Long-Distance Hiking in the Northern Apennines

Where and What
By Michael H. Brown
  |  Gorp.com
Size Isn't Everything

The highest the three of us got in the Northern Apennines was 6,100-foot Monte Sillara, but height is never the whole story. One of our favorite spots was a handsome, slightly crumbling 18th-century religious shrine a mere 1,500 feet above the Riviera coast.

In the mellow sunlight of the dying day, children kicked a soccer ball across the dusty esplanade as we sipped espresso and took in the exquisite seascape. Like various religious buildings across Italy, the shrine — the Santuario della Madonna di Soviore — doubles as a vacation retreat, complete with restaurant and lodging.

There were no rooms available when we arrived, but that was fine. We carried a tent, cooking stove and food, and immediately recognized the lovely, shaded grounds as a five-star campsite if there ever was one.

Once you get a few kilometers away from the tourist-clogged Mediterranean coast, Italians are refreshingly relaxed about ad hoc camping arrangements. When I saw two black-robed clergy coming out of the church, I quickly pulled out my pocket Italian dictionary and launched into what I knew immediately from their puzzled looks was a badly mangled spiel. Finally, the taller of the two men spoke: Yes, we could put up our tent on the grass just beyond the church.

As we cooked a dinner of curried ramen, the gentle voices of a visiting Dutch choir wafted from the sanctuary. Down below, Sestri Levante, Portofino, and other Riviera towns clicked on their lights to make a silvery necklace stretching into the west. It was one of those rare and wonderful moments when the present is all you want.

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The Apennines begin in the region of Liguria on the Italian Riviera just west of Genoa — any further west and you are in the Maritime Alps — and stretch more than 800 miles down the Italian boot. Elevation averages about 4,000 feet and reaches a high of 9,560 feet on Mount Corno in the Central Apennines.

The northern part of the range is lower and less rugged than the peaks to the south. You go a good 20 miles up the Ligurian coast before breaking a thousand meters (3,280 feet). First come lovely terraces of vegetable gardens and olive trees, then rolling pastureland and grain fields speckled in rich hues of greens and browns. Throughout, the countryside is dotted with moving memorials to local men who died in World War Two, some as soldiers fighting with the Germans on the Russian front, others in the anti-Nazi resistance.

Only when you near Liguria's border with Tuscany do the Apennines begin to look like real mountains. Cisa Pass, for centuries a major gateway north to Parma and the Po Valley, marks the beginning of the stunning ridge top segment. This is where you have top-of-the-world views — south across the jagged Tuscan terrain toward the ancient city of Lucca and north across the flatter, less interesting Emilian countryside toward Parma.

Your eyes automatically stop on the sharp, glistening-white peaks far off in the southeast. Could that be snow? We thought so at first but no, those are the Apuan Alps, an Apennine offshoot that produces marble prized for use in statues and buildings.

How about Children?

The route we followed depended mainly on footpaths but in the lower elevations also made use of dirt farm tracks, old stone-covered wagon roads, and a few modern paved ones as well.

Children with a modest amount of backpacking experience should be able to handle the Northern Apennines with no problem. Only a few of the climbs are steep, and as long as you don't attempt them in the height of the afternoon sun, you should be able to avoid a family mutiny. There are a good number of streams and small lakes along the way for cooling off, though some of the latter shrink into little more than mud flats as summer progresses.

Our daughter, an animal lover, was delighted by the horses that graze away the summer unattended in the high Apennine pastures. These four-legged beauties were not at all bashful about visiting our campsite. One evening a mare snagged a paperback book — Isaac Asimov's Foundation — out of Cate's hands and, apparently not a science-fiction fan, tried to eat it, with only partial success.

"On trips like this," Cate observed,"you never know what's going to happen."


Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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