“About bloody time! What kept you?” Accompanied by wolf-whistles and a round of mock applause, this was the greeting we received from the other half of the walking group, who, boots laced and backpacks on, were already milling around at the bottom of a steep stony track leading up into the forest on the edge of the abandoned village of Borgianello. It was just coming up to 9.00am on a dazzlingly sunny Sunday morning and Mr Blue-Shirt and I had finally arrived along with our half of the group at this tiny settlement perched on a bluff high above the Chienti valley in the hills at the northern edge of the Monti Sibillini National Park. We had just survived the hair-raising journey to our destination, involving a geographically challenged event organiser, missed exits, wrong turnings and a death-defying U-turn on a motorway slip-road and could actually have done with a few minutes for our blood pressure to return to normal levels. However, since our early-morning episode of Wacky Races had kept everyone else waiting for long enough, we latecomers pulled on our boots, stowed our water bottles in our backpacks and trotted over to the start of the track where Corrado, our guide for the morning, had already started listing some of the plants and flowers we were likely to see on our walk.
The half-day hike we were about to set out on was organised by the regional branch of a national environmental group called L’Umana Dimora that, primarily by means of such walks, focuses on the relationship between humankind and nature. And having just been released from another period in lockdown, restoring our own relationship with humankind and nature by striding through the Apennine hills in the height of spring with a bunch of other walkers seemed just the ticket. So, as Corrado, who was lean, tanned and erect despite clearly being well into his seventies, strode off up the hill, we were in fact quite happy to get underway.
Every fifty metres or so, though, he halted briefly and poked about in the undergrowth with his walking pole to point out a rare plant or flower. I’m ashamed to say that much of this was lost on us as we didn’t know their names in English, never mind in Italian. So we continued our ascent of the track, keen to get our muscles moving and our lungs working. But of course, we kept having to stop every time the track split off into the shady woods and wait for everyone else to catch up as only Corrado knew the route we were going to be taking. Initially we found this stop-start rhythm slightly frustrating, but we soon attuned ourselves to the slower pace and chose to make the most of the pauses by admiring the spectacular views glimpsed through the trees, drinking in the scent of blossom and the sound of birdsong swirling around us on the gentle breeze, or exchanging pleasantries with our fellow walkers. This was all supposed to be about humankind and nature, after all.
The lung-busting climb up through the dense woods brought us out pretty much above the tree line onto an area of undulating heathland that extended into the distance. The track now gently guided us up through poppy-filled meadows and around grassy hillocks dotted with clumps of wild broom freshly sprinkled with bright yellow blossom. Every now and then we would come across someone hunched over the verge, searching for the wild asparagus, with its long slim stems and fine purple tips, which at this time of year grows in abundance within the tussocks of tall grass. But after a while, it was just us and the heathland, sunlight dancing off the long, lush grass rippling green and gold in the stiffening breeze.
On and up we went. And the higher we got, the more the views opened up. Rounding one bend, the hillside suddenly dropped away to the right, presenting us with far-reaching views across a mosaic of green, yellow, gold and beige and on to the towns of Tolentino and Macerata to the north, while along the eastern horizon lay the deep turquoise smudge of the distant Adriatic, and all of it topped with a sky of unbroken cerulean blue. Then after another long, steady climb, as we crested a hill topped with a single wind-sculpted tree, the northern peaks of the Sibillini reared up to our left: a mighty phalanx of steep, thickly forested slopes whose craggy tops were still smeared with the last traces of snow. As we just stood and drank in their silent splendour, Corrado went along the line from left to right, naming every single peak as if introducing us to a group of his friends at a party. But like all such introductions, I’m sorry to say, the names were forgotten almost as soon as they were heard.
It was the same story a kilometre or so later as we approached the highest section of heathland on the walk, which as far as the eye could see was carpeted in a mass of pink, yellow, red, purple, white, blue, cream and crimson. As we strode towards the summit, Corrado reeled off every single one of their names, most of which, though, were lost on the swirling breeze blowing in from the mountains. That said, even I was able to identify huge, waxy buttercups, smiley marguerites, tiny, pale yellow orchids and startling blue gentian (I think) as well as wild lavender, thyme and rosemary.
Some time earlier, Corrado had decided not to complete the loop he had originally planned as it might have been too challenging for some members of the group, three or four of whom had already turned back before the final set of hills. So once we had finished taking photographs of the flowers, taking in the magnificent 360-degree views, and helping each other to identify distant towns or sparkling ribbons of river, he guided us back down the far side of the hill, traversed its lower slopes and then brought us along a narrow, stony track back up to meet the main path we had left an hour or more earlier.
From here, it was a matter of retracing our steps back over the heath, across which were now racing patches of shade cast by the pillows of pearlescent cloud that had started to float up from behind the mountains. Then it was back down past where the asparagus pickers had long since finished their foraging, back through the poppy fields and on towards the top of the woods. With everyone safely accounted for, we began the long knee-jarring descent back towards the road, all of us glad to be in the shade provided by the canopy of oak and beech now that the sun was at its hottest.
Despite a few slithers and stumbles on the rocky path, we all arrived back at the cars in one piece, albeit rather dusty, sticky and windswept, and more than ready for our picnic lunches. As Mr Blue-shirt and I munched on our hearty cheese and ham rolls, we agreed that the walk had definitely been worth the effort – even if it had got off to a somewhat shaky start. We had been somewhere we would never have found on our own, had enjoyed sights and sounds we wouldn’t otherwise have experienced, and had spent the morning in very convivial company. So as we threw our boots and backpacks into the car, we asked the organiser to make sure he sent us details of the next walk…