Thursday, October 14, 2010

This is why we're here - in words

So what does one do on a Sunday out here in the rolling hills of central Italy? If your son plays football - as in our case - you go and watch him. It's a pastime I get tremendous enjoyment from, even if the season lasts from September to May. But when a gap opens in the schedule - as it did this past weekend - we snatch at it and use the time to pursue one of our other passions: the mountains.

Now when I say "snatch", I guess I should qualify - given the six-day school week with 6:15am risings and Sundays with their early football wakeup calls, any day off that offers a bit of a sleep-in to a family that loves its shut-eye and doesn't aspire to "bright and cheery" labels (at least the pre-9 am ones) is "snatched at" with equal enthusiasm to the pull of the mountains. So we compromise ... and take advantage of the very reason we moved here - we sleep in, have an early(-ish) lunch, and take off for an afternoon hike.

This past weekend I chose Monte Rotondo, a 2,102-metre mountain we frequently see, but have never scaled (OK, walked up). This involves a drive up a rocky road of about 6km with some very steep slopes on its up- and down-sides, and that is likely soon to close for the winter. At the end of it - which is joined by another dirt road coming from the other side of the saddle - is a concrete monstrosity of a refugio, which serves meals to rocky road adventurers and offers beds to hikers in the summer (albeit only on the weekend except for August). It's also the trailhead for numerous great hikes up to the airy Sibillini ridges, including a short 40-minute climb to Monte Rotondo.

The day was crisp with a brisk breeze that blew the thick low-hanging mist over the surrounding peaks, creating constantly-changing vistas of white-out alternating with clear skies. Puffs of mist drifted through the air like sailing ships into the blue beyond, and cascaded over cliffs, magically dissolving as they fell down the sheer rock faces. On the way up we found a lone purple wildflower and the decomposing remains of two sheep - "I'm thinking wolf," reflected HRH, engaging his wild side. We also came across a plaque remembering two young Italians who lost their lives here in the winter of 2004, a day apart.

The views from the top were stupendous. Apart from the shifting scenes created by the armadas of mist, the central Apennine peaks stretched southward in a panorama unlike any other we've seen before on our many excursions on these ridges. To the west, the light refracted into a stark and surreal line, as if we were on the surface of the sea - below it, waves of mountains were tainted in a hazy blue, and above it the air was vividly clear. We had it all to ourselves - there wasn't another soul around.

On the way down, Maria picked some mushrooms which the owner-cooks of the refugio were surprisingly and disappointingly unable to identify, not only regarding their species, but whether or not they were edible. We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from what promised to be a sunset of banded colours and shifting red shades in order not to have to drive down the rocky road in the dark. On the way we filled our water bottles and slaked the bitterly cold mountain water rolling down from the peaks, and stopped to look over the sheer drop where a cyclist fell to his death on an April day two years ago when we started up the road on our own bicycles and turned back because of the deep snow.

Back home a hot soup warmed our satisfied souls as we reflected on our good fortune - a day like this one is always there for us, just an hour away whenever we might make a snap decision to head up there. And as we find every time we go up there, it's always different, there's always a surprise waiting to be uncovered for those who choose to look for it. Thankfully all three of us have the eyes to find the surprises, and to drink in the liberating sensations of this alpine world with its cleansing air, infinite views, and the unmistakable message that it always whispers - there is nothing else but the here and now.

(If you're interested, there are photographs of our excursion here.)

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