Monti Ernici: a taste of the Scottish Highlands a short drive from Rome

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favourite things about living in Rome is its proximity to the Apennines. When I lived in London it was a five or six hour drive to the best hill walking areas of Snowdonia or the Lake District, and a day or more to some of the less accessible peaks in Scotland.

Here in Rome the highest peaks in the the Apennines – in Gran Sasso and Maiella national parks – are only a couple of hours away. These mountains are twice as high as anything in the UK. Corno Grande, the highest, is 2912m, while Britain’s highest peak, Ben Nevis, reaches only 1344m.

You might expect these mountains to be very different, but because of the warmer climate here in Italy, they have much in common, and UK hill walkers would feel very much at home here (as I talked about in a previous post).

A couple of weekends ago Edita and I visited Monti Ernici, a group of hills little more than an hour’s drive from Rome, that reminded me so much of the Scottish Highlands that I just had to write a blog post about them. They weren’t the Scottish Highlands of course, which meant the contrasts were just as noticeable as the similarities.

So here are 4 ways they resemble the Scottish hills and 4 ways they don’t, and a fair sprinkling of photos, so that if you know Scotland well you can judge for yourself.

Four ways Monti Ernici resemble the Scottish Highlands

1. They are a peak bagger’s paradise

From this vantage point on the summit of Monte Ginepro, four more peaks over 2000m can be seen, all a short walk away
From this vantage point on the summit of Monte Ginepro, four more peaks over 2000m can be seen, all a short walk away

In the same way British hill walkers have the Munros (283 peaks in Scotland over 3000 feet in height), Italian hill walkers have the Apennine 2000ers (249 peaks over 2000 metres in height).

While some people dismiss peak bagging as ticking over experiencing I prefer to look at it another way. The existence of such a list takes you to areas you wouldn’t otherwise visit, and while a desire to tick a few peaks off a list may have drawn you there in the first place, the beauty of the mountains means that the experience of a good day out far outweighs anything else you might take home with you.

Monti Ernici is a lesser known group of mountains, far less popular than the peaks of Gran Sasso, Maiella or Abruzzo National Park, to name but three. We may never had heard about them, but for the fact that five peaks over 2000m (2041m Pizzo Deta, 2007m Monte Pratillo, 2064m Monte del Passeggio, 2004m Monte Ginepro, and 2005m Monte Fragara) could be climbed in a single day.

And what a day out it proved to be.

2. They are about the same size

Setting out from Prato di Campoli on trail 617, Pizzo Deta doesn't look too daunting. Prato di Campoli is a high altitude meadow (or altipiano) at 1143m, and that's 2041m Pizzo Deta on the right, only 900m above
Setting out from Prato di Campoli on trail 617, Pizzo Deta doesn’t look too daunting. Prato di Campoli is a high altitude meadow (or altipiano) at 1143m, and that’s 2041m Pizzo Deta on the right, only 900m above

Without wishing to teach your grandmother how to suck eggs, 2000 metres is a lot higher than 3000 feet. In fact, it’s more than twice as high. 3000 feet isn’t even 1000 metres (it’s only 914). This suggests the Apennine 2000ers must be on a different scale to Scottish Munros, and climbing them must be a much more challenging proposition.

Not so. Many Apennine peaks rise above high-altitude plateaus (or altipiano) 1000m or more above sea level, which means in terms of scale they are about the same size as many mountains in Scotland.

We started our climb of Monti Ernici from a place called Prato di Campoli, an area of pasture land at 1143m, which puts it above the summits of all but 25 of Scotland’s 283 Munros. All of the five summits we climbed were less than 1000m above us. Our circular walk took 7½ hours, with a total ascent (up and down a few times) of around 1400m – a good day out, but not a massive one.

3. There is some great ridge walking

Traversing the long, undulating ridge between Pizzo Deta and Monte del Passeggio
Traversing the long, undulating ridge between Pizzo Deta and Monte del Passeggio

My favourite hill walks are definitely ridge walks. While it’s good exercise striding up a hill, and it can often be fun running back down again, I do it for the views, the sense of space, and the opportunity to marvel in the colour and diversity of the natural world around us.

Ridge walks have a roof of the world feel to them. You can walk for miles with views for vast distances on both sides. You can wander along, soaking it all up, knowing that most of the strenuous ascent is behind you.

Some ridges in the Scottish Highlands contain multiple summits, with a certain amount of ascent and descent in between. Many Munros are joined by long ridges. Once you’ve climbed the first one, a few more can be polished off without needing to go back down again.

The Monti Ernici quintet was very much in this mould. Once we reached the first summit, Pizzo Deta, the bulk of the climbing was behind us, and we remained above 1700m for the rest of the day, until it was time to go back down again. There was a drop of about 200m to Monte Ginepro, the most outlying of the group, but the other four all lay on the same broad ridge, falling away in cliffs to the north and more gentle grassland to the south.

From that ridge we could see mountain ranges all around, the Simbruini peaks close at hand to the west, Sirente-Velino close by to the north, and Gran Sasso behind that. To the east were the peaks of Abruzzo, and Maiella beyond. We enjoyed the view all the more, knowing that we have climbed peaks in all of these ranges. Being atop a ridge like that, and identifying the mountains around you, is like putting together the pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.

4. Grassy tops and rocky outcrops

Grassy ridges, rocky outcrops and carpets of a heather-like plant: it could be Scotland
Grassy ridges, rocky outcrops and carpets of a heather-like plant: it could be Scotland

The top of the Monti Ernici ridge is very familiar to any Scottish hill walker: a broad grassy ridge with rocky outcrops. There are even carpets of a heather-like plant. The ridge falls away abruptly into cliffs on its northern side, but falls more gently to the south in swathes of lush green grass.

We are 2000 kilometres further south and 1000 metres higher, and the climate must be remarkably similar.

Four ways Monti Ernici are different from the Scottish Highlands

1. Accessibility

Looking south from the summit of Monte Fragara, towards the province of Frosinone and its many towns and villages in the plains below
Looking south from the summit of Monte Fragara, towards the province of Frosinone and its many towns and villages in the plains below

I’ve already touched on this one, but according to Google Maps, the Monti Ernici are just 1 hour 23 minutes by car from our house near the Appia Antica in Rome. Residents of Naples have only a little further to go: 1 hour 59 minutes.

The population of Rome is around 3 million while the metropolitan area of Naples is closer to 4 million. If you take these two cities alone then 7 million people have Monti Ernici on their doorstep.

Scotland’s most accessible Munros are Ben Lomond and the Arrochar Alps on the western side of Loch Lomond, 1 hour 6 minutes from Glasgow, an urban conurbation of some 2.3 million people. The entire population of Scotland is just 5.3 million. Not all of them have Munros so close.

You would think Monti Ernici must therefore be crawling with hikers, but during the whole of our walk on a sunny Saturday in June we saw just 3 people. Two of them were setting flags for a fell race the following day, while the other was waiting for them on a nearby summit. Otherwise we had the entire range to ourselves.

2. Forests

Lush forest reaching up the side of Pizzo Deta to nearly 1700m
Lush forest reaching up the side of Pizzo Deta to nearly 1700m

One thing you won’t see in Scotland is lush forest reaching up the side of a mountain almost to the summits. There used to be much more forest in Scotland, but since the wolves and bears were eradicated and the deer, who nibble at the shoots of saplings, lost their last natural predators, the forests have shrunk.

This hasn’t happened in Italy. There are cervi (red deer) and caprioli (roe deer) just like there are in the UK, but there are also bears and wolves. Many peaks in the Apennines are carpeted in forest from around 500m all the way up to the treeline at 1600m to 1700m.

The same is true on Monti Ernici, giving the lower flanks of the mountain a very different look to the barren, windswept tops of most of Scotland’s peaks. It adds another dimension to navigation. In Scotland you’re much more likely to become lost in mist, but as long as it’s clear you can always find your way down from a trackless hillside. Here in Italy the weather is usually clearer, but if you don’t stay on the path you’re much more likely to become lost in deep forest.

3. Weather

Standing on the summit looking for a cloud
Standing on the summit looking for a cloud

Scotland gets some bad rap about its weather. Many’s the time I’ve experienced a bleak day of trekking in the Himalayas, Andes or just about anywhere in the world really, walking through damp mist on a rocky trail.

Before long you can can guarantee someone will come out with the line:

“I could be in Scotland.” (There’s usually a profanity at the start of the sentence too, but I will let you imagine that part.)

This reputation for horrible damp misty weather where you can’t see beyond the end of your trekking pole is completely justified. We’ve all had days like that in the Scottish hills if we’ve been there more than once. It certainly improves your navigation.

I once had a sales assistant in Aviemore in the Cairngorms argue with me that my Garmin GPS was completely waterproof. When I told him it didn’t work for a week after using it during a rainstorm in the Cuillin Hills on the Isle of Skye, he looked at me and laughed.

“Ach, well, if you’d told me you were using it on Skye!”

In fairness I’ve experienced some lovely sunny days walking in Scotland when the weather was as perfect as can be. But all of these days have to be balanced against the days of damp wet mist and sheeting rain that you have to expect in Scotland.

It’s not like that here in the Apennines. Sure, there are crap days here too, but those days are few and far between. Now that it’s the summer we can expect beautiful sunny skies for most of the day, and if we get some cloud then we’re unlucky. Sorry Scotland!

4. Crosses and virgins on the summit

I’ll finish with a more frivolous one.

When the Rev. A.E Robertson climbed his last Munro in 1901, thus becoming the first person to complete them all, he is said to have kissed the cairn and then his wife, in that order.

Some people might think that kissing a cairn is a bit weird, but not half as weird as kissing the summit monument at the top of an Apennine peak. Being 1 hour and 23 minutes from Rome means we’re also 1 hour and 23 minutes from the Pope’s residence. Italy is a much more Catholic country than the UK. While we have cairns and trig points on our summits, here in Italy it’s more usually crosses and statues of the Madonna.

Here’s who greeted me on the summit of Pizzo Deta. I didn’t kiss her.

The Virgin Mary: Pizzo Deta's summit monument
The Virgin Mary: Pizzo Deta’s summit monument

 

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