We see them every time we pass along the ridge that forms the start to any trip from our place over into Umbria, down towards the coast or even to the supermarket, as well as when we go for a run or for a cycle. To the left is a wide-angle version of the view from our bedroom and sitting room windows – the broad, olive- and vine-striped valley sweeping down to the enticing triangle of turquoise sea below. To the right, meanwhile, a vast patchwork of tree-edged fields filled with wheat or maize or sunflowers extends across the Chienti valley to the west and then rises steeply up towards the mighty Sibillini Mountains whose roughly-hewn limestone peaks stand in stark relief against the cornflower blue sky. But no matter how familiar their arresting beauty has become, we have always found their majesty slightly intimidating and unapproachable.
Mysterious and moody, there are no two days they look the same. On occasion, they take on a ghostly aspect in the early morning haze when the only hint of their presence is the sun reflecting off their craggy flanks. And from time to time, they disappear completely, retreating into a pale shroud of mist, or hiding behind a swirling cloak of steel grey cloud – as sure a sign of a change in the weather as any barometer. But more often than not, they stand proud and aloof, basking in the golden sunlight, their upper slopes still clad with snow until well into spring.
This imposing collection of some twenty peaks that rise to almost three thousand metres is part of the Apennine chain, the rocky backbone of Italy. They have been a fully-fledged National Park since 1993 and offer hikers and cyclists miles of trails and dozens of rifugi providing comfy beds and hearty local food at the end of a day spent exploring the park’s abundant flora and fauna, waterfalls and gorges, abbeys and monasteries. They are home to mountain goats and deer, wolves and wild cats, falcons and eagles, and, according to the Italian Tourist Board, are also a ‘realm of demons, necromancers and fairies’.
Indeed, for centuries they have been associated with magic and the occult thanks to the legend of Sibyl. It is claimed that this mystic prophetess and witch was enraged to find that not she but Mary would become the mother of God. Her rage provoked God to order her to dwell with devils until Judgement Day in a cave beneath one of the range’s highest peaks, which naturally came to be known as Mount Sibyl (Monte Sibilla). And when storms brew, it is not difficult to understand why dark forces were believed to reign there. The rumbling thunder and churning cloud could easily be Sibyl and her demons venting their displeasure as they hurl spears of lightning and sheets of beating rain onto the verdant lowland pastures.
Then, when the storm has passed, its anger spent, the Sibillini’s jagged peaks appear like islands floating on a milky sea of mist. More often, though, they re-emerge in all their splendour against a crystalline sky, serene yet stark. Flushed with rosy-pink at dawn, and clothed in a palette of greys and greens beneath the midday glare, they fade to heather-purple as the sun slowly sinks behind them, and finally darken to charcoal silhouettes as the dying embers of the day cast flares of crimson and scarlet across an orange sky.
It is a menacing beauty, however. For it is a matter of neither myth nor legend that deep below their forbidding slopes seismic forces periodically shift and stir. Directly beneath the range’s highest peak runs the infamous Monte Vettore fault, and when it last ruptured in 2016, it unleashed an earthquake that devastated communities throughout the mountains and affected towns across the region. And although many buildings retain the scars of the damage they suffered, and not everyone has returned to their homes, the Marchigiani are a stoical and resilient people and life in and around the mountains got back to near-normal remarkably quickly. So despite the menace lurking within, the Sibillini also somehow symbolise of the triumph of optimism over adversity.
And now that we have broken the ice a little with our hikes among their rugged peaks, we are finally coming to experience for ourselves that there is more to our imposing neighbours than meets they eye. In fact, we are even beginning to discover the mountains’ slightly softer side, with their shady woods filled with birdsong, limpid pools over which jewel-coloured dragonflies skim, and lush pastures that at this time of year are covered with a multi-coloured carpet of wild flowers among which butterflies bob and bees buzz.
So now when we head off to the shops or the beach, the Sibillini’s majesty feels much more benign and welcoming – although never to be taken for granted.