I have always been a fan of public transport. I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my late twenties, and that was more out of necessity for work rather than any desire to actually do any driving. Unlike many people I didn’t equate the ability to drive with any form of freedom, after all you cant read books while driving and that is a serious impediment to my liberty! I suppose it also helps that I always lived in towns within easy walking distance of amenities, had I lived in a village in the middle of nowhere things may have been different. Certainly Paul has a completely different perspective.
On our travels so far we haven’t used as much public transport as we expected, we’ve moved the motorhome to be close to the attractions we want to visit and the trailheads for walks and bike rides. It’s just part and parcel of the way we have travelled, moving every one or two days. It’s also a sign of how well the countries we have visited are set up for motorhomes, the parking areas seem to be in the right places. Now we’re in the UK we are finding ourselves spending more time in one place and a static Bertie means that we need to find a way to get out and about.
By this point we were in the Temporary Holiday Site at Annstead Farm near Beadnell. We took the plunge and moved from the campsite at £22 a night (without electric) to this THS at £8 a night. The THS was as busy as the campsite, but the wardens explained that they try not to turn anyone away; their overflow field and the ability to squeeze some of the generously sized pitches give them room to manoeuvre and still stay within the rules (minimum of 6m from the neighbouring unit). By the time we left on Friday we had been rearranged to provide a pitch for another motorhome between us and our neighbour. They started with over 100 spaces, who knows how many units were on site by the end.
From here we were able to walk the coast path in either direction and make use of the excellent X18 bus that runs along the coast between Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed. The bus comes with a bit of tourist commentary, and kept us entertained as it pointed out key sights along the route.
On our walks we visited Long Nanny, the location of a breeding colony of Little and Artic Terns. The beach is closed off and a community of volunteers and naturalists live on-site during the breeding season. Sadly this year hasn’t been a good one for the Little Terns whose nests were almost wiped out by a storm earlier in the year. We spent a little while talking to one of the rangers who explained how they raise the nests off the ground to try and protect them from high tides and storms. While the parents are away, each nest is painstakingly removed from the ground, boxes full of sand and shingle are then placed over the nest site and the nest is reconstructed on top. By the time the parent birds return it all looks the same as when they left – just a foot higher. All the time we are talking the more successful arctic terns are noisily wheeling around overhead, readying themselves for their migration.
Dunstanburgh Castle sits on an outcrop of rock looking out over the surrounding farmland and sea. It’s one of those evocative ruined castles, sufficiently intact to clamber about in the towers or the remains of the bailey walls. We used our NT membership to visit for free and ate our lunch while watching children running around with wooden swords playing at being knights. You could tell that the school holidays had started. There are plenty of other castles around but we chose to view Bamburgh Castle and Alnwick Castle from the outside rather than pay the entry fees. I’m sure we’ll be up this way again.
Craster was the furthest south that we managed to walk in one hit, famous for it’s kippers, the smell of smoke and fish wafts through the village. It’s much nicer than it sounds. We visit a number of other pretty villages on our explorations, Embleton Newton-by-the-Sea, Seahouses, Beadnell and Bamburgh are all attractive places, but Craster is our favourite and we can sit and watch the harbour for hours.
We ended the week being treated to a slap up meal by Aaron and Katie, we indulge our love of seafood with a couple of massive seafood platters at The Old Boathouse in Amble. It’s a wonderful meal and food wins this contest – we have to take home the smoked salmon for lunch the next day.
At the bottom of the Valsavarenche, just above the village of Introd which proudly proclaims it is a ‘Friend of Popes’, another valley splits off. This is the Valley of Rhêmes. We popped down to Introd in a search for a shop to replenish a few items, passing the posters that show Pope John Paul II in front of mountain scenery. He used to enjoy holidays in the village and Benedict XV also uses the area as a retreat. This has proven enough of a draw to other tourists that a museum to the Pope has been set up in the village, it didn’t really do anything for us though, we were more interested in finding a general store.
After stocking up we drove down the Valle de Rhêmes for our final exploration of the area. In the village of Rhêmes-notre-dame there is a sosta, but we decided to explore further up the valley and ended up parking at Thumel on a large gravel car park. No facilities but it was free and in the usual glorious surroundings. On arrival we didn’t do much. It was enough to wander along the river bank, spotting marmots, yellow billed alpine choughs (as opposed to the red billed variety you will find in the UK) and one very large bird of prey. We hoped that the bird of prey was a lammergeier – they have recently been reintroduced in France and make their way to the Gran Paradiso every now and again – but it’s silhouette and colouring weren’t right and we were seeing a golden eagle, which was a good enough spot in it’s own right but somehow a bit of a disappointment.
The following day we walked up the valley to the Rifugio Benevolo, we were hoping to do a circular walk, following paths 12, 13A and 13. But very quickly we found our first obstacle; the bridge across the fast flowing river had been taken out by an avalanche. We looked at alternatives but decided that we would just cut across the river valley to path number 13 and follow and there-and-back route instead. Part way along the path there were a number of walkers contemplating a steep snow slope that partially covered a waterfall. They didn’t want to go up it, but when we saw a park ranger easily descending we decided that we could go for it. It was a steep little climb and once up I started to look for alternative ways down – I didn’t want to do it in reverse.
As we got closer to the rifugio we met the service track from Thumel – this was to be our path down – a young man on an electric mountain bike was making short work of the ascent, only having to dismount to cross the snowy sections. We were only slightly jealous!
We got back to Bertie knowing that we had to leave the Gran Paradiso area, it had been a great few days in this beautiful national park, motorhome parking was easy, walks and bike rides were clearly marked, the tourist infrastructure was excellent and the cheese was exceptional. I would strongly recommend a visit.
These blog posts may get a bit samey…visit a valley in the Aosta region, cycle a bit, walk a bit, see some marmots etc etc. if they get a bit dull then all I can say is that it doesn’t reflect the amazing time we’ve had in this area. We never get bored of mountain views, snow, ice, meadows, rivers and nature all around us, but it gets a bit difficult to find new ways to describe them.
We withdrew from the Cogne area to re-stock with food and wine in Aosta. Aosta is a really nice city, but we have visited before while skiing and only ventured in for food shopping on this trip. We tried to get into the Lidl car park but found it rammed full of cars, so instead we parked with several other motorhomes in a parking area near the roundabout at the east end of town and walked to the shops to stock up on basics.
Our destination this time was Valsavarenche – the next valley west of Cogne. Whereas Cogne is the tourist centre of the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is the outdoors capital of the area, this is where most people will leave to summit the Gran Paradiso itself. Sadly we weren’t planning to ascend it on this trip, we would need to pay for a guide because we don’t have the experience to cross the crevassed terrain near the summit on our own. We have been higher, but that was on Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru in Tanzania, and those mountains don’t have glaciers on the ascent route (Kilimanjaro does have a glacier but it’s dwindling fast). Summiting an alpine 4000m mountain is on our bucket list though, so maybe next year.
Valsavarenche was a lot quieter that Cogne, we turned up at the sosta in the main village to find ourselves alone, next to the obligatory river and within sight of the usual flower -dotted grassy meadows. We popped to the town hall (municipio) to make our payment only to be told that they wouldn’t start charging until July. I wouldn’t have minded paying but I’m not going to say no to a free stop over when it’s offered up. Because we were alone and the weather was nice we decided to get the BBQ out to cook up a nice bit of steak for tea. What a treat that was, the Cadac has taken some getting used to but it cooked the steak perfectly, charred on the outside and still pink in the middle. We served it up with some barbequed sweet potato, which we cut into slices, dip in oil and griddle, it’s our new favourite barbeque veg. I’m salivating just thinking of that dinner.
We spent two nights in this sosta before moving up to the head of the valley and parking in the large car park for a couple of nights. The parking area at the head of the valley is outside a nicely positioned campsite which was closed when we arrived, but did open for the weekend.
As well as being the starting point for the Gran Paradiso, Valsavarenche is where you are most likely to see Ibex. These large-horned members of the goat family were almost hunted to extinction before their population was protected and restored. The Gran Paradiso was one of only two areas where Ibex still existed at their lowest population point. The national park was the hunting preserve of the first king of a united Italy, Victor Emmanuel II. His hunting practises both killed and preserved the species (an argument that is often used by hunters of trophy animals today, but today we should be much more enlightened). Nowadays they aren’t hunted and as a result you can seem some older specimens with their unfeasibly long horns that look as though they would weigh down the heads of the animals. If you want to see some examples of Ibex horns for different aged animals then there is a good display on the outside wall of the municipio in Valsavarenche (it’s on the wall that faces away from the road and towards the river). We were lucky enough to see a male group (probably the same group) several times in the areas at the head of the valley.
Cycling up the Valsavarenche
Our initial foray into the Valsavaranche was on our bikes, we just took the road up to the head of the valley and then zig-zagged up the man made track (route number 4) on the side of the valley. There was a large amount of avalanche damage here and I really didn’t like the looks of the rocks that teetered on the edge of the trail, ready to fall down on the path below. At one point the top of an electricity pylon had been dragged down to the opposite side of the valley and the wires had been temporarily suspended on lower poles. At the head of the valley we popped to the campsite to see if it was open and saw a herd of Ibex crowded onto one of the large boulders that were scattered across the camping area.
A Walk to the King’s Hunting Lodge
This walk was a circular foray up to Victor Emmanuel II’s hunting lodge at Orvielle. It followed trail number 8 from the village up through the forest, a trail that is also used for snow shoeing in the winter. This trail did feel a little interminable as we zig-zagged upwards through trees on a humid day. Wood ants were out in force scurrying around the forest floor carrying their treasures back to the nest; it was difficult to find a spot where we could sit down for a break without ants coming to investigate us.
On our back and forth route we crossed an avalanche corridor several times, massive rocks had taken gouges out of the soil where they had been flung down the slopes and trees lay in neat lines following the line of descent. Occasionally we had to cross the snow where it had been laid down thickly by repeated avalanche action. I’m sure it’s probably melted by now.
The hunting lodge was enclosed by a fence which said that access was forbidden, we stopped here for a bit of lunch and I said to Paul that I would take a photo from a small rise that was on our onward route. I completely forgot though because an Italian came bounding over to us to show off his photos of Ibex around Lago Djouan. They were great photos and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we’d seen a herd down in the valley the previous day.
We left Orvielle to follow route 7 back down to the valley. Oddly this wasn’t very well signposted, but we managed to spot the obvious path where the trail broke off. This trail went more steeply downhill than the ascending path, past the abandoned buildings of the hamlets of Le Carre and La Ruya. We emerged in the valley at Le Cretou and walked back to Bertie through the wild flower meadows alongside the river, surrounded by butterflies.
Halfway up the Gran Paradiso
We might not be able to make it to the summit of the Gran Paradiso, but we were definitely going to get as high as we could on the route. We headed up route number 1 with the aim of reaching Refugio Vittorio Emmanuel II. We weren’t alone on this route. We had watched many people ascending in the late afternoon of the previous day, taking their snow shoes, crampons, ice axes, snowboards and skis up to the rifugio where they would spend the night before an early morning ascent of the Gran Paradiso and possibly the excitement of a fast descent on skis. When we started up the path there were plenty of casual walkers just going up to the waterfalls or the hut along with us. There were also the first few people descending from their early morning summit exploits. It was a bit of a shock compared to our previous walks where we had only encountered one or two other people and reminded us of walking in the Lake District or Snowdonia.
The initial part of the trail followed the river before turning upwards and following tight hairpins up a well constructed and well maintained path. The zig zags gave us glimpses of the valley and the large waterfall that tumbled down the gully next to us. We quickly emerged from the trees onto the open mountain side and increasing amounts of snow covered our path. However the large numbers of walkers meant the path was well trodden and easy to navigate. We pushed upwards over deeper and steeper snow, at one point we watched people descending a steep slope by sledding down on their backsides. I told Paul there was no way that I was doing that, but still we somehow managed to descend by that route! We could see plenty of ski tracks over the snow and by the time we reached the rifugio we had seen skiers, it didn’t look like it was difficult skiing, but there were plenty of rocks just under the snow that I wouldn’t want to encounter (plus the whole thought of carrying skis and BOOTS up was just exhausting).
The refuge was at 2710m and there was no way we were getting any higher as snow was lying thick on the ground. The building was a cut above any of the other mountain huts we had seen so far, a large building with an arched roof which could hold 120 people. It was busy with people on it’s sunny terrace, some settling in for the day and others packing up their kit to come back down the mountain.
South of the Aosta Valley is an offshoot of the Alps, Italy’s first national park. It is named after its highest peak – Gran Paradiso – the only mountain over 4000 meters that is wholly in Italy. We started our visit to this national park by heading towards Cogne (pronounced con-yay with that nasal ‘gn’ sound that you find in words like Gnocchi or Cognac). This pretty town nestles in the confluence of two valleys; where the valleys meet there are broad meadows with steep mountains on all sides. It looked idyllic when we arrived, the sun was shining and the green of the meadows was vibrant against the blue of the sky. The snow capped mountains at the ends of the valleys were picture perfect.
It was a Sunday and the town was lively with weekend visitors enjoying the good weather. The cafes, restaurants, delis and bakeries were open for business with chairs and tables out on the cobbled streets. Shops were selling outdoors equipment and gifts. The whole town had a lovely vibrant atmosphere and the timber framed traditional alpine buildings gave it a warm and homely (maybe a little bit twee) feel.
The sosta in Cogne is situated next to the river and we spent two nights here before moving onto another sosta in nearby Lillaz. Both are run by the local authority and are free to park in during the day, but cost 10.50 euros for an overnight stay without electricity in low season. So not cheap, but they were large clean parking areas with services, and were well located. In Cogne there was even an elevator to take people up from the car park to the main street. We were looking forward to the evening collection of our money by the ‘girl with hair like embers’, as one review described her. She was indeed as friendly as the reviewer described but her red tinted dark hair was a disappointment; we were expecting a true red-head.
The guide books described the Gran Paradiso national park as tranquil, but this was not really a place for peace and quiet. The surroundings were all about the force and power of nature. Waterfalls, large and small, cascaded down rocky surfaces, rivers rushed and tumbled down valleys. On the slopes we could see the evidence of avalanches, fallen trees, rocks, even electricity pylons, and deep piles of snow at the bottom of avalanche corridors. In Cogne we had the additional noise of building work that was going on while we were there, plus some enthusiastic strimming one morning, at least it got us out of bed and gave us plenty of time to enjoy our days in the mountains.
On the Sunday we arrived we joined in with the rest of the tourists, strolling around town in a constant passagiata with the occasional stop for a bakery treat, drink or a bit of fantasy Solomon trainer shopping (Paul was mesmerised by the displays of all the possible colours). We popped into the tourist office to pick up a map. The lady was reluctant to give us the more comprehensive map and sent us off with strict instructions that we shouldn’t try to walk over 2200 meters and pointed out that the steep slopes of the Gran Paradiso national park made avalanches and rockslides far more likely than they were in the rest of the Aosta region.
There were about a dozen vans in the sosta on Sunday, but by Monday morning there were only four of us and Cogne felt a little more sleepy. Still there were plenty of shops open and we were able to stock up with baked treats for the coming days.
Cycling the three valleys
Our first outing was a cycle ride that followed the cross country ski trails (trail number 23) in three directions from Cogne, first we cycled downhill to Epinel and back, then to Valnontey and back, and finally Lillaz. The beauty of these valleys is that they have fairly shallow gradients, meaning that you can choose how long and difficult you want your walking or cycling to be. This was a nice way to explore the area and decide how we were going to spend the next few days; we saw dippers in the river d’Urtier, deer near Valnontey and a fox in the woods near Lillaz. While we were in Lillaz we went to see the powerful Lillaz waterfall which has a wheelchair accessible path through a Geology park (a collection of boulders of different types of rock) to the bottom of the cascade, and other paths and viewing platforms higher up.
Walking the Valnontey – how far can we go?
There is a path from Valnontey that follows the valley up and up into the heart of the mountains. While we’d been cycling we’d decided that this part of the area had the most beautiful scenery and was worth exploring further. Because of the snow we were unlikely to get far up the sides of the valley, but the long and gradually sloping path next to the river offered an opportunity for a longer walk that wouldn’t get too high too soon. We drove to Valnontey where the carpark had ‘No Motorhome’ signs but we felt confident we would get away with daytime parking as the carpark was almost empty and we had paid our 3 euros at the parking meter.
The path (number 22) from here follows the river out of Valnontey village through a pleasant wooded valley where deer could be spotted drinking from the river or hiding behind the trees. Underfoot it was mostly dry, but snow melt and left some boggy patches where frogs had taken an opportunity to spawn and tadpoles were frantically swimming in the shallow waters. In the small and empty settlement of Vermiana was a noticeboard with the hours of sunlight, significantly less than most places (about 5 hours less in June) due to the shadow of the valley walls.
As we escaped from the tree cover we found ourselves increasingly on snowy terrain. Marmots were here enjoying the open slopes. The slope of the valley was still quite gradual but we were finding it increasingly difficult to find the path amongst the snow and streams. In the end we made it to the final bridge at just under 2200 meters, but decided not to continue any further up paths 22D, E or F. We stopped to take in the views of the many glaciers that were draped across the mountains at the head of the valley before we re-traced our steps back to Valnontey.
Lago di Loie Circuit
From Lillaz we decided we would try to make it up to the Lago di Loie. At 2346m this was higher than we had reached the previous day and we knew it would be snowy. We followed path 12 which took us steeply up via the Lillaz waterfalls and then followed other cascades. When we looked back at the path we had followed it seemed impossibly steep, but as we clambered up the rocky path any exposure was negated by the tree cover.
On the way up we met a Canadian couple who told us that the route to the lake was impassable because of snow. We looked at their trainer clad feet and weren’t surprised. They had tried to walk around the snow patches whereas we would most probably walk across them.
The steepest part of the walk was under the cover of trees, and when we emerged from the forest we were in a snow filled bowl which the path crossed diagonally before it followed a wide gully up to the lake. Walking across the snow was easy enough, but the steeper gully was more of a challenge and we didn’t want to find ourselves falling through the snow into the stream below. We kept to the right hand side and managed to pick a way across snow and grassy slopes until we found the path again close to the lake.
The lake was partially thawed and quite beautiful – it was a shame that the weather had turned a bit grey, but we were still able to see the mountains reflected in the water. Where the ice had melted we could see frogs lethargically swimming through the water. It’s quite amazing that they manage to live in such an inhospitable environment.
From the lake we were able to continue to follow path number 12, other people must have recently trodden this path because we could see footprints in the snow and the holes left by walking poles. The walk down was longer but less steep, we saw more deer and marmots as we descended though high meadows until we reached the river Bardoney. Here we picked up path 13 (also marked as long distance path 2 – the long distance path numbers are in triangles) which took us back down to Lillaz. This path followed the picturesque gorge of the Bardoney and then the d’Urtier river until we reached a point where we had views of the Lillaz waterfall and our original route up. It was a shame that it started raining as we descended because the scenery was stunning, but the rain made us put our heads down and plod for a bit. However this round trip was a delight and one I would do again.
While we were in Cervinia we sat and watched as the spring sun thawed the snow and created avalanches. The sound as the snow starts to move is awesome in the most literal sense of the word. Awe inspiring, powerful and frightening the snow starts to creep down the hill until it encounters a ravine or cliff where it spills over the edge, carrying rocks and earth along with the snow. When you see this there is no doubt in your mind that you never want to be on the receiving end; it would not end well. But while safely watching from across the valley we are transfixed.
Breuil-Cervinia sits at the head of the Valtournenche. It’s a resort town, mostly purpose built to support the skiing industry, and we were quite shocked to see the amount of new development since we were there last. There is obviously no shortage of visitors.
The development was pretty much the only thing happening in the town while we were there. Skiing is supported all year round from Cervinia, but the resort has a month off between the winter and summer season. Winter skiing had only finished the previous weekend, culminating with the visit of the Giro d’Italia and also a very progressive (do these things really still happen?) swimsuit show. It’s been a long season with lots of spring snow, and most hotels and restaurants were closed as staff took well deserved breaks from the hospitality industry, probably by visiting someone else’s hotel.
We parked up in the sosta, a 10 minute walk south of the main resort, and took a short walk, sending photos to Aaron to demonstrate the difference between Cervinia’s winter and summer appearance. The resort was so quiet that we decided to move from the sosta up into the main carpark so that we were closer to the start of walks and had a better view. No one was taking payment at the sosta, although when we left on the Saturday the small booth was manned and we felt a little guilty that we had deprived them of some income.
From our parking spot we had a view of the golf course where marmots played. These large rodents, members of the squirrel family and closely related to the groundhog, live in burrows in high pasture land and hibernate during the winter. With the spring thaw they come out from their dens to breed and start fattening themselves back up again in the short time they have before they are back in hibernation in autumn. They obviously enjoyed the tasty grass of the golf course and we wondered whether they are seen as a pest or an asset. While some of them eat and some play, others will stand guard like squat extra-furry meerkats and squeak if they feel there is a threat approaching. They didn’t seem to be particularly worried about their audience, only running to their burrows when we got close enough to take a good photo (of course). We laughed at their run, which seems to involve scampering along and then stopping, lifting their tail a couple of times and then repeating the process – scent marking maybe? It’s a very distinctive gait and allows us to tell it’s a marmot (and not a dog or cat) from a distance.
The other thing we could see from our parking spot, the dominant feature of Cervina, is Monte Cervino itself – aka The Matterhorn. It’s classic pyramid shape rises above the ski resort, easily distinguished from the surrounding mountains and forming a focal point wherever you are. We spent hours staring up at it; whether bathed in sunshine or wreathed in cloud the thought of climbing it’s jagged sides is daunting, something we don’t ever expect to experience. It’s hard to believe the audacity of early climbers who used manilla ropes and climbed in tweed jackets. The first ascent of Monte Cervinio was a race between Englishman Edward Whymper and Italian Jean-Antoine Carrel. They initially cooperated and later competed to ascend the mountain, and it sounds like it all got a bit school-boy, even now the story takes on a partisan edge depending on who narrates it. But it cannot be doubted that, eventually, after several attempts, Whymper made the first ascent. This was marred by the tragic death of four of his companions who fell thousands of feet as they descended, Whymper and his two guides only survived because the rope that joined them to their falling team members broke. It is said that Queen Victoria considered banning mountaineering as a result of the deaths and controvesy.
Cervinia’s altitude is just over 2000 meters above sea level – part of what makes it such a great ski resort – and so any walks from here were definitely going to be curtailed by snow. However we did manage three shortish walks.
This lake is a feature we have often seen from ski lifts. It sits in a bowl on the eastern slopes of the valley and provides the fresh water that is piped to a lot of the slopes to make artificial snow when it’s needed.
We took a chance on this walk because the path (route 16) sometimes follows a maintenance track that we thought may have been kept clear. We ended up following the track all the way because where the path took short cuts it was steep and snow bound, but the track had been scraped clear of snow and we made it easily up to the lake which was still iced over. We came down the same way.
Above the Golf Course
We spied out this walk from our parking position, looking for the path along the snowy ridge above us and below the steep cliffs of Punta Cors. The route up nearly defeated us as we tried to follow route 11 and found the bridge over the fast flowing stream was out. Unwilling to ford the stream we ended up making our own way up steep grassy banks until we got to the path (65) that traverses the slopes on a fairly flat gradient. Here it was very snowy but firm enough to allow us to walk in our boots without the need for snowshoes (although they would have been useful – they’ve gone on the shopping list) and we made our way along our approximation of the path behind a small lake and along to an abandoned and empty reservoir where we took the old service track down to Cervinia. We spent most of this walk, well…not walking. The spring sunshine was triggering avalanches all along the steep cliffs above us and they were mesmerising to watch. It really gave us an appreciation of the violence and ferocity of an avalanche (after all snow is soft…isn’t it?) as we watched large rocks being thrown down with the snow. And that made us very considerate of the angle of the slopes we were crossing and descending. We got down from this walk in time to eat lunch in one of the few open cafes in the town and enjoyed their focaccia so much that we had some as a take away for our tea.
Heading for the Matterhorn
Our final walk took us up as far as we could go towards the Rifugion Duca degli Abruzzo. Usually used as a staging post for ascents of the Matterhorn it was at 2802 meters a.s.l. and we knew we wouldn’t get that far, but we decided to see how far we could get. The route mostly follows an easy track and when it’s not snow bound it would be quite a pleasant and easy journey, but we hit snow fields just below the hut at l’Eura. In front of us were a couple carrying snowshoes, but they chose to bypass the snowfields and climb an unpleasant steep and grassy bank instead and stupidly we assumed they knew what they were doing (after all why have snow shoes and not use them) and we followed them. As I watched them nervously find footholds on loose dirt and use grass as handholds I decided there was no way I was going to follow. Paul went up next and provided a running commentary of how uncomfortable he was. After seeing his wobbly legs disappear over the top I decided I definitely wasn’t going to follow and texted him my decision. Instead I went back down the slope to find the path and trudged over the snow to join Paul up at the hut.
After our final walk we drove down to Chattilon, back where the Valtournenche joins the Aosta valley. The sosta here was free because the parking meter was not in operation. It was conveniently located by the Conad supermarket and a self service laundry. We washed all of our smelly walking gear, and while waiting for it we shopped in the Conad, picking up some local cheeses from the deli (including Toma, a delicious semi cured cheese that melts beautifully which Paul gave the ‘it’s as good as cheddar’ seal of approval) and some local white wine that had the scent of mountain meadows in the spring.
We had finally arrived in the Valle d’Aosta, the most westerly of Italy’s alpine regions which has borders with Switzerland and France. In fact French is an official language as well as Italian (and many people also speak a local dialect) and so you will see both on road signs and other information boards and people. The Aosta valley runs from east to west and has subsidiary valleys both north and south of the main artery. The valleys to the south take you into the Gran Paradiso national park, more about that later. For now we were heading north into the Valtournenche.
We’re quite familiar with the Valtournenche (the name of the valley, a town in the valley and the local ‘commune’) because we have skied here a few times now. Mostly our skiing has been at the head of the valley in the resort of Breuil-Cervinia, so, for a bit of a change, we wanted to spend some time lower in the valley.
We popped into the tourist information centre in Antey-St-André to see if we could get some information on walks and bike rides in the area. This was one of the most helpful tourist offices we have been into yet, it probably helped that the lady spoke good English so could ask us lots of questions about what we were planning to do and how long we were planning to be here. We left with a good map of walks and mountain bike routes in the lower and upper valley (€5) and booklets of bike rides, driving routes, local food and drink, castles and motorhome parking spots. She also advised us to head to Torgnon if we wanted somewhere peaceful and surrounded by mountain scenery and walks. The sosta in Torgnon is free outside of the ski season AND has electricity, we took her advice and headed up the switchbacks to the strung out series of hamlets that make up Torgnon.
The sosta is beyond the top of the village just under the small ski resort. As promised it was quiet; the restaurants and cafes in the ski area do open in the summer, but not till July. There was a bit of road repair going on, and every now and again a car or van would drive up to one of the buildings. There was a ski lift directly in front of us and every day someone would come up and start the lift up, we wondered if this was a usual summer routine, just keeping things ticking over. One day the chairs on the lift had large blue containers on them, we assumed they were testing the weight capacity of the lift as they had about 100 of the containers stacked up next to it and when we went for a nose they were pretty heavy.
We stayed here for three nights in glorious isolation, the weather was the typical mountain weather we have been experiencing for the last month or so. Dry and bright in the mornings, cloud building up during the day and rain and thunder at some point in the afternoon. So we tried to drag ourselves out of bed as early as possible in the mornings (which is still pretty late really) so that we could get out and enjoy the outdoors before the rain fell.
On the first day we followed a mountain biking route that doubled as a cross country ski trail in the winter months. We cycled out of the parking area up to the ski resort where signposts pointed the way for us (this was also walking track number 1). This ride took us through mountain scenery to paths around small lakes, over streams and under gushing waterfalls. We stopped for lunch in a dilapidated building to shelter us from the rain and were very excited to see marmots frolicking in the meadow in front of us. The highest point of the trail took us over 2100 meters and we ended up having to push the bikes uphill over snow in this section which was a bit demoralising. It was a shame that the weather wasn’t better for this ride because the views were very beautiful but by the time we got back we were muddy, soaked and had fingers like icicles, hence a lack of photos.
The following day the sun came out and we decided to see fi we could tackle the Becca d’Aver which had been teasing us with it’s summit for the last couple of days. We knew we probably wouldn’t make it to the top because we could see a significant amount of snow in the saddle between it and the next peak. We were right, we only got as far as Mont de la Fenêtre before we had to give up due to a ridiculously small patch of snow on a steep section. The route up this far was lovely though (route 8 and then 9 from the ski area) so it wasn’t a wasted walk, the narrow path wound up and around rocky outcrops; one section had a chain as a hand rail, but manufactured rocky steps had been added later making the chain unnecessary. To make up for not reaching the summit we followed the southerly part of route 1 (which we hadn’t followed on the bikes the previous day) through the woods, climbing over trees still bowed or felled by the weight of snow, even though it was now gone. On the way we spotted fleeting glimpses of deer through the trees and one hare running across a meadow below us.
After three nights we felt it was time to move on, a few chores to do first. We did the usual empty and refill, but also took advantage of the fact that the water here is fed from a spring and so is constantly running through a trough. We used the trough to give our muddy cycling clothes a good scrub and washed down the bikes. How long they will stay clean is anyone’s guess.
Monte Forato had caught my eye while we were driving south through Italy and we’d immediately put it on our to-do list. There was too much snow on the mountain in February though, so we had saved it for our trip north. The mountain is distinctive because of the large limestone arch that creates a hole in the summit of the mountain. It’s not the highest mountain in the Apuan Alps, but because of it’s quirky summit it seems to be the most popular.
The night before we climbed the mountain we stayed in a free sosta (including electricity) in Bagni di Lucca. Bagni di Lucca is a collection of hamlets spread through the valley and the sosta sits on the banks of the river between two attractive and very different bridges.
We left Bagni di Lucca to head up to Fornovolasco, initially we had some issues due to a road closure in Gallicano, but we worked around that to find the winding narrow road through the gorge. We held our breath through the narrow spaces and ducked when we encountered rocky overhangs but most of all enjoyed the limestone scenery. There is parking on two levels near the entrance to the village and we manoeuvred ourselves into the uppermost parking area – we tried this a couple of ways eventually reversing up the road and then pulling forwards into the car park. Apologies to the village for the scrape our chassis made in the tarmac where we tried to reverse into the carpark – it was a bit much for our overhang.
We walked through the village to find the start of the walk near the bridge. The walk was well signposted with the usual red and white stripes of the CAI (Club Alpino Italiano). We chose the most direct route up (12) that took us to the famous hole in the mountain. There are meant to be fabulous views from here, but we couldn’t see far and instead had the atmospheric sight of fog creeping through the hole. There were plenty of other walkers, it was one of the busiest summits we had seen in a while, but oddly we didn’t see anyone else on the way up or on the way back down.
The hole at the top of Monte Forato; the arch spans 32 meters and is 25 meters high, the arch’s rock is about 8 meters wide and 12 meters high.After exploring the twin summits of Monte Forato and it’s spectacular arch, (which bore an uncanny resemblance to the arch of the Ponte della Maddalena) we meandered onwards and upwards along the ridge to the next summit of Foce di Valli, the significant drop offs were handily disguised by the cloud which reduced the fear factor to practically zero. Finally we followed path 130 down through a flower studded meadow to the forest and finally back to Fornovolasco.
The summits were low compared to some of the places we had been walking recently (Foce di Valli was the highest at 1266m), but the walk had started relatively low too so we’d had a good workout and seen spectacular geology amongst the fog. The low altitude had taken it’s toll though because it was HOT, we both decided that we could not do any more walks in 28 degrees (pathetic aren’t we) and although we’d like to see more of the Apuan Alps it would have to wait for another, cooler, time. Instead we would head for the actual alps where we could escape the heat.
For the evening we went to another free sosta at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana where we planned our route back to reasonable temperatures.
In search of a sosta we left the beautiful Piano Grande (I keep wanting to call it the Grand Piano, but that’s something else entirely), driving the mountain road to Norcia. It was Saturday so there were no workers rebuilding the roads, their heavy duty vehicles were ready and waiting for Monday, sitting on the sides of the road accompanied by materials for repairing the earthquake damage.
We followed behind a large truck who was taking things slowly down the hills; a lot of this road is single carriageway while it is being repaired, some sections are controlled by traffic lights and others where the traffic is left to it’s own devices. It’s reasonably wiggly, but in normal circumstances would be a run-of-the-mill road, in these circumstances we were happy to be behind a big vehicle. As we approached Norcia and the roads flattened out the driving got easier. There is a sosta here but we weren’t sure where it was or whether it was still in operation. We followed the roads through Norcia, past the zona rosso and the pre-fab buildings now housing the local shops and businesses. We didn’t spot any signs for the sosta, so rather than get caught in any odd traffic systems we moved onto the next place we knew there was a sosta – Preci.
The drive through the valley to Preci is attractive, along a river valley and past many trout farms teeming with fish. Preci has an old borgo sitting on the hill, and a newer settlement in the valley, including the obligatory prefab buildings for anyone made homeless by the earthquake. The sosta is in the valley and it’s crazy paving surface has a few loose stones that made us cautious as we drove in. A few campers and caravans look like they are being stored here permanently, but only one is being lived in; a lady with a caravan and large awning. There was an Austrian van but we never seemed to catch the owner who was out and about on his moped. It may not sound that great but actually the sosta was free, with electricity and a building with a wet room. We made use of the wet room while we were here, using the shower and also using the large sink to hand wash some of our smelly walking/cycling gear. Before we left I gave the room a good clean (ok, maybe just a clean, it’s not one of my key skills), it felt like the least we could do for making use of the facilities.
While we were here we went for a bike ride and a walk as well as exploring the old town, which was largely off limits due to the zona rosso. The bike ride was flagged as Easy on wikiloc, but for us it ended up being pretty strenuous. It was a well marked route (B12) along the road towards Campi, leaving the road to follow a mule track. We passed a couple who were on a donkey trek, leading their animals from B&B to B&B. Although it seems quite romantic I wonder what it’s really like to try to get them moving on a hot and stuffy day.
The track was stony and steep enough in places that we had to get off and push uphill. We sweated and strained as we fought against the soft surface of the track under the hot sun. Eventually we crossed the main road to take the path back along the other side. Here the path became fun single track with some interesting drop offs on one side. Eventually the path became downhill, still single track it was more and more overgrown with the undergrowth hiding steep steps and large chunks of rock. Paul persevered for a while but in the end we were both pushing our bikes downhill. Our final obstacle was when we reached a village. The map hadn’t marked this path as closed but our first sight of the village is a collapsed building with a zona rosso barrier. The rubble from the building had collapsed across the path. Maybe we should have turned around at this point but we had no desire to retrace our steps to the halfway point. We carried our bikes over the rubble and down through the village red zone with some trepidation. When we got out onto the road we breathed a sigh of relief, all obstacles had been overcome and all we had to do was follow the road back to Bertie. Phew.
The walk the following day was more successful, the circuit E12 was marked on the map and took us up along tracks and tarmac roads to Collescille. Here we had to contend with another zona rosso, we stayed as far right as possible, following steps up the side of the village rather than the closed road. We emerged at the top of the village just inside the red zone where we encountered a nice man who assured us that the path was open. We followed the track out of the village, past a ruined tower and up to some shepherds huts. The top of the walk was high pasture where we stopped to sit amongst the spring flowers and admire the views of the mountains. When we’d had our fill of the views and lunch we descended through a grassy valley to Saccovescio, a pretty village but mostly deserted, before we joined a nice easy track back to Preci.
Preci had been a good stop, it’s tricky to get round the area due to the various zona rossi (I think that’s the plural) but it’s worth persevering.
We were continuing our homeward journey northwards and the next stop would be the Sibillini national park. This area was hard hit by multiple earthquakes in 2016 and we knew it would be potentially difficult to get around with multiple road closures and ‘zona rosso’ marking no-go areas in many villages and towns. Fortunately the tourist office website had a really useful map showing the roads, towns and footpaths that were closed. From this map we worked out a route that would take us through the national park via stops at Monte Vettore and the Piano Grande to emerge the other side at Norcia. As we drove along the SS4 we saw many signs warning us that the main road to Norcia was shut so we hoped that our reading of the map was correct and we would be able to take the back roads.
We turned off the SS4 at Arquata del Tronto and immediately started to see earthquake damage at a level we had not seen before. The town was reduced to rubble in many areas, some of this was due to deliberate demolition, some of it was just the result of earthquake damage. Some houses still stood, looking perfectly sound from one side but open like a dolls house from the other, with furniture still in the rooms. Army personnel were parked in various spots along the road and construction vehicles went backwards and forwards. After our first exclamations of shock we were quiet as we drove through the town, feeling guilty for driving through and rubber necking at the devastation. The road took us up through more similarly ruined villages until we breathed as sigh of relief as we emerged onto the mountain roads.
We stopped on a flat car park under slopes of Monte Vettore with views down into the valley. We spent the afternoon mooching around the area, taking a short bike ride up to the start point for the walks up Monte Vettore and walking the paths and tracks around the parking area.
The following morning we started early and moved up to park opposite the start point for the walk where there was plenty of parking, just not quite as level as our spot. From here we were hoping that we would be able to walk to the summit – it’s not a difficult mountain, but is still well over 2000m so there would be snow on the top. The theory was that the easy path would mean we would find it easy to cross or avoid any snowy patches.
We set off in fog, unable to see much, but as we ascended the fog started to burn off giving us voccasional views over the surrounding countryside; on our left the unnaturally flat Piano Grande, on our right the green foothills of the Sibillini and up ahead the summit of Monte Vettore and the more impressive snow bound ridge that leads to Cima del Redentore. There wasn’t much tree cover here, grassy slopes were the order of the day, luckily the weather was cool – just right for walking – and we didn’t need the shade of trees. At the rifugio (closed due to earthquake damage) we stopped for some snacks and to inspect the route in more detail. There was plenty of snow, but mostly on the flatter sections so we were good to go. Only one patch of snow gave us any concern, not that it was steep enough to have injured us if we had fallen, but it would have been an embarrassing slide to the bottom and trudge back up again. Kicking steps in snow is a bit laborious but I let Paul go first! Finally we have managed to reach a summit, it feels like forever since we were last on the top of a mountain.
When we got back to Bertie it was still only lunch time, so we moved on onto the Piano Grande for the afternoon. This area, translated as ‘Big Plain’, is exactly what it says. Once it was a glacial lake and the sediment from the lake has formed a wide and completely flat plain ringed by the Sibillini mountains. It is hard to describe how beautiful it was; the expanses of wildflowers bobbed their heads in the breeze, sheep and horses were being grazed on the plains. The only buildings look very temporary, wooden corrals for the horses and farm equipment, caravans for the shepherds. We parked by the ranch in their carpark in the centre of the plain, selfishly hogging the only spot that seemed to be firm. They charge at the weekends and during the summer, but today it was quiet, just us and the ranch workers getting on with their usual jobs. In the distance is the village of Castelluccio – the only settlement here and another village devastated by earthquake, residents only started to return this year when the road was re-opened.
Our attention was caught when a shepherd walked past with a huge bag of mushrooms, then we saw an old fiat panda driving up and down the road and an elderly couple getting out and inspecting the ground every few yards. I don’t like mushrooms, but Paul is a big fan so we went on a bit of a hunt, wandering across the meadows with our eyes on the floor. Eventually we spotted a rock…oh no, it’s not a rock, it’s a mushroom. Paul was chuffed, it was the only one we found but a biggie.
We contemplated staying here but we couldn’t find anywhere to empty the toilet and it was getting close to full. We stayed for the night in the peaceful stillness, before we made our way out of the plains early the following morning.
One of the things our map hadn’t told us was that, although the road to Norcia was now open, it wasn’t open all the time. During working hours it was shut so that work could continue on repairs. On weekdays you could only travel early in the morning, lunchtimes and early evening. Overnight travel was banned. We had spotted a few cars driving up to the barrier and then having to turn around, we were thankful that we were leaving on a Saturday so we didn’t have to stick to a schedule.
Yesterday we had walked up to Prati di Tivo, today we drove up. The large car park which had been full of ‘macchine’ was now nearly empty and the cafes mostly shut. We wanted to have a short walk today, and although it didn’t take us long it was a good lung workout.
From the carpark we decided to take a walk up to La Maddonina (which is the top of the main chair lift) following a CAI path that was marked on our map. Frustratingly our map was out of date and so we had a bit of a struggle to find the start of path 100. The route up now seemed to be 103a and instead of traversing through the woods it went almost straight up to the right of the main chairlift. Once we found it, we had no problems staying on it and we puffed our way up the ski run on a steady and steep incline. A group of deer gave us an excuse to pause and a short diversion around a patch of snow allowed us to stop to recce the route ahead.
Breath caught we managed to get to the top and had beaten the other couple who were walking parallel to us directly under the chairlift (not that we’re competitive). From here we could see the route up Corno Piccolo, invitingly scrambly but currently too snowy for us to contemplate. Instead we took the broad grassy ridge in the opposite direction, past an incomplete hotel with it’s empty staring windows and to the minor summit of Cima Alta.
Because it was meant to be a short walk we turned around here and took the route down that we thought we should have ascended. Immediately we realised why things had changed; there is now a set of mountain biking routes and a terrain park where the original trail would have been. We went down it anyway, confident that there were no mountain bikers going to come haring down after us given that the lifts weren’t running, and anyhow the trail was so littered with felled trees and branches that we would have heard any mountain biker swearing loudly a long time before they knocked into us. The descent was rather tortuous now that there are so many routes to choose from, but we stuck to the ‘green’ mountain biking trails to avoid a steep descent and soon found ourselves on the road leading back to Prati di Tivo
It really had just been a short walk despite the strenuous uphill section so we were back to the van before lunch. We had a bit of a scout around looking for an overnight sleeping spot that might be a bit more sheltered from the winds that were getting stronger in the exposed car park.
As we munched on a couple of speck and cheese pannini we discussed next steps and decided that rather than staying up here in the wind we would go back downhill. That soon led to us agreeing that a lazy day in a campsite would be a good idea. We could rest our legs and do some laundry.
We weren’t all that far from the coast so we picked a cheap ASCI campsite and drove on to Guilianova. It was one of those Italian beach resorts on a long and uniform (i.e. dull) stretch of coast. The town wasn’t that inviting from the main road, but the campsite was large, busy and well equipped. The seafront had the benefit of a long cycle path so the following day we had some gentle exercise as we cycled alongside the flat road, past small plantations of pine trees, over rivers where herons and egrets waded and through various beach resorts from dilapidated to modern. To our surprise we saw a black squirrel here on the campsite scampering up and down the trees and having a noisy argument with a blackbird.
As we travelled around the ridge of the Gran Sasso we started to see more evidence of earthquake damage, this was to become a feature of the next week or so and we never got used to the way in which people’s lives have been turned inside out by such a primal force of nature.
We stopped at Tossicia on the way around the mountains, this small town on the edge of the national park has a motorhome service area near a community centre and some of the ‘temporary’ accommodation that was erected after the 2009 earthquake. The mediaeval heart of the town sits on the edge of a gorge, but wander down it’s lanes and you see buildings that are only standing with support. We watched an older couple drive up and inspect one of the buildings, in my imagination this was their home they were visiting and wondering when or if they would ever be able to move back.
From Tossicia we followed one of the Ippovia – bridleways – on our bikes for a while, but the weather was hot and muggy and after fighting through undergrowth Paul was sweating so much that I was worried he was dissolving like the Wicked Witch of the West. We gave up and turned around getting back just in time for the thunder to start, but the fat spots of rain never really amounted to anything and the muggy atmosphere drove us onwards and upwards.
Our next destination was Pietracamela, we drove along the attractive SS80, following the river gorge before turning south and climbing up steep hairpin bends to the village. We thought there might be parking here but it was difficult to tell from google maps due to the tree cover. We almost overshot the turning just before the village which was unmarked and led sharply downhill to some parking on grass-crete just below the church. It wasn’t a dedicated motorhome parking area but no one else seemed to be interested in parking here so it was very peaceful. The car park also boasted a hi-tec recycling station which kept me entertained for a little while.
From here we followed a walk suggested by the guidebook we had bought, in fact we joined together three walks to create a circuit that has to be one of our favourite walks of all time, firstly following path 102 up into the spectacular Val Maone and then taking path 100 via Prati di Tivo to Pietracamela.
In early 2011 Pietracamela was subject to a different natural disaster; part of the rock outcrop above the village collapsed and a massive chunk of rock ‘the size of a block of flats’ sheered off from the cliff. As we walked up through the village on the first part of our walk we could see the resulting blocks of rock to the side of the path. We were lucky that the path was now clear as it had been closed for some time until the rock had been cleared away.
The path followed the river as it appeared and then disappeared under the limestone rocks. As we walked through the wooded valley we passed memorials to a couple of climbers who had been killed in blizzards here back in the early days of alpine climbing. The steepest part of the walk was a climb up a muddy bank shaped by a landslip and littered with fallen trees before we reached an attractive little waterfall and then broke from the tree cover into the Maone valley. This was the highlight of the walk, a beautiful and dramatic valley between the steep rock walls of Pizzo d’Intermesoli and Corno Piccolo. We walked up here as far as we could, over snow and around huge boulders. On the steep slopes we could see chamois browsing on the short grass and cooling off by laying in the snow.
When we had our fill of the valley (and our lunch) we walked back to the waterfalls and took the alternative path across to the ski resort of Prati di Tivo. This path followed the contours of the valley and crossed a couple of snow banks. As we reached Prati di Tivo we crossed beautiful alpine meadows with narcissi and orchids flowering. It felt like a true Heidi moment.
At Prati di Tivo the car park was busy, it took us a moment to realise that there were an astoundingly large number of Porsches and Lancias amongst the cars. Then we realised it was a classic car rally. Paul was particularly taken with the Sierra Cosworth and Peugeot 206 GTIs. It all just looked like a 1980’s carpark to me.
The walk down took us through woods again, and as we approached the village we had to climb over a new landslide, the rocks clean and freshly cleaved from the cliff. We stayed at Pietracamela overnight, watching the bats flit across the sky as the sun set and enjoying the stars in an unusually clear night sky.
Although we’d deliberately decided to stay lower down the mountains, the lure of the snowy heights proved too much and we decided we had to go up to Campo Imperatore to see the main peaks at closer range. We could have gone up in the cable car, but it seemed that overnighting was permitted at Campo Imperatore so we decided to drive up instead, along a road that first took us away from our destination before swinging around and driving up through increasingly alpine scenery. We drove past abandoned hotels (it seems a ski resort was started but never finished in the 80’s), between high banks of snow and past purple swathes of crocuses on the meadows where snow had recently melted. It was worth it for the drive alone, and the road was reasonable because the cyclists were due to ascend to the finish line here in a couple of days time. Having said that, there were a couple of guys shovelling asphalt into potholes so still a bit of work to be done before the Giro.
We were surprised at the tatty nature of some of the buildings at Campo Imperatore. I know that snow and cold weather takes it’s toll on buildings but we’d expected that some effort would have gone into making it more presentable. The following morning a crew arrived to start sweeping the car park clear of gravel and debris, but it was obvious that there was no time to make the hostel more respectable. I assume the TV crew would work their magic.
As we were driving we were sussing out possible spots to park up and watch the race, but after looking on facebook we realised that the road was going to be closed for at least 10k and no one would be able to park along that stretch even if we were in place before the roads were closed. We investigated parking further down and walking up to the race, but in the end decided we could make better use of the day.
To make the most of our trip to Campo Imperatore and the brilliant morning sunshine we walked up past the silver domed observatory to the Rifugio Duca degli Abruzzi that can be seen on the ridge above the parking area. Even at this altitude we needed to cross or avoid snow patches. A ski mountaineer was hot on our heels. I couldn’t envy him, to me there is no cost benefit to slogging uphill in ski boots for five minutes of skiing, I’m definitely the type of skier who likes to be hoisted uphill by mechanical means. Once on the ridge we were able to walk along it’s crest for a little while before hitting the next patch of snow that was too dangerous for us to cross. It was just a short walk but the views or Corno Grande and the basin beyond the ridge were worth it.
This wasn’t the last we would see of these mountains – in the next few days we were going to tackle them from the other side.
We made our way from L’Aquila up through the foothills of the Gran Sasso national park, climbing up on the major road (A24) that chugged almost imperceptibly uphill and through tunnels to the village of Assergi. Ahead of us the crystal white peaks of the mountains peeped out from the green forested hills. We knew we wouldn’t get to the top of these alpine mountains without proper winter equipment so we were heading for a base slightly lower down where we could enjoy some mountain walking with limited ice and snow.
Our parking spot was a large carpark built to service the traffic on the gondola that takes people up from Fonte Cerreto to Campo Imperatore. A large, flat and almost empty car park with grand views of the valley below – it was perfect. We checked out the gondola, expecting it to be shut in May as per the website, but it was running. Very few people were using it, but we soon found out that they were expecting to ferry several thousand people up to watch the end of stage 9 of the Giro d’Italia on 13th, something that took us a little by surprise, was it that time of year already?.
On our first day here we went for a bike ride along a route that was recommended on the national park website. Probably our favourite mountain biking route in Italy so far, it took us up the valley from Assergi following a well marked and wide track gradually uphill to the village of San Pietro. From here we followed the road even further uphill past springs, troughs and herds of cows until we could take a steep downhill track to Vasto. Once down to the river we followed fun and easy single track below limestone cliffs and caves before eventually meeting another track just before Assergi. We had to ford the river four times, using our bike to steady us as we tried to find the stepping stones that were mostly submerged in the spring melt waters. By the time we got back we had wet feet but we’d had a lot of fun.
We took a quick detour into the cobbled streets of Assergi to try and find some tourist information.We found an ‘information point’ i.e. a carousel with lots of useless leaflets in it, but I was sure there must be more. Only once I’d walked into a random office did I realise that the carousel was it. The lady in the office helpfully pointed me in the direction of a local hotel (Hotel Giampy) who had an English speaking receptionist and more books and maps for walking than we have seen for a while. I was in my element and could have spent a fortune, but limited myself to a map and a guidebook.
Using the guidebook and map we planned another walk from Fonte Cerreto. This time we climbed up a marked track (CAI red and white markings) through woodland to the west of the gondola, taking multiple zig-zags as we got higher and higher and eventually cleared the tree line. Above the trees we started to spot alpine plants, violas and orchids, both in yellow and purple, were the flowers we could identify. Small patches of snow lay in gullies but didn’t impact the path as we traversed along animal tracks to pick up another CAI path down under the line of the gondola. On the downward path we had great views into the valley where we could occasionally make out our car park far below us. At one of the gondola supports, where red paint was splattered on the surrounding rocks and vegetation (it must have been a windy day when they painted), we mistakenly dropped into the gully rather than sticking to the ridge, the gully was uncomfortable walking over large stones and avalanche debris and we tracked back up to the ridge as soon as possible.
It felt odd to be walking in the mountains without reaching a summit, but summiting seems to be a peculiarly British obsession that we need to get over. With over 800m of ascent and some spectacular scenery and flora it was still a good mountain walk.
When we returned from our walk there were signs erected in the carpark forbidding parking all weekend. The Giro d’Italia had reserved the space for press and other support staff. We wondered how the ordinary supporters were going to get to the gondola, presumably they would have to park even further downhill and get the bus to Fonte Ceretto before getting the gondola up, then they would have to slowly be ferried back down at the end of the evening. You would have to be a pretty hardcore cycling fan to contemplate being the last person in that queue.
When we were planning our time in the Majella national park we had looked at various maps and options for walking and cycling. Ambitiously we thought we would be summiting at least one of the mountains, even if it wasn’t the highest (Monte Amaro at 2793m). But as we approached the mountains we realised it was unlikely to happen, the weather was still humid and stormy topping up an already reasonable amount of snow on the summits. We turned our attention to alternative walks that wouldn’t go so high but would still provide a bit of a mountain feel.
The Majella (sometimes written as Maiella) mountains are peaks on a wide limestone plateau that looms over the surrounding countryside like a dark wall. Once you are up on the plateau you are already around 1500 meters above sea level, some 1000 meters above most of the surrounding countryside. The steep sides of the plateau have made it relatively inaccessible and a haven for wildlife as well as an excellent area for walking. The villages in the area surround the plateau and only a steep access road to a ski resort provides vehicular access to the higher altitudes. It is possible to get motorhomes up this road, but we didn’t attempt it. We focussed on the gorges formed by the water that has run off the plateau and created deep narrow gouges in it’s sides.
Gole di San Martino
We parked overnight in the national park car park before we walked up this gorge. There is steep parking on the side of the road leading to the visitor centre, but better parking is found by driving past the visitor centre up the dirt track to the start of the walk where there is a reasonably level car park. The only other people we saw here were a Belgian couple in a van conversion who turned up just for the day.
This gorge has one of the most spectacular starts, almost as soon as we started our walk we were in a narrow gap just a couple of meters wide with rock walls looming high overhead. It is said that San Martino elbowed the walls of this canyon apart. Elbows might be an exaggeration but Paul could touch both walls with his fingertips at the narrowest point.
Once through the narrowest part you find the ruined monastery of San Martino in the Valley. In modern times water rarely flows through the gorge, it is all controlled and piped underground (there are a few drinking water springs along the trail), but this monastery was abandoned after being ruined one too many times by flooding. Guided tours of the ruins can be arranged for a fee, but you get a good view from the path.
After this you can continue up the gorge as far as you wish to go, the path will eventually take you to Monte Amaro but it would be a significant undertaking, a long long day’s walk or a two day trek with a stop at a mountain hut. The path initially ran through dry riverbed with scrubby plants giving off strong herby scents of thyme and oregano (or maybe marjoram) when we brushed against them. The high rock walls inspired gawping and tripping as we tried to walk and look upwards at the same time.
As we got higher the walls became less steep and wider apart and the beech forest started, full of bird song but strangely devoid of undergrowth. In the beech forest the path divided by a picnic bench. We took the left hand fork and continued up until we reached the cloud at about 1300m. We hadn’t made it to the top of the plateau but it was still a good amount of ascent and enough for our poor legs that had forgotten what it was like to walk consistently uphill for a couple of hours.
Taranta Peligna is a small town sitting under a split in the rock walls of the Majella. Somewhere up above us was the Grotte Del Cavallone, but the attraction was closed, as was the cable car that can be used to reach it. We were particularly disappointed that the cable car was not running because it’s open one-man baskets looked like a thrilling way to travel up the gorge. I’ll admit now that we didn’t walk up this gorge, even though there is a path/steps, the weather was incredibly wet and our muscles were aching from our previous day’s walk. Instead we cycled away from the gorge, up the hills to the east of the village where we got better views. Our round trip route, planned on google maps, was cut short due to a road that was washed away. In the evening we walked up to the tiny Santuario Madonna della Valle; the sonorous voice of the priest could be heard as we walked up the streets towards the church, we were unsure if it was natural acoustics or electrical amplification.
We stayed in a well equipped but overgrown sosta in Taranta Peligna, on the notice board at the entrance it told us to ring a number on arrival, but where the number should have been was a blank space. We waited for someone to turn up and take our money but no-one arrived. Like many out of season locations in Italy I assume they just don’t care until summer when I hope they strim the pitches and de-infest the bathrooms before they start charging. The bathrooms were open and we turned on the hot water heater and had the luxury of showers, luckily neither of us are worried by critters, Paul even found a scorpion in his shower tray.
The Orfento Valley
Next stop was Caramanico Terme, a spa town on the north west side of the massif. When we hit a closed road our journey changed from 50ish to over 100 km, but at least our detour took us onto better roads. In Caramanico Terme we stopped in the car parking at the bottom of the hilly town. There is a lift at the back of the car park which allows people to avoid the steep hill to the main street, but by this time our legs were back to normal and probably a bit better at hills.
We had a quick shop for lunch items in the town bakeries and popped to the national park office to pick up our walking permit. These permits are free, but you have to take an ID document and register your intended route before you walk, then you are issued with a copy of the permit to carry with you. In theory you could be asked for it, but I cant imagine that it happens very often. The national park office here was really useful and stocked with maps and books, I think I would start in this town if I was visiting the Majella again.
This was another walk up a gorge but of a completely different nature than our first one. For a start there is a river running noisily through the valley, it was slightly opaque, sulphurous and gave off a misty vapour. The overhanging mossy greenery gave it a mysterious and prehistoric feel. We started our walk by descending to the Ponte di Caramanico where a signposted path took us down steps to the bank of the river, it criss-crossed the river several times giving ample opportunity for photos.
Then we continued along the bank, following the ‘Spirit’ path, one of the three long distance paths across the park. Our registered route was to cross the bridge at the Ponte del Vallone and return along the other side of the river, which we did eventually, but first we continued on a little further – shh don’t tell anyone!
After crossing the bridge the path took us high up the other side of the valley, giving us a completely different perspective. We enjoyed the longer views across to deer tracked scree and rocky cliffs and caves. As we walked back along this trail, which took us back into the top end of the town, we bumped into a group from Devon who were on a walking holiday. It’s a small world! We had a conversation with them and like starving people presented with a feast we may have enjoyed our English conversation far too much. I bet they were happy to get away!
Finding a collection of walks whose start points had car parks that were easily accessible by motorhome makes this area really attractive to us. One day we’ll come back for a late summer assault on the higher peaks.
We spent some time in Camping Torre Sabea thinking about our plans for the next few weeks. We need to be back in the UK for the end of June and have a wish list of things to do between then and now. We mulled over our options – do we continue tootling around and taking things as they come, or do we start to make more firm plans to visit the areas we know we want to see. We decided on the latter…for now.
So first on our list was a visit to the Gargano peninsula. We had seen mixed reviews of the area, but most of the negative reviews were about the busy summer period when it gets incredibly busy. The positive reviews extolled the beauty of the coastline and the forested interior. It’s a popular destination for Italian holiday makers and campsites can get full. We felt we were safe enough in the low season, although we did wonder what the May public holiday might bring.
The Gargano Peninsula is still in Puglia, but when you look on the map Puglia is a very long region and by the time you reach this ‘spur’ that sits above the heel of Italy you are actually further north than Naples. It was a pretty long Sunday drive and for the first time in ages we had to pay a toll for the main roads (the motorways in the south are free).
We drove to a couple of spots in busy Manfredonia, but didn’t really enjoy the vibe of the place, it was just too busy for us and the parking was all in quite noisy locations. So we trundled around the coast to Porto di Mattinata where we parked in a large parking area right by the harbour. Our drive was a little more exciting than we expected as the tunnel was shut and so we had to climb switchbacks over the ridge before taking further hairpin turns back down to the coast. The road was fine though and the views were amazing.
We had expected to pay for the parking by the harbour, but no one was manning the entry so we were lucky. Although the little seaside resort was very busy the car park was almost empty, everyone seemed to be parking along the side of the roads. That evening the couple of restaurants and bars were busy and the atmosphere was cheerful, we wandered down for a late evening drink to get a taste of the atmosphere.
The following day we walked south along the bay and up the marked path to the headland of Monte Saraceno. From this vantage point we could see the orderly ranks of olive trees on the flat land behind the bay. Mattinata town itself sits as a shining white highlight in a sea of green on the steeper land a couple of kilometres back from the bay. The olive trees may have been an important part of the economy once, but many of them now have dual purpose, doubling up as campsites, private parking areas or providing access to the beach lidos. Who can blame the local population for making the most of this beautiful location.
Our walk followed one of the ‘running trails’ that are marked up for the Gargano running week. In the temperatures we were experiencing I wouldn’t want to be running, it was sweltering enough to be walking in the heat of the sun on this exposed bit of coast. The path took us around the north side of the headland and then up onto the ridge heading from east to west. The limestone rocks of the ridge were carved into strange shapes and overhangs and the mostly good path was eroded in one section – a rope had been provided to help people up or down.
On the top of the ridge we startled a couple of groups of pigs who were keeping cool under the scrubby trees. Did you ever sing the song ‘Whose pigs are these?’ ? I remember school coach trips and family drives where we had fun trying to think of rhyming solutions to the pig conundrum. ‘They are John Potts’ and I know them by the spots’ is the usual first verse but of course you can make up any version, as rude as you like (if the teachers aren’t paying attention).
As well as being home to a herd of pigs the ridge is the location of the necropolis of the Dauni tribe who lived here over 2500 years ago. Grassy paths wind in and out of the tombs carved into the rock, some obviously man made, some that might be natural. It’s a mysterious place to wander around and try to identify the graves, it’s a shame there isn’t much information locally about their discovery or their contents.
After wandering along the ridge we found a footpath downhill that crossed the switchbacks of the road we had driven down the day before. We were too hot to venture into Mattinata itself so we headed back through the olive groves to the beach where we could cool off in the sea.
We chose Camping Torre Sabea as our campsite to give us time and space to solve our mosquito problem. We ended up staying for three nights at this pleasant ACSI site, the weather was still warm and once we had settled in – set out the chairs and table, rolled out the awning and sorted out the bloodsuckers – it seemed too much of an upheaval to put it all back again. The site got steadily busier while we were there because it soon to be the next public holiday. While we were paying at the end of our visit the campsite owner described the procession of horses and other festivities happening in the nearby town of Galatone. We always seem to miss events and festivals, and were sorely tempted to go back to our pitch, but our minds were already on our next destination.
The campsite was near the tourist town of Gallipoli, not the location of the famous WW1 campaign, but a historic town that has made it as a tourist hotspot. We decided to walk into Gallipoli, mistakenly thinking that we could walk along the coast. Sadly we were forced back onto the main road when we got to a boatyard, with no pavement we walked along the hard shoulder, both feeling a bit exposed. We would recommend using the campsite’s navette (minibus) service instead. Gallipoli is a good town for wandering around; the medieval castle and walls surround a centro storico that sits on a promontory, separated from the modern town by a causeway. Within the walls you can wander around narrow streets where tourism sits cheek by jowl with more traditional pursuits – particularly fishing. We saw groups of fishermen mending nets, or sorting their long lines and one man weaving traps as well as more decorative items for the tourist market. The streets around the walls have views over the sea and so this is where you find plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes. In the warm weather they were doing well and we heard many northern European accents amongst the Italians, including a few British voices.
Under the walls are a number of harbours and one sandy beach where we took a swim to refresh ourselves from our dry and dusty roadside walk. After wandering around we stopped for a couple of panini for our lunch before heading back to the campsite. On the way back we stopped in the nearby supermarket (almost next door to the campsite) where they had lamb on offer. We hadn’t had any lamb for ages so we bought some to barbeque that evening, marinated in mint and balsamic vinegar and served with charred sweet potato, onions and courgette. Yum. The cadac was doing it’s job.
The following day we decided to cycle north along the coast and to the Natural Park of Porto Selvaggio. This was a lovely cycle, initially along the coast road through villages and past rocky shores with occasional small sandy beaches. As the road headed inland we found a track to take us through the pine forest to the beautiful inlet of Porto Selvaggio. It was a Saturday and all of the beaches we had passed were busy with families enjoying themselves, people looking for a little more solitude had set up camp on the rocks rather than fighting for a sandy spot.
Porto Selvaggio cannot be reached by car, but even so there were a good number of people there who had hiked down from the parking areas. We found ourselves a spot on the rocks to one side of the inlet and settled down for a little bit of sunbathing followed by another swim. The water here was deep and cool, a few people were daring each other to jump straight in, but I was happy to make my way in by degrees and then float on the top of the water where it was warmer. When we were dried back out we cycled back the way we had come.
We left our lovely campsite to head a very short distance to Otranto, We had one of those starts where we just couldn’t settle. There is a lot of parking in Otranto, but we couldn’t find a spot that we felt happy with. After visiting several of them we parked along the side of the road while we went for a look around. That evening we finally decided on a car park. It said we had to pay, but all the parking machines were turned off so we figured we would be ok overnight.
The morning was spent wandering around this touristy town. We were parked near the harbour so we walked along looking at the boats and the fish swimming lazily in the sea. Our entry into the centro storico was via a gate in the medieval fortress, we walked through the busy streets roughly in the direction of the cathedral, there were lots of tourist shops but there wasn’t any hard sell.
The cathedral is the main event in Otranto, we wandered into the cool calm crypt first with it’s many marble pillars and frescos. We had obviously done this the wrong way round as we weren’t allowed to ascend the stairs to the cathedral and had to walk around the outside to get in. Once in the cathedral proper we could see the 12th century mosaic spread across the floor of the nave and adjacent areas. It is crude when compared to Roman mosaics, but it’s depictions of beasts, demons and angels were compelling; we spent some time trying to decipher the Latin and make sense of what we were seeing. Above the mosaic is a fabulously ornate gilded coffered ceiling added in the 17th century.
Also in the cathedral are the relics of the Martyrs of Otranto, killed in 1480 by Turkish invaders. The town of Otranto had put up considerable resistance to the invading Ottoman army, when the Ottomans finally gained the town they killed or enslaved the majority of the population. A group of able bodied men were told to convert to Islam or die. They chose death and were executed. The following year the Ottomans were ousted and the relics of the martyrs were exhumed. Now you can see many of their bones in glass fronted cabinets on the walls of the chapel although some of the relics have been shared amongst other churches in the Salento region and even further afield. This was one of our favourite religious buildings, maybe we’re a bit ghoulish!
Our wander around Otranto had only taken the morning so we popped back to Bertie for a spot of lunch and then decided to do some walking along the coast south of the town. We were aiming for Punta Palascia, but it was a hot day so we didn’t make it that far. We had passed a nice looking beach at Cala Casotto, so we decided to turn round there after a swim. It was a bit of a scramble down the cliffs to the beach, but it was worth it to cool down in the clear water.
This was one of our favourite coastal walks. For most of the walk the cliffs were quite high and rocky with deep water offshore. Lots of fishermen had found their favourite spots and settled in for the day. Sea birds wheeled around off shore, including mediterranean gulls with their distinctive red beaks and feet. We spotted hen harriers – mostly brown with a white strip across the base of their tail – being mobbed by swallows and other small birds. On the heathland were crested larks singing loudly from the ground, possibly distracting us from their nests. There were many spring flowers dotting the grass. The whole area was full of life.
The interest wasn’t limited to natural wonders, on the headland near the Torre Dell’Orte there were many underground buildings and bunkers built into the rocks which we explored as much as we dared (our fear mostly being of finding human waste – our motto being ‘if you see tissues turn around’). A ruined lighthouse stood sentinel on the hill, it’s rear half collapsed.
It had been a very full day, Otranto was somewhere we could have stayed for longer. If only we could make up our mind where to park!
Sometimes writing a blog that’s a couple of weeks in the past is a bit of a slog. Take today for instance, we have had a big detour due to a closed road, Paul is suffering from a painful muscle strain and we reversed into railings, breaking the trim around our rear light cluster. We’re not in the best of moods, and yet I need to write about a few lovely sunny, relaxing and active days. The upside is that writing about the good times should hopefully drag both of us back into a more positive frame of mind. Unfortunately it wont do anything for Paul’s painful thigh.
We had chosen a campsite/sosta at Sant’ Andrea to spend a few days relaxing in the hot weather. We wanted the freedom to sit outside the van with our chairs out and our feet up, which is something you can rarely do if you are parking in a carpark of municipal sosta. Many of Italy’s privately owned sostas are more like campsites, with all the facilities you would expect, electricity, showers, toilets, washing up and laundry. Camping I Faraglioni (the Sea Stacks) was no exception, the pitches were fresh and grassy, benefiting from being early in the season, and although there were a few vans in situ it wasn’t too crowded. It looks like it is in the garden of the adjacent hotel – the owners probably having decided there is money in motorhomes all year long.
Not only was the campsite very nice, but it was right by the coast in a beautiful area. We didn’t quite have a sea view (unless we walked up to the wall and peered over the top of it) – there was a carpark between us and the sea. In fact we could have stayed for free in the carpark, but I’m so glad we decided to spend a bit of money. The coast here is made up of soft stone that is eroded into all sorts of sea stacks and caves, in some places there are small man-made safe havens cut into the rock where a boat could take shelter. There is an ‘undercliff’ which is barely a meter above the sea where we saw many people fishing or readying themselves for an octopus hunting snorkel. A couple of kilometers to the north is a long sandy beach, perfect for bathing and an easy enough walk from the campsite (google will show you just how busy this gets in the summer season, I don’t think we would enjoy it!). To the south are rocky coves that start shallow but swiftly leave you swimming in cold deep water.
We spent four nights here, we walked along the coast to the north, cycled along the coast to the south and even got our big yellow banana (i.e. the kayak) off the roof and into the sea. This was an interesting exercise as the beach next to the campsite was knee deep in ribbony algae. Luckily it was only a few meters to the sea, but not a pleasant walk in or back again. Well worth it though for the amazing views of the coast. The sea was so clear it was almost as good as snorkelling, we saw fish swimming between the rocks and a couple of times small glinting fish flew over the surface of the water when we disturbed them. We were able to navigate the kayak in and out of caves and under arches, waving up at the people who were taking pictures from the top of the cliffs.
Paul also used his time at the campsite to come to terms with the Cadac, we’ve been carrying this gas barbeque around for the past year, but it hasn’t seen much use. Paul had found our version (Grillogas) quite tricky to use because it doesn’t have a good gauge on the gas supply. As a result you can accidently turn it off rather than just turning it down, and as it doesn’t have automatic ignition relighting it can be tricky, you have to take all the food off the BBQ. Paul drilled a hole large enough to insert an igniter from underneath and added a couple of indicators on the dial with permanent marker. Problem solved!
It was a very relaxing few days and we found it really difficult to make the decision to move on. And what do you know? we’re both feeling more cheerful having bought our memories back to life – a glass of wine has been helpful too.
The weather seemed to have suddenly turned a corner, we had gone from cool breezy spring days to warm and muggy almost overnight. It was the sort of weather that invited thoughts of refreshing sea breezes and taking a dip in the ocean. Our bedding did not match the weather, flannelette may have been a god-send in the winter when we wanted a bed that felt warm as soon as we were in it, but now it was time to change back to fresh flat cotton that feels cool to the touch.
We had parked up along the coast at Specchiolla, between two beach restaurants that were still in pre season maintenance mode. When we turned up there were a number of Italian vans who had been enjoying a weekend by the sea, but they left by dark and we were in peace with just the gentle sound of waves on the shore.
The following day we took a walk along the coast to the nature reserve of Torre Guaceto. It was a beautiful walk besides sandy beaches and coves with crystal clear water beckoning us invitingly. On the way back I took the plunge and went for a swim, the sea was bracing and Paul only just managed a paddle, a few other walkers going past shivered as they watched the mad English woman.
Where we were parked the rocks formed pools and inlets full of seaweed active with small crabs, shrimps and tiny fish. That evening we watched people fishing with strange lures, we weren’t sure what they were trying to catch – we didn’t see anyone catch anything.
The following day we moved down the coast, passing by Brindisi where we stopped for some supermarket essentials. We parked in Torre San Gennaro, a seaside town that was almost lifeless apart from a couple of cafes doing their pre-season painting. The coast here was friable limestone and clay, a look could crumble it into the sea. Our parking area had new bollards in it to stop anyone from venturing too close to the edge where the sea had undercut the asphalt. We bimbled around the coast, wondering what had created the perfectly round rock pools, like miniature craters. Lumps of clay – we surmised – that had been scoured out of the harder rock by the sea.
That evening we were treated to a mysterious spectacle of fishermen and snorkelers using bright torch light to hunt for sea creatures. Octopus maybe? Some of them were carrying spear guns with multiple spikes on the end, others were using glass bottomed trays to spy under the water. Whatever they were doing it provided an evenings entertainment.