the hotel. Monte Aquila, the most accessible summit, made a good first walk for us. In a stiff zig-zag climb, the path edges up the steep western flanks of the 2,335 metre Sella di Monte Aquila, with myriads of brilliant wild flowers all the way.

The alpine finch is common here, chirping his way along the crags, as are choughs, both the yellow-legged alpine variety and our own, more familiar, red-legged ones.

We had to cross a short stretch of snow field along the way, but before long we left the scree behind and gained a sharp ridge, giving views into Campo Pericoli, a place of grassy drumlins surrounded by ramparts of scree and ringed by pointed peaks bearded with unmelted snow.

The cross on the summit of Monte Aquila was clearly in view now. We climbed towards it over a grassy sward. On one side was an exciting and precipitous drop into a glacial valley, scattered with huge erratics, and on the other the daunting massif of the Corno Grande. The sun was strong between swiftly passing clouds, but the mountain air, cooled by breezes, was very comfortable.

After a last steep pull, we enjoyed a wonderful romp along a short but narrow knife-edge arrete, scattered with purple cushions of moss campion that seems to thrive in this dry but lime-rich environment. It was a rewarding arrival. At 2,496 metres, we were now looking down on many of the surrounding summits, but the Corno still towered above us. Bulbous clouds building up against the eastern ramparts of the mountain swirled and churned beneath us, and then dissolved, revealing, more than 2,000 metres below, a chequered landscape of fields and forests stretching all the way to the blue of the Adriatic.

We returned to our hotel by way of a ridge and another summit, enjoying a coffee along the way at a tiny but comfortable refugio perched near the top of Monte Portello.

We did plenty of good climbs during our week, but this year’s snows were late clearing, and we had to miss out on the Corno Grande. I had climbed it before, however, and, with local advice, it is doable by hillwalkers not afraid of a little scrambling. Well-organised scree paths are followed almost the whole way, but the last couple of hundred metres is an exciting scramble up a series of shelving limestone slabs with an exciting precipice on one side. The summit is an unforgiving jumble of cold rock with a sturdy cross, and the views all round from the highest point in peninsular Italy are spectacular.

It is easy to fill a week with different walks, but for those with independent transport, day-tours can be also taken to beautiful villages such as S Stephano di Sessanio, a delightful gem nestling in a picturesquely cultivated valley, or to the Adriatic coast and the fascinating towns of Ascoli di Piceno and Fermo, accessible by the autostrada that tunnels under the mountain.

The value for money at Hotel Campo Imperatore was as spectacular as the walking. We each paid €55 a night for single occupation of a double room, breakfast, a packed lunch every day, and an excellent Italian dinner, often five courses, including wine, each evening.Aerlingus and Ryanair fly to Rome. Regular trains (see trenitalia.com) run from Rome to L’Aquila, the nearest town.

 

GETTING THERE

Aerlingus and Ryanair fly to Rome. Regular trains (see trenitalia.com) run from Rome to L’Aquila, the nearest town.

We took a coach (gasparionline.it) from Ciampino airport direct to L’Aquila (€32 return) and arranged with the hotel for a pick up.

A new bus service started this year from Ciampino airport direct to and from Campo Imperatore, (for details, email chiarelliviaggi@ interfree.it)

Hotel/Rifugio Campo Imperatore, rifugiocampoimperatore.it.

Map: Kompass 1:50,000 Map 669, Gran Sasso d’Italia L’Aquila