When heading north on a long walk up the Apennines the first high region one encounters is the wilderness of the Aspromonte. Rising to 6,400 feet, the Aspromonte is a maze-like landscape of steep-sided valleys, twisting ridges, and wild summits, all cloaked in forests of oak, beech, fir and pine. Even the highest tops are lost in the trees, and many of the side valleys are so densely wooded they are – to all intents and purposes – entirely cut off from the rest of the world. It’s said that certain corners of the Aspromonte are so hard to reach and so seldom visited that those who have fallen foul of the law or the mafia can safely seek refuge there for years on end. Often repeated myths insist that bandits still roam the wilds, as do large beasts like wild boar and wolves, according to the managing authorities of the Aspromonte National Park. The word ‘aspro’ translated into English can mean rough, harsh, bitter, rugged, sharp, or sour. The ‘Rough and Rugged Mountains’ as a name suites the range perfectly.
Very few roads or paths cut through the heart of the Aspromonte, and trying to cross the region on foot was clearly going to be a challenge. I didn’t know what lay ahead: I didn’t even know that the highest summits were smothered by trees! While planning the route I’d found very little English-language information about the region, no guidebook featured it, but even if I’d unearthed a guide I wouldn’t necessarily have read it; too much research can thoroughly spoil a good adventure! Neither was the best map I’d sourced particularly revealing. It was a road map scaled at 1:250,000, and the topographical detail it contained looked impressively… inexact. Rough black lines had been sketched into the wide blanks between roads to denote hills and rivers with a certain artistic flair. Or was it artistic make believe: the mountains, valleys and many of the roads displayed on the map bore very little relationship to what actually lay on the ground, or so it seemed…
I reached the edge of the Aspromonte at the end of the second day’s walking, 30 miles into the trip. Leaving the site of my first camp exactly the way I’d found it, I wandered uphill across a fog-bound hillside scattered with rocky outcrops and gorse-like shrubs, my legs and boots soon soaked by moisture-laden grass. At the top of the hill I was excited to come upon across a rough road, and it led north for an easy mile, until it veered away in completely the wrong direction, forcing me to travel cross country again, compass in hand. And thus was the scene set for the rest of the day: a few easy sections along narrow and unfrequented roads which didn’t correspond to any marked on the map, followed by slow miles picking my own route through thickets of tangled brush and oak. By the time I set up camp for the second night in a leafless beech wood I only had a vague idea where I was, an idea that, the following day, grew even vaguer.
Progress on the third day was easy enough to begin with. I chanced upon a wide, newly-paved, but completely deserted road that twisted up valley, and I followed it happily until – all of a sudden – it did what many Apennine roads do: it stopped dead, on this occasion at a large dam that seemed to have been recently constructed. No water filled the valley behind it, no roads or trails led any further. There was no option but to push on into the trackless forests beyond, and soon I was caught up in a barely passable mesh of beech. After making my escape – torn and scratched – I climbed into pine woods, and to my surprise came upon snow. A continuous expanse of needle-speckled old winter snow smothered the forest floor. In places in had softened in the day’s heat and swallowed my legs to my knees. In other locations it lay ice-hard… dangerously hard where the ground was steeply pitched. The long ice axe I carried – such an out-of-place thing to possess in southern Italy – was put to real use. As I battled on, tree limbs grabbed at my pack and frequently snagged on it, holding me up. Long detours around particularly dense thickets and excessively steep ice-slopes were often necessary. It was impossible to follow a straight line, or remotely see where I was going. Heading due north whenever possible I moved across the grain of the land, dropping into narrow ravines, crossing rushing torrents, climbing up steep snow slopes to ridge tops, digging in my axe for purchase, forever descending, climbing… descending, climbing, and all the while hidden deep in the trees, at no point knowing where I was, or what lay ahead. To start the journey with this was definitely ‘in-at-the-wild-end’.
The was one good thing: the challenge of navigation, and the intensity of effort, left little room for thoughts of home, or for questions of doubt, or for consideration of such distant abstract concepts like the Alps, or the Bohemian Forest, or for Norway. And after ten long hours and twenty-plus miles of grueling wilderness travel I slept more soundly than I’d slept in months, even if I didn’t know where I was sleeping.
The following morning, the fourth of the walk, brought more of the same. By noon I was beginning to doubt I’d ever reach the far side of the range. But to my relief the snow slowly grew less deep, and by early afternoon I’d lost enough altitude that winter’s late-lying snowpack had fallen behind.
Progress became significantly easier. I twisted through open beech woods with branches greened by the first leaves of spring. This was more like it! There were gushing streams and silver waterfalls; birdsong and the sweet scent of new plant growth filled the air. The day was heating up, but down in the sun dappled beech woods where the rivers were flowing fast and cold all it took to cool off was a quick splash. I could drink and cleanse my sweat-soaked body with one exuberant scoop.
A minor road optimistically marked on my map beyond the northern edge of the Aspromonte was my goal, and at last I reached it. Or, at least, I thought I had, but after following it for half a mile it grew smaller, twisted in the wrong direction, and then faded into an indistinct path, which in turn faded away completely. This happened three more times, with three different ‘roads’, over several more challenging miles. It seemed I needed to learn an important rule of travel in the southern Apennines: roads here don’t necessarily come from somewhere, or go anywhere…
But finally I burst free from the trees and landed beside the first well maintained road I’d encountered in nearly 30 wilderness miles. From the road’s edge I was granted my first view in 2 days: a sweeping panorama to the distant sea stretching across forested foothills sprinkled with small villages. I could also see my future: a long line of forested mountains rolling away to the east.
But I still didn’t know exactly where I was, although it looked like I’d soon be able to find out. A few hundred yards along the road a shepherd was seated beneath an umbrella, gazing out into a gorse-lined meadow, watching a small flock of sheep. As I slowly approached he took one look at my pack and burst out laughing. But I didn’t care; he was the first person I’d seen in days.
I walked up and showed him my map. “Where are we?” I asked, in Italian. He pulled the map towards him roughly and stared at it long and hard, probing the Aspromonte with dirty fingers. And then, after an age, he looked up at me from beneath his cap with serious eyes, his weathered, nut-brown face knotted with uncertainty. He shrugged, palms up, and shook his head slowly.
Where were we? Seems he didn’t know either…
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