After a hearty breakfast of eggs and a tour of the village with some historical education from our host, we set out on the highway towards L’Aquila, a town that was recently completely destroyed by earthquakes. Never have I seen so many cranes! There must have been hundreds all over the place, rebuilding what had been ruined. Then a turn or two on the highway, and suddenly the majestic mountains of Abruzzo came into sight.
I knew they were supposed to be nice, but I was not expecting this magnificence. We swiftly spotted the immense red masts that support the cable car going up to the pass. Without a moment’s hesitation we turned off the highway and drove to the base, hopped on the gondola and up we went. Beneath us, a thin trail snaked up the side of the mountain, and we resolved to take it down. At the top of the gondola is a ski resort and a strange sort of hotel that seems to still live in the 1920s when it was built.
The reason the place is called Campo Imperatore is because this very hotel became dictator Benito Mussolini’s prison in August 1943 with his fall from power, until he was freed by German commandos in September 1943.
In all honesty, it’s a mighty fine looking prison. The vistas are breathtaking, both from the outside, from the restaurant and even from the bathroom! We hiked around to a few of the surrounding ridges, peeking over the edge into the valley deep below.
There cannot possibly be a better time to observe the mountains than late spring, when they are no longer covered in snow, but not yet bare and grey either. Instead, the snow resting in the ravines forms incredible patterns on the black rock, tiger and zebra.
The ground where the snow has melted is covered in soft green grass and speckled with flowers – pale purple crocuses, yellow buttercups and alpine cornflowers of such an intense blue they glow (I made the flower names up – I don’t know what they are really called).
I’m not sure if our tickets were return, but we didn’t use the for the trip down. Instead, we courageously embarked on a very narrow path, switchbacking down the face of the mountain.
There were many moments that challenged my vertigo, especially when we had to cross steep banks of snow, but I prevailed (and there was no way I was going back up).
It took us a good two hours to descend, trying not to slip and slide down more swiftly on our rear ends.
To keep myself from looking over the edge, I instead continued to observe the lovely flora, which became increasingly more diverse as we descended.
Oddly, the going didn’t get much easier once we reached the treeline. There was no more vertigo to speak up, but the path was like a narrow river of loose rocks, which required significant concentration to avoid sliding down in a pebble avalanche.
At the base, there were countless “Alpini” with feathers in their caps. They were members (current and former) of an elite mountain warfare military corps of the Italian Army, the oldest mountain infantry in the world.
And this particular weekend was their annual gathering. I wonder how many of them hiked down like we did (or up?).
Feet burning, we got in the car and headed to Isola del Gran Sasso d’Italia. The highway led though possibly the longest tunnel I’ve ever driven through, more than 10 km. On the other side, we emerged into a completely different landscape and climate, with clouds hanging low over lush green hills. Every town we passed through had posters welcoming the Alpini, and at our destination we were welcomed by the lovely owners of Agriturismo San Giovanni ad Insulam (and their cat), a green garden and a cold beer. Perfect!
We waited for the neighbouring restaurant to open, listening to locals and visitors talking about… well what else but food 😀 Two Alpini from the north of Italy seemed surprised that Aperol Spritz is not a thing in this region, but seemed to compensate by drinking copious amounts of prosecco (without the Aperol). I overheard some remarks about a restaurant not possibly being as good as an agriturismo for dinner… but what we were served certainly sent those prejudices out the window. And at 33 EUR total, it was an incredible meal.
Legs exhausted, tummies full and feeling quite content, we retired to the room hoping there would be no mosquitos out to feed to disturb our well-deserved rest.