For most people outside Italy, Lazio is better known as one of Rome’s two football teams: fierce rivals, and the Liverpool to Roma’s Everton (or at the risk of offending anyone Liverpudlian or Roman, the Everton to Roma’s Liverpool). For English fans, it’s the team Paul Gascoigne played for in the 1990s. I sometimes wonder how he settled in. I’m a little slow learning Italian, and I had a head start over Gazza in that at least I arrived being able to speak English.
More generally, Lazio is the region in the middle of peninsula Italy bordering the Mediterranean coastline on the west. We have spent a good portion of our time over the last year exploring the mountains of Abruzzo, the corresponding region on the east coast, bordering the Adriatic.
The main spine of the Apennines passes through Abruzzo, and this region contains the highest peaks in the range, including Corno Grande (in the Gran Sasso massif) and Monte Amaro (in the Maiella massif). Many sub-ranges spill into Lazio, though, and while Abruzzo is our favourite region for mountains, Lazio has its fair share of 2000m peaks, including Monte Terminillo and Monti Ernici.
Just north of Gran Sasso is another cluster of high peaks forming a ridge along the border of the two regions. They are known as Monti della Laga. The highest of them, Monte Gorzano, straddles the border, and at 2458m it is the highest point in Lazio.
The highest point in Abruzzo (and the whole of the Apennines), 2912m Corno Grande, was one of our earliest objectives when we started exploring these mountains. But although we’d done quite a bit of hiking in Lazio we were yet to reach its highest point, so a couple of weekends ago we set out to rectify that.
We decided to climb Monte Gorzano from the Abruzzo side, where we would have some great views back to the giant rock cathedrals of the Gran Sasso massif.
The village of Cesacastina perches in forest at 1150m, at the top of a winding single-track road. It has an amazing setting looking out over the highest peaks in peninsula Italy, but I imagine it must be cut off from the rest of civilisation for long periods during the winter.
Our map indicated a dirt track zigzagging up into the hills for some distance, but unsure how far it would be passable we chose to park in the village and walk. It was a pleasant trail through shady beech forest, breaking out into the open in pockets.
Eventually we reached a clearing at 1700m where we saw the gentle grassy hillside of Monte di Mezzo rising above us. Edita and I climbed this 2000m peak in very different conditions three months ago, the first weekend before I started work here in Italy. The mountains were still snow-clad in March, and we reached the summit cross by a direct pathless route, in a complete whiteout. How different mountains are without their winter coat.
At this point we became lost. Or to be more accurate, we went the wrong way (there is a subtle difference). The Apennine trails are possible to follow without a map. There are red and white paint marks every few metres on tree trunks or convenient rocks, but not all of the trails are regularly maintained. Some paint marks are so faded that you can’t always be sure from a distance what’s paint and what’s lichen (and yes, faded red paint can resemble lichen from afar). In winter the paint can often be buried under snow (not a problem on this occasion). Some of the trails aren’t really trails, by which I mean hardly anyone uses them. There is no trail, no footmarks, only paint.
I followed a clear track beyond the clearing into forest until I reached another clearing where the track disappeared. It dawned on me that I hadn’t seen a paint mark for quite some time. In these situations I usually let Edita lead, as although my map reading is more advanced, her eyesight is better at spotting paint than mine. This time the track seemed obvious, so I led, but this was a mistake.
We retraced our steps back to the previous clearing, until we came across a wooden post clearly marked with paint. My hairline may be receding, but my eyes were still keen enough to pick out a paint mark on a tree roughly two hundred metres away up a rough, grassy hillside. The trail had diverted out of the forest onto open hillside, but it was evident only by the paint.
The terrain was rough now. At the tree I looked up the hillside and saw a wild horse guarding another post that had been daubed with paint. The grass was thick and the hillside steep. I felt like I was wading through newly-fallen snow, but consoled myself that it was good training for proper mountains.
After half a mile or so of this rough terrain the footmarks resumed, and a clear trail continued up a gully to a pass. The Sella Laga (sella meaning pass) lies at 1976m on the main Monti della Laga ridge going north-south along the Lazio-Abruzzo border.
The hillside was alive with rivers and streams, unusual for the Apennines this time of year. A year ago, also in July, we summited the barren moonscape of Monte Velino, a short distance to the south. Although we passed through lush grasslands and forest on the way, there wasn’t a hint of running water anywhere for the entire day. A couple of days later we walked up the spectacular Celano gorge, between tall cliffs, barely five metres apart in places. In winter the gorge would have been an impassable torrent, but in July it was completely dry, and we were able to boulder-hop up its entire length.
This is not the case in Monti della Laga (“Mountains of the Lake”). One of the largest lakes in the Apennines, Lago di Campotosto, lies on a 1400m plateau on the eastern side. It is fed by the mountain streams which remain even into July, and many large rivers have their source in Monti della Laga.
It was a sunny morning and the more strenuous terrain meant that I had been drinking freely. I had only two litres of water with me, and with a long way still to go there was a danger of running out. Not expecting to find natural water supplies I hadn’t brought my water purification tablets, but as we approached the pass a myriad of streams spilled down from the grasslands on either side. We were so close to the tops, and the water looked fresh and filtered, so I trusted it to fill one of my bottles. This would be a risky business in the UK, with typhoid and liver fluke in our freshwater, hence the reason I carry tablets. I don’t know about the water cleanliness here in the Apennines, but later I drank from the bottle and it did me no harm.
The view from the pass was airy. Lago di Campotosto appeared right beneath us, and beyond it there were no big mountains until Monte Terminillo, 40 km away. The land between was gently rolling, nowhere flat, and most of it over 1000m in altitude, a high valley-cum-plateau in the heart of the Apennines.
As we turned north along the ridge the sky started to become cloudy. A tangle of peaks marked the terrain north of Sella Laga, and we couldn’t be sure which summits marked the true ridge. We lost the trail again and stumbled up rough hillsides and long grass, as we had lower down when we emerged from the forest.
It was hard work and a little frustrating, but soon the true ridge became obvious, and we regained a clear path along its spine. The hills themselves were somewhat ugly: dusty, crumbling rock with sparse, unfinished grass painting the sides. On the Lazio side the ridge fell away at an angle that rendered the slopes unattractive to either hill walkers or climbers: clearly not a climb, but much too steep to be enjoyable as a walk. We had climbed just such a hillside up Monte di Mezzo in winter conditions, but now there was nothing tempting about them.
The views more than made up for this, though, as we made our way up and down a series of summits, including the three peaks of 2369m Cima della Laghetta.
The sky was darkening, and as we left the central summit of Cima della Laghetta, the solitude was interrupted by the rumble of thunder. This was a surprise: a temporale (thunderstorm). Thunder had not been forecast, and had it been then we would have stayed away. Central Italy, including Rome itself, is often wracked by wicked thunderstorms, and a high ridge is no place to be caught in one of these, particularly when you are carrying metal trekking poles to attract the lightning like a magnet. Once, sitting on the toilet at our apartment in Rome, the thunder and lightning were so close that it sounded like a bomb going off just metres away from where I was sitting. I literally shat myself.
Edita was deeply disturbed by this turn of events. Twice last year she was caught in thunderstorms on a high mountain ridge. Once in Maiella the lampi (lightning) forks struck the ground so close by that twice she felt the shocks through her body. She knew that a direct strike could prove fatal, and there was nowhere to hide and nowhere to run. When she heard the thunder as we approached Monte Gorzano, her immediate thought was to retreat.
I was a little bolder (or perhaps I was more stupid). Yes, let’s put it that way. Boldness isn’t one of my defining characteristics, so I must have been more stupid. Lightning had not been forecast, and although I know forecasts can change, the only evidence of a storm was the rumble. The clouds around us did not look like storm clouds to me. The noise came from afar, beyond the summit, and away from the prevailing wind. To the east the clouds looked more benign, and they were the ones coming towards us. My instinct told me the storm was somewhere out to sea, and at the very least it wasn’t heading our way.
Nevertheless, I increased my pace. I was keen to get to a position where I could at least see evidence of the thunderstorm, wherever it may be. We were so close to the summit now, that it seemed like the only place where I could do this. Once or twice we heard the rumble again and I heard Edita’s voice behind me. Each time I looked around and gave a questioning shrug. I don’t know if she thought I was mad, or whether her thoughts were on that storm on Maiella, but I knew we had both been in more dangerous situations on mountains than this. Sure enough, although she seemed reluctant, she didn’t falter.
Monte Gorzano is not an imposing mountain, merely the highest bump on a long, protracted ridge. Even from the west, where its sides are steeper, its summit is often shielded from view by other peaks on the ridge.
It makes up for this by being exceedingly high, much higher than the surrounding terrain. Somebody had raised a WWF flag with its black and white panda on the summit cairn, which somehow made the top stand out. I reached the summit in bright sunshine and had it to myself until Edita caught me up. I could see her walking up the grassy slopes to the south about a hundred metres below me, the cathedrals of Gran Sasso wreathed in grey cloud behind her. To the west the land fell away into the rolling hills of eastern Lazio, while to the north two more high peaks, Cima Lepri and Pizzo di Moscio, stood close by, almost as high as Monte Gorzano, obscuring another range of mountains, Monti Sibillini, behind it.
But my eyes were drawn to another ridge of smaller peaks to the east that were hidden in a smudge of purple. There was the storm! They were being battered and shattered by frequent spears of lightning. I threw some grass into the air, and was relieved to see it disappear in that direction. We were able to enjoy a few minutes in sunshine on the summit, believing the storm to be heading away from us. Even so, it was unwise to sit down and unpack our sandwiches beside the summit cairn, as we usually do.
We agreed to take the quickest route back to the treeline where we had some measure of shelter should the wind change and the storm come our way. We had over 700m of bare hillside to descend before that happened, so we started down quickly.
Initially I started in the direction of a grassy ridge on top of rough cliffs, but this plan quickly evaporated when a fork of lightning blasted the landscape behind it. Even with the wind behind you it takes bigger balls than I have to walk directly towards a shaft of lightning. We immediately changed direction, laughing as we did so. We silently agreed to descend a more sheltered grassy basin to the right, rather than the ridge we had been heading towards.
We ran down, stumbling frequently in the long grass. The lightning and the thunder were right ahead of us, but each time I counted the seconds between the flash and the rumble, and found it to be longer. There were some rocky gullies to cross that were dry now, but would be crashing rivers at other times of the year.
By the time we reached the treeline the skies were silent and the storm had moved somewhere over the Adriatic Sea. My map indicated a trail somewhere into the forest, but I needed my phone to find it. I have an app called Maps.me which contains trails for most of Europe. I’ve downloaded the whole of Italy, so I can find our location without a phone signal as long as I have battery. It took us close enough to notice a familiar post with red and white markings a few metres short of the trees.
We were beside a steeply slanting river, and although it was four o’clock it wasn’t too late to stop for our sandwiches and the 330cl tins of Moretti beer we had been hoping to devour on the summit. The skies still looked angry, but the late afternoon sun lit up the western flank of Corno Grande as we emerged from the forest on the way back to Cesacastina, where we had left our car.
Every visit to the Apennines brings a new experience, and Monte Gorzano has added to our deep well of memories (although I would be deceitful if I didn’t say that, at the time, it felt like an ugly standpipe of effluent, about to discharge itself over us). Anyway, it was fun, the mountains were as beautiful as they always are, and I hope there will be many more of these experiences.