The Backbone of Italy

photo by Angela Tavone, Rewildin Europe

by Rosie Dimanno

Not so tall, not so jaggedly dramatic, and rather youthful at merely 20 million years old, the mountain range and smaller parallel chains strut down the centre of the Italian peninsula, curving from northeast to southwest, from thigh to toe, with a bit of a dogleg in the middle. (IT)

It’s just about impossible to go from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean without crossing through the Apennines, up and over or negotiating a series of spooky tunnels blasted out of granite and limestone, stretching for kilometre after kilometre. They’re almost always within view, on the horizon. From my own ancestral village atop Monte Cairo – an isolated outlier, an orphan summit – the Apennines are often cloaked in clouds and mist. Distance is an optical illusion. They feel . . . embraceable. And they’re lush, green with forests and grasslands, studded with silver firs and chestnut trees, even truffles, sloping into fertile valleys.

In Savona in the upper regions of the ridge, on the coastal apron of the Apennines – a medieval-era thoroughfare carved a pilgrim’s progress route across the range towards Rome – I stayed at a fortress hotel that specialized in funky-tasting boar dishes.

photo by Angela Tavone, Rewilding Europe

In Orvieto, with its labyrinthine maze of natural tunnels and caves, I drank gallons of world-famous golden-yellow wine. In L’Aquila, so vulnerable to earthquakes, I lazed at piazza cafés, enjoying the thrum of a university city, surrounded by a stunning 360-degree view of the mountains.

photo by Angela Tavone, Rewilding Europe

At a fishing village on the Adriatic flank of the Apennines, I found a community torn apart by a winning lottery ticket. Traditionally, a hundred local residents would contribute every week to a shared batch of tickets for the state lottery. Then – O Dio – a miracle! One of the tickets came up aces, a single winning entry worth $55.5 million, the whole enchilada, or panzerotti rather. Those who’d failed to put their lira in the hat that particular week were furious at being excluded from the riches. I don’t think the divisions have ever healed.

It’s interesting, too, how the character of a place, a people, can be so diverse on either fringe of the Apennines haunch. Florence and Bologna are only 117 kilometres apart – a half hour trip by train. But the cities are driven by the Apennines that come between them. Florence is the Renaissance flower, temperate, aglow in a golden light under a Tuscan sun. Bologna, often foggy and icy, is rooted in its medieval past, blunter in architecture yet friendlier, maybe because it’s not so trampled by tourists. The cities might as well be on different planets.

The range boasts only one glacier, lying just beneath its highest peak, the Corno Grande. Calderone Glacier, in the Abruzzo Region, is Europe’s southern-most glacier and has actually expanded in recent years, despite dire predictions from some glaciologists that it would disappear by 2020. But if not originating from a glacial source, the mountains are abundant with crystalline water – crater lakes, roaring rivers, spewing fumaroles and babbling mineral springs.

It is those springs that I most fondly recall. When I took my late father back to Italy for the first time in four decades, the sweet spring water was what most obsessed him. Before returning to Toronto, he filled half a dozen plastic jugs with it, taking up the entirety of a large suitcase. No fashionable Italian knits, leather goods or touristy kitsch for my dad. Just aqua, poured out by the precious thimbleful back home. That would be my advice too. Drink in all the splendours of the Apennines.