GIU! Lombardia to Sicilia
Our life feels, in general, like a honeymoon these days - we're constantly experiencing new things as we work in various mountain regions of Italy, and it is definitely a big change from our past office routines. We had not originally intended to take an "official" honeymoon, but events aligned in the right way and we needed to be in Valtellina on April 11 and Sicilia on April 18. Seven days and a whole country apart... what could be better than roadtripping down the entire length of Italy! We packed our backpacks and our dogs into the back of our yellow Doblo, affectionately called Dobby, and set off down the road. The plan (a loose one): work our way down through various national parks and beautiful towns, sightseeing, camping, and hiking on the way. First stop: Cinque Terre.
We set off under gorgeous sunny skies and immediately headed for new territory, driving down the less-traveled west side of Lago di Como. After working our way through the tiny towns squeezed between the lake and the steep mountain slopes, we blasted past the outskirts of metropolitan Milano and turned up into the narrow, windy mountain roads of the Ligurian Apennines. We took brief breaks along the way to enjoy the scenery, including a little hike in the Riserva Naturale Monte Alpe, a walk to the summit of Monte Penice, and a tasty gelato in the main square of the town of Bobbio. Our trip took us through Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna to stop in Liguria for our first night.
Taking the back roads made for a beautiful drive, but it increased our hours on the road and we were definitely ready to stop for the day by the time we got to Moneglia, a little beach town just up the coast from the famous five villages of the Cinque Terre. We found a nice campground by the coast just outside of town and were ready to pitch our tent when we discovered, embarrassingly, that we had forgotten the poles back at Rifugio Madioce. Not exactly a great start to a two-week camping trip! Fortunately the campground manager was kind enough to loan us his vintage tent for the night and after a little walk on the beach, a wade in the chilly ocean, and a delicious pizza in Moneglia, we went to sleep in our borrowed shelter.
Putting off our task of solving the tent poles issue, we woke early to enjoy a little hike in the Cinque Terre before hitting the road again. We drove to Monterosso al Mare, the first of the five villages, and explored the town, hiking above it to a monastery and trekking a bit of the trail that leads to the next village. Despite the early season for tourism, the path started to fill with people as the morning passed. We decided Cinque Terre deserves more exploration, but it was time for us to get on the road, with a quick stop at the nearest Decathlon (basically the Italian version of REI) to buy a cheap salvation tent.
We worked our way from Liguria through the rolling hills of Toscana to Umbria. Our intent was to camp for the night in Monti Sibillini National Park, but as we approached Assisi, the beautiful walled town settled on the hillside of Monte Subasio drew us in. There were signs for camping so we diverted course and made our way up the hill to a campground just outside the ancient town walls. The campground was fairly empty and the lots were nicely secluded, as opposed to most Italian campsites which are more like developed parking lots, with electrical plugins, lights, etc. We pitched our new tent and walked to Assisi, climbing to a castle at the highest point for a panoramic view. The rolling hills of Umbria make a beautiful setting for the quaint, historic town. We enjoyed a glass of wine and some typical antipasti in a small restaurant in which we were the only patrons; the owner (and chef) took the time to talk to us about the roman history of the town and showed us an animated reconstruction of the roman ruins that have been found. Later we walked to see some of the ruins that are still above ground; most of them are underneath the current buildings. It was a lovely evening; Assisi is a quiet, serene place - fitting for "the city of peace" with its history of St. Francis.
We woke to another beautiful sunny day, packed up camp, and headed towards a monastery near Assisi where a trail map the campground host gave us indicated there was a route up Monte Subasio. There were plenty of tourists flocking around the monastery, but once we found the trail, we saw almost no one. We deviated from the trail and didn't quite summit Monte Subasio (another peak that plays host to many cell towers) but got on top of the ridge and were rewarded with panoramic views, pleasant sun, and only two horses for companions. We enjoyed the sun for a few minutes before winding our way back to the car to continue our journey south.
As we continued our way south, I did some internet searching to make plans on the fly. We decided to head toward Parco Nazionale del Cilento, in Campania, where there seemed to be many hiking options. Camping options, however, were not as clear. In Italy, camping in the national parks and wilderness areas is not technically allowed, and the campgrounds tend to be in the more developed, beachy, populated areas. We figured we would find the closest option, enjoy the beach for the evening, and head into the park in the morning. After skirting the metropolitan craziness of Roma and Napoli, we were ready to stop for the evening. We found ourselves in the small town of Paestum, originally the Greek colony of Poseidonia, and host to some of the most well-preserved Greek temple ruins in the world. Despite that claim to fame, the town itself does not present itself as touristy. This part of Italy is more gritty, more run-down than the northern areas. The resort-style hotels that dot the main road are a severe contrast to the concrete houses and shops that all appear to be in various stages of disrepair.
We pulled into one campground that looked more or less like the resort hotels; swimming pool, gardens, playground, etc. The owners informed us that it was not yet open for the season, however, so we drove until we saw the next campground sign, faded from years in the sun. We drove through the gate into a park full of campers, each with a little deck, garden area, and sun shade - but each looking like it had been abandoned for at least ten years. An older gentleman was raking leaves and we asked if the place was open; it was, and he directed us to what was likely the only tent spot in the park. Despite the abandoned feeling of the place, the tent spot was nice, with a working sink and an electric light over a covered picnic table.
We walked to the beach, abandoned except for the gentleman's wife, sweeping up sand from a covered area. As the sun was setting, we hurried back to the car and found our way to the temple ruins a few kilometers, just in time to see them in the last light and to pick up some bread, cheese, and salami to have a picnic dinner back at our campsite.
For Alessio, Paestum and the surrounding areas were a bit of a shock, a first glimpse of a region of Italy he had never experienced, coupled with ingrained ideas of mafia presence in that vicinity of Napoli. The appearance of the place was certainly different than the north and other touristy zones, but our night was comfortable, the people we encountered were friendly, and overall it contributed to the growing diversity of our experiences on our road trip adventure.
Eager to get back to the mountains, we woke early, packed up, and headed into the national park. After winding our way through the countryside, slowing gaining elevation, we made a brief stop in the small mountain town of Ottati to refresh our fruit supplies from a little fruttivendolo on the main street. We continued our journey up a narrow dirt road, hoping not to encounter anyone coming down, since there wasn't much space to maneuver. Fortunately, the whole park seemed nearly deserted.
At a certain point the road petered out and we found a place to park the doblo near a rifugio that was clearly still closed for the season. A trail sign indicated a route up the highest peak of the area, Panormo, so we set off in that direction. We soon hit the elevation of snow, and found us winding our way through a dense forest, transversing the slope more than climbing it, for what seemed like quite a while. Luckily the trail was well marked with signs painted on the trees, because aside from those red and white stripes it was indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.
We had made a reservation at a rifugio in Parco Nazionale della Sila for the evening, so we were a little concerned about getting back on the road and we were not completely convinced the forest trail was the right one to get on top of a mountain. We decided to detour slightly up the slope to what looked like a clear area, and we were rewarded with a view of the summit we were heading for. With the goal so close we didn't want to turn back, so we immersed ourselves back in the trees to find the correct route to the ridge. We soon reemerged to beautiful panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys as we made our way to the summit; well worth getting back on the road a little later than planned.
We were nearly back to the car when we encountered likely the only other two people in the valley that day. They had managed to get their car stuck in a deep snow drift. With only the two of them, their prospects were looking grim to get the car out, but with our help we pushed it to dry ground. They were grateful for the help (I think they had been trying for a while). We figured out what they had been doing in the area when they gifted us two truffles, fresh from the ground.
Our reservations for the evening were at Rifugio Casello Margherita, a rifugio nestled into the forests of Parco Nazionale della Sila. We found the place with only a little difficulty (the iphone navigator took us down a tiny dirt road that was blocked with fallen trees), and were greeted enthusiastically by the proprietors and their many dogs. The rifugio is run by Simonetta, a Canadian who has been living in Italy for many years, and her husband Eduardo. The building is a restored casa cantoniera, a typical structure built to house highway workers in the 19th and 20th centuries. We chatted with Simonetta and Eduardo in a mix of English and Italian and they gave us recommendations for hiking in the area. The couple prepared us a delicious dinner with many small dishes for a variety of tastes from the region, and we went to sleep tired in a comfy bed, enjoying the comforts of the rifugio after several days of camping out.
Simonetta was excited to make us pancakes for breakfast, and I was excited to eat them, since Italian breakfasts typically consist mainly of coffee. After our delicious meal, we headed out to the recommended trails, loaded with fruit, walnuts, and some homemade jam, all gifted to us by our generous hosts. With the trail map loaned to us by Eduardo, we easily found the route he had suggested. We hiked through a dense forest of tall pine trees until we came out in high altitude meadows full of warm sunshine. We stopped by a calm little lake to do some stretching and soak in the sun. The adjacent fields were filled with little purple crocus, the flower that appears everywhere in Italy just after the snow disappears. It was a wonderful and relaxing little hike; the high plains of Sila present a pretty landscape, and we already want to come back and try the cross-country skiing in the winter.
Feeling relaxed and rejuvenated from our sojourn in the Sila, we got back on the road heading south. The sun was strong and when we stopped at a gas station towards the southern part of Calabria, the heat was radiating from the pavement. We were able to purchase our ferry ticket at the gas station to avoid lines at the ferry terminal in Villa San Giovanni. We drove straight on to the ferry and left the dogs and the doblo parked on the deck while we watched mainland Italy shrink away behind us.
After docking in Sicilia, we made our way through the traffic jams of Messina at rush hour, and drove down the east coast of Sicilia to arrive in Giardini-Naxos right around dinner time. We had been searching for a campsite, but the only ones within the town were for campers only. We found a hotel (a relatively luxe one, with a nice pool!) for hardly much more than the campgrounds cost anyway, so we opted for luxury for two nights while Alessio had to be in Giardini-Naxos for a seminar. We met up with the rest of the group attending the seminar and went to a nearby town for a fish dinner; heaped plates of a huge variety of delicious seafood were brought to our table faster than we could eat them, and we left the restaurant very satisfied and ready for bed!
Days Six and Seven
While Alessio attended his two-day seminar, I spent the days exploring Giardini-Naxos with the dogs. We drew a lot of attention as we walked around; Giardini-Naxos is not a town with many huskies!
Even early in the season, the sun was beating down on us as we explored, and after an hour or so of beach time with the dogs, I decided they were better off in the air-conditioned hotel room while I enjoyed the pool. I met back up with Alessio and his group for more delicious seafood and enjoyed the extra time to relax - driving and hiking all day every day can get exhausting! After Alessio's seminar ended on Sunday afternoon, we were ready to get back to the mountains. Stay tuned for Part II as we explore Etna and work our way back north to the Apennines!