Walking and trekking
Italy garners more distinction as a destination for culture than for mountains, as it has an abundance of the former and there are plenty of nearby countries with more blatant displays of the latter. Don’t let that fool you: Italy ranks amongst the very best in Europe for mountaineering, via ferrata and coastal walking, and an explosive increase in the affordability of flights there make it a multi-faceted destination of the highest grade.
Italy’s high ground is distributed mostly in the north, where the Italian Lakes nestle in the Dolomite mountains, butting up against the border with Austria and Switzerland. The Dolomites descend into the rolling lands of Tuscany, home to countryside of legendary beauty. Heading down the country are the Apennines, which run straight down the middle of the country, while on the west coast, the volcano of Vesuvius dominates the Bay of Naples on the west coast, south of which the mountainous Amalfi coast stretches south. Southern Italy is comprised of islands with exemplary outdoor attractions: Sicily, with the massive volcano of Etna; and Corsica, which is basically a stack of mountains emerging from the sea. Each area offers unique aesthetic appeal, and a variety of outdoor activities.
Starting big, then, the highest peak in the country is Gran Paradiso (4061m), a colossal, complex massif in the Grain Alps in the northwest, which holds the only mountaintop over 4,000m in Italy. It’s namesake national park is one of the oldest in Europe. To climb Gran Paradiso, you need to be experienced at moderate altitude and have experience using ropes, ice axe and crampons: even the normal routes (via the refugio Vittorio Emmanuele, and the Refugio Chabod) requires some climbing and takes you out along an exposed ridge to the summit Madonna. If this is your thing, Gran Paradiso is a great destination for summer mountaineering. If it isn’t, don’t despair: there is plenty more in the 14 massifs of the Italian Dolomites to give you a thrill whatever your tolerance level. These mountains are amongst the most vertical in the world: towers of limestone clawing skyward, comprising 18 peaks over 10,000ft .
Those who want to tackle the scarier looking mountains of the Dolomites but don’t have the technical nous to do so can try some of the many, many via ferrata routes that scrawl across these mountains. Via ferrata are series of iron stemples and cables which climbers clip safely into before tackling the rock, kind of like climbing stabilisers. The routes surrounding the towns of Riva del Garda, Canazei, Cortina, and Dobbiaco offer a true range of history-rich and truly thrilling via ferrata that will give a new dimension to your outdoor activity, and there are routes to suit all levels of difficulty. Then there is the South Tyrol, a region secreted in the far northeast of the country shared by Italy and Austria. This area of the Dolomites spawned mountaineer Reinhold Messner, who went on to enjoy moderate success in climbing just about everything that stands proud of the horizontal. It is distinctly Germanic in flavour, and harbors some 1,700km of walking trails, including the Waalwege, a series of pathways which follow the course of old irrigation channels along some of the Tyrol’s prettiest scenery. There are also many places where Nordic walking (pole assisted power-walking) is enthusiastically encouraged, an abundance of mountaineering paths and climbing routes, both secured and unsecured. A fine and popular peak in this area of Italy is Marmolada (3,343m), the highest peak in the Dolomites and a challenging mountaineer’s mountain.
Further south in the Apennines, mountains rise to 2,912m at the summit of Corno Grande, an impressive pyramid of rock which holds Europe’s southernmost glacier. The Apennines are fine mountains for lower-level walking, though there is a fine long-distance route here which criss-crosses the range through Emilio-Romagna and Tuscany: the Grande Escursione de Apenninica, or the Great Apennine Trek.This route is some 400km long, ranging in height between 400m and 2000m and offers a fine slice of the Italian peninsula. In this range is also the Abruzzo National Park, a mere two hours from Rome though a hard contrast: here you find the ridge-veined grandeur of the Apennines mixed with pastures, lakes and deep forest. These forests shroud western Europe’s last remaining Marsican brown bears (like a grizzly, only a bit slimmer) as well as lynx, wild boar and chamois. It’s a deeply lush part of Italy, and if you base yourself at the village of Pescasseroli, you can enjoy fine local cuisine and flavourful air after a day walking in the park.
Forgetting the high mountains for a moment, consider the Amalfi coast. Here you can walk along a dramatic coastline amongst the swank of Italy’s most decadent denizens, on an awesome, wave-cut cliff edges through places with names like the Path of the Gods, Agerola Plain and the Valle delle Ferriere. This is a UNESCO World heritage site, and it is perhaps the best part of Italy to visit if you want a range of walks (from demanding mountain treks to bimbling seaside tracks) while still being able to smell the cooking from a series of beautiful coastal towns. If none of this lights your fire, try climbing some volcanoes. Sicily has Europe’s largest, Etna, which is demanding walk, geologically moody and very high (3,326m) but worth it for the weird landscapes you’ll wander through en route. Stromboli is an island volcano which spits out bombs of flaming lava every few minutes – hence you need a guide, as climbing it alone is illegal, and rightly so. Vesuvius is perhaps the world’s most famous volcano and is somewhat quieter, located in the Bay of Naples, which can be climbed in a day.
Then there is Sardinia, an island off the west coast, which has long been a draw for climbers due to the superb quality of the rock, but offers much for the casual walker too. In short, Italy is a masterpiece of the outdoors, whatever your level – and perhaps one of the most agreeable mixes of the fragrant and the gritty you’ll find anywhere.
An absolute must for any mountain lover is to go and visit one of Reinhold Messner’s mountain museums. Messner isn’t struggling for a few quid, and has spent the last decade creating a network of extraordinary monuments to mountaineering in places which at times seem you have to be a mountaineer to get to. The pick of the crop is at Firmian – housed in a castle – in an enviable position above Bolzano in the South Tyrol. The Italian Alps in the north west offer a brimming winter sports itinerary come the snows. Alternatively, the Dolomites offer a plethora of other activities, from mountain biking (very popular) to BASE jumping (less so), and paragliding and hang-gliding in the warmer months. Lakes Como and Garda are very popular with water skiers and windsurfers. In Tuscany it goes without saying that food and wine take a high priority, and so they should when they are this good. And while you are in Italy you may want to take the opportunity to absorb a few thousand years of history: Venice is a couple of hours from the Dolomites, Florence at the northern end of Tuscany, and Rome close to the Apennines. Italy is a brilliant country for long distance cycling due to the diverse shift you’ll experience between north and south: spring and autumn are fine times for this as there are less cars on the road and the weather should suit.
Italy borders six countries: TRUE. Due to the small principalities nearby, Italy shares its borders with France, Austria, Switzerland, San Marino, Slovenia, and the Vatican.
Christopher Columbus was Italian: TRUE.
Must see and do
- Try your hands (and feet) at Via Ferrata in the Italian Dolomites Visit www.gardatrentino.it for info on a great place to start.
- Order a traditional stone-baked pizza and drink it with a vina Swot up on your wine facts at www.thewinedoctor.com
- Watch Stromboli erupt If you’re in southern Italy, this is a must.
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