Feeling at home in the Apennines

Any search for books about the Apennines which aren’t travel guides, leads inexorably to one book: Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines.

Newby is one of Britain’s best-loved travel writers, and Love and War in the Apennines is regarded by many as his best book. It’s more a biography than a travel book. It covers the time he spent as a prisoner during the Second World War after being captured during a raid on Sicily and sent to the town of Fontanellato in the Northern Apennines. When Italy withdrew from the war in 1943, all the prisoners escaped, and Newby spent several months in the mountains, hiding from German troops, before being recaptured when winter came.

The ‘love’ of the title alludes to Wanda, a Slovenian-Italian who took him under her wing and helped him to hide from the German Army. Anyone familiar with Newby’s writing will know that she became his wife, joining him on many of his adventures and playing a starring role in many of his subsequent books.

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby: I enjoyed this book for two main reasons
Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby: I enjoyed this book for two main reasons

But there is another love that radiates through the book: Newby’s affection for the Italian people, who sheltered him from the German Army. Shortly after the start of the German occupation, Italian citizens were ordered not to shelter British soldiers on pain of death, but most Italians ignored it. Many did not believe they would be put to death, and most of them regarded it as their duty to provide hospitality to the British who were now their allies.

Over the months he spent in hiding Newby moved from place to place, sometimes working to support his food and lodging, but mostly relying on the kindness of the Italian peasants who sheltered him. He knew they were taking a great risk by helping him. Every time he thought the risk became too much, he moved on, but only with their help.

On one occasion he was summoned before a village committee, who explained to him that it was now too risky for any of them to shelter him in their houses. They said that many of them had sons fighting in Russia, who were in the same situation as British soldiers in Italy. They hoped the Russian peasants would look after them, and they considered it their duty to provide for him. They built him a cave in the mountains, complete with bed and fireplace, and secretly brought him food every day.

His descriptions of the mountain scenery are evocative: windswept ridges and impenetrable forests which still exist today. Everybody felt sorry for him, because they believed that despite their efforts, it would be impossible for him to hide when the winter came.

He discovered why. It was easy to conceal himself when the forests were thick with leaves, but less so when the trees were bare, and a carpet of leaves made it hard to cover his tracks. Then when the snow came it lay thickly on the ground, and it became impossible to hide. He might have survived the winter, but there were no secrets among the mountain people, and eventually the Fascists came for him and denounced him to the Germans.

Footprints in the snow beneath Monte Corvo. When winter comes to the Apennines there is no place to hide.
Footprints in the snow beneath Monte Corvo. When winter comes to the Apennines there is no place to hide.

I’ve read a few of Eric Newby’s books. He wrote a history of mountaineering in the Alps, and his book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, is one of the funniest books about climbing a mountain ever written. It’s an understated title if ever there was one. Far from being a ‘short walk’, Newby and his friend took on a challenging unclimbed peak in Afghanistan. His book Slowly Down the Ganges has a similarly misleading title, which conjures up an image of drifting down the river in leisurely fashion under a setting sun. In fact the ‘slowly’ more usually occurs because their boat keeps getting stuck on the river bed, and he and Wanda have to get out and push.

When Love and War in the Apennines came up on my Amazon search for books about the Apennines, I bought a copy immediately and couldn’t wait to read it.

If you’ve been following this blog then you will know that Edita and I spent much of last year exploring the Apennines where they stretch into Abruzzo, a short two-hour drive from Rome, where she lives and works.

I spent most of last year writing, and finally managed to publish Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest, the book I’ve been working on for the last three years, in November. I knew that this year I would need to get a job. I was absolutely delighted to find one in Rome, and last month I moved there.

Although I’ve never had to hide from Germans or spend a winter cooped up in a cave, there were two aspects of Eric Newby’s book that I could relate to a good deal.

As we’ve explored the mountains of Abruzzo and the restaurants and antiquities of Rome, like Newby I’ve found the Italians incredibly welcoming. There is a much more relaxed attitude to life here; people seem to be less rule-bound than they are back in the UK, much more inclined to take things as they come, without getting annoyed about the unexpected. I’m still learning the culture here, but this may be reflected in their friendly attitude to strangers.

Corno Grande is as striking a mountain as any peak in Italy
Corno Grande is as striking a mountain as any peak in Italy

In the months I spent visiting I felt like Edita had an adopted Italian family, so hospitable had her landlady and their family been to her, and now that I am here I feel like I’ve been welcomed in the same way. It’s been a similar story at our two local restaurants. In one of them the chef speaks very good English, and always has something special for us when we go. In the other they don’t speak much English, but they are always happy to see us, and very patient with me as I learn Italian pathetically slowly.

Italians are also much more helpful when it comes to learning their language. They will let me struggle in Italian for as long as I like, and only when I give up and resort to English will I discover their own English is pretty good. This is impossible in France, where as soon as you try a bit of French they immediately talk back to you in English.

The second aspect of Eric Newby’s book that is familiar to me are his vivid descriptions of the mountainous scenery that I’ve grown to love. Everybody knows about the Alps and the Dolomites in the north of Italy, but the Apennines are something of an undiscovered gem. They stretch the full length of peninsular Italy, starting beside the Ligurian Sea in the northwest, and extending all the way down the spine of the country to Calabria, the region embracing Italy’s toe. The mountain chain even continues into Sicily, the island football that Italy’s boot appears to be kicking.

The Apennines are not as high as the Alps or the Dolomites, but in some ways this makes them more of a paradise for hill walkers. Mountaineering skills are needed to reach the tops of the snow-capped Alps, and rock climbing skills to ascend the sheer towers of the Dolomites, but in the summer pretty much every peak in the Apennines is a walk up.

This doesn’t make the scenery any less grand, though. Many of these peaks are twice as high as anything back home in the UK. Corno Grande (2912m) is the highest mountain in the Apennines, and is as striking as any peak in Italy’s two better-known mountain ranges. It rises up as a wall of rock a few hundred metres higher than anything surrounding it. From any summit in Abruzzo it’s the most notable peak for miles around. It looks unscalable to all but the most gifted rock climbers, but it’s highest point is little more than an easy scramble. In summer it’s crawling with novice hill walkers in the same way that Snowdon is, all of whom love their rare day out in the hills.

In forest beneath Monte di Mezzo. In the Apennines entire mountains can be carpeted in forest.
In forest beneath Monte di Mezzo. In the Apennines entire mountains can be carpeted in forest.

At one point in Love and War in the Apennines, Eric Newby treks for a day to cross the main crinale (ridge) of the mountains and look down on the Ligurian Sea, a corner of the Mediterranean to the west. From many summits in Abruzzo we have been able to see the Adriatic Sea to the east, and from one summit in Lazio, Monte Terminillo, we could look down at the sea on both sides of the Italian peninsula.

Eric Newby was warned not to leave the trails and get lost in the forest, or they would never be able to find him. He failed to heed this advice and took a wrong turn, resulting in a soul-destroying afternoon spent sliding down a precipitous hillside tangled with brambles. Most mountains in the UK are bare, windswept hillsides, with only a few short pockets of woodland in the valleys beneath. But in the Apennines entire mountains are carpeted in forest for hundreds of metres. On two or three occasions we have climbed through thick forest for a thousand vertical metres. Were it not for the paint-marked trails marking the route we could easily have become hopelessly lost.

And then there is the snow. They told Eric Newby that when the winter came the Germans would come for him, and there would be no escape. Snowshoeing is a popular winter pastime among hikers here in the Apennines. The snow can become several metres thick in places. Luckily I have Edita to break trail for me. If you are heading for the mountaintops then ice axe and crampons are essential between November and April, sometimes longer, and we have enjoyed many winter climbs.

Within two weeks of my arrival here last month, we had already spent two weekends in Abruzzo. In the process we experienced five very different mountains. Our first excursion on the Easter weekend was to the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga ranges. On the first day we tried to climb 2623m Monte Corvo from a lakeside at 1000m, but it proved too long a day for winter. We broke trail through fresh snow for much of it, and I wasn’t fit enough. Yet still we reached the summit of Cima Falasca (2300m) and gazed across at the west face of Corno Grande. Monte Corvo will be a different proposition in summer, and we hope to return and repeat the ascent on grass and rocks.

The following day we visited Monti della Laga for the first time, and climbed 2155m Monte di Mezzo. We lost the trail through the forest in snow, and emerged on an unexpected ridge which led steeply up to the summit. We decided to take the direct route up, and reached the top in a white out, but it was extremely satisfying. The mist cleared and we descended along a broad ridge with the turquoise reflection of Lago di Campotosto far below.

On the summit of Monte di Mezzo in a white out
On the summit of Monte di Mezzo in a white out

On the third day we made our second attempt to climb Corno Grande from the north. The view from that side has great variety. To the north the land drops away and the eye can see a vast distance. To the east a ridge of snow falls to allow a sight of the Adriatic. To the south the twin summits of Corno Grande and Corno Piccolo command attention, divided by a deep col. In January last year we had an epic battle through the snow, rendered all the more difficult because Edita had only microspikes on her feet. We were far short of the summit, but were very happy to reach the shelter of Refugio Franchetti, halfway up the north face at 2433m. We were the only people on the mountain on that occasion, because the ski resort at Prati di Tivo was closed.

This time the snow was in good condition for skiers and the lower slopes were busy, but it was in very bad condition for climbers. We both felt distinctly uneasy on a snow traverse a short distance above the cable car station at La Madonnina. It was a section that hadn’t worried us at all the previous year. This time the snow slid away beneath us with every step, and the sun was beating down, turning the ground into slush. We reached a rocky promontory and looked up at avalanche debris streaking the slopes that Edita had fought her way up in her microspikes. We looked at each other, shook our heads, and turned around.

Even so, it was a marvellous day out in the mountains. We found a quiet summit further down the ridge and gazed up at the mountain which has now defeated us three times in four attempts. It was worth it for the view, which was amazing.

That was the Gran Sasso massif. The following weekend we visited Abruzzo National Park, further to the south. The mountains there are a little lower, but they are famous for their wildlife. It’s the last habitat of the Marsican brown bear, which is difficult to see. Easier to spot are the camoscio (chamois), red deer and roe deer.

Corno Grande from the windswept summit of La Terratta
Corno Grande from the windswept summit of La Terratta

We followed footprints towards the summit of La Terratta (2208m) and walked along a broad, windswept ridge. Only later did we discover they were the footprints of a bear. The mountain wasn’t as striking as Corno Grande by any stretch of the imagination (which we could see to the north) but the view from that broad ridge was more distant. We could probably see a hundred miles from north to south, and dozens of summits we have climbed over the last year or so. Once again, the deep snow meant there were few signs of a trail, but in some ways this made the descent more enjoyable, because we were forced to make our own.

Our fifth mountain was the much smaller Monte Amaro di Opi (1872m), a minor peak which can be climbed in four hours up and down. It’s notable because it stands alone, unattached to any surrounding peak. We ran up through forest, and enjoyed the bare summit ridge which rises above, wedged between the higher peaks of Monte Marsicano and Monte Petroso, both of which we climbed last year. It’s a popular peak with people who are keen to see the camoscio, and we met several large walking groups on the way down.

I feel privileged to be here in Italy, so close to a hill walkers’ paradise. Already I feel at home in the Apennines. The mountains are undiscovered gems, and I hope to introduce you to more of them over the coming months.

I would love to read more about them. If you know of any good books about the Apennines (travel writing rather than guide books, of which there are plenty), do please let me know.

You can see photos of our Gran Sasso weekend here, and our walks in Abruzzo National Park here.

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